From Our Authors | October 09, 2018
An Interview with Kelli Jo Ford
Kelli Jo Ford’s story “Book of the Generations,” part of her collection of linked stories-in progress, Crooked Hallelujah, was selected by judge Elise Juska as the best story in our 2017 volume year. The story appeared in Volume 40, issue 3. TMR intern Brooke Dulany talked with Kelli Jo Ford about her prizewinning story and her book-in-progress. You can read the story here.
Brooke Dulany: Your short story “Book of the Generations” highlights the intertwined relationship between family and religion, featuring three women spanning three generations. Justine, her mother, Lula, and her grandmother, Granny, face a multitude of obstacles that separate them further and further from their place in their fundamentalist Holiness church. The biggest of these obstacles is Justine’s unplanned pregnancy. The result is an enthralling and complex narrative. Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
Kelli Jo Ford: Thanks so much. Very nearly all of my inspiration in writing and life comes from the women who raised me. As a young girl, I grew up in a family of Cherokee grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and cousins, in a family of matriarchs and storytellers. Like Justine, I lived in a house made up of four generations of women at various times. I also grew up around the Holiness church. However, the stories I’m writing are inventions driven by fictional characters who get to make their own decisions and lead lives of their own. I like to say that any time you see one of my characters display true strength, courage, and selflessness, that’s real-life inspiration. The rest is invention!
BD: The story starts with Justine wanting to meet her father, who abandoned the family at their church several years before. While religion is ingrained in Justine, we see her stray more than once. Faith seems to be playing the role of both a guide and an opponent. Is that how you see Justine’s relationship with her faith?
KF: That reading feels true to the character for me, too. I think teenage Justine experiences her religion as something based in fear and control. As a smart, curious girl, she seeks the edges of that fear, wanting to learn what is there. As she matures, I think she glimpses the beauty in faith and finds strength there. But in doing so, she bumps against the structures of men, of religion.
Even after she’s run away, she comes back to her mother—to the church—and as she listens to the sermon through the church’s open window, she is tempted to go inside and sit down. However, the church elders’ treatment of her mother quashes that desire pretty quickly. “Book of the Generations” comes from a novel-in-stories I’m working on, and these questions and contradictions follow Justine over the course of her life.
BD: While Justine has encountered hardship throughout the course of her life—her father leaving, her mother’s multiple nervous breakdowns—the church has stood behind her family. When church officials learn of her pregnancy, they begin to question her and her mother’s place in the church. There is this moment where we see these women stand together and take authority over their own lives. What does this story say about the power of women?
KF: To be honest, I don’t know. I hesitate to take any kind of universal lessons or statements from the story. I feel more comfortable thinking about the individual characters. Lula and Justine are pulling against each other throughout the story. However, even in Justine’s moments of rebellion, she’s deeply concerned about her mother’s well-being. The story stays pretty close to Justine’s POV, but I suspect that if we were in Lula’s head, we would see something similar: despite her transgressions, she believes she has Justine’s well-being at heart.
The two characters’ mistakes are born of love—other things too, but love is a constant. Of course, Granny—who seems somehow freer within the context of their religion than either Lula or Justine—stands with them as well. These women have lived lives in which their survival has been at stake, and they’ve come through together. They need one another, no matter how their differences pull at them, and when they need to stand for one another, in this story they do.
BD: We see Justine break down after her grandmother learns of her pregnancy. She runs away to a creek. At this highly reflective emotional time in her life, she encounters a Cherokee family, and it pulls her back to reality. How does Justine’s Native American heritage frame her life experience?
KF: The story takes place in Northeastern Oklahoma, in the Cherokee Nation, albeit in a fictional town. For me, Justine isn’t only pulled back to reality by the encounter with the Cherokee family. She encounters members of her tribe everywhere she goes. What pulls her back is 1) that she simply stops running and 2) everything she encounters when she stops: the creek, the buzzards, the snake, the crawdads, the old truck, the soap suds, and the family too. She stops running from what she has known for some time: that she was hurt by a man she thought was going to usher her into some new era of adulthood and freedom, and she is pregnant as a result of that. She is going to have to deal with everything this means, including telling her mother and confronting her church. When she encounters the family at the creek, she watches them, enthralled by their…ordinariness. She sees them functioning as a unit. She’s simply a girl realizing that she must face things a girl shouldn’t have to face. She’s also seeing what it must be like on the other side, to be a child in a family that at that moment doesn’t seem to be pushed and pulled by religion and sickness.
I don’t think there’s anything in the story that explicitly tells readers how Justine’s Native heritage frames her existence. There are probably broader issues at work in terms of the role of Christianity in the Cherokee Nation, but there are people far more suited than I to talk about those issues. These characters are Cherokee, but I don’t think the story is about them being Cherokee.
BD: Is this story part of a larger collection, or a novel?
KF: Thank you for asking. “Book of the Generations” is the first story in Crooked Hallelujah, the novel-in-stories I am working on. I think of this story as a creation story of sorts for the book’s main characters, Justine and her daughter, Reney. Their stories will ultimately carry them away from their family, Indian Country, and the Holiness Church. While the characters grapple with faith, uprooting, and cultural loss, at its heart, Crooked Hallelujah is about the relationships between mothers and daughters.
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