Friday, November 26, 2010

A Rare Thanksgiving

We’re cooking the turkey today.

We always do turkey the day after because on Thanksgiving day we go to church for the Feast.

No, it’s not a turkey feast.

The Thanksgiving Day Feast in Barrow is part of the annual cycle of events celebrating a successful whaling season and sharing, with the entire community, the fruits of the catch. People don’t stand in long lines waiting to dish bits of food onto paper plates. They sit in pews, with empty coolers and boxes and are served by pairs of servers toting huge pots of soup and tubs of frozen meat and maktak and fish, listening to impromptu performances. Participants leave with enough food to stock their freezers for weeks. I wrote about it in Blessing’s Bead.

Aktikaaq, ready to serve.
The timing of Thanksgiving this year was particularly fortuitous for me because I was presenting at NCTE/ALAN in Orlando on Monday and didn’t get home until Wednesday night.

I presented with fellow children’s writers Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Zetta Eliott, Neesha Meminger and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. It was the first time I’d met any of these writers in person although I've been in contact with Lyn for some time and have often quoted Zetta’s wonderful online ruminations about the colonization of the imagination. The theme of the ALAN conference this year was, Looking for the Real Me: the Search for Self in Young Adult Literature. Our panel was entitled “Looking for the Real Me on the Hyphen: Stories of Migration and Return.”

It was a good panel, but I was glad to return home.

I think most writers are, by nature, solitary creatures and it’s s bit daunting to be in such huge crowds where one is expected to promote one’s work. More so for someone like me, whose work comes from a place and culture so far removed from the mainstream. I often feel, at these events, like an immigrant from a tiny and fragile planet, wondering how my singular stories fit into the mass market, wondering how they can ever be marketed and find readers. These are not good thoughts.

So it’s good to sit in the midst of our huge Barrow family on Thanksgiving Day, immersed in the rich and rare sense of shared community one always feels here. The church is packed with people, dressed in fancy parkas and fur boots, frilly dresses and even suits. We pass our bags back and forth to servers who fill them with meat and maktak until our boxes can hold no more. The couple sitting next to us is of our generation. I share our salt with them, as they’ve forgotten to bring theirs and they share their paper towel with me as I have none. Sitting with a granddaughter on my lap, I feel overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude: I am thankful that the universe has somehow contrived to place me here, in this small beating heart of a rich and unique culture.

Thoughts of book marketing are as remote as the moon. The only writing thought I think is the same one I always think at events like this: if I were able to express in writing even a single breath of this experience, it would be enough. I would be grateful.

That’s when my neighbor leans over and says, “Debby, I read your book. I couldn’t put it down.”

What else is there?

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

My granddaughter Josie, sings with the kids.

And do check out Oyate’s Deconstructing the Myths of “the First Thanksgiving.” Sometime the mass story is not the real story.

See, Debbie Reese's blog, American Indians in Children's Literature, for more articles about the indigenous American perspective on Thanksgiving.

 Zetta's statement, which I often quote is: “For many people of color, not seeing oneself in a book, over and over again, leads to a lasting colonization of the imagination.”

That's why I write these books, even if they don't have mass market appeal--to decolonize imaginations, one at a time.

(I enjoyed the irreverent Gary Paulson, dressed in a flannel shirt, suspenders and a baseball cap at the ALAN reception. And besieged by fans. When I told him I was from, Alaska he talked about his Alaskan home and his dogs and looked around: "Too damn many people here," he said.

And of course it was a bit surreal being in the heart of Disney World, where every single worker intoned, "Have a magical day!" so incessantly that even the fantasy writers were saying, "Enough, already!")


Monday, October 25, 2010

… and what is the use of a book, thought Alice, without pictures or conversations?

Or, put another way, what is the point of a writer’s blog that doesn’t, on a reasonably regular basis, talk about writing? A writer's blog that doesn’t, once in a blue moon, brag?

Blessing’s Bead was named to  Booklist’s Top Ten First Novels for Youth 2010!

(There. I said it.)

But that’s not all:  the cover of Blessing’s Bead is the cover of the October issue of Booklist. 

