The Successful Failure

Drawing a Picture of an Alaska Community

by Lucian Childs and Martha Amore

Cross-posted from 49 Writers.

When contemplating telling a story as large as that of Alaska’s LGBTQ community, we editors understood the anthology we set out to create would be a failure of a kind. No one book can fully describe the variety and depth of this community, nor indeed, of any community. However, as Alice Munro says, “The story fails but your faith in the importance of doing the story doesn’t fail.”

Over the course of the three-year project to create Building Fires in the Snow, we sustained our faith in the uniqueness of Alaska and the importance of telling its story through the LGBTQ experience. After sifting and editing the work, we can now see both a little more clearly. That “… despite my distance/and the tendency of light/over ice toward mirage,/some shape comes through/that both of us/can recognize.” So Elizabeth Bradfield describes the successful failure in one of the collected poems.

And what shapes there are to recognize! Through M.C. Mohagani Magnetek’s tragic-comic stories we get to stand in the life of a transgendered woman and witness how saucily she handles the daily abuse that comes her way. Through the stories of Alyse Knorr and Morgan Grey we experience the failure of love on both sides of the equation of a closeted relationship. Reading Lucian Childs’ tale of a mature married couple, we get to view gay unions beyond the prevailing script of promiscuity and bar life.  

Other tracks in which we place our own feet: Gabrielle Barnett’s fading southern queen, clinging to the homesteader’s dream; Rosemary McGuire’s innocent young fishermen, caught up in a tragic first love; Indra Arriaga’s passionate traveler, torn between past loves and landscapes, confusing “the sweet odor of night with the blue smell of snow about to fall in Alaska.” We follow these tracks into a queer literary space.

And yet, our queer voices describe thoughts and feelings everyone shares. Some would go so far as to say now that queer people have the freedom to simply be ourselves, like a butterfly who has abandoned its caterpillar skin, we’ve no need any longer for Queer Literature.

Perhaps, but the power of literature resides in specificity. Our queer lives, though they be similar to those of our straight neighbors, have particular stories to tell. Queer people yearn to see these representations on the printed page. Yet they remain a rarity.

That this is so speaks to the publishing bias against gay stories. In the current business environment, authors worry being branded a “gay writer” can stunt or even end a budding career. Some develop protective strategies that write around the issue of sexuality. They relegate gay characters to an ancillary or supportive status. Some poets choose gender-neutral second person address to a beloved. Or writers simply give in to publishing pressure and write straight material.

Anthologies such as Building Fires in the Snow are of vital importance if the stories of minority communities are to be told. Anthologies are uniquely positioned to span the breadth of these communities by having a wide range of voices, ethnicities, sexualities and genders. With the support of academic presses, they are freed from the “bottom line” exigencies of commercial publishing to open a window onto rarely-seen aspects of culture.

The result can be powerfully liberating. Anthologies such as ours foster communities of shared struggle and can catalyze political and social action. Or they can simply be a book one holds in one’s hands and finds, with deep pleasure, that one is not alone.

With the publishing of Building Fires in the Snow, our faith in Alaska and its LGBTQ community has been realized. That the collection is the first of its kind creates an expectation for it to represent all the varieties of queer experience in the state. Though this was our mission, we quickly understood the limitations under which we labored: the relatively small pool of queer material from LGBTQ and ally Alaskans, the number of people too busy with their own projects or not sufficiently ‘out’ to be published in a gay book.

In the end, just a quarter of our writers identify as people of color/bi-racial, none Alaska Native, and, like the bulk of our state’s residents, most of the works are set in urban areas. Within these limitations, we have carved out what success we can by taking a pointillist approach. As complex as the picture we’ve drawn, the shape you see of Alaska and its LGBTQ community is incomplete. We leave it to others to fill in all the dots.

We look forward to discussing these issues and more at the launch events for Building Fires in the Snow being held throughout the state this fall. You can check out what’s happening on the Events page of this website and keep up to date on our Facebook page