Ashmae Hoiland On Reckoning And Writing About Place

Once, when I was about six, my dad and I attached a message to the string of a kite and let it go into the sunset over the fence in our backyard.

Hi! My name is Ashmae Hoiland. I grew up in Provo, and even before Provo was cool, I loved it to a degree that was actually uncool. 

Once, when I was about six, my dad and I attached a message to the string of a kite and let it go into the sunset over the fence in our backyard. We could see Utah Lake, the muted blues of that sprawling body of water as we looked over the ledge beyond the chain link fence at the border of the yard. We never got a letter back, and when I think back on it, I like to picture the kite bobbing on the air, crossing the basin and range, headed out toward the Pacific, not concerned with our expectations at all. I’ve lived in at least a dozen homes in Provo since that time. My family packed up every couple of years and so I feel an attachment to many of the neighborhoods that are nestled between the lake and the mountains. 

It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I considered the ramifications of my place in this valley. I hadn’t ever thought twice about the name of the neighborhood my cousins and I pushed our tiny baby strollers with our water balloon babies in—Indian Hills. I didn’t know that the lake hadn’t always been filled with carp, the trash fish we were told to throw back out if one ever caught on our fishing line. I also never thought I’d get a tattoo. I grew up Mormon, in the most Mormon of places. There is so much I love about that upbringing, so much contained in this place. In my thirties, with kids of my own, we’ve moved back after a decade in California and I am seeing this land anew. I am unwrapping traditions and asking about what is underneath. 

I now know that there is a problem with calling an entire piece of land Indian Hills when there is, in fact, no trace of the native people who actually lived in this valley before us. Not to mention the fact that they didn’t thrive in those hills, but rather, made their homes near the lake. The lake that at the time was filled with thirteen native species of fish and did not stink of pollution. I’ve spent the past years reckoning with the fact that it was my ancestors, only six or seven generations back, who were part of the violent removal of both humans and the animals of this land. 

Just last month, I got my first tattoo, right here in Provo. 

My sisters and I wanted to get a small tattoo in honor of our mom. A pansy. She planted at least three flats of them every year, and they show up alongside the annuals that are waking up like bright confetti all over our yard. They are the most sturdy of flowers, perhaps under appreciated and so beautiful. We spent weeks looking at tattoo artists, but were so excited to find one that we loved right in Provo. It felt important to be able to be a part of the changing landscape here on a cultural level as well. Jordan Lundquist, from The Noble Society, was so lovely to work with. The tattoo studio is just a block from Pioneer Park and I imagined my ancestors feeling pleased with me as my sisters and I got our pansies drawn onto us. It was honestly a fun experience, a little pocket of subversion inside of a town that can sometimes feel restrictive. And in the end, having a tattoo doesn’t actually feel rebellious in the way I always thought it would. I love having a reminder of my mom and sisters permanently right there, close to my heart. 

Writing is an important part of my life. I recently have dedicated most of my own writing practice to the land here. I wrote a draft of a novel (that will likely never see the light of day) about the more contemporary history of this place. I’ve taken to writing to understand the land and its features and history as a main character in my stories. Because writing has offered me a way to take ownership of the small, even insignificant details in my life and turn them into something that matters to me, I run a company called “Mine To Tell,” which helps people to unearth and write into their own stories. It is one of the greatest joys of my life. Right now we are mentoring fourteen women who are bringing full books to life, and we teach a variety of classes, workshops, and basically anything that will help to get any person writing.

Okay, next item on the Provo bucket list. A few months ago I was walking along the trail near the lake, my kids were bounding through the weeds three times as tall as them, when I noticed a lot of activity just to the east of the trail. I assumed it must be another housing development, though I was surprised that they would build homes on such soggy ground. I felt a little disgruntled when I came to a sign that said the trail would be closing. A week later though, I learned why. The Provo River Delta Project is already well under way. The project is taking the piece of land I saw and re-directing a good portion of the Provo River to create a delta in which the once-endangered and native Junesucker fish can thrive and much of the eco-system of the area can return to its natural state. They are giving tours of the delta and looking for volunteers (sign up here). In true Leslie Knope fashion, I am so proud of the work the city is doing to listen to the landscape and do better to live in harmony alongside it.  

Since I’ve talked a whole lot about Provo in this newsletter, I will give you a short list of some of my favorite Provo places and a book that has changed my understanding of this place. 

Harmony Provo is the coziest little shop with so many magical things. I went through a quarantine stint where I sewed all my own clothes and Harmony has the best fabric and yarn, and is my go-to for gifts. 

Fillings and Emulsions on Center Street is a Cuban bakery that is seriously divine. It feels like a civic duty to go once a week and support it. Their pastries (seriously every one) are top notch and they make a fabulous cup of Cuban coffee. 

– I recently read On Zion’s Mount, by Jared Farmer. It is an incredible gift of a book that combines history, good writing, geology, and existential questions all in the same text. If you live in Utah, it should be part of your personal study of the land and its recent history. 

- The Bonneville Shoreline Trail has been a refuge and gift during this past year. You can access it all across the Wasatch Front, but in Provo specifically, you can get to it from Slate Canyon, Rock Canyon, or just below the Y mountain trail. As its name indicates, it is an actual shoreline of the ancient Lake Bonneville. Sometimes when I walk along it, I look over the valley and try to imagine it all under water, at the bottom of a lake. Maybe a bit morbid, but really, it feels peaceful to know that I am a part of something so big, just one layer in a billion, and I still get to experience so much beauty. 

Thank you for letting me be a part of this newsletter!  I love the vibrant cast of people that make up this place. I love the land and I love that we get to be a part of shaping what this place gets to be, in part by learning and taking accountability for the past and for the land itself. I believe that writing plays a vital part in helping us understand ourselves and articulate with efficacious voices.

I teach writing courses at, and share my paintings and personal writing on Instagram @birdsofashmae.

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