I think I’ll have it framed. Does anyone have a copy they’d be willing to send?

But the coolest thing is this: Booklist’s facebook icon this month is, yes, you guessed it, BLESSING’S BEAD!!! I am not joking. Go friend Booklist and see for yourself.

There. I said it all. I’ll be quiet now. I won’t be self-serving next time, I promise.

Seriously, though, I don’t think that I’m the only writer who has a hard time with self-promotion. It just seems so…gauche. Like running up and down the street hollering Like me! Please like me! I mean, you spend years honing your craft, learning to open yourself to something higher, something over which you ultimately have no control.  And you devote countless unpaid hours—yes, years —to pouring your heart and soul onto the page in pursuit of something the name of which mostly alludes you. And after all that they want you to...what did you say?...go out and sell yourself?

Sorry, I think I have a call on the other line...

Actually, it was the cover of Blessing's Bead that attracted them, you know. It wasn't the writing.  It was my daughter--that's her picture on the cover. Her name is Susan, after my mother. Her Inupiaq name is Aaluk, the same name as one of the characters in the book. I talk about how that cover came about on Jacket Knack, an interesting blog that examines the art of and issues surrounding book covers. Go read it and then come back and talk to me about  book covers, book publicity, or the issues of race I raise there.

Or not.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Where have I been all these weeks, since my first blog post?

Immersed in life and death, loss and memory…

. . . at my brother Dave’s house, in Minneapolis, sleeping in his guest room, listening, on a baby monitor, to the sound of Dave, breathing. His breath comes short and shallow, so quiet, at times, I have to steal into his room to mark the rise and fall of his chest. His eyes are closed. He lies alone on a narrow hospital bed, waging a war with cancer he has vowed to fight to the end.

Barb, his wife of 47 years, sleeps on a camp cot in the living room, the other monitor by her head. She refused to sleep in the guest room bed. Seventy-one years-old and she prefers that cot for now. It reminds her of her of all those years of camping with my brother. Camping in the woods of Northern Minnesota, in the mountains of the pacific northwest, even, one time, in a front yard at a family reunion.

“I’m camping, Dave,” she tells him, now. “Remember?”

And he smiles with one side of his mouth, very gently, his eyes still closed, so small and frail he looks like our mother, now. He has Mother’s finely chiseled bones, that smooth fine skin that never aged. Even his hands have become like our Mother’s artist hands.

When the rain comes at night, showering down on the roof with a sudden outpour and a flash of lightening, I think of Barb on her camp cot, and I remember the tents of our childhood, glowing in the dark of a summer’s night, the swish of water against rock outside and hiss the Coleman lantern within.

Oh how he loved the woods, this brother of mine. He even took his bride duck hunting on their month-long honeymoon back in the days when brides-to-be received frilly negligees at elaborate bridal showers. Mother and I always laughed at the image of Barb, cleaning ducks in her negligee.

There is nothing more they can do for him—he is leaving us, our Davy. The hospice workers come almost daily, like angels—so good, so very good. The one who gives him baths looks at this photo of him. It’s a favorite of mine, one I brought with me from Alaska. Dave is kneeling, in the autumn woods of Minnesota with a brace of grouse in one hand and his hunting dog, Katie, by his side. And you can see, in the way he and Katie look at one another, that he is a true hunter, a man who understands animals.

“Master and student,” the hospice worker says.

Yes, I think. Exactly right.

Fall was Dave’s favorite season. Mine, too. We loved watching the old year pass with a burst of vivid color, the smell of wood smoke and dying leaves pungent and invigorating. And we loved waiting in anticipation for the new year to came, swaddled in white.

He left us on September 28, with the maple trees aflame and the birch trees waving yellow leaves, six days short of his birthday.

This, then, is the parting image that comes to me, on the day of his funeral: Dave, skiing.

I am standing at the bottom of the steepest ski slope, dressed in unfashionable layers of winter clothes, watching my brother ski. His legs are together as one, fluid as a fish tail, his body moving gracefully in and out of gravity as if he were born to fly, as though he must, at any moment, lift off the slope and become airborne.

