Kim Barnes on feminism, sex education, and growing up in Idaho

Kim Barnes was born in Lewiston, Idaho, in 1958 and one week later returned with her mother to their small line-shack on Orofino Creek, where Barnes’s father worked as a gyppo logger. The majority of her childhood was spent in the isolated settlements and cedar camps along the North Fork of Idaho’s Clearwater River.

Barnes’s first memoir, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country, received a PEN/Jerard Fund Award, a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, and was a finalist for the the Pulitzer Prize, as well as the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. Her second memoir, Hungry for the World, was a Borders Books New Voices Selection.

She is the author of three novels:  Finding Caruso; A Country Called Home, winner of the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction, a Book-of-the-Month-Club Main Selection, and named a Best Book of 2008 by The Washington Post, Kansas City Star, and The Oregonian; and, most recently, In the Kingdom of Men, set in 1960s Saudi Arabia, named a Best Book of 2012 by San Francisco Chronicle and The Seattle Times.

Barnes is co-editor of two anthologies: Circle of Women: An Anthology of Contemporary Western Women Writers, edited with Mary Clearman Blew, and Kiss Tomorrow Hello: Notes from the Midlife Underground by Twenty-Five Women Over Forty, edited with Claire Davis.

Her essays, poems, and stories have appeared and are forthcoming in a number of magazines and anthologies, including The New York Times, WSJ Online, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, Oprah Magazine, Good Housekeeping, MORE Magazine, and the Pushcart Prize anthology.  Barnes teaches at the University of Idaho and lives with her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, on Moscow Mountain. You can check out Barnes’s website for more info:

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My interview with Kim follows.

MJ: The daughter of a gyppo logger, you grew up in Idaho, in “a shotgun shack surrounded by larch and red cedar in the Clearwater National Forest.” What are your fondest memories of childhood?

KB: Maybe because winters were so bitterly long and cold, I loved wading the creeks in high summer, the sun hot on my shoulders, the water chilling my bare feet. My brother and I would fish and hunt crawdads (crayfish) for hours.

MJ: Have you returned to the area of Orofino Creek? If yes, what are the most striking changes?

KB: Yes, and I’ve written about the devastation brought about by the logging practices that were employed at the time: slash-and-burn clearcuts, the creeks choked with debris, all the life in them dead.

Because we lived on company land, we owned our little shotgun shack but not the ground it sat on. I went back when our children were young, thinking that I might have memories to show them, but the company had burned or removed all the houses, and there was nothing left. It was as though I had never lived there at all.

MJ: The Idaho of your childhood is described as a place with very patriarchal values. You write, “What I know is that a girl who ruins her reputation will never have a husband, and that a woman without a husband will never have anything.” In your opinion, how much of this has changed?

KB: For a long time, nothing changed, but the young women of my daughter’s generation seem much more intent on making their own way. Economically and professionally, they can survive and thrive perfectly well without a mate. Emotionally? That’s another story.

MJ: In “The Wages of Sin: A Personal History of Economics,” you write about your 10 y.o. self: “I have never been instructed in sexual matters of any kind. I don’t know that women have orgasms; I don’t know that men have orgasms.” You’re now a mother of two—how did you go about sex education with your own children?

KB: Very openly. If they asked, I told them. That does not, however, mean that they always wanted to hear what I had to say.

MJ: In 1970, you describe the world of woman as in upheaval. “They are burning their bras in the streets, marching on Washington, demanding equal rights, equal pay for equal work.” What do you think is the state of feminism and women’s rights today?

KB: I often talk to my students about Third Wave Feminism, which is a kind of post-feminism that I find curious and fascinating. What I know is that it is much more global and involves global concerns. It’s difficult for me to talk about the plight of western women writers, for instance, without thinking of the women writers in the Middle East.

MJ: You wrote, “I am writing the story of my life […] I’m rebuilding the ruins, one word at a time.” When did you first discover the power in writing?

KB: The power of the written word has always been with me, from the Golden Books my grandmother used to read me to the King James Bible to the contemporary works of prose and poetry that continue to inform and direct my daily awareness. But it wasn’t until I wrote my first personal essay and saw how my individual history wasn’t just about me but about the human desire to belong that I really understood how story might save my life.

Kim contributed to All That Glittersa Sliver of Stone Magazine nonfiction anthology.

All That Glitters

“The real trick with non-fiction, from a writer’s POV, is to free yourself from the confines of that tag, to make the story paramount. No different than fiction. Except with non-fiction you have that nasty little detail of the truth to contend with. Every piece in All That Glitters bristles with the raw emotion and authenticity of the real deal, while never forsaking the edict that the story comes above all. (And the behind-the-scenes interviews are pretty damned good too.)” Joe Clifford, author of Choice Cuts

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