What have you learned about storytelling from living among the Inupiat?
Too much to talk about in this short space! I spend a lot of time thinking about how the Inupiaq oral storytelling tradition intersects with the western literary tradition and how some of the conventions of the one form, might apply to the other. I think, too, about how traditional stories, in any culture, form a cultural scaffolding for the writer working within that culture.
This is something that the writer and the reader understand, implicitly so that in the western tradition, for example, the reader recognizes a reference to the Cinderella story without needing to have the story retold. And they recognize the “Cinderella” pattern, too, when they see it. It’s this subtle presence of a body of cultural references that enriches the literature.
I think a great deal about how I might translate this to the process of writing stories that come from lesser known tradition and writing them for readers who may not be of that tradition. This is something of a conundrum, to be sure. I also look at the techniques Inupiaq story-tellers have used to good effect and think about how one might use these techniques in English language literature.
Living with my husband, who is Inupiaq and is a consummate storyteller, has also both informed and enriched my work. My husband’s stories figure so strongly in my work that I sometimes tell people that he is the real storyteller and I am merely the scribe.
How do you approach literacy from an Alaskan perspective?
Through my Alaskan experience, I have come to believe that oral storytelling—the urge to tell what happened in order to inform, instruct or entertain—is the bedrock of literacy. Although this seems obvious to me now, I didn’t articulate it until recently, when I was invited to visit a small Inupiaq village to talk about literacy to a group of parents.
The goal, of course, was to get parents to read to their children but as I thought about what to say, I started thinking at it from a very personal level. I have seven children and have always loved to read out loud to them. I am a good reader, able to bring a story alive with my voice.
My husband is far less comfortable with reading out loud. His oral stories, on the other hand, are stellar and always kept our kids spellbound and begging for more. If put to the test, our children would probably opt for my husband’s stories over mine.
In thinking about this, I decided that the real message parents need to hear about literacy is that it’s important to give a child access to stories. Parents should be encouraged to tell their children the stories they grew up with because hearing a story is the first step towards literacy—it teaches a child the rules of storytelling such as sequencing, pacing and the use of telling details.
When we talk about literacy we need to stress this, especially here in rural Alaska where there is limited access to books and we tend to make parents feel inadequate for not reading to their kids. We should, instead, celebrate Alaska’s rich oral tradition and encourage parents to share this tradition with their children. This is the first step towards literacy. The second step is to incorporate the Alaska’s oral tradition into the literature.
What was the inspiration for Whale Snow?
In the spring, during whaling season here on Alaska’s northern coast, whaling crews camp out on the ocean ice for a month at a time, waiting, patiently, for the whales. It’s a beautiful time of year when the snow-covered tundra shines brightly in the spring sun and the sun rises and sets with explosions of color.
There is a certain kind of snow that sometimes falls during this time—big fat lazy flakes that seem to come out of nowhere. When this happens, older people say, “looks like someone caught a whale.” And more often than not, strange though it sounds, this is indeed the case.
It was the idea of a people so connected to the land that the land “speaks” to them that really captured my writer’s imagination and served as the seed for Whale Snow.
I also wanted our local children to see one of their own cultural celebrations reflected in a book because I believe that every child deserves to see his or her own cultural traditions reflected in the literature they read. If we want children to read we need to offer them a recognizable entrance into the world of reading at a young age. This is one of the things that compels me to write for children.
As a trade book, Whale Snow is unique in that it is available in both English and Inupiat editions. How did this come about?
Even though there is only a small audience of Inupiaq readers, my editor and the art director at Charlesbridge thought a bilingual presentation would enhance the book. So I asked Jana Harcharek, Coordinator for Bilingual Education for the North Slope Borough School District, to translate it. It was so exciting to hear my story read in Inupiaq! And I was ecstatic to discover that there is, indeed, an Inupiaq word for what I had called “whale snow.”
In the end, however, the publisher decided against making the book bilingual, and opted instead to use the translation on their website to generate interest. I later convinced them to do an Inupiaq print run and sell it, at cost, to our local school district.
When Charlesbridge came to Alaska that year to promote their books at the Alaska Library Association’s annual convention, they brought a copy of the Inupiaq version of Whale Snow, hot off the press, to use in their display. Every librarian who saw it wanted to buy a copy so I guess they realized there might be a market for it.
The next thing I knew, it was for sale on Amazon and at bookstores all over the state. This was not a particularly good deal for me, financially, because they treat the Inupiaq edition as a foreign language edition which means I get a smaller royalty. I don’t really mind, though. It is really wonderful to see an Inupiaq language book selling out at commercial bookstores.
What brought you to the Arctic nearly thirty years ago, and why did you stay?
