scenery stock Ucross

Cottonwoods are golden along Big Red Lane at the Ucross Foundation.

Two of my favorite literary classics begin with references to awful November weather.

Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House” notes the “implacable November weather” full of mud, early darkness and endless London fog. And in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Ishmael says that whenever he finds himself “growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” he knows it is time to take to the sea.

Most of us can’t run away on a sea voyage, but we can immerse ourselves in fictional worlds for a change of scene. This week I learned that the winner of the 2020 International DUBLIN Literary Award was Anna Burns, for her novel “Milkman.” I read “Milkman” at the beginning of the pandemic and was completely mesmerized. (Novels by two Ucross Fellows were on the short list for the prize, Sigrid Nunez’s “The Friend,” and Tayari Jones’ “An American Marriage,” as well as Tommy Orange’s PEN Hemingway Award-winning “There There” — all wonderful books.)

The narrator of “Milkman” is an unnamed young woman known throughout her community as someone with the dangerous habit of “reading while walking.” The novel is set in Northern Ireland (where Burns grew up) during The Troubles of the 1970s, and the judges noted that “its brilliance lies in its compelling, questioning voice, its strong individual, resilient narrator, its evocation of place, its threatening and sinister atmosphere, its description of what Burns calls lives of ‘nervous caution.’” Nervous caution, now that sounds familiar in 2020.

November is also Native American Heritage Month, and this year Ucross is pleased to expand our new Native American Fellowships to include both visual artists and writers. 

The first Native American writer to be honored is Brendan Basham (Diné), who will come to Ucross for a residency later this month. He is a fiction writer, poet, educator and former chef, born in Alaska and raised in northern Arizona. He’ll work on finishing his first novel at Ucross. Last month we hosted the winner of our Fall 2020 Ucross Fellowship for Native American Visual Artists, Anthony Hudson, a multidisciplinary artist, writer, performer and filmmaker based in Portland. Anthony recently published a beautiful and moving monologue in American Theatre magazine that I highly recommend.

I have also been reading Ucross Fellow Toni Jensen’s (Métis) new book “Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land,” and “77 Fragments of a Familiar Ruin,” the first collection of poetry by Thomas King, an award-winning writer of Cherokee and German descent, and a Ucross Fellow. (I really loved his early novel “Green Grass, Running Water,” written here.)

For more Native American poetry, I suggest the powerful new anthology “When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through,” edited by Ucross Fellow and US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. With so many terrific books to turn to, I think we can make it safely through the rest of this year’s weather. We might even try reading while walking on Main Street.

Sharon Dynak is executive director of the Ucross Foundation.

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