This Friday at Hearthside Books, Juneau writer and UAS assistant professor of English, Ernestine Hayes, will release her book “Juneau” from Arcadia Publishing. A departure from her customary work in prose, “Juneau” is primarily a pictorial history of what is now Alaska’s capital.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Hayes says laughing at a talk about the new book at the downtown library. Conforming to the publisher’s strict, formulaic guidelines, word counts, and finding the right high-resolution photographs was challenging.
“With my other books I just sat down and wrote and then I revised, and revised, and revised, and I thought that was a lot of work. But I didn’t know anything,” she says.
She says the second reason she chose to do the project was more proactive.
“Just as we have to be together going into the future, we have been together from the past—at least from contact forward, we’ve been together. The history of Alaska is too often presented as a whole bunch of prehistory and then the Russians came. Right? And then is started to be history. I’ve seen too much of that and I didn’t want that to happen again. That’s why I accepted the project.”
While the book illustrates Alaska Native life in what is now Juneau and colonial attitudes that were present, Hayes says she does not focus on this. In fact, many of the pictures, and much of the written history are from Russian and US history forward.
“But I did put in one of the chapters and made it clear in other captions and comments and discussions that, you know, I acknowledge the history of the original people that have been here since time immemorial and do it as though it is an unremarkable fact. Which it is. It’s just something we should all know.”
Speaking of knowledge, Hayes says the most rewarding part of the project was learning.
“Even though I’d played in the mine when I was a girl, and run up and down the stairs at the A.J. and explored tunnels and trestles all over of Mt. Juneau and Mt. Roberts, I didn’t really know about the history and the people who were part of that all those mining efforts. Learning about that history was rewarding for me. I learned a lot about Juneau.”
Hayes writes about being a little girl in Juneau in another book of hers, the 2006 American Book Award winning memoir Blonde Indian—perhaps her best known work. When asked if that’s the work she’s most proud of, she mentions an essay titled “Winter in Lingit Aani Brings Magpies and Ravens.”
Here’s an excerpt from the piece:
“My grandmother instructed me about spiders, don’t hurt them she warned, learn from them. Watch them. Learn. Spiders greet the world early, they wake and get busy early in the day and early in spring. While the more familiar admonition for those that would lead a correct life is to wake before the ravens, rising before the spiders behooves us even more. The industry of spiders exemplifies right living.”
She says to pay attention to the metaphors in that essay.
“I think that’s the indigenous understanding. It’s not so much being able to see the connections, or being able to appreciate or experience the natural world, but it’s being able to recognize all those metaphors.”
It’s not uncommon for Hayes to speak of metaphors and similes—she teaches a full load of composition and creative writing courses at the university. Student Richard Radford has taken several courses from Hayes.
“I’ve really enjoyed all the classes and everything I’ve done with her. She’s really, really talented. She’s a really gifted writer, and a really gifted reader, and a very gifted editor. I would say she’s the most talented I’ve ever worked with,” says Radford.
With the holiday break coming up, Hayes is excited about some free time to work on a fictional extension of the character Old Tom in Blonde Indian, and a contemplative memoir called the Dao of Raven that retells one of the raven stories from a different perspective. And for those of you who are excited for more prose from Hayes, look in the new book Juneau. Even in the captions and short narratives one can hear Hayes’s literary voice.
As part of Gallery Walk, Hayes will be signing copies of “Juneau” this Friday at Hearthside Books from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m..