When one of the nation’s worst oil spills contaminated Alaska shores, APU’s Mei Mei Evans did more than watch in sadness.
The result is “Oil in Water,” a first novel gaining national attention.
One of the first things Mei Mei Evans wants you to know is that Alaska is home.
Born and reared in Philadelphia, Evans was a Hampshire college junior in the summer of 1974 when she and a couple of friends hitchhiked from Massachusetts to Fairbanks, hub of Alaska’s oil pipeline construction boom. In just three years—the time it took to complete the 800-mile line from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez—some 70,000 workers would go north in a stampede reminiscent of Gold Rush days.
High-paying pipeline jobs proved hard to get. Evans, professor of English who joined the APU faculty in 2000, gravitated to Anchorage and a waitressing job, working graveyard shifts in a hotel coffee shop.
Tips were good and the tales even better: “I loved it,” Evans recalled. “Everyone I met struck me as being a character in his or her own novel.” An aspiring writer and diligent student, she’d already gained approval for a senior year writing project on T.S. Eliot’s modernist poem, “The Waste Land.”
Alaska changed all that. “The problem was, my life was departing at a right angle from the one I’d known,” she said.
“Every time I thought about my senior project, my heart just sank. I didn’t want to leave Alaska. I didn’t want to write about other people’s writing. I wanted to do my own.” And in a very preliminary way so began “Oil and Water.”
Published by the University of Alaska Press, “Oil and Water” earned national attention when it was among finalists in 2012 for the national PEN/Bellwether Prize. The award sponsored by novelist Barbara Kingsolver seeks out previously unpublished fiction centering on social justice issues. “‘Oil and Water’ is a plea for us to take better care of each other as well as the world we inhabit,” Evans says.
She recalls mid-1970s Alaska as a high-speed clash of pristine nature and the colossal riches to be earned from it by fishing, mining, logging and drilling. Evans came to see Alaska as an unwritten anthology, each narrative centering one way or another on the environment, stewardship, survival and fair play—topics that continue to shape her scholarship and teaching today.
Set against the Exxon Valdez wreck in 1989, “Oil and Water” explores the American Dream in a fictional Alaska fishing town whose well-being is threatened, perhaps forever, when an oil tanker runs aground in the Gulf of Alaska.
Nearly 11 million gallons of waxy North Slope crude seeped into Alaska waters when the Exxon Valdez rammed a charted reef, making the spill among the nation’s worst.
Choices faced by her characters feel increasingly familiar in a fossil-fuel dependent world: What becomes of our connections to each other and the natural world when our economic survival and the fate of the environment are at stake?
“I’ve lived this story,” Evans said.
After ditching Eliot to produce her own collection of short fiction—13 stories in nine months – Evans finished her senior year at Hampshire and returned to Alaska a week after graduation.
“I came back to make Alaska my home,” she said. “Forty years later, I’m still here. My novel is both love song and thank you to Alaska.”
In 1989, Evans was making a life in Homer, the fishing town and arts community on Kachemak Bay about 225 miles southwest of Anchorage. She worked three part-time jobs, including some editing and writing, lived year-round in a cabin she’d built, and set to work on a novel: “I said to myself, ‘I’m a writer.’”
When word of the oil spill that Good Friday morning reached her, Evans says her first thought was, “This is so inconvenient.”
“I’d just gotten my life into place,” she recalls, incredulous now at her myopia.
“I thought, ‘I can’t be bothered with an environmental catastrophe right now.’ We really had no idea the spill would spread the way it did.”
Whipped by springtime storms, oil spread southwest, ultimately traveling some 460 miles from Bligh Reef where the tanker went aground roughly three hours after departing Valdez bound for California. Among coastal towns in the slick’s path was Evans’ beloved Homer.
News crews arrived from around the world. Within days images of blackened beaches and oil-soaked carcasses of birds and animals became emblems of cleanup delayed by bad weather and an untested chain of command. Townspeople took to their own boats to intercept oil. Fishing seasons were canceled to keep crews from toxic oil and tainted fish from market.
Like Alaskans statewide, Evans remembered looking to the Coast Guard and government regulators for answers: How fast was the slick moving today? What would happen to Alaska Native people who relied on the sea for traditional foods? Who was responsible for this mess? Who would clean up? Who would pay?
By the time Exxon executives arrived at Homer to deliver briefings of their own, the gap was wide between post-spill life and cleanup readiness that industry had touted for years. “Exxon’s public information efforts didn’t go over well,” Evans said. “We’d look at these guys and ask, ‘Why should we believe a word you say?’
