Debby Dahl Edwardson lives and writes from her home in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. She writes fiction, sci-fi and fantasy for children and young adults.
Her picture book, WHALE SNOW was named an NCSS/CBC Notable, a Banks Street Best, Independent Publishers, Best Picture Book of the Year and an IRA Notable Book for a Global Society. Her first novel, BLESSING’S BEAD was selected by the Junior Library Guild and named an ALA/YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults and a Booklist Top 10 First Novels for Youth. Her most recent novel, MY NAME IS NOT EASY was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Deb received an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She teaches at Ilisaġvik College, Alaska’s only tribal college.
She is also one of the founding members of Loonsong and Turtle Island at Loonsong. I was fortunate to attend both retreats this past September and look forward to Deb sharing a bit about them in her interview.
Carole Lindstrom: Boozhoo, Deb, thank you for your time!
You live on the North Slope in Alaska. Your village used to be called Barrow, but has reverted back to its traditional Inupiaq name, Utqiaġvik. What is it like living so far north?
Debby Dahl Edwardson: The short answer is that I love it; it’s home. I’m Norwegian and have always lived in northern places. People wonder a lot about the dark, cold winters. But as in any place, one’s body acclimates to one’s environment and I’ve lived here for 40 years, so that’s a lot of acclimation! The deeper answer is that I love the Iñupiaq people and culture. When I came here, it was the first time in my life that I saw a culture that was still intact as a complete whole and still tied to the land that birthed it. It was a world that made total sense to me. It still does.
CL: I know that you, yourself, are not Iñupiaq, but you have been married to your husband, who is Iñupiaq, for 40 years! And you have seven children, so you are basically Iñupiaq. Can you tell the reader a little bit about what your village is like?
DDE: Utqiaġvik has 4000+ residents. We are the hub of the North Slope of Alaska, a region the size of Minnesota with eight Iñupiaq communities within its borders. When I first came here, Utiqiaġvik (then Barrow) was nearly 90 percent Iñupiaq, but because Prudhoe Bay is in our backyard and oil development is centered here, that figure is now 60 percent.
Back when I first came here, the oil industry was holding hearings almost every week, it seemed. They were taking comments on their environmental impact statements. There was always a little paragraph buried in the back of those reports predicting that oil development and the influx of outsiders would bring serious social impacts to our community—increases in substance abuse and violence–and we have seen this. It is hard to live on that edge. There are many tragedies here and these affect all of us very deeply because we are all interrelated.
The thing that keeps me here and makes this place home for me is the people. The Iñupiat value cooperation, generosity, spirituality, the land and animals of the arctic and the language and culture that has grown of these things. At the center of the culture is the bowhead whale and whaling which has shaped the nature of the people. One cannot catch and eat a whale alone—it is a community event that involves both cooperation and sharing. When a whale is caught, there are cries of joy and praise and the meat and maktak go to everyone, even to visitors, even to those Iñupiaq living far from home in the lower 48. At the core of whaling is a deep spirituality that comes of the generous spirit of the whale. It is my honor to be a part of it. Our people are hunters and for an Iñupiaq hunter it is an honor to feed others. As my husband and I have become elders, young men and women often bring us meat from the animals they have caught, which is awesome. I truly love it here and these people are my family. When I travel elsewhere, I miss this closeness. And when I return, it always a happy homecoming. The arctic and its people inspire awe in me. They have from the beginning and they still do.
CL: What is the children’s literature community like in your small village? Is it difficult to get books being so remote? Do you rely a lot on ebooks?
DDE: There is not an active children’s literature community here. I am working to change that.
I do read a lot of e-books. I read e-books mostly because as I get older, my eyes are getting worse and e-books are easier for me to read. You can also get them instantly which is dangerous to my writer’s pocketbook.
CL: How is the children’s lit community? I imagine it can get a bit isolating being you’re so remote. Do you have a network of authors that you get together with?
DDE: I do have a strong online network of writers to turn to, friends and mentors, and I also have an online critique group.
CL: What first drew you to writing books for children? Give us an idea of your journey and some of the challenges you’ve encountered along the way.
DDE: Some of this journey is a bit painful and I haven’t told it to many people…
Thirty-five years ago, I was a radio reporter and I covered tribal news, giving it preference over state and municipal news. I was working for Alaska public radio and because of this inclination, they accused me of biased reporting. It was ugly. I was pregnant with my fourth child—on maternity leave, in fact—when it all came to a head and I was fired from my position as News Director. At the same time my first marriage came to a violent end. I had hit rock bottom and didn’t have faith in anyone or anything. Adults seemed so bigoted, narrow-minded and mean-spirited. In the midst of this I looked at my children and saw their open minds and hearts and this gave me hope. I think this was when the seed of writing for children was planted. I married a wonderful man and we raised seven children together and I read to them all the time. That’s when I developed an appreciation for the quality of children’s literature and decided to try my hand at it. I wanted books that accurately reflected my children’s world as Iñupiaq children living in Arctic Alaska and I didn’t see many of those books. And I didn’t much like the ones I saw—they didn’t present accurate portraits of the people I had come to know so well. So I decided to write them myself.
CL: A big part of your work is mentoring and trying to grow the Native and First Nations kidlit community (ie. Turtle Island at Loonsong). Can you talk more about this work?
DDE: There are so many wonderful and important stories within the many Native nations that make up this country of ours. The storytelling tradition has been largely oral and still is to some degree although the media of dominate culture tends to dominate our children’s lives more and more each year. It is essential that Native voices are heard within the larger literary community of the world, especially within children’s literature. I hope that all-Native events, like Turtle Island at LoonSong, can serve to empower these voices.
CL: What are your goals for Loonsong and Turtle Island at Loonsong?
