Blair Braverman grew up in the “perpetual brown summer” of Davis, California, but didn’t feel truly at home until her family spent a year in Oslo, Norway, when she was ten. Drawn to the landscape and expansive freedom of the north, Braverman resolved to become a polar explorer when she grew up.
“I felt that in my heart, I already was a polar explorer, even if nobody else recognized it,” she writes in her memoir-cum-adventure tale, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North (Ecco). Unlike the more familiar variety of female-authored adventure memoir, in which a woman travels to foreign lands or into the wilderness in order to resolve questions of identity or matters of the heart, Braverman’s journey begins in a manner more akin to the Gary Paulsen novels she loved in her youth: seeking Arctic adventure, she ventures north to find it.
But upon her return to Norway as a high-school exchange student, Braverman is subjected to a variety of threat that the heroes of Paulsen and Jack London’s fictions never face, sexual aggression and violence, which she encounters first at the hands of her host father, Far, and later with an abusive boyfriend. If a mainstay theme in outdoor adventure writing is the vulnerability of the human body against an inhospitable landscape, Braverman must contend with the simultaneous vulnerability of her female body in the company of men who would harm it.
Thus her journey to become a polar explorer necessarily also becomes a process of learning to navigate a world where having a female body is an inherent vulnerability. On subsequent trips north, from the folk school on the Malangen peninsula of northern Norway where she learns dogsledding to the Alaskan glacier where she’s hired as a tour guide, Braverman carries “a circular logic: if I could be safe in this land, maybe I could be safe in my own body. If I could protect my body, maybe I could live in this land.”
Part adventure story, part chronicle of life in the rural Norwegian village where Braverman finds herself at home, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube is also a lyrical meditation on violence, fear, self-reliance, and belonging. Braverman spoke to me from Wisconsin, where she lives in a farmhouse with her partner and her boisterous team of sled dogs.
—Ariel Lewiton for Guernica
Guernica: Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube is described as a memoir, but it also struck me as a sort of social history: a dedicated effort to relate the folklore, customs, daily life, and landscape of rural northern Norway. Or, as you put it in the book, “the Norway of witchcraft, storytelling, and incest, not minimalist furniture and the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Blair Braverman: The book could be a lot of things. It’s a weird beast. It’s a story of arctic adventures; it’s a memoir of sexual violence; it’s a chronicle of this particular village, Mortenhals. I fell in love with the village. The books I turned to the most for inspiration while I was writing were Random Family [by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc] and Behind the Beautiful Forevers [by Katherine Boo], books of journalism that chronicled specific communities and cultures in incredible detail. That’s the tone I wanted to strike.
It’s interesting to hear the book called memoir (even though I agree that it largely is) because my process in Mortenhals and the shop felt so journalistic. At that point, I didn’t know what the story was, but I knew I’d be writing it. Most of those conversations are verbatim because I was writing them down at the time, or else immediately afterward. I was able to ask a lot of follow-up questions if I didn’t understand something, and also take note of things like gestures, facial expressions, etc. I always had a notebook in my pocket, or else I’d jot things down on one of the pads of Post-its that were always on the coffee table. That tended to be less jarring to people because they often wrote on the Post-its to illustrate the stories they were telling, so they didn’t think twice when I did the same.
Guernica: What sorts of things would people write on the Post-its?
Blair Braverman: They would diagram things, show locations, maps, etc. The Post-its would look like little blobs or lines if you didn’t know the story that accompanied them. Actually, that was one thing I brought back from my reporting—at the end of the day, I’d collect the Post-its from the table, and I kept them in my notebook.
They were abstract designs, mostly, but if I looked at each one closely I could generally remember the story behind it. There was one that looked like a boxy scribble that was supposed to show how a stove had exploded and gotten someone’s grandmother all sooty. There was a frying pan, and also a map to a good berry patch, and others to show how someone was creeping around a corner, or something like that. I spread them out on the wall and looked at them whenever I was writing, and it felt calming to have that visual metaphor—like, here I was, piecing together scraps. Scraps that didn’t make sense without the rest of the story.
Guernica: How long did it take you to earn the trust of the villagers? Did they ever ask exactly what you were doing with these notes?
Blair Braverman: I was welcomed to the community immediately. My challenge was that I couldn’t keep up with all the offers of friendship. The whole town was extremely warm and kind to me. I told everyone I was writing a book. But I think they almost took pity on me when they heard that—it seemed delusional to them. Like, How sweet, she thinks she’s writing a book. They didn’t think that their lives were interesting, or that anyone would ever want to read about them.
Guernica: In the books you mentioned as models, their authors, LeBlanc and Boo, chose to conceal their own presence as witnesses/reporters/characters. Did you consider reporting in that mode, excising yourself from the narrative? Or, to put it another way, why was it important for you to be present in this story?
