A View from the Edge–Portland Author Mark Pomeroy’s New Novel: THE TIGERS OF LENTS

Portland author Mark Pomeroy’s meticulous new novel, The Tigers of Lents, begins with the “noise of speeding vehicles” cascading down from the freeway that cuts an outer Portland neighborhood in half. The rushing cars are, quite literally, bypassing an area where hopes are few and houses are “mostly on the ratty side.”

The character hearing the noise is 17-year-old Sara Garrison, the oldest of four children in a family where the mother is a retail clerk who drinks too much and the father is in prison. Sara is a soccer star at the local high school, but the season is almost over, her school is scheduled to be closed, and on this drizzly night she’s carrying bags filled with her family’s garbage, hoping to sneak them into a dumpster behind an apartment house.

With her mission accomplished, Sara returns to her family’s one-story rental with her stomach tense at the thought of the dysfunction inside. “This is where she lives,” Pomeroy writes. “It’s true.” In other words, this is her hard reality, and, unless something changes, her future will probably look much like her present—without the sports or the cheers or the education.

Starting from this bleak yet tenderly-rendered opening scene, Pomeroy slowly builds a full and compelling picture of a struggling family in crisis, where every member has difficulties to face without much hope of help from the others. But while his book is mainly about the Garrisons’ problems, fears, and modest hopes, it’s also about a place and a segment of society that have been tragically neglected.

Pomeroy has written elsewhere about what he calls the edge of poverty in America, where people might have jobs and homes but are never more than “one emergency away from real struggle.” Not only did he experience this kind of life as a boy but he taught for a while in the high school and neighborhood depicted in his novel.

Over the course of The Tigers of Lents, Pomeroy gives us the point of view of everyone in the Garrison family, except the youngest child, a boy who suffers neglect from those who should be taking care of him. There’s Rachel, the smart one, who leaves home to live with her reckless boyfriend; Elaine, the responsible one, who overeats and tries to keep the peace; Melanie, the mother, who soothes her aches from standing all day with glasses of ice-filled wine; and Keith, the father, who exits his prison cell wary of a world that has passed him by.

Image courtesy of Living Room Realty.

As he carefully weaves these perspectives and lives together, Pomeroy offers moments of modest hope: a chance that Sara might play at a local college, a possible reconnection between Keith and one or more of his daughters, the potentially healing properties of the wooded mountainside the children’s grandparents live on. But he never allows those hopes to seem false. Always, at every moment, everything is grounded in the gritty reality of a neighborhood and stratum of life that tend to suck the dreams and confidence out of people.

One of Pomeroy’s most impressive accomplishments is how well he renders the fluctuations of thought and emotion in dangerously vulnerable people, especially girls. Instead of making excuses for them or wasting time blaming society, he teases out nuances in the psychological and emotional struggles of people living at society’s margins.

Shopping street in Lents neighborhood, Portland, OR. Image courtesy of Living Room Realty.

In the end, The Tigers of Lents is a deeply satisfying read, but not because Pomeroy coddles his readers or gives his characters easy outs. It’s because he takes us through both hard situations and difficult emotions while being careful to show the importance of human relations and the ability, at even the direst moments, to make the right decisions and find a way forward.

Few novels explore the hard reality lived by Pomeroy’s characters and an increasing number of people of all colors and backgrounds in the United States today. Even fewer authors are able to do so with the skill, compassion, and attention to detail Pomeroy displays here.


Thursday, May 9 at 7 p.m.–Mark Pomeroy Reading and Discussion (with Michael N. McGregor) at Third Place Books–Ravenna in Seattle, WA

Tuesday, June 18 at 7 p.m.–Mark Pomeroy Reading & Discussion (with Mary Rechner) at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR.


Mark Pomeroy website

Pomeroy’s excellent first novel, The Brightwood Stillness (Oregon State University Press)

The Crash of Worlds,” Pomeroy article on the NW Booklovers website, about his background and the inspiration for his novel

The Lents neighborhood on Living Room Realty

Airlie Press Presents a Mosaic of Pacific Northwest Perspectives in Poetry

photo by Michael N. McGregor

“Not much to spend here but time,” writes Connie Soper in her poem “January,” about a small town on the Oregon Coast where “Gray whales have migrated south” and “Winter sun unlocks a softer light/over scrubs of seagrass and low dunes, over/the long sleeve of shore.”

photo by Michael N. McGregor

“Cold whispers its name/at night in the coyote’s call,” writes Amelia Díaz Ettinger in “Día de los Muertos” before reflecting on her Mexican ancestors in her adopted Eastern Oregon:

Their forlorn silence tastes
of mold, incense, and marigolds
There are no altars this far north,
no carpets of yellow petals to lead the way.
Could they find their way?

Each in her own way, Soper and Ettinger and the other poets whose books are published by Portland-based Airlie Press evoke the sights and sounds, moods and reflections to be found and experienced in the Pacific Northwest. What gives their evocations particular resonance and authenticity is that they all live in the region. They all breathe the air and walk the ground that informs their vision.

While the themes in their poems are those of poems from anywhere–childhood and death, art and language, nature walks and nostalgia–they are embedded in the specific soil and air, fog and lichen of their Northwest home.

