Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North
A few minutes into my phone call with Blair Braverman, the line goes silent. A wolf is prowling outside her window. “It’s very cute,” she says, distracted. All in a day’s work for Braverman, the twenty-eight-year-old author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North, a memoir of her experiences living in Norway and Alaska that came out in early July. Now a resident of northern Wisconsin, Braverman owns sixteen sled dogs and is working to qualify for the Iditarod, a 1,000-mile dogsled race across Alaska.
Braverman, who received an MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa and whose work has appeared in This American Life and Buzzfeed, first visited Norway as a ten-year-old after her father moved the family to Oslo to research a proposed smoking ban. A year later, they moved to Davis, California, where the north—a region that seems to be more emotional than geographic for Braverman—continued to exert its pull on her psyche. “Somehow, my connection to the north, my belonging there, was as real to me as any part of my fledgling identity. My name was Blair, I was good at drawing, I was meant to be a polar explorer,” she writes.
The finely observed Ice Cube chronicles Braverman’s time in Malangen, a village in northern Norway, where she lived with Arild, the sixty-something owner of a community store. Interspersed with this narrative are recollections of a high-school year studying abroad in Lillehammer, a year at a “folk school” learning to survive in the Arctic, and summers running dogsled tours on a glacier in Alaska, where she dated a noxious fellow guide named Dan. Throughout the book, she wrestles with the challenges of being a young woman in a remote, male-dominated territory—the compulsion to be a “tough girl,” the self-doubt, the unpredictable power and vulnerability of sexuality. What follows is an edited and condensed version of my conversation with the author.
Leigh Kamping-Carder (Rail): You’ve written about your experiences working on a glacier in Alaska for several media outlets, including the Atavist Magazine. How did these become a book?
Blair Braverman: When I originally conceived of the book, it was going to be a standard adventure story. It had very little that was personal at all. As I was writing it, everything was flat. It wasn’t coming together. Gradually I had to reconcile myself to writing about the really personal parts that were driving this. It became much more about different kinds of violence, different kinds of fear, how they all balance together, how gendered interactions take shape when you’re in a place that’s extremely isolated, and how that affects someone’s ability to go to that kind of place.
Rail: Was it difficult writing about personal experiences?
Braverman: It was. I pretended that I wasn’t doing it, to trick myself into doing it. To write all those parts, I had to tell myself that no one would ever read them.
Rail: I wanted to ask you about that. When it comes to nonfiction, many young writers, women especially, wind up putting themselves into the story, writing something that’s more memoir than a straight work of journalism. Was that something you thought about?
Braverman: I don’t know how much of that is women’s natural inclination and how much that’s what’s expected of them. That was probably also some of my resistance to doing it at first. I didn’t think I had to write a personal story in order to tell this larger story about the Arctic. I think a lot about gender in the book. One of the initial ways that took shape was trying to resist a gendered narrative.
I think that women have to be much more aware of themselves when they go into the world. Part of that may be what influences that pattern. We don’t get to be a neutral observer. We’re always reminded of who we are through our vulnerabilities and people’s response to us.
Rail: You include a lot of very detailed scenes and observations. What was your writing process like? Were you keeping a journal?
Braverman: The process was very reported. The quotes are verbatim. I was taking notes during interactions. At that point [living in Malangen], I knew I was writing a book. I wasn’t sure how Malangen was going to be part of the story. I was taking very careful notes. And that eventually became a challenge—it was much easier to write from careful notes than memory. It was a bit of a struggle to try to find the same depth in the remembered portions of the book. I spent a lot of time interviewing people who were in those situations with me. I looked up photos and video clips, my journals, emails we had sent. I tried to recreate as much as possible, but definitely that process felt impoverished compared to working from the notes for Malangen.
Rail: Which parts were remembered rather than reported?
Braverman: There are two parallel narratives in the book. The way it ended up being framed is that I’m in Malangen, I don’t really know why I’m there, it doesn’t totally make sense to me or the reader either. But it becomes sort of a haven or sanctuary from which I’m able to reach back and look at the things that brought me there. […] What’s remembered is Lillehammer and the glacier and the folk school.
Rail: It seems like you had a lot of uncertainty about your experience with Far, the father of the family you lived with in Lillehammer. He made you uncomfortable with his comments and the way he touched you. You write about Dan, who routinely had sex with you despite your unwillingness, that “It hadn’t been rape, because I could have stopped it. Of course I could have stopped it. What was I, helpless?” But you said that, to write this book, you talked to people who were there at the time in Alaska, and that people knew something was up.
