Earlier this month, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs held its annual conference in Seattle. Billed as the largest literary conference in North America, the event is a showcase for graduate writing programs, small literary presses and writers at every stage of their career. It includes public readings from award-winning authors, more than 450 scheduled panels and a hall with more than 650 exhibitors selling books and literary magazines.
Because it was held in the Pacific Northwest this year, AWP drew a large contingent of Alaskans, including well-recognized names like Tom Kizzia, Peggy Shumaker, Nancy Lord, Don Rearden and Eva Saulitis. Along with many other Alaska authors, they each participated in panels covering topics as varied as "isolation and community: how we write it, how we live it" to "writing nature in the scientific age."
In the midst of reading from new and previously published works, several specific Alaska-centric discussions emerged. Early on, a question was asked about how one writes simultaneously for audiences inside and outside the state. Essayist Sherry Simpson ("The Dominion of Bears") struck a chord with the audience when she recounted the continuous battle in her work to use the word "snowmachine" instead of "snowmobile".
"I have had to explain over and over to editors," she said to a roomful of laughter, "that if I use 'snowmobile' I will be endlessly mocked by everyone I know."
Several writers also lamented having to define the use of such basic terms as "Outside" and "Lower 48" but the conversation soon veered into the stark differences between the lives lived by everyday Alaskans -- "we have more than what you see; we have skate punks, strip malls and coal mines," said Christine Byl, author of "Dirt Work" -- to the expectations raised by the very visible but highly fictionalized lives presented by reality television.
"(T)o explode the myths of Alaska, means relying on those same Alaskan myths that readers want," said Simpson, discussing the paradox faced by Alaska writers.
The enormous popularity of Alaska in U.S. pop culture has been an undeniable boon to the state's literary establishment, which brought up the question of whether the state is currently in the midst of an "Alaskan Literary Renaissance." While the term is not easily defined -- Kizzia, author of the current bestseller "Pilgrim's Wilderness," wryly wondered to a chuckling audience what literary "golden age" from Alaska's past we might be revisiting -- discussion of a renaissance resurfaced again and again over the conference. The issue seemed to become part of the larger topic of the Alaska myth and several writers wondered if perhaps any broad collective notice for Alaska authors -- at least initially -- could be attributed to the growing fame of Alaska itself.
"The true moment might be when Alaska writers can be popular without writing about Alaska," noted Simpson, though perhaps the state's writers themselves are not ready to relinquish their perspective on the state yet, as they are still facing what Byl referred to as the "perpetration of an airbrushed Alaska."
"What many people seem to want from Alaska," explained "Rock, Water, Wild" author Nancy Lord, "is an authentic life that is more romantic and extreme than real." Thus the proliferation of reality television and its many hungry fans will likely only continue for the foreseeable future as they hold tightly to idealized version of the Last Frontier that even some Alaskans don't want to let go.
In the midst of all this talk about exaggerated fictions and fictional truths, there were two readings that stopped listeners in their tracks: Ernestine Hayes's essay about her grandmother, "Winter in Lingit Aani Brings Magpies and Ravens", and Seth Kantner's excerpt from the manuscript for his young adult novel. Sharing stories from two vastly different parts of the state -- Juneau and the Kotzebue region -- Hayes and Kantner each held their audiences spellbound, reading about struggle and sorrow, violence and tragedy, deep friendship and family love. Speaking in different rooms at different times, when they were finished each of them faced initial silence when they concluded. Then the applause started, as everyone embraced the authenticity of the Alaskan experiences the brave and talented writers chose to share.
Ultimately, no one can be certain just what lies ahead for Alaska's many authors or if the increased interest from agents and publishers on the state's literary society will transfer into more authenticity. There is potential for that, especially with recent successes like Eowyn Ivy's Pulitzer Prize finalist "The Snow Child" and John Straley's latest "Cold Storage, Alaska" to build on.
Don Rearden, author of "The Raven's Gift," made clear just what he sees as the test for all Alaskan authors, with a poem he wrote and read during the conference. It concluded with the following lines:
In my Alaska,
we use ski poles.
we kayak, climb mountains,
we're homeless, and have mansions
fly float planes and take city busses
we're Mexican, Samoan, Denaina,
Yup'ik, Hmong, Korean, Irish, Inupiaq,
and snowblind white
and Arctic night black
in your Alaska
they would build Bridges to Nowhere.
we write to burn them
If that is what the state's literary renaissance is looking like, than I'm sure many Alaskan authors are ready for what comes next, and eager for the challenge to burn those bridges.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Colleen Mondor can be contacted at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com.