Monday, October 17, 2011

A Little of that Human Touch: A Guest Post by Featured Author Kris Farmen

            I have a couple buddies who are always introducing me as “Kris Farmen, the famous Alaskan writer.”  I don’t mind this so much because they often do it while introducing me to attractive women.  Still, it can be a little embarrassing.  I’m an Alaskan, and I am a writer, but my fame is, shall we say, somewhat dubious.
            I mention this because of something the Australian songwriter Paul Kelly once said in an interview.  The exact quote escapes me, but it was words to this effect:  I don’t write songs about Australia, I write songs about people.  And many of those people happen to live in Australia.
            Kelly, who is a household name Down Under (sort of Australia’s Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen rolled into one), is one of my favorite writers, the fact that he works in the medium of song notwithstanding.  I’ve thought about his words quite a lot in the years since I heard them, particularly now that I’m writing novels set in Alaska.
            The label of “Alaskan writer” can be useful both as a marketing ploy and for meeting potential bedmates at parties, but as an artist, I’m far less interested in writing stories about Alaska than I am in writing stories about people. 
            This is at least in part a reaction against the dominant paradigm in Alaska’s literary canon, namely, the Coming to Alaska narrative.  You know the story.  Someone chucks their old life Outside and moves to Alaska, maybe builds a log cabin in the bush, or lives on a fishing boat, or starts working as a bush pilot.  Along the way they undergo a spiritual transformation through the experience of adopting Alaska as their home.  Closely linked to this concept is what we might call the “Wow, ALASKA!” factor, something which more or less speaks for itself.  These concepts dominate any number of stories that can be found on bookshelves throughout the state.  I won’t name any names, but it’s often non-fiction, memoir type stuff.  A few prominent novels come to mind as well.  Whatever the characters happen to be doing in the story seems to be far less important than the fact that they’re doing it in ALASKA! 
            I can hardly be bothered to yawn any more when I see these titles.  It’s not that building a cabin, living on a boat, or flying a super-cub—or even undergoing a spiritual transformation through adopting Alaska as one’s home—is somehow uninteresting or silly.  It’s neither of those things.  The problem is that this paradigm rests on how different Alaska is from the rest of the world, rather than recognizing the fact that human beings are all basically the same regardless of where they live, be it Alaska, New York, Somalia, or wherever. 
            The key here is that ALASKA! (uppercase) needs to start taking a backseat to the human drama that occurs here.  I’m not a big fan of the notion that Alaska (lowercase) needs to be just as much a character in the story as the protagonists.  The underlying assumption here, an assumption rooted in our forebears’ delusions of Manifest Destiny, is that day to day life in Alaska is a pivotal struggle of man against his primeval environment. 
            I spent this past April hiking into my surf shack on the lower Kenai Peninsula, pounding nails on the roof all day, then walking back out to my truck because the road was too soft and muddy to drive, but that’s hardly what I’d call an epic battle.  It’s just me living my life, or to put it more plainly, it’s a pain in the ass.  The idea that a human struggling against his or her ecosystem is inherently the stuff of great drama seems pretty silly to me given the destruction our species continues to wreak upon the Earth.  So it’s cold and the snow is deep and you’re way out in the woods.  Big deal.  The Eskimos and Indians were dealing with that kind of thing for millennia, so what makes you so damn special?  And for that matter, during the ten years I lived in Fairbanks, I can’t recall ever thinking that coaxing my pickup to crank over on a forty-below morning rated as high adventure.
            Instead, I want to know about the guy you’re crazy in love with but doesn’t like you back.  I want to know about the basketball coach you think is a first-rate asshole.  I want to know why your stepmother always thought you were a useless dope-smoking punk, or what that priest whispered into your ear when you were alone with him in his room, and was it the smell of onions on his breath that made your skin crawl? 
            And if you happen to be cutting notches in a cabin log, or picking silvers from a gillnet, or taxiing your super-cub down a gravel bar when these things come to mind, then so much the better.
            

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

On the one hand, I agree with your assessment--there's far too much Alaska writing that uses the "wow" factor as its main engine. Yes, it's very true that humans are all, to a degree, the same wherever we are. And, yes, anyone who tries to pit their struggle with their internal combustion engine at 40 below as man vs nature is probably overreaching that trope. Agreed.

However, it's too far a leap to say that just because those critique are true, life up here is no different than it is anywhere else. True, you can live in Anchorage in a duplex and work for ACS and have a life a lot someone in St. Louis. But people in St. Louis do not have moose in their yard between them and their mailbox, do not have 24 hour day light in the summer which prevents them from sneaking up to a girlfriend's window, do not have more boots for snow and ice than they do flip-flops. This doesn't make Alaska better, but it does make it unusual.

Where we live--our landscapes, the physicality of them--matters. And once you leave Anchorage, things get interesting. Part of what makes non-urban Alaska notable is how DIFFERENT a lot of it really is from anywhere else. I live in a small remote town, and if I described my daily winter activities (feeding the wood boiler every 6 hours, hauling water, running dogs, noticing wind speed because it affects when I can get on the internet), most people in the Lower 48 agree that it isn't much like theirs, and they find it interesting, just as I find the places they live--the humidity, the lake affect, the crazy lizards--interesting. So, why should we cower away from the physical world as material? Isn't there plenty of middle ground--writing not ABOUT Alaska, as if it were some wacky character, but OUT OF Alaska, as if it were the homeplace that grounds us and our characters, in all the ways it's alike and different from anyone else's? That's the literature I'm most interested in, out of Alaska, or anywhere else.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about this lately so I'm glad to read this post. I agree with your premise.

The WOW ALASKA factor makes for an easier job for the writer, if they're writing for the tourist trade.

But it seems to me that it's the same thing as using any easy trope for a story; like using some melodramatic death/disaster to move a character to action, rather than exploring more subtle nuances of character and story.

It's not much different than people's preference for margarine vs butter, farmed fish vs wild.

I am presently working hard to write a book that does not have the WOW Alaska feel, even while it is set here and the main character is from somewhere else. The last thing I want to do is be a bright-eyed cheerleader "writing home" about the adventures.

I appreciate this post. You just bolstered my resolve in the writing job ahead of me.

Thanks.
Therese H.

Andromeda said...

Really well said, Kris, and at the same time I agree with "Anonymous." Both sides ring true to me.

And I enjoyed Frank Soos's comment at the Crosscurrents on Friday when he said, in response to a question about AK Literature, "Do we NEED an Alaska literature?" (In other words: maybe we just need literature?)

Place is important; I don't believe we all live exactly the same lives, and there are a great many stories here still untold. And yet I also believe that the "Lit" part of the label comes before the "Alaska" part. As we get more and more novels written from here that are truly outstanding, people will start forgetting about the geographic label quite so much. But you said it all better with your "I wanna hear..." section at the end of your post.

Story first, and if it involves place in a credible and organic way -- a meshing of our interior and exterior lives -- great, because that helps me appreciate the tangible and natural world beyond electronic screens and products and logos and modern homogeneity. (Notice how few novels show life as it really is: 12 hours a day on average consuming media, in whitewalled temperature-controlled rooms; who wants to read about characters doing that?) Place as amazing wallpaper or too-easy bragging rights a distant second. Wow factor/marketing angle later, if at all.