I was lucky to see an all-star slate of five indigenous women writers read in Seattle at a joint 49 Writers and Hugo House program—the first foray into out-of-state programming for us. The event launched the debut book of poetry, Roughly for the North, by Carrie Ayaġaduk Ojanen (an Alaska Native poet who—full disclosure—happens to be a pressmate and fellow University of Montana MFA alum). Joan Naviyuk Kane, a friend and Carrie’s cousin, read from her about-to-drop-next book, Sublingual (Finishing Line Press). Abigail Chabitnoy, Kristiana Kahakauwila, and Casandra Lopez also read, and Sasha LaPointe emceed and moderated.
Though all five women’s work differ immensely from one another, threads of sadness and longing wended throughout the evening, an undertone evoking survived physical violence, cultural rupture, geographical displacement, linguistic upheaval, and more. Their voices brought powerful personal valences to so much political and social weight.
The reading was rich with beauty, too, and a lightness, despite the heft of everything at stake and apparent in the work. The reading reminded us that intimate, lived experience can be communicable when craft, aesthetics, and the choice and chance to speak align. Maybe a lightness was borne, too, of camaraderie, sisterhood, and the generous opportunity the readers afforded us in the audience to attend to their words.
Joan Kane, a prolific and well-recognized Inupiaq poet, was instrumental in making the night possible, motivated in no small part by her love and respect for Carrie and a desire to see the fresh-minted Roughly for the North find its readers. She read first and kept it relatively short.
Abigail Chabitnoy’s delivery was stunning. I had missed her reading a couple months earlier in McCarthy, Alaska, where she happened to spend two weeks as a resident artist at the Wrangell Mountains Center—despite that remote place being my longtime summer habitat, I was away when she read. I at least had the pleasure of meeting Abby before she left McCarthy — and her husband, when he visited at the end of her residency. We shared a meal at my cabin, but I was wholly inexperienced with seeing her deliver her own work live. She’s a force.
Abigail’s great grandfather was taken from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in 1901 to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, so her family ended up on the Lower 48 side of a schism from tradition. She grew up in Pennsylvania and is an enrolled descendant of the Koniag Corporation and member of the Tangirnaq Native Village in Kodiak, Alaska. She currently lives in Colorado, where she works to support indigenous self-determination.
She framed the work in her forthcoming debut book, How to Dress a Fish (Wesleyan University Press), as a “docupoetic and mythopoetic interrogation of history and familial relationships and the identity of the self and other, and the power of images that we promote societally and individually to promote those distances.” After the reading, Abby said that she’d imposed a little self-restraint in choosing what to read in McCarthy, a circumspect kind of punch-pulling, perhaps, with respect to her relatively unknown hosts in a relatively unknown community. She knew this night was a night to inhabit her unabashed self, though, and her reading (mainly from her book, plus a couple new poems) and delivery were remarkable.
Kristiana Kahakauwila delivered a flawless reading from the title story in her first book, This is Paradise (Hogarth, 2013), grounded in the people and landscapes of contemporary Hawai'i. Kristiana is a hapa writer of kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian), German, and Norwegian extract. She is an associate professor of creative writing at Western Washington University (my undergrad alma mater) and serves as faculty in The Institute of American Indian Arts Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing. Her story, set in Waikiki, was written in the “we” voice, a serially-voiced first person plural comprised of three groups of women—surfer girls, housekeeping women in the hotels, and career women. It seemed apt for an evening so hinged on a sense of a community of women, and probably was especially so given that she apparently drafted the story in residence nearby at Hedgebrook, surrounded by creative women.
The morning of the Hugo House reading, I had woken in an Airbnb to news of another mass shooting, this time in a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburg. The evening reading served in part as a kickoff to Native American Heritage Month, and Joan reminded the audience that one subtext for the reading was the ongoing murder and disappearance of inordinate numbers of native women. Casandra López is a Chicana and California Indian (Cahuilla, Tongva, Luiseño) writer raised in Southern California. Her chapbook, Where Bullet Breaks, was published by the Sequoyah National Research Center and her poetry collection Brother Bullet is forthcoming from University of Arizona. López, like Abby, had also recently spent time in Alaska at another residency in an another end-of-a-road town. Her residency was at Storyknife (modeled after Hedgebrook) in the community of Homer, about 12 hours by vehicle from McCarthy. She expanded the circumference of violence and trauma familiar to indigenous people and minorities, plotting a specific, personal waypoint from an indigenous perspective on the killing map edited just that morning by yet another psychopath. (A fragment—“having survived much too much”—comes to mind from Joan’s poem “White Alice Gone to Hell”.) López’s strength was unmistakable—evidenced in no small part by her ability to make poems from the part of herself shot through, too, when the bullet that killed her brother entered his body.
Ojanen read last. The collective force of the fierce, talented women she shared the stage with was palpable in the room. She thanked Joan most especially for helping her to see her book “over the finish line”. Cousins, they share Ugiuvak, or King Island, Alaska as an ancestral home. The place was her grandparents’ home until the Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the school, forcing kids to go to school in Nome, where Carrie grew up, or elsewhere. By 1970, all the island people had moved or been relocated.
This displacement has figured prominently in Joan’s work, and it understandably inspires Carrie’s, as well. When Joan arranged a difficult, unlikely, first-time trip out to King Island in 2014, Carrie was one of the few people she selected to accompany her. Neither of them had ever set foot there, a place at once both imaginative but also grounded in deep ancestral and familial knowing. Joan grew up in east Anchorage (“Muldizzle”, as she likes to call the Muldoon neighborhood) and Carrie grew up in Northwest Alaska’s city of Nome. That they share ancestry, heritage, languages, and poetry is a kind of wonder. It’s a privilege and pleasure to read both of their work, and it was an even richer one to hear them read their own work aloud, moving at times from English into Inupiaq and back. To see them read together in the company of the other three women made for a reading that I’ll most certainly remember.
The evening’s center of gravity was shared equally by all five readers, despite the occasion of Ojanen’s book launch and the reading’s bracketing by those poet-cousins. Still, Ojanen ended with a poem she wrote for Joan, circling back to the evening’s first voice. Called “Tiimiaq, Something Carried”, the title works, in part, as a kind of pun emphasizing the poem, book, and poet’s role in carrying something of the past forward, and, inversely, of carrying the present back to places, ancestors, and understandings. Coming nearly at the end of her book, it begins “in a book / we read about these things”, thus collapsing the speaker’s world with readers’ realities while folding each reader into a spacious “we”, not unlike Kristiana’s story that fractals all those implicated with or excluded from that pronoun out in a way that somehow emphasizes difference while establishing commonality. That slippage and its pleasures is sometimes what live readings are about, in part, not to mention the experience of reading and rereading books alone later. I returned to Alaska looking forward to reading more work by these five (as well as Sasha, as charismatic, poised, and savvy an emcee as could be), their powerful voices still resounding in mind.
photos by Jeremy Pataky