It was a book signing and dinner with the authors that Fireside Books in Palmer prepared for as they would any literary event.
But this one was different.
This was an event that juxtaposed four authors loudly and happily discussing their lives as LGBTQ people with the Jesus t-shirt of a customer leaning on the counter behind them.
This was the debut of Building Fires in the Snow: A Collection of Alaska LGBTQ Short Fiction and Poetry.
A Beloved Story Sparks Collaboration
Building Fires in the Snow began three years ago with a single story by Martha Amore, a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The story had been published and left to be forgotten on a website.
That did not sit well with Amore, who is fond of the story and had always envisioned it in a book. So she decided to put together an anthology of LGBTQ Alaskan writers and feature her story alongside other similarly themed works.
Mei Mei Evans, a professor at Alaska Pacific University and former colleague of Amore, was immediately on board and volunteered a novella. Lucian Childs, a short story writer and long-time friend of Amore, joined the project as its second editor.
Amore pitched the collection to the University of Alaska Press, who eagerly picked it up. As Childs put it, the book “really fits their mission statement” of publishing diverse Alaskan works.
The project was originally titled Breaking Trail. It was an acknowledgement of the book as a pioneer and it alluded, literally and metaphorically, to aspects of life as a queer person in Alaska.
Nellie Clay, a singer-songwriter who now resides in Tennessee, lived in Anchorage for many years and recorded her album Never Did What I Shoulda Done at Studio 2200. In a song from that album, Clay sings about the power of setting fire to snow.
This imagery inspired the creative forces behind the collection. Childs explained that, while the concept of burning fires was evocative, they wanted a title with more emphasis on “what we do together as a community of queer Alaskans.” So they settled on “Building Fires in the Snow.”
Poetry Not Included in First Draft of Collection
Alaska’s community of writers is small. The subcommunity composed of LGBTQ writers or allies who write queer-themed short stories is even smaller.
Even with those limitations, Amore and Childs did not open the collection to submissions. “We needed writers with resumes,” Amore explained. Instead, they passed word of the project to prominent Alaskan authors and directly solicited short stories from writers they suspected would be interested in contributing.
Fiction writers like Morgan Grey, the former Executive Director of 49 Writers, Rasmuson Fellowship winner Dawnell Smith, and Alaska Humanities Grant recipient Leslie Kimiko Ward answered the call.
But the first Building Fires in the Snow manuscript was too short and University of Alaska Press encouraged Amore and Childs to broaden their scope to include poetry.
“Thank goodness [they] did,” Childs exclaimed. “The poetry in this volume… is quite astounding.”
It consists of works from poets such as Jerah Chadwick, an Alaska State Writer Laureate who passed away in June, and whose poem “Winter Country” opens the book; Amber Flora Thomas, winner of the Dylan Thomas American Poet Prize; Richard Peterson Price, and Ann Stanford Prize; and Vivian Faith Prescott, who was awarded a Rasmuson Fellow in poetry.
Anthology Offers Different Perspective on Queer Life, Alaska
The goal of Burning Fires in the Snow was to lay new ground.
Queer writing of the past was largely focused on the act and process of coming out, the realization and definition of the authors’ or their characters’ queerness. The stories in Building Fires in the Snow are different, say Amore and Childs, and less political: they deal with the intricate act of living.
Both editors believe that the subject matter encompassed in the collection will resonate with all readers, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. For a time, they even played with the idea of removing the LGBTQ acronym from the book’s subtitle, so as not to discourage straight and cisgender readers from giving it a try.
At the dinner with the authors, Teeka Ballas, cofounder of local arts publication F Magazine, read her fictional work “Carrots, Peas: in D minor,” a story of a woman watching her lover cook, attempting to understand her lover through the way she prepares the food she has grown, foraged, and hunted.
M.C. MoHagani Magnetek, an artist, poet, and anthropologist, also read one of her works. “Creep” deals unabashedly with topics like sexual harassment, gendered violence, and the perils of being a “classy, sassy” African American transwoman looking for sexual partners.
“Burning Fires in the Snow” might not just surprise some readers in terms of queer content, but also in terms of what it means to be a collection of Alaska writing.
Arriaga’s cover art is different than stereotypical non-traditional Alaskan art. There are no mountains, no northern lights, no eagles. And fire and snow are merely suggested by brushstrokes of reds, blues, and grays.
None of the stories included in the collection are non-fiction, for which Alaska is most well known. There are no thrilling tales of people battling the elements, emerging victorious over a cowed nature.
The collection’s contributors, and the characters and stories they have created, are inspired and profoundly affected by their interactions with nature, but most of the writers inhabit — and their stories encompass — urban spaces.
Acceptance Important for Writers and Readers
That the book should skew urban was not the original intent of either editor.
Amore and Childs quickly realized, and repeatedly emphasized at the dinner, that Building Fires in the Snow cannot be seen as a comprehensive catalog of Alaska’s LGBTQ writers. Some voices are missing, most notably those of rural and Alaskan Native authors.
This was not for lack of effort.
Amore explained that some of the writers they contacted chose not to participate. Some, she said, were not completely out. Others may have elected to not submit work because of the stigma associated with being labeled a queer writer.
This stigma can be particularly damning in Alaska’s political environment.
Almost anywhere in the state, a person can lose their job or home because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Anchorage Ordinance 96, passed in 2015, prohibits employment and housing discrimination against LGBTQ individuals living in Anchorage. But this, as well as the Supreme Court marriage equality ruling, happened after the writing and collection of the works in Building Fires in the Snow.
And it is not just writers concerned about being branded.
Magnetek frequently posts her poetry on Facebook and said that readers often send her feedback via private messages because they do not want to be seen liking or otherwise interacting with her work.
When Amore was involved in promoting the rejected Proposition 5, which would have amended Anchorage’s discrimination laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity, she found that the most aggressive opposition came from voters who had disassociated themselves so thoroughly from the LGBTQ community that they knew no one in it.
“Have you ever talked to a transgender person?” Amore asked opponents.
They never had.
Burning Fires in the Snow, Amore believes, can provide for straight and cisgender readers a quiet and private interaction with a section of the LGBTQ community — an interaction controlled by the writers and what they have chosen to reveal about themselves and their worlds.
“I really hope that straight people read this book,” Amore said.
A Spark for Future LGBTQ Projects
Building Fires in the Snow is the first collection of Alaska LGBTQ writing, but hopefully not its last.
Amore and Childs anticipate that their collection will inspire other Alaskan authors to write and publish queer literature. These writers might find, as Ballas did, that such projects can be exhilarating.
“One of the things that was really great… was being invited to do this,” Ballas said. “In all the writing I have ever done in my life, never have I gotten to blatantly write about being a lesbian. And that was really liberating.”