Keema Waterfield’s Inside Passage (Green Writers Press, forthcoming spring 2021) is a memoir chronicling her peripatetic childhood “chasing music with her twenty-year-old mother on the Alaskan folk festival circuit” while yearning for home.
Kirkus Reviews called it “a wild remembrance that will keep readers engaged” and the late Sherry Simpson enthused, “heartbreaking but never maudlin, funny without being flip, and always, always openhearted about what survival on The Last Frontier truly means.”
I caught up with the debut author, who now lives in Montana, balancing recent successes, like a fantastic New York Times essay about her parents, as well as her upcoming book launch with the everyday struggles of COVID life.
Andromeda: This book communicates with depth and subtlety the difficult childhood you had, in many ways: both specific traumas and a general pining for family and home. But throughout, you also convey moments of adventure and joy, and you paint a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of your mother. When you began, were you sure of the balance of empathy and gritty realism you hoped to achieve, or did the picture change as you drafted and revised?
Keema Waterfield: I wrote my first essays in 2006, the year Oprah took James Frey to task over “A Million Little Things.” Stephen Colbert had just dropped “truthiness” on us. Memoir seemed like a terrifyingly vulnerable and fragile genre, but I felt more comfortable in that space than with fiction, so I ran with it.
I didn’t set out to write a memoir, but once I had a handful of linked pieces I thought I’d see if I could stretch myself as far as a memoir in essays. I imagined a mother-daughter coming-of-age story comprised entirely of humorous adventures in boats and tents and busses and cars. But I soon realized that my mother and I hadn’t lived two hundred-odd pages of humorous adventure stories. Even my happy moments were shaped by the hard ones, and if I left those challenging scenes out then I couldn’t bring my full self to the page. I wanted to give that same wholeness to the people who lived this story with me. So I stuck with moments that I felt I could accurately write in-action, allowing my characters (for lack of a better word) to show themselves on the page.
In the long run, my nomadic upbringing offered too many places, people, and time jumps to make a seamless collection of essays. Shifting to a traditional arc allowed me to pull the central mother-daughter theme tighter, and to balance moments of reflection with moments in-scene that build on each other organically.
Andromeda: One of the moments of narrative control that impressed me the most was just before you tell the story of your abuse by Ray. You prepare the reader for what will come, while asserting that this event doesn’t define you. Any comments on how this part was written?
Keema Waterfield: I was half tempted to title that chapter “Trigger Warning.” Instead, I took an indirect line that foreshadows what’s to come with strong enough imagery that a reader who needs to skip that chapter can do so. It’s easy to pigeonhole a narrative that contains trauma into a trauma story, and I wanted to push back against that notion. Trauma shapes and changes you, and its effects are felt in myriad profound ways throughout an entire life. But it’s never the whole story of a person or lived experience. The harm is in me, but the harm didn’t make me. I have my mother to thank for guiding me into a life without secrecy or shame around that.
Andromeda: Many scenes include details you couldn’t have remembered and thoughts from your siblings and parents, for example—as we expect from memoirs. But you also make it clear, often in follow-up sections, that you interviewed other family members to get their impressions. I wasn’t surprised you interviewed them, but I was struck by the fact that you are explicit in telling us, and I admired the placement and pacing of those explanations, which take us out of the story only occasionally. Did you wonder about either how much dramatic license to use or whether you should let the readers behind the scenes, to understand how you wrote parts of your book? Anything else you want to share about that family interview or feedback process?
Keema Waterfield: So much of my experience is also my mother’s. She was so young when she had me. Barely twenty. I call my childhood our growing-up-together years, which is why I couldn’t share my mother’s story without giving her a voice. She hadn’t personally elected to bare so much of her life, and it felt right to give her a chance to reflect on the page along with me from the “now narrator” perspective.
It felt important to me to write into our multi-generational challenges from a place of inquiry. I wanted to explore the chain of events that led us to Ray, for example, and their ripple effects, but more than that: to make meaning of it. I felt I couldn’t do that without giving my mother agency, too. This is maybe not common practice in memoir, but I found it helpful in three ways: it places my singular story inside the broader narrative of my family and environment, it cues the reader that my family bond is still strong despite the challenges we faced, and it shows an effort to triangulate my subjective experience against that of my intimates rather than relying solely on slippery childhood memories. I aimed to write something Oprah would never think to second guess.
Andromeda: I rank this Alaska memoir as one of my all-time favorites, up there with Natalie Kusz’s Road Song (1990), a book that has a similar balance of empathy and honesty, as well as a willingness to show the real Alaska in ways both gorgeous and grim. What are some of your favorite Alaska (or general) memoirs? Did you have any specific role models, or any types of narratives, myths or tropes you were working “against”?
Keema Waterfield: My gosh, what an honor. Thank you.
