Writer Michael Cunningham and poet Joan Naviyuk Kane didn’t let obstacles stand in the way of realizing their potential.
Michael Cunningham is an esteemed fiction writer best known for his Pulitzer-winning fourth novel The Hours.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1952 and raised in Pasadena, California, Cunningham studied English literature at Stanford University and earned an MFA at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has published seven novels and a collection of short stories, beginning with Golden States (1984). His second novel, A Home at the End of the World (1990), became a 2004 film, for which Cunningham wrote the screenplay.
A life-long admirer of Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway, Cunningham used the book and its writer as the inspiration for his hugely successful 1998 book The Hours. It won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award and was adapted into an Oscar-winning 2002 film starring Merryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. Among his other awards, he won a 1993 Guggenheim Fellowship and a Whiting Award in 1994.
Cunningham is a professor of creative writing at Yale University.
Joan Naviyuk Kane is an award-winning poet and a member of the Inupiaq people. Her work often explores life within her indigenous community and uses imagery of her native Alaska.
She was born in Anchorage in 1977; her family had relocated from King Island in the Bering Sea in previous decades. After earning a BA at Harvard College and an MFA from Columbia University, Kane published her first book of poetry, The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife, in 2009. She won an American Book Award for her second collection, Hyperboreal (2013), and released her eighth anthology, Dark Traffic, in 2021. Among her other awards, she received a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, the Donald Hill Prize in Poetry, and the Alaska Literary Award.
She is a lecturer in English at Tufts University in Boston, and teaches at Harvard and the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores the inner lives of some remarkable thinkers. And on this episode, “Fearless Pursuits.” Writer Michael Cunningham overcame failure, and success, to find the freedom to be his true self.
Michael Cunningham: I picked myself up, and dusted myself off, and told myself, “How about this? What if this meant you could just write whatever you want?” Because it can be, oppressive; it can also be liberating.
And poet Joan Naviyuk Kane writes to reconcile the experiences of her Inupiaq community with the narratives of a society that would define them from outside.
Joan Naviyuk Kane: I could be gone in the blink of an eye, and it would be symptomatic of the indigenous experience that has been going on in this country for hundreds of years. How can you talk about economic development and success and achievement, when we have these unresolved wounds and realities of complete dispossession.
That’s all ahead, on Articulate.
Michael Cunningham was a teenager when he began to want more out of life. He dreamt of being a rockstar, a great painter, anything to get him out of the suburbs and into a bigger and more exciting world. But in high school, reality set in.
Michael Cunningham: I was, with my, shall we say, romantic relationship with reality, had to acknowledge, sort of sooner rather than later, that that I had no talent at all. I just wanted to wear leather pants and light my hair on fire. And it, I just said, “You know what? You have to be a little bit good at it to be an actual rock star.”
So he settled on trying to become cool. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1952, and raised in Pasadena, California during the 1960s, he wasn’t particularly bookish, preferring rock and roll’s revolutionary soundscapes over literature. But then, hoping to impress a popular girl at school, he set about reading the books she liked. He began with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. It was the first time he found an author’s words as captivating as his favorite song lyrics. Woolf’s novel moved him deeply, but not enough to start writing himself. It took years, a brief detour into painting, and an undergraduate degree in English from Stanford, before he’d try his hand at it.
Cunningham: I graduated from college and, sort of, got into my third hand Toyota and drove out into the mad American night, thinking that I would find the stuff of my first novel out there, that I would just wrestle it down from the constellations, and up from the desert floor, and, yeah, three years later, I’m tending bar in a Mexican restaurant.
A Mexican restaurant in free-thinking 1970s Laguna Beach, California, where he enjoyed a hedonistic life of parties, booze, and sex. With no one to help guide his literary aspirations, his youthful self-confidence gradually turned into disillusionment.
Cunningham: At point A, he discards his cap and gown and, gets into his barely functioning car with his $200 in savings and drives, drives away. I thought, “Yeah. Here comes the young genius. Get ready, world.” A few years later, I felt like, I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, how, how many people think that they are going to be some kind of voice? And almost everybody is wrong and you, you think you’re the one who, who’s right. But me, but everyone thinks that. I still remember when, the idea of writing something good, which, and I was reading good things all the time, but the idea of writing that sort of felt like, “Okay, get to Jupiter in a rocket, using the materials you have in the house.” Like I just didn’t, couldn’t imagine how to get from where I was, to, I didn’t even feel like I was making half steps in that, in that direction.
Cunningham saw that his comfort zone was in the realm of the “What if?” And realized that if he was going to get to Jupiter, he needed to at least try to build that proverbial rocket.