When Soper writes of a tree, it is a “shore pine” that is:

done in by the fury
of winter as I listened to wind that gusted
heaving waves over the Pacific.
All night that sea-power
shuddered and thumped. The tree
did not surrender

When Ettinger looks at a man she loves in the hospital, she sees how his Oregon childhood shaped him:

The operating theater saw an aging man.
A damaged heart.
But you had been a boy
running amuck in the high desert.
Climbing Jefferson
racing your Jeep,
leaving tire tracks on ancient lava.

Although many of the poems from these poets are rooted in places not far from each other, the differences in their subject matter and approaches reflect the wide variety of landscapes, perspectives, and backgrounds in the Northwest. There’s sea vs. desert but also concrete vs. abstract, external vs. internal, local-born vs. immigrant.

In “DIgging for France” Soper writes concretely of her father encouraging her as a child to try to dig a hole through the Oregon sand to the other side of the Earth. In “Drowning in a Foreign Tongue” Ettinger writes more abstractly of “the force of Anglican consonants/ that weighs the tongue like foam/inarticulate.”

What makes a press like Airlie so valuable is the meaningful mosaic it presents of the local people and land. While Soper writes of painting an old barn, finding driftwood art in an estate sale, and watching high tides, Ettinger gives us an Ethiopian child watching a lunar eclipse, a Cambodian manicurist, and a cowgirl lamenting that no one wears fedoras anymore.

The more diverse the Northwest grows, the more we need the variety of perspectives publishers like Airlie provide.

All poems in this post are from A Story Interrupted by Connie Soper and Learning to Love a Western Sky by Amelia Díaz Ettinger. In both collections, poems about places beyond the Northwest help to sharpen the vision they present of the local region. Both are published by Airlie Press.

Airlie Press is a nonprofit publisher run by writers and dedicated to promoting exceptional poets and poetry from the Pacific Northwest. Founded in 2007, it has a rotating staff of six poets who serve three-year terms, during which they handle all editorial and production tasks.

“Our process,” says their website, “involves the submission of a full-length manuscript of poetry during an annual open submission period and an interview for our finalists with current press members. Of the submissions we receive, we evaluate manuscripts thoroughly and select the promising work by authors willing to collaborate with our consensus-based group.” The poets selected become the new staff and the press publishes the manuscripts they submitted.

Attention, Northwest poets: Airlie Press’s reading period is happening this month! You have until July 31 to submit your manuscript! Here’s the submission page with details.

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For more about Arlie Press and its books, including instructions for submitting to them, buying individual titles, or supporting their work, click here to visit their website.

For more about Connie Soper and A Story interrupted, click here.

And for more about Amelia Díaz Ettinger and Learning to Love a Western Sky, click here.

Note: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org, where purchases support local bookstores. If you buy a book through a click on this website, I will earn a small commission that helps defray the costs of maintaining WritingtheNorthwest.com.

Was Tacoma an Inspiration for Dashiell Hammett’s Noir World?

Dashiell Hammett (image from Wikipedia)

If Dashiell Hammett, the man who invented the modern American detective novel, is associated with any city, it’s usually San Francisco, where he wrote most of his best-known works, including his breakout 1930 novel, The Maltese Falcon. But it may have been a brief stay in a Tacoma hospital that turned him into the writer he became.

Having grown up poor, Hammett was forced to work from the time he was a teenager. Eventually, he hooked up with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. His years in that line of work are generally considered the source of his street knowledge and private eye’s view. But it was his time being treated for tuberculosis in Tacoma in 1921 that wound up being the turning point in his life.

Tacoma in the early days of the 20th C.

Not only did Hammett meet his future wife, Josephine (Jose) Dolan, during that hospital stay but also a character he called Whitey in his late, unfinished novel Tulip.

Whitey, he writes, was “a powerfully built squat blond Alaskan with most of the diseases known to man; he could hit like a pile driver, but his knucklebones would crumble like soda crackers.” The muscular Alaskan, Hammett notes, would borrow a blackjack from him and give it back the next morning “with ten bucks.”

According to biographer Diane Johnson, “the wild Whitey fascinated Hammett.” Coinciding with Hammett’s realization, at 27, that he might well die without having done “what he knew he could do,” their time together convinced him that “you could fight death or at least not lie down before it. You could live your life and keep on your feet, and in particular drink whiskey.” Which is a pretty good description of how Sam Spade sees life.

Whitey’s hard-boiled approach is summed up in an anecdote Hammett tells in Tulip: “I read in the afternoon paper about a man being slugged and robbed of a hundred and eighty dollars on the Puyallup Road–it ran from Tacoma to Seattle–the night before. I showed it to Whitey, who said people who were robbed always exaggerated the amounts.”

Within a year of leaving the Tacoma hospital and marrying Jose in San Francisco in July 1921, Hammett had published the first of the stories and then novels that would move literary sleuths beyond the cerebral passivity of Sherlock Holmes.

From the start, Hammet’s work has been praised for its gritty realism. His time with Pinkerton certainly played a role in that. But it just might have been those days of thinking about death while palling around with a bruiser named Whitey that gave the future crime-novel king a sense of life at its grittiest level.

(In another NW connection, Joel Cairo, the man who hires Spade to recover the statue in The Maltese Falcon, is supposedly based on someone Hammett arrested for forgery in Pasco, Washington, in 1920. Peter Lorre plays Cairo in John Huston’s 1941 film version.)

Note: A big thank you to historian Michael Sullivan for alerting me to Hammett’s time in Tacoma and his writings about it in Tulip. Be sure to visit Michael’s fascinating website, “Tacoma History,” with stories, links, and videos related to Tacoma’s past.

