Yukon Dispatches: Writing from Art in the Changing North (Part 1 of 4)

[Editor’s Note: Yukon Dispatches is a four-part Assay project by Corinna Cook and will explore place-based writing, ekphrastic nonfiction, and research as she completes a year-long Fulbright.]


I’m based for the year in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory where I’m reading and writing and generally researching full-time on a Fulbright. My end goal: an ekphrastic essay collection. I’m laying the foundation for a manuscript that looks at visual art and thinks about the multiethnic north of the present.

Some big themes drive the project. I’m attuned to the historically-rooted violences that fracture northern communities. My commitments are above all regional: the project’s scope includes the interrelated communities of Southeast Alaska, northern B.C., and southern Yukon. And alongside the region’s colonial traumas, I’m attuned to climate change and the environmental shifts that demand small, northern communities like ours work together despite our divisions. Finally, this is a project designed to applaud artists as social leaders because artwork sparks insight—intellectual understanding, philosophic grappling, political energy, spiritual lucidity—and in this region, artwork often sparks insights about the material/ethical imperatives demanding we imagine, improvise, and enact cooperative ways forward.

Granted, these themes are big. Unwieldy, even. But of course they’ve crystallized from the particularities of lived life.

Here’s one place to start. The neighborhood glacier in my hometown, Juneau, changes so quickly the ice caves at its face differ year to year. Yet it is a joy to see the genuine friendship locals feel for the Mendenhall. In the winter, when the lake is frozen and you can walk across it, all kinds of people show up in boots and puffy jackets. Young parents go with infants in backpacks, state workers bring their dogs, grandparents and elders cross the lake, and gaggles of teens bring their friend groups. Coming and going, many of us laugh at the sight of ourselves: we think we are independent eccentrics, not at all herd-like by nature. Yet here we are, all kinds of people, all doing the same thing.

IMG_3723My dad started me in a kayak at age five on this same lake. I’d sit in his lap and he’d paddle us across to the rocks where we could sit near the blue jags of the glacier’s face, listening to it crack and groan. Eventually, I took on the paddling myself, first joining two-week family camping/kayak trips, and later leading two summer-long expeditions, camping beach-to-beach in bear country for months at a time. The northern coastal rainforest—its steep terrain, its berries and deer and fish and king crab, its tides, its rain and wind—is in my cells. I have academic training from California and Fairbanks and Missouri but it’s rainforested fjord-country that made me.

Experiences of climate change introduce a complicated sorrow, here. Unpredictable salmon returns affect my uncle’s fishing and local grocery store prices, but they also echo beyond the economy well into everyone’s spirit. Low-snow seasons sometimes seem good for deer survival in the winter, but without the insulation of a winter snowpack, new plant growth suffers during a late spring freeze. And the ice caves I walked through while visiting the glacier last holiday season will be different, or gone, or somewhere else, when I visit home next holiday season.

I see all kinds of people putting their heads together, innovating and adapting. But I also feel a shared sense of loss. All kinds of people also come together for solace, for mourning, and for remembrance. In both cases, there is cooperation that probably demonstrates the best the human heart can offer.

Sharp in my mind, however, I carry memories of exclusion. Teenagers in my high school used the word “Native” as a pejorative, applying it to classmates of any ethnicity who posed behavioral problems, but not using the word for classmates who got A’s—regardless of heritage (“Native but not Native” was the code). Reading Paulo Freire opened my eyes: reflection revealed numerous ways in which my own early schooling echoed Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In hindsight I started to perceive how numerous moments—from my own life—affirmed and uplifted certain among us while simultaneously denigrating and undermining others.

I now see that while my community appears unified, as in our collective friendship with the glacier, it also harbors dark silences and a good deal of pain. So I applaud those fighting back. I am proud of changes like the Tlingit language classes now offered at the high school, out in the community, and at the university.

Yes: I am proud, genuinely, of my community’s positive changes—but it is crucial that I keep grappling with specific forms of my own complicity.

Problematically, I love stolen land.

Problematically, my access to that land, including the strength of selfhood I developed from it, is bound up in the displacement of others.

If there is a thread of tension running through my thinking and writing, it is rooted here in the necessity to wrestle with the politics in play, the ethics espoused, and the stories told about culture and biome, race and region, tradition, ambition, schism, and continuity.

Here’s how this leads to an essay project.

About climate change, I feel a complicated sorrow; for my privileges, I owe a complicated debt. In the arts, I find rich territory in which to map the contours of both. Recently, I was galvanized by Sitka artist Nicolas Galanin’s comments on his digital piece, 10 Revolutions: “culture cannot be contained as it unfolds. I am inspired by generations of Tlingit and Unangax creativity and contribute to this wealthy conversation with active curiosity.” Galanin was one of many accomplished artists featured in the “Decolonizing Alaska” art exhibit curated by Asia Freeman. Simply put, I saw a whole assemblage of artworks and thought: that’s who I want to be talking to. That’s the community, that’s the conversation.

Ekphrastic writing (that is, writing that dialogues with art) is established and widely recognized in poetry. But nonfiction is no stranger to ekphrasis, either—in fact, with Jericho Parms’ Lost Wax, Michael White’s Travels in Vermeer, and José Orduña’s The Weight of Shadows (among many others), the present literary nonfiction moment is seeing an upsurge in writing that thinks alongside art. Further reflections on this trend—and how it can inform nonfiction practice and pedagogy—appear in my blog post about teaching ekphrasis in Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay, a course I recently taught at the University of Missouri.


But in my own work: I’m pretty new to this. I’ve been writing from the Yukon for not quite two months now, I’m experimenting with ekphrasis as process versus ekphrasis as form, and I’m focusing on flash pieces that allow me to move experimentally through a variety of materials and approaches. Soon enough, I’ll commit to a cluster of topics for deep research and longer-form writing. So keep your eye out for my January dispatch: in it, I’ll buckle down to examine the research and writing process behind a single Yukon-based essay.



Intrigued by an element of this dispatch?
Here’s what I recommend for further reading:

Indigenous Healing: Exploring Traditional Paths by Rupert Ross, 2014: an approachable, detailed introduction to the colonial and patriarchal trauma we share across the Americas. Chapter titles include “Seeing Justice Relationally,” “The Many Sources of Harm,” and “Aboriginal Healing: Twelve Striking Differences.”

My Conversations With Canadians by Lee Maracle, 2017: an essay collection by an indigenous poet and essayist from the Sto:lo Nation. The essays grapple with, and expand on, questions and topics that mark Maracle’s lifelong interaction with institutions and individuals making up the Canadian settler state.

The Weight of Shadows by José Orduña, 2016: an essay collection (marketed as memoir) containing recurrent and significant ekphrastic passages. I choose this particular example of contemporary ekphrastic nonfiction to recommend not because the text prioritizes art (it doesn’t), but because dialoguing with art is one of the key methods Orduña uses in a project based foremost in community accountability, social responsibility, and ethics.

Corinna Cook is a lifelong Alaskan currently based in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, where Fulbright Canada supports her writing on art, ecology, and living with colonial history. She holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri and is a recipient of the Ak State Council on the Arts and the Ak Arts and Culture Foundation’s 2018 Literary Award. Corinna’s essays appear here and there, including Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, the Ak Quarterly Review, and the Ocean State Review.


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