Interview by Lara Lillibridge
When Shawna Kay Rodenberg was four, her father, fresh from a ruinous tour in Vietnam, spirited her family from their home in the hills of eastern Kentucky to Minnesota, renouncing all of their earthly possessions to live in the Body, an off-the-grid End Times religious community…. the austere communal living of prayer, bible study, and strict regimentation was a bad fit for the precocious Shawna. Disciplined harshly for her many infractions, she was sexually abused by a predatory adult member of the Body. Soon after its leader died and revelations of the sexual abuse came to light, her family returned to the mountains their ancestors have called home for three hundred years: a community ravaged by the coal industry, but for all that, rich in humanity, beauty, and the complex knots of family love.
Kin: A Memoir is, above all, about family — about the forgiveness and love within its bounds — and generations of Appalachians who have endured, harmed, and held each other through countless lifetimes of personal and regional tragedy. (the previous content/description was excerpted from the book jacket)
About the interviewee: Shawna Kay Rodenberg is originally from Seco, a tiny former coal camp near the headwaters of the Kentucky River in Letcher County, Kentucky. She is a mother, grandmother, community college English instructor, and a registered nurse. Her poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Consequence, Salon, the Village Voice, the Bennington Review, the Crab Creek Review, Kudzu, and Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel; she won a 2017 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award in creative nonfiction. Rodenberg is also a vocalist; she and her husband, David, are collaborating on an album, a mix of original Americana, vintage country, and traditional mountain songs. Her memoir, Kin, is out June 8, 2021, from Bloomsbury. Connect with Shawna on Twitter or Facebook.
Lara Lillibridge: So my first question to you. And let me just start by saying Hippocampus Magazine is read by a lot of writers, and we have a conference every year that is only for creative nonfiction, so a lot of my questions are a little bit more writerly questions.
Shawna Kay Rodenberg: I noticed that right away [in your advance questions] and very much appreciated it. I think those are the questions most writers would rather answer anyway.
LL: So, you know, every writing conference I go to has at least one session on writing about family. And you have this quote that says:
Even now, writing about it fills me with worry that I might be inadvertently reengaging, and that is why talking about it, why telling was and still is the hardest thing. It might be the right thing to do, but it also might mean, once and for all, that the war was entirely my fault, that my father’s worst fears about me were well-founded and he was right not to trust me, because I don’t love my family like I should.
And I definitely got the impression that talking outside the family was completely frowned upon, but then I saw your father and your sister listed in the acknowledgments, which was really touching. Can you talk about, your family’s reaction? And if they knew in advance and how involved they were in your writing process?
SKR: When I started writing Kin, I felt very protective of my family and the place that I come from, I think, in large part just because Appalachia is such a maligned, misunderstood area. And the last thing that anybody who’s from there wants to do is be another voice undervaluing the region and the people in it.
I remember one of the first workshops I attended at Bennington, when I began studying with my friend and mentor, Mark Wunderlich. We were talking about autobiographical poems, because I studied poetry, not creative nonfiction, at Bennington, and while I was there, I had no desire to write a memoir. But, somehow during the workshop, a discussion arose in which a poet was talking about material she didn’t feel she should use in a poem, because it divulged a family problem. I remember Mark saying, ‘Please understand, this is not a problem that men have. I’ve yet to hear a man struggle with that question in workshop.’
Which doesn’t mean that they don’t, you know—I don’t want to generalize and say that men don’t struggle with the idea of speaking out of turn just as women do, but I think his point was that women carry a lot of the social burden of family which culminates in the desire to be the glue, not the bomb that goes off and blows everything apart. I was lucky enough to carry that knowledge with me into my first attempts at writing a memoir, understanding that it was going to be harder for me because I’m a woman and a daughter, a sister and a mother, to speak about my own personal experiences and sort out what’s appropriate, what’s loyal and what’s disloyal, that family in general was going to be a little harder for me to write about, if that makes sense.
So, that helped a little bit. It was still terribly difficult. To say I was nervous to show it to my family is a gross understatement, but I think ultimately it is my story, and though I’ve tried to be really respectful where other stories overlap with mine, I couldn’t really write it and leave those bits out. I made early attempts at writing chapters that would maybe not be quite so fraught or controversial, that wouldn’t make me feel like I was stirring the pot or being the bomb, but some of those stories simply had to be in there regardless.
