By Corinna Cook, PhD
Seagulls swoop and dive, crying in the salty air. The waves of Nushagak Bay crash on sandbars and rocky shores. Machines rattle the warehouses on the cannery side of the village “where the beach flattened and the boardwalks grew tall.”
So many sounds; so many stories. Yet as I page through Mia Heavener’s new novel Under Nushagak Bluff under the long shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the novel’s subtle and steady investigation of silence that most captivates me.
Under Nushagak Bluff follows the descendants of a character named Marulia, the only one in her bloodline to survive an early 20th century epidemic. Marulia relives the loss every day of her life. Yet she passes only fragments of the experience on to her daughter, Anne Girl.
The growing gaps in one family’s story loom as characters navigate more immediate tensions with Nushagak’s missionary and cannery presence. Early in the novel, mother and daughter glance at the fresh, painted siding and clean white steps on their way to check their fishnets: this new order makes Anne Girl feel “as if her qespeq was a sloppy shirt rather than a loose pullover that allowed the salt of the bay to move through her” while Marulia clicks her tongue at the chapel’s steeple “as if it were a large tooth feeding on the villagers.”
When the present is painful, much of the past goes unspoken.
Last week, Joe Yelverton published a piece in the Anchorage Press pointing out that consciousness of Alaska’s dark history with epidemics is conspicuously absent from our leaders’ statements, updates, and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Yelverton’s assessment, “leaving out Alaska’s [infectious disease] history tends to be the rule, and not the exception.” Yet our state has a very sensitive history of epidemics, which raises questions, as Yelverton says, about how exactly Alaska handles its history.
Under Nushagak Bluff does not explore historic Alaskan experiences of disease itself. Heavener’s focus lies just to the side of this: she examines an epidemic’s aftermath through the incremental erosion of one family’s knowledge about their own history.
Heavener’s novel asks, precisely how does historic understanding erode? Where does the past, personal and collective, get mis-placed, mis-taken, coded, and ultimately concealed? Heavener explores these questions with care and grace, a deep respect for her characters, and an allegiance to the land. Indeed, the book honors on every page a combination of sea, sky, beach, and tundra, along with the returning salmon, the crying gulls, and the ripe berries they bear.
So it is a particularly fascinating novel to read during the present moment that is saturated with a global pandemic’s fear and suffering, and also its vigilance, round-the-clock innovation, and far-reaching kindness.
As Nushagak draws its curtains during a WWII blackout order, Anne Girl gives birth to her own daughter, Ellen. By this time, Marulia is already buried and entombed with her memories. From Marulia’s era, there remains only Old Paul. He may be powerful, or just batty; villagers are unsure. Perhaps he would have been a shaman. But by and large, they agree: “Old Paul couldn’t curse or protect you if he wanted to,” writes Heavener. “It was the 1950s. No one had those powers anymore. They disappeared with the big death and the new stories of the missionaries.”
Having lost Marulia, Anne Girl will fixate more and more on Old Paul because, Heavener writes, “Anne Girl fiercely believed that Old Paul knew more but had locked all her family’s stories inside his bent body. And she wanted them.”
Heavener is of Norwegian, Polish, and Yup’ik heritage. An engineer by training and profession, she also fishes in Bristol Bay and holds an MFA from Colorado State University. Under Nushagak Bluff, published in November 2019, is Heavener’s first book and it’s a very exciting addition to the canon of the contemporary Indigenous novel, especially given Heavener’s unusual choice to set the story in historic times.
Indeed, the contemporary Indigenous novel is fundamentally a literature of today. It focuses on characters moving through today’s world—or, in Indigenous speculative fiction, on characters moving through tomorrow’s world—not the world of a hundred years ago, nor even the world of fifty years ago. With few exceptions (though Debra Magpie Earling’s Perma Red stands out as such), the canon primarily asserts active Indigenous presence in contemporary contexts and explores contemporary Indigenous experiences.
Heavener’s novel bucks this trend.
In doing so, Under Nushagak Bluff brings to mind filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk’s Nunavut-based IsumaTV, an artist collective and production company focused on historic reclamation (perhaps best known for producing The Fast Runner trilogy). In interviews, Kunuk says he makes historic cinema because youths’ lives depend on it. He means this literally. Underlying Kunuk’s vision is a consciousness of teen suicide in the north—an epidemic in itself. Kunuk makes historic cinema specifically because youth must have a history in order to imagine a future.
But instead of filling historic gaps with facts and images of western Alaska’s epidemic history, Heavener crafts a subtle and compassionate study of the human moments in which those gaps take shape. Because silence is also part of history.
And silence, in Heavener’s hands, is not inert. Silence is dynamic, as we see when Anne Girl is ultimately unable to pass on Marulia’s already fragmented stories. In one scene, Anne Girl begins telling her daughter Ellen about the village’s deadly flood and the frantic scramble to move up the hillside. But Ellen is distracted by a fly on the ridge of her shinbone and Anne Girl stops cold. And so “the story was only partially true,” writes Heavener. “She left out details of the sudden illness, which spread like tundra fire and killed the majority of the villagers before the flood buried their homes.”
Though Anne Girl leaves out the sudden illness, it is the epidemic that drives her story’s urgency—an urgency that, stymied, turns hostile:
Anne Girl pulled Ellen’s chin toward her with a bony hand, her fingertips digging in to the soft skin. “Listen now. This is your history. And now it’s in that swamp right there. You want that to happen to you?” She heard herself, high and shrill, like a squawking seagull over rotting salmon, both announcing and defending its find. But she wanted Ellen to understand that this was her beginning, where her blood was rooted in the soil.
Of course, child-Ellen doesn’t understand her mother’s anger—nor that her blood is rooted to soil holding the bones of so many lost to disease. But readers do.
So it is that stories become a currency of their own. So it is that the past grows more riddled with gaps and mysteries, and so it is that these drive the value of stories higher still.
As we hunker down to slow the spread of COVID-19, I highly recommend Jill Lepore’s piece on plague literature that recently ran in The New Yorker. She writes that “the enemy here is other humans: the touch of other humans, the breath of other humans, and, very often—in the competition for diminishing resources—the mere existence of other humans.”
But Lepore finds an interesting turn in modern plague takes. “The final terror” in recent works (like José Saramago’s Blindness) is not illness, bodily decay, and death, but more specifically loss of understanding. Modern plague literature underscores “the preciousness, beauty, and fragility of knowledge.”
And that is precisely where Heavener’s novel comes in.
Corinna Cook is a scholar and essayist with a background in Indigenous literature. Her essay collection, Leavetakings, comes out in November 2020. More at corinnacook.com.