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!")