Rerouting the River: An Interview with Angela Palm

Guest Article by: 
Lawrence Lenhart

It’s hard to plan an escape when you’re young. When your only means is patience, a place like rural Indiana might seem like an immense snare. The nearby Kankakee River might begin to resemble a ribboning borderline between ‘stuck’ and ‘free,’ and its potential for portage—for carrying you away—might be constantly implied by the speed of its slopes, the bend of its banks, the flow of its floods. In RIVERINE, Angela Palm is an adult writing lyrically into her past, and with the merciful prescience that the girl whose story she narrates will one day flee. This doesn’t prevent her from lingering, though, in those moments that most defined her. Above all, Palm is truehearted in her depiction of her relationship with the boy who once lived next door, Corey. Her affection for him only intensifies with time. Long after Corey is incarcerated for double homicide Palm is “writing letters to a man [she hasn’t] seen in fifteen years and putting them in a drawer” and fashioning a rectangle inside her house to imagine the dimensions of his cell. Palm avoids sentimentality by maintaining an honest level of resentment—with her father, the criminal justice system, the way things could have been. RIVERINE is a memoir about how to leave and, more difficultly, how to come home. The continuity of Palm’s romance with Corey is at the emotional core of these interlocking narratives.

Following a weekend at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, Angela Palm answered the following questions about RIVERINE, which was this year’s winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize.

Brazos Bookstore: One of the starkest childhood desires in RIVERINE is for your parents to divorce. Even as your family’s fortune improved (moving to a new house, increased financial security), you continue to observe how ill-fated their union was. How would this memoir have been different were that wish to come true?

Angela Palm: I’ve always been curious about what kind of woman my mother would have become had they separated. I think I would have liked to know that woman. My mother would have moved us to a bigger town or city, I’m sure of it. Much of this book would have simply fallen away, including my connection to Corey.

BB: Your parents aren’t the only ones responsible for your upbringing, though. I was reminded again and again of the Nigerian proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” while reading RIVERINE. Whether at school or with your extended family or at the bar where you worked, which social forces in northwestern Indiana had the most influence on your adolescent worldview?

AP: I was certainly influenced by my extended family, who, for all their complexities were quite tender and loving. And I had one aunt who constantly helped me procure books and who was able to answer my questions about politics and such. I was also influenced by other people’s families who hosted me in their homes and people I worked with, went to school with. I was privately influenced by MTV, by Dr. Drew’s Love Lines and Karen Hand’s Private Lives on Chicago radio, which ran somewhat counter to the small-town community. I cherished those outside voices, even though I couldn’t talk back to them.

BB: You regularly weave into the memoir the disparate histories, purposes, and forms of the Kankakee River. How does the staging of this dynamic backdrop shape your speaker? Did these features of the Kankakee explicitly shape your childhood psychology? Or is this something you’ve retrospectively incorporated into the narrative as an adult author revisiting her past?

AP: The physical backdrop—the land and water itself—was really the beginning of the work for me. Aside from Corey himself, it was everything and remains one of my strongest connections to home. I know that land like the back of my hand, as they say, and could map it all if pressed. It’s a major part of my childhood psychology. The water and land was a burden, a boundary, a respite, an escape from interiority. I specifically wanted to write a book that connected a series of violent acts back to the river’s rerouting. I don’t think of the history as being woven in later, though some of the specifics certainly were. The fact that the river was drained and formerly Potawatomi land was always a part of my cultural knowledge, but the hard facts, dates and names of government Acts came later.

BB: Are you on Facebook? This is probably a lame question, one that I’d never ask if it weren’t for the thought that maybe you are still “friends” (or at least have a virtual contact zone) with some of the individuals from the book. In RIVERINE, you physically go back to DeMotte as an adult, but if you’re on Facebook, it’s possible that you’ve never really left. Are you Facebook friends with any of the individuals you detasseled corn with? How about the boys for whom you were coerced to “take something off”? And the Josh who, unbidden, put his hand up your shirt and kissed you in the dry-storage room? How about the boy who didn’t touch you at all but who sang your name into the refrain of a song? How about Bridget Trotsma, who with “the brownest eyes and leanest thighs” was always on the front page of the local paper? What is Bridget doing now? Is she still on the front page? How do you know?

AP: I am on Facebook, but I’m not friends with any of the people you specifically point out. (I also changed their names in most cases.) It’s interesting you say “unbidden,” which is an accurate description but a mild word for what was essentially a sexual assault. I’d never be friends with such a person. I do wish I knew the boy’s name who sang to me in the parking lot. I am “friends” with other people from the area, but if not for Facebook probably wouldn’t have any contact with most of them. That sounds bad, but that’s the dually wonderful and terrible thing about the internet, isn’t it? There’s a lot of local connectivity via social media that I am somehow more a part of now than I ever was when I lived there. And it’s really not by choice. To be honest, it troubles me—I don’t want to be that connected to everyone I've ever known quite so extensively because it's not natural. But I have that Midwestern niceness ingrained in me. I don’t want to be rude. Smile and bear it. That’s what we do.

