An Interview with Katherine McNamara
“A mystery is not something you solve, you enter it.” Katherine McNamara
How did you hear about WISC?
I took a Summer Classics course (5 Plays of Aeschylus, in a way, a good preparation for your questions about women and violence); knew I wanted to return to Santa Fe as soon as possible; googled writers residences and found WISC. I drew a deep breath and thought, Well, I hope my project will interest them. Later, I discovered that Kristen Swenson, a friend and fellow writer in Charlottesville, where I live, was your first Fellow. I think much of her work and liked the coincidence.
What is the current status of your WISC project?
You’ll laugh: papers spread out around the room. Index cards arranged on a sort of carousel by my desk. Multiple tabs open to draft and research pages on my laptop. More particularly, the chapter I came to work on, tentatively titled “War on the Yukon,” is from a longer work, a sort of mythopoeic travel book in the guise of a memoir, called Orphans and Strangers. It’s — the book is — set in a certain part of the Alaskan Interior, is nonfiction, and I am the narrator. Or, “I” am the narrator. I’ve been working assiduously on the draft for the last five months, after years of reading, thinking, drafting, so I’m ready to approach this chapter again with fresh eyes.
“War on the Yukon” — it’s not really ready to be talked about much — turns on a terrible event in 1851, when a war party of Athabaskans from upriver (the Koyukuk) descended on a downriver (Yukon) village, Nulato. The Russians owned the country then, and a Russian factor was head of a trading fort there, and the fort included a small population of Russians, who often married local women. And there was a party of visiting British naval officers, led by a lieutenant, who had come up the Yukon searching for news of Sir John Franklin, who with his ships had disappeared in the Arctic several years before. What caused the war — for all the inhabitants were killed, except for a woman and child and, possibly, a youth, who escaped through the fire and smoke and arrows? There are a number of interpretations, including — this is really important — testimony of near-witness Athabaskans. Jack London wrote a terrifying, yet fascinating story set in Nulato, though about imaginary Indians and a Russian and a Pole. (The weird things fiction can do.) There is no one definitive narrative (I think — am not sure yet). There is no standard history. This appeals to me: I was there, in that place. What should I understand about what happened?
You identify "Malfa Ivanov" as a surrogate mother. How is this project a memoir?
It was “Malfa Ivanov” (who died thirteen years ago) who decided she would be my mother. (She also asked me to call her Malfa when I wrote about her, as I did in Narrow Road to the Deep North.) She would make my suitors work for her. More seriously, she made me her surrogate daughter, and took me deep into her world, to teach me. My obligation was to bring out and write about all that she showed me. It was no obligation at all to love her, as I did; and as she did me.
She was a Native woman, born to an Aleutiq mother and Franco-Irish-American father; brought up in the Jesuit mission of Holy Cross, on the Yukon; and married to “Frederick Ivanov,” member of a wide-spread, well-respected, influential Athabaskan family (descended in part from a Russian forebear). They owned and operated a freight-hauling barge line on the Interior rivers: the Yukon, Koyukuk, Tanana. Orphans and Strangers is the narrative of the remarkable journey she took me on, on the rivers, during the summer of 1984. As with any story like this, which is rather enormous, the writer hopes to convey the richness and trouble and unknown (to us) history of that world she allowed her white daughter to enter. An outsider brought close to the inside, you might say.
I don’t call it a memoir, except for others’ convenience, because I’m not interested in examining myself, which is what, I’m afraid, “memoir” has become: devising a story for, or about oneself. I’m the writer. “I” am present as your eyes and ears; but equally, “I” am present to Malfa — and that is where the working out of “I” becomes an interesting writerly challenge. I want to remember her, and that fateful summer, but I work from my journals, notes, and letters of the time to check my faulty memory. And I hope she, and that voyage, and her world, will be remembered as it was in my eyes, and as it was changing and growing and suffering and surviving.
Let me add one thing that seems to interest some readers and confuse others: As I was living through that experience, I was definitely aware that I was in a story, one that had begun long before me and would go on longer without me. May I give you a little bit from the first chapter, which says it better, I think?
“I went out on the rivers of the Alaskan Interior, which flow through Athabaskan country, on a voyage of living, dying, coming back. It is not too much to say that I knew even then I had entered a story, although I didn’t know its shape and, until long afterward, did not know its end. And even then, I had to break the story, for time is unclocked in memory and shifts back and forth, it slips sideways, time is light and succeeding darkness revealing and obscuring its inhabitants. I will tell what happened by remembering this woman who was my surrogate mother, who decided to test my suitors by making them work for her. She took me with her farther into the Interior, guarding me even as she lifted veil after veil from the invisible, and I saw into its rich, vibrant, troubled depths. ‘We have to treat people according to their nature,’ she explained. ‘I had to treat you as a daughter.’ She added, ‘I don’t tell you things for nothing.’”
