“What does it mean to be an American?” Ellen Knutson asked us. We had gathered at Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, which was hosting her Oregon Humanities Conversation Project, to explore this question. Most of us had just seen Tamastslikt’s newly opened exhibit “The Art of Survival: Enduring the Turmoil of Tule Lake” and our heads were full of the images and recorded voices of American citizens held in the most notorious of the World War II internment camps, so it wouldn’t be an easy question to answer.
But at a time when Americans are so often described as “polarized,” it seemed important to try. Americans have differences of race, ethnicity, place, religion, wealth, language, education, and ideology, Knutson had pointed out. So what are the things that unite us as a nation? What is it that we value?”
As I listened to the conversation — which kept going in the hallway, in the parking lot, and is ongoing in my mind — I thought, this is why stories are so important. Who are we? What stories do we tell about ourselves? Are our stories large enough to include all of us?
Perhaps the only way to make sure is to listen, and keep listening, to the stories of our neighbors. That’s why we work so hard to bring Northwest writers to the First Draft Writers’ Series at Pendleton Center for the Arts, and encourage anyone who signs up to read at the open mic.
From Shaindel Beers we heard what it is like to receive online death threats because you are Jewish. Xavier Cavazos let us imagine ourselves as performance poets rehearsing on the streets of New York City, where no one paid any attention, then in an abandoned warehouse outside Ellensburg, where police approached with handcuffs. How does it feel to be a Native poet reading the want ads when the vehicles are named for the indigenous peoples of America? Tiffany Midge’s satire let us laugh but made us think, too. Imagine searching the want ads for a peppy Scot, or a low-mileage Belgian.
Can we envision growing up at Hanford, sitting on our father’s shoulders to cheer President Kennedy’s visit, growing up to work at Hanford, then watching our childhood best friend’s father die of radiation-induced illness? “One box contains my childhood,” Kathleen Flenniken wrote; “the other contains his death / if one is true / how can the other be true?”
After Gary Lark shared his poem “Road Warriors” — about passing a convoy of soldiers on their way to camp when “Northbound on I-5, / the Iraq death count / for my old unit / drops from the radio”— he told us that because Oregon Senator Wayne Morse had prevented his National Guard unit from deploying to Viet Nam he was standing here, able to read to us. We all felt the shiver that went through the room.
Americans come in all ages, all genders, all ethnicities. Native American writers have read at First Draft, and Chinese and Japanese-American, student-American (performance poetry aided by cell phones; how do they do that?), gay-American, straight-American. One National Book Award for Lifetime Achievement-American. From all of them we’ve learned a bit more about who we are.
One of my favorite nights was when First Draft hosted Oregon Poet Laureate Lawson Inada, who was four when he left behind his blue tricycle and his dog and went to the Jerome and then Amache internment camps. “We’ve lived with the experience since,” he writes in Legends from Camp. (“I work on campus. / I try to concentrate. / Still, things sneak up / to remind me: / ‘This is not Amache!’”)
“Tell your own stories!” he urged everyone in the room. “It’s important.”
I thought of him as I walked back to my car, and of the person in our discussion group whose family had been sent to the Tule Lake Camp. Of Captain Jack, who held out in the nearby Stronghold for such a long time. And of the challenges that face us now, as Americans. Which stories do we believe?
The next First Draft is Thursday, Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. It’s free. I hope you’ll come.
Bette Husted is a writer and a student of T’ai Chi and the natural world. She lives in Pendleton.