Try an “I”: Essayistic Narration for Journalists

I recently taught a short intensive course in creative writing—“Nonfiction Bootcamp.” My students traveled from Carleton University’s School of Journalism (Ottawa, Ontario) to spend five weeks in a Yukon-based experiential learning program, Stories North. The program addresses one of the most pressing issues in the Americas: that of Indigenous sovereignty. Stories North asks: how can we collectively explain, hold ourselves to account, and shift away from the inequities and injustices and ignorance around Indigenous peoples?

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While I taught Bootcamp in a classroom, much of the Stories North curriculum occurred out on land and in the remote community of Old Crow, where we spent ten days. Here, an Old Crow community member checks fish he’s been drying over the woodstove.

The teaching situation: in dialogue with history

Stories North responds to Canada’s national reckoning with its Indigenous boarding schools—a fundamentally genocidal history rooted in aggressive assimilationist policies. It’s important to note that government-initiated, church-run, often neglectful and violent residential schools existed in the US as well. The US, however, has yet to initiate a response of national scope. Canada, on the other hand, created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Beginning in 2009, Canada’s TRC led the country’s national reckoning with its legacy of sustained, state-sponsored attack on Indigenous communities. The TRC gathered testimony from 7,000 survivors and, in the spring of 2015, issued a formal call to action delineating ninety-four recommendations.

Stories North responds to the TRC’s “call to action No. 86”—a call for the transformation of journalism education.

“Our goals,” states the program website, “are to shift narratives, [and] help cultivate the

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This map shows the traditional territories of the fourteen First Nations currently creating sovereign governments in Yukon.

next generation of media storytellers so that they approach their work with more context, empathy, and understanding. Stories North seeks to open pathways of understanding and accountability as we grapple with the meanings of reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.”

My job at Stories North was to bring literary methods and mindsets into a journalism program. The vision: design a creative nonfiction curriculum that would expand journalists’ capacity to report on the complexities of today’s Indigenous issues.

Literature and journalism: cousins? or aliens?

In the realm of nonfiction, the fields of journalism and literature overlap. Sometimes this gets messy. In fact, I took an English graduate seminar in “Literary Reportage” (rather than “Literary Journalism”) not because there is any distinction between the terms, but because my alma mater’s school of journalism objected to an outside department claiming their word, journalism.

But my attitude as a teacher of writing is: let’s use fuzzy genre boundaries to our advantage. Difficult dialogues call for cooperation, collaboration, and cross-pollination. So I saw Nonfiction Bootcamp as an opportunity to blend and borrow.

The essayistic “I”

Most practically, it seems to me that narration is the area in which literary journalism finds its “literary” sea-legs, gaining traction as a mode of creative writing. And so that is what I chose as Bootcamp’s primary focus: I designed a course that explored (1) ways to construct a first-person singular pronoun, and (2) avenues by which to assess its value.

In the spirit of the essay, students learned methods of creating an idiosyncratic and self-questioning narrator. They critically considered when and why a text might want to construct and convey both a personal lens, and/or self-doubt. Overall, they spent a week creating mini-essays that avoided the omniscient and traditionally-journalistic assertion here’s what’s going on, learning to adjust their textual voices and to convey a stance aligned with the tradition of the essay—one that says, I am on a search. Here are its fruits; here are its mysteries. Still, I search.

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On the mountain behind Old Crow: wildfire smoke, blooming fireweed, and prime blueberry picking.

Course Goals | students should leave bootcamp with grounding in these questions

  • What’s possible in shortform cnf / what’s possible to do with forms of the essay?(gain familiarity with a range of published examples; experiment with structure)
  • How do writers construct and convey a narrator/persona/voice—an “I”—on the page? (identify and practice techniques; grow a writerly bag of narration tools)
  • Where and how does my “I” belong? What is gained and what is lost by writing “I” into a text? (critical assessment: Politics? Ethics? Social responsibility? Human respect?)

The Radical Revision assignment

Here is a summary of what students learned during days one and two.

In Aldous Huxley’s language, an essay travels “between three poles.” They are

  • “the personal” (he means lived life and sensory experience),
  • the “concrete particular” (he means something outside the self, something in-the-world)
  • and the “abstract universal” (he means thinking; i.e., reflection).

A distilled wording (borrowed from Julija Šukys post on “the holy trinity of the essay”) looks like this:

  • Experience
  • Research
  • Reflection
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An outing: Old Crow community members skiffed us up the Porcupine River to a fish camp out on the land.