Cunningham: Started seven novels and dumped them all. I couldn’t seem to, I couldn’t find any traction, and-
AJC: All unfinished?
Cunningham: Oh yeah. Yeah, and rightly so. I mean, they were crappy, and I just thought, “This has to change.”
So in 1980, he took off again in his ancient Toyota, leaving California for the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. There he found some like-minds who cared as much as he did about writing.
Cunningham: Here were people I admired and loved, who felt that writing a really great sentence was the greatest thing you could possibly do. Here were people you could call at midnight, and say, “I’m sorry I woke you up, but I have to read you this paragraph.” And they would say, “Fine.” And that really turned it around for me. That was so not making blender margaritas in Laguna Beach. Yeah. I was kind of aware, even then, when we were still in Iowa, that you had to be, if you weren’t obsessive you wouldn’t be there in the first place. But I was the most obsessive. I was the one who would write the sentence 35 times. And then the two years are over and you’re in Iowa with no money and what do you do?
There were more margaritas to make, but this time around Cunningham embraced the unglamorous sacrifices that made full-time writing possible for him. The skills he had been cultivating for more than a decade began to match his determination.
Cunningham: I remember what Marilyn Monroe said. “I wasn’t the prettiest. I wasn’t the most talented. I just wanted it more than anybody else.”
And Cunningham’s doggedness eventually bore fruit. He published his first novel, Golden States, in 1984 at age 32; Home at the End of the World in 1990, Flesh and Blood in 1995, and then came The Hours. Published in 1998, it was a passion project, nurtured by his lifelong love of Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway, and an enduring interest in characters limited by the world around them.
AJC: I like you very much for this, that you’re not, you’re not passing judgment and you’re not even inviting the reader to pass judgment on your characters-
Cunningham: No, that,
AJC: Which is a pretty neat trick.
Cunningham: Yeah, no, that is hugely important to me. One of the primary purposes of fiction, as far as I can see, is that it is, quite possibly, the most effective narrative medium, maybe the most effective medium of any kind, for letting us, as readers, know what it’s like to be a person who is not us. I don’t, I, I don’t go to fiction for the wicked or the snide. I get, the wicked and the snide abounds, and I take pleasure in it in all kinds of forms, but I really want, you know, that’s one of the reasons I, I love, Woolf as much as I do. Although there are whole pages full with just one impossibly great sentence after another, she is using her remarkable capacity for language to try to get at the heart of the heart of the matter.
The Hours became a New York Times Bestseller, and then an Academy Award-winning film. And in the fall of 2022, a major production for The Metropolitan Opera. But when it won Cunningham the Pulitzer prize at age 47, it didn’t, as he might’ve expected, make him happy ever after. In the wake of the celebration, he fell into a deep depression. Was that it?
Cunningham: It was kind of bad, but then I, then I kind of, with the help of some prescription pharmaceuticals and a very good doctor, I picked myself up, and dusted myself off, and told myself, “How about this? How about, you’ve already won. Now you’ve won the Pulitzer prize, and you don’t have to think about winning the Pulitzer prize. What if this meant you could just write whatever you want?” Because it can be oppressive; it can also be liberating.
Armed with this liberation from the fallout of success, Cunningham again found his mojo, and the words began to tumble from his pen: short stories, essays, screenplays, and in 2005, a novel, Specimen Days. By Nightfall followed in 2010, The Snow Queen in 2014, and in 2015, A Wild Swan and Other Tales. Here Cunningham imagines the lives of fairytale characters, in circumstances that he was only too familiar with: the reality that follows what might seem to be a story’s happy ending.
Cunningham: Again, why, why be coy about the complexity of it? There are days when I feel, “This is great. I’m free. I have the, I don’t seem to have gone away.” And there are days when I think, “Oh, I want to, I want to go to the premiere of the movie based on my other novel.” But I just feel like, like I don’t, yeah, there are times when I want to be like descending the staircase to the applause of, of many.
But on other days, Michael Cunningham sees, with greater clarity, the kind of happiness he thought success might bring will ebb and flow.
Cunningham: You have, yeah, a sense of, trying to, push it forward in some way, trying to be better at it.
AJC: Not repeat yourself?
Cunningham: With, with each book. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Every now and then somebody will say, well, you know, “The Hours was such a huge success, don’t you feel satisfied?” Well, in a certain sense, yes, of course. But also no! I’m not done.
And this desire to discover what’s next is what moves Michael Cunningham, and his life has shown that perseverance might just be the most potent fuel for action. Powerful enough even for a rocket to Jupiter, with the knowledge that flying towards the stars might just be more exhilarating than the eventual touchdown.
