Sunday, January 15, 2012

On being where one belongs

I liked Melinda Moustakis' National Book Award behind the scenes advice, especially the second bit of advice:  
Find the Alaskans—they’re a friendly bunch. 
This is true. When you're traveling in the lower '48 or beyond and you run into an Alaskan it's like running into an old friend. Actually, when an Alaskan runs into another Alaskan on the road a lot of times they are old friends, or at least old acquaintances or most certainly  people who are acquainted with or somehow related to mutual old friends.

So it was great running into Melinda at the award ceremony. She was recognized by the National Book Foundation as one of the promising 5 under 35 writers and she was born in Fairbanks. I was from Barrow, was a finalist for the Foundation's National Book Award and had once lived in Fairbanks. Small world!!! We instantly had a lot to talk about. She was absolutely the only other writer in the whole room of hundreds who could relate to an experience I'd had two days earlier at a reading. I'd read a section from My Name is Not Easy that gets to the core of some fairly powerful feelings--powerful for me anyway. When I finished the reading, one young woman raised her hand.

"What's a snow machine?"

This is a snow machine, okay? In Alaska, snow machines have replaced dog teams as the accepted mode of transport in the roadless wilds. In terms of the scene I was reading, understanding this was critical. And yet the audience at Books of Wonder in NYC didn't know what a snow machine was.  

Maybe it's like, a snow blower, they thought. I had just read what was supposed to be an emotionally charged scene in which the Inupiaq narrator is mourning the loss of a way of life. The presence of the snow machine is significant and yet it's significance was lost on the audience I was reading to. They were imagining the uncle and the long lost brother roaring around on a snow blower. It wasn't actually supposed to be a humorous scene but Melinda and I had a good laugh over it.

In Whale Snow, when I compared snowflakes to cotton grass the editorial staff at the Charlesbridge office in Boston envisioned sheets or maybe t-shirts, fluttering from the sky. But that's another story.

Cotton Grass
(My granddaughter, in the upper right hand corner of this blog is holding a bouquet of it.)

So I'm an Alaskan writer. My stories and images come from the Arctic. So deeply is this embedded in me that I generally don't think of how singular the imagery is until I find myself reading my work, far from home, in a place where these images, and the world they come from, simply don't exist.

How did this happen, I wonder sometimes. How did I become an arctic writer writing of things alien to much of the world?

I came north in 1974, fresh out of college, looking for adventure. (I know, I know, this makes me really old but forget about this for a minute. It really doesn't matter.) I traveled the Alcan highway, which was not then a highway, not by any stretch of the imagination and I rode in the back of a windowless van. By the end of that trip I thought maybe I knew exactly what it felt like to cross the country in a covered wagon.

Yes, like every other white person who came to Alaska in those days, I felt like a pioneer.

When I arrived in Fairbanks, it was springtime and it really was forty below (you don't know Johnny Horton, either? Okay, never mind.) The pipeline was in full boom and Fairbanks was wild. I lived in a log cabin heated by a 55 gallon drum laid sideways to make a wood stove. The lighting system was powered by kerosine and I traveled by dog team. I worked at a log cabin Greek restaurant where one of the Greek brothers who owned the joint threw knives at the wall if we didn't pick up our orders fast enough. (Hey, maybe he was related to Melinda! I should have asked.) The patrons were rough and tumble pipeline workers on R&R who dropped hundred dollar tips like kleenex. Every night after we closed down, we had Greek feasts replete with the best mousaka you ever tasted, washed down with wine.

I had a lot of adventures in Alaska in those days, some amazing and some, to paraphrase Doug Swieteck in Okay for Now, well, some are just none of your business.

And then I went north and lived with the Eskimos.

Hey that's a great book title, don't you think?  . . . And Then I Went North to Live With the Eskimos. Actually, it was the Inupiat I went north to live with and from day one, their way of looking at the world just made sense to me.  

For a long time, though, a part of me clung to the little shred of an idea that someday I would "go home." Or at least continue on in my travels.

Then one day, something strange happened.  As my plane was landing in Barrow after a long trip, I looked out the window at the wide open tundra, red and gold and full of twisty rivers. I got off the plane, with ducks and geese flying overhead in wavering v's and went inside the terminal, where people were hugging me and saying welcome home! And I realized, suddenly, that  I really was home, in every sense of the word. It's funny how this works.

Maybe I'll write a book about it someday.

We don't think of it much, but a place and its people, its landscape and its images--these become a part of one. I remember reading Norwegian poet Tarjei Vesaas' poem "Snø og Grandskoq" when I was 21 and a Norwegian-American living in Norway. I recognized, in a very personal way, its impetus. I grew up in country like the country Vesaas writes of. I loved and still love this country. I knew the feeling. Here's the translated version: 

Snow and Spruce Forest  

Talk about what home is--
snow and spruce forest
is home.

From the very start
it is ours.
Before anyone has told us
that it is snow and spruce forest,
it has its place in us--
and then it's there
the whole, whole time.

Waist-high drifts
around dark trees
--it's here for us!
Mixed into our own breath.
The whole, whole time,
though no one sees it,
we have snow and spruce forest.

Yes, the hill under the snow,
and tree upon tree
as far as you gaze--
wherever we are
we find ourselves
facing this.

And have in us a promise
about coming home.
Coming home,
going out there,
bending branches,
--and feeling so it flares in you
what it is to be where you belong.

The whole, whole time,
until it's extinguished
in our inland hearts.


  1. I just finished reading “My Name Is Not Easy”. Let me just say how much I enjoyed the characters, which come across very strongly, and their expression of themselves. I got a strong sense of not only the place, but also the community these kids made between themselves at school. Their stories sound largely successful. The sense of how the “Indians” and “Eskimos” organized themselves against each other, but hung together against outsiders feels authentic. The incidents kept the narrative moving and circled around until Luke and Isaac were able to return home. I’d love to hear more about how these kids influenced their communities and eventually created the Alaska Federation of Natives. Thank you so much!

  2. Thanks, Connie. Sounds like another book! I think it would be nonfiction--a series of biographies.

    The boarding school network still exists and is still powerful. I was struck, recently, by a sentiment several of my young students expressed in a class I teach on contemporary Inupiaq history. These students wished they could be part of statewide family-like network of Native students similar to the one their parents and grandparents still enjoy.

    We talk a lot about how lucky we are that our young people no longer have to be sent away to boarding school, but these students were envious of connections that were formed at the boarding schools. Food for thought--thanks for making me think!

  3. Debby,
    This makes me think of our family. There were the "big kids", the first four, and the "little kids". As one of the big kids, I envied the little ones whose horizons were broader as the economics of our family improved. But they apparently envied us because of the cohesiveness, which was never as strong later as when we were all home!

    The success story of the AFN probably can't be told enough. It is an immense achievement. Timing probably helped, but still it is amazing.