In the closing scene of Olivia Hill’s recent memoir “Travel North Black Girl,” the author, who has just spent a long school year with her husband, a teacher in the Alutiiq/Sugpiaq village of Tatitlek on Prince William Sound, boards a plane alone and leaves. It was the early 1980s, and with her marriage crumbling and the couple’s standing in the village damaged by her husband’s growing alcohol and drug problems, Hill decided for the first time in her life to take control of her own future.
“I had gained a sense of power over me that I didn’t have before, by simply making the choice,” Hill told me by phone earlier this summer. “Something I’d had so little of in my life. And in that moment, I made a choice. I put myself on that plane. And I thought it was a choice that was going to make me strong enough to do anything and everything.”
Readers can be forgiven for thinking that she maintained her newfound autonomy in the decades since, but real life isn’t like fiction, and Hill said she’s had to keep fighting for that independence ever since. “It’s one thing to come of age, and you have your ah-ha moment,” she explained. “Then you have to live it out. But you’re still living it out using old tools, and damaged tools. I had to meet the challenges of what had shaped me, and put those things away, get rid of them, and start replacing them.”
This gets to the theme of the memoir, where she writes of growing up poor and Black in Kansas City in a family that was at once both nurturing and abusive. In many ways, it prepared her for Tatitlek, where she saw the social ills she had grown up enduring sometimes mirrored. Yet there was also a familiar source of comfort she knew from her own upbringing, one that maintained social cohesion. “It was one of the things that I found being in an indigenous village in Alaska,” she said. “They also held that sense of belief about sharing stories.”
Listening to stories, Hill said, is something she learned from a young age. “The thing that I possess, if I possess anything at all, is how I heard things. I listened as a little kid to the old folks. I’d sit by the window.”
Hill grew up in a family that was tightly bonded, but also capable of inflicting considerable harm on each other. In her book, she writes quite matter-of-factly about the violence that was done to her as a child, even at the hands of relatives, and of the complex emotions that arise in families where loyalty to each other is inextricably entwined with moments of horror. “I had to live with that,’ she said, speaking of her brother, “someone I both loved, and also hated for the abuse, but that was the only protector that I had at any point in my life, growing up as a kid.”
A protector is what her husband Seth failed to be in Tatitlek. The two came to Alaska in 1982 so he could obtain a teaching job. Seth was a Jewish Peace Corps veteran whom Hill met and married at a young age. Their mixed-race marriage was frowned on by his friends, and denounced by his father. She found herself wondering if Seth had married her as a problem to solve, even as his own problems festered. The stresses on their union, both internal and external, followed them to the village, and the book weaves back and forth between that fateful school year and Hill’s tumultuous life leading up to it.
In the closing pages, it seems the marriage is over, and Hill is careful to note that both of them came up short. Hill told me the couple reconciled that summer, though, and Seth asked her to return north where he was exploring further teaching opportunities. “My words to him were, ‘Anywhere but Fairbanks.’ And what does he do? He takes a job in Fairbanks.”
Hill spent well over a decade in the Golden Heart City, where her writing career began as her marriage reached its end. While learning culinary arts she signed up for an English course with the late renowned poet Patricia Monaghan, who was then teaching at the University of Alaska. The two developed a close and enduring friendship as Monaghan mentored Hill in the art of composition.
Hill wrote a short story for the class about the church she was attending at the time, titled “Oh God, Forgive Me For Thinking That.” Monaghan submitted it to a literary magazine, and it became Hill’s first published work. “And from that moment on, I became the writer that I never got a chance to be when I was a little kid writing poetry in junior high,” Hill said.
Monaghan would also guide Hill into theater, and Hill’s first script, “Mother Spence,” won the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award from the Kennedy Center. She followed this with “The Price of Bail,” a full length play about three sisters – a nurse, a prostitute, and a student – and their brother, who stands accused of rape. Their mother demands they come up with bail money to get their brother out of jail.
“It had an overlay of this idea of ancestry and culture,” Hill explained of the play’s themes, which are echoed in her memoir. She wanted to present “the roots of the power of ancestors, pulling something out of us that gives you the sense of ability. Where you belong.”
Despite these initial successes, Hill struggled to get her work noticed. She suffered a nervous breakdown, spent a year in treatment, then subsequently found herself a divorced single mother in a cabin in Fairbanks, barely scraping by. “My daughter will tell you to this day that she remembers when all we had to eat was rice,” she said.
Hill’s writing subsequently took a backseat to raising her two children, and she eventually left Alaska, although she retains close ties to Fairbanks. Her career took her to the East Coast where she ran a gourmet foods company, then eventually back to Kansas City, where she now lives with her son, daughter, and grandchild. While her daughter was attending graduate school, Hill cared for her grandson, and it was this was when she returned to the storytelling that has been such a part of her life. “I was sitting in my grandson’s pre-k center with nothing to do,” she recalled, “and I started the book, sitting in that parking lot, in the car, writing.”
“I thought I was writing it for my daughter to give it to her as a graduate gift from graduate school,” Hill continued. “But I soon realized there was more to it than that. Yes, it was for her, but it was for her in the bigger sense of the hers like her. I want what happened to me not to have to happen to someone else.”
Part of what Hill had to overcome was the natural reticence towards sharing stories with the broader culture that exists within Black communities. “In Black culture, you don’t do that,” she said. To share, she explained, “meant danger. It meant the possibility of your life. It’s a carry-over from all of those things. We haven’t learned what you give and you don’t give. You give nothing.”
She said what she wants her readers to take away from the book – especially young Black readers who seek to be writers – is “the empowerment. For me, being a woman, being African American, having dealt with mental illness, depression, just the layers and layers and layers. There’s a lot of shame that society has attached to us. And in that shame you stay silent. I wanted to break that.”
Black Americans have been coming to Alaska since at least the 1840s, when Black whalers plied waters beyond what was then Russian territory, and they have been here ever since. “People don’t think of us as being in Alaska,” Hill said. “Yet we are there.”
Their stories, however, have rarely been told, and publication of “Travel North Black Girl” is a significant work for that reason alone. But it’s Hill’s storytelling skills and focus on prompting readers to pause and follow their own reflections that make it a truly notable book. She doesn’t tell her readers what to think. She instead gives them much to think about on their own. One needn’t be Black, female, Alaskan, or anything else other than human to find commonality in her account.
“Ordinary people,” need to tell their stories, Hill emphasized. “Everyday people. Tell them to your kids, tell them to your grandkids, tell it to your neighbor. Share pieces of your life. Those are the things that will help us to realize that there is not that much difference between us.
“Everyday people’s stories are the foundation of a nation.”
Longtime Alaska freelance writer and book critic David A. James is the editor of the Writing on the Edge, a forthcoming anthology of contemporary Alaska nonfiction and fiction.