I was talking with a friend of mine a few weeks ago about writing about place. We’re both new(-ish) to Alaska, and we both try to engage the place we’re living—the idea of the place, the reality of the place, the deep history, the non-human… So many aspects. But Alaska is making us mute. Not literally mute, or even figuratively. And yet, we’re having a hard time with the words.
When I lived in Nebraska, writing about the place came a little easier. Though I wasn’t born there, the interest I had in the place felt like I was pouring water into a channel that was subtle—more so because it was ignored. The energy of the water moved smoothly; the water itself was welcome. In flyover country, you’re just happy to be noticed. Beats the hell out of being ignored and taken for granted.
But Alaska… Alaska’s a tourist destination. It’s a state that conjures images of gold, oil, wilderness—Romance. People from all over the world want to travel to Alaska. And the stakes are much higher when a writer engages that energy.
The reverse of that energy is the protective feeling that the people who live there year-round harbor. If you’ve ever lived in a tourist area, you know what I’m writing about. And you’re immediately suspicious of anyone who drops in for a week or so, takes notes, and then zips away to write their “insights” into the place. I grew up in the Southern Appalachian region, and history of people coming down to tell us our errors and how to save ourselves is long. And hated.
So what’s a writer and scholar interested in place supposed to do? In a word: Listen. To people. To history. To land. To the non-humans living in the place with you. Listen for complication, for confusion, for the awkward spaces where issues and populations overlap. I’m frequently not very good at it. But I’m trying. And this is a great place in which to be listening.