In The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island, Kathleen Alcalá combines memoir, historical records, and powerful interviews in a charming and timely book that uses Bainbridge Island as a case study for thinking about our relationships with the land and each other. Alcalá meets Japanese Americans imprisoned during World War II, and learns the unique histories of the blended Filipino and Native American community, the fishing practices of the descendants of Croatian immigrants, and the Suquamish elder who shares with her the food legacy of the island itself. We spoke with Alcalá about the book, publishing this fall.
What inspired you to write The Deepest Roots?
Kathleen Alcalá: In 2010, I wrote an essay about two couples I knew who left other jobs to go into farming. It turned out, each had a fascinating story and philosophy of life to go with that decision. Readers reacted so strongly, I realized I had touched on something fundamental, our relationship to the land, and how people yearn to strengthen that relationship. As a writer of historical, family-based fiction and essays, this was a topic about which I knew zilch. I thought. Then I realized that this was the basis of that family history: our relationship to the land. Understanding this is so important to our survival, and the survival of this island in particular, that I decided to pursue the topic with further interviews and research.
What would you have been if not a writer?
KA: Perhaps an architect, if I had the skills. I am a very visual thinker. I’m very interested in how people relate to their environment through built, or human-made intervention. Architecture is a form of shelter, but how close or how distant it keeps us from nature fascinates me. What the wealthy think they need versus what 90% of the world lives with is also interesting to me, in terms of the built environment. As resources become scarce, or we realize how toxic many of them are, we need to rethink how and where we live and build, so I guess there is some overlap here.
What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about your work and what you do?
KA: People understand what writers do in an abstract way—we tell stories, sometimes true stories. What is difficult to wrap one’s mind around is such a distant goal—in this case, taking six years to write a book without knowing if it would even be published. Also, the mechanism of the publishing industry is a great mystery, even to many writers.
The Deepest Roots features many powerful interviews as well as personal stories from Bainbridge Island, Colorado, and elsewhere—can you describe the process of putting the book together?
KA: It was challenging to find a way to present all of the points of view, as well as research and memoir, in a way that allowed readers to relate to the stories as well as draw their own conclusions. The editors encouraged me to insert my own point of view, but I did not want to hammer people over the head: the evidence is there—the land is telling us what we need, and whole civilizations of people before us managed to live on the land without destroying it. New science can work hand in hand with old stories. Late one night at a residency in Homer, Alaska, I realized that the salmon cycle held the key to this structure. Pinning a set of personal stories at the top of each chapter, followed by the research and interviews on Bainbridge, and setting these upon each stage of the salmon cycle, allowed me to give shape and weight to the information in a way that people could hold in their minds. It also broke me out of the usual “food book” structure of the four seasons by starting each chapter with a linear chronology, and ending with the eternal cycle of salmon leaving and returning. It’s a complicated set of stories, but I did not want to dumb it down. Nor did I want to resort to academic language to tell these stories—I aimed for a general public.
Did putting together the book change how you thought about issues around food, land, and community? How did the process differ compared to your novels and short story collection?
KA: Conducting interviews with people I knew made the book an intensely collaborative experience. I am so grateful to these thirty people for sharing their livelihoods and philosophies with me. The more I learned, the more I realized the Suquamish hold much of the knowledge that we need to heal the land and water around us. After all, they have been here for 10,000 years. Happily, this book corresponds with a renewed effort by the tribes to reinstate Indigenous foodways that promote health and wise use of the land, so I was able to attend a couple of conferences that included everyone from elders to scientists.
I also realized that all of us really will need to collaborate if we are going to save this environment, that people from completely different walks of life will need to communicate and plan together if we are to get it right. Because I have written a lot of historical fiction, the research was not that daunting. I love it, in fact. What was thrilling was being able to interview living people about their own work, and learning how all these systems fit together.
What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?
KA: It documents a community that has every resource at its disposal—wealth, education, and an abundant natural setting—to reverse the degradation of our environment and perhaps even feed ourselves. By placing old and new stories next to each other, personal and societal, I hope to engage people at both the emotional and intellectual level to rethink their relationship with food and the land. Especially on Bainbridge, we live on the edge of disaster if we are not prepared. I hope it can act as a catalyst both locally and in other communities for people to rethink where their food originates and how they can take control of these systems. I hope to reach people with a casual interest in the history and culture of Bainbridge Island and suck them into becoming advocates and activists. I hope readers come away with a fire to take direct action and save what they love.
Some of the people I interviewed—well, all of them—are quite passionate about their work and understand the difference it makes to our shared culture and environment. They understand the urgency of their work. If a community like ours cannot succeed, how can we expect others, with fewer resources, to do so? If that zeal can be made contagious, I hope we can infect lots of other people. If this carries over to other communities, so much the better.
I also hope to inspire other writers of color to engage with environmental topics. The people I interviewed for this book showed a much wider range of diversity, both women and POC, than the individuals who hold positions of leadership in the community. Writing is a way to get past a lot of these barriers, and I would like to encourage writers to look outside of their traditional communities, do the research and writing, and pitch in with their voices. We are running out of time.
What are you reading right now?
KA: I just finished reading Perma Red by Debra Magpie Earling, an amazing novel about a young woman on the Flathead Indian Reservation during the 1940s. It is sad and beautiful at the same time. I am about to begin Everfair by Nisi Shawl, a steampunk alt history about an African nation set up on land purchased from King Leopold II in the Belgian Congo. He was crazy, and killed perhaps millions of people. Nisi imagines a different outcome to a sad chapter in history.
What is your next project?
KA: I am working on two projects: a translation from Spanish of a biography of a Hispano-Arabic poet who lived in the 1100s, Al-Mu’tamid Ibn Abbad, and a set of stories that might really be a novel called Why Stars Burn. As you can see, there is no consistency at all to what I read and write. I am a literary omnivore.