A Myriad Reckoning: Seismic: Seattle, City of Literature

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“At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land.” – Chief Si’ahl or Sealth of the Suquamish & Duwamish, namesake of the city of Seattle

I learned that the trees of Seattle pulse with the remains of humans as, outside my window, ash fell like snow and smoke engulfed the city. I was reading the words of Ken Workman, the great-great-great-great grandson of our city’s namesake Chief Si’ahl, whose ancestors laid to rest their dead in the branches of trees. Since glaciers lobed the land where I write, Duwamish people have lived and died, decayed into the soil, enriched and exhumed from the plants that grow out of it. “Modern people are breathing the air provided by our Duwamish ancestors through the trees,” says Workman. I looked up from reading this, huddled inside from the wildfire smoke engulfing the West Coast last summer, and the three towering pines outside my window had fallen into smoke shadow, silhouettes barely visible in the haze.

Seismic: Seattle, City of Literature, an essay collection that closes with Workman’s canonical words, was curated to ask artists and storytellers what it means for Seattle to be designated a UNESCO City of Literature, and how story can be a force for change. Seismic seized and shook me so many times. It brought home into a new light. The collection is a requiem and reckoning. It’s a collective call to walk and write and hear our narrative landscape. In myriad ways, all the writers in Seismic ask: What do stories mean for our relationships with one another, with the earth? What stories have been lost? What stories are we in danger of losing? What stories are we writing for our future?

I picked up Seismic from my local bookstore for free—an act that felt like a small, electrifying transgression. I saw the bookseller get a charge from it, too, our eyes meeting above our masks as she handed me the slim volume. On its cover, Mita Mahato’s prismatic hands reach out, fractured and unified.

Written before Seattle became the first US epicenter of the pandemic, before we became one of the most active protest sites for Black lives, before we were deemed an “anarchist” city alongside Portland and New York, before wildfire ravaged our Coast, before an insurrection breached America’s Capitol, Seismic resonates with all the currents of our ongoing local, national, and global crises.

What do we glean in our Coast Salish bioregion where, Rena Priest writes, “storytelling has been a way of life since time immemorial”? We know humanity’s ancient history on these shores through our indigenous folkway. “In our stories,” says Workman, “we can track the ice sheets back to 10, 12, and 14,000 years.” “Shhh,” writes Jourdan Imani Keith, Seattle’s Civic Poet. “We are walking on Lushootseed words, like the early grass, like the rattle of the camas flower dried in the wind.” Lushootseed, a Coast Salish language spoken by the Duwamish, means saltwater speech. On this shore of our long-awaited subduction earthquake, we feel, writes editor Kristen Millares Young, “our fate within a seismic reckoning which I’ve come to see as myriad.

I grew up here in Seattle, which my dad was fond of calling “a small northwest fishing village,” an epithet he used with irony and remembrance. Taking the bus downtown as a teenager in the ‘90s with my friends, I ventured from my cloistered, middle-class suburban neighborhood infrequently enough that the increasing density of people was noticeable.

Reading the Indigenous stories and traditions in this collection, it was not lost on me that I was learning them for the first time. It was not lost on me that I was learning them at the very moment when this land and these trees were being choked by smoke, a toxic atmosphere of our own making. It is an insidious ignorance to grow up in a place and not know the stories of its people—people who have been here since what the colonial narrative would call “prehistory.” An ignorance born of redaction, of silencing voices that belie the narrative of those in power.

“I have been taught by polite society never to publicly acknowledge the true story of the people who belong to this place,” writes Rena Priest, a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation. “We don’t say ‘genocide.’ We don’t say ‘murdered, cheated, displaced, and starved.’ We don’t say those things.”

What stories, what voices, are being silenced today? In our myriad reckoning, what narratives are we endangering, are we sowing? The careless cruelty of the words shelter in place when you are shelterless. Our self-evident truths, defended as vehemently as they are exposed. The words we’ve heard again and again and again and again: “I can’t breathe.”

