The Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Alaska Humanities Forum announced today that Juneau memoirist and poet Ernestine Hayes was selected to be the 2016-2018 Alaska State Writer Laureate.
Among other well-known works, Hayes wrote Blonde Indian, An Alaska Native Memoir, the personal story of returning to her Tlingit home. She was born to the Tlingit Kaagwaantaan clan in Juneau at the end of World War II, moved to California at the age of 15, then returned to Alaska 25 years later. Published in 2006, Blonde Indian received an American Book Award and an Honoring Alaska Indigenous Literature award, was named a Native America Calling Book of the Month, and was a finalist for the 2007 Kiriyama Prize and the 2007 PEN Non-fiction Award. It was also selected as the first book for Alaska Reads in 2016 – a project initiated by the current State Writer Laureate, Frank Soos, who developed a statewide series of readings connecting Alaskans through the work of a living Alaskan writer.
In 2015 Hayes received the Rasmuson Foundation’s Artist in Residence award to attend the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in California, which enabled her to complete her most recent work, The Tao of Raven, an Alaska Native Memoir. In this memoir released this fall by the University of Washington Press, Hayes reflects on the prejudices sill facing Alaska Natives in their own land and recounts her story of attending and completing college in her fifties and becoming a professor and writer.
The Alaska State Laureate program is an honorary two-year appointment recognizing an Alaskan Writer who has demonstrated exemplary professionalism, literary excellence, and a commitment to the advancement of literary arts in Alaskan Communities. The award began in the early 1960s, when the Juneau Poetry Society created the Poet Laureate Program; in 1996, ASCA broadened the position to include all genres of writing with the establishment of the Alaska State Writer Laureate.
The appointment this year marks a new partnership between ASCA and the Alaska Humanities Forum. Working together, they gather and review public nominations, lead the selection process, and provide funding and support for statewide workshops, lectures, and readings along with an original project conducted by the laureate during the two-year term.
Hayes assumes the post of Alaska State Writer from Frank Soos, an award-winning writer, professor, and advocate for the literary arts from Fairbanks. “When Ernestine Hayes agreed to be the lead-off writer for our state-wide Alaska Reads program, she said she planned to set the bar high for her successors,” praises Soos. “She certainly did; she did a remarkable job. In light of her wonderful work in that capacity, I can only say I am glad I don’t have to follow her as State Writer Laureate. She is an excellent choice. Ernestine Hayes brings passion and intellect to everything she says and writes.”
In addition to memoir, Hayes’ published works includes poetry, children’s books, creative nonfiction, short stories, essays, and articles. Her work has appeared in Studies in American Indian Literature, Tipton Poetry Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cambridge History of Western American Literature, and other publications. Her service to the community is equally strong and varied – Hayes has served as a speaker, judge, advocate, facilitator, and board member, including a current role as member of Alaska Humanities Forum’s board.
ASCA Chairman Benjamin Brown noted, “We are very excited to have Ernestine accede to the position of State Writer Laureate, given her tremendous literary talents and enthusiasm for encouraging all Alaskans to read, write, and enjoy the wonders of the literary arts. We’re also thrilled to be forging an even closer relationship with our friends at the Alaska Humanities Forum in sponsoring and managing this important program.”
Hayes makes her home in Juneau where she currently works as an Assistant Professor of English. She will be introduced as the Alaska State Writer Laureate at the Governor’s Awards for the Arts and Humanities in Juneau on January 26, 2017.