Books

Anthology of women’s writing chronicles decades of achievements, thoughts and both ordinary and extraordinary lives

Alaska Women Speak: An Anthology of Photographs, Art, and Words from the Journals, 1992-2017

Edited by MaryLee Hayes and Angie Slingluff. Ember Press, 2021. 340 pages. $29.95.

The small quarterly journal, “Alaska Women Speak,” was established nearly 30 years ago by several Alaska women who met in a journalism workshop at an Anchorage women’s conference. It was, according to an introduction to the anthology by co-editor MaryLee Hayes, devoted to “the exchange of thought, literature, art, and heart talk, providing a feminist and multicultural perspective, while serving as a source of connection and inspiration for all women.”

The all-volunteer staff has now assembled a voluminous collection celebrating the publication and its history, with selections from close to 200 writers and a somewhat smaller number of artists and photographers. (Disclosure: This reviewer is among the writers, represented by a short poem.) The anthology content, which has held true to its founding mission over the years, represents a wide range of voices and a focus on true and generally inspiring stories drawn from the lives of Alaska women.

In contrast to other journals that publish writing, the goal of AWS has never been literary quality. For the most part, the stories here are personal or journalistic, written plainly in individual styles and aimed at informing and entertaining. They are nearly all short — most no longer than a page or two. (Some were originally longer and have been edited.) Most are prose, although poetry and quotations (from the likes of Robert Frost and Alice Walker) are included, along with photos and art (some in color) and, curiously mixed in, letters to the journal and lists of benefactors. It’s an eclectic gathering worthy of the term “amateur” in the very best sense — drawn from the word’s root of lover, enthusiastic admirer, devotee. Aspiring and emerging writers and artists share these pages with those who are better-known and those who bring their words from other occupations and passions.

The journals themselves were organized around themes such as “women’s herstory,” travel, wild animals and personal pets, finding light in darkness, dreams and dreaming, “cabins I have loved” and duct tape. The anthology, though, has a much less clear organization, neither strictly chronological (though it is largely so) or by theme. This makes it the kind of book best randomly browsed, to find titles or authors of particular interest and to view the art. An index in the back lists the writers, artists, and photographers and the pages on which their work appears.

Among the first-person accounts here, you’ll find excerpts from a dispatch by Jane Angvik about her attendance at an international women’s conference in China in 1995 and an Alaska women’s conference in Juneau the following year. She concludes, “The real story of the Women’s Conference (in China) was that 30,000 women came together and drew strength from one another by sharing their stories.” And, about the Alaska conference, “Women explored our role in society by sharing our stories. We have been made more powerful by the expression of it.”

You’ll also find a lovely essay by Martha Amore about the pleasures of skijoring, excerpts from Koala Vandruff’s report of traveling in China, Robin Rice’s story of a journal lost and then found, Mia Heavener’s “Putting Up Fish,” and Diane Barske’s humorous story of how a shipment of brochures with a significant typo (“monkeys” instead of “donkeys” as inhabitants of the Alaska Zoo) was lost overboard from a cargo ship and, thanks to insurance, was reprinted with the correction. Rhonda McBride wrote about her first years as a news director in Bethel, detailing some of her cultural missteps and the kindness of those who helped her learn. Angie Slingluff described living with a hearing loss and what others should know about getting help. Sara Juday looked back, in 2006, at her 20 years in Alaska publishing.

The anthology also includes many interviews and profiles written by others about cultural and political leaders. One is of Inupiat Lela Kiana Oman, who compiled stories she learned from her elders into several books; another of Alice Welling, famous for her campy role with the Whale Fat Follies; and yet another of Eyak Marie Smith and her great-niece Jenna May. Kim Wyatt interviewed Fran Ulmer when Ulmer was running for lieutenant governor. (She won and served with Governor Tony Knowles for eight years.)

Not surprising for a book by and about Alaskans, many of the stories here are adventure-based. Dorothy M. Jones, one of the “founding godmothers” of the journal, wrote about moving from California to Cold Bay (in 1953) and her first days settling in. (She and her husband “Sea Otter” Bob Jones lived there for 13 years.) Karen Jettmar wrote about paddling on the Noatak River, Beth Baker about running the Iditarod, Dixie Lee Hudish about working on Amchitka Island for a company building a radar facility, Barbara Hartt about her bicycle collision with a moose, and Suzanne Marcy about a solo kayaking adventure.

A very few of the stories and poems include biographical information about their writers. More of that would have better informed curious readers.

The lovely cover, of a birch forest in winter, is by Terese Ascone, who also contributed a written piece about her “journey in art.”

Altogether, this large-format, voluminous anthology chronicles decades of Alaska women’s achievements, thoughts, and both ordinary and extraordinary lives. As so many of our elders pass on and our ways of life undergo dramatic change, this gathering — as with collected oral histories — provides an essential touchstone for understanding some of our “herstory” and the shoulders on which we stand.

“Alaska Women Speak,” the quarterly journal, opens in November for submissions on the theme Eight Stars of Gold. Details about the journal and submission process can be found on the website alaskawomenspeak.org.



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