If we listen, we might hear the silences of our past, voices from long ago witnessing us in the present. We might divest ourselves of the myth that our crises are unrelated, that we can somehow overcome poverty, or violence, or racism, or climate devastation alone. We might divest ourselves of the myth that our ecological and human suffering are not kin. Of the myth that we are somehow riven from our own past.

I have always felt, in the words of Jourdan Imani Keith, that “there is something sanctified about Seattle.” In Pioneer Square, our early city, we “step over squares of lavender light in its sidewalk”—the light down to our ruins. Beneath our feet are the underground remains of the original city, burned in the great fire of 1889. And here in Pioneer Square, Ken Workman reveals, the specter of the past is much older. “It took my whole life to understand that I grew up surrounded by ancestors—not a memory, but a biological reality,” Workman says. “Burial sites, kyo-ali, are a corpse place. Cemetery. So when relatives would pass, if a high-status person, you got elevated—buried among the branches of trees.” Our early city, built just over a century ago in the burgeoning of Seattle’s timber town, was “made from trees grown right here”—trees that absorbed the DNA of Workman’s ancestors.

“So he was right, Chief Seattle,” says Workman, “when he said that when the lights are out, and the streets are empty, our ghosts will throng among you.”

Here in the world’s largest city named for a Native American, Timothy Egan notes, “the honorific did not extend to the most basic human right: early on, the city passed a law making it a crime for a Native to live in the place where Sealth’s ancestors had been living for centuries.” Today, the Seattle chronicled by these writers has become a tech mecca of ever-growing divides between the wealthy and the vulnerable—the latter of whom are disproportionately Black, Brown, immigrant, refugee, queer, and trans communities. A city “gleaming with digital distractions and digital aggressions” (Timothy Egan), of “displacement and desperation” (Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore), of “gentrification that has increased homelessness and forced many Black residents in the historically Black Central District to move farther South” (Charles Johnson).

For all of these writers, Seattle’s inclusion in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network underlines our city of storied paradox. On the one hand we are “the quintessential writer’s city” (Rena Priest): one of the most literate cities in the country, where our “nearly mythic” rain incubates our “brooding inner climate” (Charles Johnson), and our geographic far corner grants us a creative freedom “at land’s end under sullen skies” (Timothy Egan). “Literature is seat,” writes Jourdan Imani Keith, “…for a soul that dangles off the edge of a continent.” Seattle has been home to Frank Herbert, Octavia Butler, Raymond Carver, and August Wilson; we have the most bookstores per capita in the country and are brimming with literary and artistic spaces like Hugo House, Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, Creative Justice, Lit Crawl Seattle, Northwest Folklife, and Bumbershoot, one of the largest urban arts festival in North America. Yet whose voices are present in these spaces? Claudia Castro Luna, Washington’s Poet Laureate, attends a reading where, like too many other literary gatherings in our libraries, bookstores, schools, nonprofits, and cafes before, “I again noticed that people of color were largely absent.”

Seattle is home to the two richest people in the world, and a cityscape being transfigured as rapidly as the publishing industry by a monopolistic behemoth that began as a bookstore. (Before Amazon was named Amazon? It was Relentless. Relentless.com still reroutes you to Amazon’s site, the company’s ethos an open secret even by name.)

In our self-proclaimed “sanctuary” city, a supposed haven for immigrants and artists, Dujie Tahat writes, “so many artists have been pushed out of Seattle as the city’s economy ‘soars.’” “Blink and you miss a remake of the skyline,” writes Timothy Egan—and with it, a remake of our residents. Who is here to witness and voice our narratives? Whose narratives and voices are here to be witnessed?  “When developers control the language,” writes Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, “everyone loses… If this isn’t dystopia, I don’t know what is.”

As we build and build on unstable ground, we feel the divide between our silenced and dominant narratives mount pressure, on the contested ground of truth and liesOn Pike and 12th in Capitol Hill last summer, like so many other streets across the country, the divide took the form of a police barricade. Before the pandemic, I crossed the rainbow crosswalks of that intersection every Tuesday on my way to Hugo House, a writing center where many of the writers in this collection teach.

