What is PNW Lit? A Redux

I traveled to Portland on Friday to host a Joyland PNW reading at the Portland Lit Crawl. This was my second Lit Crawl event this fall and second time hosting on behalf of Joyland PNW. As host, I wanted to address the question I’m asking as I read submissions to this region’s section in Joyland. I asked the question earlier this year on the blog, and since then, I’ve come up with a longer answer.

When the Seattle Review of Books wrote about last month’s Seattle Lit Crawl, they noted that my “opening remarks had the hallmarks of a work in progress, that’s okay; this community is both diverse and changing fast.” So perhaps it will be a long journey to discover this answer, but one I’m excited to take as I continue to serve as a curator of Pacific Northwest fiction. For the time being, here’s what I came up with for the Seattle reading:

Standing here on Duwamish land held by historic narratives and contemporary stories, I ask: What is Pacific Northwest literature?

I’ve been asking myself that a lot since returning to Seattle last fall and more so in the last six months since taking on the role as PNW editor. If we define the PNW within the boundaries of the Pacific and the Cascades, stopping just short of Canada and just above California, with its own sun-soaked narratives and dark underbelly of LA noir meets Steinbeck sadness, who are the quintessential PNW fiction authors? Sherman Alexie, Ken Kesey, and Tom Robbins, perhaps. Alexie is the tragicomic genius of many mediums, illuminating characters’ lives often steeped in despair that he nonetheless finds a way to empower, even if that’s nothing more than giving them something to laugh about. Kesey is Oregon’s merry prankster of psychedelic hippie lit, but the end to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest still returns to me in lightning flashes. Robbins came from across the country and settled in a funky little town north of Seattle. His novels tend to stretch farther geographically, but their styles and structures are like the Wild West in book form, boundary-pushing pioneers of prose.

What connects Alexie, Kesey, and Robbins? Besides their obvious maleness? I think it’s their irreverence and playfulness, even in the face of tragic settings and heartbreaking plots. But to sum up who we are as writers in just that way doesn’t quite feel complete. I think there’s more, and it’s something sacred. Where our books may laugh in the face of the caste systems and the old money of the East Coast, we do show absolute reverence for nature. Many of us may lack religion, but we have no shortage of spirituality. We have fewer churches, but boy do we worship the mountains. Cheryl Strayed hikes the PCT to enlightenment and Lidia Yuknavitch continues to find new ways to transform bodies into oceans. Pacific Northwest writers have mossy souls.

So I think our literature exists in this intersection between the irreverent and the reverent. Perhaps you see it differently, and if so, I hope you’ll submit a story to Joyland that blows this theory of mine out of the water. 

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