Shawna Kay Rodenberg is the author of the new memoir Kin. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Consequence and Salon. She is a registered nurse and a community college English instructor, and she lives in Indiana.
Q: What inspired you to write this memoir, and how long did it take to write?
A: I have always loved reading memoir, but it was poetry that I studied while at the Bennington Writing Seminars.
I believe in the value of the story as a cultural force and record, and I love the tradition of it, of the story as a kind of timeless currency, but as a writer I preferred the protective veil I believe poetry can offer, if only because creative nonfiction is so candid.
I had a poetry manuscript, after I graduated, that was selected as finalist or semi-finalist in several book competitions, but something seemed to be holding it back. My dear friend and mentor, Mark Wunderlich, suggested perhaps my poems were bogged down by too much story, and that I could relieve that burden by writing a memoir.
The idea gave me great anxiety, but he said not to think about publishing it, not yet, just to write it for myself, my kids, and the sake of my poems, so I began trying in earnest some time in 2015, and by 2017 I had a prologue to show for my efforts.
I brought that prologue back to Bennington, this time to Ben Anastas, who teaches creative nonfiction there, hoping he would tell me if I was on the right track--after all, I had very little formal training in the art of memoir.
But Ben was very encouraging about what I had written and agreed to help me write the first few chapters, then handed me off to Bill Clegg, who held my hand as I wrote the first half of the book, and who then handed me off to Anton Mueller at Bloomsbury, who saw the project completed.
So, in writing Kin I relied on help from at least four people, and completing the project took more than five years. I can’t speak to others’ experiences, but Kin was definitely a group project.
Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, “Rodenberg counters the ‘hopelessly incomplete and exploitative’ narratives that commonly come out of Appalachia with a vivid coming-of-age account of her own.” What do you think of that assessment?
A: I hope it’s true--I’d like to think it is. Writing about a place that is so often terribly misunderstood and maligned by the greater world is a real challenge.
I feel compelled to render my experience of the mountains in great detail, even if that detail is at times lush and at times crushing—and to some people’s minds, unflattering, though I personally see the paradoxical beauty in the dark and bloody parts of Kentucky, too.
Ultimately, I believe that with each step closer one gets to the truth, it becomes less “cold and hard” and far more complex and compassionate, and that the idea of truth as a brutal weapon to wield is a largely patriarchal idea, born of competition, punitive theologies, and a preference for justice over mercy, all which I have no patience for or interest in.
Q: Did you need to do much additional research to write the book, or did most of it come from your own memories and other documents you already had?
A: I wouldn’t say that I had to do a ton of research, and I did find that often when I got sucked into that oubliette, it was usually because I was avoiding the work that really needed to be done, which was to return to my own experiences, my unique understanding of the world—which is, of course, so much harder than it sounds.
I did become obsessed with my family’s genealogy while writing Kin, and I’d like to think that pursuit deepened my appreciation for my family’s chapter in the great American story.
It also helped motivate me, because there are so many unsolved and unsolvable mysteries in genealogy, so many holes in my family’s collective story, and I regularly found myself wishing my ancestors had been able to write their stories down. I came to see what a gift doing so is for future generations.
Q: What impact did it have on you to write this memoir, and what do you hope people take away from it?
A: I hope my readers will come to see how interwoven and interdependent our stories are—how they bleed into one another. I hope they will come to see Kin as an American story first, and an Appalachian story second, instead of typecasting the book and assigning it to the hillbilly category, so to speak.
I’m still processing the effects of writing the book, but I can say that my mother died in 2018, when I was completely immersed in the project, and the work of Kin singlehandedly carried me through that loss. It meant spending hours and hours with memories of all my loved ones, but especially with her, which felt like an incredible gift.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m already thinking about the next book, which will pick up where this one left off and explore, among other things, my years as an inexperienced, hopeful young mother, and the humbling ways my own motherhood helped me understand my mother and her struggles and triumphs in raising me.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Only that there are so many largely undiscovered, underappreciated pockets of this country that are full of beautiful, compelling, fresh stories, and that ignoring and devaluing those stories does a great disservice to American literature.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb