Alaskan Writers Series: Clifton Bates

The Covid 19 pandemic continues to diminish opportunities for Alaska writers to get the word out about their work,  The Alaskan Writers Series is an effort to help. Today, board member Dan Branch shares a profile of  Clifton Bates, author of Like Painted Kites & Collected Work, published last year by Cirque Press.

(This Bethel house was not available when Bates and his wife moved into a converted horse trailer in 1977. Photo by Dan Branch.)

Like painted kites, those days and nights they went flyin’ by
The world was new beneath a blue umbrella sky

From the song, Summer Wind,  by Johnny Mercer, Henry Meyer, Hans Bradtke, and Heinz Meier

Writing has been an important part of Clif Bates’ life since before he moved to Alaska in 1977. He arrived that year in Bethel with his wife, Pia, and a contract to teach English in the local schools. They stayed even though it meant living their first year in a converted army horse trailer with no running water, a honey bucket bathroom and little natural light. The author sketch of Bates in his book, Like Painted Kites & Collected Works, shows a young bearded man in the trailer, leaning back from his portable typewriter, maybe having just put down a mug of coffee.

By way of a disclosure, I had coffee with Bates in that converted horse trailer when we both lived in Bethel. We have kept track of each other in the forty-odd years since. But I wouldn’t write this profile, centered around Like Painted Kites, if his book wasn’t well written.

The book, published last year by Cirque Press, is a collection of short stories, poems, essays, and short plays. The essays first appeared in Conflicting Landscapes: American Schooling/Alaska Natives, which Bates coauthored with the Very Reverend Doctor Michael Oleksa.

The first set of short stories are set in or near Hong Kong and in Thailand. Bates crafted the stories with believable descriptions. During a recent conversation, he told me that he had written the stories after he spent four months in Hong Kong, visiting his brother. The fact that he could capture such details about the place in such a short time establishes that he is a careful observer. His late wife, Pia, was from northeast Thailand, and they spent a good amount of time there with her family.

The protagonist of the Asian stories grows in confidence and knowledge of people and place from the first story, “To the Here and How,” to “Into the Night After Night,” the last one in the set.

“Bulldog Dour Confesses” is my favorite of the Hong Kong stories. It describes evenings spent listening to live music in Hong Kong’s Red Lips Godown. This quote from Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream provides an epigraph for the story: “At this time I was in Hong Kong, which is a very wonderful city where I was very happy and had a crazy life.” The story’s protagonist, a young writer and jazz lover, might be a rendering of Hemingway’s in Hong Kong.

(Painting by Thomas R. Pickering, included in Painted Kites)

In the opening of “Bulldog Dour” a Satchmo-like piano player named Mr. Nightly accuses Bates’ Hemingway of being a scrutinizer. Before returning to his piano, Nightly explains, “You’ve been taking notes since you first came here. Let me know if you ever do anything with those notes. Here’s some of my notes.” Nightly honors other bar patrons’ requests for Irish ballads, Mose Allison, Gene Autry, Brazilian sambas, and classical sonatas. But he refuses the protagonist’s request for a song by Phoebe Snow because “She’s too sweet for me.”

“Bulldog Dour” contains some detailed and vibrant descriptions of jazz solos performed by the Red Lips house band. The reader can imagine Hemingway, or the young Bates scribbling down a quick description at the end of each solo.

(Line Drawing by Bates included in Like Painted Kites)

Bates told me that he generates writing ideas when cross country skiing or walking in the woods. Any insights are recorded in a moleskin notebook that he keeps in his pocket. It takes him a long time to turn the insights into a finished story. He works to make sure that the story is truthful without taking the life out of the piece. Bates produces many drafts before he is satisfied, stopping only when he feels in his gut that it is done. At the end of the year he lights a bon fire and burns all his pre-final drafts.

The idea for one of the short stories in Like Painted Kites came to him in a flash when he was waiting to board a flight to Fairbanks. He scribbled out notes for the story on napkins. During the meeting he attended, he spent the time writing out the story as inconspicuously as he could.

(Chevak Elders. Photo by Dan Branch.)

A collection of short stories set in villages along the Kuskokwim River dominate the second section of Like Painted Kites. These stories deal respectfully and honestly with the resident Yup’ik people. Bates had spent much time living and teaching along the Kuskokwim River. In addition to Bethel, he was the assistant superintendent for the Kuspuk School District based in the Yup’ik village of Aniak. In 2001, he retired from the Aniak position. Thirty days later he began an 11 year career as an educator for the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The position involved a lot of travel to the Kuskokwim, helping Bates deepen his appreciation of Kuskokwim people.

The first Kuskokwim story, “Kim Boy, The Little Lion” is loosely based on Aesop’s “Androcles and the Lion.” Kim Boy’s high school wrestling coach nicknamed him “Little Lion” for the determined way he competed. Androcles is Mr. Andy, the junior high school teacher who taught Kim Boy to read and to take pride in himself. The arena where the lion spared Androcles is a village roadhouse where Kim Boy’s former teacher stumbles onto a drunken party.

During our recent conversation Bates told me that he considers himself fortunate to have been given the opportunity to experience the Yupik culture by living in the region and visiting people in the villages, and he tried to be as accurate as possible in describing it in his stories without criticism or negativity. In “Little Lion” and the other Kim-boy stories, Bates doesn’t avoid the uncomfortable topic of alcohol fueled violence. He correctly portrays it as an aberration that prevents people from living in the Yup’ik way.

Kim-boy is a drunk in his mid-twenties at the start “Little Lion.” Before she died, his grandmother kept the house she shared with him spotless. Now the house and Kim-boy are a mess. Using a well-worn bird wing that the grandmother had used to sweep out the house as a metaphor for the Yup’ik culture, Bates writes that it now hangs behind the door, forgotten. “One year [in high school, Kim-boy] won the state wrestling championship in his weight class. But now, in his mid-twenties, Kim-boy was no longer the little lion. He was an alley cat, quite undignified, and he had lost all the respect of his relatives and the people in the area. They were bewildered with the drastic changes in Kim-boy, and stayed away from him.”

Kim-boy’s relatives welcomed him back after he gave up drinking. They told him how surprised they were when he “went off” on alcohol and were happy and thankful “that he had come back.”

(Drying Salmon in Bethel. Photo by Dan Branch.)

The reader might wonder whether the story, “A Dayspring” was inspired by a tale Bates heard over tea in a village kitchen. How else could someone born outside of the Yup’ik subsistence culture describe in the story, a courtship that involves ice fishing and the offering of jerked ptarmigan meat. Kim-boy met his future wife, Sophie, while on his way to check the net he had set under the river ice. She was ice fishing for pike. Sophie agreed to join him the next day when he again had to check his net. “When they got to his net, she didn’t just stand there and watch. She started right in helping him. They worked, and it went smoothly, and they often laughed together…Sophie surprised him again when walking back to the village. She took out of her other pocket a small sack of ptarmigan jerky she shared with Kim-boy. It was delicious, too, and he was very happy.”

In the short story, “Living and Dying Naturally” Kim-boy, now a grandfather, tells his boyhood friend that kass’aqs, white people, are always asking questions because they fear silence. “What other reason could there be? They don’t seem to be interested in listening to the answers much. Sometimes they should maybe just watch, look and not talk and talk…It is best that you say you don’t know to any question they ask, unless it is someone you know who really wants to know the answer.”

Bates continues to write. He is currently putting the final touches on a novel, called “Sky Changes: Kim-boy on the Kuskokwim.” In the meantime, readers may obtain a copy of Like Painted Kites & Collected Works from Amazon.

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