Erica Watson reviews Building Fires in the Snow: A Collection of Alaska LGBTQ Short Fiction and Poetry, edited by Martha Amore and Lucian Childs
University of Alaska Press | 2016 | ISBN: 978-1602233010 | 368 pages
In their introduction to Building Fires in the Snow: A Collection of Alaska LGBTQ Short Fiction and Poetry, editors Martha Amore and Lucian Childs describe the book as “the first regional [LGBTQ anthology] in which wilderness is the lens through which gay, primarily urban, identity is perceived.” This narrative lens attempts to blur and bend the lines between two distinct and coexisting assumed dichotomies: these stories and poems write both the urban into Alaska, and queer lives into rural places, where of course both have been for quite some time. It’s an ambitious, challenging, and affirming project, and the writers in Building Fires in the Snow do it justice, while creating a space for even further diversity of stories to enter the Alaskan literary consciousness.
Despite claims of shared banality, at the core of almost all Alaskan writing is that, even if not overtly place-based, the environment is so distinctive and insistent that any story set here could not be set elsewhere. As the title might suggest, Alaskans’ preoccupation with heat sources—literal and metaphorical—draws a thread throughout the collection. Susanna Mishler writes, “the fussy woodstove takes my / eyes from the page,” telling readers that whatever else might concern us, the physical realities of the place must be acknowledged and dealt with.
Even one of the least place-specific pieces in the anthology, Laura Carpenter’s “Mirror, Mirror,” describes its main character’s transition from a ski-racing stud to a “married (legally!),” sleep-deprived preschool shuttle driver as “trading in her Skidoo for a stroller.” It is less a specifically queer identity shift than specifically Alaskan, and these authors embrace that specificity.
In “Anchorage Epithalamium,” Alyse Knorr addresses the intersection of the landscape’s majesty and her mundane existence within it, and in a mix of awe and self-deprecation writes:
Everything is big and distorted with
the 19-hour days and the 19-hour nights,
mountains balding into summer now
as tourist traffic materializes onto streets
we first learned empty and white. All
I want: to explore the wilderness of Costco
with you in the Dimond District…
Even Alaska’s largest city, where many of the pieces are set, doesn’t always qualify to non-Alaskan readers as legitimately urban, and some of the characters give voice to this perception. In “Black Spruce,” Lucian Childs’ character David, the older half of a middle-aged gay couple recently transplanted to Anchorage from Houston, describes the city as “the middle of nowhere.” In “Going Too Far” by Mei-Mei Evans, Tierney, a young hitchhiker who arrives in Alaska during the pipeline boom, sees “Alaska’s biggest city as a disappointment.” “In short, the fabled city didn’t feel very cosmopolitan,” Evans writes about Tierney’s first impressions, which are shared by many newcomers.
Given how easily Anchorage can be dismissed as an urban center, and how, as queer theorist Judith Halberstam writes in her 2005 book A Queer Time and Place, “there has been little attention paid to . . . the specificities of rural queer lives. . . . Indeed, most queer work . . . exhibits an active disinterest in the productive potential of nonmetropolitan sexualities, genders, and identities,” it’s hard to deny the importance of Building Fires in the Snow in making visible the lives of people, real and imagined, who are often erased in the popular imagination of where and how LGBTQ people live.
Halberstam goes on to say that “rural and small-town queer life is generally mythologized by urban queers as sad and lonely, or else rural queers might be thought of as ‘stuck’ in a place that they would leave if they only could.” Halberstam recounts “confronting her own urban bias” as she developed her thinking on queer spaces, and acknowledges the erasure that occurs when we assume that queer people only live, or would only want to live, in metropolitan places (i.e., not Alaska, even Anchorage).
Poet Zack Rogow’s contribution to the anthology, “The Voice of Art Nouveau,” seems to speak to this imagined homogenization of queer life, writing
If you herd us into cities
where we’ll be shelved one
on top of the other…
and our streets will be forests of steel
Let all right angles squares and rectangles be stretched bent melted
Let us have our revenge
on the perfect straight line
Still, many of the characters and poetic subjects of Building Fires in the Snow do not allow themselves to be “herded into cities,” and find the landscapes of Alaska to be neither “essentially hostile or idyllic,” as Halberstam says they are often portrayed. Rather, the wilderness offers the creative and emotional space for characters to explore and express their desires and identities away from the constraints of the “perfect straight line.” Evans’s teenage Tierney, for example, finds herself at home among a posse of pipeline-era topless dancers who are ambivalent about the work but embrace the financial and social freedom it affords them to create their own community and explore the rivers and beaches of their chosen home. “The best part, Tierney thought,” about her hike on a trail that “snaked through spruce and birch forest, seldom running straight,” with the slightly older and very charming Trish, “was exploring a wild place with someone she was beginning to like. A lot.”
Other stories, like Childs’s “The Go-Between,” also invoke the late 70s, when outsiders flocked to Alaska for work on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and remind readers “the money and men flowing oil” between Anchorage and the North Slope included gay men; that pipeline-era history is not only one of man conquering the wild, but also of creating community in unexpected places. Similarly, Elizabeth Bradfield’s poems recount the history of polar exploration as one driven by desires not purely geographical. In “Legacy,” for Vitus Bering, she writes,
I, too, have left
for some spot unknown by those who claim me, for
place unhooked from kin and story
…the age-old lust for places
we pretend are free of consequence.
For Bren, the protagonist of Morgan Grey’s “Breakers,” Anchorage is the place free of consequence, where her “desire pulls her to the city and to women,” though she returns, closeted, to her island hometown, “each wave calling her home.” Indra Arriaga’s narrator in “Crescent” seems to find liberation in distance from Alaska, though she still seeks wildness: “The South unravels. It is far wilder than the North,” she writes, reflecting on travel and desire as she travels to New Orleans by train. “The unraveling of the South loosens my ties to Alaska. The more I lose, the more of myself I regain.”
Alaska’s landscape and seasonal cycles lend themselves to metaphors of visibility and darkness, connection and isolation, growth and decay, and the region’s sunlit nights and dark midmornings disrupt the easy binaries of a literary imagination born in lower latitudes. It’s a tough place to find a perfect straight line. The poems and stories in Building Fires in the Snow show that there is no one way to experience or to write the seeming contradictions and dichotomies of queer and Alaska life, but together create a complex map of the lives and work shaped by the place.
Header photo of aurora borealis by Jonas Ogrefoin, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Erica Watson courtesy Erica Watson.