By Patrice Gopo
Gopo is the author of “All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way,” an essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging. She was a Rasmuson Foundation intern in 2006.
Several years ago, I spent time scrolling through microfiche in the library where I now live in Charlotte, North Carolina. I wanted to know the weather conditions my father found when he first arrived in the U.S. While I was born and raised in Anchorage, my father had a story that began in Kingston, Jamaica. In January 1967, he immigrated to New York City.
On page L55 of the January 1, 1967 edition of The New York Times, I discovered my father likely arrived to highs in the low 40s and lows in the low 30s. It was a very mild January day when set against the reality of my Anchorage childhood. Next to the weather report was a three-paragraph article with the headline, “‘Seward’s Folly’ Observes 100th Year Since Purchase.”
Seward’s Folly. Alaska. My home state. A place that would entwine itself with the very life of both my father and the children he couldn’t yet imagine. When I saw mention of Alaska alongside the New York City weather report, all I could do was grin. It was as if the universe already knew that this place would forever matter to my family.
It would be several more years before my father made his way to Anchorage, the move the result of a draft notice. He spent a handful of years at Fort Richardson repairing helicopter operating systems and experiencing his first deep winter cold. Somewhere in the timeline, he returned to Jamaica, married my mother, and brought her north to Alaska too.
My Jamaican parents raised their daughters in Anchorage. I grew up with the conflation of two worlds: the slow-cooked oxtail and a freezer full of salmon. My sister and I are Jamaican Alaskans—if that could be such a thing. Nestled in the reality of a childhood in the Anchorage bowl, I grappled with being the black daughter of Jamaican immigrants raised so far from my parents’ original home.
When people ask me what it was like growing up in Alaska, I answer with the nuanced view that I think is the hallmark of the writer I’ve become. I speak of fishing trips to the Kenai. I mention being the only black child in my elementary-school classroom. I highlight the strangers who embraced my parents as family.
With my stories, I offer the truth of what was beautiful and what was hard. I let these words sit in the realm of complexity rather than reducing them to the binary of “good” or “bad.” In the acknowledgements section of my book of essays, “All the Colors We Will See,” I thank Alaska. I write with a richness because of my life there.
That long-ago article about the 100th anniversary of Seward’s Folly whispered to me of the beginnings of my family’s inevitable ties to Alaska. Those ties cannot be broken.
Listen to Patrice Gopo read from and discuss her essays at these upcoming Anchorage events:
Thursday, Oct. 18, 7 p.m.
Carr-Gottstein Lecture Hall at Alaska Pacific University
Essayist Patrice Gopo and novelist Andromeda Romano-Lax discuss writing about race, place, belonging and becoming at this discussion moderated by 49 Writers.
Friday, Oct. 19, 7 p.m.
The Writer’s Block Bookstore & Cafe
3956 Spenard Road
Both writers will launch their books and read from them.