Exploring Human Experience in the North — The Northern Review’s Special Literature Issue: Guest post by Nancy Lord

In December, The Northern Review , a journal published by Yukon College in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, recently produced a special literature issue for fall 2009. (The journal normally deals with more scholarly subjects.) The guest editor is Eric Heyne, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the issue was published with support from both the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Alaska Humanities Forum.

There are a lot of familiar names in this issue—Alaskans Jean Anderson, Joe Enzweiler, Tom Sexton, Anne Coray, Peggy Shumaker, John Morgan, the late Marjorie Cole, myself, others. And a lot of unfamiliar (to me) names—other Alaskans and writers from various parts of Canada. Altogether, it’s a great look at who we are as northerners, the forces that shape us.

But, as Eric Heyne says in his introduction, “This is not a celebration of the wilderness beauty and charismatic megafauna of the North. There’s nary a wolf to be seen.” Heyne seems to have been, in his selections, more interested in the human dimensions of northern living, and in the many contradictions to be found there. Or else, the writers themselves transcended expectations—surely a sign of a maturing literature.

I haven’t read the entire issue yet, but I’ve read enough to be impressed by its variety, and I’ve loved seeing some new work from old friends as well as being introduced to the work of writers new to me.

One of my regrets about Alaska literature is that, while we’re so strong in poetry and creative nonfiction, we seem to have a dearth of literary fiction, and so I read the fiction section with particular interest and attention. I wasn’t equally moved by all ten stories (which include a very short one of my own), but I was very impressed with several and also picked up on some common themes—that I might characterize as “life in the north is hard.” Of course, with fiction, it’s good to remember that only trouble is interesting, but this particular group of stories is, perhaps fitting to our current season, dark. That is, we’re treated to plenty of violence, family and societal disfunction, sadness, drugs and alcohol, loneliness. In a good way, I mean—the way that makes you think about what it means to be human. This is the north when the tourists are gone, when the snow sifts in under the door, the kids are huffing gas out on the beach, and towns are too small for abused women to share with their abusers.

I have favorites among the fiction. It’s nice to see something new from Fairbanksan Jean Anderson, author of the 1989 short fiction collection In Extremis and Other Stories. Her story here, “Blizzard,” is truly a blizzard of internal dialogue from a woman narrator caught between generations and in domestic despair. Another Fairbanksan, the late Marjorie Cole , is represented by “With This Body,” a story of remarkable faith and humor, in which a not-happy-to-be-pregnant woman finds a source of abundance. Following Marjorie’s too-soon death from cancer, this story comes as a gift from her generous spirit. I was especially wowed by Leslie Thomas’s “End Times for Ruby,” which captures the lives of girls in village Alaska, with all their imagined possibilities “until you actually graduated.” Leslie grew up in Nome and is author of the novel Flight of the Goose. I was perhaps equally impressed with “The Komatik Lesson,” by Julia Christensen, a writer from Yellowknife NWT, new to me. Like Leslie’s story, this one captures the realities and contradictions of village life, in which a mother has to make an intolerable choice about home, family, and future and reaches to her own beginning for the strength to do so. According to her bio, Christensen is, along with being a writer, a scholar who studies homelessness and rural housing issues.

Hmmm. I detect a pattern here. Each of these stories I so admire has at its center a remarkably strong northern woman.

Because this is a Canadian publication, I don’t know if it will be very visible in Alaska, but it deserves to be. You can order a copy or a subscription by emailing review@yukoncollege.yk.ca. As with the poetry journal Ice-Floe, it’s a great way of considering Alaskan writing alongside our contemporaries from similar geographies.

Nancy Lord is the Alaska State Writer, and author of Rock, Water, Wild. She is a regular guestblogger for 49writers.

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