Markers in Juneau, Alaska, of the graves of Rosemary Weller (nee Rosemary Ruth Axson) and her daughter, Wendi Hanson. Both died after years of opioid addiction.

Markers in Juneau, Alaska, of the graves of Rosemary Weller (nee Rosemary Ruth Axson) and her daughter, Wendi Hanson. Both died after years of opioid addiction.

You can almost smell the cedar-hewn totem poles and see them rise from the soil, so evocative is “We Didn’t Stand A Chance,” Joshua Hunt’s personal essay about opioid abuse among Native Alaskans.

Opioid abuse is an imposing subject for journalists, and the resulting stories can risk being numbing rather than illuminating — too few details that stick, too many statistics that overwhelm. But Hunt avoids those traps in his searing piece, which is a combination of reporting and memoir that counts Hunt and his family members among the characters.

Joshua Hunt

Joshua Hunt

A graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, much of Hunt’s work has been based in Asia, and has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and Reuters. His piece on opioids brought him back home to a fishing community in Alaska. Accompanied by fellow Alaska Native Brian Adams — an Anchorage-based photographer whose photos of Alaskan Native villages has been shown in the U.S. and Europe — Hunt probed opioid abuse among his own people.

“Why We Didn’t Stand A Chance” is a memorable piece for several reasons, including its origin story: originally intended for Pacific Standard, it was made temporarily homeless when the publication shuttered. Hunt was later able to place it at The New Republic.

Early on, Hunt describes the totem poles raised by the Tlingit people, and how his grandmother taught him to read them:

The first lesson was this: Always start at the bottom, then cast your eyes upward in search of the unfolding story.

It’s a good lesson for journalists, one that encourages them to take time and attention to collect the telling details that draw readers into a larger story.

As an example of that bottom-up seeing, Hunt writes:

A boat is measured first by its barnacles, and a person by their shoes.

The sentence shows us the world through Hunt’s eyes. Suddenly we see the gray-white clump of barnacles, the cracked pair of shoes, and are confident a story starts there. In the next few sentences, Hunt describes the shoes family members wore. There are the “brown xtratuf boots” of his fishermen relatives; the “cheap slip-ons with thin soles” worn by prisoners in the jail where his father lived.

Then he launches into the larger story, the story of a family and a people.

I was captivated by Hunt’s use of language and imagery, so reached out with some questions. Our interview below has been edited for length.

 

Downtown Juneau, Alaska, where opioid is a particular curse among people who work in the fishing industry and within the indigenous communities.

Downtown Juneau, Alaska, where opioid is a particular curse among people who work in the fishing industry and within the indigenous communities.

Your opening invokes the Tlingit people and their storytelling tradition before arriving at the present day. What made that the best way to start?

This is maybe simplifying things, but I think there’s a real lack of experimentation in longform journalism, partly because the industry has become geared toward generating content that can be easily adapted for film and television. And that’s fine—if anyone wants to hire me to write three-act heist yarns or celebrity profiles, I’d be happy for the opportunity. But I recognized that this was a chance to do something really different from what I normally do, so the first decision I made was to avoid any kind of cinematic opening and instead begin the story with an idea. The most powerful idea that occurred to me happened to be the fact that my ancestors had this whole other way of telling stories, and once I grabbed hold of that idea my path forward became pretty clear.

I was struck by the parallels between viewing the world from “the bottom up” and the structure of the story itself, with starts with the personal and expands into a big-picture look at public policy’s contributions to opioid abuse. Was that your plan from the start, or did it come out in the writing process?

I tend to spend a really long time reporting a story, which means I also spend a lot of time thinking about it before I ever sit down to do the actual writing. In this case, I spent months digging through court documents and academic research, then I spent two weeks reporting on the ground in Alaska, after which I spent even more time dwelling on what my reporting meant. By the time I began writing, I had a good idea about the structure the story would take. I want to add that I was able to afford this long reporting process because Pacific Standard offered me $2 per word to write the story for them. But less than a week after I sent my editor at Pacific Standard a draft of this story, the publication announced it would be shutting down after its main benefactor pulled its funding.

Luckily, Pacific Standard was a publication that paid its writers on time. A few days after turning in my first complete draft of the piece, Pacific Standard paid my entire fee, just before the rug was pulled out from under them. But the piece still needed a new home, so I sent an incomplete revision to editors at three big print magazines. One passed and the others didn’t respond, so as a last-ditch effort I mentioned on Twitter that I had a story about the opioid crisis in Alaska, and told editors to reach out if they were interested. The first editor I heard from was Ryu Spaeth from The New Republic, who snapped it up right away once I showed him the revision I was working on.

I owe a great deal of thanks to The New Republic for rescuing the story, of course, but I also want to highlight what an extraordinary publication Pacific Standard was for assigning it in the first place: It is very unusual for a national magazine to hire an indigenous writer to cover indigenous issues, and it is downright unheard of for a magazine to pay an indigenous writer $2 per word to do so, and to hire an indigenous photojournalist to work with them at a rate of $500 per day. In fact, I can think of no other American magazine that would have done this. So many important voices won’t be heard now that Pacific Standard is gone.

