I didn’t write a story set in the Yukon until last year.
The why of it is difficult to explain. The why of it became something to ponder after reading Thomas Wharton’s old blog post “I hate it here”, a reflection on why students in his creative writing class at the University of Alberta never seemed to write about Edmonton:
But I also shouldn’t have been surprised that this student never writes about Edmonton. It seems to be the attitude of most beginning writers here that only New York, London, or Big Gritty Generic City USA are proper settings for a story (actually the problem for them isn’t so much Edmonton as an unworthy setting as it is Canada altogether, which is another problem for another post). Many of my students over the years have set stories in these famous foreign cities, often for no good reason other than they believe this is where stories take place. Stories that matter, which seems to mean stories they see on TV.
The funny part is, I have written about Edmonton ever since I went to the same university between 2006 and 2010. I never took any of Wharton’s classes (or any creative writing courses at all), but as much as I shared the disillusionment with the city expressed by many of those who did, it didn’t stop me from mining the place long after I left. I even chose it as the setting for a novel back when I first tried my hand at NanoWriMo in 2014. Likewise for other places I’ve touched: stories sent in Montreal, where I did my Master’s degree, stories set in southern Poland, stories set in northern British Columbia.
Yet not Whitehorse, where I’ve spent the greatest portion of my life. Not the Yukon, which doesn’t carry Edmonton’s stigma of being boring or ugly or “characterless.” The influence of the Yukon appeared in other ways: typically how I wrote about landscapes, nature, animals. Gunpowder Season, my first real attempt at a novel (and one I’m still trying to get published), was indelibly born out of the Yukon winters and forests despite the secondary world in which it takes place filled with canoes and muskets. But what was implicit wasn’t explicit. For whatever cultural cachet the Yukon carries in the North American collective imagination, overwhelmingly informed by the early twentieth century writings of Robert Service and Jack London, of harsh wilderness, colourful characters, and adventure, that sense of a mystical North was one I was never completely at ease with.
That’s part of the main problem, I think, why the Yukon didn’t come immediately to me as a place for new stories. The physical Yukon was home, but the literary Yukon constructed by long-dead writers and maintained by our tourist industry seemed impossibly remote from the experiences that I wanted to explore. The name carried associations I wasn’t keen to engage with then. The more recent works I saw about the territory likewise seemed straightjacketed by the same vision, at least in what few pieces I saw coming out of the Canadian SFF field—admittedly, not many at all.
Attitudes change, of course; at some point I came to the same realization as found in Wharton’s piece. We aren’t beholden to the narratives of others, or at least we’re not required to agree with them. Sometimes it’s important to engage with the place you know best as a source of creativity and itdeas, to reflect your home back to the world.
Even if that image strikes others as unfamiliar.