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Welcome, Carolyn Dekker!

This month we are celebrating the titles that we’ve acquired over the past twelve months. These manuscripts came to us through our open reading periods. Today we bring you Carolyn Dekker, whose memoir in essays North Country: A Pedagogical Almanac is due out next year. 

Have a manuscript you think we’d like? During our June Open Reading Period we are looking for poetry (chapbooks and full-length collections), short fiction (again, both chapbooks and full-length collections), novels, novellas, nonfiction (CNF, biography, cultural studies), anthology proposals, and translations from German. 

 

 

The Author

Carolyn Dekker holds a BA in Biology and English from Williams College and a PhD in literature from the University of Michigan. She lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and teaches English at Finlandia University. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Identity TheoryUp North Literary Journal, and Waccamaw. She has published scholarship on Jean Toomer, Leslie Marmon Silko, Willa Cather, and Emily St. John Mandel, and edited Jean Toomer’s A Drama of the Southwest for the University of New Mexico Press.

 

 

 

On Writing North Country

 

When higher ed institutions perform job searches and recruit faculty from around the nation and around the world, there’s a dissolution of boundaries. For the job-seeker, it’s never just about “Can I teach here?” but also, always, “Can I live here?” and “Can my family live here?”  When I arrived at Finlandia in 2015, I had barely set foot in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before and I was at the end of a ten-year marriage. Aside from a few story slams at a wonderful community storytelling event in Lewiston, Maine called The Corner, I was a fiction writer and scholar and had not turned my hand to creative nonfiction. But here I was living in this tremendously interesting place – and pondering literary texts for a living – with what felt like every single nerve exposed to the question of whether I could make a life for myself here.

The book started with the essay, “October: Pomegranates.” I felt I was capturing something interesting in the interweaving of the classroom life, the text we were using there, and my own life, and that this braid was a form that I could try to use again. When I teach creative writing, I often provide a formal model and ask my students to fill it. I set myself the same assignment, and more essays arrived until I eventually realized that I would have a seasonal round if I could coax an essay for each month of the year, which felt like a really useful way to bring this wonderful landscape and community into focus.

 


Excerpt from “November: How We Make Do”

 

I know the Keweenaw is home when I walk into a local thrift store and see a corner shelf devoted to half-empty bottles of shampoo. I don’t jump at the bargain, but I recognize the impulse that brings them to the sales floor. This town is home to people who think, Surely there must still be some use in this. Over the course of many slow browsing trips at the local thrift stores, I buy plates and mugs, flannel shirts, a dresser, countless flower pots and picture frames, sheets and towels. I buy canning jars, too, though in the years before our region finally begins to recycle glass, I have to be careful not to accidentally spend a quarter on a plain spaghetti sauce jar that won’t take a Ball lid.

I love this community with its skills for making last and making do, though I learn to watch out for it, too. Open a wall or floor in any hundred-year-old building in town, and you may find creative repairs fit to make a building inspector back away in horror. I’ve seen cracked floor joists splinted with a little plywood, two-by-fours standing in for banisters, a shower light fixture made from a Hills Bros. coffee can. These fixes roam the roads, too: the rust-obliterated frame of a classic Bronco pieced together with lumber, drive shafts made from the square stock legs of street signs, chimeric pickup trucks that go through two or three makes from nose to tailgate. I admire the ingenuity, but I wouldn’t want to drive it. Objects have a different life cycle here, caught in an eddy where they turn through many seasons until they truly live to the end of their use.

My husband’s first employment in town is on the floor at J.C. Penney, just in time for the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas rush. The job comes with minimum wage and a requirement that he wear red shirts, a color he considers uniquely unflattering. J.C. Penney is willing to sell him some, of course, but we decide to try the local consignment store first. This is how I find myself standing in an icy November wind after my teaching day is done instead of walking home. I’m waiting for my husband to pick me up for red shirt shopping.

While I’m waiting, I’m chatting with a student who’s suffering in the wind, too. His legs glow pink through big, flapping holes in his blue jeans. I’m nervous because there’s an opportunity here.

My colleague put me up to it. He thought I would have the—what?—tact? chumminess?—to pull it off. This star student, a bright-as-blazes sophomore, is one of those rare students who could have succeeded at any college but has chosen this one. Some years ago, the college agreed to pay the township for some land by educating the high school’s graduates on scholarship. This young man is riding that opportunity for all it’s worth, living independently, working full time in a restaurant kitchen, and making straight As.

But those pants. My colleague is worried.

To be honest, I hadn’t noticed them. Not so long ago, I was teaching in the Environmental Studies department at a college in Maine where the scruffiest students were often the wealthiest. Ragged clothing was more likely to signify a countercultural commitment to limit consumption or a joyous embrace of freedom from private high-school dress codes than it was to indicate financial desperation. I planned to file my colleague’s concern and do nothing about it.

But then I found myself here, chatting with this exact student and waiting for a ride to the consignment store on the edge of town.

I ask my student if I can take him with us and buy him a few pairs of pants.

He flinches and straightens visibly, his pride wounded. He can afford pants, he tells me, he just doesn’t care.

I feel a flash of recognition—here is one of my people—and a simultaneous horror at having been lured into playing the role of the eyes and the voice of the world’s judgement. Silently cursing my colleague, I retreat like a coward behind the line, “Your professors are worried.” I’m only digging the hole deeper, making this more mortifying for both of us. My partner pulls up and I flee.