Ernestine Hayes: Who are we reading? Who are we writing?

As I prepare to teach the UAS spring e-learning class “Alaska Literature, Native and non-Native Perspectives,” a never-resolved question comes up yet again: what is Alaska literature, anyway? When I ask my students to cite examples of works they consider Alaska literature, the tired romanticism of finding oneself in Alaska’s natural beauty and the ethnocentric trope of conquering the “wilderness” are themes that appear far too frequently on their lists. Muir. London. Michener.

Beyond all the popular adventure titles found in the Alaska section of mainstream bookstores, lists often include books that readers believe speak for Alaska Native life, Alaska Native culture, Alaska Native personality, most often written by a non-Native author not born in Alaska. Such lists and bookshelves too often endorse writing that perpetuates the colonial appropriation of stories, lives, and land.

We can all name such books: books that have become favorite texts, page-turners that have been believed, studied, and repeated, and are now listed as exemplary of Alaska literature and even taught in schools. Books that feature Alaska as a stunning panorama, a stage upon which human life occurs. Books that interpret Alaska’s history. Books that discover Alaska’s people. Books that feature Alaska Native “princes” and “princesses.” Stories of village life written by someone who visited for a few months or perhaps even a year. Stories that appropriate identity.

Such stories cause us to think about what we and others believe to be the literature of Alaska.

Examining our own lists – examining my own list – helps develop a vision of Alaska literature. As Alaska writers, it seems our responsibility to refine that list. Define ourselves and our place instead of allowing others to do that work.

The reading list for my Alaska literature class changes from one calendar to the next. The class has been offered every two years at best, so updates are always in order. Two titles invariably appear on the list of required texts: Susan Kollin’s Nature’s State and Nora and Richard Dauenhauer’s Haa Shuka, Our Ancestors, Tlingit Oral Narratives. Other readings I’ve identified as must-reads over the years include work by Sherry Simpson, Nancy Lord, Eva Saulitus, Ishmael Hope, Mary TallMountain, Peggy Shumaker, Robert Hoffman, and some others. Writers who have discovered themselves, not as conquerors on a mountaintop, but as explorers of their own rich, complex, Alaska lives. For this coming semester, my class also requires books by Joan Kane and Frank Soos.

I also ask students to select two books of their choice, one by an Alaska Native author and one by an Alaska non-Native author. I provide a list, but students are free to propose a work that doesn’t appear on the list. Occasionally, a student submits a title written by a non-Native author about a Native person or Native life as their suggestion of a work from a non-Native perspective. But I discourage even “as-told-to” titles, which are rife with issues of their own. Readers are sometimes startled when I ask them to what degree a book or story written by a non-Native author can articulate an Alaska Native perspective. The settlers’ lens is so blindingly bright, so focused, so clear, that even that question comes as a surprise.

The issue of appropriation came up again and again when I was belatedly finishing my education not fifteen years ago. As the only Alaska Native writer in all the writing workshops I attended, I was too often alone in the conviction that writers would do well to avoid writing about lives they haven’t lived and places they have only passed through. Perhaps we should write our own stories, I would suggest. At every instance, after a few disapproving comments condemning my unpopular stance, the argument was always this: appropriation is ok because — freedom of speech. Fourth Amendment. Artistic liberty.

With that, we are brought to our second question: “Who are we writing?”

I was taught by my Tlingit grandmother to see the world through an indigenous lens. As a student in the years that followed, I was taught to see the world through a colonial lens. As a reader who has viewed the world from both perspectives, I have come to realize that there is a difference between fact and truth. As a writer, I know that what we call fiction often reveals our personal stories, and what we label non-fiction is frequently no more than illusions we have fashioned into our narrative. Nevertheless, whether fiction or otherwise, we serve our readers best when we strive to understand and share our own stories, our own histories, our own truths. Whatever we consider Alaska literature to be, we serve it best when we remind ourselves that every page we read and every page we write nourishes a leaf in our tangled Alaska forest.

Ernestine Hayes is the author of Blonde Indian, an Alaska Native Memoir. Her work has appeared in Studies in American Indian Literature, Tipton Poetry Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Tidal Echoes and other publications. She makes her home in Juneau, Alaska, where she was born.

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