In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Ernestine Saankaláxt Hayes

by Dec 13, 2022

Congratulations on your Pushcart nomination for your fictional story “Drowning in shallow water is our only escape” in Volume 25! What was the process like for you while writing this unique piece? 

Thank you! My writing had been thin and sporadic for a few years due to a 2018 house fire when fantastic writer Mona Susan Power asked me to submit something for her consideration for Water-Stone Review. I had been thinking that my next book would tell the story of the Spoken Forest, and an image from Blonde Indian presented itself to me as one of the men who live there. It took some struggle, but with Power’s guidance and encouragement, that character came to the page. (And during my reawakening, I was reminded of the three basic rules of my writing process: revise, revise, revise.)

I noticed that although this piece is written in prose, there is an air of poetry to it. From the title, to the opening line “One man stands on the deck of someone else’s dream,” to the closing lines “He simply watches, there in the spoken forest, waiting for the day our names are called. Waiting for the day we drown in shallow water.” Was there a particular genre or storytelling technique that you were building on as you crafted this piece? 

Thank you for such a welcome observation! I aspire to lyrical prose. I read every sentence and phrase over and over, listening for music. The placement of one word, the inclusion or absence of punctuation, the matters of diction and syntax, the question of prepositions — all are rearranged, deleted, added, and rearranged again as I try to hear music. It can’t happen with every sentence or even every paragraph, but sometimes rhythm emerges and sometimes I’m lucky enough to think I hear it.

I keep in mind the poetry of Tlingit oratory as my greatest example, yet I am well aware that I can only aspire to and never reach the sophistication and depth of meaning those old words put to voice. Gunalchéesh!

Who are the storytellers that inspire you? What do you enjoy reading?

The old stories in the Dauenhauer series Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature are a lifelong study. The Dauenhauers’ stories, introductions, and endnotes that accompany the translations, together with ancient histories in the Lingít language translated to English, inspire on many levels. I try to read other old works regularly as well, especially the Tao te Ching, although I am not a scholar of Asian studies (to my misfortune). I follow the work of favorite authors like Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, Mona Susan Power. Recently I’ve been reading more works in other genres such as from playwright Vera Starbard.

This story is a haunting, an inescapable sorrow, a story of a community suffering the effects of colonization. Each character is unique yet also universal in their pain. Did you have an audience in mind when you wrote this piece? 

Thank you. My hope is that readers who know Old Tom and Young Tom will be interested in this glimpse into their continuing stories. I am also of the hope that Water-Stone readers will indulge a writer who is new to them and perhaps become curious. But it is my greatest wish, for this story and all my stories, that all people recognize the weight that the 20th century placed upon the Indigenous people of what is now Alaska and what is now the United States, and we will go forward together into a new literary direction that acknowledges our shared path and creates our shared future.

As part of the Tlingit nation, indigenous to Alaska, what are your thoughts on the healing needed for indigenous communities? How does art and storytelling impact healing?  

Art impacts healing because it brings us together in our shared humanity. Many people, perhaps most, are well fed up with the excesses in which we now find ourselves: the end stages of patriarchy, capitalism, oligarchy, consumerism, waste, racism, classism, elitism, colonialism, all the artificial ways of being that we suffer together, regardless of ethnicity or heritage. Even a glance at Indigenous teachings reveals that Indigenous values are human values, human world views, human ways of being. We are all in this together, and we all need to tell our own stories and to heal. 

Your personal story of dropping out of high school in your youth, struggling with homelessness, and then attending college in your fifties, going on to teach and write multiple books is extremely inspiring. Where did you get your determination? Do you have any advice for writers approaching the craft later in life?

My determination came into full bloom when I resolved at the age of forty to go home or to die with my thoughts facing north. It took the better part of a year to get from San Francisco to Ketchikan, living in my car, standing in foodlines, and sleeping in shelters, and it took another two years to make it all the way back home to Juneau. I faced north and I learned resolve, and it served me in many subsequent challenges. 

However, it must be pointed out that for people born in comparable circumstances in this colonized world, being determined is just the way you make it through another day.

You are a writer that isn’t limited to one genre, you’ve written memoirs, poetry, children’s books, and fiction. How do you shift between genres? Is there a particular genre you are most comfortable writing in?  

Like most things categorized, separated, defined, and labeled by imposed standards, one simple push on the box of forced convention reveals unsteady substance. There is a difference between fact and truth. 

Our lives are the vehicles by which stories tell themselves. In my books, characters from my life appear in the fictionalized Old Tom and Young Tom threads. Old Tom, Young Tom, Delphin, White Man Jerry, and others in the fictionalized threads are based on real people. I remain true to my personal story, but that, too, is viewed through a singular lens, and even the memories we know to be true are incomplete and are enriched or diminished by emotion and purpose. It could be that all writing contains truth. It’s said that truth by its nature creates discomfort, so that probably means I’m most comfortable with fiction. 

During your writing career, you have received many honors including being named Alaska State Writer Laureate from 2017-2019 and in 2021 you received the Rasmuson Foundation Distinguished Artist Award. What do you consider your greatest achievement? 

Recognition by the Rasmuson Foundation showed me that I belong to a strong community that values me. As a child in the territory of Alaska, I was excluded by White and Native people alike in those conservative territorial days. In California I was part of various communities at different times, but all of them were temporary. 

When I went to college at the age of 50, I was focused on working and raising my grandchildren. For some time when I was teaching, I was the only person of color on the faculty. In all those scenarios, I didn’t feel that I belonged. But when Rasmuson held the event that honored me as Distinguished Artist, I realized I was part of an Alaskan community and I cried the whole time. So I would say that my greatest achievement that has to do with writing is that I am part of a large, caring Alaskan community. Gunalchéesh!

ERNESTINE SAANKALÁXT HAYES belongs to the Kaagwaantaan clan of the Tlingit nation. She is the author of two books: Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir, winner of the 2007 American Book Award, and The Tao of the Raven: An Alaska Native Memoir. She served as Alaska Writer Laureate from 2016 to 2018 and was named the Rasmuson Distinguished Artist. Her work has appeared in Studies in American Indian Literature, Yellow Medicine Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She is professor emerita of the University of Alaska Southeast and lives in Juneau, where she was born and raised.


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