I was recently lucky enough to be able to attend a short writing workshop given by Kathleen Jamie, Scotland’s new makar. At the coffee break I was bold enough to ask for her to sign a copy of her book Surfacing for me. I explained that I’d enjoyed it so much that I had bought several copies of it as presents for friends since I first read it a couple of years ago. I had actually ended up giving my own book to one friend, so I’d bought another copy on my way in that morning. I’d been intending on re-reading it soon anyway – but as it was, I had only read a few pages in the time before the workshop began.
Kathleen kindly took my pen and, before she signed the book, asked if I wanted her to include my name – “Yes please.” I said, and she replied, joking a little, “You won’t be able to give this one away then!”
I wish I had got a little further through my re-read of the book so I could have asked her questions. Two years is long enough that I’m afraid I had forgotten a lot of detail – and about my own experience of reading this slim collection of anecdotes, journeys and meetings. I just remembered really enjoying it (hence all the copies bought for presents). Now I’m nearly at the end of my re-reading, and I’m even more amazed at it than I first was. Alex Preston in the Observer’s review quoted on the cover was spot on when he said that Surfacing is “wonderful writing, testing the limits of nonfiction”.
One of my favourite parts of the book is the story of Kathleen’s visit to Quinhagak (pronounced ‘Quin-ah-hawk’) a village and dig-site in far western Alaska, just under 60ºN. It’s a tale close to the book’s title, and close also to the story of our times: the reason there is a dig-site at Quinhagak is because thawing permafrost and coastal erosion are revealing (and destroying) the preserved site of an indigenous village many centuries old.
I wanted to pick out a paragraph to quote here, but that’s far from easy. This is quietly flowing prose that is filled with the air of a place not to be rushed, to be taken in slowly, and breathed out with considered thought. It is all wonderful, but below is a fragment – like the sherds and pieces eased from the thawing tundra – an excerpt describing watching a group of local elders who have been invited to look at some of the archaeological finds and talk about memories which these objects conjure. They have been asked to speak in their own language, Yup’ik, with an anthropologist who has spent her career working with this language.
My latest re-reading of Surfacing made me want to give this firm recommendation here, and has also made me think of even more friends I want to give a copy of this wee jewel of a book! However, I will now be definitely hanging on to my own (makar signed) copy.