Changed forever by Alaska, author Olivia Hill returns to share her story with the state

This is part of Alaska Authors, an occasional series about authors and other literary figures with ties to the 49th state.

“There’s a spirit of me that lives in Alaska,” Olivia Hill said about the years she spent in the North. “There’s something special about the very earth itself, and the land itself, that changed my life forever.”

It was in Alaska that Hill feels she fully came into herself. Born and raised in the inner city of Kansas City, Missouri, she moved in 1982 with her then-husband to the Alutiiq/Sugpiaq village of Tatitlek, on Prince William Sound, where he had taken a teaching position. It was there, surrounded by the immensity of nature while living in an isolated community facing some of the same struggles she had known in the city, that she began making sense of her own frequently traumatic childhood.

Hill recounts that difficult but ultimately rewarding season along Alaska’s coast in her book “Travel North Black Girl,” which she will be reading from and discussing at 6 p.m. Thursday at Title Wave Books in Anchorage.

“I want to share some parts of my story,” she said. “I want to be able to talk to Alaskans about my life and my experience of being a young African-American woman coming to Alaska in the early ‘80s.”

The book weaves between her difficult upbringing and her year in Tatitlek. There, her hurried marriage to a white Jewish man was tested to the breaking point in a physical and cultural environment neither had previously imagined, much less prepared themselves for.

It’s here that Hill explores what she called a “double-edged dichotomy between growing up in Kansas City and going from there at a very tender age of 22 and growing up, in my mind, in Alaska. I became a woman in Alaska, and was young when I got there,” she said.


[In ‘Travel North Black Girl,’ a story of challenge and liberation]

Hill, who had never previously traveled, said she knew practically nothing of Alaska when she first ventured north.

“When I got there, I carried so many things with me,” she said. “Both my own preconceptions as well as things that have been indoctrinated in me and in others about who I would be. And I got some surprises, in many, many ways.”

Reflecting on that time, Hill continued, “I was navigating what it meant to be in an interracial marriage, coming from a background of being isolated in what is called the Troost Corridor in Kansas City, Missouri.”

The area represented a racial divider that segregated neighborhoods and schools.

“You’re stuck in a bubble,” she said. “You’re watching things move and you don’t understand it. You don’t understand your place in it. All you know is that you wake up every day, and everything feels like it will be this for the rest of your life.”

This sense of entrapment is something that she said cannot ever be lost internally, but can be added to with other experiences and other ways of thinking.

“You can’t ever dismiss or forget the reality that that is what people are living with,” she said. “Being othered. Being less than. Not smart enough. Not pretty enough. Not good enough. You don’t work hard enough. There’s nothing you can do to change your reality.”

Despite the difficulties already arising in her marriage, and the warnings from people back home that Alaska was unwelcoming to Black and Jewish Americans, warnings that did instill some fears in her, Hill said “I left with no real expectations other than pure raw possibility and hope.”

Those were emotions she had not previously known.

“What Alaska gave me was this sense of vastness, and that I could have a space there,” she said. “I could be there and understand something that it understands.”

The book ends with Hill’s departure from Tatitlek, in many ways the moment she first seized control over her own destiny, but she remained in Alaska for many years, building a life in Fairbanks, where she still owns property in the hills outside of town. It was to this place that she would go “and talk to the land itself when anything troubled me. I would just let it out. And there was a calm.”

Hill’s life since leaving Alaska has taken her to some of America’s largest cities, along the way operating a gourmet foods company and establishing herself as a noted playwright, among other things. Eventually she returned to Kansas City to be near her family, but she said she still considers herself an Alaskan at heart.

“People are people the world over,” she explained, “but when you experience Alaska, it can’t help but shift you a little bit.”

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at