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The City and the Writer: In Anchorage with Joan Naviyuk Kane

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Anchorage as you feel/see it?

Cold and tense. We had the darkest winter. One weekend, the fine snow fell thick and deep and gusted into dense drifts. 2016 was the most violent year on record in the history of this city, just as the city and state’s 2017 economy, pegged to the price of oil, is anticipated to depopulate the area by magnitudes unseen since the busts of the 1980s and 1990s.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

One of my uncles was killed in a hit-and-run accident in September of 2007. He was living in a homeless camp in midtown Anchorage, and may have been making his way back to his camp at night when he was struck and left to die just blocks from both the state’s biggest private hospital and the Indian Health Service Hospital. I was pregnant with my first son then, and like many women during pregnancy, I couldn’t sleep very well. Rather ill-advisedly for Alaska, I was then renting a house that had no insulation in the roof. Fall storms brought torrents of ice-water rain the night he was killed. As I tossed and turned, I thought about my family and the history of my family, and how fortunate I was to have a roof of any kind over my head as the rain pummeled the roof louder than I ever remember having heard it. I slept perhaps forty-five minutes in the early morning hours before my mom called to tell me her brother was found killed. It took more than a year for the police to find and charge the man who killed my uncle. He didn’t spend a minute in custody. He merely had his license taken from him.

My first son is named for my uncle: both his American name and his Inupiaq names.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Anchorage’s public schools, perhaps unlike most frontier border towns, are the most ethnically and linguistically diverse in the nation. Three of our high schools are the most diverse in the country, as are four of our middle schools and nineteen of our elementary schools. Of course, the power structures of the public and private sectors don’t represent our indigenous and immigrant populations.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Joe Senungetuk’s 1971 book Give or Take a Century is the first full-length book written by an Inupiaq author. It chronicles Inupiaq life as it was and is lived during Inuit modernity. In addition to being a world-class ivory carver and artist, Susie Silook writes poems, plays, and now engages many with social media micro-writing. Cathy Tagnak Rexford is a tremendous poet, novelist (A Crane Story), and playwright as well. And there is Olena Kalytiak Davis, whose devious wit and beauty on the other side of town remind me that this conglomeration of strip malls and wetlands is, after all, a city.

Is there a place here you return to often?

The Anchorage Public Library. The birch woods. The trails above the tree line.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The ceaseless infolding Chugach Mountains, the great watersheds of the Susitna and Knik Rivers, and the deep fjord of Turnagain Arm have figured in the stories and consciousness of the original inhabitants of this land and the scores of nature writers that pass through Anchorage on their way to Alaska.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The visible past and historical present of the generation of “homesteaders” that are passing away. The original names and subsistence sites and trails of the Dena’ina people whose lands these are.

Where does passion live here?

In between weathers. Despite itself.

What is the title of one of your works about Anchorage and what inspired it exactly?

“Anchorage,” a poem that appears in my first book, was inspired by the dim and persistent illumination of the days of our “bright winter”—the time before spring comes when we have snow and cold, but less darkness.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Anchorage does an outside exist?”

Without Anchorage, the vast and contiguous north of contemporary empire remains a ceaseless figment.

Joan Naviyuk Kane is the author of The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife, Hyperboreal, The Straits, and Milk Black Carbon. Her honors include the Whiting Writer’s Award, the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry, the American Book Award, the Alaska Literary Award, and fellowships from the Rasmuson Foundation, the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, the School for Advanced Research, and the Aninstantia Foundation. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Best American Poetry, SOUTH, Orion, Poetry Magazine, and Wasafiri. She has been a recent participant in the International Writing Program’s reading tours in Ukraine and Colombia. Kane graduated from Harvard College, where she was a Harvard National Scholar, and Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she was the recipient of a graduate writing fellowship. Inupiaq with family from King Island and Mary’s Igloo, she raises her sons in Anchorage, Alaska, and is on the MFA faculty in the low-residency creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Published Mar 20, 2017   Copyright 2017 Nathalie Handal

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