More than anything—we were talking about Appalachia—I don’t want to ever make generalizations about an entire group of people, because they’re all complex, individual human beings. But I do think that that freedom is especially important to the people that I grew up with, and truth is part of that freedom—the ability to tell your own truth and be your own self, authentically, I think is a gift that Appalachia gave me.
LL: That’s really beautiful. I like that.
I was really excited about your shifting point of view. And I think it really did a lot to show your father’s history and your mother’s history and to show that we are all products of our childhoods. And it’s a really unusual structure. I’m not sure if I’ve seen it done exactly this way before. And I loved it—it worked very well for me. And I wonder, was that your plan originally? Or did that happen after a few drafts? Or how was that whole decision made?
SKR: I’m really glad you liked it since some of the early reviews on Goodreads and those sorts of places indicated that some people found the shifting perspectives a little confusing. I didn’t go into it knowing that was going to be an overarching structure. I started writing because the same mentor that I mentioned already believed that my poems were being kind of bogged down with narrative burden—I was trying to tell too much story in my poems. So, he suggested that I write the memoir, to which I said no, immediately. And then he very wisely said, ‘Just write it like you’re writing it for your kids, like no one will ever read it. They’ll read it after you’re gone.’ So, that became the springboard, to try to write the things about myself that I wanted my kids to know after I was gone.
Right away though, I started to realize that I was doing my family an injustice by starting in the middle of the story, because so much had happened before I came along, generations of events that shaped my family and ultimately me. I knew right away that I would need the first half of the book to include the stories that my mom had told me the whole time I was growing up. She told them over and over again, essentially as an explanation for who she was. She saw them collectively as her origin story, and I knew I couldn’t write my origin story without including her origin story.
By the time that I got to the middle of the book, it became very clear that once I began to shift into independence, it was my father’s story that mirrored mine more, sometimes almost uncannily, so I knew I needed to finish the book with him and his history—but that realization didn’t come until I was buried in the book. Also, initially, I separated past and present worlds by using past and present tenses, but that got to be confusing and unnecessary, and I came to like the way, once I’d put it all in the past, the voices seemed to blend together. So many experiences were shared by me and my family members, that it seemed to make sense to blur the lines of the characters.
LL: And that’s why I thought Kin was such a great title, because it is so much more than just your story.
SKR: I wish I could take credit for the title. That was Bill Clegg, my agent, and one of the early editors of the book. Actually, when he suggested it to me, at first, I was nervous. One thing writing Kin taught me is that I do sometimes have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, and I have to be careful about that. All of which is to say that when he suggested it as a title, my first thought was, that’s not a word I use often.
LL: Oh, interesting.
SKR: Yeah, I mean, I have used it. And it does appear in the book at one point in a song that my grandma Betty sings to me. But it’s old Appalachia, it’s not Gen X Appalachia. And so my first reaction was one of reservation and wondering if using the word might be acquiescing to dated stereotypes of the region.
LL: I could see why you would think that for sure.
SKR: But by the end of the phone conversation, I knew better. It really only took a few minutes for me to think, no, it’s right, and to be really grateful for the suggestion, especially since it immediately positioned the primacy of family at the forefront of the book, and that’s what it’s all about. I love the title now.
LL: I took a workshop with Luis Alberto Urrea, and he said that your title is your first sentence to the reader—it tells them like how to think about what follows. I am so terrible at titles—my titles are like Chapter One or something.
SKR: Mine are either very benign or just really out there. It seems like there’s no middle ground for me—it’s one extreme or the other.
LL: But in your case, the title did sort of prep me for how to think your book. I went into it thinking about family and even the word kin—I’m sorry for the stereotype, but it put me in a mindset of a more rural family.
As I look at your book, the cover blurb reads:
“Shawna Kay Rodenberg may have been born ‘bruised-ass-backward into a world of chaos’ in Appalachia, but her memoir Kin is so full of ballsy intelligence and unremitting love that it feels like secular scripture. Like Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, Kin is a American original.” ―Benjamin Anastas, author of TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE
And I read an interview with Mary Karr about The Liar’s Club, and she said that she let her mother read every single draft that she wrote before she did anything else with it. And my approach was to not let my mother read my book until I got my ARC and I couldn’t change it, because I didn’t want her influence on my story. Which way did you go? Did you let any family members see things as you were working on it, or did you wait?
SKR: I always showed it to my husband and my kids from the very beginning. They’re my first readers.
LL: Your kids are adults though, right?