The seafaring Inupiaq people survived thousands of Arctic winters on King Island in the Bering Sea, 90 miles northwest of Nome, Alaska. Today, the island stands deserted; it’s stilt buildings crumbling as the last generations of native islanders live out their days on the mainland. On the face of it, a harsh environment.
Joan Naviyuk Kane: Unless you come from a culture of people who have subsisted on marine mammals for 15,000 years, in which case it is the premium place to live. And to have a, you know, intergenerational healthy culture where everyone participates in survival and, and providing for each other.
Inupiaq poet Joan Naviyuk Kane is descended from a long line of King Islanders.
Kane: And it’s a premium location for marine mammal life. Even in this time of considerably catastrophic climate change, it’s still a place where everything that migrates to the Arctic through the Pacific Ocean, migrates right past King Island.
Although raised on the mainland by her parents and extended Inupiaq family, Kane’s life took her on an improbable journey to the East Coast and an Ivy League education, where she would struggle to reconcile her place in Western society with her indigenous heritage.
Kane: I’ve been thinking a lot about a personal narrative of loss, and the, you know, the private reasons for me moving thousands of miles from Anchorage. And the public reasons for doing so, and thinking about those dynamics in the context of, say, what my grandmother experienced, raising nine children on King Island, and the sense of loss that also is about preserving what you can and keeping alive what you can, which essentially is doing the best you can to take care of yourself and the others around you.
Until the mid 20th century, the self-sufficient Inupiaq wintered on King Island, hunting, crafting, and schooling their children. But in 1959, the Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the King Island school, predicting imminent disaster from falling rocks. It’s still standing today. Families were left with little choice but to relocate. Resettled in Nome, Anchorage, Fairbanks, and cities in the lower 48, the last of the King Islanders left their winter home in 1971, for good.
Kane: We had a really hard time finding teachers, and then women, my grandmother and other women, King Island women, really needed access to a different series of supports. I mean, it was a time of tremendous change. A lot of people were constantly being sent away to recover from tuberculosis or other diseases, including my grandmother and grandfather. And it was, the reasons for moving were a lot more complex than the rock.
Born in 1979, Joan Naviyuk Kane was raised in Anchorage, where options for native people were limited. She showed academic promise, and in junior high teachers encouraged her to write. At 17 she was accepted at Harvard, but, surrounded by more privileged classmates who knew their place, she felt lost.
Kane: I was terrified by Harvard. And I was terrified by these cultures of, ease, and engagement, and exchange, and conversation. I think a lot of the missionaries told, told many native people, “Oh,” you know, “you should be seen and not heard.” I wasn’t there for more than, you know, two weeks, not even, you know, a very short amount of time, and I said, “This is not for me, and I’m not, and I’m, I’m done.” And I was not yet 18 so they sent my father to come get me. And I had to go, I went, I went back to Anchorage, and I, I thought about it for a year. Did I want to go, did I want to be part of this? Could I do it? Was it worth it?
Back in Alaska and searching for work, Kane foresaw a future of minimum wage jobs and a life of fighting for personal safety.
Kane: That was another kind of survival that I was also not particularly well-suited for, you know, as a teenage indigenous girl, woman, you know, in Anchorage, Alaska. One in three native women in this country is a victim of a violent sexual assault. And Anchorage, Anchorage is a place where I saw that as something that would be inevitable for me. And something that I, that was more far more uncomfortable for me, than that the feeling of completely being at sea.
After a year, Kane returned to Harvard, where in a freshmen poetry class she found people who saw and accepted her.
Kane: I remember showing up as a freshman on campus and, you know, applying for Helen Vendler’s freshmen poetry seminar, and, you know, writing my letter and application and going in to have a chat with her and not realizing that 700, you know, 700 of my classmates had also applied. But we fell right into a conversation, that I was never able to have before. Really, certainly not with, well, actually, maybe with two other people, you know, a high school English teacher and then, you know, a summer program writing instructor.
AJC: It’s a lovely feeling, isn’t it?
Kane graduated from Harvard in the year 2000, and in 2006, got her MFA from Columbia University. The same year she returned to Alaska and a job as a research analyst and policy consultant for the First Alaskans Institute, an Alaskan native policy center. But the data and policy analysis she encountered didn’t seem to make sense of her lived experience as a native person.
Kane: I had written, you know, for many years and, and sort of worked with the facts, right? The facts: things that were used to quantify and signify our-
AJC: Place in the world.
