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.

A Fabric’s Entirety – Artists of Alaska: Through the Eyes of 49 Writers

The Artists of Alaska series is an ambitious, statewide project curated and coordinated by the Rasmson Foundation and 49 Writers. The project pairs Alaskan writers with Rasmuson Foundation grant awardees. The result: a growing compilation of narrative-driven artist profiles of and by Alaskans. 

Here’s an excerpt from my profile on Chilkat weaver Ricky Tagaban:

Ricky Tagaban kneels on his studio floor and reaches under the table, ripped jeans making it easy to maneuver. He hauls out a gray tote bin and plunges his hand into the coarse white fur that fills it: unprocessed mountain goat wool.

Strong, long guard hairs are integrated in tufts and clumps of undercoat, and a few bits of bark and dirt fleck the richly off-white wool with dark specs of forest and mountain. Tagaban rests his forearms on the edge of the bin, letting his hands land on a clump of wool. “If you have this mountain goat wool, you’ve got to pull all the guard hairs out,” he explains, reflexively beginning to do just that. “And if there’s poop, or slugs, or sticks, or moss, or grass — that all gets thrown away too,” says Tagaban. “The undercoat is the really wooly part. That’s what you want.”

Full profile here.

Cartographic Convergences – Yukon North of Ordinary feature

Though Yukon North of Ordinary doesn’t typically post content online, the editors generously supplied this PDF of my Kohklux Map story. You can thank Yukon North of Ordinary for supporting our cross-border Alaska-Yukon connections by subscribing here.

Story excerpt:

Deep in southeast Alaska’s Chilkat valley, three people bend over the blank back of a coastal chart—discussing, drawing, shading, remembering. They are Chilkat headman Kaalaxch’ (Kohklux) and his wives. For three days, they pool their memories, experiences, and deep knowledge of the land stretching all the way from Klukwan to Fort Selkirk, a one-way journey of thirty days. They are mapping the way inland for a newcomer, American government surveyor George Davidson. Davidson and his party are here to observe a solar eclipse calculated to reach totality at Klukwan, and Kaalaxch’ has guided them here into his homeland. Now, Kaalaxch’ and his wives work together to draw each day of the month-long journey inland. They do so from memory. It is August, 1869.

To the south, the Takinsha Mountains and Chilkat Range rise from sea to sky. Below them lies Lynn Canal, a tempestuous but rich Pacific fjord. Upvalley, the trio draw pencils across the page and alongside them flow the frigid, milky waters of the Chilkat River. Hooligans, or candlefish, seasonally swell its current. To the north, the sheer rock faces and year-round snowfields of the Takshanuk Mountains stand hard against the sky. 

Looking back from the present day, former Territorial Archivist Linda Johnson imagines arriving as a newcomer into the Chilkat Tlingits’ homeland. “If you were George Davidson and others coming up the Chilkat [River Valley] for the first time, all you see is a wall of mountains,” she reflects. “The route goes through that barrier,” she says. “In a very precise way.”

With many thanks to Yukon North of Ordinary, the full story is available here.

Detail from a copy of the Kohklux Map reprinted onto a grid.

Bird Cries and Saxophone Sounds – Artists of Alaska: Through the Eyes of 49 Writers

The Artists of Alaska series is an ambitious, statewide project curated and coordinated by the Rasmson Foundation and 49 Writers. The project pairs Alaskan writers with Rasmuson Foundation grant awardees. The result: a growing compilation of narrative-driven artist profiles of and by Alaskans. 

Here’s an excerpt from my profile on composer Rick Zelinsky:

Ice cracks against the teeth of Rick Zelinsky’s crampons. A few yards ahead, the scrabbling of Koda’s toenails signal the Samoyed has found an area of windblown crust beginning to form on the final rise. “Look at that,” Zelinsky says to his dog. “Ascent No. 128.” The pair steps up onto the broad expanse of Peak Three overlooking Anchorage’s city lights. Together they pause. Their breathing slows.

“It’s a different world up here,” Zelinsky observes.

It’s also a different world when Zelinsky, a jazz saxophonist, writes a new composition. “When you create a tune, a jazz tune, you’re creating a planet,” he says. “And then when you improvise, you land on that planet and you explore it.” With different chords, rhythms and meters, Zelinsky and his jazz ensemble not only travel over and across new terrain — they create it as they go. “That’s what I love,” Zelinsky says. “I love exploring the mountains and music.”

Full profile here.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Crockett.

The Whole Body Carves – Artists of Alaska: Through the Eyes of 49 Writers

The Artists of Alaska series is an ambitious, statewide project curated and coordinated by the Rasmson Foundation and 49 Writers. The project pairs Alaskan writers with Rasmuson Foundation grant awardees. The result: a growing compilation of narrative-driven artist profiles of and by Alaskans.

Here’s an excerpt from my profile on Alison Bremner:

Dancers become birds, become predators, become fish, become legendary characters. Drums pound. Voices rise and pulse. Knees bend and shoulders swoop so that blankets come alive. Arms fly out to strike angled postures — here a poised spear, there a wingtip, flight feathers angling in complicated winds.

The body: It is always the first site of transformation. It is where varying truths coincide. That is why Alison Bremner (née Marks) works with blades, wood and paint. She carves because of a dance.

Full profile 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.