A few more links:

“How Dashiell Hammett Invented the Modern Crime Novel”Pursuit Magazine

“Dashiell Hammett: Detective, Writer”–PBS “American Masters” series

“Tough Guy: The Mystery of Dashiell Hammett”The New Yorker

“The Five Great Novels of Dashiell Hammett”–CrimeReads

I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org, where purchases support local bookstores. If you buy a book through a click on this website, I will earn a small commission that helps defray the costs of maintaining WritingtheNorthwest.com.

Three Questions and A Quote: Novelist and Nonfiction Writer Mitchell S. Jackson

Mitchell S. Jackson, award-winning novelist, journalist, and nonfiction writer

Mitchell S. Jackson has become a force in U. S. literature and journalism, as well as an outspoken advocate for, and critic of, his hometown of Portland, Oregon. His evocations of Portland’s Black community life, in both fiction and nonfiction, have garnered national attention and numerous awards. In recent years, he has become a major figure in magazine writing, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Magazine Award for his profile of Ahmaud Arbery in Runner’s World and, more recently, profiling other important Black figures and writing about vital national issues as a columnist for Esquire.

For a full bio, see below.

Mitchell S. Jackson

WNW: What aspect of the Northwest do you feel hasn’t been adequately addressed in writing yet?

MSJ: Good question. I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that question, but for me, I love writing about the Black experience in Oregon. It was something I didn’t read about growing up. I’m interested in recording the history of Black people. In revealing or reifying the value of our experiences. I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that much of the writing about Oregon reflects its demographics, which are overwhelmingly white. We need voices that aren’t represented in the area in great numbers. We need stories about groups that get pushed to the margins, silenced, forgotten. Not just Black people but any group that fits that description. I’m interested in pushing against the master narratives.

Martin Luther King Jr. mural in N. Portland, image from The Guardian

WNW: How would you characterize your approach to the Northwest in your own writing?

MSJ: At least ostensibly, my writing is narrow in scope. Mostly, I’ve written about Portland. Not Oregon at large. Not the Northwest. And to be more specific, I’ve mostly written about the Black community in Portland. That said, I believe in that microcosm I am able to write about things that are universal or at least not limited to Black people in Portland. We aren’t the only ones who’ve faced housing discrimination. Aren’t the only ones who’ve had to deal with a problem of youth violence. We aren’t the only ones whose community has been wracked by mass incarceration. We aren’t the only ones who created culture out of our oppression.

WNW: What is your favorite book about the Northwest and why do you like it?

MSJ: My favorite book about the Northwest is Fight Club. I love what Chuck [Palahniuk] does with voice. Love how he captures the anxiety of a generation, captures men’s fascination with violence. I love love love those Tyler Durden monologues. And then there’s the surprise at the end, which testifies to how well it’s plotted. That book is so good. So, so good. And the fact that he wrote that book while in Tom Spanbauer’s Portland-area workshop makes it more special to me. That book is a tie with Jesus’ Son. Among other strengths, the poetry of that book’s prose is unrivaled. I read it every year or so just to be reminded of what prose can do. That book is magic.

WNW: What is one of your favorite passages about the Northwest from your own writing?

MSJ: It’s the opening of Survival Math. It’s written as a letter to Marcus Lopius, the first Black man on record to step foot in what became the state of Oregon. Writing that essay pushed me to research more of my home state’s history, and let me tell you, it was revelatory. Something else: I can’t talk about that essay without mentioning Dr. Darrell Miller of Portland State (Go Vikings!) to whom I’m indebted for making me aware of Lopius and other important elements of Oregon’s history. In the essay, which is titled “Dear Marcus,” there’s a point at which I write about the beginning of whatever significant Black population Portland has:

“Scores of us can trace our roots in this city, the Rose City, to the 1940s, when one of our kinfolk from down South peeped a Help Wanted ad in their hometown paper, packed their life into bags and-or suitcases, and caught boxcars called the Magic Carpet Special or the Kaiser Caravan into Portland for a chance to build a new life working in one of Henry Kaiser’s shipyards. Those relatives locomoted into the City of Roses and found a hovel or shacked up with friends or relatives or in some cases slept on the pool table of a tavern and washed their private parts in a squalid bathroom. Or else moved to a slapdash development dubbed Kaiserville and renamed Vanport City. No matter the shelter they found, they could feel gratified building Liberty ships that would help the Allies beat the Nazis while clocking more dough for work than they ever did where they came from.”

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Mitchell S. Jackson is the winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing and the 2021 National Magazine Award in Feature Writing. Jackson’s debut novel The Residue Years won a Whiting Award and The Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence. His essay collection Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family was named a best book of 2019 by fifteen publications. Jackson’s other honors include fellowships, grants, and awards from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Creative Capital, the Cullman Center of the NYPL, the Lannan Foundation, PEN, and TED. His writing has been featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book ReviewTime, and Esquire, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Paris Review, The Guardian, and elsewhere. Jackson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Esquire. He holds the John O. Whiteman Dean’s Distinguished Professorship in the English Department of Arizona State University.

More links:

Mitchell S. Jackson website

Pulitzer Prize webpage about Mitchell S. Jackson’s award

Review of The Residue Years in The Guardian

Review of Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family on the NPR website

Note: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org, where your purchases support local bookstores. If you purchase a book through a click on this website, I will earn a small commission that helps defray the costs of maintaining WritingtheNorthwest.com.