“By the spill’s second week, I couldn’t not think about it,” she said. Friends urged her to do something, to put her writing to work somehow.
Among truths that “Oil and Water” portrays are rifts that opened in towns like Homer when idled fishing crews were recruited for oil spill cleanup. Exxon work was steady. It paid well. “I’ve witnessed the tensions that developed,” Evans said. “Homer fishermen and others thought long and hard about whether they’d somehow be complicit if they took the money, which they truly needed.”
Outraged by what she came to believe was selective release of information about the spill’s leading edge and damage in its wake, Evans went looking for Exxon executives deployed to her town. Like any other independent contractor—someone, say, with a skiff to enlist in retrieving oiled animals—Evans asked for a purchase order. She spent Exxon’s money on office supplies, including a laminated map. On it she recorded the spill’s advance to waters surrounding Homer. She found an unoccupied corner of the state emergency services office and set up a one-person public information office.
“I was on fire,” Evans said of the 18hour days she began putting in. Soon enough, local public radio stations were cutting away to Homer’s Mei Mei Evans for updates. She became a trusted voice that helped quell rumors and countered spin. First city and then state public information jobs came her way. She branched out, publishing a fact sheet that she says state officials eventually shut down: Printed materials ran the risk of becoming part of a court record in the multi-billion-dollar lawsuits that everyone could see coming.
“It was censorship,” Evans recalls. “I said the heck with that and quit.”
She went to work raising money for volunteer cleanup efforts, including Homer neighbors intent on salvaging remote, heavily oiled Mars Cove. Located some 300 miles south of the tanker grounding and reached by boat or plane only, the cove gained international attention when official crews departed, leaving Mars to a team of a dozen or so volunteers working a week at a time from July through November.
They wiped rocks. They endured rain and cold and got by on solidarity that develops when the cause is right. For Evans, oil-spill efforts led to sponsorship from the Alaska Conservation Foundation and an invitation from Geneva, Switzerland, to address a United Nations working group. “I showed them photographs and film footage of the oil spill,” she said. “The images spoke for themselves.”
Aftermath of the disaster included a $5 billion landmark class action that lasted 20 years and was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Environmental hazards lingered too; although estimates are hard to come by despite volumes of reports, outright losses following the spill included at least 100,000 seabirds; between 3,000 and 30,000 sea otters; roughly 300 harbor seals; and at least 250 bald eagles.
In fact, “Oil and Water” chronicles layers of loss. Readers new to the oil spill story will find Evans’ portrayal informative; those who were there will value the novel’s accurate depiction of a surreal Alaska that became real life: When oil giant Mammoth Petroleum opens an office to accept damage claims, it leases a building that had housed a Montessori preschool. Evans traces the spill’s economic ripple effect:
Now, so many households having lost their livelihoods, parents either can’t afford instructional childcare or else suddenly unemployed moms and dads find themselves unexpectedly at home all day with their little ones, so they don’t need the service….
[Suddenly] no one wants to wait tables or flip burgers in local restaurants; no one wants to work as lowly salesclerks in retail businesses; no one will stoop to changing bedding in area hotels or at the hospital—or to caring for children, the elderly, the infirm. Unable to compete with Mammoth’s wages, local enterprises find themselves facing insolvency. The Super Duper is stretched thin for checkers even though business has increased tenfold.
Evans worked on the novel while teaching full-time and raising her daughter, Jian. While on sabbatical in 2007, Evans completed much of the writing with support from an Individual Artist grant from the Anchorage-based Rasmuson Foundation. “The grant was a vote of confidence in my ability when I sorely needed one,” Evans said. She used part of the award to hire a developmental editor who evaluated the in-progress manuscript and made suggestions for changes.
Evans’ previously published work includes short stories and scholarly essays and reviews. She is among editors of the Environmental Justice Reader. Her essay in that collection was translated for inclusion in the French journal Ecologie et Politique.
“It’s an honor to be recognized for fiction that focuses on environmental and social justice issues,” Evans says of her inclusion as a PEN/Bellwether Prize finalist.
“But I want readers to enjoy ‘Oil and Water’ first and foremost as a novel that’s satisfying in terms of interesting characters and their development.
“Looking back, I know now that we writers don’t always choose our material; sometimes it chooses us,” Evans said. “My engagement with environmental cataclysm became the novel that I was meant to write.”
By Rosanne Pagano — This article originally appeared in the APU Summit Magazine, Summer 2013.