photos via blairbraverman.com
This article appears in our 2017 Winter issue, Chaos. Subscribe today!
When I began reading Blair Braverman’s memoir, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, I knew I would love it because it chronicled her life as a dog musher and her adventures in the Arctic. What I didn’t know was how deeply it would affect me with its nuanced and unblinking exploration of what it means to be a woman in not just a man’s environment, but a man’s world—and how much strength it takes to withstand harsh temperatures and physical peril, and also confront the truth of our own experiences, our own emotions, and our own needs.
Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube is a thought-provoking memoir, and a crucial feminist text, but it’s also a sensory experience. I’d read Braverman’s descriptions of dog mushing, and ridden on her dogsled; both experiences took my breath away to equal extents. I corresponded with Blair Braverman about her experience writing Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, how the book has changed since she first envisioned it, and how the experience of writing it changed her.
What questions are you tired of answering about Ice Cube?
Why I wanted to become a dogsledder. Because I thought it was cool, okay? This often comes along with, why did you want to go North?—which is a valid question but one I can’t answer easily (the book is my answer), and so I’m always exhausted the moment I hear this one coming. I haven’t figured out a good short answer, and I’m not sure there is one, so I feel like I’m not quite answering honestly. My friend Sandy gave me a good suggestion. She said whenever anyone asked me why I moved to the Arctic, I should say, “I was attracted to its qualities.” I don’t quite have the guts to do that irl though.
What questions do you wish people asked you more often about this book?
I love getting questions about the craft of writing, and the decisions I made on a literary level, because I’ve put a lot of thought into it, but most of those choices are invisible. I think that on my whole book tour I only got one or two actual writing-related questions.
I’m so happy when readers ask about the people in Malangen—what they think of the book, how their lives are going, anything. I love that community so much, and part of my goal in writing the book was that other people would come to love them, too. If readers ask about Arild or Anne Lill or Rune or any of the other Norwegians, that means they’ve come to care about them as people rather than characters. As a writer, that’s one of the highest compliments I can receive. And as a friend, I get to share a place I love and celebrate the people I adore.
This is a book about travel, adventure, and the kind of peril readers are used to encountering in stories about the North, but it’s also about the bravery and peril of life in a female body. What were the challenges of exploring this dual subject matter? Were there works by other authors that you drew particular inspiration from in this regard?
I pitched the book as a straightforward adventure story, because it was the only way I could conceive of it at the time: I thought I could get away with telling a flat story of events, rather than exploring the complex reasons I was drawn to male-dominated communities, why I was drawn to danger, etc. I didn’t want to write a “female emergence narrative,” as my agent was calling it at the time, or a “traumoir” as my boyfriend called it. But after a few publishers turned it down because they didn’t find my character sympathetic (probably because she wasn’t), my agent ended up calling me in a semifrantic state. She was like, look, you don’t have to add it to the final manuscript, but if you have a history of being a drug addict or something you better tell me now before it’s too late. I told her that there was nothing more to the story, and then I hung up, and then 10 minutes later I took a deep breath and called and told her about the way that sexual assault and abuse played into my connections to men and to wilderness, the way those dynamics were entwined with the adventure itself. I’d been toying with the idea of adding all that to the story, anyway, but I hadn’t even talked about it with my family, so the thought of talking about it publicly felt paralyzing. I ended up writing a 40-page supplement to the proposal that very night, and flying to New York first thing in the morning to meet with three publishers who had responded to my agent’s announcement of “breaking news.” Even at that point, though, I told myself that nobody except for the editors themselves would ever see that material. I said I’d write about it, but secretly I was sure I wouldn’t.
And then…I started writing. And the story was flat, because events and adventure aren’t particularly interesting if the characters involved aren’t human. And the truth was, gender and sex and violence were the things I had in my head at that time, the things I was desperately trying to make sense of, and it was only in starting to write about them that I felt that my mind could rest. I ended up writing two versions of the manuscript, one for publication and one just for me, and then at the last moment I took an Ativan and sent my editor the personal one instead. And I’m so glad I did.
What helped you make the decision to submit the “just for me” version of the book?
The personal version of the book was undeniably better, and I knew that, and as scary as it was, I couldn’t turn in a manuscript that was less than it could be. That wasn’t fair to the reader, and it wasn’t fair to the people who had helped me along the way. If I wanted to stand behind my own book, I had to turn in the personal manuscript—the real manuscript. That less-personal version might as well have been fiction. Everything that made it real had been stripped away.
I had a sense, too, that I’d never be able to get over the story if I didn’t tell it. I’d never recommend writing as therapy. It’s hard, it’s time-consuming, it doesn’t work, you’re half likely to make the trauma worse. But if I didn’t tell the hard story, I felt that I’d still be letting those events—those men—have control over my life. And what I wanted more than anything was to let go of that.
I wrote about trauma by obsessing over craft. Yeah, I’d go to bed and have nightmares. But when I was writing, it was as if I’d turned off the emotional part of my brain. The process was almost mathematical. For the scene of rape—or assault, or shitty sex, or whatever you want to call it, I still have trouble using the word “rape”—I’d focus, line by line, on the rhythm of the words. I couldn’t think about the content. I thought about tempo, speed. I wanted the reader to move through those moments at the same pace I had: tentative here, overwhelmed there, time alternately freezing and rushing by. I concentrated more on the rhythm of that scene than on the actual story.
