Interview by Lara Lillibridge
A story of love and a testament of forgiveness, Rust Belt Femme is a thoughtful and personal examination of class and gender, and how Jolie found her peace with both. A narrative of strength and resilience, Jolie writes simply and beautifully about growing up poor and other, while also acknowledging the privilege she did have.
I sat down via the internet with Raechel Anne Jolie, author of debut memoir Rust Belt Femme to discuss mothers, writing, and politics.
About Rust Belt Femme:
Raechel Anne Jolie’s early life in a working-class Cleveland exurb was full of race cars, Budweiser-drinking men covered in car grease, and the women who loved them. After her father came home from his third-shift job, took the garbage out to the curb and was hit by a drunk driver, her life changed. Raechel and her mother struggled for money: they were evicted, went days without utilities, and took their trauma out on one another.
Raechel escaped to the progressive suburbs of Cleveland Heights, leaving the tractors and ranch-style homes home in favor of a city with vintage marquees, music clubs, and people who talked about big ideas. It was the early 90s, full of Nirvana songs and chokers, flannel shirts and cut-off jean shorts, lesbian witches and local coffee shops. Rust Belt Femme is the story of how these twin foundations―rural Ohio poverty and alternative 90s culture―made Raechel into who she is today: a queer femme with PTSD and a deep love of the Midwest.
Out March 10, 2020 with Belt Publishing
LL: One of the things I loved about your book—and that I think is rare—is that it is just filled with love. You certainly had a lot of trauma and issues in your life, but it is a testament to forgiveness. And this book is just filled with love for your mother. It definitely comes across that she did the best she could, and if it wasn’t enough, you forgive her for it.
RAJ: Totally. Thank you so much for saying that. She still hasn’t read the book. She knows I love her, but she’s still really afraid to read it. And that’s been hard, so I’m always grateful when readers say that it is so evident.
LL: My first memoir was about my parents, and my mom didn’t read it for a really long time, and it was really hard for me. Memoir is like exposing your heart on the paper, and for them to not want to look…it’s rough.
RAJ: We had the most honest and direct conversation about the book when I was home over Christmas and we got joking about how there should be a support group for families of memoirists. What ended up helping your mother decide to eventually read it?
LL: A friend of hers basically told her to stop avoiding it. I think the unknown is always worse than the actuality. The fear is so big. My mom said that she thought my book was true—she didn’t think I got anything major wrong, though she remembers one or two things differently—and she was sorry that I didn’t have a happier childhood. But it was hard for her. I think when I started getting some positive press and people read it and still liked her it got easier. She saw that they didn’t judge her or think she was a terrible person—I think that helped her see that she would live through this. Now, a year or so later, we’re finally good again.
RAJ: That’s comforting to hear, and it will be good for my mom to hear that, too.
LL: Memoir is hard—for the family and the writer.
RAJ: Yeah, and yet it’s what I’m most compelled to write.
LL: That’s why I was surprised that you don’t teach writing.
RAJ: Thank you, that’s nice. I’ve taught some classes at The Loft, which is the big writing center in Minneapolis. But this is related to my economic background—I mean, I know a lot of people from working-class backgrounds get MFAs, and I always wanted to be a writer, but I truly thought it could never be a feasible career. That was something you did if you had financial support.
LL: Like painting landscapes.
RAJ: Right. I didn’t pursue an English degree, I pursued something more practical. At the time, getting a PhD felt like I’d be set for life, though of course the academic job market is horrible right now, so I didn’t wind up getting that security. But I loved studying media, and everything I’ve researched is related to radical politics and social change. I took creative writing classes as my electives, but I’m not formally trained.
LL: And what are you teaching now?
RAJ: Right now I’m teaching a Media and Social Justice Course called Making Media Making Change, but I’ve taught in Media departments, and Gender Studies departments for the past ten years.
LL: Something else I wanted to touch on that seemed really relevant to today’s political discussions, is that you were first generation going to college, and the whole application process can be rather daunting. And you didn’t really understand how student loans worked, or how much debt you’d have. People have this idea that people with giant debt got themselves into it. But you had no one who could even put it in terms you could understand. It was just blind faith, and I think that’s an important thing to keep in the conversation.
RAJ: it is, but I always want to emphasize that I was first generation in terms of my parents—my mom didn’t graduate high school, my dad didn’t go to college, but I did have relatives that had gone to college, but they were not able to help my mom with the FAFSA form or other details. Low-income people—or even just eighteen-year-olds—can’t wrap their heads around $50,000 in debt.
LL: At eighteen $50,000 and $5,000 were both such big numbers that I couldn’t even picture them.
RAJ: Exactly, and I thought that if I got a college degree then I’d be OK. I graduated in 2007 from undergrad, and was in grad school during the recession. Capitalism has always been hard on people, but it was a different landscape after 2008.
LL: In your book, you have this gentleness for working-class people that I thought was really refreshing. You have this line,
“It’s not wrong that poor, white America has its share of bigots, but it’s also not that simple.”
I just really liked how you deconstructed the strength of these women and men in your community. There’s this view, and please don’t think it’s mine, but that these people are trashy. And you complicate that and celebrate them.
