Alaska recently lost one of its most influential writers and impactful writing teachers.
“Sherry Simpson is one of the most important Alaskan writers ever to grace our literary world,” said Ernestine Saankalaxt’ Hayes, who knew Simpson as an educator and colleague and is herself a revered author. “She lives on in our memories and in our hearts and in our work.”
Simpson, an award-winning writer, educator and former Juneauite, died on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, in El Paso, Texas, said Scott Kiefer, her husband of 37 years. She was 60.
Kiefer said Simpson’s death followed complications from a previously undiagnosed brain tumor, and about a week earlier she had been flown to El Paso from a New Mexico hospital closer to their home.
As the news of Simpson’s death rippled through the Last Frontier and beyond, people shared their favorite passages by Simpson, the way her words touched them and just as often reflected on ways she shaped their writing. Sometimes they did both.
“I guess the only way it can be described is just an outpouring of support and memories and comments about Sherry,” Kiefer said. “The comments that have meant the most to me have been from people who were able to experience her teaching method and then went on to teach themselves without trying to copy her but by incorporating her methods and making it their own while teaching their students. That was the part that gave her the most pleasure, the most satisfaction.”
Simpson authored six books, Kiefer said, and her work appeared in many literary journals and anthologies. She also wrote for the Juneau Empire, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska magazine and the Anchorage Press. While Simpson wrote about many topics, her writing on nature may be her most well-known work.
“She loved Alaska, and she loved talking about it, and she loved writing about everything,” Kiefer said. “I think she told its story in a way that no one else has ever been able to.”
He added that she was the most dedicated researcher to walk the Earth, and her boldness as a reporter and writer belied a more withdrawn and private nature in her personal life.
Simpson, who moved to Alaska as a child, worked as a reporter at the Juneau Empire and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner before earning her Master of Arts in creative nonfiction at University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The “About the Author” portion of Simpson’s website notes pursuit of the degree began “after writing one too many weather articles for the Juneau Empire in which it was either raining, had been raining, or would soon resume raining.”
Despite the ribbing, a deep love for the city and Southeast Alaska remained after they left the region, Kiefer said.
“We loved being in Juneau,” he said. “and it was probably one of her deepest wells as far as something that would give her inspiration, something to write about.”
Kiefer said in recent years, Simpson was particularly focused on her teaching in both the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, and as a professor in the Creative Writing and Literary Arts Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“Sherry Simpson was a brilliant writer, beloved friend and mentor to a whole generation of Alaska writers,” said UAA Professor David Stevenson in a statement shared with the Empire. “She strove to teach her students to trust their instincts, question their ideas and take themselves seriously. She was passionately devoted to her students, as they were to her. The sudden news of her passing elicited an outpouring of grief from family, friends, students and colleagues. Many have taken to the web and social media to post online tributes, all of which share a common theme: ‘Sherry Simpson changed my life.’ Sherry possessed a self-deprecating sense of humor, rare intelligence and unbound generosity. We will miss her greatly. She left one large empty pair of Xtratufs to fill. We won’t be able to, but we owe it to her to try.”
Hayes, who was named the state writer laureate in 2016 and resides in Juneau, was effusive in praising both Simpson’s work and the effect she had on Hayes’ writing.
“Sherry and I met in 2001 when I was accepted into the UAA MFA program and soon after she became my nonfiction adviser,” Hayes said in an email. “She was essential in my writing journey, and her hand is on every page of ‘Blonde Indian.’”
In 2014, the two toured the state together to discuss racism in writing and in Alaska. Kiefer said he knew the experience was eye-opening and important to Simpson. Hayes also spoke highly of the sometimes difficult trip.
“Over the years after I returned to Juneau, Sherry and I taught at the low-res program, traveled to conferences, did readings and sat on panels together, and one year did a whirlwind tour of Southeast Alaska that began at UAS Evening at Egan and ended with a storm-tossed Inter-Island ferry from (Prince of Wales) to Ketchikan, rain-soaked and bedraggled and happy to have met new readers and writers in Alaska communities,” Hayes said. “And although I’m now much older and I’ve promised myself I won’t leave Juneau, I would jump at the chance to do it all again. ”
For people who feel moved to take action in Simpson’s honor, Kiefer said she would have appreciated nearly any giving to organizations that support the outdoors, wildlife or pets.
“Or make it more personal,” Kiefer said. “Donate to a homeless shelter. Cook some meals for somebody. Just reach out and help neighbors. That’s what we’re trying to do now.”
• Contact Ben Hohenstatt at (907)308-4895 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.