The North-West

TWO Booktown USA

wooden shed in an orchard
Virginia Woolf’s Writing Shed (c) Meirion Harries

Under her deep red sails, Heraclitus is cutting through the water beautifully. We puttered out of the marina under electric power, dodging the ferries, but the Race Marshal soon raised sail – that is, ordered me to raise sail – and north up the Puget Sound we glide at peace with the world.

The wonderfully-named (by George Vancouver) Marrowstone Island has passed to port and we are about to tack into the Salish Sea. There is something about being on a boat that makes one believe in omens and I’m possessed by a certain terror just now. Across from the Heraclitus is Port Townsend where Annie Proulx lives. It looks a beautiful place – but there sits the author of The Shipping News and I’m in dread that we re-enact the watery elements of her plot.

Frank Herbert

Uli Kaiser / CC BY-SA (

Another Seattle resident, Frank Herbert, wrote a book that relates to our journey in which a drug called spice gives extraordinary powers to navigators. Published in 1965, Dune remains the best-selling science fiction book of all time and much academic brainpower has been exercised in analysing its qualities. The plot partly hinges on the drug that is obtainable only from one world in the known universe. To many, this looks like prescience – “a thinly veiled allegory of our world’s insatiable appetite for oil” [1] – not yet the curse it was to become. To others, the book is an “hallucinogenic exploration of inner space” [2].

Some see the book as Herbert’s attempt to come to terms with diminishing freedom in the world. Using Jung’s ideas of the ‘collective unconscious’ he created the Bene Gesserit, a powerful, disciplined, ancient sisterhood intent on controlling the fate of humanity. Herbert’s thrust is that even though the collective unconscious of the Bene Gesserit may be the highest form of mind, the sisterhood’s purpose is “devoted to goals conflicting radically with the natural aspirations of the human heart and imagination” [3] – individual freedom versus the collectivity.

Herbert may have found the name for the sisterhood in the Latin phrase quamdium se bene gesset – as long as he/she shall have behaved well. When I mentioned this to the Race Marshal, she pointed out that the root verb is gero which is also used for waging war – as in bellum gero – which Herbert may also have intended.

The hero of the novel, Maud’Dib, is the son of a Bene Gesserit who did not behave well – in the sense that she had a child, forbidden to members of the Order. Her knowledge, however,, enabled her to teach her son the mantra he would need to survive the ordeal prepared by the Mother Superior to test if he was indeed the Kwisatz Haderach, the Supreme Being:

Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

It may be a mantra that sees many mutterings on this voyage.

Seattle is a writers’ town. There are dozens of wonderful bookshops (more per capita than anywhere else in America) and they all seem to have classy cafes attached. Next week The Book Larder – which has a proper kitchen – is hosting a demonstration by Nadia Tommalieh, a Palestinian chef who is going to cook hashweh (spicy rice and ground meat pilaf, sautéed vegetables and roasted nuts), salatah arabia (chopped vegetables in lemon, olive oil and sumac) and khiar bil laban (diced cucumber, garlic,mint and yogurt). Sadly, we’ll be out on the Pacific that day – grimly enjoying tinned salmon on a choppy sea.

Before we left Seattle, the Race Marshal went off to Sea Ventures: the proprietor launched this specialist bookstore with his own collection of oceanic writings. I headed to Open Books, the poetry bookstore, and bought three things: Boogie Woogie CrissCross is the exchange of emails between Tess Gallagher and Lawrence Matsuda over a three year period, he in Seattle and she in Ireland. Bright Ambush by Audrey Wurdemann is the collection that made her the youngest-ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (she was 24).

And my third acquisition was Agate Songs on the Path of Red Cedar – a collection by Duane Niatum published by the S’Klallam Tribe. Niatum is of mixed heritage – an Italian father and a S’Klallam mother. The Native American influence on Niatum is the greater because, after his parents divorced, his maternal grandfather stepped in to raise him. An important part of his upbringing was the telling of the stories of the S’Klallam – an oral tradition that resonates in his work.

Duane Niatum


Duane Niatum is part of what has been called the ‘Native American Renaissance’ and, in non-verbal form, this spirit of revival is also present in the work of the Salish weaver, Susan Pavel (in the Salish language, Sa’hla Mitsa). Her Du’Kwxaxa’T3w3l (Sacred Change For Each Other) was the first Salish weaving from traditional mountain goat wool for over a century. According to Pavel, this robe “is a feminine entity that has come forth to bring many teachings”. The sacred change of the title refers to the revitalization of Coast Salish cultural practices. The wavy lines and zigzags represent the life force, while the dashes are backbones, reminding us to be strong against life’s challenges.

It is hard to know where to stop writing about Seattle’s literary establishment. We haven’t mentioned David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars); the poet Theodore Roethke, who died across the bay from Seattle proper on Bainbridge Island, where David Guterson now lives; Mary McCarthy (whose Memories of a Catholic Girlhood describes her coming of age here); Inga Muscio (you will be familiar with Cunt: A Declaration of Independence); Jonathan Raban, who has lived in Seattle for the last thirty years; the sometime Guardian writer Ijeoma Oluo (So You Want to Talk About Race); Raymond Carver, poet and short story writer, one of America’s very best; Monica Sone, the Japanese-American author of Nisei Daughter (1953); Betty MacDonald (The Egg and I); poet and novelist Sherman Joseph Alexie Jr, a member of the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene Tribes (Reservation Blues); Octavia E Butler who, rejecting the firm advice from her aunt that “Negroes can’t be writers”, produced the visceral Kindred (and the Patternist, Xenogenesis and Earthseed series); and the Race Marshal insists I mention Frederick Schiller Faust who (under the pseudonym Max Brand) invented the medical intern Dr. Kildare.

So, when I tell you that, in 2017, Seattle was made a UNESCO City of Literature, you might not be surprised. The citation makes you want to move here:

Seattle’s identity as a literary city has coalesced around a 10,000-year history of Indigenous storytelling traditions, as well as authors like Theodore Roethke, Raymond Carver and Octavia Butler. Seattle is consistently ranked as ‘America’s Most Well-Read’ city and in the top three most literate cities in the United States of America.

Just now we are heading east along the Strait of Juan de Fuco, nearing Port Angeles, a small town on the Olympic Peninsula, where Raymond Carver died. His gravestone reads:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.


Annie Proulx’s speech at the 2017 National Book Awards Ceremony –

An interview with Frank Herbert –

Susan Pavel and The Tradition of Salish Coastal Weaving –

Tess Gallagher reads some of her poems –

Documentary on Raymond Carver ––24o – an excellent place to start exploring the Native American Renaissance.


[1] Frank Herbert’s Prescience: “Dune” and the Modern World William A. Senior Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol. 17, No. 4 (68) (Winter 2007), pp. 317-320

[2] Frank Herbert: On Getting Our Heads Together Peter Brigg Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, Spring/Summer 1980, Vol. 13, No. 3 – 4 pp. 193-202

[3] Psychic Decolonization in 1960s Science Fiction David M. Higgins Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 40, No. 2 (July 2013) pp. 228-245