I knew of Kathryn Stripling Byer long before I ever had a conversation with her. Back in 2001, when I was a freshman at WCU, Kay was something of a superstar to baby English majors and aspiring writers like me. Long before I ever spoke to Kay, I fantasized about impressing her, winning her approval. I had never met a “real” writer before I came to Western, let alone a woman who had been published and honored for writing about the mountains. To me, Appalachia was not a fitting subject for poetry–it was simply the backwards part of the country where my ancestors had settled after the Revolution, that my parents and aunts and uncles had fled in search of better jobs, greater prosperity.
At Western, naturally, those particular cobwebs got swept from my brain quickly enough. I was exposed to a wider world of literature there, and for the first time my ears were unstopped to the music of my grandmother’s dialect and my father’s accent. And I drew new life and strength from the mountains that surrounded WCU’s campus, connecting for the first time to the natural world that had sheltered my ancestors since they first came to the New World. Alongside all of this, at WCU, I was supported for the first time in my life by people who understood and encouraged my determination to be a writer. When it came time for me to return to my parents’ home in Raleigh at the end of my freshman year, I was sick with dread at leaving it all behind.
1. Title of Book: The Bible
Age I Was Traumatized: 4
I am not saying that the Bible was written by a sexual sadist. I am saying that my 1986 edition children’s Bible was, without question, illustrated by someone who regularly tied their partner to a cave wall and flogged them to ecstasy while in a Hebrew slave-Egyptian overseer roleplaying situation.
(For a kid whose parents barely let her watch TV, some of my Sunday school lessons were intense.)
2. Title of Book: Little House On the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder
Age I Was Traumatized: 7
The prairie is on fire. A snake is twisting itself around your leg, having mistaken you for a source of safety. Inside the sod house, Ma is making rabbit stew with dumplings, only she has no more meat, only flour and grease. Pa tells you to bring him a drink of water from the dipper. “This is fine,” he says, staring out the window at the burning world. “Everything here is just fine.”
3. Title of Book: The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom
Age I Was Traumatized: 9
Third grade is a normal and developmentally appropriate time in a child’s life for reading vivid first-person memoirs about hiding from Nazis and surviving Ravensbrück for over a year.
“If I’m confused, or upset, or angry, if I can go out and look at the stars I’ll almost always get back a sense of proportion. It’s not that they make me feel insignificant; it’s the very opposite; they make me feel that everything matters, be it ever so small, and that there’s meaning to life even when it seems most meaningless.”
from A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle
The Christmas I was sixteen I wrote a letter to Madeleine L’Engle.
Like most people, I encountered L’Engle’s writing first in A Wrinkle In Time and its sequels as a child, but I went on to read almost her entire bibliography of more than fifty books my junior year of high school.
My favorite was A Ring of Endless Light. I considered it the most important book I had ever read; the intensity of my feelings about it defied articulation. I considered it almost another Gospel. It conveyed the essentials of everything I believed to be true about life, death, God, and the soul with beautiful imagery and simple, transparent language. Madeleine L’Engle was the writer I most aspired to emulate, and her characters were the people I most wanted to be like. The first book I published I intended to dedicate to her.
(Trigger warnings for discussion of child abuse and suicide below.)
For various reasons, I am a person who doesn’t own a lot of stuff. Just for example: I have three pairs of shoes. One pair of flip flops, one pair of ballet flats, and one pair of Batman Converse high tops, which explains everything you need to know about the current state of my right Achilles tendon, according to my podiatrist. I own a bed, a lamp, a small book shelf, a card table, and about 150 books. My car is 15 years old. The most valuable thing I own is my Macbook Air, which was a gift from my literary agent. And while I would like to, say, own more clothes (and therefore do less laundry) I am mostly okay with all of this. When you’re poor and you have to move a lot, minimalism is convenient. But when you’ve lost things you care about, it makes you more materialistic, not less. Everything I own is important to me, because I had to make an effort to keep it.
My books are the best example of this. When I became homeless in 2012 I didn’t have much, but I had a personal library of about 700 books, and giving away so much of it was nothing less than heartbreaking. Every gift of money I got as a kid went into my book collection, every Christmas and birthday, every $20 bill I wheedled out of my parents. My library was to me what a varied and stylish quality wardrobe is to some people, a way of presenting to the world the image of myself that I wanted to project. I often sat and looked at my books and took pleasure in the thought that a stranger walking into my room could get a sense of my personality, my interests, even my abilities, just by looking at my book cases. I dreamed of the day my own published novels would join them. The books in which my name appears in the acknowledgments had a special shelf of their own. Ego and memory and history and sentiment and accomplishment were all wrapped up in that book collection. Disbanding that carefully curated bibliography felt like an act of self-harm.
(The author, age 6, Christmas 1988. The box was full of books. My 3 year old cousin is baffled and intrigued. What do they do?)