RAJ: These are exactly the kind of themes I hoped would emerge for readers. I think it’s important to me to always say that things were bad for people before Trump. I think capitalism is a horrible system whether it’s Trump or Obama, poor people suffer. But I do think that Trump signaled some very symbolic shifts, and one of those is how lost poor white people are in particular, and how they are trying to find meaning and belonging anywhere, and a lot of people found safety in Trump.
I do think that white supremacy is being chipped away at, thank God. I was listening to this interview with Ruby Sales, who is a civil rights activist, and she was saying that she comes from what she calls Black Liberation Theology, and she brings the spiritual into social justice work. She made this impassioned speech about how white people who want to help Black liberation have to be in conversation with other white people who are going the wrong way.
When we have rhetoric that I believe in as an activist, like Black Lives Matter, which makes some white people feel decentered, which is important, it also means we have to make sure they don’t take that decentering and go towards Trump, for example. So it feels very important to me to bring humanity to everything, and it’s difficult for me to bring humanity to Trump, or one of the racist guys on my dad’s race car crew, but I also got to see that man be a father and a friend.
So all of this is to say that humanity is what is going to bring us closer to less oppressive systems and felt like a goal of the book. I hope that when people from my childhood read the book and know all these far-Left things I post on social media, that they’ll also see that I don’t think I’m better than I came from. And if there can be some growth in that recognition.
LL: That makes sense. I think a lot of us, myself included, just stopped having those conversations with people we don’t agree with. And we need to recognize each other’s humanity again. And I think that’s where literature can help bridge those gaps and start those conversations because I’m not always willing to have those conversations in real life.
RAJ: And I don’t want this to come off that I’d expect any marginalized person to put themselves up for emotional, verbal, or even physical abuse to try and be in dialog with someone who doesn’t respect their humanity. But if there can be this starting place—going back to Ruby Sales, she said we have to get back to the idea that white people can be redeemed, and having this trust that you can heal and get better. To be able to say, “I see the good in you,” might be a good starting point.
LL: That’s again, very loving towards the whole country, not just people who agree with you. Another thing I got from your book is that music and the whole punk scene saved you at a time when you desperately needed to be found. You took all that anger and trauma and found an outlet in actually helping people, like when you got involved in Food Not Bombs. The serendipity that you found this wonderful activism, compared to people who go the other way really struck me.
RAJ: I feel so lucky for that. And I think it also coincided with one of my first, really big, intense romantic relationships. I think that intersection between young love, politics, and music, all of those things are so profound, and it’s also sad that those things resulted from 9/11 and the war. It was really comforting to find a community of people who gave me a framework for understanding some of the reasons that things were so hard for me growing up, which I would say are economic injustice and toxic masculinity in terms of my mom’s ex-boyfriend. So I got validated that it wasn’t my mom’s fault, it was this system.
LL: And that boyfriend you mentioned—we’d say he mansplained now—and yet, he did teach you a lot. I thought you explored that well. Here’s this person who both thinks they are the shit pardon my language and yet, he really did teach you a lot of good stuff.
RAJ: He read it, both he and the other main character boyfriend in the book read it and gave it their blessing.
LL: That was nice of you to give him that opportunity.
RAJ: I really did want people, except for my mom’s ex-boyfriend, to have a chance to read it if they were prominently featured. He agreed that he was a dumb twenty-year-old who was cocky, and he wasn’t exaggerated, he was that much of a caricature. I think we had this eye-rolly, cringe-worthy character, and he’s getting poked at, but he did teach me things, and I tried to bring a balance to that.
LL: I think you succeeded.
RAJ: I’m glad.
LL: Lastly, tell us about your path to publication: how did you start writing the book, how did you find your home at Belt?
RAJ: The condensed version is that I was visiting academic in Boston, and that contract ran out. When that ended I applied to a lot of academic jobs, and none of them panned out, which is the case again for so many people with PhDs now. I was unemployed. Well, I teach yoga on the side, so I was underemployed and really angry at academia. All of my writing for years, except for my blog, was devoted to academic writing.
When I lost my job, I got really mad and I was like, I’m not going to spend my time writing for academic journals that honestly, no one is reading. So it was a fuck it moment, and that coincided with a trip to New Orleans where a palm reader told me I was stifling my creativity and I need to stop doing that. She said, “you’re not doing something that you’re supposed to be doing.” And that night I started this document that became the book.
I started working on it here and there, and I was so excited about this press that I thought was so cool and it was in Cleveland. I had that rust belt pride. I had this moment with my partner when I realized that Belt didn’t have anything queer in their catalog really. And I was like, I should write my memoir for them. That helped me get a theme—how the rust belt shaped my life, and the gendered aspect of that. I identify as a witch, so I went to this witchy moon circle the month before I pitched my book and I cast a spell to get my book accepted by Belt. I wrote a proposal. I don’t have an agent, so I hoped—and I was correct—that Belt was small enough that I wouldn’t be ignored for not having an agent. And they said this is great, send us more, and I didn’t have more, so I wrote more and then she accepted it right away. I cast the spell in August, got the email in October and signed my contract in December. It really was very special and I’ve loved working with Belt. It’s the exact perfect home for it.
LL: What a nice and unusual publishing journey!