You write “In Lillehammer I was a student, at the folk school I was a dogsledder, but in Alaska I would never be anything but a girl.” In many ways this book chronicles your shifting sense of identity—both through your changing self-perception and the roles you were forced into—just as richly as it does the different locations you moved through. Did the experiences you describe in Ice Cube give you a perspective on your experience of gender, and gender experience more broadly, that you otherwise wouldn’t have had?
I’m sure. We’re aware of the ways that we don’t fit in, and my gender absolutely didn’t fit in in the north—which was difficult when I was younger, although I’ve come to embrace that not-fitting-in-ness, to find its benefits as well as its difficulties. I was hyperaware of my body being seen and evaluated as a rare(ish) object for others’ use. In Norway in particular, I also found a model for my adult self in the female mushers I met, and it wasn’t until I went back six years later that I realized how much I had shaped myself after that model.
It went like this: Like most people, I settled into myself pretty comfortably between the ages of 18 and 24. I found the gender expression that best suits me, by which I mean the “kind” of woman that I found myself to be. An example: It’s painfully shallow to reduce gender to clothing, of course, but it’s also meaningful in that clothing is the way we frame our bodies for other people. I was—and still am—most comfortable in a shifting combination of sundresses, garish wool sweaters, braided hair, big shawls, etc. Bright but modest. I felt like that was my thing, because most of my friends didn’t dress like that. And then I went back to Norway for the first time in six years and discovered that every single other woman in northern Norway was wearing exactly what I was. And of course it was more than that, too: their boldness in the outdoors, their irreverence, their strength. Here I felt like I’d been turning into my own person, and instead I found that I’d turned into the women I had most admired when I was 18.
Now I think that’s lovely. I’m proud to have grown up in the tracks of badass arctic women. But it was jarring to discover at first, and I may never have realized that connection if I hadn’t gone back to northern Norway.
At the same time that you write about being forced into the role of “girl,” you describe a sense of rightness and belonging in the Arctic, especially when you write about dogsledding.You say: “I have never loved anything as hard and as fast as I loved those dogs, as I loved dogsledding itself. I could have watched them for hours. I could have watched them forever. They ran like water, and I was part of it, and I was struck with the instant and undeniable thought that I had finally come to the place that I had spent my life trying to find.” What was it like to try to access the dual emotional realities—of belonging and rejection, safety and fear?
It felt very natural, because those dual emotional realities were ones in which I’d lived for much of my life. Actually, spelling them out on the page felt like a sigh of relief. You’re not alone if your readers understand you, if you’re able to bring them along for the journey. And I was really never alone in the first place. We are all of us straddling emotional dualities. My old poetry teacher, Adrian Blevins, used to say that when you don’t know what to write next in a poem, you should contradict whatever you just said. It’s a brilliant piece of advice, and it’s amazing how often that contradiction gets at deeper truth. I recommend trying it.
You write that you still have trouble using the word “rape,” and in Ice Cube you talk about your difficulty with the word, and that “nothing that had happened to me…was beyond the normal scope of what happened to women all the time,” and “was just a natural result of being female and living in the world.” That it’s possible to describe rape as an unremarkable part of female experience is a jarring and crucial reality, and yet it’s still one we discuss all too rarely. Why do you think “rape” is such a hard word to use? Why did you decide to include this passage in the book?
So many of the words and cultural assumptions we have around the word “rape” didn’t seem to fit my experience.
Rape is considered one of the worst things that can happen to a woman, something that destroys her life; I was still standing, traveling, and working, so clearly I couldn’t have been raped. We say that rape is about control, not sex—but it’s obviously about sex. Rape is forced sex. I’d heard so often that rape wasn’t about sex that I thought the word couldn’t apply to me, because what happened was about sex, it was about my then-boyfriend wanting to get off more than he cared about whether I wanted to be part of that. And of course, we use the word “survivor,” but I didn’t feel like a survivor, because not-surviving didn’t feel like an option. What was I going to do, just…suddenly die? If anything, I was an endurer, not a survivor. I had endured something lousy.
I know that many people relate to the word survivor, and take strength from claiming it, and that the idea that rape is about control rather than sex is a powerful distinction that makes sex—making love, fucking, whatever—consensual by definition. I don’t take issue with the terms, just the universality with which they’re applied in feminist circles.
Why did you decide to organize this book in nonlinear fashion?
It’s actually quite linear; the book consists of two parallel chronologies, and switches back and forth between them. That’s what felt most true, and balanced: the experience of going back to Norway and using that place to face the things I’d been through years before. And a kind of mystery, too: Why am I in Mortenhals? Why is it such a haven? I wanted it to be a haven for the reader, too.
Has Arild read the book? What was his response?
The first hard copy I got, I turned around and mailed it to him that day. But it took him forever to read it. He set it out on the coffee table and let half his customers borrow it before he read it himself. I think he did that to torment me because he knew I was nervous about his response.
When he finally read it, maybe two months after receiving it, he wrote to me that he “laughed, and smiled, and a few tears came too.” He said he was impressed with the accuracy of details and that now he understood why I had taken so many notes all the time. He also said that he skipped the parts about Alaska because they were boring.
In the book’s last pages, you write, “Ten years after leaving Lillehammer, eight years after attending folk school, I made my own north.” What does this phrase mean to you, in all its resonances?
I think the next line in the book gets at some of the truth of this: that the North I wanted was a place where I could be as tough as I wanted to be, but I didn’t need to. I found a place, a community, where I could be brave and self-guiding and warm and cold and make my life into an adventure. A place where I had my own sled dogs, where I no longer needed someone else to give me permission to be a musher. This time, I was doing it myself. I made a place where I could test myself, a place of perfect 10 belows, but it was also a place where I could rest.