Book Review: We Had Our Reasons: Poems by Ricardo Ruiz

I never know where or how I’m going to come across good writing about the Pacific Northwest. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I was walking through the book fair at the Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle when I found myself in conversation with a young man who had just published his first book of poetry, titled We Had Our Reasons. I asked him to tell me about it and liked both his subject–the lives of migrant workers–and his demeanor, so I bought a copy.

Poet Ricardo Ruiz

It was only when the writer, Ricardo Ruiz, had signed the book that I noticed the workers he wrote about lived in Eastern Washington. He had already told me his book was really a collaborative effort. He had interviewed workers of Mexican descent and fashioned poetry in different forms and voices from what they told him. Some were legal immigrants, some were undocumented, some had been born in the United States, and one was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.

It wasn’t until I was on the bus home and read the first few pages that I realized what a treasure his book is. In verse that has the accessibility of a Billy Collins or Mary Oliver but channels a very different world, Ruiz presents the struggles, hopes, and sometimes dangerous experiences of a group of people for whom the United States is both tentative home and too-often-tarnished dream.

His book is divided into sections that represent the different parts of the migrant worker experience: The Arrival, The Fields, Deportation, and Joining One Gang or Another. An introduction of sorts shares the book’s title, We Had Our Reasons, and the book ends with a final section called Collaborative Poets, in which Ruiz tells us about the lives of the people he interviewed, as well as his own, and includes fragments of his interviews with them.

Here’s a poem from the Arrival section called “Silent Crossing, Sleeping to the Other Side,” in the voice of a mother thinking about her young son:

you slept for two days
over-drugged by the coyote

I gathered all the sounds
you should have made

placing them inside the leather bag
upon my shoulder

when my steps strained
I opened the satchel and listened

                                   each night

I held your sounds
and know your future's here

And here’s one from the Deportation section titled “Can’t Trust Them”:

My dad traveled to Detroit in 1924
To answer this nation's call:
Leaving Monterrey, Mexico to work on
The railroad. His labor was needed
Until it wasn't. Forced out, fired
Because his job was given to
A white man in 1930. Repatriated

Again, the US came calling Mexican men.
To help the war fight, he returned.
He knew the job, he knew the railroad.
The war ended, yet he wasn't allowed to go home:
Locked up in Union Gap for answering
The call. Interned with 150 others
For being brown.

He walked home to Mexico,
his one true home,
Vowing never to return.
I told my dad I'm going north.
He sipped on his café con leche.
He didn't stop me;
He closed his eyes y me dio la bendición,

With the warning,
Don't ever trust America.

Other poems talk about being taped into a sleeping bag and stored for transport “like a gray balloon…where the trucker kept the chains,” or a mother serving “foil burritos still warm in the dented green Thermos” out in the fields “on our own Bring-Your-Kids-to-Work Day.” One poem ends with these simple words:

In court, a judge filled in the form:


STATUS:   Immediate Deportation

AGE:           9

What Ruiz has given us is a portrait of an entire community that is generally overlooked and, if noticed, depersonalized or demonized. Yet here, in evocative writing, are the yearnings, the family connections, and the terribly hard work–in apple orchards, blueberry fields, potato factories–of people who dream and make mistakes, who love and live in fear of those who have power over them, merely because of their skin color.

We Had Our Reasons is published by the little-known Pulley Press, an imprint of Clyde Hill Publishing in Seattle and Washington, D. C. Buy this book (at only $18) and let it open your eyes and your heart to the hard but meaningful lives of the people in it. In doing so, you’ll expand your vision of what America is and at the same time help a promising young poet.

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Ricardo Ruiz is a multi-dimensional writer of poetry and prose. The son of potato factory workers, Ricardo hails from Othello, Washington. His work draws from his experience as a first-generation Mexican-American, and from his military service. Ricardo holds an Associate Degree in Business and Accounting from Big Bend Community College, where he was recognized as Student of the Year in both Business and Economics, and English Composition. He also holds a Bachelor of Art in Creative Writing from the University of Washington. While in the military, Ricardo earned the rank of Staff Sergeant while serving on four deployments, two to Afghanistan. He is passionate about elevating marginalized voices from rural communities and takes pride in being a conduit for cultural connection.

Note: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org, where your purchases support local bookstores. If you buy a book through a click on this website, I will earn a small commission that helps defray the costs of maintaining WritingtheNorthwest.com.

The Northwest’s 1st Black Theater Company–and the Fascinating Story of the Woman Who Started it

Recently, I came across a fascinating but little-known book that should be read by anyone interested in race relations, theater, or Red Scare accusations in the Pacific Northwest. Titled Fists Upon a Star: A Memoir of Love, Theatre, and Escape from McCarthyism, it tells the story of Florence B. James and her husband Burton James, who were pioneers and innovators in Seattle theater, including assembling the first all-Black company in the NW.

Although Florence James completed the book (with help from Canadian actress Jean Freeman) before her death in 1988, it wasn’t published until 25 years later. And when it was, it received little notice in the Northwest or in the U. S. in general, probably because its author was long dead and its publisher was the University of Regina Press in Canada, the country James fled to after being persecuted for the theater she dared to put on an American stage.

Florence and Burton started out in New York City but moved to Seattle in 1923 to take teaching jobs at Cornish College, the celebrated arts school that was still in its first decade then. Not content to be teachers only, they wanted to stage the kinds of cutting-edge and socially relevant plays they were most interested in. But when they tried to mount a production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, the Cornish board of directors refused to sanction “a supposedly ‘immoral’ play.”