SKR: When I started working on it, they were teenagers, and they’ve come of age with the book. But yeah, I felt very protective of the manuscript in its early drafts. The same was true of Bill Clegg—though he gave me the option of pitching it early in the process to potential editors, he understood that I needed to find my feet first because I had no idea how to approach a memoir, and I really dislike talking about myself, as I think a lot of memoirists do.
A friend of mine recently reminded me that I played with the idea of memoir during my undergrad years, which I’d forgotten, and I do remember that much of the criticism I encountered during those proto-attempts centered on my leaving myself out of the story. I’ve since come to understand that many of us write memoir because these are conversations we don’t want to have in a public way or face-to-face. You want to be understood, but you don’t really want to be present for any of that process. Somehow, paradoxically, the process feels incredibly private—until it’s not.
LL: I definitely am a write a letter and leave it on the counter kind of person.
SKR: Yes, exactly. And so again, for so many different reasons, I felt protective of the earlier drafts of the manuscript, and very much like I didn’t even know what it was going to be, and didn’t want anyone else telling me before I had figured it out.
LL: I definitely felt that way. I know exactly what you mean.
SKR: Especially since as a form, creative nonfiction in some ways shares a lot in common with poetry. They’re both hyper-sensory, and, like poetry, storytelling relies a lot on cadence and timing. There are many parallels you can draw, but with memoir, you simply don’t have the same sense that the poem offers of a protective veil of mystery between you and the reader. Everything feels more exposed.
LL: Oh, for sure.
SKR: So, yes, even though a lot of my poems were autobiographical, and had elements of confession in them, I felt a little bit safer behind the mystique of the poem. With memoir, you just have to be it and say it, and that’s a lot harder for me.
LL: Yeah, I think for a lot of us. Now, when you talk about being protective, both of your region and of your manuscript, you have these letters that are written by your father—there’s a series of them from when he was in Vietnam, and you included them as written, I’m assuming, I mean, if there were typos or misspellings, you left them.
SKR: Of course, a lot of the book deals with my fraught relationship with my father, and I had known from the beginning that I needed to write about Vietnam and his experiences there in some way. I wrote many, many drafts of chapters that tried to imagine that experience, but I just couldn’t—I mean, I am not a soldier, I have no idea. It would have taken an exorbitant amount of research for me to feel like I could even remotely do that experience justice, and even then, I feel like it would be presumptuous to pretend that I knew what that was like for him to soldier as a child, not even old enough to drink legally.
I mean, he was younger than my son is now when he found himself in another country, fighting this war that was so complicated and class-based. Anyway, how to write about Vietnam was a quandary I had no idea how to settle.
Then miraculously, it seemed almost like Kismet, his letters appeared in the bottom of a box of memorabilia that I was given after my grandma died. It was nothing more than a box of odds and ends, you know, old Christmas bows because she reused everything, an urn that I now use for antique rosaries and just knickknacks. But at the bottom of the box were all of these letters my dad wrote to my grandmother from Vietnam.
It took me about six months to get them in order because they weren’t all dated, and even the dated ones were confusing since he was always counting down the days until he could go home. So, I had to use context, I had to read the letters over and again, to understand the order and piece together a picture of what had happened to him while he was in service.
After I got them in order, I realized the story was already there, and that I didn’t have any more work to do. I showed them to my editor, and he was really excited about them, but we had to basically cut them in half for the sake of time, and that became the hard part because I thought they were all fascinatingly beautiful, rich, and full of meaning.
My dad talks so much in them about my mom and home and Kentucky and how he felt in the jungle on the other side of the world, away from everything he knew and loved. The whole process felt like the greatest gift, that my grandma would save everything, and that somehow those letters would make their way to me just when I needed them, and that he would grant me permission to use them, which he did.
LL: You know, in the letters, your father comes across so young and earnest, and he has so much care for your mother. And he’s always apologizing that he didn’t write sooner, like I’m so sorry, I haven’t written you and I have to write this person. We can see how much he values his family. And then there’s this one point, where he writes, ‘PS, I’m sorry about the dirty paper, but it’s hard to keep anything clean out here.’ And that just made me really visualize, like he’s not even probably a building, you know.
SKR: Yeah, he wasn’t most of the time.
LL: And, yet, he’s also protecting the family from the realities of his situation.
SKR: That was very clear from the beginning, and I think it’s one of the reasons I felt like the letters were such a treasure because there’s a subtext that runs through them—everything that he’s not saying—you can you feel it as you read them. He was trying to protect his parents from the reality of what he was facing every day.