Blair Braverman: The book, and the travel and research I did for it, was very much a way for me to figure out things about myself. Why I was so drawn to this place, why I associated it so much with fear and freedom. It felt in part like I wrote this book to get over all that. And now that I have, I think I’ll be looking to do something really different for the next one. It’s common, I think, for debut books to be fairly autobiographical; it’s a chance to work shit out.
I’ve always thought that if I wrote another book about that place, I would hardly be in it myself; I’d like to follow the lives of the mail-order brides who ended up there. Women from Thailand who suddenly find themselves away from everything they’ve known, building lives two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Guernica: Ice Cube is pretty male-centric. The women are mostly side characters, which is interesting given that one of the projects of the book is working out about what it means to be a woman, or a particular kind of woman in relationship to men.
Blair Braverman: I tried to pick stories that had through-lines throughout the whole book. Stories and characters who could show up early on and then reappear throughout, going through the struggles and excitements of their lives, so that the reader could get to know them, too.
If you look at the actual census from that region, the gender breakdown is about sixty-forty. But yes, it’s a book that ended up being very much about men. It has to do, I think, with who has the spare time to hang out in a shop all day. Who’s telling stories, and who’s raising children. The people who hung around the shop were overwhelmingly men. The people who talked to me were overwhelmingly men.
Guernica: In some ways this book strikes me as a story about your friendship with Arild, the owner of the shop where you end up spending most of your time.
Blair Braverman: It’s a love story. For Arild. It’s a platonic love story for a shopkeeper in a village of forty half-drunk ex-seal-hunters two hundred miles above the Arctic Circle.
Guernica: The “goddamn ice cube” of the title refers to the Alaskan glacier where you worked as a sled-dog guide for tourists after learning the art of dogsledding at a folk school in Norway. While your experiences in Alaska and Norway are distinct, they each present opportunities to test a particular set of questions: about your own resiliency in harsh environments, about gender roles and expectations, about relationships with men that either reinforce or violate your sense of safety.
Blair Braverman: I knew that all these places felt connected to me, even though I wasn’t sure how. So part of the challenge was figuring out the emotional connection, and building that enough that the narrative as a whole would feel cohesive.
Guernica: Your body comes under threat in a number of ways. The book opens quite brutally, with a dying old man in Mortenhals announcing to you that he “could have fucked you,” and exposing himself to you. The danger of sexual violence is pervasive throughout the book: as a high-school exchange student in Lillehammer, you’re subjected to sexualized threats, groping, and harassment from your host father. A few years later, on the Alaskan glacier, your then-boyfriend rapes you.
Blair Braverman: Well, the difference between a threat and a danger is largely in how you respond to it. There were situations early in the narrative that were dangerous to me when I was sixteen or eighteen or twenty because I didn’t have the context to know how to respond or how best to protect myself. But if you dropped twenty-eight-year-old me into that tent on that glacier, I wouldn’t get raped. That’s not to say that what happened was my fault. It wasn’t. I did everything I could with the resources I had. But, given that particular situation, and the person I was at the time, that particular threat was much more dangerous than it would be to me now.
And sometimes I think that was the point of writing this book, and of going back to a situation that looked, in some ways, parallel to other gendered situations I’d been in—among the men in Mortenhals. I went back and entered into a parallel dynamic so that I could prove to myself that I wasn’t the same person anymore. I had to accept that I’d done everything I could, while also making sure that if the same thing happened now, there’s more that I’d be able to do. Although of course, there’s always a certain degree of vulnerability. That was something I had to come to terms with.
Guernica: During a trip you make back to Mortenhals, your partner mails you a stun gun. You end up discharging it and throwing it in a trashcan. It seems like, rather than more traditional forms of self-defense, your own internal balance, wherewithal, and dry humor become the primary neutralizing agents to these threats.
Blair Braverman: For me, it was. But that balance and dry humor, if looked at from another angle, can also look a lot like dissociation. I got a lot of feedback in workshop [at the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program] about how unemotional I was. It was a criticism. Readers were confused because they didn’t know what I was feeling, what they were supposed to be feeling. I got that response so consistently.
And I was so baffled. I write in scene. I think in scene. I shape the scenes that I write very intentionally to give the reader the same emotion that I was experiencing. None of that is an accident. What did people want me to do, write, “I felt scared”? “I felt happy”? I honestly had no idea how to address that complaint. There’s power in showing feelings, but I also think, in social situations, there’s power in not showing them.
Guernica: That criticism also seems to speak to what we expect from female first person narrators. They’re supposed to have feelings and work through those feelings on the page.
Blair Braverman: Yes, definitely. It’s uncomfortable for people to meet a woman they can’t parse.
Guernica: Whereas a man they can’t parse is stoic and intriguingly mysterious.
Blair Braverman: Yes! And a woman is dangerous. If you can’t predict a woman’s behavior, if you don’t know—or think you know—exactly what she’s thinking, then she’s a danger.
