July 13, 2013

Opening the Eyes

Opening the eyes is one of the important benefits of art and poetry. A work is truly great if it can make us see differently.  One of my missions in Night Train Red Dust was to restore lost history of women. Any geographic area has layers of geology, people, and events. Do you know what happened in the place beneath your feet? Who walked on the same ground where you travel?

Women's stories are often forgotten. They are not considered "important" in the way the city builders and bridge builders and presidents, which is a terrible omission.  New biographies of women are changing the telling of history.  These new perspectives are essential.  Our geography has a spectrum of color. Aside from white immigrants, the First People, Native Americans, travelled on these rivers and pathways.  Highway 4 from Duluth to the Iron Range, once called the Rudy Perpich Memorial Highway, once called the Vermilion Trail began as an Indian path. It was used in 1850s for exploration.  In the 1860s, Civil War veterans arrived with the Gold Rush and they travelled on the Vermilion Trail to Lake Vermilion.  The gold wasn't accessible, but iron ore was discovered. Corporate interests paid the Anishinabe people in 'scrip' in exchange for the land. The people did not resist being relocated as the mining companies moved in to drill and excavate.  These stories are essential.

"White Flights: Fiction's Racial Landscape" by Jess Row in the July/August 2013 Boston Review examines the landscapes of white American writers who create characters "around remote, awe-inducing landscapes peopled by quirky, salt-of-the-earth, hard-living folks, nearly all of whom happen to be white."  I recognized that what he said was true.  Jess Row asserts, "'realist' writers believe that individuals are best exposed against a largely erased background."  In his consideration of these landscapes, he uses the term deracination. This rootlessness or removal of racial issues from fiction exposes white privilege and a fantasy of escape.  This is an important essay; he illuminates an erasure that happens in these stories, an erasure of people of color.  We need to consider the implications of this.

Jess Row has pinpointed a sort of cultural blindness in "mainstream" culture. This happens in history books. This happens in all sorts of writing, including poetry.  These landscapes are not representational but false, fraudulent. It isn't just the writers, but the publishers, the critics, and the readers that have an investment in this. The consequence is a perpetuation of racism. These many fictions of such landscapes lead to a distortion in our perceptions of reality. I believe a similar kind of erasure happens to women's stories and those of lesbian, gay, transgender people. Sexism flourishes. Women are denied agency, authority, and influence. American culture tends to focus too much on white male experience to the point of marginalizing other experiences equally, if not more, important. It happens to immigrants. These people aren't clearly seen. Their experiences are dismissed; their writing isn't read; they are washed out of the cultural history and story-making to great detriment.

It reminds me of words of the artist Mona Smith. She belongs to the Dakota tribe, and she initiated the Memory Map (Bdote) project in Minnesota.  In 1862, there was a large public execution of 30 Dakota Indians happened near Fort Snelling. She began to collect stories, record memories, assemble the art, writing, experience of Dakota Indians in the region, the juncture of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.  This corrects the omissions in history books and cultural memory. It informs us of the rich experience and culture of the Dakota people and their influence.  She said it's important to not only know who you are but where you are.

So where are you?  What has happened in your landscape, and what is happening now?  What has influenced your life? the life of your parents?  Your community? Opening the eyes not only corrects the distortion in the picture of reality but offers writers a richer source of material and an opportunity to engage in the world in deeper and more meaningful ways.

In my new writing, Night Train Red Dust, it has been my goal to awaken to the history of northern Minnesota, to find the stories about women, about immigrants, about laborers, about Native Americans, and to acknowledge these and bring them into my work. I've been amazed -- and have consternation about -- what I didn't know. The Iron Range and city of Duluth offers a deep and richly layered history of several cultures.

I thank these writers who have worked hard to bring stories and insights into the public discourse.  It is an effort that more of us must make as artists, writers, publishers, readers, and citizens.  We must see more clearly.


To find the article by Jess Row, go to

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