I came, as many did, out of a sense of adventure and because I thought I could get rich working on the pipeline. I stayed because I came into contact with the Inupiat. One Inupiaq, in particular, taught me to see the world through his eyes. As it turned out, it was a world that made a great deal of sense to me.
How hard is it to learn the Inupiat language? How much of it have you learned?
I understand some of the language and have a large vocabulary, but I am not fluent. Inupiaq elders say the English language is backward and some speakers insist that it is also more efficient than English because a single word in Inupiaq is equivalent to a whole sentence in English.
For an English speaker, these things make Inupiaq seem very difficult. One word has many parts and from an English perspective, the construction is backward. The verb stem comes first, followed by the post-bases that serve as adverbs, adjectives and modifiers. The information about person and object comes at the end.
There are also dozens of little add-ons, called demonstratives which, like English prepositions, indicate the location of things. Unlike English prepositions, these have a precision that is nearly mathematical and rarely have one-word English equivalents. And all this information is contained in one word—the longest one I’ve seen contained 26 letters!
So the short answer is that for an English-trained brain, learning Inupiaq is difficult. And it is made even more difficult by the fact that we live in a country that does not generally value or encourage bilingualism and so approach language learning from a mindset that is solidly monolinguistic, which puts us at a disadvantage as language learners. But this is another discussion altogether.
How did you find the process of collaborating with illustrator Annie Patterson?
I come from a family of artists and really believe that it is important to give the artist space to envision the story in their own way. A good picture book is given an extra dimension—another storyline, if you will—through illustration. In a truly great picture book, the story and the artwork together create a synergy that expands the story into something much greater than the sum of its parts.
When I sold Whale Snow, I felt that it was essential to find an illustrator who understood the visual alphabet of the Arctic—I didn’t want an artist who’d never been here creating visual stereotypes like igloos and circus type seals.
I gave my editor some samples of the work of a number of talented artists whom I felt understood the Arctic. Annie was one of these artists. Charlesbridge was impressed with her work and selected her to illustrate the book. After that, I never intruded on her process, even though she lives less than a mile from me. I wanted her to bring her own vision to the story and was delighted with the result.
Annie’s work really recognizes the spirit of the book and creates a synergy that enriches it. I have a series of her sketches that I use in school presentations to show kids how an artist, too, must think in terms of story. I like to ask questions like, “why do you think she put the image of the whale in the land and in the sky?” Adults may or may not get the connection, but kids from all parts of the country never miss it—understanding, immediately, what is meant by “the spirit of the whale.”
Tell us about your novel, Blessing’s Bead, that will be released in 2009 by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. What inspired you to move into the novel genre, and how did you find the writing of it as compared to writing a picture book?
Actually, I didn’t move from picture book-writing into novel-writing; I was always writing both. The novel-writing apprenticeship just took longer.
Blessing’s Bead started out as radio story I did in 1986. At that time, I was a Public Radio reporter covering a meeting of ICC, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, in Kotzebue, Alaska. ICC (now called the Inuit Circumpolar Council) is an international organization representing the Inuit people of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia and 1986—the tail end of the Cold War—marked the first year the Russian Inuit were allowed to attend.
I interviewed an older Yupik woman from Saint Lawrence Island who remembered how the Siberian Inuit used to visit her village every summer when she was a child. She especially remembered the green tobacco they brought her grandfather. She told me that many of the people of the region had intermarried and gone to live in Russia but due to the “Ice Curtain” had remained separated from their families for over 40 years.
She left me with an image I never forgot: very old women, standing on the western shore of the island, gazing toward Russia with tears in their eyes, missing their Siberian relatives. This was the image that gave birth to Blessing’s Bead.
Ten years later, when I finally began to write the story, I placed it in an Iñupiaq village. The first version of the book was a picture book in which a grandmother is telling her granddaughter the story of their Inupiaq names. She tells her that the two of them were named after two sisters—the grandmother’s aunt and mother—who were separated by the cold war. The story tells how the family is reunited several generations later by a single blue trade bead, a treasure which now belongs to the granddaughter.
As a picture book, this story was too convoluted and although it generated positive editorial response, it never sold. One day, it dawned on me that this story needed to be told as a novel.
It has gone through several reincarnations in that form, too. Initially it was a poetry novella which was awarded a Work-In-Progress grant from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
Ultimately, it became a novel told in two parts. The first part is narrated by a young girl named Nutaaq who is separated from her older sister when the sister marries a Siberian. The second part is narrated by younger sister’s great-granddaughter, Blessing, whose Inupiaq name is also Nutaaq. The story turns, in part, on Inupiaq naming beliefs.