LL: I think that really one of your strengths is just how well you flesh out your parents and your grandmother and your sister as characters, when we look at it is not just personal story, but as a piece of literature. They were so vibrant and alive to me as a reader. And that’s something that’s hard because oftentimes we see our parents from the child’s eyes, but these different things that you did— the letters and the shifting point of view—I think just really gave me such a sense of them as people. that’s not a question, I’m sorry, it’s just appreciation. I thought that was so well done.
SKR: An early teacher told me once, “you’re writing a she-moir—it’s not a memoir, there’s no me in it. Where are you in these stories? You know, it’s all about these people.’ As I was saying earlier, I think if you feel compelled to write a memoir, it’s likely because you find the people around you and the world around you far more interesting than yourself, you know, and I definitely fall into that category. I mean, my family is so full of the most interesting, resilient, resourceful, funny, strong characters that I know, and it felt like an impossible task, trying to do them justice on the page because they’re even more interesting in real life.
Much of writing the book felt like having to cut Dad’s letters in half had, and more than once I thought, how do I even choose? I learned to start with my favorite characters and tales, the ones I couldn’t stop thinking about, and go from there.
LL: There were many things that were painful to read in your book, but one thing that I have not really read a whole lot about was when you talked about your college experience as sort of the first generation—I understand that your mother and father had both gone to college, but you were the first person to graduate, and that was so important to your family, and it was so hard for you. You have this quote, you wrote,
I thought I would love the English class until the teacher told me the poems I’d been writing about tanning beds and Walmart coming to Whitesburg weren’t authentic, or Appalachian enough. And I believed him of course, because he’s the professor.
And so often higher education fails people that want it and that need it and that are trying so hard. And now you teach college, right?
SKR: I haven’t since 2017 when I received a Rona Jaffe Writers Foundation award and began writing full time, but I do want to do it again soon. I love teaching. And yes, going to college for me the first time around felt so much like swimming upstream, like not a single part of the process had been created with me and my very specific skill set in mind. And, this was the early 90s, so there weren’t a lot of nuanced conversations about Appalachian identity and the complications therein.
Appalachian Studies at that time felt more like history, like here are the quilts, here are the dulcimers, you know, and it was a familiar history. I grew up around quilt making, and I even made quilts myself for a time, so I recognized the value in that history, but at that time there really wasn’t even a nod in the direction of the contemporary Appalachian experience and what it meant, for example, when Walmarts moved in and replaced Main Streets.
Nobody was really talking about that, and I was preoccupied with grief watching my town change in a way that I wasn’t mentally and emotionally prepared for, but that struggle didn’t seem like a priority for anyone else at the time. I think it was a priority for some, but unfortunately, I wasn’t in contact with those people yet. Whitesburg’s Main Street community was one of the best parts of growing up in Eastern Kentucky, and there were so many aspects of growing up there that I felt were absolutely enchanting that were being disregarded and devalued and tossed aside.
Likewise, Appalachian English, meaning mountain grammar, dialect, inflections, and accents, was an aspect of my identity that seemed to have no value, maybe even anti-value, when I went to college the first time—there was an active movement to make people from the region sound more educated, more palatable to those who existed on the outside, which we were taught was the ‘real world.’ Of course, I’m not the only writer to experience this. Lee Smith has written all kinds of beautiful pieces about how people in Appalachia are sort of raised to leave, and what that means. So it’s not a new idea, and like I said, I understand now that many people were feeling the same way I was, I just didn’t know them, so it was a lonely way to feel.
LL: Right. And now they have much more focus on Appalachian writers and artists—I got my MFA at West Virginia Wesleyan College, and, their tagline is write in the heart of Appalachia. But I am around your age, I think—I graduated high school in ‘91.
SKR: Yeah, definitely.
LL: So when I was in school, there were Women’s Studies, but certainly no Queer Studies, and the idea of anything regional or class-based was never considered, so I like to see now how people are getting more nuanced in their conversations of identity. I think it’s really important, and overdue. And yet, to say, Kin is an Appalachian story is not entirely true—it is also a very universal story. It is also a story about having a complicated relationship with a father, which is something that I can identify with, and about being a woman of that time period, and the whole thinking of marriage is a way out? Or is it a way down a terrible path?
And, to me, your book is so universal, and I always worry when people sort of pigeonhole something, or label something as one particular thing because, we read literature to understand others, but also to understand ourselves, and to see ourselves in a book.