Guernica: Writing scenically, using dialogue and description rather than exposition, lead to moments that are incredibly funny even though they’re also—or have the potential to be—incredibly serious.
Blair Braverman: It’s the only way I know how to write!
Guernica: One line I love is when you tell yet another creepy old man in Norway, “It’s okay for you to touch my hair, but please don’t lick my neck.”
Blair Braverman: Ha! Oh, Zoran.
Guernica: It’s a relief of a line, because as a reader, I felt very anxious for you in that scene. You’re in a remote area with a group of strange men whose motives we don’t yet know.
Blair Braverman: One thing I thought about as I was writing this, and that I think about in my life in general, is the difference between adventure and violence. How little of a difference there really is.
Guernica: The difference seems mostly to be in the outcome?
Blair Braverman: Well, it depends in part on whether violence has to be malicious. We talk about nature being violent—does that really count? Is an avalanche really as violent as, say, an assault? If so, then adventure is just a matter of surfing on violence. Seeing if you can ride it safely. Which might be why so many adventure narratives are male. Women don’t have to seek out violence; it comes to them.
Guernica: The fear you experience most tangibly is that of humans inflicting violence on other humans, whereas the potential violence of nature seems…not quite comforting, but something you willingly enter into.
Blair Braverman: Yes. It’s the maliciousness that terrifies me. It baffles me. Nature’s violence has a logic behind it. It doesn’t care about me. So it’s something I can manage rather than avoid.
Guernica: Yet it also poses mortal risk to your body.
Blair Braverman: But so does everything! I definitely don’t have a death wish. I love being alive. I love different experiences. If I could avoid physical danger entirely, I would be thrilled. I can’t stand adrenaline.
Guernica: How do you feel when you’re racing dogs? Is that not adrenaline?
Blair Braverman: I feel real. It is adrenaline, yes, but that’s not what I like about it. To have my dogs—my dogs, which is very different from running someone else’s dogs, because the connection is that much deeper—and be responsible for them, and have them be responsible for me, and cross ten or thirty or two hundred miles of wilderness? Being pulled by dogs? I never, ever get over it. I’m astonished every time. I’ve been dogsledding ten years and probably 90 percent of the time I’m on the sled, I’m just back there being astonished.
Guernica: It’s a tremendous act of love, as you frame it.
Blair Braverman: Yes, absolutely. There are different elements to it. If you’re using someone else’s dogs, or dogs you don’t know that well, which is how I got into the sport, then it’s a technical challenge, where you need to know about navigating wilderness, and maneuvering the sled, and surviving in extreme cold, and taking care of dog nutrition.
But when it’s my own dogs, it’s almost like my consciousness is split between myself and them.
Guernica: What’s going through your mind when you’re on the sled, beyond astonishment?
Blair Braverman: I almost have a sense that I’m looking out my lead dog’s eyes, seeing the trail from her perspective. Dogsledding is so overwhelmingly physical and immediate. People have asked me if I’m able to think about writing while I’m dogsledding [laughs].
Guernica: Have you had moments when you’ve felt truly frightened, while dogsledding?
Blair Braverman: I’ve been absolutely terrified. Many, many times. Don’t tell my mom, but probably on a good 15 percent of my dogsled runs, there’s a moment or more when I feel like it would be possible for me to die. Not likely, necessarily, but definitely possible. Thin ice. Dangerous trail. Bears or wolves. And of course just plain cold—being out in twenty or forty below, alone, for hours or days at a time.
Guernica: You’ve had to train your body to endure it, right? It sounds like my worst nightmare.
Blair Braverman: Oh, I hate feeling cold.
Guernica: But you gravitate toward cold.
Blair Braverman: It’s better than feeling too hot. But that’s a big assumption people make—that I like being cold. I don’t like being cold any more than you do! I just learn how to manage it, and I like the things I can do in the cold.
Guernica: So what do you like about cold climates that has consistently drawn you there?
Blair Braverman: Beauty, possibilities.
Guernica: And, presumably, you like being able to manage it—to have an element that you can, via will and training, overcome.
Blair Braverman: Being cold is a skill you can learn.
Guernica: Early in the book, you write about going out as a high-school exchange student in Norway: “I wanted to do anything that would make me feel like I was in charge of my own risks.” In that context, it’s about partying and drinking vodka rather than being subjected to sexual threats and violence from your host father, Far. But it seems like that’s an ongoing philosophy for you.
Blair Braverman: True. And I do think that there’s something, at least in my original attraction to cold, that has to do with being responsible for my own body. Cold turns everyone’s focus to their own body. I can deal with mine, you deal with yours, he deals with his. That’s safety to me. But also that was a defiant position, and not healthy in the long term. Yes, I manage my own risks now as well as I can, but I’m not doing that specifically to deal with risks I can’t control.
Also, I hate sweating. So there’s that.