Local theater leaders came to their defense but the board wouldn’t budge, so the Jameses resigned and started a company of their own, the Seattle Repertory Playhouse. When one of their defenders, Glenn Hughes, took over the University of Washington drama department, he hired them to teach there, and soon they were drawing increasingly larger audiences to an aging brick building near campus they’d converted into a theater.

Every part of the Jameses’ story is fascinating, including the accusations brought against them in 1948 of being communists, when they were forced to appear before Washington State’s newly formed Joint Legislative Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities (a forerunner of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s circus at the federal level). But the part I find most fascinating is their establishment of Seattle’s Negro Repertory Company in 1935.

As Florence tells the story, the Seattle Repertory Playhouse was flying high when, in 1932, in its fifth season, patrons who had purchased season tickets in earlier years sent notes saying they couldn’t afford them anymore. With the Depression hitting the Northwest hard, it looked as if their once-thriving venture would have to fold.

“We were out of oil and the electricity had been cut off for nonpayment of bills,” Florence writes. They burned odd bits of wood for heat, made a deal with power company, and “went on rehearsing, paying something here and something there” when they could. Through “a series of timely miracles,” as one of their players wrote in the company log, they were able to hold out until, in early 1935, they learned that one of the Roosevelt administration’s newly created agencies, the Works Progress Administration, had a program called the Federal Theatre Project, intended to employ out-of-work artists.

“When we discovered that this was not to be a ‘pork barrel’ for Broadway and Hollywood,” Florence writes, “we prepared a brief for what we decided to call a Negro Repertory Company.” When their project was accepted, their first production was of a play called Noah, translated from French.

A scene from the NRC’s 1936 production of Stevedore by Paul Peters and Sklar, image from the University of Washington’s “Negro Repertory Theatre” webpage

“We used Black music and introduced Black dancing to express the jubilation of Noah and his family when the flood recedes,” Florence writes. “Reviewers expressed amazement at the talent of people ‘taken from the scrap-heap of unemployment.'” She goes on to quote a reviewer from the Seattle Star who wrote: “This all-Negro cast put on a performance so rich, so full of promise, it was tragic in its implications. Tragic because these people who have so much to contribute have so long been wasted.”

For too brief a time, Black theater flourished on a Seattle stage in the depths of hard times, with all-Black shows playing to full houses night after night. The cast members were all amateurs, drawn mostly from Seattle’s First African Methodist Church, their talent, as the Star reviewer wrote, too long wasted.

When the group discovered that there were few good plays for Black actors, they began writing their own, but it was their production of a 2,000-year-old play, Lysistrata, that brought them the most attention. Called “indecent and bawdy,” their version of Aristophanes’ comedy was closed down “in the interest of the Federal Theatre Project.” The Negro Repertory Company continued to exist until Federal Theatre Project funding ended in 1939, but by then the Jameses had moved on.

Advertising poster for the NRC’s 1937 production, image from Historylink.org

Once the members of the Negro Repertory Company had gained production skills, Florence tells us, they began to help with White productions. “They came over willingly, joyfully, and everybody worked together. Whites taking orders from Black stage managers and technicians. Blacks working amicably with Whites–no Black power, no White power, no tensions, no frictions anywhere, just people joined in the effort of doing a job and doing it well.

“The experience of discovering talents among people who had been doing dull, mundane jobs was a constant source of joy to us. To see the colossal waste of such human resources, the most valuable assets to any country, and to realize what could have been accomplished and what this accomplishment could have meant was staggering.”

Decades passed before Seattle audiences saw a revival of Black theater. But just this year, the city’s ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) premiered a play by Seattle playwright Reginald André Jackson that explores the neglected history of Black theater. Titled History of Theatre: About, By, For, and Near, the show’s protagonist, a playwright seeking to write a new play about the history of Black theater, goes back in time and asks the members of the Negro Repertory Company for help.

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(Click here to read Sarah Guthu’s excellent summary of the Negro Repertory Company’s history on the University of Washington’s “The Great Depression in Washington State” website. It includes illustrated histories of the group’s Lysistrata and two other productions. And click here to read Guthu’s equally fine writing about the Jameses and their Seattle Repertory Playhouse, from which some of the facts in this post are drawn.)

Other links:

Negro Repertory Theatre by Paula Becker, an in-depth History Link look at the NRC, its productions, and its national associations

Fists Upon a Star: A Memoir of Love, Theatre, and Escape from McCarthyism by Florence B. James–read an excerpt and/or order directly from the University of Regina Press ($27.95 CDN, paperback, 360 pages)

Publisher’s Weekly review of Fists Upon a Star

America’s Midnight in the Pacific Northwest

Adam Hochschild is not known for writing light books, nor is he known for writing about the Pacific Northwest. His best-known book is probably King Leopold’s Ghost (1998), an unrelenting exploration of the brutality, exploitation and outright slavery Belgian overlords used to extract rubber from what was then called the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

That’s about as far from Washington, Oregon and Idaho as you can get.

But Hochschild’s new book, American Midnight, is set in the United States, in the years 1917-1921, when America’s entry into World War I set off some of the most brutal and repressive government and vigilante actions in this country’s history. And it contains numerous examples of courage and hope, many from the Northwest.

President Woodrow Wilson, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Subtitling his book “The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis,” Hochschild explores the ways Woodrow Wilson’s administration and the country’s reactionary elements used the war to go after anyone who didn’t support their jingoist enterprise or the corporate entities and plutocrats who made money off it.

