Visions of NW Writing: Nature, Stereotypes, and the White Default

Fishing, ca. 1920, Asahel Curtis, General Subjects Photograph Collection, 1845-2005, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov, accessed: 11-4-21

If you Google “writing the Northwest,” one link that pops up is a 2004 tongue-in-cheek piece from The Stranger called “How to Write a Great Northwest Novel.” Among the elements author Ryan Boudinot suggests be included are several that are nature-centric: salmon, weather, and trees. While the others—like strong-willed women, technology and industry, and boats or cancer—don’t relate exclusively to white people, it’s hard not to think the type of novel Boudinot is poking fun at would have a white protagonist and be written by a white author.

 Another link you’ll find is for a film called “Writing Oregon,” a lush tribute to the natural beauty of that state, with gorgeous video of gently flowing streams, snow-capped mountains, and austere sageland alternating with writers talking about the importance of being in nature and the dire need to preserve it. Although the film includes poems by Native American authors, all but one of the writers who appear on screen are white.

A third link takes you to the home page for the Oregon State University MFA in Creative Writing program’s ongoing Literary Northwest Series, in which 23 of the 27 writers who have read to date have been white. (I don’t know how many of these writers write about nature or even about the NW, but it’s a good bet many of them do.)

I list these items not to criticize the people who put them together or those who appeared in the Oregon film or have read in the OSU series, but merely to point out how much of what people (inside and outside the NW) have imagined to be “Northwest writing” has been related to nature and written by white people.

(In more recent years, Boudinot has founded an organization called Seattle City of Literature which runs a program called Racial Equality and the Literary Arts and has a board with a majority of people of color, while OSU’s MFA program has brought an impressive number of writers of color to campus for its Visiting Writers Series and actively pursues diversity. As for the film, its focus is nature and the writers featured in it have devoted much of their writing to the celebration and preservation of nature.)

Even now, in the midst of a racial reckoning and reevaluation, when some of the most visible protests have taken place in Portland and Seattle, the visions readers have of NW writers and writing subjects generally have little to do with people of color. They also have little to do with the parts of cities where most Chinese immigrants, Asian Americans, and African Americans in the NW have resided; the kinds of farming most Japanese did before WWII or many Latinx immigrants have been forced to do; or earlier regional battles for racial justice.

If you were to ask most readers—especially those from other areas—what antagonists NW characters face, their answers would likely be: environmental threats, the hardships of living in nature, natural disasters like fire or earthquakes, internal demons (brought on by all that rain, you know), and maybe—just maybe—some kind of prejudice, generally of the settlers-vs.-Indians sort. (The online summary of the entry on “Writing the Pacific Northwest” in Cambridge University Press’s A History of Western American Literature, for example, is devoted exclusively to what it calls “the persistence of the Pacific Northwest as an ecological rather than social or political imaginary.”) The unexamined assumption behind most of these is that the protagonists and authors are white.

It’s no surprise, of course, that most literature written about the Northwest up to and including the 21st century has been written by whites and focused on white interests. Since the devastation of the indigenous population in the 18th and 19th centuries, the region’s residents have been overwhelmingly white and the writers born of this dominant group have written for white audiences. While many of these authors have written books that are deeply sensitive (especially toward indigenous culture) and focused in the broadest sense on what it means to be human, the fact remains that the experiences of NW people of color have been terribly underrepresented.

Among the voices seldom heard beyond a small circle are those of: the Native Americans who have outlasted repeated white predations; the Chinese immigrants who settled in the area in the 19th and early 20th centuries, only to be driven out again; the tens of thousands of African Americans who’ve flowed into the region since the start of World War II; the Japanese Americans who developed successful farms and small businesses before being brutally bundled off to internment camps; and the increasing number of Latinxs, Asians and Asian Americans who have arrived in more recent times to take jobs in the tech industry and a wide variety of other fields.

There have been exceptions, of course, to the lack of attention paid to the lives lived by NW people of color. Among the breakthrough books are:

* Almost anything by Sherman Alexie, who did more than anyone else to highlight the self-told history and contemporary life of NW Native Americans before his personal actions caused many readers to shun him.

* Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s widely-read Thousand Pieces of Gold, which explores the plight of Chinese immigrants in the days before and after the Chinese Exclusion Act.

* Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which gives a glimpse of prewar Japanese American life in Seattle before taking readers into the hardships caused by FDR’s Executive Order 9066.

* Mitchell S. Jackson’s bestselling novel Residue Years and his hugely popular memoir Survival Math, both evocations of daily life in the Black areas of N. Portland.

Fortunately, in a region of increasing diversity, more and more writers of color are publishing works about their own experiences, as well as the stories of relatives, historical figures, or imaginary characters living rich and often difficult lives. These works provide alternative views not only of the NW but also of life itself—views that have the potential to move readers beyond the stereotypes of the past, showing them that the NW is more than salmon, weather, and trees.

Links to help you find some of these writings:

* From the Seattle Library: “PNW Asian American and Pacific Islander Authors

* From Humanities Washington: University of Washington English Professor Anu Taranath’s “Top Ten Pacific Northwest Authors of Color

* The Seattle-based African-American Writers’ Alliance

* Resilience Through Writing: A Bibliographic Guide to Indigenous-Authored Publications in the Pacific Northwest before 1960 (The writings here aren’t literary, per se, but the 2,000 entries give some idea of the volume of Native American writing available.)

A few books you might start with:

These offerings are only a sample of all that’s available.

What are your favorite books that explore the NW lives of people of color?

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