At Corporeal Writing we’re all about opening the platform, continuously working on new ways to expand participation and experience, and breaking open what writing means.
We’ve created this new series of visiting writer workshops with some pretty phenomenal mammals. We are delighted to have humans in our community interview the writers who will be leading these collaborative workshops at Corporeal Writing Center.
In this first installation we present bestselling and award winning author, Rene Denfeld interviewed by Corporeal Writing comrade, Kelly Jeske.
KJ: Hi, Rene! I’m excited for the chance to engage with you about your writing and process.
Given your multiple roles as a writer, parent, and investigator, how do you manage to give breath to your writing practice? Do you craft a consistent practice or do you experience seasons of varying engagement or productivity? Are you at peace with your own rhythm or do you wish it were different?
RD: I wrote my first novel, The Enchanted, while in the middle of a massive death row case. I took my laptop with me everywhere: to the prison to visit my client, into the field to find witnesses. I wrote outside trailer courts and sitting in jail waiting rooms. I found ten minutes here, a half hour there. I also wrote in the evenings. My second and third novels were written in much the same way. It’s important to prioritize the writing. For women especially, this means pushing back at societal expectations we take care of everyone but ourselves. I'm a single working foster mom with a tough job. It was either going to be I martyred myself or I was going to be genuinely happy, writing and doing what is good for me. So I let chores go. I had the kids help out, and I expected them to be part of the family unit. Honestly, I think it was better for the kids. The boys especially grew up respecting that women have artistic and professional lives. Everyone learned to pitch in, and if the house was a bit messy at times, so what? I say, do what is good for you. Let go of the expectations of others.
KJ: I appreciate that you offer a blueprint for making art amidst intense lives, Rene. Yes, if we push against martyred social expectations, we offer our children explicit examples of authenticity and joy. You've commented that you waited a decade to write about your children--awaiting their ability to give consent for your reflections to be shared with the larger world. I respect your choice to provide this protection and I wonder how it felt for you to hold this line? Can you speak about your process of deciding how and when to share your stories about your children's lives?
RD: Actually, I waited over twenty years from when I first became a foster mom before I wrote anything that even mentioned my kids. I wanted them to be teens and adults first, so they could give meaningful consent. I don't so much as post a picture of them on facebook without asking their permission. I felt it was important to honor that their story is their story. I never share personal details about their histories. Those stories are for them to tell. I focus more on my experience, and even then I am very careful about privacy. I worry that writing about our children can be exploitative. It is important to recognize the power imbalance. Yes, we might think it is important to educate others about special needs or other issues. But is it our choice to make? This is especially true for children who are too young to consent.
KJ: This is an issue that I’ve thought about a lot as a writer who is also a parent. My story entwines with my child’s, of course, and I struggle with extricating the pieces that belong to me. I really value consent and I’ll remember your words in my desire to avoid exploiting my child’s story.
RD: Well, I could be wrong too. I'm all about being wrong. I think there is great power in admitting we might be wrong.
KJ: What do you think about the idea of the redemptive potential of justice-oriented literature? There's no doubt that writing and reading can inspire personal transformation. Do you see ways that writing can shift culture or create larger systemic change? Does this bring you hope?
RD: It gives me great hope. We are seeing a shift away from books that pander to racist and sexist tropes about crime—basically, the white supremacist crime books of the past few decades—into more nuanced, politically engaged and realistic novels examining the realities of mass incarceration, racism, and injustice. I am heartened that books like American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which focused on a man falsely convicted for rape, have become more popular. I think readers are hungry for these stories, because they reflect their lives. One in four Americans now has a criminal record. Millions have been disenfranchised. Families have been destroyed, lives ruined. Homelessness is rampant, and those with mental illness and addictions don't get treatment. We are watching our country burn. We don't need more books that speak to the imagined fears of a tiny bubble of entitled white people. What we do need is a path to a better place. We need books by people who have experience and insight. These are the books that are going to light the way to a better future, and this is why I invite others to write. We need all our stories.
KJ: Your reflections provide a way of understanding writing/stories as vehicles toward world-making or cultural transformation. Thank you for connecting with me and sharing your insights with the Corporeal Writing community.
Rene will be leading a workshop “Writing From the Margins” on Sunday, September 8th :: 10am-4pm Corporeal Writing Center 510 SW 3rd Avenue Suite #101 97217
Save your seat in Rene’s workshop here.
You can also pre-order her forthcoming book, The Butterfly Girl here.
Rene Denfeld is the author of novels The Enchanted, The Child Finder and the forthcoming The Butterfly Girl. Her books have won prestigious awards, including a French Prix, an ALA and Carnegie listing, IMPAC listing, Center for Fiction finalist and more. The Child Finder was an international bestseller, and Margaret Atwood has praised her writing as "astonishing." The child of a traumatic history, Rene was homeless as a teen and credits books for saving her life. Rene lives in Portland, Oregon. In addition to writing she works as a death row investigator and is the happy mother of several children from foster care. (Author photo credit: Owen Carey, 2019.)
Kelly Jeske is a queer femme, mama, and social worker who engages love, connection, art, and activism as agents of cultural change. Kelly's writing has appeared in several anthologies including Who's Your Mama: The Unsung Voices of Women and Mothers; and in The Adoption Constellation; Brain, Child; The Rumpus; and Nailed Magazine. Kelly was a finalist for the 2016 Orlando Creative Nonfiction Prize.