The resulting terror–aimed at Socialists, labor leaders, peace advocates, conscientious objectors, and, most brutally, African Americans–brought democracy to its knees. But a number of brave advocates for the common people resisted the violent coercion, often at the cost of their livelihoods, their health and even their lives.

Any Northwesterner who believes in progressive politics–including the advancement of worker rights, a woman’s right to control of her own body, fair taxation, alleviation of poverty, and even the basic right of freedom from arbitrary search and seizure–will find plenty in Hochschild’s book to feel proud of.

Marie Equi, MD, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There’s Marie Equi, for example, a Portland physician and suffragist, who was in a same-sex relationship at a time when that was far more dangerous than it is today. A brash woman with a fiery temper, Equi “ignored the law that outlawed distributing birth control devices and information, and defied both the government and the American Medical Association by performing abortions,” treating poor women for free.

Once, to avoid arrest for speaking out against the war, Equi “borrowed the crampons of a telephone company lineman, and used them to climb high up a pole. From there, she unfurled a banner reading DOWN WITH THE IMPERIALIST WAR.”

There are also the leaders of the Seattle General Strike, which, in 1919 shut down an entire city for the first time in American history, but did so in an orderly way that avoided bloodshed and undue hardship for most citizens.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

And there’s the International Workers of the World labor union, which was particularly strong in the Northwest. The Wobblies, as they were called, were singled out again and again for the harshest treatment. The union suffered destruction of its property, arrest of its members, and sometimes death at the hands of those who thought it a haven for foreign-controlled socialism (including members of the American Legion).

At a time when almost 15% of Americans were foreign-born, much of harshest treatment was meted out to immigrants, who had flooded into the Northwest in those days to work in the timber, mining, and fishing industries.

To be fair, the Northwest had its share of villains too. One of the worst, in Hochschild’s estimation, was a Congressman from the coastal timber country in Washington State named Albert Johnson, who sat on the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization and was vicious in his denunciation and harassment of immigrants.

Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson in 1919, the year of the Seattle General Strike, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Another was Ole Hanson, Seattle’s mayor at the time of the General Strike, who blamed not only the strike but everything he thought wrong with America on Socialist and Communists. Hanson went on lucrative speaking tours around the country, spewing his hatred to all who would listen, and even ran for President with anti-immigrant and anti-socialism as his platform.

According to Hochschild, vociferous denunciation of the Seattle strikers as advocates for the “anarchy of Russia” and enemies of law and order “launched Hanson as perhaps the first member of an occupation that would prove lucrative for other twentieth-century Americans: professional anti-Communist.”

American Midnight is primarily about a country in a life-or-death crisis, its democracy threatened by warmongering, government oppression, hunger for profits, vigilante “justice,” white supremacy, and a misguided defense of some supposed American Way of Life.

Sprinkled throughout it, however, you’ll find ample evidence of a previously neglected part of the country coming into its own and lending its voice, for better or worse, to the national conversation: the Pacific Northwest.

Other links:

Video: Oregon Public Broadcasting “Oregon Experience” profile of Marie Equi (3:40)

Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions by Michael Helquist, OSU Press

Video: “The Wobblies” (1:43)

International Workers of the World (Wobblies)–IWW History Project, University of Washington

Seattle General Strike Project, with video introduction (3:47), University of Washington

Woodrow Wilson and Race (& Immigration), President Wilson House

U. S. Participation in the Great War (World War I),” Library of Congress

Washington State Congressman Albert Johnson

Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson, Historylink.org

Note: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org, where your purchases support local bookstores. If you purchase a book through a click on this website, I will earn a small commission that helps defray the costs of maintaining WritingtheNorthwest.com.

Three Questions and a Quote: Novelist and Screenwriter Jon Raymond

Northwest author and screenwriter Jon Raymond

After a brief break over the holidays, Writing the Northwest is back, and I’m pleased to start the new year with a new feature and one of my favorite Northwest writers, Jon Raymond. Raymond is the author of an award-winning story collection, an essay collection, and four novels, including Denial (2022), a finalist for this year’s Oregon Book Award in Fiction. He has also coauthored several films, including the HBO mini-series “Mildred Pierce” and the remarkable “First Cow.” Most of his work is set in the Northwest. See below for a full bio and links to his books and films.

Three Questions and a Quote is a new, occasional feature focused on the thoughts and work of prominent Northwest writers.

Jon Raymond

WNW: What aspect of the Northwest do you feel hasn’t been adequately addressed in writing (or film) yet?

Aerial shot of Hanford’s 100-D Area along the Columbia River (Image courtesy of Hanford.gov)

JR: Well, I don’t entirely want to let this one out of the bag because I hope someday to get there myself, but I think the life of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is something worth addressing in fiction. The people and culture of Richland, Washington—the scene of American’s Cold War plutonium production—could be turned into a gigantic story of secrecy, intrigue, little league baseball, PTA politics, etc., etc. I have some ideas, though the atomic science part is very intimidating. In general, the high plains desert of the NW is pretty under-imagined. 

WNW: How would you characterize your approach to the Northwest in your own writing?

JR: I’ve always thought of my approach, if you could call it that, as a kind of earth art. I’ve mentally roved around the region and tried to divine what kind of stories would be appropriate to different landscapes. It’s partly a geological thing, but also socio-historical. What kind of story turns the scene of Ashland inside out? What kind of story could only happen in La Grande? I’ve really been guided by this dowsing method to the point where I’ve started to exhaust the main reservoirs, I think. 