At the barricade, whether or not we were physically there, every person in the city chose a side, even those who still hold the myth that it is possible to be neutral, to be silent. On one side we wore plainclothes and held umbrellas; on the other, uniforms and riot gear, tear gas. The breaking moment came in a pink umbrella, crossing from one side to the other, a hand crumpling it, and clouds of tear gas rising up, swallowing people and buildings in a toxic, choking rainbow bloom. The surrounding area continues to be a site for contested autonomy and the use of force.

All over the country we have witnessed the state use force and capture in response to Black Lives Matter protests; we have witnessed journalists targeted with arrest and seizure of recording equipment; and now, we have witnessed law enforcement, at the Capitol, collapse to—and in some cases participate in—a white supremacist insurrection.

Reading Seismic, it was not difficult, in this “anarchist” city built upon massacred ghosts, to imagine the words I was reading becoming seditious. Editor Kristen Millares Young ushers in the collective warning of these writers that “we are ceding control of the narrative.” She asks, “To what end?” What is it to be an artist, a writer, a storyteller, in this culture? What is the role of story? “As far as I understand literature to have a purpose,” writes Dujie Tahat, “it is meant to reflect back to us our fullest selves, to speak truth to power, and to be a site for greater individual and communal reimagining.”

The collective reimagining in Seismic calls for literary revolution. That call echoed nationwide last year through the publishing industry’s reckoning, with #PublishingPaidMe and #BlackouttheBestsellers exposing the scale of racial disparity in author advances and underserved narratives of Black authors and readers in America. Claudia Castro Luna calls on us to “narrow the gap between who we are and who we imagine ourselves to be.” Anastacia-Renée turns to Audre Lorde’s I Am Your Sister for “sermon,” reflecting that if she could call on Lorde for “a blessing for this city, it would be to add more platforms, avenues, megaphones and bridges for voices who live between the lines, in white spaces and in the margins.”

In a line that struck me in my writer soul (italics my own) Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore asks, “If this is a great literary city, how do we expose all the layers of violence so we can imagine something else? How do we write what we really feel, so we can feel what we really need? How do we use language to expose hypocrisy rather than camouflaging harm?” In her questioning, I feel myself quicken and unfold. This is one of the beautiful things Seismic does again and again—turns you into and out of yourself. Lays bare the individual to the communal. Only by clarifying ourselves can we reflect the truths around us. As writers, and as a culture, only by manifesting our language and redeeming our own stories can we reach greater truths.

“We are more than what people want to see, sometimes more than even we ourselves expect to see,” writes Wei-Wei Lee, Seattle’s Youth Poet Laureate. “We are not bound to the lots we draw.” Coming of age as a poet in Seattle, Lee overcame the expectations of others for the freedom of “writing for the sake of feeling.” In a culture obsessed with audience-as-consumer, how do we look to our inner myths, our inner divides, to see the unfolding all around us? How do we remember that, as Lee writes, “we create because it is in our nature”?

Almost every day since the pandemic I’ve walked Discovery Park, the westernmost point and biggest green space in the city, a fin of land jutting into Puget Sound. This year, as blackberries ripened and withered and snow melted and reappeared on the mountains, home felt distilled, renewed, ancient. On the first day of lockdown in March, I had never seen the park quieter. The only kites in the meadow were caught in trees. It felt like a future past. A palimpsest of lobed ice and earthquake and tsunami and the People of the Inside and war fortress and childhood. Never in my life have these dunes, forest, mountains, sea, lost their dizzying, humbling power. Never have they ceased to make me feel small.

Seismic echoes with the “pregiven poetry,” in the words of Charles Johnson, “in the extravagant beauty outside our windows: the looming volcanic cone of Mount Rainier and, west of the city, the Olympic Mountains descending into Pacific rain forests; to the east there are desert lands, glacial lakes, 3,000 kinds of native plants, and hundreds of islands in Puget Sound.” As Timothy Egan writes, Seattle is “the only city in which you can see three national parks—Olympic, North Cascades, Rainier—from a good perch in a downtown skyscraper on a clear day.”