Growing up bookish in Southeast Alaska was perfect for a kid who needed an escape from the rain, but it left me with a lot of questions. Who were these American kids I kept reading about with their malls, sports arenas, and cities connected by massive roadways? We had folk music festivals and art shows and barely enough road to warrant driving over 45mph. I felt like I lived a galaxy over from the rest of the country. I ached to read more northern literature that spoke to the wild landscape that made me and the people who carried me. Place-based, but without the “conquering the north” narrative you see so much. I yearned for contemporary stories set in wild places I could recognize myself in. Inside Passage allowed me to connect my nomadic small-town experience to the universal struggles of becoming that my generation faced – struggles of family-making and place-finding, raising siblings, navigating divorce, and building resilience.
The first contemporary memoir out of Alaska I read was Kim Rich’s Johnny’s Girl. It’s a particularly special book to me because Kim is the friend of a friend who saved my life the day I was born. A few years later I took a class with Sherry Simpson and her book The Accidental Explorer gave me new eyes. Then of course I read the memoir canon along with everything by Dana Stabenow, Seth Kantner, and Heather Lende.
Andromeda: How long did it take you to write this book, and did you write it all from Montana, where you now live? I ask because it interests me, whether we can see and write about a place most clearly while we are there, or only after we’ve left. Thoughts?
Keema Waterfield: I wrote the first essay that became a later chapter in the book while wrapping up my undergrad at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. I didn’t know it would be a book one day. I began writing into my father’s absence, and how that shaped my life. I applied to grad school with that essay, feeling like it might be an opportunity to unravel the mystery of him, maybe even get to know him better. He died the day I drove into Montana to begin the Creative Writing program at the University of Montana, in Missoula. I wrote many more essays about my father while there, but the thing that kept turning up was my mother, and that changed everything.
The landscape I grew up in is still as deeply woven into my story as the people I grew up with. In grad school I flew home to work summers at the Alaska Dept of Fish & Game, first in Emmonak, then Bethel. I was rarely far from home for long. I hadn’t planned to settle in Montana long-term. I was packing up to move back to Alaska after my program ended when I met my husband. I told him we could go on a date, but not to get his hopes up because I was heading home. We married less than a year later and had our first kid three years after that. From first essay to publication, it will have been fourteen years.
Andromeda: I know from your social media that your writing life includes young children. What has it been like writing this book and promoting it with them nearby, especially in our COVID era?
Keema Waterfield: Mothering very young children through the pandemic while in the final stretch of publishing a childhood memoir has given me new perspective. I’ve had to let go of certain expectations around book launch. Readings, radio and tv spots, even book launch events are out the window with toddlers, an overworked partner, and no kid care.
I spent the last five and a half years examining how my mother’s choices shaped my early years with one or both of my kids in a carrier, napping, or nursing on my lap. Now, I’m looking into the future and considering what impact this book will have on my kids. What stories will they tell when their time comes? Have I balanced their needs against mine? Have I shown them the value of perseverance and commitment, or have they felt my absence too deeply during this already challenging time? In the end, I believe that writing into my childhood is a gift of compassion and resilience I’ve given myself, one that may protect and guide my kids through the unique challenges they will face in their lifetimes.
Anything you wished I had asked?
Keema Waterfield: Why I chose to open with a land acknowledgment:
I chose to open my book with a land acknowledgment because this work is so deeply place-based. How could I write my love for the place that shaped me without acknowledging the grief and tragedy of the colonial infringements that brought me here?
I couldn’t find examples elsewhere in literature. Were there no examples because land acknowledgments aren’t meant to be fixed to a page? It felt deeply important that I honor the land I currently live on, the land I was born on, and the land that shaped me in my formative years. This meant honoring the Séliš & Qlispé, Dena’ina, and Lingít People, all of whom have been in conversation with this land for generations, past and present, and who continue to guide us in caring for this place for the generations to come. But I didn’t know whether it was acceptable to make multiple attestations at once.
I worried about doing it wrong. I did my research, called tribal organizations, and spoke with friends from several Indigenous communities. These conversations taught me that even an imperfect attempt is a step forward, and it opens up a conversation and an opportunity to learn about whose shoulders we stand on as a nation. Because really, isn’t it time?
Andromeda: That’s great food for thought, and it makes me feel more hopeful about the future. Thank you, Keema!
Keema Waterfield is the author of the forthcoming Inside Passage. She has been published in the New York Times, Wired and Brevity. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/01/style/the-lockdown-gave-my-parents-a-honeymoon-do-over.html
Follow her on Instagram or Twitter at @keemasaurusrex.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach and the author of Annie and the Wolves, recently chosen as a “Best/Most Anticipated” book by Readers Digest, Oprah Daily, Popsugar, and The Millions. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter at @romanolax.