Writers aren’t often asked by a publisher what they would like to write. But that’s what happened to me in 2014 while meeting with News-Miner managing editor Rod Boyce and features editor Gary Black. They hoped I could contribute something worthwhile and perhaps unique to the paper.
The next day I submitted a written proposal based on an idea I’d been tossing around for some time. Since Alaska has always been a magnet for immigrants, I wanted to launch a series of articles exploring what brought people from beyond our borders not just to America, but specifically to Alaska, what their experiences as foreigners in the Far North had been like, and why they decided to stay. Rod and Gary liked the idea, we quickly settled on a series title, and “Becoming Alaskan” was born. Rod told me, “We’ll let it run six months.”
Five years and more than 115 articles later, owing to a bit of burnout and a wish to explore new areas, I’ve decided it’s time to bring the series to close.
I was drawn to this idea by a combination of things. Having traveled extensively, I know the feeling of being a stranger in an unfamiliar culture. “What is this like for someone in my country?” I wondered. I have also strongly supported immigration all my life. I view America as an idea, not an identity, an idea that anyone can embrace and contribute to. And I treasure living in a society that includes an enormous diversity of people.
Fairbanks, I felt, held more diversity than people realized, and my foray into the world of immigrants proved me correct. I’ve written stories of people from all six inhabited continents and several island nations. I’ve found the reasons that brought people to Fairbanks vary almost as much as the people themselves. Some came to Alaska for adventures, others for careers. Military ties, whether as foreigners earning citizenship through service, or as spouses of servicepersons, have led others here. Marriage to an American who suggested moving north brought still more. Quite a few came to study and never left. Others were fleeing violence or religious oppression and found refuge in a place still big enough to provide room for all.
Everyone I’ve interviewed has contributed to our community. Many have opened businesses and now employ residents of Fairbanks. Others are professors, passing their knowledge and a bit of their native cultures along to students. A fair number work in our schools. Many local immigrants work in the medical field. (The most fun surprise for me was discovering that Fairbanks is home to not one, but two pharmacists from Nigeria, and neither knew the other before arriving here.) Many — in fact, most — engage with the community through churches, charitable nonprofits, athletic groups, outdoors organizations, performance troupes, and more. Through these and other ways, each has become Alaskan.
Some of the stories were filled with almost nothing but joy. Others involved tremendous difficulties. Laughter can be heard in every recording. Tears in more than a few. People explained the hardships they endured, and what it meant to them to come to America and be given a chance to start anew, an opportunity many never could have found elsewhere.
A year after launching the series, I was taken aback when “immigrant” suddenly became a term of derision in a presidential race. Having always believed in a welcoming America, the idea that so many people felt otherwise was more foreign to me than any person could ever be. As a way of pushing back, I kept after these stories, hoping to put a human face on those who had been unfairly under attack. I was fortunate to find immigrants from nations distrusted by many Americans who were willing to step forward. I also spoke with two who arrived in America illegally (one brought here as a very young child) who have since become citizens, and whose love for our country is as strong and genuine as anyone I’ve ever met.
Becoming Alaskan has easily been the most rewarding writing project I’ve ever undertaken. To have so many people share their life stories and entrust me to bring them to print has been one of the highest honors of my life. Whittling each of those stories down to the 1,000 words I was allotted has been one of my hardest writing challenges. Behind every story there have been details, quotes and contextual information that I simply couldn’t squeeze in. No person’s life can be told in a newspaper article, but hopefully my summaries have captured part of the essence of each person I’ve profiled.
While I’m bringing this series to a close, I’m not done with it. This fall I intend to archive each article on my webpage, and after raising the idea with several people interviewed, as well as a publisher, I’ll be putting together a book proposal. I hope to take some of the stories, expand and update them, and keep exploring immigration in Alaska.
In the meantime, my thanks go out to many people, first off Gary and Rod. Without their support, Becoming Alaskan wouldn’t have happened. Thanks also go to those who offered tips on who to interview, and to the many readers who emailed me, commented online, or even stopped me to talk. And, of course, my sincerest gratitude goes to all of you who willingly participated. By offering your stories, you helped your neighbors learn more about you, about themselves, and about what it means to be both an Alaskan and an American.
All mistakes have been mine.
I want to close this series with a quote from one of the earliest interviews I held. It comes from Lucy Evans, owner of Birch Tree Studios. Originally from Colombia, she went through many struggles on her way to becoming a business owner, an Alaskan and an American. She told me, “I want to leave America even better than I found it.”
These are words we all should live by.
Two weeks from now in this space, I will be launching a new series, Creating Alaska, which will focus on creators who bring insight into our home through art, writing, photography, video, music and more. As with Becoming Alaskan, it will be profile-based. Anyone wishing to share their work and experience as a creator in Alaska, or who has tips on who deserves publicity, should email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks.