- Mapping Literary Utah
When she was an aspiring poet growing up in Seattle, Utah poet laureate Paisley Rekdal recalls feeling frustrated at the idea that the place she was from was not a place where writers came from—and particularly, writers who looked like her. "In the '80s, [Seattle] wasn't yet a place where people wanted to be, or move to," Rekdal says. "My dad gave me anthologies of contemporary American poetry, and I wanted to see if any were from the Pacific Northwest. I only found one, and I didn't like his work. I was feeling vaguely depressed.
"I'm also biracial, and a woman, and these anthologies didn't have any of the identities with which I identify."
Helping to erase a similar notion of Utah—as a place lacking literary talent, and lacking diversity of voices in its writing—is a big part of the motivation behind Rekdal's creation of Mapping Literary Utah (mappingliteraryutah.org). A searchable online archive of works by Utah authors, Mapping Literary Utah collects poetry, essays, video of readings and other content capturing the breadth of the state's literary history both across regions, and across demographics.
It's also not Rekdal's first effort at a website intended to chronicle Utah voices. In 2015, she was the impetus behind MappingSLC.org, which collected submissions of stories and essays representing a wide range of local communities. That experience provided a lesson for Rekdal both in the mechanics of how to build a website, and also in what would and wouldn't work best for Mapping Literary Utah. She understood that long-form works probably were not the right fit, since people tended not to read them. And it was necessary to simplify the mapping itself from very specific locations to wider regions of the state.
One of the blessings and curses of putting together the site, however, has been determining the content itself. Rekdal says that the criteria for inclusion are in some ways very simple: Did you publish a creative work at an established press (not self-published), and do you identify as a Utah writer for some significant portion of your life? Yet the latter part of that question, at least, does present some complications in terms of what is considered "significant."
"Edward Abbey was in Utah for less than a year, but no one would argue that it wasn't significant," Rekdal says. "Same thing with writers from Topaz [the World War II-era Japanese-American internment camp]. All of them who were writers stayed writers, and wrote very powerfully about that experience."
Still, the process of making sure Mapping Literary Utah is inclusive is an ongoing and proactive one. Rekdal says she continues to reach out via social media, inviting submissions to help represent communities that might otherwise be underrepresented, like Utah's Pacific Islander community. And she also acknowledges that creators in some genres—like children's and young-adult authors, and playwrights—have expressed disappointment that their area of focus doesn't have much representation. "There's not enough anything," Rekdal says of the site's inability thus far to achieve her vision. "It's both a wild success, and a wild failure."
Yet Mapping Literary Utah already serves the valuable function of shifting the notion of what a "Utah writer" is, or looks like. Rekdal notes one particular example who was recently showcased via Mapping Literary Utah's social media as Utah Writer of the Week: Wallace Thurman, an African-American writer and editor who was an active figure in the Harlem Renaissance. "He took issue with the ways he thought Harlem Renaissance pandered to white readers," Rekdal says. "He was a contrarian, incredibly smart, was bisexual it seems, caught in a sort of George Michael episode with a man, which meant the end of his comfortable inclusion in those literary circles. It's people like that in the archive."
In addition to its value as a resource for anyone to learn about Utah writers from their homes—a quality which takes on added value during a time when many people are staying at home—Mapping Literary Utah is meant as an educational tool, whether for parents or for teachers. Understanding that there are some people for whom reliable internet access isn't something to take for granted, Rekdal also hopes there might be a possibility of creating physical packets of educational materials.
But even beyond its value in formal education, Rekdal thinks of Mapping Literary Utah as a way to shift the narrative about Utah's rich, ongoing literary tradition—a blessing for young potential writers like she once was herself who need encouragement. "When I travel to places like New York, people still say, 'How can you live there?,'" she says. "This assumption that we're idiots for living here, or staying here, drives me crazy. For me, that's the real goal of this site: to give anyone who comes across it a sense of literary history and culture, that gives them permission to go out and become artists themselves."