After all these years, it is still somehow an unnexpected miracle, a rich soul-feeding surprise. “Summer Fishtrap: A Gathering of Writers” held its 27th year gathering in the Wallowa Mountains of Eastern Oregon last week. This year’s theme, inspired by a poem of the late William Stafford, was, “What the River Says: The Art of Listening in a Turbulent World.”
During the day at Fishtrap writers take part in classes and workshops. In the evening, the faculty read from their work. After dinner we walk the half-mile from our cabin to the Methodist Camp, the site of Fishtrap, to take in the evening readings which are open for the public.
As the sun set in pinks and reds over Joseph Mountain, and the heat of day gave way to the cooler evening, we listened to such wonderful writers as Teresa Jordan, Kim Stafford, Luis Alberto Urrea, Kim Barnes and Naomi Shihab Nye. Past years have included David James Duncan, Cheryl Strayed, William Kittredge and more.
Similar to many other events and organizations these days, it seems there’s an effort at Fishtrap to encourage racial and ethnic diversity among the participants and the faculty.
In particular, I noticed this year how often we were reminded of the mixed parentage of various writers. Keynoter Naomi Shihab Nye was “born to a Palestinian father and American mother.” Slam poet Anis Mojgani’s “father was Persian and his mother African-American.” Luis Alberto Urea, was “born in Tijuana, Mexico, to an American mother and a Mexican father.”
Such information can be useful. It provides perspective on the work of poets and novelists who explore the intersections of culture as well as questions of identity. But it also felt, at least at times, like a self-conscious effort to establish Fishtrap’s diversity bonafides.
Is that a problem? It becomes a problem when racial/ethnic diversity eclipses or is substituted for diversity of thought, political leaning and philosophy. As lovely as Fishtrap is, there is a way in which it feels as if it is an incursion from liberal or progressive Portland or Seattle, San Francisco or Missoula. There’s racial and ethnic diversity, but in other respects Fishtrap feels like a bubble, a safe haven for progressives amid the more conservative culture of Eastern Oregon.
I experience something similar to this in the denomination in which I am an ordained minister, The United Church of Christ. We, too, work hard at racial/ethnic diversity, as well as diversity of gender and sexual orientation. In church leadership and in the lineup of speakers at events such as our General Synod or regional assemblies we strive for diversity ... to a point.
Although the United Church of Christ is heavily Caucasian in overall membership, we work to forward African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans into public roles, along men and women who are gay or lesbian. That’s good as far as it goes.
But often it seems to go no further. That is, the more visible diversity of race and ethnicity is encouraged, but not so with diversity of thought or theology, politics or philosophy. There we tend toward a liberal or progressive uniformity.
This seems to me a dilemma or challenge for many groups and in many settings these days. While a visible diversity is prized, there may be less welcome or tolerance for people of different views on the issues of the day, whether they be abortion or gun control, legalization of marijuana or charter schools. We risk, and this is certainly true for both sides of political spectrum, dwelling in enclaves of limited, even pseudo diversity. Many colors, but not so many thoughts.
Can our longing for diversity be expanded beyond the categories of race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, to include thought, philosophy, politics and economics?
One of the very best books about Oregon’s rural Wallowa County, where Fishtrap takes place and where my family has its roots and a summer cabin, is Marcy Houle’s The Prairie Keepers: Secrets of the Zumwalt. Houle is a Portland-based wildlife biologist, who as young woman came to live in Wallowa County in order to study one of its most-intriguing landscapes, the Zumwalt Prairie.
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