Photograph by Teresa Sawyer
Iris Jamahl Dunkle writes and lives in Northern California. An award-winning literary biographer, essayist, and poet, my academic and creative work challenges the western myth of progress by examining the devastating impact that agriculture and over-population have had, and continue to have, on the North American West. Taking an ecofeminist bent, my writing also challenges the American West’s androcentric recorded history by researching the lives of women. As Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, I witnessed first-hand the devastating 2017 wildfires. These fires were the catalyst for my latest collection of poetry West : Fire : Archive and my investigation of my family’s migration to California during the Dust Bowl.
This personal history and interest led me to teaching Sanora Babb’s dust bowl novel Whose Names Are Unknown at Napa Valley College, to leafing through Babb’s papers at the Harry Ransom Center, and contributing a chapter on Sanora Babb’s short stories in the forthcoming edited volume Unknown No More: Recovering Sanora Babb (University of Oklahoma Press, 2021). In spring 2021, I have been invited to give the Billington Lecture on the History and Culture of the American West at the Huntington Library. My lecture will showcase Sanora Babb’s writing, particularly how her work revealed the West as many Wests—multicultural, multilingual, and multi-gendered. Babb is best known for her Depression-era novel Whose Names Are Unknown. Due to her until now unrecognized contributions to American letters, I am writing the first book-length biography of Sanora Babb.
In 2020, my biography on Charmian Kittredge London, Jack London's wife, was published by the University of Oklahoma Press. It’s a work that questions and re-writes the narrative presented of Jack and Charmian London by fictional biographers like Irving Stone by recreating Charmian's life through her perspective. I believe that biography can be revolutionary; it can challenge established ideas that have been fixed in history and through careful research resurrect the lives of those who have been misremembered. Charmian Kittredge London was a New Woman, an author, and an adventurer whose accomplishments (and disruptions) history had all but forgotten. Prominent Jack London scholar and author of Jack London: An American Life Earle Labor called my work “essential reading” and claimed that it was the “biography Charmian would have wanted to have written about her life.” Jack London Scholar, Jonah Raskin called my book "[r]iveting...This biography sets the record as straight as it can be straightened...Despite her flaws, or perhaps because of them, Charmian is indeed the kind of woman whom one would love to have known.”
I obtained my MFA in poetry from New York University, where I worked with Sharon Olds, Jean Valentine, Galway Kinnell, and William Matthews. I received my PhD in English with a focus in American Poetry from Case Western Reserve University. While at Case Western, I worked closely with Martha Woodmansee teaching a graduate-level seminar on the idea of authorship and authorship theory. My work with Dr. Woodmansee has largely influenced by pursuit of unearthing the forgotten stories about female writers of the West through the revolution of biography.