“I have been chopping off fish heads for thirteen hours,” writes LuLing Osofsky in the May/June 2012 issue of Orion. “Despite my fraying will, I cannot pause.” LuLing made the trip from the lower forty-eight to Alaska one recent summer, hoping for a rough-around-the-edges experience in salmon country. What she got instead was, well, we’ll let her take it from here. We asked LuLing about salmon canning, her summer in the wrong Alaska, and “Chop City,” her piece in the current issue of the magazine.
The Alaska you write about in this piece isn’t the Alaska you and I and other non-Alaskans might expect to see upon arriving there. Instead of evergreen trees and grizzly bears, you found fish heads and a sixteen-hour workday. What did you imagine Alaska to be before you got there?
The surprises began in the Anchorage airport. As I waited for my tiny plane headed to Naknek, Alaska, I looked around the small waiting area at the designated gate. There was a teenage girl with dyed blonde hair, heavy lipstick, ankles crossed, speaking urgently in Russian on her cell phone. There was a disheveled man at the complimentary coffee station tearing open packets of Sweet’N Low and chugging them down. A man with sores on his face was lying on the floor.
I thought, Shit. But it was too late; it was already time to board. That was my first indication that things were not going to go how I’d imagined.
Primarily, I’d imagined that the workday at the cannery would be much shorter, namely twelve hours a day, and only six days a week. I thought I’d have time to take long walks. I’d been to Iceland and Scandinavia in the summer and really loved the midnight light. That was one of the motivations to go to Alaska—to walk in that bluish blush of an extra long dusk, glimpse some wildlife, and absorb the remote beauty. It’s such a joke now to think how egregiously I’d idealized the experience of working there. Nonetheless, I did get to see some bears. I had a really laid back supervisor one day and we were outside loading boxes into trucks, and he noticed that there were several large brown bears on the beach, and pointed them out, and gave us a couple minutes to gaze in awe. I really cherished those couple of minutes.
Can you describe Naknek?
Naknek has a population of five hundred, I believe, but the factory is out on its own by the Naknek River, right on the river’s edge, so the fishing boats could come in to the docks and unload their catches. The tide differential was amazing; I think it was thirty feet. The rise and fall of the water was one of the things I’d note daily that marked the passage of time.
Naknek wasn’t really a town, but I think there were four bars and a restaurant. They were about a mile and a half away from the factory so I never went, though I wanted to, just to check it out. Some guys from my line were going and invited me after a shift, but that would entail walking on the road for twenty minutes each way and one or two hours of sleep that night, which would’ve ravaged me even further. How people could go to the bars after work kind of blew my mind, but there was plenty to need to decompress from.
One of the things that’s striking about this story is the way nature—in the form of fish—is objectified, commoditized, and treated mechanically, and the way that treatment extends to the mental and physical lives of you and the other line workers. Was that something you tried to reflect in the style and arc of this piece?
Yes! Definitely. The fish could’ve been anything, they ceased to be “fish.” You know when you stare at any one word for too long, and it no longer makes sense? The word looks strange, right? That’s how I began to see fish, not as these things that once swam in the sea and yielded a delicious meat, but these strange objects that needed to have certain parts chopped off, skinned, hollowed out, sorted, shipped.
Meanwhile, I felt that as workers on the line we were getting hollowed out in our own ways as well. Our meal times and motions, down to the tiniest gesture, were done for maximized efficiency—anything else was wasting our own time or strength. For example, I worked most days in the Freezer, which was where we processed the fresh fish, and it was in a large hall next to the river. When the bell rang for a meal, we’d have to soap down our bloody rubber outfit with hot water, take off two pairs of gloves and a hairnet, get out of the rubber suit and hang it up, wash our hands, then trek up to the mess hall, then wait on line for food. All this took about fifteen minutes, and we only had thirty minutes total, which meant almost no time to eat as we had to do the exact process in reverse to get back to work again.
So we all developed our own systems to maximize efficiency, but all still felt like drones anyway, I think. I wanted to capture the sense of struggle and futility, but also that there were still individual thoughts and experiences going on despite the uniformity of everything. And that the hyper-mechanization of everything resulted in, yes, chopping fish and sending them this way and that way, but also in warping even the insides of our heads. It was penetrating and affecting internal experiences.
There was so much rhythm in the factory, and while it was cacophonous to me, it was also dizzying, maddening, almost magical. All these conveyer belts, machines, knives hacking in and out of unison, hoses, fish dropping from places above our heads, enormous bins rolling by behind us, metal racks being slammed down, forklifts hoisting packed boxes. Have you ever seen the Lars von Trier movie Dancer in the Dark? Björk’s character works in a factory and she goes into these trances where the factory becomes the set of a musical and she’s singing and dancing to the manic tune of all these machines… It felt like that, in some ways, but instead of wanting to dance, I wanted to die!
