One day, a Norwegian glacier museum burns to the ground. The glacier beyond it continues its incremental melting. “That’s the thing about a world on fire,” writes Beth Peterson. “You wonder if when the match was first struck, what would have happened if you had known to look.”
Strange losses abound in Peterson’s essay collection, Dispatches From the End of Ice. A theory of the universe is advanced, then dismissed. Peterson herself falls into a crevasse. A literature professor disappears while hiking on a Japanese volcano. And a friend is gone forever when he takes a deadly plunge off a mountainside. Even the coroner cannot initially identify him, for every single one of his teeth is broken from the fall.
“Apocalypse literature,” Beth Peterson reminds us, “pulls back the veil on reality.”
If Dispatches From the End of Ice pulls back a veil, here’s what I see behind it: the paradox that loss magnifies more than it erases.
Description: Writing from life is at once personal and communal. The literary essay, defined first by searching and second by strange discoveries uncovered by the solitary mind, is often surprisingly invested in social participation and in illuminating the wider collective. This talk prepares participants to create their own writing from life by introducing the nuts and bolts—and the simplest but most powerful poetics—of the contemporary protest essay. This talk will draw on short examples from the field’s trend toward local political involvement, searing community insight, and historic recovery by writers like Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Siku Allooloo, José Orduña, Sarah de Leeuw, and Zadie Smith. It will outline and present a literary toolkit accessible to anyone inclined to explore their own lived experiences of power and privilege on the page, a practice participants may engage for reflection, exploration, healing, and teaching.
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.
Excerpt: I recently taught a short intensive course in creative writing—“Nonfiction Bootcamp.” My students traveled from Carleton University’s School of Journalism (Ottawa, Ontario) to spend five weeks in a Yukon-based experiential learning program, Stories North. The program addresses one of the most pressing issues in the Americas: that of Indigenous sovereignty. Stories North asks: how can we collectively explain, hold ourselves to account, and shift away from the inequities and injustices and ignorance around Indigenous peoples?Full post here.
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.
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.
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?
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.
I gave a talk with a group of colleagues who all read theory not only as part of our scholarly practices, but also as part of our creative ones. Excerpt from my contribution to the panel below:
I think and write about Alaska. It’s a big place with few people. Home base is the rainforest in Southeast; it’s an archipelago all cut up by glacial fjords. Yes, there’s packaged food and there are trashcans and white bread, but still: we eat a lot of salmon, and king crab, and we eat a lot of venison, and blueberries, and we really like it that way.
But, before I define “we,” let me note that a bunch of indigenous people who were very recently (partly) displaced (and largely) joined and crowded by the western industrialized masses of which I am a part—have a very, very long pre-industrialized history, in this same rainforest, of eating a lot of salmon, and king crab, and eating a lot of venison, and blueberries, and really liking it that way.
So who is this “we” that does all this eating? Maybe “we” is that which needs clean water for healthy fish and rich forests for deer habitat? If yes, there’s a sense in which “we” means every single thing bound in communal exchange with the world around it […] but there’s a sense in which some of “we” is also inherently destructive—of what it needs, and thus, of itself, of its own collectivity.
Theorist Giorgio Agamben comes in here for me, because he writes about the caesura: the divide, the boundary, between us and them, between human and animal, the very concept of dis-connectivity, of separation—and ultimately he says the caesura doesn’t work. That we have to think without it; we have to forego the very notion of separation.Transcript of full talk here.