You mention Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian as inspiration and catalyst for your project. His books lack the feminine in many ways. The female absence could be an exaggeration--or even a suggestion that THIS is the cause of barbarism in men..... What do you think?
It interested me that a number of women reviewers were dismayed or outraged by his seeming exclusion of the feminine. Which meant only that he didn’t write their book; he wrote his book. I don’t think Blood Meridian “lacks” the feminine: I think he is telling another kind of story, a mythos, that doesn’t require the feminine. Perhaps cannot have the feminine, because . . . Well, that’s something I’m also working on now: what does it mean to, and for, me, as an educated, widely-traveled, white woman (that last might be important; I don’t know yet) that the only woman in Blood Meridian is the eldress in the rock, and “she had been dead for many years.”
In Alaska, during the 1980s, I became the amanuensis of the Dena’ina Athabaskan writer Peter Kalifornsky, who lived in Kenai, south of Anchorage. He was an old man when I met him. I had read a remarkable story of his in translation — he was the first writer of his oral language, and he was a man with a gorgeously literary mind; I see him as a writer before any other quality — called “Crow Story,” about how Crow (“Raven”) gave the first songs and stories to the Campfire People. (I’ll talk about this in my public presentation.)
One of Kalifornsky’s written stories is called “Crow and the One-Side Human,” about a monstrous, greedy creature who personifies Evil. (It’s meant as a funny story about a very serious topic.) In our long discussions about this story, he pointed out that where evil — that is, what is not good — exists, there is no woman. What did he mean by that? Oh, my. We now open a vast discussion that continued the deepest ones I had had with Malfa.
“In that believing,” Mr. Kalifornsky said, “it seems like a woman has more power than a man has, in one form. And to follow it, to switch to the man: with the Half-human and Crow there was no woman there. That kind of leads us into how bad and good work together, men and ladies. One way of looking at it.”
In short: in this old, old story, you might learn that Evil might flourish without the presence of women, or Woman. (There is much more about this in the books I’m editing of and about his work.)
What Malfa taught me was more specific: it was about our menstrual blood and its inherent power. It was never seen as “unclean,” as in the Judeo-Christian tradition; on the contrary, it was respected, because it contained power so great that only the woman’s behavior could control it. She would not step over anything belonging to men, such as hunting gear, because her “trail,” so to speak, might interfere with the hunter’s relation to the animal he hunted. Indeed, the word taboo — brought to us by Capt. Cook from his Polynesian voyages — comes from the root for menses. Similarly, the root of menses in at least several Northern Athabaskan languages, infuses the word normal used for “forbidden” or “don’t do that.” It doesn’t mean uncleanness; it means, behave yourself, because a power is at work.
So, I’m still working all of that out, though I’m much more familiar with the material by now. But I think that McCarthy is a great maker of myth, in the highest sense; myth not in the ancient oral sense, but grown out of old, maybe Irish (considering his gorgeous prose) traditions of story in writing. So, very carefully, I am reading him side by side with Kalifornsky and with what Malfa instructed me. And I think I’m learning, or discerning, something deeper than I could have imagined about North American literature.
I'm going to quote from you, so bear with me here. “The violence of the book was an astringent. Once I could stomach the reading, I felt cleansed by it. The prose was immaculate.” A friend of mine, a translator of languages and woman of moral acuity, lifted an eyebrow at my surprise, and suggested: “Of course: there is no ambiguity. That may be why violence – at least, reading aboutit – can almost invigorate us.” and “But now he saw that the violence has a mind: it is the willful order of disorderand counterfeit, the logic of war.” Can you say more about violence? Writing about violence?
I don’t know if I can say more about violence. I’ve just finished a chapter in Orphans and Strangers which describes a terrible murder in a small Native village in Alaska. I was there, though not present at the killing; I was staying with Malfa. Her twin daughters, high schoolers, saw it: a disturbed young man from the village shot a white man — in fact, a different man than the one whom he was after — and then fled into the wilderness. I recounted the effect of this on the village, and on Malfa, and on me, too. It sparked a central exchange between us that haunted me for years, in which we both struggled with history, with being native and white, with my learning what it meant to be white in her country. Layer upon layer of violence there. And we — both of us — learned new ways of loving each other. We live with and through histories of violence, consciously and with conscience, if we are fortunate.
As an artist and poet, how do you approach translation differently than say, a scholar?
I don’t know how scholars — I suppose you mean academic scholars — approach translation. I, and most of the translators I know or have worked with as a publisher, work (if they can) closely with the author, as I was able to do with Peter Kalifornsky. Because I didn’t know his language, which is Dena’ina Athabaskan, I purposefully followed his narratives and kept scrupulous notes about and near transcriptions of our conversations. He described the meanings of their complex words, so that I gained a sense both of prosody and poetics. So, that, and then, one’s best attempt to carry over the sense and meaning into this language, which is not as flexible as his, nor as multi-dimensional. Let me stop with that, or I’d go on for hours.