BB: The most important “character” in this book is Corey, the older boy who lived next door to you when he wasn’t in juvenile detention. Even after he is sentenced to life in prison for an unexpected double homicide—or maybe because of it—he remains a large part of your life. In one braided essay, you consider Corey alongside your Uncle Pat and Mike Tyson who also spent time in prison. How does this braiding mechanism help you apprehend Corey’s story?

AP: I knew that Corey had been changed by his time in the juvenile justice system, but I didn’t know exactly how. It was a blank spot. All I knew was that his “punishment” for those early nonviolent crimes had not made him a better person; it had introduced more violence and trauma into his life. Bringing the stories of my uncle and Mike Tyson into that essay was a way to fill in that blank and provide evidence for my theory: prison provides a small measure of social justice for victims and protects the public from further harm for a time, but it doesn’t often turn people out better than when they came in.

BB: You write about giving up on Corey so that you could live your life. And yet your life, particularly your life as a writer, is inextricably tied to Corey. “My own beginning as a writer was in books,” you write, “and in journal pages I penned, in terrible poems and desperate letters. It was in the unrest I felt about Corey, whom I kept coming back to... It was in the river back home, in the fields.” What kind of writer are you as a result of having known Corey?

AP: Knowing Corey from his early childhood, through the ordeal of his crime, through now has taught me a lot about compassion, love, and loyalty. In many ways, he has been the truest friend to me. The most willing to know me utterly. The most patient. In working with him on getting through some of the writing, he was my constant conscience—urging me to be as kind, sensitive, and loving toward my subject as I could. That’s an important thing to do as a nonfiction writer and a lesson I’ll keep with me for future work.

BB: Because this memoir is made up of individual essays, there is a lot of formal and tonal variation throughout the book. Can you talk about the different compositional strategies that you used in compiling this memoir? How did you know that a certain style was appropriate for a certain moment of the story?

AP: Great question. In “The Regulars,” I wanted to create a cadence and rhythm on both a sentence and paragraph level that suggested a kind of revolving door. I also wanted to write a series of memories that would feel like an onslaught, which is what it felt like to work there. A kind of relentless education, and a storytelling mode that allowed for a time to pass quickly. In “An Arsenal of Sand” I used a more obvious braided structure, meant to show how the history of the land was still part of my present, deeply woven in. “Dispatches from Anywhere but Here” is more piecemeal with brief sections that are connected only by my view of them through the lens of different criminal and behavioral theories, a marriage of my experience and my blossoming education. There I wanted to show the little adventures that impacted me after college, the short trips away and back. In “Map of Our Hands,” I wanted to reconstruct the prison visit around the visitation rules and how they governed the experience.

BB: If RIVERINE had a bonus reel, what would the reader find there? How do you make the decision to cut something or to leave it out altogether?

AP: The essay that started this whole book, “Devolution of Cake,” was cut during final edits because it was out of step with the story of me and Corey. It braids the history of cake making, showing cake’s descent into a cheap cultural holdover that correlates with the growth of the feminist movement, with my experience at my grandmother’s funeral. In the essay, I’m sent to pick up cakes for her memorial. Images of her face are screen printed onto the frosting and it serves as a kind of epiphany about my family and the sort of lack of culture or loss of tradition I so desperately wanted and didn’t really have. The lack of feminism and strong female guidance that I wish I had had more of.

BB: What is the biggest difference between journaling and memoiring? Is it a matter of audience? Or is it more complicated than that?

AP: It’s significantly more complicated than that! Journaling, for me, is an exercise in automatic writing. Very little processing, very little big picture making. It’s a quick who/what/where/when/how. It’s a good way to record detail for later examination. Memoir is intentional shaping of story and information. I don’t think about audience much at all when writing. I think about transforming experience into art. I’m reminded of what Joan Didion said—writing is like trying to get someone else to listen to your dream. No one wants to listen to someone else’s dream because it’s not theirs. We’re self-interested. If you can’t render experience artfully enough, interestingly enough, that someone else will want to listen, no one will. This process is nothing like journaling.

Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here Cover Image
ISBN: 9781555977467
Availability: BACKORDERED
Published: Graywolf Press - August 16th, 2016

RIVERINE is on sale now.

Lawrence Lenhart studied writing at the University of Pittsburgh and holds an MFA from The University of Arizona. His essay collection, THE WELL-STOCKED AND GILDED CAGE, was published in 2016 (Outpost19). His prose appears in Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Greensboro Review, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. He is a professor of fiction and nonfiction at Northern Arizona University and a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.

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