2016 Award Recipient: KENDRA ATLEEWORK
The Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers has chosen Kendra Atleework of Minneapolis, Minnesota, as the recipient of the eleventh annual Desert Writers Award. A grant of $3,000 will support work on her book-length memoir, Sweetwater: Life and Change in the Rain Shadow of the Sierra Nevada.
A native of Bishop, California, Atleework is soon to complete a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the University of Minnesota, where she has been working on Sweetwater as her thesis project. She also holds a Bachelors degree in creative writing for contemporary media from Scripps College in California.
“I grew up in Owens Valley, a remote region in eastern California at the arid leeward base of the Sierra Nevada mountains,” Atleework wrote in her application to the Fund. “I have been interested in the aesthetics and systems of this landscape since childhood.”
The Owens Valley landscape Atleework writes about was the scene of one of the most infamous water transfers of the twentieth century, when, in 1913, the city of Los Angeles approriated most of the Owens River and began funneling its water 233 miles through a pipeline to feed L.A. The city’s action formed the basis for the 1974 film Chinatown.
Atleework’s memoir is, in part, a reflection on the legacy left by the water transfer, which remains in effect today.
“This used to be an agricultural valley, a desert oasis,” she writes, “but after Los Angeles began piping the water away, the fields died; the cottonwoods planted as windbreaks fell and still lie silvery and dry on the valley floor, for there is not enough moisture here to allow even decay.”
But as Atleework notes, her book project encompasses a wide range of subjects beyond the legacy of lost water. “My manuscript concerns human and non-human life in Owens Valley,” Atleework said, noting that many of her interests touch on the history and pre-history of her home. “I will visit sites where historical events occurred, such as the now-dry Owens Lake, which once buoyed steamboats carrying silver ore.” Owens Lake, also the site of an 1863 massacre where the U.S. Army killed thirty-five Paiute Indians, had been drained by the city of Los Angeles by 1923. Atleework intends next to perform research on the Paiute people, the valley’s original inhabitants, whose story is still part of the life ways and human economies of the valley. She wants her memoir to be a compendium of place across time, with its range of focus stretching from the bristlecone pine forests of Sierra Nevada ridgetops to the scalding floor of the Owens basin.
“Kendra Atleework is a young writer we had never heard from in past competitions,” said Don Snow, chairman of the Ellen Meloy Fund Awards Committee. “I think that what most attracted us to her project was her rich sense of history, and how history is so very much alive in her valley. She is too young to remember the immediate effects of the Los Angeles water theft, but she is the inheritor of her family’s memories. She grew up amid the legacy of a badly damaged river and community, and her writing bears testimony in beautiful and poignant ways. What Kendra is showing us is contemporary life in one of the driest places in North America – the front lines of climate change in the wake of an environmental catastrophe.”
As Atleework notes, little-known Bishop, California, with five inches of rain a year, ranks as the third driest town in the U.S., after Las Vegas, Nevada, and Yuma, Arizona.
Atleework has published her essays and articles in several magazines and literary journals, including Guernica and The Pinch Journal. Her essay about her adolescent years in Bishop was selected for Best American Essays of 2015.
A group of six Meloy Fund board members comprised the 2016 Awards Committee. They included Don Snow and Jake Lodato, both from Washington State, Ann Walka of Flagstaff, AZ, Jullianne Ballou of Austin, TX, Grant Ditzler of San Francisco, and former Meloy Award winner Sarah Stewart Johnson of Washington, DC.
In her application essay, Atleework wrote this: “I believe that complex and nuanced portraits of place are valuable not only as pieces of art, but to deepen public understanding of fragile and often overlooked landscapes. Ellen Meloy’s books accomplish this work, and it is my goal for my own writing.”
The Ellen Meloy Fund supports writers whose work reflects the spirit and passion for the desert embodied in Meloy’s writing and in her commitment to a “deep map of place.” Before her untimely death in 2004, Meloy published four books, numerous articles, and radio commentaries. Her last book, Eating Stone, won the John Burroughs Association Medal for 2007. An earlier work, The Anthropology of Turquoise, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.