I spent 2018-2019 as a Fulbright Fellow in Whitehorse, Yukon. My focus: gather research for an ekphrastic essay collection (my current project-in-progress). During my Fulbright year, I stayed in touch with Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, keeping the broader community of essayists and scholars of the essay updated on my research experience with a four-part series of “Yukon Dispatches.” Excerpts and links to full text appear below.
Dispatch One: Writing From Art in the Changing North
About climate change, I feel a complicated sorrow; for my privileges, I owe a complicated debt. In the arts, I find rich territory in which to map the contours of both. Recently, I was galvanized by Sitka artist Nicolas Galanin’s comments on his digital piece, 10 Revolutions: “culture cannot be contained as it unfolds. I am inspired by generations of Tlingit and Unangax creativity and contribute to this wealthy conversation with active curiosity.” Galanin was one of many accomplished artists featured in the “Decolonizing Alaska” art exhibit curated by Asia Freeman. Simply put, I saw a whole assemblage of artworks and thought: that’s who I want to be talking to. That’s the community, that’s the conversation.
Dispatch Two: Deep Research
“It is a young land,” writes Ken Coates, “yet at the same time almost unimaginably old.” He’s describing Canada’s Yukon Territory where I started researching contemporary art in order to think about ways to live with colonial history. […]
Because my earliest conversations about art and politics led me toward geology and archaeology texts, and because the complexity of those texts led me back to human conversation (now with geologists and archaeologists), and because those conversations led me to hike particular mountains with a new consciousness and a new eye for the details of my surroundings, this dispatch focuses on the mode of inquiry that makes such research leaps not only possible, but coherent. I think of it as “deep research.” Simply put, I’m thinking about how the long-term dig plays out for us as writers and readers and thinkers, the frequency with which it takes unexpected turns, and how a sustained process of seeking underpins so much literature in the field of nonfiction.
Dispatch Three: Cartographic Ekphrasis
Here is one thing lyric essayists know: the eye is drawn to white space.
Take this map, for instance. The entire region of the Yukon, where I presently live and write, is utterly blank. […]
But with respect to the map: it’s not unusual—particularly for an essayist—to take an interest in the blank spaces, to gravitate toward the omissions, the unknowns. Nor is it unusual—particularly for an essayist—to excavate thick webs of connection, plunge into the densest of the fine print, stare unblinking at the finest lines of eyeball-bending detail. Both impulses serve essayists, and because most maps involve a play between densities and paucities of information, both approaches are available modes of looking at almost any map.
Does it change, though, to look not at a map, but into it?
Dispatch Four: Textual Research
I sit in the second row, pressed elbow to elbow against the person next to me and he to the person next to him. Our rows of too-close chairs create a temporary theatre in an art gallery. The artist speaks. We listen. As planned.
Then the artist distributes copies of a text and directs the audience to read it aloud. We do. This both joins and removes us: we become a Greek chorus, commenting on—while locked out of—the action at hand. Cede, release, and surrender, we read. Cede, release, and surrender—we say it over, and over, and over, because we are reading page fifteen of the Umbrella Final Agreement, the document adopted in 1990 by the Yukon Territory to guide its First Nations land claims settlements. […] Notice: it takes three verbs to fully invoke the intended severance.