At the end of day two, I asked students to go home and write a piece that travels—as essays do—between these three components. The prompt: write a 500-word mini-essay that includes

  • Part of the poignant memory students probed in class with their in-class Kitchen Table Exercises (which I adopted from Lynda Barry to get students engaging personal experience, memory, and self)
  • A Yukon anecdote/factoid-discovery/image (research from the outside world)
  • Thinking (reflection—one sweet insight)

On day four, we discussed Philip Lopate’s introduction to the anthology, The Art of the Personal Essay, gathering his concepts about narration (i.e., “the conversational elements,” “the role of contrariety,” “the problem of egotism,” “cheek and irony,” etc.). With Lopate in mind, we workshopped the previous day’s mini-essays.

In the end, I asked: “if you were to use what you learned from Lopate, how would you rewrite the mini-essays we’ve just workshopped?”

Once I was satisfied that each student could envision a clear set of narration-based revision goals, I made the assignment official: they had to go home and rewrite their mini essays from the ground up. Same personal experience, same research component, and same reflective insight—in an essayistic voice.

Reflections

This Radical Revision assignment marked the class’s most visible collective step forward. I think the reason for this was that the assignment isolated one thing: voice—persona—lens—i.e., the upright pronoun, the idiosyncratic, individual “I”—at a delicate moment.

The students had struggled to combine all three required elements in the first drafts of their mini-essays. A load of theory from Lopate hit the spot: because they had struggled to link the three puzzle pieces that make an essay an essay, they were now invested in methods by which to more successfully connect those puzzle pieces. In other words, their radical revisions forced them to reconfigure the relationship between self, world, and insight. It was in this exercise that the students transitioned from thinking of creative writing as a just-for-fun break from the rules of their reporting, and experienced it as hard work with serious textual payoff.

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Yukon College has a campus building in Old Crow. Here is the college’s mental health whiteboard; a living document of exchange and healing that emphasized to all of us the importance of treading with great care in gathering and telling Old Crow’s community stories.

In the context of difficult dialogues, we all need to wrestle with where we’re coming from, what we’re bringing to the table, and what exceeds us. That is, a good contribution  tunes into its own blind spots. And narration is a good tool by which to construct this degree of sensitivity in text. Furthermore, when crafted with sophistication, narration is also a good way to situate a text’s sensitivity squarely alongside its commitment to rigorous investigation and analysis. In sum, I champion narration studies because I see the methodically probing and self-questioning “I” as one of the more nuanced methods writers can marshal as they step up to tell their communities’ most urgent stories.

Comminglings of Law and Literature: Thoughts from the Yukon Territory

I am presently on a Fulbright in Whitehorse, Yukon (northwestern Canada) to write essays. Politics-wise, this year gives me a little window through which to watch Indigenous land claims unfold in the Yukon, and pedagogy-wise it gives me time to observe the special relationship that Yukon College (the future Yukon University) maintains with the territory’s fourteen Indigenous First Nations.

Though I’m researching/writing full time, I’ve also been thinking about the pedagogy of Indigenous literature. I’m wrestling with this question: in what ways can and should an Indigenous literature course engage local Indigenous politics?

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“Never Give Up – You Will Find Your Way” (2012, by Vernon J.M. Asp) alongside the flags outside Yukon College’s main entrance.

This question fits into a much larger one, of course. I.e., what are the special pressures—and the special opportunities—that local histories, local memories, and local politics present to instruction in the humanities? Particularly in a community-based, post-secondary teaching context?

I’d be interested in hearing more voices weigh in to that larger question. But this post stays local. First, some lightning-speed historic context. Then, a teaching example that combines a Yukon College English course, a long and ponderous political document, and a pink moose.

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Context Part One: The Yukon’s Entire Colonial History in Three Sentences

Colonial in-migration #1: Russian and British fur traders could be seen here and there during the nineteenth century, but it was less them and more their stuff (firearms, tea, cloth…and epidemics) that circulated among the Indigenous people of the Yukon’s boreal forests. Later, the Klondike Gold Rush stampeders on the trail of 1898-1899 made up the area’s major settler-colonial in-migration #2; it was an uproarious one, yes, but Indigenous groups who did not live directly in the path of the stampede did not yet have to contend with newcomers directly. It was during the 1940s post-war construction of the Alaska Highway that the third (#3)—and probably most devastating—wave of settler-colonial in-migration entered the Yukon, where it has been highly visible and active ever since (a mere how many generations ago? …not quite three?).

A bit of the Alaska Highway crossing…the Liard River, I believe.

Context Part Two: The Yukon’s Contemporary Political Landscape

The Yukon is home to fourteen Indigenous First Nations.

Kwanlin Dün settled their land claims in 2005. This is their welcome sign (and reminder of ownership) at the Fish Lake trailhead; the trail crosses their land and leads hikers into stunning alpine terrain just a minute north of Whitehorse, Yukon.

The Yukon’s First Nations, like Indigenous peoples just about everywhere are invested in a long-term legal battle to gain recognized control over their traditional lands. The process is called “land claims.” The Yukon’s 1990 solution to its First Nations’ land claims is a roughly 300-page legal document called the Umbrella Final Agreement. Once a First Nation signs on to the UFA, it can negotiate the terms of its self-government.