Kane: And our distress in the world. It didn’t help me understand—these questions about economics, these programs about economic development, couldn’t reconcile the fact that I grew up with knowing that, knowing that at any time, I could be gone in the blink of an eye, and it would be symptomatic of the indigenous experience that has been going on in this country for hundreds of years. How can you talk about economic development and success and achievement when we have these unresolved wounds, and realities of complete, complete dispossession? And systems that aren’t being interrogated or called out for what they are.
Kane instead looked for understanding in poetry. In 2009, she published The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife, the first of seven poetry collections and chapbooks, short works with evocative imagery of the Arctic landscape and narratives of displacement.
Kane: I was looking at my transcripts just this past week, looking for this story of like, what, who am I, and what am I doing with my life? And, and I saw that I’d gotten like a C or something in a class called “Native Americans in the 21st century,” and then “Meanings of Abstraction in 20th Century Art.” And I’m like, so funny, those are the classes that I did the worst in academically, because in some ways, they’re, the classes were Harvard’s tools for understanding native people, and for explaining native people, and explaining poetry and explaining contemporary poetry, explaining abstraction, to people who didn’t, you know, who had other aptitudes.
In “Nunaqtigiit,” from her 2013 collection, Hyperboreal, Kane layers imagery from King Island, the homes built by hand of thatch and hide, the lost landscape and the ancient line of ancestors for whom she is named, and forever connected.
(Excerpt from Joan Naviyuk Kane’s “Nunaqtigiit”)
Surely there are ghosts here, my children sprung
from these deeper furrows.
The sky of my mind against which self-
betrayal in its sudden burn
fails to describe the world.
We, who denied the landscape
and saw the light of it.
Leaning against the stone wall ragged
I began to accept my past and, as I accepted it,
I felt, and I didn’t understand:
I am bound to everyone.
In 2014, at a joint poetry reading with Navajo poet Sherwin Bitsui, for a group of students at Georgetown University, Bitsui’s comments about native life in Western society sparked in Kane another realization.
Kane: He said, “Well, you guys, we’re not supposed to be here.” I started to feel this weight that I had been carrying for a long time, that I didn’t realize I was carrying, but also the sense that I wasn’t alone in that feeling and that he brought it into the room to a group of students who had never talked to an indigenous person, you know, in particular, had no idea about their own positionality with where did they grow up, whose land were they on?
In 2014, Kane led an expedition back to King Island, to experience firsthand the physical reality of the place. In the small group was her good friend, Marilyn Koezuna-Irelan.
Kane: She was the chief of King Island’s native community, chief and president, and also of our village corporation. And, I really felt it was important to take her counsel. Marilyn was raised for the most part in Nome, but she was able to spend a lot of her childhood and some of her adulthood on the island, but her mother passed away in 2011. And this was the only one of us that felt that it was safe to go into any of the dwellings on the island because things were in such a state of disrepair, but she felt that she was protected from, you know, and by, the presence of her mom.
In 2019, a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard brought her back to Cambridge with her two sons, John and George. In 2020, she was appointed concurrently to teach in the department of Studies and Race, Colonialism and Diaspora.
Kane: I think why I had to move back to the East Coast and, and had to find my place at least, you know, for a while, again, at Harvard, in particular, which is a place that, you know, I really was never meant, meant to be.
On one of many sleepless nights in Cambridge, Kane wrote of being far away from Alaska, missing her family. The poem “Sometimes There Are Even Scars” is from her 2021 collection, Dark Traffic.
(Excerpt from Joan Naviyuk Kane’s “Sometimes There Are Even Scars”)
& waking night after night in an apartment,
parched, I looked out the window into the dark
for some glimpse of what I’ve lost—
an ocean that held so many boats
built by men now dead, numerous
windings through scree to crown,
driveline, cairn, blind—
I see nothing but the sky.
Sometimes stars as bright
as collarbones gleam before
I blink, then find these firmaments
In 2021, Joan Kane’s parents visited from Anchorage, and brought a treasure of King Island photo negatives taken by her grandmother in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
Kane: The images raised so many questions, you know questions that, I had this, it’s like maybe that’s the thing that I’ve been trying to do my whole life is write the poems for the questions? I’m trying to articulate the questions about my family’s past and about their lived reality that I could find no explanation for in, the books and in the tools I was given through, by, a Western education. It’s like, there’s something else that is making me write poems. Something I don’t understand. And some of it is these things that I revisit.
Today, Joan Naviyuk Kane straddles the worlds of her native Inupiaq community and the East Coast institutions that teach and mentor the next generation. And like her grandmother and mother, she will continue to preserve her native language and culture for her own children to carry on.