SKR: Right. I’ve been asked a few times about representing the region already, and, you know, first of all, it’s made up of about 25 million people, different states that run the gamut from northern Georgia, which is very southern and has an entirely different history with the Civil War than, for example, Kentucky.
It’s a massive region, and I’m not really trying to represent anyone but myself. Still, at the same time, I also know that it’s a region that is overlooked, so when a book concerning Appalachia comes out, people take interest, which is not a bad thing, and subsequently, more books are created, and the more voices, the better. The more voices, the less likely any one voice is to become the poster child.
SKR: I have no desire to be a poster child of anything.
LL: Well, it’s interesting because you start the book where you are sort of like this tour guide or ambassador for out-of-town media. You have this responsibility that you want to do this right, because you are given this chance, but you’re also protective of the people there. I really related to that aspect of straddling two worlds that so many people in so many different marginalized communities have to do.
SKR: It can be hard and can get old quickly.
LL: Yeah, but it’s also sometimes really cool, to get to break open the stereotype, to finally explain this thing to someone that needs someone to explain it to them.
SKR: Right, if they’re willing to listen, I agree. If they’re willing to listen, it can be the most satisfying thing.
LL: So, it was funny, because you talked about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books several times, and that was my favorite series as a kid. I didn’t have the whole series, I got them piecemeal and out of order. And I read them over and over again. And, anyway, I think that the books that people treasure give us a connection to them and a common point. And I wondered what other books through the years have shaped you? Or that you keep returning to?
SKR: I find this question so hard because the list is always changing. Early on, obviously, I read mostly books that were approved by the faith I grew up in, like Mandy in the Secret Tunnel and a series called The Grandma’s Attic series—all books that were considered wholesome for young girls, safe and very wholesome, but with mild elements of adventure.
My first encounters with secular books happened when I was in middle school and my best friend and I would read romance novels together, flipping through them for the juicy parts. I was only that rebellious during recess at school, of course, but my understanding of books was shaped by those early interactions with formulaic novels and the dawning realization that certain books contain exciting, transgressive, hidden treasures.
I didn’t encounter Appalachian literature until I was an adult, and even then it was clear there were so few female Appalachian voices. I loved James Still and the River of Earth. I love everything I read by Silas House, of course. Most recently, I’m obsessed with Robert Gipe’s Trampoline trilogy, which is so important, so contemporary, and so necessary. I wish people would read his books in companion with Kin.
He started his project, I think, around the same time I did, and Kin was heavily influenced by his attention in those books to detail in voice and dialect, his commitment to authenticity, and the fact that he writes for people inside the region as well as out. Our books could be cousins.
I also became smitten with Faulkner when I started studying literature in earnest, and As I Lay Dying really kind of changed the way that I saw not just my own family, but the world around us, how the pain and beauty of the human condition was just as crushing for people in Yoknapatawpha County as in Letcher County. I think Faulkner would have loved Letcher County.
LL: Wow. It was such a hard read for me.
SKR: I know, and I never grow tired of it. I think it’s the meticulous characterization for me, and the primacy of family.
LL: It has that shifting point of view, too.
SKR: Yeah, yeah. I’ve remained smitten.
LL: What are you working on now? Are you going to return to poetry now that you’ve finished the memoir? Or something else?
SKR: I did write a poem last week, for the first time in a really long time, and it felt good, but I’m already thinking about the next memoir. I wish that I weren’t, but I am. I think primarily it’ll deal with my figuring out how to be a mom as a very dumb, confused kid. I’m kind of beginning to toy with the scenes from that and starting to make very loose timelines of when things happened, and kind of how those early years of mothering went down. And then I’m trying to write a couple essays in anticipation of Kin’s release, in hopes that people might recognize me when they see the book out.
LL: It’s always like that, right?
SKR: Yeah, that’s what I’m working on right now, trying to write something political in bent, which is not my favorite thing to do. So, yeah, wish me luck!
LL: It’s hard—those kinds of pieces are very different from an essay or a chapter that you spend months on and that you’re really excavating your pain. And then you’re supposed to shift, to ‘can you give us 1000 words by Wednesday?’ It’s a little different.
SKR: I struggle with it. I did write a couple essays before I had begun thinking about the memoir. I thought I knew how to do it. But, after writing Kin, I seem to have forgotten. What can you say in 1,000 words or less, especially about politics in America?
LL: . And I think the more I care about something, the harder it is to be brief. Which is why I am not a poet. I’m just glad to be concise.
LL: Well, best of luck to you with your release on June 8.
SKR: Thank you so much and thank you for your thoughtful questions!