Growing up within rural communities of Indiana’s Kankakee River floodplain provided Angela Palm with the setting that would later become the context for her book Riverine
. Palm’s journey from childhood to mid-life traces why we grow up tethered to place and friendship. Oh, and there is a murder case involved. NUVO spoke with Palm via email about her memoir.
NUVO: Memoir writing is simultaneously cathartic and scary—what happened when you ventured into the genre?
I ventured into the genre by accident. I had written the book as a series of personal essays which differ from memoir in that they tend to portray experience as related to a central concern and show how the writer thinks about a particular topic or how she thinks about her experience. When the essays were arranged in chronological order and some connective narrative tissue was inserted to make the individual pieces flow more seamlessly in the editing process, it became a memoir. The last two chapters were written as they were happening in my life, which was jolting and didn’t give me the appropriate amount of distance I would recommend to people writing memoir. The scariness associated with memoir speaks to discomfort regarding personal truth, fear of judgment, and the exposure that comes with sharing personal experiences…
NUVO: There’s a lot written about the myth of idyllic rural life. Dysfunction pierces the landscape. Why do you think that is?
The Midwest certainly has some lovely fairs, 4-H clubs, organizations, and communities — some of which I’ve taken part in but have chosen not to write about. It wouldn’t be novel or very interesting to write at length about those, or to say I had been a Girl Scout. Those might be mainstream Indiana experiences, but not everyone had access to the same opportunities or had interest in them. This book is labeled memoir, but it’s got a healthy dose of cultural criticism … I’m interested in writing toward the conversations that the rural (and for that matter, urban) Midwest needs to have about racism, classism, and sexism as a result of privilege and power…
NUVO: Your story is a cautionary tale mated with hopefulness; it merits being a project for families to read together. How does reading as a family/community help us?
To address the premise of the question, I don’t think having had a (mildly) wild period in my 20s and having built a loving family are mutually exclusive. It’s not a miracle that a sexually empowered person who didn’t put a lot of thought into who she was dating in her 20s ended up with a (mostly) functional family. Likewise, I'm not necessarily less wild because I now have a family. It’s a fallacy of female identity that you must be one or the other or that one is a conversion of the other. Maybe it would be surprising to learn that during this wild period, I worked for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and was president of Indiana Young Democrats. Or that it was the time in my life that I felt most free and that I miss it dearly. This is what’s interesting about memoir—it’s not a complete autobiography, but rather the selection and shaping of information in order to tell a particular part of one’s personal story. People become flatter versions of themselves. That said, it was certainly a tumultuous time in which I was not fully aware that I was dealing with the consequences of my youth and upbringing, which in many ways was a girlhood that survived manhood. A girlhood that lacked the kind of female leadership I needed. Hopefulness exists in the most unlikely places, in the most unlikely circumstances. It must reside there. That’s where it is needed. A one book movement would do wonders for families and communities if you could get everyone to read it. I’m thinking of Jacqueline Woodson’s novel, Another Brooklyn
. Perfect book for that. Reading or listening to stories about people whose experiences are dissimilar to our own is one of the most important things we can do to ignite empathy for others. When we are living in a country where 1 in 35 people are now under some form of correctional control and we’ve an incarceration rate that well exceeds our portion of the world’s population, we better start finding more ways to care about the people we incarcerate and how to reverse this trend.