Now that you have, hopefully, had a chance to read the full version of Family Fest, Lynn Casteel Harper’s compelling, insightful essay from the Summer 2012 edition of the CALYX Journal, please enjoy this equally thoughtful interview she did about the piece.
“Family Fest” is set during a weekend-long Christian music gathering, which your narrator does not seem to regard highly. What made you choose this backdrop? What effect does it have on the narrator’s perspective?
I actually have some affection for southern gospel music and the groups I’ve come to know over the past few years. I enjoy, in moderation, the tight harmonies and the un-ironic happiness exuded from stage. But when I found myself immersed in this intensive environment for three days, I simply could not ignore the deeply troubling way the event had merged faith with a particular portrayal of family. The fact that only certain versions of family were given the microphone—and only these “family stories” could enjoy public narration—got me thinking about all the audience members whose families did not fit the sanctioned narrative. It got me thinking about my own stories.
The wedding of faith to one kind of family narrative haunted me, particularly as I began to consider my friends (“Melody” and “Justin”) whose theology was similar to the theology represented on stage but for whom these idealized notions of family had shattered in the face of hard realities. The sacralizing of a particular narration of family does not just happen on the gospel music stage. My long weekend of immersion in this “Family Fest” family hit this fact home to me.
This piece is often concerned with untold stories, or those which are hidden or ignored because they are uncomfortable. In your opinion, how do untold stories affect their keepers and their subjects? How are they best dealt with?
It’s not that I was hearing untrue stories from the stage; I just sensed how partial the stories were—all happiness and new life and strong faith. The truth of Melody and Justin’s family life casts an uncomfortable shadow. It is messy, sad, and confusing, but every bit as real as the testimonials on stage. And in our culture that has a hard time facing up to finitude, we don’t know what to do with darkness other than hide from it or deny the power of its existence. But just shutting up about it seems dishonest and serves to reinforce the same sentimentalized stories of family. If the stories we circulate—both culturally and personally—are only those which are predictable, flattened, simplistic, then what gets lost is a fuller accounting of this life. What gets lost is the freedom to express a range of experiences—a freedom that can give rise to greater understanding of self and other, greater compassion even.
We are bombarded by narratives of winning, success, overcoming—in the pulpit, popular books, movies, advertisements, talk shows. It’s an insidious triumphalism. Untold stories are those that we fear will not be accepted, because they are our stories that don’t have the “right” ending. It takes courage to tell them, and I don’t recommend telling them unless one is prepared for rejection, especially by those people one loves most. I recommend some reticence even—not hiding but exercising some discretion about when, where, with whom to share. I’m actually working on a piece on the importance of reticence, because I think there’s a cultural loss when we don’t balance telling with withholding. Don’t cast your pearls before swine, but also don’t hold your precious truths under lock and key. It’s a delicate balance. I’d be lying if I didn’t share that I have written and agreed to publish “Family Fest” only with much fear and trembling. As a minister and a writer—both professions that require truth-telling, which often means exposing shadow—I assume some vocational hazards.
I think we have to begin to speak and hear and grapple with the truths that neither feel good nor lend themselves to triumphal narratives. We have to grow up as hearers of difficult truths; we have to learn how to hold messy stories without needing to “fix” them. Otherwise, we end up swapping superficialities and skimming the surface, never getting to the marrow of life.
There are many different kinds of families represented in “Family Fest”: newlyweds, grown children, worried parents, a pregnant bride, etc. What is it that defines a family? What purpose do families serve in our society?
Our families of origin are those people we didn’t choose but to whom we are tethered, for good or ill. We grow up within, because of, and despite of them. We must reckon with them, and they with us. They perpetually remind us that we cannot escape the complicated negotiations, the blessings and curses of community. Our families teach us the realities of life lived together; they are the first “society” we navigate.
We all have that one crazy relative that makes our lives look “together” by comparison. And you think, “There’s no way I’d ever have anything to do with Aunt Tilly if she weren’t part of my family!” Families often force us to encounter radical difference and to learn how to deal with it. I think these are good habits to develop—getting used to being thrown together without killing each other, even learning how to love one another. This is good for democracy and for living in a pluralistic society.
But often times our families become an end in themselves—little sovereign nations—demanding unquestioning allegiance and devotion. They end up promoting insularity that is more concerned with conformity and “me and mine” than with any other form of devotion or the development of any other relationships. If my best friend were to die, I would get no bereavement leave from work; if a remote relative dies, I would. This seems odd to me—our society’s categorical elevation of bloodlines over other kinship ties.
I find it troubling that no family I know fits the sentimentalized, idealized model, and yet we seem to cling so fiercely to its narrative superiority. Because certain conceptions of family have become so sacralized, it is very hard to offer textured and complicated accounts and definitions of family. Nevertheless, I hold out hope that we can make way for more expansive notions of kinship, when we begin to share more full-bodied and honest renderings of actual familial relationships.
As a Baptist minister, how does your faith relate to your writing?
I see writing as an extension of my faith. I try to listen for the still, small voice within, and to other voices of faith—living and dead, within scripture and without. And I hope to emerge with something honest. I have to trust—this is the faith part—that this “something honest” that I’ve given shape to in words on a page might just speak to someone else, to some truth she knew but could not yet communicate. The act of writing is a spiritual discipline, a practice of attention to what is going on inside of me and outside of me. I guess you could call it a form of prayer—my way of attempting to connect to a larger life. I say “attempt,” because writing, like faith, is about approach not arrival.
I hope my writing can increase a sense of possibility and hope in the world—not through avoidance or glossing but by looking hard into it and not turning away. This is why the cross is such a conflictual source of inspiration for me; it is the constant reminder that I can’t escape the tragic, wherever I find it, in any search for truth. I can’t ever preach light without holding the dark.
Here at CALYX, we love to hear women’s voices stand out. Where do you turn to see new female writers and artists share their stories with the world?
I try to get my hands on new literary magazines as much as possible. I’m also privileged to be part of a faith community in which women preach almost every Sunday; I am privy to their sermonic artistry weekly. But, to be perfectly honest, I traffic mostly with the dead these days! I recently visited Emily Dickinson’s home and had the tremendous experience of standing in the bedroom that incubated her genius. I’ve felt compelled to turn back to her in recent weeks. I try to follow threads. For instance, I read a Patricia Hampl essay recently, which lead me to her memoir I Could Tell You Stories, which lead me to reconsider Sylvia Plath and to discover Edith Stein. A recent re-reading of Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm reminded me of the power of a mysticism-tinged, unblinking telling of truth. I am in the middle of the book of Job and love rediscovering how gritty the Bible is. I’m not sure a more honest grappling with the raw “stuff” of life exists than in Job; innocent suffering, grief, well-meaning but miserable friends—it’s all there. Some new writers to me aren’t necessarily “new” in the chronological sense. For instance, I’ve just started reading Adrienne Rich after her recent death. I am mostly non-systematic in my reading; I simply try to read good writers wherever, in whatever century, I can find them.
Lynn Casteel Harper is a Baptist minister serving as an interfaith chaplain at a retirement community in New Jersey. She writes for the religion section of The Huffington Post. Her work is published in shady side review, Freerange Nonfiction’s Freshly Hatched, Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, and the Journal of Religion and Abuse.
Diana Simpson, Intern Extraordinaire