2011 National Book Award Finalist,
Young People's Literature

Debby Dahl Edwardson

Debby Dahl Edwardson

My Name Is Not Easy

Marshall Cavendish

Interview by Eisa Nefertari Ulen

Eisa Nefertari Ulen: Your first YA novel, Blessing’s Head, is a work of historical fiction, and your most recent book and National Book Award Finalist, My Name Is Not Easy, is also based on real events. Do you find that fiction frees you to express certain truths that nonfiction might not?

Debby Dahl Edwardson: I guess I love the freedom of fiction, which allows me to realize history through my own filter, as it were. In saying this, of course, I am immediately struck by the thought that clearly one does this in nonfiction, as well. In the best nonfiction, as in fiction, the writer must recognize and own his or her own historical bias. But for me, fiction also comes with an irresistible invitation to re-experience history and the freedom to re-imagine its possibilities, to travel the roads not taken. It’s really only a different way of getting at the truth, though, and for me, it boils down to this: I enjoy the freedom of being able to create my own story from history rather than trying to interrogate history to find the embedded stories. I’m a novelist, at heart, and I love fiction because it allows me to bring a diversity of perspectives together through a lens of my own choosing. It allows me to bring my own teenaged sensibility to the table and try it on in new contexts. I get to be both the young girl out in the woods under the impossibly star-filled sky about to taste her first kiss and the defiant boy, feeling the blows of the paddle and refusing to bow to its authority. I can use all of who I am and, if I do it right, I learn something new every time. Such is the power of fiction.

ENU: In “Our Story,” words express truth, exquisite truth, even when they form opinion. But which truth is the truth? Is the truth that Junior’s family members are just “a bunch of grown men, breaking the law,” or is it that “those Barrow hunters weren’t trying to be disobedient… they were just trying to feed their family”? Was Project Chariot about “economic development for the State of Alaska,” with “some bombs to plow out a harbor, nice and peaceful,” or was Project Chariot actually “the mushroom cloud of a bomb” and the destruction of Native Alaskan life? Does the Tundra Times, the Dallas Morning News, or the Sacred Heart Guardian print the truth—or, are there always many truths? Will a man like Father Mullen ever “get the truth” as he tries to do at the chapter’s close?

DDE: I think there are always many different ways of perceiving truth, and I think a great deal about how different cultures come with different worldviews and about how this leads to misunderstanding when it comes to truth-seeking.

“My Story” shadows my own experience in this respect. I now consider myself bicultural and often find myself in the middle of conversations where people on two sides of an argument disagree because their cultural worldviews clash seriously on a particular point. Usually they fail to recognize that this is what’s happening and assume their way of seeing things is the only way. Junior is just learning what this means, and his story, in fact, parallels my own.

I was a young public radio reporter reporting news to an audience that was largely Inupiaq and simultaneously feeding stories to the statewide Alaskan news network, which was largely white. The perspectives of the two audiences were sometimes diametrically opposed and it was my job to be objective, which in truth I wasn’t always terribly good at (which probably explains why I am a novelist now, rather than a reporter). I often felt like Junior—being told that my reports were biased but sensing that, in the final analysis, we are all biased. If a large enough number of people accept a certain perception as true, it becomes the accepted bias and a lot of people will mistake it for truth. Real historical truth is much more complicated, forcing us to confront not only the biases of the time, but also our own bias.

If I had been a reporter during Project Chariot, for example, I like to think I would have been outraged at the idea of detonating a series of bombs 189 times the size of Hiroshima, 20 miles from one of the oldest communities on the continent, and I like to imagine I would have reported it that way. If I had done so, I would probably have found myself up against an established core of reporters who were reporting on an exciting new cutting-edge project, presented as harmless, which would bring much needed revenue into empty state coffers, paving the way for the development of a mineral-rich region. And to be honest, if I had been a reporter in that era, maybe I, too, would have been more compelled to report on the brave new world in which major geological engineering was suddenly an option. Maybe I, too, would have been unaware of how it looked to the people living next door to it.

In many ways, it’s the one who tells the story who controls the truth and this is what Junior is learning. He will be empowered by this realization. Father Mullen can’t see it, which is one of the perils of power, and he will be broadsided by it.

ENU: Many Natives throughout the United States have begun to speak out about the more horrific aspects of boarding school life, including the use of beatings to silence student communication in Native languages, fragmented families, isolation, and confusion that often turned into sheer terror. Some of those who are speaking out also claim that their later addictions—to drugs, alcohol, and even food—resulted from those childhood experiences. What do you think might be done to heal the wounds of boarding school life as they manifest throughout Indian Country?

