Kelley Shinn’s The Wounds That Bind Us—the improbable true story of an orphan at birth who loses her legs, becomes an avid off-road racer and, as a single mother, attempts to drive around the globe in a Land Rover—will be published by West Virginia University Press on June 1. Here Shinn talks with Kristine Langley Mahler, author of Curing Season, also published by WVU Press.
Mahler: Could you talk about the importance of disability representation in literature and also the pressures that might come along with it?
Shinn: I’m a nonfiction writer, so representing the fullest scope of a human experience is an obvious goal. If what the reader reads is true about how a character thinks, reacts, is propelled through a situation, then there is an opportunity for connection.
I read The Color Purple when I was twelve. I have no obvious similarities with the protagonist, Celie, who is a traumatized slave in the American south. However, her drive and tenacity and hope under such cruel conditions were riveting to me as an adolescent. I felt her heart within my own. I thought then that if I ever had a daughter, I would name her after the brave, vulnerable, and triumphant Celie; now, decades later, my daughter, Celie, is part of the heartbeat of my debut, The Wounds that Bind Us.
To the point, reading The Color Purple at the age of twelve made me want to be the best human I can be, and is that not the purpose of fine writing? The Orwellian high goal? To change the way that people think for the betterment of humanity. Historically speaking, I’m grateful to be alive and writing in a time when previously suppressed voices are now being recognized as essential to the broad cultural mouthpiece; and given that it is early in this shift, the weight of churning out this kind of story while upholding the loftiest traditions of the art form has been of vast importance to me. There are so many phenomenal/powerful stories being told and needing to be told out there, and the ones that are crafted into art are precious lodestones, moral compasses, reasons for living. I think that should be the goal of a writer regardless of the body/experience that encompasses them—to create something transcendent in which anyone can find commonality even if the details of the reader’s experience are not the same—and to pave the broadest possible avenue of hope within adversity.
Mahler: So much of your book is centered on movement, on travel, on being in-between places and serving as a witness. On a craft level, how did you decide to invite the reader into joining you?
Shinn: I first wrote this book as a series of short stories, then as a novel, then essays, and finally, as it appears now, in memoir, so it’s had a myriad of different techniques implemented over the years. Ultimately, it made perfect sense to use the first-person voice in the present tense to allow the reader to dive in and out of the action scenes and subsequent introspections, but it took years for that to dawn on me. Writing can be highly therapeutic, and with every version I wrote, I also became more comfortable with owning my vulnerabilities. Fine tuning the psyche is also part of the craft.
Mahler: Could you talk about how you reconstructed the places and people you encountered when you sat down to write this book years later?
Shinn: Research is vital. So, even though I had traveled to these places and encountered these people, I wanted to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of them. I wanted to represent them as fully as I possibly could. So, I lapped up everything I could find on any and all subjects in the book—from the Bosnian wars to prostitution to transgenderism, the history of map making, disability rights, and the history of Greece. I read stacks of books, watched documentaries, asked questions. I spent months learning about the rust belt and the rise of the rubber industry in Akron, and when it came down to it, all of that learning translated to three paragraphs in the book, which were ultimately cut. Tenacity and persistence are requirements in writing.
Mahler: I presume there were many more places and people you chose not to write about—would you mind talking about them and why you left them out?
Shinn: Well, sometimes you have to murder your darlings. I was young and morally opposed to that concept once. I thought that in order to tell the truth you had to recapitulate every last detail, but life doesn’t work that way and neither does memory. What sticks is the essence, and sometimes in order to capture that essence on the page in a fluid, alluring presentation, you have to blend a few people into one or get rid of some altogether.
Mahler: When did you start writing this book and what brought you to the page?
Shinn: I began writing the earliest versions of this book almost two decades ago, mostly as an emotional depository. But later, that early work was recognized by an older, established writer, who spent a decade immersing me in the craft and encouraging me that this is a story that needs to be told. In short, I began writing because it was an innate need. I got serious about it because someone believed in me. And, I stayed with it because I began to understand, too, that this is a story that is worth the telling.
Mahler: I’m very interested in the mother/child dynamics at play throughout your book—we see the complicated love you and your mother share, and also the fiercely intimate love you share with your daughter, Celie. Could you talk about how you chose to write about both relationships and what insights, if any, the writing brought to you personally?
Shinn: Generational trauma is a buzzword these days, but this kind of inherited trauma is backed up with scientific evidence now, particularly in the realm of descendants of Holocaust survivors and slavery. Also, I wanted to blow the door wide open on the Puritan version of motherhood that still holds so many women as prisoners of unwarranted guilt. Motherhood isn’t a white dress, good hair, and obedient children. Motherhood is a primal, explosive, bloody, powerful life force—an experience you can try and prepare for with guaranteed failure. It’s a divine bond that has been exploited historically by wealth and power. When women can be free to love and rear children without isolation, poverty, and shame, the world will be infinitely better.
Mahler: Can you talk about what your next project will be (writing or otherwise)?
Shinn: I’m nearly finished with a second memoir—the Iliad to the Odyssey that is The Wounds that Bind Us. More to the point, I’ve been writing a memoir about finding home amongst disease, disaster and death—another delightful beach read coming soon by Kelley Shinn.