WNW: What is your favorite book (or film) about the Northwest and why do you like it?

Atop Seattle’s Space Needle (scene from Parallax View, directed by Alan J. Pakula and starring Warren Beaty)

JR: I’ve heard Charlie D’Ambrosio call Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion the Odyssey of Northwest fiction, and I’d totally agree with that. Charlie’s books aren’t too shabby, either. I also love The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin, which captures a very different but also very Northwestern mood. “Mala Noche,” the film by Gus Van Sant, based on the story by Walt Curtis, is pure poetry. And then, as far as catching the subtleties of Northwestern light, I’d put the “Parallax View,” shot by the great Gordon Willis, way up top.

WNW: What is one of your favorite passages about the Northwest from your own writing?

I don’t think I could answer that. None come to mind, anyway. There might be some passages early in The Half-Life, my first book, that name certain impressions that’ve stuck with me. I sometimes feel myself repeating them and I have to find other ways to get the feelings across. 

Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger, courtesy of Pexels.com

(Since Jon has demurred here, let me offer a brief passage from one of his Northwest-set novels, Rain Dragon, to give you a sense of his sharp and lovely prose: “Off in the distance, a fir-covered ridge was resolving into view, mist caught in the black trees like torn cotton. The fog kept thinning. In the still-dark basin of a valley, a river of headlights became visible. The highway.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Jon Raymond is the author of the novels The Half-Life, Rain DragonFreebird, and Denial, and the story collection Livability, winner of the Oregon Book Award. He also published a collection of essays called The Community: Writings About Art In and Around Portland, 1997 – 2016. His screenwriting credits include Old JoyWendy and LucyMeek’s Cutoff, Night MovesFirst Cow, and Showing Up, as well as the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. He was the editor of Plazm Magazine, associate and contributing editor at Tin House magazine, and served on the Board of Directors at Literary Arts. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his partner, the writer Emily Chenoweth, and their kids, Eliza and Josephine.

More links:

Newsweek review of Jon Raymond’s new book, Denial (“[A]n enthralling new novel that reimagines the current climate crisis and questions the moral obligation that humans have to each other in a future dog-eat-dog world.”

2023 Oregon Book Award finalists

Trailer for “First Cow” (“A wondrous origin story of the American dream.”–Indiewire)

Kelly Reichardt (director and co-writer with Raymond of several films, including “First Cow”)

Note: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org, where your purchases support local bookstores. If you purchase a book through a click on this website, I will earn a small commission that helps defray the costs of maintaining WritingtheNorthwest.com.

Set in Seattle: John Okada’s NO-NO BOY a Must-Read on the Agonies of American Immigration and Assimilation

Image from the Zinn Education Project

by Michael N. McGregor

When Americans talk about immigration, they tend to have one of two groups in mind: either the crowds of Latin American refugees massing along our southern border today or the waves of Europeans who swept into the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Almost entirely forgotten are the Asian immigrants who settled mostly along the West Coast at roughly the same time Europeans were flooding in. Among them, the Chinese suffered the worst early experiences, subjected as they were to humiliations and killings and legislated exclusion from the country. But it was the Japanese, both foreign- and domestic-born, who, in 1942, at the direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, became the only Americans (other than enslaved Blacks) ever rounded up and incarcerated solely because of their ethnicity.

The basic story of Executive Order 9066–by which people of Japanese ancestry (whether American citizens or not) were deprived of their civil rights and forced to leave their homes, businesses, and farms to live in internment camps in desolate areas–is well-known today. Children often learn about it in school. What isn’t generally known or taught, however, is the devastating effect the internment experience and its aftermath had on the minds and lives of those forced to endure it.

Barracks and Water Tower (Minidoka internment camp), Kenjiro Nomura, Tacoma Art Museum

I’ve written about that dark period myself, both here and elsewhere, but my observations were those of an historian, my understanding that of an outsider–until this past month when I finally read a book I’d intended to read for years: John Okada’s No-No Boy.

Before I discuss the book’s content, let me state clearly that No-No Boy is not just a great book about the experiences of Japanese Americans; it’s a great book, period. Not only is it beautifully written, it’s also unflinchingly honest and fair and heartbreaking.

Published in 1957, No-No Boy tells the story of Ichiro, a young Japanese American man returning to his hometown of Seattle in 1946. Instead of returning from the war like others in the city’s Japanese community, he is returning from two years in prison, where he was sent for answering ‘no’ to two questions every young man of Japanese descent was asked: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States? Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the country? (His answers are the no-no of the book’s title.)

The first thing that happens to Ichiro when he reaches Seattle is a former acquaintance who did serve in the military spits on him. Worse is yet to come as he faces accusations of treason and betrayal as well as the doubts, regrets, and shame in his own mind.

While Ichiro is always central, part of what makes the book so good and devastating (as well as pertinent to discussions about immigrants today) is how well and fairly Okada renders not only Ichiro’s psychological state but those of everyone he encounters–from immigrants like his mother who remain devoted to Japan to the whites who have little idea what someone like Ichiro is going through.

Some in the book are kind and some are cruel, but no one is reduced to a type or a category. All have their reasons for all acting and speaking the way they do. And Okada gives them all their due, even those who seem most awful.

Okada wasn’t afraid to interrogate his own culture as well as the larger white culture around it, or to drill down into the various sicknesses and cruelties at the family and interpersonal levels.