In our lush nature, I feel most intensely the specter of the past meeting the specter of the future. Some days I can see the water rising up in a mountainous wave, feel the ground beneath me quake, finally giving in to our Cascadia fault. Now a more final specter emerges, in the smoke and extinctions of our wake, of climate collapse. Living in a city where nature surrounds us, writes Egan in words that made me shudder with recognition, “prompts pulse-raising trauma about how quickly this planet could die.”

This is our final chance to integrate our stories, to reconcile our truths. To see that our present devastation looms out of our past, on this unceded Duwamish land “deforested and poisoned by the hands of our forebearers,” writes Kristen Millares Young, “who straightened rivers, sluiced hills and flooded shorelines in the name of prosperity that has not yet been shared.”

I walk through the park, through old growth pine and cypress that creak and whisper and rush and wail in the wind. I walk to the tip of this fin of land—the place where the city reaches farthest into the Sound. Though the name of the park tells a much more recent story of Discovery, humans have dwelled here for millennia. Now called West Point, this land was once called Sandy Point by early mariners and before that, Per-co-dus-chule or Pka’dzETcu by the Duwamish, thrusts far out.

On a clear day, Mt. Rainier stuns in her proximal splendor. In the gloom the mountain hides so well, and for such long spells, that I’ve seen friends new to Seattle discover her after weeks of living here, when she emerged, astonishingly close, immense, and beautiful.

I say her.

Rena Priest recounts a Lummi story about Kwome, Mount Rainier. Kwome was once married to Komo Kulshan, Mount Baker. One day she left him and moved south, forming the islands of the Salish Sea on her way. Writes Priest, “On a clear day he can see her standing so tall and beautiful with the sun on her face. When she catches him looking at her, she gets mad and draws the clouds around her again. That’s why it’s cloudy here all the time.”

I have always loved our mist-cloud gloom. Growing up I felt wrapped in it, the gloom a sanctuary, freeing me to my inner world. I learned to slip inside it. I feel such fealty to the storytellers in these pages, who again and again revere its creative, inner deliverance.

All that time growing up, I never knew I was wrapped in Kwome’s clouds. I was riven from the stories of the first people who knew her. And from a folkway and a way of life that believes we belong to the earth rather than it belonging to us. Workman says:

I am just a voice telling a story, but it’s really the story of the whole planet, and only in modern society have we lost our minds, put bodies in hermetically sealed boxes in the ground, so the biological materials of those that have passed never mix back into the ground. It’s as if a steel plate were shoved between dynasties, between modern human beings and all that came before. Humans have been self-exiled from becoming one with the rest of the planet.

What would it mean to reconnect to the ancient folkway living around and inside us? Would we behold the mountain as she reveals herself, as she reveals us to ourselves? Would we begin to feel, in order to release, our self-exile? In Kwome’s mythic clouds we sense a chrysalis for the spirit where new sight might emerge. Where we might see again our true, sacred belonging to the earth and one another.

Says Workman, “People call them stories. I’m just telling you the truth, and people say it comes out as a story.”

Now that I know Kwome’s story, I can only wonder what she felt inside our wildfire smoke: choked, panicked, doomed. Trapped in a suffocating shroud of our making. After all the dreamlike lucidity she has given us, swaddling us in her glorious gloom. I can only wonder, what will become of her? What will become of us? Will we listen to her in time?

What story will come of this place she calls home?


Seismic is available for free from Seattle City of Literature. Limited print copies were released in Seattle bookstores & Seattle Public Libraries, and you can download the digital edition here.

Katherine Shaw is a writer and research editor living in Seattle on the Salish Sea. Her work has appeared on the NYC Liars League podcast, in Nature Reviews, and in National Geographic. She holds an MA in Global Development from the University of Sydney, and guest lectures on creative and scientific storytelling for her alma mater the University of Washington. Katherine calls New Zealand her second home. You can find her at www.katherinedshaw.com and on Twitter at @katherinedshaw. More from this author →