Braverman: After that story came out [in the Atavist], several people wrote to me. One person wrote to me very explicitly and said, “I knew what was happening and I wish I had done something.” That was an incredible note to receive. […]One of the ways that I handled those situations in the book—because I spent a huge amount of time thinking about my responsibility as a writer to also make a fair portrayal—is that I found myself concentrating on my own reactions to what had happened. There were certainly incidents that I could have written about that I remember foggily. I chose not to do that. Here I am, sixteen years old, finding myself climbing out my bedroom window [in Lillehammer] to be on a mountain by myself in a situation where I had never had any desire to do that before. Or intentionally getting lost in the woods because it was comforting. Those are things that I know, that I found myself leaning on—writing about my own reactions as opposed to specific incidents.
Rail: In the book, you’re scared a lot, but you say that you were never afraid of Dan. You also write that, when you were at the folk school, “it was refreshing to be afraid of something concrete. I was no longer scared of some unknown force, of confusion; no, I was afraid of hypothermia. I was afraid of being stranded in the wilderness. I was afraid of crashing the sled. I was as afraid as I’d been in Far’s house, maybe even more, but suddenly that fear didn’t make me crazy: it made me brave.” Did you find positives in being scared?
Braverman: One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot, actually, since finishing the book is the difference between fear and anxiety. Seeking out frightening situations can crowd out anxiety, which is ultimately a much more overwhelming, unpleasant feeling for me—the fear of uncertainty. The underlying gendered anxiety that comes with being in situations, being a young woman and not trusting yourself to be able to distinguish between overt sexism and dangerous misogyny […] that’s always there, or it was for me. Whereas if I’m dog sledding or in a helicopter, or camped out in a blizzard, that fear is concrete. I’m afraid of hypothermia so I build a fire. I’m afraid about crashing into a tree, so I have to concentrate very hard on the trail. There’s something you can do about that fear in a way that you can’t about more generalized danger, I guess. Cultural danger.
Rail: Is there something about the north that brings out, for lack of a better word, these skeevy responses from men? Or is this just something that’s everywhere, and that all women experience?
Braverman: I don’t think it’s anything specific to the north. There can be a lot of frustrations in that landscape that come out in a lot of different ways. […] I often think that in northern Norway, at least, people are more free to say something they might not get away with saying in American communities I’ve been part of. But there’s often very little muscle behind it. There’s an honesty to me that’s very refreshing.
Rail: You came to feel safe in Malangen, even in situations that would have scared you before. In one scene, you’re sitting around a fire with two men, and one suggests you have sex with both of them to see who is a better lover. You said that you’re always surprised by the reaction people have when you read this out loud.
Braverman: It was a jarring situation, but it didn’t feel dangerous. It felt fascinating. It felt like they were saying what other people might think but wouldn’t say out loud. But by saying it, they were allowing me to negotiate my own boundaries, which are also out in the open. I could say, “That’s not going to happen.” […] When I’ve read that scene, people hate the characters. They’re villains. They’re also seal hunters—that may be part of it. […] People say, “How could you stand talking to them?” I feel very fondly about them. I’m still in touch with them. I really respect them. Another thing in that scene is I had a notebook out. I was writing everything down, everything everyone said verbatim. There’s an argument to be made that that affects the interaction and should be disclosed in the scene. […] That gave me a lot of confidence and power to feel in control in situations where I might have felt out of control previously.
Rail: You’ve changed the majority of names in the book or used nicknames, but everyone in Malangen knew you were writing a book, even if they thought no one would read it.
Braverman: They were very amused by me. They didn’t think anyone would be interested in them or their community. I got a lot of very sympathetic letters when I got home, like I have a cousin in the U.S., maybe they’ll read your book [because they know the people in Malangen]. Sort of these very sweet, sympathetic emails about how I might possibly find a reader for this project. They clearly thought it was going nowhere.
Rail: You write, “I knew I would never be a tough girl. And yet the phrase, with its implied contradiction, articulated everything that I wanted for myself: to be a girl, an inherently vulnerable position, and yet unafraid.” How do you think about reconciling those two identities now?
Braverman: I have zero interest in that anymore, at all. I cannot even remember it being interesting to me. It happened at one point in the course of writing the book. I thought about it a lot, it was very meaningful to me then, so of course it has to be part of the book. It was driving so many of the events. I must have reconciled those ideas during the process because now it strikes me as sort of utterly meaningless.
Rail: Do you not feel pressure to be tough anymore?
Braverman: I do. Part of it may just be getting older and not identifying with the word “girl” anymore. Also, I have my own dog team. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. […] Nobody’s approval or lack of approval is going to limit my ability to dogsled.