No, I’ll add this: when it came time to turn the huge manuscript I had made while working with him — new translations of his writings, and our conversations about their meaning — into a book, I realized I also had to find a way to include his typed manuscript, which he had given me a Xerox copy of, and his voice. He had recorded himself reading all his texts, so that we could hear his language. This was important because he realized that, when you spell his language, you needed to indicate meaning (this is a complex notion) even more than sound. To combine these disparate elements, I decided to divide the manuscript into four (because he said there are four ‘cycles’ or ‘circles’ of stories), and build them for the multi-media iPad or Mac (because I’m not a coder, and Apple gives us a free app for building iBooks). So, Volume 1 of From the First Beginning, When the Animals Were Talking now exists on iTunes. (I’ll demonstrate how this works in my public talk.)
Tell me about running archipelago.org
That’s a long story, which in fact I had to recount recently. Rare Book School, at the University of Virginia, invited me to curate an exhibition of twenty years of my digital archives; it’s called “An Archipelago of Readers: Forming a Literary Culture in Digital Media,” and it’s in the Rotunda there, till the next of next April. I had to write a narrative which is interwoven with the objects in the exhibition; it was like writing two books: the narrative; and the objects, which themselves formed a sort of anthology from those digital publications, Archipelago and the digital books of Artist’s Proof Editions.
If there’s a short answer, it’s this: through unexpected circumstances, in 1996, I was challenged to start a literary journal on the Web, back when there were very few literary sites. I didn’t know anything about digital media; the graphical web — or the World Wide Web, with browsers — had only been invented a few years before (though the Internet was developed decades before that, via the Dept. of Defense). I thought it was a way of publishing writing that would reach an audience of readers like myself — traveled, educated, having been formed by more than one society. I thought it would transcend borders. And nobody could tell you how to do it; you had to learn for yourself. I liked that part very much. I hired a Web designer who built every issue — Arch was a quarterly — in HTML. Nobody does that kind of handwork now, of course. Now, I build and design our sites, using templates and WordPress.
I published Archipelago as a quarterly for ten years, 1997-2007. At its height, the last several years, it had an average monthly readership of around 13,000 ‘unique visitors,’ who stayed on for quite a long time. The archives are still visited. In fact, earlier this year, I had an email from an Irish poet who had found my Endnote essay about Blood Meridian and commented on it. We began a literary correspondence. I promised him I would complete the essay — the part I sent you, which is also still online, is only the first part of the piece — but it’s still in draft, as I noted earlier.
I liked being an editor. We had an international readership. I was pleased to publish writers who did not follow the standard patterns. But the Web grew up and became its own medium, and my own work was taking up more of my time and energy than was fair to writers I edited. So I closed the journal, though (as I noted) it remains online and is still read.
Name three inspiring women.
“Malfa,” certainly; her name was Martha Rose Au Coin Demientieff (1933-2004). So many others. Patti Smith. Ruth Bader Ginzburg and Sonja Sotomayor. Anna Akhmatova. Helen Vendler, the critic, for her mind and deep knowledge of poets and poetry. Hillary Rodham Clinton, especially for the way she faced T — I won’t say his name — in the so-called debates: that was sheer, determined courage, for I think she would have been excoriated if she had called him out. Michelle Obama, if we continue in that direction, and the late Barbara Jordan, rep. from Texas, whose voice I still miss. Ava du Vernay, the film director. . . .
Top 3 favorite writers.
I can’t choose, really. Melville, always. Two supreme novelists, the American Shirley Hazzard and the British Penelope Fitzgerald. Anne Carson, classicist, poet; her translations, too, of Euripides. Czesław Milosz; Seamus Heaney. In another direction, Philip Pullman. Natalia Ginzburg, especially for her essays. Garry Wills, the historian. Heinrich von Kleist. Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony was important to me 30 years ago, when I began thinking about writing in Native country. I still think it one of the great American novels of the late 20th century.
What are you reading right now?
Patti Smith’s Devotions. Borders, by a writer new to me, Kapka Kassabova. A curious find: Richard Wright’s Pagan Spain, a strange travel book he wrote on commission. I began Lincoln in the Bardo, which was a present for my sister (who gave me Devotions; I’ll have to get my own copy.
I have a friend moving to Alaska. Give her 2 pieces of advice.
Pay attention. Learn as much as you can about the deep history — it won’t easily be available — of where you find yourself. Enjoy the romantic vision of Alaska that Alaskans tell about themselves, and take on some of it for yourself, but don’t fall for it in the end.
From the First Beginning, When the Animals Were Talking, an iBook by Peter Kalifornsky and Katherine McNamara, on iBooks.
“ ‘The Only God Is the God of War’ : on Blood Meridian, An American Myth,” Katherine McNamara
Narrow Road to the Deep North, a Journey into the Interior of Alaska, a nonfiction narrative, Katherine McNamara
“An Archipelago of Readers, Forming a Literary Culture in Digital Media.” The Rotunda, University of Virginia