When your story first arrived at the Orion office, there was some brief confusion as to whether it was nonfiction or fiction. It’s nonfiction, of course, but the reader detects the mind of a short story writer at work. Was that intentional? Are there writers who blend the two genres—who use tools from one in the other—whom you admire or draw from?
I love short stories, but I’ve only written one in my life! So I’d say this piece reading like a short story certainly wasn’t intentional, but that in writing nonfiction I am still very much trying to tell a compelling story. I don’t “essay” as much in terms of meditating or exploring an idea, and I certainly don’t come to any concrete conclusions.
I really admire writers who render the distinction between fiction and nonfiction irrelevant. If they are able to create and problematize an engaging situation or dilemma, while convincingly evoking the characters’ hopes and mistakes, idiosyncrasies and nuances, in any manner of situation, then I am engrossed. We’ve all seen this adage in action: sometimes truth is stranger than fiction—and so I like when I don’t know or don’t care if the story is fictional or not. If it feels true, that’s what I like.
I especially enjoy work if the language reflects what’s happening to the characters—I think of Robert Coover’s The Convention, and I’m always moved by the sparsity of Amy Hempel’s writing, which manages to be playful and melancholic all at once. Juggling the comic and tragic; that’s a precarious balance that I love (and why I’m also a big fan of Wes Anderson films).
Near the end of the piece, you describe a big computer screen in the cannery’s mess hall, which, at seemingly random intervals, displays the name of the employee who’s allowed to leave. It’s a great image—like something out of a Stanley Kubrick film. How did you finally get out of there? Did you finish out the contract or make a break for it?
Ha—I wish I had escaped in a dramatic fashion—but one day I simply realized I couldn’t take it anymore. For days I had been telling myself I couldn’t take it anymore, but this day, I really couldn’t take it.
I’d gotten sick, and my nose was running constantly, and I had on these huge rubber gloves—I couldn’t wipe my nose and then touch the fish—but they didn’t want me going back and forth to the washing station constantly, and I was being reprimanded for doing so, but otherwise there would’ve literally been snot dripping all over the fish, which I guess they didn’t care about. I was just so cold inside my body, working in the Freezer, and I felt like I had ice logs for limbs, my muscles were so stiff and cold and heavy.
There were lots of reasons why I was forcing myself to stay, but in the end, there was an Iranian guy who told me he could no longer stand to be treated so inhumanely, and even though he needed the money, and wanted to send it to his family, he wasn’t going to earn it under such ridiculous and demoralizing conditions. I felt empowered by him, his tenacity and anger, because I hardly felt anything; I was so tired.
He just stormed out and quit, and the next day I went to the office to ask if I could be one of the first ones sent home (hence seeing my name on the screen), and the woman there said, No, it didn’t work like that, and she had no idea how long the fish would be coming in, and I was contractually bound to work for as long as they needed me. If I wanted to break that contract I had to pay for my own flight out of there. She took it out of my final paycheck and within ten minutes I’d packed my bag and said bye to the Waldorf Hysteria, got in a taxi, and watched the tall grass blow around on the ride to the airport.
Everything about this story is intensely “of the moment.” How does your time in Alaska strike you today, with time and distance in the mix? Have you been able to eat, see, or smell fish since?
When I think back to that time, I imagine myself as a cartoon character. Or the whole experience as an animated movie. It was like a caricature of the experience of working in a factory. I was a miserable little soldier, in a giant yellow rubber outfit, and the situation was totally comical, totally insane. When I reached Seattle, I wanted to just roll around on the grass and eat it, I felt like this wild little animal that should just act in any random way that was the opposite of a robot, full of life and unpredictability.
I couldn’t eat salmon for the longest time, couldn’t even look at the word on a menu, conjuring the whole complicated world of where it came from—imagining the sea, the boats, the factory, the machines. But the thing I didn’t expect was that I could also no longer tolerate the color—which was a shame—because once I got home and looked in my closet, I realized I must’ve had some sort of obsession with that color, that pinkish orange, and how I’d never consciously realized it—I had so much stuff in that color—clothes, towels, pencil case, slippers, dresses, socks—I had to throw them all out.
Now it’s less about fish and more about looking around and realizing how many things are made in factories. I’m typing on a Mac laptop right now, and reading about factory workers building Apple products and killing themselves in China is a harrowing reminder of how often we use products made in frenzied production situations, under awful labor conditions. I don’t mean to get on a soapbox, but now, when I pick things up at a store, or look at them in my house, I turn them around and see how many different steps or components were part of the production process. It’s interesting, but occasionally it does overwhelm, too.