The Shadow of Pandemic in Alaska Literature – Denali Sunrise Publications

I wrote a review of Mia C. Heavener’s new novel with Red Hen Press, Under Nushagak Bluff. This is an important new addition to the field of contemporary Indigenous novel because it is gorgeously conceived and written, its historic setting bucks an established trend in Indigenous literature, and it cracks open Bristol Bay’s history of epidemics—a history of eerie relevance to today’s coronavirus pandemic.

A couple short excerpts from my review:

My take: Heavener’s novel asks, precisely how does historic understanding erode? Where does the past, personal and collective, get mis-placed, mis-taken, coded, and ultimately concealed?

Seagulls swoop and dive, crying in the salty air. The waves of Nushagak Bay crash on sandbars and rocky shores. Machines rattle the warehouses on the cannery side of the village “where the beach flattened and the boardwalks grew tall.”

So many sounds; so many stories. Yet as I page through Mia Heavener’s new novel Under Nushagak Bluff under the long shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the novel’s subtle and steady investigation of silence that most captivates me. 

Denali Sunrise Publications arranged my review alongside a beautiful array of historic photos, maps, and contextual historic commentary. Full review essay available here.

Listening the Lyric Essay – New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing

ABSTRACT
Constructions of the ‘I’ in nonfiction receive ample study – particularly in discussions of memoir – yet when it comes to forms of the lyric essay, the narrator is unmapped. This article fills that gap in two ways: first, I question the convention of referring to lyric essay narrators as ‘speakers’. Reinscribing concepts of ‘speaking’, ‘speech’, and ‘voice’ within the historic development of Western metaphysical tradition reveals that those terms entail a complex of philosophic problems, namely, a deeply ingrained relationship to authoritative truth. This article takes the position that lyric essay narration cannot be accurately analysed with language invoking oppressive histories of systematic silencing and speech-based authoritative control. As a conceptual alternative, I argue that lyric essay narration more closely parallels listening than it does speaking. Adopting and adapting ethnomusicologist-anthropologist-linguist Steven Feld’s work with the Kaluli in Papua New Guinea, this article outlines and dialogues with a Kaluli concept called ‘lift-up-over-sounding’ to propose an analytic framework in which listening emerges as a multifaceted theoretic concept useful to studies of the narrator in creative nonfiction lyric essays. Full citation and article access here.

Documentation and Myth: On Daniel Janke’s How People Got FireAssay: Journal of Nonfiction Studies

How People Got Fire, Daniel Janke, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

How People Got Fire is a gorgeous, sixteen-minute film. It’s gorgeous because ancient reality—what Robert Bringhurst would call mythtime—folds into the day to day of a contemporary present. And it’s gorgeous because it’s set in Carcross, Yukon. Plus, it’s an animated documentary (fascinating concept). So I opened up some questions and advanced some arguments.

Article excerpt:

The realism of the southern Yukon landscape and the specificity of Carcross Mountain suggest this film’s relationship to the real world is crucial. In order to register the film’s meaning, its argument, or its thesis, it’s thus crucial we understand the film to be “true.” But the film represents at least two real worlds: a nonfiction distant time and a nonfiction present time. As a documentary film, what is the production documenting about each? And as a digital essay, what is the film asking about each? How do distant time and present time relate? How do the mixed approaches of abstraction and realism knit these two worlds together without defining one as more true than the other?

I explore these questions by drawing from cinema studies, epistemology, and theory of the essay. Full article published in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.

Nonfiction as Lens – Brevity Blog

A tiresome, albeit necessary question: what are the rules of truth in nonfiction? In this Brevity post, I find Niklaus Luhmann, German sociologist and systems theorist, useful in de-centering the debate. Excerpt:

The true/false binary that’s useful in science is, I submit, of dubious service to literature, for it’s not art’s project to lie. And I can’t, at the moment, think of any art or genre that claims falsehood. Imagination, sure. Surreality, hyperreality, fantasy—yes, yes, yes. But none of these are properly understood as false. Metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche are among our basic literary tools. Hyperbole, irony, personification, imagistic juxtaposition, even the objective correlative—none of these tools are for lying. We use them to communicate.

[…] Yet for categorization (read: library organization) purposes, does it even count as nonfiction? is a crucial question. Still, is there a way the term “nonfiction” could serve beyond these implied thumbs-up/thumbs-down, yay/nay, qualified/disqualified, on the shelf or off it, true/false stakes?

If yes, maybe we have to skyhook the practical, organizational impetus of genre. This is what I propose: maybe we can treat “nonfiction” selectively—sometimes as a genre, but also sometimes as a lens of reading. Full post here.

Background photo credit: Jeremy Pataky.Fonts: Canada 1500 by Ray Larabie and Adobe Jenson Pro by Robert Slimbach.
This was a Hiya, Scout! design.