Everyone is standing at the bottom of the slope, watching as they always did, their voices hushed in awe. I don’t think Dave ever knew or cared about his audience, then or now, but it always made his little sister burst with pride, waiting for him at the bottom. No one ever skied like Dave. This is how I remember it.

He was always a private man, my brother with a sense of spirituality that was tied to the land in a way few people ever experience. When we return to our family cabin on an island in the boundary waters of Northern Minnesota, my surviving brother and I, I stand on the shore of the larger island and look across the water to the smaller one, Dave’s island with its log cabin lit by the sun of an autumn day. I am watching, as if for some understanding I might find, some affirmation.  I feel it for just a moment: a sudden  shock of Presence. Dave is a part of this place. He always will be.


By Elinor Wylie

I shall lie hidden in a hut
   In the middle of an alder wood,
With the back door blind and bolted shut,
   And the front door locked for good.
I shall lie folded like a saint.
   Lapped in a scented linen sheet,
On a bedstead striped with bright-blue paint,
   Narrow and cold and neat.
The midnight will be glassy black
   Behind the panes, with wind about
To set his mouth against a crack
   And blow the candle out.

Rest in peace, my brother, Dave Dahl Jr. May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Tundra Between Us

Saggan beachcoming
When my oldest daughter Rachel was three or four we used to walk to the beach of the Beaufort Sea to look for stones and pieces of ocean-polished glass. There was an old woman who lived along the way and she often sat outside in a brightly-colored parka, enjoying the weather.  She was a tiny woman and one of the few left who still wore the traditional tattoos on her chin, made in the old way, no doubt, with ivory and soot. She would smile as we passed by, speaking to Rachel in Inupiaq with words I didn’t understand. Perhaps she was speaking of the weather or making jokes or telling stories.

Her name was Rachel, as it turned out, Rachel Sakeagak. Her Inupiaq name was Naninaaq.

In Inupiaq there is a special relationship between people who share a name. The word is Atiq and although it translates as namesake, the meaning runs much deeper. It implies a special kind kinship because names have spirits attached to them and if you want to keep a person alive or bring them back, you do so through the names you give.

Because she was Rachel, my daughter became Naninaaq and is now a filmmaker with a daughter of her own. She began her filmmaking career under the name of  Naninaaq Productions.

Leslie Marmon Silko compares time to an ocean always moving in and out,  more circular than liner.  Names are like that, too, I think.

One of Rachel’s other Inupiaq names is Nutaaq, Nutaaq, the name of one of the characters in my book, Blessing’s Bead. Nutaaq, the name  of my friend Doreen’s daughter who died too young a week ago, fighting the same battle one of my own fights, a battle with addiction. We are so hurt by the fact that Nutaaq lost her battle—so very angry that things like drugs wash up on our shores like old plastic to ensnare our children, once as happy as dolphins. 

The truth, of course, is more complicated than that—the truth is a fabric woven of many stories and including threads of bright pain and dark sorrow.

Doreen is a writer, too, and I have been remembering, lately, a  a piece she wrote once about her own childhood. She was remembering the old men out on tundra trails in the springtime, digging narrow trenches with sticks to let the melting snow water run off. Keeping the trails that tied one house to another intact, back in the days before heavy equipment destroyed the tundra between us.

After I listened to Doreen that time, I went home and watched my husband, out in the driveway, carving narrow trenches into the mud with the edge of a shovel to let the water run off.  It was a task he did every spring, one I'd always found vaguely annoying and ultimately pointless.  But watching him that time, I was struck with the sudden shock of recognition, thinking about the ways we forge connections, the code of it in our blood, as it were, as involuntary as a heart beat.

Everything intersects as story and  the stories are neither simple nor singular. Like beach glass, we turn them this way and that to catch the light and what we see depends on who we are and how our vision's tuned.

I think of  Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie's wonderful speech, The Danger of a Single Story. If you haven’t heard it, go listen to it.

Stories matter. 

This week is Random Acts of Publicy week, an idea concieved by another writer friend of mine--a way of celebrating each other’s books and stories--by talking about them in public places. I think I’ll go do that, now. 

Maybe I just did.