At present: eleven First Nations have signed the UFA and negotiated self-government agreements. Three remain in limbo.

The big picture: the Yukon is basically transitioning from three layers of governments to… seventeen interlocking governments. (My neighbor and I recently counted it out. Eleven self-governing First Nations is eleven, plus four municipal governments equals fifteen, plus the territorial government equals sixteen, plus the federal government makes: seventeen. And seventeen governments plus three more First Nations still in negotiations will eventually equal twenty governments in total.)

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How can and should Indigenous literature be taught at a place like Yukon College (which serves a student body of primarily Yukoners including: First Nations, the settler community, recent immigrants, and international students) at this particular historic moment (in which First Nations are negotiating land claims—read: their communities’ entire futures—and in which everyone and everyone’s projects are enmeshed in questions of how these seventeen governments can/should work together, including who’s eligible for what, which responsibilities lie in whose hands, which funding streams go into whose coffers, etc.)?

So the Yukon is a cutting-edge place for political scientists. And at the nexus of political science and the literary arts, I’ve encountered this: a hot pink, life-sized, papier-mâché moose.

Photo credit: Daren Gallo.

Artist Lianne Charlie (also an instructor of political science(!) at Yukon College) built a life-sized moose and papered it with torn sections of the UFA, that roughly 300-page document from 1990 that provides a legal framework for the territory’s First Nations land claims agreements. The UFA is, of course, a government document: it’s long and boring and hard to read. What Lianne has done as an artist is to build a sculpture that embodies the text as tactile, visual, philosophic, both funny and sobering in its layers of metaphoric play.

Only one page of the document is intact in this sculpture: page fifteen, the UFA’s “cede, release, and surrender” clause. According to this clause, First Nations signing on to the UFA agree to “cede, release, and surrender” their land—in order to get formal rights in return (to some of that land). Sound dicey to you? It sure does to Lianne. She used the cede, release, and surrender clause to paper the moose’s left shoulder, where three arrows protrude from it: this moose has been shot. The cede, release, and surrender clause is the site of its wound.

Artist Lianne Charlie discusses the moose with Drew Lyness’ First Nations Literature in the English Language class. Photo credit: Daren Gallo.

Drew Lyness, an instructor of English at Yukon College, currently teaches a course called “First Nations Literature in the English Language.” He brought his students to the art gallery and taught the moose as literature.

For Drew, the moose’s importance hinges on community involvement—on linking students’ literary study back to those students’ actual human communities, to the public events those communities support, and to the physical site of those communities’ public dialogues. For me, the importance of the moose hinges on a fascination with text.

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One thing a literature course can do is to read the major documents by which people in a society try to coexist and cohabit. I’m thinking of two main categories, here: societies’ sacred texts, for one. And two, societies’ government documents. Its laws.

Think about reading the bible as literature. What it means, roughly, to read the bible as literature, is to read it as a “questions book” rather than as an “answers book.”

The same might hold for a literary reading of the law. Along these lines, I’ve started thinking about reading government documents as literature. A society’s laws certainly raise questions—for starters, questions about the heart of that society, and questions about where it’s going.

Moose meat! Wild foods – hunted and harvested from the land – feed more than our bodies: many layers of spirit and history and tradition and philosophy converge in and around meals connected to the land. (“…who we are…”)

Yes, attorneys also read government documents for questions, and courts have to settle them. That is practical. Still, a complex and powerful text is likely to raise questions that outlive its answers. The pink moose is constructed to suggest exactly this—it suggests the document guiding the Yukon’s First Nations’ land claims raises more questions than it answers about who we are and where we’re going.

The Canada flag. The Yukon Territory flag. And a big box store. Democracy and capitalism are recent arrivals – and for now at least, they seem to be inevitable institutions of the Yukon’s future. (“…and where we’re going…”)

And so when a government is in the midst of a sea change, adopting and testing new flagship documents, new seminal texts—ones according to which we and our children will live ostensibly differently than we ever have in the past—citizens may well want to read those texts beyond their prescriptive/material dimensions. Citizens may well want to consider the questions their new legal texts raise about who they are and who they are becoming.

And so it occurs to me that one thing a literature course can do is to support students in developing a living relationship with legal documents.

The Carcross Learning Centre in Carcross, Yukon.

More specifically, as an observer of Yukon College’s programs and faculty and students, as an observer of its territory-wide partnerships, its relationship with the fourteen First Nations of the Yukon, its historic emphasis on trades instruction and its future transition to university status… As an observer of these dynamics, it occurs to me that in this time and place—and perhaps also at the time and in the place from which you are reading this post—an Indigenous literature course may be uniquely positioned to support students in developing relationships with the legal documents designed to fundamentally alter the futures and possibilities for their community’s Indigenous peoples.