DDE: I think I just answered that. My goal is to help empower Native voices and that starts, I believe, with Native writers drawing strength from other Native writers. I know, first hand, that there is a lot of power in the Native community. My goal for Turtle Island at Loonsong is to see it grow into a grass roots movement, with all of us working together to grow it. In talking together at Turtle Island last fall, we had a lot of ideas about how to do this, and although I look forward to helping to take it to the next level this is not about me. It belongs to Native writers and although I am deeply invested in seeing it happen, it is not mine. I envision it traveling throughout Indian Country, sponsored by different people and different organizations, taking many different forms, always exclusively for Native writers.
CL: How do you think the industry has changed, throughout your reading and writing career, in terms of literature for, and about, Native and First Nations people?
DDE: When I first began reading to my children, the buzz word in the industry was “multicultural.” But I did not see much children’s literature about Native American peoples and virtually none of it was authentic accept for the work of people like Joseph Bruchac who had just begun to publish. Now the word is “diversity” and the fact that this movement is driven by writers of color is extremely hopeful. But still, Native American voices are often lost in the scuffle. For example, in 2015 only .9 percent of the children’s books published depicted Native American characters and only a fraction of these were written by Native American writers. Most of those written by others were well meaning but that is not enough. Although I have lived within my Native community for 40 years, I am still white and that still colors my perspective and my aesthetics. Aesthetics, I think, is at the core of it. And that goes to the editors, marketers, librarians and teachers who determine what is published, pushed and read, who seldom have a Native sensibility. But that’s another conversation.
CL: What are some of your favorite children’s books with Native American and First Nations characters?
DDE: For the picture book crowd, I love Tim Tingle’s Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges, and Saltypie, illustrated by Karen Clarkson, for their great heart. I love Cynthia Lietich Smith’s Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright, for the way it presents a traditional celebration in a contemporary context. I love Michael Kusugak’s work, especially A Promise is a Promise, co-authored by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Vladyana Krykorka. And I love your beautiful book, Girl’s Dance, Boys Fiddle, illustrated by Kimberly McKay, for the loving way it melds the traditional with the contemporary. I love Fatty Legs: A True Story by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes, which introduces young children to the boarding school history,
I love pretty much all the books published by the Inuit-owned publishing company Inhabit Media of Canada.
For middle grade readers, I like Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series, Joseph Bruchac’s Hidden Roots, Michael Dorris’ Sees Behind Trees and Guests. And Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s A Stranger At Home: A True Story about the boarding school era in Canada. And I really enjoyed Dawn Quigley’s wonderful new book, Apple in the Middle. And I am proud of the work of two Iñupiaq writers: Rainey Hopson’s traditional story Eagle Drums and Tagnak Rexford’s fantasy, A Crane Story, both published by the North Slope Borough School District.
For young adults, I like Two Old Women by Athabascan writer Velma Wallis, If I Ever Get Out of Here by Erik Gansworth. I love Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. And one of my all-time favorites, Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
CL: What books would you like to see more of in terms of children’s literature?
DDE: I would like to see more books that tell American history from a Native American perspective. As Chimamanda Adichie says, “Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans and not with the arrival of the British and you have an entirely different story.” All of the so-called classics of children’s literature featuring Native peoples, such as The Little House on the Prairie, were written in the wake of the Indian Wars and are essentially the stories of the colonizers, as told from that perspective. And people are still writing from this narrative. This must change. And Native writers are the ones to tell these stories. They have lived them and are living the in the aftermath. I wrote two novels before I realized that I was writing historical fiction. Blessing’s Bead was the story of the great epidemics and the multigenerational effects of historical trauma and My Name is Not Easy was the story of the boarding schools told from the perspective of survivors not victims. I did not know why it was so important to me to write these books but I realize now that it was my own need to help set the historical record straight.
I also hope to see more Native fantasy, sci-fi and alternative reality books. Currently this literature is populated overwhelmingly by white characters and it’s time we changed that. Children love to read these kinds of books and they deserve to see themselves reflected there.
And last, but not least, we need more contemporary Native stories. We need to erase the myth of the Vanishing Native. We do not need to reinforce in the literature that we give to our children the myth that there are no more Indians. This does harm to young readers and to our society as a whole.
CL: Are there sites or resources you would highlight for writers and parents interested in social justice and multicultural children’s literature, specifically Native American and First Nations people?
DDE: I use Debbie Reese’s site, American Indians in Children’s Literature (https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com) and Canadian Inuit site, Isuma (http://www.isuma.tv/).
CL: What else do you think is important to share with the reader?
DDE: I think the best literature for any age is that which immerses the reader in the world of the story. It is my goal to immerse my readers into an Iñupiaq worldview. We do not need to write or publish any more books that reinforce the false myths of Native American history and we do not need to publish any more of what I call tourist literature—books that teach children about Native American cultures rather than allowing them to live for a moment within these cultures.
CL: What’s next for you?
DDE: I am currently working on a long fantasy book set in the Iñupiaq culture. Actually, I hate the term fantasy as applied to this kind of work because it is based in traditional beliefs, so it is not “make-believe.” I guess it is closer to magical realism although I am not found of this label either. As Irish literary scholar David Mulan writes: “To describe a work of fiction as ‘magic realist’ is to impose a system of order in much the same way a colonial power imposes its idea of order on a subjugated social system. The problem here is that anything which seems uncanny or unfamiliar to Western eyes becomes ‘magic’, while to a native of that culture the events or ways of thinking so described are ‘real.’”
Accordingly, I have coined the term mystical realism for this book I am writing.
It’s a complicated book which few outside of the Iñupiaq culture seem to understand. It also has strong Sci-fi elements. I hope I live long enough to bring it successfully to print!
CL: I have to read your WIP! It sounds amazing. I can’t wait until you finish it!
Chi miigwech for your time, Deb.