A place for pi­o­neers

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - Jill Batt­son

Nora Boxer got tired of tak­ing parts of her novel in progress to her post­grad­u­ate cre­ative-writ­ing work­shop, so she de­cided to write a short story and present that in­stead. It was a good move, be­cause the story, ti­tled “It’s the song of the no­mads, baby; or, Pi­o­neer,” re­cently won the pres­ti­gious Keene Award for Lit­er­a­ture. The prize (a $50,000 cash award) is one of the world’s largest stu­dent lit­er­ary prizes. It is awarded to a Uni­ver­sity of Texas stu­dent who cre­ates the most vivid and vi­tal portrayal of the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence.

Boxer’s story, set on the mesa out­side the city lim­its of present-day Taos, paints a vi­brant pic­ture of the al­ter­na­tive, sus­tain­able life­styles the city is known for. She writes a some­times-bleak ac­count of hu­mans striv­ing for com­mu­nity. “I have an in­ter­est in ways peo­ple are try­ing to head to­ward al­ter­na­tive com­mu­ni­ties,” she said. “And also an in­ter­est in ways that we are fail­ing at do­ing that. There’s a lot of great stuff hap­pen­ing in off-grid or al­ter­na­tive com­mu­ni­ties, but life in Taos is hard, and it’s a harsh cli­mate.”

Boxer’s pro­tag­o­nist, Adri­enne, and her part­ner, Theo, ar­rive in Taos ea­ger to ex­pe­ri­ence a semi-self-suf­fi­cient life­style. The newly preg­nant Adri­enne finds a job in a cof­fee shop at the north end of town, where she meets ski bums, artists, and the mesa dwellers known as “mesa rats.” Af­ter a Hal­loween party at the com­pound where she and Theo live, Adri­enne finds her­self sud­denly sin­gle. Roxy, an­other barista at the cof­fee shop, sets Adri­enne up with a new home on the mesa in an Airstream trailer that be­longs to the enig­matic Crow, a jew­eler who also owns the com­pound. The chal­lenges of life on the mesa, where run­ning wa­ter and pub­lic util­i­ties are nonex­is­tent and the con­ve­niences of Taos are 35 min­utes away by car, makes Adri­enne re­al­ize how an off-grid life­style af­fects the peo­ple who live it.

Boxer comes by her story hon­estly. She ar­rived in Taos for a month­long writ­ing re­treat in 2004 and ended up be­ing part of the com­mu­nity for four years. “Right when I got to Taos, I was hyp­not­i­cally drawn to the mesa,” she said. “When I de­cided to stay in the area longer, I looked at a place to live out on the mesa, and that was the first time I saw a func­tion­ing off-grid com­mu­nity. Over the course of my stay in Taos, I ended up meet­ing a whole bunch of peo­ple who live out at Three Peaks or Two Peaks.”

“It’s the song of the no­mads, baby; or, Pi­o­neer” is made up of facets of many peo­ple she knew in Taos. “As I was writ­ing the story, I thought about all the peo­ple I re­ally love in Taos,” she said. “And I wrote a lit­tle de­tail in it for each of them. So it be­came a re­ally lovely writ­ing process.” Adri­enne, how­ever, is not mod­eled on Boxer or any of her friends. “I know a lot of sin­gle moth­ers in the Taos com­mu­nity, and I have a huge re­spect for what their lives look like.” Boxer is drawn to writ­ing about women’s tri­als and tribu­la­tions when they choose a non­tra­di­tional life ex­pe­ri­ence. “I’m re­ally in­ter­ested in writ­ing for those women,” she said. “I feel we don’t hear enough of their sto­ries in lit­er­a­ture.”

The land­scape is such a vivid char­ac­ter in the story that Boxer wor­ried jok­ingly that she might in­spire a sud­den in­flux of new peo­ple to the mesa. “I was in­ter­ested in the mesa as a mytho­log­i­cal place but also a real space,” she said. “The way peo­ple live in Taos feels re­ally hu­man and feels re­ally shaped by the land. As I was writ­ing the story, I just kept think­ing, This is a love song to Taos.”

Any­one who has driven up through the canyon from Santa Fe and popped out to see the mag­nif­i­cent view of the Río Grande gorge split­ting the land­scape will ap­pre­ci­ate Boxer’s sen­ti­ment. She ren­ders the town it­self as a beau­ti­ful foot­print at the base of a sa­cred moun­tain and evokes the got-to-want-to-live-there feel­ing of the mesa as a col­lec­tion of un­usual dwellings look­ing out over the shim­mer­ing town. Dur­ing her time in Taos, Boxer started writ­ing a novel, De­tail in a Round

Globe, about an HIV-pos­i­tive woman from San Fran­cisco who moves to East Africa. She found a pa­tron who of­fered a round-trip ticket to any­where in the world to the win­ner of a writ­ing com­pe­ti­tion; Boxer won the writ­ing com­pe­ti­tion and spent six months in Kenya re­search­ing her novel and do­ing non­profit HIV work. “I want to write as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the world of ... al­ter­na­tives,” she said. “For most of my 20s, and even my early 30s, I was very in­ter­ested in a sub­cul­tural life­style be­cause I had a lot of ideal­ism. I think when I started to write this piece, it was orig­i­nally a way for me to un­pack some of my dis­il­lu­sion­ment with sub­cul­ture. That’s what this char­ac­ter’s jour­ney is about.”

The Keene Award will al­low Boxer to work full time to fin­ish her novel, and she has a plan for how she’ll spend the rest of the money. She’s work­ing on the idea of a non­profit project, The Re­sourcery, a sus­tain­able artists res­i­dency. “Res­i­den­cies usu­ally of­fer a place to live,” she said. “But if you weren’t tak­ing peo­ple out of their ex­ist­ing homes, then you could of­fer them money — as if you were giv­ing them a salary to be artists who give back to their own com­mu­nity.” Her plan pro­vides fund­ing for the res­i­dents so that they can live in their own homes and stu­dio space where artists can work.

It’s no doubt that the ideas around com­mu­nity build­ing, gift­ing, and cul­tur­ally cre­ative places that Boxer has ex­pe­ri­enced in her life so far are at play in The Re­sourcery. Boxer could eas­ily re­turn to the mesa and buy a small par­cel of land to live on with the rest of the money. “It would be eas­ier to em­body those val­ues per­son­ally,” she said. “But I feel this com­mit­ment to try and take that ex­pe­ri­ence into the pub­lic sphere.” ◀

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