DDE: I think the final stages of healing from boarding school wounds now falls upon the younger generation. This is why My Name is Not Easy needed to be written for young people. Boarding school alumnus Harold Napoleon, in his groundbreaking Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being, noted that his generation was raised by those who had survived the great epidemics in Alaska, people he accurately portrayed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. This, he concluded, informed the way his parents’ generation parented and, in turn, shaped their response to the introduction of boarding schools in Alaska. It was important for Napolean, who was himself victimized by history, to understand this. He wrote his book from jail, as part of his own healing process. Likewise, the boarding school legacy still informs all aspects of our lives in Native Alaska from the way in which people respond to public schools to the ways in which they raise their children. It isn’t widely spoken of because in some ways it’s just too recent, too raw, and there is too much unexamined pain and guilt still attached to it. Consequently, our young people don’t realize how it affects them. They tend to feel the emotional burden of it without understanding the source. We now have two generations of young people who cannot speak their own language, for example, because their parents or grandparents were shamed for speaking it and so the language is dying. Young people tend to think this is somehow their fault. The traditional educational tie that existed between young people and their elders was broken and is still damaged. Young people, who don’t know and certainly don’t understand the implications of this history, are still victimized by it, still suffering the nameless guilt, depression and, social ills that followed in its wake. In order to heal they need first to understand.

But I also want to point out that the truth about the boarding schools in Alaska is not so simple. There were bad people doing bad things to young Native students at the boarding schools, but there were also good people doing good things and trying in their own ways to really educate students to succeed in the world into which they were about to be thrust. Students emerged scarred in some ways, certainly, but there was also an energy that came of it, the power of a shared experience, which in turn created a statewide network that made the Native community in Alaska very powerful and ultimately changed the face of Alaskan history. And there was some good education happening, too. My husband, who attended Copper Valley, will tell you that he entered college with his freshman year pretty much already under his belt because of what he learned at boarding school. Sadly we can rarely say that of our public education system in rural Alaska today.

I think the experience was, in truth, bittersweet, and I hope that My Name is Not Easy conveys this.

ENU: When Chickie reads Sister Mary Kate’s diary in “Snowbird,” she is surprised Sister is unable “to tell the difference between Indians and Eskimos,” but Chickie is too young and innocent to realize Sister’s description of the individual children at Sacred Heart as “a sea of dark faces” is dangerous—and nearly evil. And Chickie also doesn’t know what animosity, savage, eradicate, ignorance, and poverty mean (even though Sister says they are all rampant in Chickie’s home community) because, ironically, these words don’t exist in Kotzebue. Why was it important to you to present the truth of the white community’s lies regarding Native life in diary form?

DDE: I guess I don’t really see it as the white community’s lies. I don’t think I could write the truth of this history if I saw it that way, although this may well be how it appears to today’s readers. The mentality of the time was assimilationist. It’s a mentality many of us find abhorrent today, but I have to view a character like Sister Mary Kate as someone who is simply a product of her time, believing the accepted belief of the dominant culture of the era. I don’t view it as consciously evil. Good people accept terribly unpalatable belief systems without question—this is one of the most unsettling things we learn from history. I talk a lot about cultural lenses, about how we all view things from our own unique cultural perspectives, whether we realize it or not. In My Name is Not Easy, I tried to let the reader see, if only for a few brief moments, how things look through the lens of each character—even through the lens of Father Mullen, at the end. This, I think, is the obligation of good fiction. Fiction goes beyond exposing, seeking, always, to understand.

So when I look through Sister Mary Kate’s lens, I’m seeing things from the eyes of a young, very naive woman who only means well in everything she does and isn’t able to see the downside of her views. And when I see Sister Mary Kate, I see the faces of the volunteers who served at Copper Valley, the school my husband attended, and were, many of them, like the Peace Corps volunteers who succeeded them. They will tell you, in fact, that Kennedy got the idea for the Peace Corps by talking to them. Like Peace Corps volunteers, they wanted to help the Native youth of Alaska, and they did—each in their own way. But I’m sure nearly all of them held the assimilationist perspective reflected in Mary Kate’s diary. Chickie is shocked when she discovers Mary Kate’s views, as we all must be, but for Chickie it isn’t necessarily good or bad; it just doesn’t really compute on any meaningful level. She can’t imagine looking at the world this way, which is one of the things I love about her.

ENU: You are a white woman who has married into the Inupiaq community and now has children and grandchildren who are Alaska Natives. Do you think your unique perspective enables you to craft such compelling stories of Alaska Native life?

DDE: I hope so! I started writing books for young people after I had become fully immersed in a Native Alaskan perspective. I wanted, just once, to let our children see themselves accurately reflected in books. I wanted them, just once, to see a book written from an insider’s perspective rather than from the perspective of one looking at an oddity or at a museum display. I told myself that if just one Inupiaq kid read my book and said, yes, that’s us, I would be happy. I’m happy. Now I can only hope that others will see it this way, too.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of Crystelle Mourning, a novel described by The Washington Post as “a call for healing in the African American community from generations of hurt and neglect.” She is the recipient of a Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center Fellowship for Young African American Fiction Writers and a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship. Her essays, exploring topics ranging from Hip Hop to Muslim life in America post-9/11 to contemporary Black literature to the gap between the Civil Rights generation and Generation X, have been widely anthologized. Nominated by Essence magazine for a National Association of Black Journalists Award, she has contributed to numerous other publications, including The Washington Post, Ms., Health, Heart & Soul, Vibe, The Source, The Crisis, Black Issues Book Review, Quarterly Black Review of Books, TheRoot.com,TheDefendersOnline.com, TheGrio.com, and CreativeNonfiction.org. Ulen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. A founding member of Ringshout: A Place for Black Literature, she lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn. You can reach Eisa online and read her blog at: www.EisaUlen.com.