This is a very writer-nerd question, but I have to ask: Did you write “A boat was measured first by its barnacles, and a person by their shoes,” and then realize you wanted to introduce people via their shoes (fishermen’s brown boots, jail slip-ons, etc.)? Or did you know initially you want to use shoes as an entry point of sorts, and wrote the former as a bridge to get there? 

The author, Joshua Hunt, and his cousin Keith talk outside the Juneau halfway house where the cousin lives.

The author, Joshua Hunt, and his cousin Keith talk outside the Juneau halfway house where the cousin lives.

These descriptions of shoes were effectively a bridge to get me from my opening idea to a concrete image that I felt compelled to convey, which was my grandmother’s feet, because the image of those steel pins sticking out of her toes is something that made a real impression on me as a child. They also served another purpose, which was to tell the reader more about myself: In two short sentences, you learn that I grew up in a blue-collar fishing town and you learn that my dad was in prison when I was a kid. These are important things for the reader to know, because the whole point of writing this piece was to undo the misleading narrative that the opioid crisis is an affliction of the so-called “white working class.” To do that I first had to re-orient the reader to see the world from my perspective, because journalism is a largely a white, middle-class profession, and I felt strongly that I had to say from the beginning: I do not see this story as a white middle-class journalist would see it. In fact, I think there’s plenty of nonfiction writing that is marketed as memoir when in reality it’s reportage by women and people of color and LGBTQ folks, who bear the burden of disabusing readers of the notion that a white, male, heterosexual perspective is somehow objective.

I did pitch the story as part memoir and part reportage, because that was how I felt an editor could best understand what I was going for, but this isn’t how I actually thought about the work myself. For me, it was reportage that happened to be very personal, which made it important to mention things like my dad’s prison stint and my own arrest for passing bad checks at a supermarket in Seattle. The latter was an especially liberating thing to write, in fact, because it felt good to be as hard on myself as I would be on any other character in the story. And it felt like an act of rebellion against a certain cop-like attitude that’s so prevalent among journalists—especially investigative journalists. I was really fortunate that I got to study investigative journalism at Columbia after getting my shit together, and one of the best lessons I got was from Nicholas Lemann, who told me that far too many investigative journalists think of themselves as prosecutors rather than judges. That’s something I think about maybe once a week.

I was especially moved by the paragraph where you write about your grandmother’s pains and her efforts to treat them. When you write about her punishment for speaking her language, or her body damaged by merciless work, it’s a vivid biography in three sentences:

Pain management was central to my grandmother’s daily routine. While rubbing ointment on her swollen hands, she’d tell me about the nuns who would rap her tiny knuckles when they caught her speaking the Tlingit language in school; when her back ached, she’d swallow a painkiller and talk about her years hunched over a fish-gutting table at the town cannery; and when her head ached, she’d pour an Excedrin from its giant green bottle and sit with me in silence until it started working. She made from these moments of temporary relief a life worth living.

Do you remember anything specific you can share about the writing or editing of that portion?

A lot of writing on the opioid crisis has been done by reporters who never met their subjects before they were addicts. They never had the opportunity to see them as ordinary people experiencing extraordinary pain, and so they often did a poor job of describing the pain they suffered in a real and visceral way. I didn’t have that problem because my story was about pain before it was about anything else. I saw my grandmother popping Oxycontin for a few years, but before that I saw her live with chronic pain for decades. Her suffering was much more vivid to me than her addiction, which made this passage a no-brainer in terms of its necessity, and fairly straightforward in terms of the writing.

The only part of this passage that was a struggle was finding the right wording to describe what the nuns put her through, because I was especially sensitive to the weight of that detail. It’s not just another dreadful thing she endured in her life; it speaks volumes about the indignities suffered by our people, and by other indigenous people throughout the Americas.

Did you outline this story? 

Because I’d thought about the story for so long by the time I sat down to write it, there was a pretty concrete outline in my head. But more than any outline, I relied on a few simple rules: Start with an idea, move swiftly into my grandmother’s story, and from that point forward keep things more or less chronological. Beyond that, I did my best to generate some tension by finding the appropriate intervals for introducing and answering questions.

Did you learn anything from reporting, writing or editing of this story specifically that would be useful to other journalists? 

I learned that it’s okay to leave some questions alone. If the story works with one less gory detail, it’s better to just let it be, especially if you can’t get that detail without asking a question that will do more harm than good. Am I willing to ask my mom something that might endanger her sobriety just because it would give my story a better ending? No, I’m not willing to do that, at least not under these circumstances. Having to grapple with that question is surely going to inform how I deal with other vulnerable sources in the future.

(All photos are courtesy of Alaska photographer Brian Adams. You can follow his work on Instagram @brianadamsphotography.)

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