Alaska Quarterly Review, Vol. 36 No. 3 & 4, Winter & Spring 2020.
Edited by Ron Spatz. $12
“Alaska Quarterly Review,” which is published twice a year in book form, enjoys a well-established reputation for publishing some of the highest quality and most interesting literary work in the country. The newest edition, filled with essays, poetry, short stories, and a special section celebrating Indigenous voices of Canada, is no exception.
Art — in literature as well as its other forms — is essential to understanding ourselves and our fellow humans. As editor Ron Spatz emphasizes in the note that introduces this volume, “The literary arts help us overcome an inherent myopic tribal nature, whether it be based on national, racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual identities, in order to forge the connections that come from the shared experiences that are created. That body of work is a reservoir of truth that is critical to our understanding of social justice and human liberty. The stakes could not be higher or the need more urgent.”
To this end, Spatz chose to highlight Alaska’s relationship with Canada by collaborating with the founders of the Canadian Indigenous Voices Awards, a new program established to recognize and support the work of that country’s Indigenous writers. The first year of the awards was 2018, and AQR presents here an anthology of selected works from the winners and finalists. Indigenous writers have been underrepresented in the Canadian canon, as they have in our own — and here is an excellent opportunity for readers to make the acquaintance of writers who will be new to them. An introduction by members of the awards committees provides context.
“Queen Bee,” a prose piece by Elaine McArthur of the Ocean Man First Nation, involves an elderly mother telling her daughter of her time in a residential school. In “The Hand Trembler,” by Dine poet Nazbah Tom, a child helps a grandmother make blood sausage and witnesses not just traditional food preparation but the grandmother’s healing work with visitors. The persona poem “Marriage ‘A La Facon Du Pays’” by Brandi Bird, a Saulteaux and Cree poet, speaks with the voice of a “Bush Wife” of a French fur trapper. She “knows the river’s right to drown a man who disrespects me.”
Two excerpts from longer works are included here, and each leaves a reader wanting more. Dawn Dumont, of the Okanese Cree Nation, is the author of “Glass Beads,” chosen as the 2019 One-Read Novel across Canada. In the excerpt from that book, a woman inmate is in conversation with a caseworker. “In the real world, this conversation would be like trying to ask a friend to lend you money after you’d run over their dog.” The second excerpt, a story called “Moosehide” from the debut story collection “Bad Endings,” is by Carleigh Baker, a writer of Icelandic heritage living in Vancouver. The story turns the idea of wilderness adventure on its head when a “mixed blood” but “raised white” couple on a guided river trip find the experience less than romantic.
Outside of the special section, the regular contributions here are, as usual, exemplary. If there’s a commonality to them, it has to do with that sense that Spatz speaks of in his editor’s note — that the best literature tells us something about being human and encourages empathy. Among the nonfiction, an essay titled “Neighbors Gathered,” by Michael Downs, is divided into sections, each telling of a person or couple in his working-class neighborhood; they’re all doing the best they can, and they all belong.
It’s the fiction here that is perhaps most outstanding. The majority would be considered “realistic,” and among the most emotionally affective are several presenting the lives of children. “Missing,” by Kirsten Madsen, is a first-person account of a stolen child and the confusion she encounters as an adult when returned to her “real” family; in this, there are no evil-doers, only a great compassion for the couple who raised her, the family that tries to return her to their center, and her own torn, conflicted self.
Another story of similar emotional impact is “The Wastrel’s Curse,” by Matthew Lansburgh. In this, a child’s unstable mother believes that he has the devil’s horns sprouting from his head and can only be treated with surgery and expensive lotions dispensed by a Tijuana doctor. “They crossed the border the next week and the week after, drove the five hours to Tijuana and back once a week for weeks, as if reenacting a pilgrimage designed to cleanse their souls or free them from despair.”
The poetry section, with works by 24 poets, includes such luminaries as Robert Hedin and Brendan Galvin, alongside others writing of love, longing, and foreign lands. Bruce Cohen’s “Natural Selections” ends with these lines: “Life is just a little off-centered, like an ice cream/Truck jingle in the middle of a blizzard./There are times you can block out an entire galaxy/With only your index finger & a blink.”
In our fragmented and searching world, we need a full chorus of voices to represent who we are and demonstrate how we might live kindly and courageously together. It’s fitting that Alaska’s flagship literary journal, which previously published “Alaska Native Writers, Storytellers, and Orators,” has extended its reach in this latest volume to honor and contextualize the work of neighbors who share so much of our northern environment and colonial heritage.
As always, the journal’s cover photograph, this time by Alaska photographer Roy Corral, is a stunning work of art, a fitting invitation to the beautiful and life-supporting work within.