Rendered in a voice that’s both distinctive and perfectly in tune with its time and characters, Okada’s willingness to look unflinchingly at how people truly think and treat each other makes No-No Boy one of those rare books—like Stoner or Revolutionary Road—that seem to hold the raw and bloody heart of life in their hands.

Image from fullerton.edu

Here, for example, is Ichiro thinking about his younger brother, Taro, who detests him for not serving in the military and plans to enter the post-war army himself:

Taro, my brother who is not my brother, you are no better than I. You are only more fortunate that the war years found you too young to carry a gun. You are fortunate like the thousands of others who, for various reasons of age and poor health and money and influence, did not happen to be called to serve in the army, for their answers might have been the same as mine. And you are fortunate because the weakness which was mine made the same weakness in you the strength to turn your back on Ma and Pa and make it so frighteningly urgent for you to get into uniform to prove you are not a part of me. I was born not soon enough or not late enough and for that I have been punished. It is not just, but it is true. I am not one of those who wait for the ship from Japan with baggage ready, yet the hundreds who do are freer and happier and fuller than I. I am not to blame but you blame me and for that I hate you and I will hate you more when you go into the army and come out and walk the streets of America as if you owned them always and forever.

Laid out in this book, in sometimes agonizing, sometimes breathtaking clarity, is the immigrant experience: the awful decisions and compromises and consequences America demands of those who seek only to be accepted, fully and respectfully, as fellow citizens.

John Okada in 1957, the year No-No Boy was published. Image from the University of Washington Magazine.

A few links:

  • John Okada’s personal story is as agonizing as that of the main character in his only novel. You can read about his difficult life and what became of his second book in “The Legacy of No-No Boy” by Vince Schleitwiler, published in the December 2019 issue of University of Washington Magazine.
  • Densho, a website whose mission is to “preserve and share history of the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans to promote equity and justice today.”

Note: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org, where your purchases support local bookstores. If you purchase a book through a click on this website, I will earn a small commission that helps defray the costs of maintaining WritingtheNorthwest.com.

Northwest Indigenous Artist Sky Hopinka Receives 2022 MacArthur “Genius Grant”

Sky Hopinka, Artist and Filmmaker, 2022 MacArthur Fellow, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

by Michael N. McGregor

A few weeks ago, I received an email from one of my old colleagues at Portland State University telling me a former student, Sky Hopinka, had been awarded a 2022 MacArthur “Genius Grant.” When I looked him up, I was pleased to see that his art is centered in the experience of indigenous people, including some from the Northwest.

Hopinka not only earned his BA from PSU but was born in Ferndale, Washington. And while his work in film, photography, and poetry is wide-ranging, several of his videos focus on Northwest indigenous life.

His first feature-length film, “maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore” (2020), for example, is set entirely in the Northwest world of its two indigenous protagonists.

An image from “maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore

Here’s a brief description from a New York Times review by Beatrice Loayza:

The documentary, anchored in the Chinookan origin-of-death myth (a dialogue between a wolf and a coyote about the afterlife), separately follows two young parents — pregnant Sahme and Jordan Mercier, both friends of Hopinka’s — as they grapple with questions of legacy and identity.

Subtitles switch between English and Chinook jargon, yet the oral component (including Hopinka’s narration) occasionally fades into the backdrop with sound design that amplifies the crackling of a fire, the bubbling and thrashing of the ocean and waterfalls.

The natural world, with its never-ending tides and its cycles of life and death, provides a framework for the preservation of Indigenous culture, resilient despite its new forms and manifestations.

In reviewer Glenn Heath Jr. ‘s good (free) review for the Film Stage website, he calls “maɬni ” an “elegiac and at times mesmerizing feature debut.” His review gives a good description of the film’s content, including the ways Hopinka challenges traditional white use of ethnographic documentary to “exoticize non-Western communities.”

You can watch the entire film at The Criterion Collection, which offers a free 14-day trial.

For a shorter look at Hopinka’s vision of the Northwest, try “Anti-Objects, or Space Without Path or Boundary,” a 13-minute video available for free on his website.

Here’s how he describes this shorter work: “Images and representations of two structures in the Portland Metropolitan Area that have direct and complicated connections to the Chinookan people who inhabit(ed) the land are woven with audio tapes of one of the last speakers of chinuk wawa, the Chinookan creole, chinuk wawa.”

According to the bio on his website, Hopinka is from the Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, but during his days in Portland he both studied and taught chinuk wawa (Chinook jargon).

Hopinka’s work has appeared at numerous festivals, including Sundance, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the New York Film Festival. It has also been part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, the 2018 FRONT Triennial, and Prospect.5 in 2021. It will be exciting to see what his MacArthur Fellowship allows him to do next.

In a conversation with Theo Anthony published in Filmmaker Magazine, he said this about his work:

“[E]mpathy is something I think a lot about. It’s also the relationship, as Adam Khalil put it, between knowledge and information around indigenous cultures. What does it mean to know something, and what does it mean to have facts about something or a culture or a community? And as I try to not explain things, I’m hoping that through context or the things that are nearby, an audience will be able to understand how I feel about them, or place themselves in a certain empathetic space where they may not know what’s going on, but they know how to feel about it.”

More links:

Sky Hopinka’s full bio

Interviews with Sky Hopinka and links to more reviews of his works

A full list of 2022’s MacArthur Fellowship recipients