BY GINA MYERS
Is there a place for punk rock and radical politics in Catholicism? In Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church, Kaya Oakes details her own return as a tattooed radical feminist to the church of her youth. Despite years of playing atheist, Oakes discovers that there is something the church offers her that she finds nowhere else. However, she struggles against conservative ideologies that continue to hold power in the religion. Through her journey she encounters many like-minded believers and tries to show her agnostic husband and other nonbelievers that you can be religious without being a fundamentalist. In addition to being called a heretic for her ideas surrounding birth control, gay marriage, and LGBTQ rights, she’s also been called Satan. Yes, Satan. How many writers can claim that? Oakes, who teaches writing at the University of California, Berkeley, and lives in Oakland, is also the author of two other books, Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture (which I previously reviewed on Bookslut) and the poetry collection Telegraph. I recently caught up with her over e-mail to discuss memoir writing, research, church politics, and more.
Frontier Psychiatrist:While your previous book of nonfiction, Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture, clearly deals with a subject close to you, it isn’t as openly personal as Radical Reinvention. What made you want to explore memoir, and did you encounter any challenges in doing so?
Kaya Oakes: Initially, I pitched Radical Reinvention to my agent as more of a social science book, akin to Slanted and Enchanted in methodology and style. My desire was to get at the root of faith: why people have it, why they lose it, how they get it back again. My agent is smart, however, and she knew that such a book has very little potential for finding a publisher. I’d written a couple of short, first person essays on faith at that point, and, with my agent’s advice, reworked the book proposal in a first person voice.
My feelings about memoir have always been deeply ambivalent. There have been too many similar memoirs which seem to be very Oprah-ish. Trauma, trauma, redemption. The story of faith doesn’t go like that. It’s very convoluted. As a feminist I was also hesitant about self revelation being kind of a trope of “women’s writing.” And traditional spiritual autobiographies often portray the protagonist as someone “saved” by religion. That was not the case for me. I also have very low threshold for embarrassment, so the big questions for me were (a) whether or not I wanted to “come out” as a person of faith, and (b) whether I could deal with being known as a memoirist and risk people thinking I was that self involved. But there seemed to be no way to tell this story without revealing some things about myself. So that meant saying, “fuck it”, and that “fuck it” lead to finding an editor with a similar personal experience who wanted to work on the book.
FP: One thing that I admire about this book is that you really show how messy and convoluted the process was for you, and you don’t shy away from showing anger. One section that really stuck out for me was the chapter on the Ignatian retreat, which certainly feels like a low point in your return to the religion. How were you able to bring all of these pieces together into a coherent narrative?
KO:Low point: yes. But it was necessary to go. I was still working on the book proposal when I booked the retreat, and the editor asked for 100 pages before she decided for sure she wanted to work with me. So I booked this retreat thinking, silent retreat, lots of writing time. And then as you know, I went kind of bananas. My introversion oddly also takes the form of being very talkative, but the retreat center was so crowded and claustrophobic that there was no happy middle ground of being able to channel that verbosity into writing during those 10 days. I’d never been on a long Jesuit retreat before that and had no idea of the kind of spiritual discipline required. It’s religious boot camp. I was so newly back to faith that it was like sending an infant into the military (there’s a reason why Jesuits are often compared to a military group: they require discipline. I’m a spiritual slob). But in many ways I needed to be tested.Meanwhile, while I’m there the Oscar Grant trial is happening back home in Oakland, and when I sneak onto the internet my friends are all talking about rioting (that didn’t really happen, but people were afraid). And then the verdict came down and the cop basically got off with a slap on the wrist. And also meanwhile, another woman on the retreat has a nervous breakdown in front of everyone and the guy who was directing my retreat is the one who has to take her to the hospital. And also meanwhile, I’m surrounded by very traditional nuns for the first time in my life and their devotion scares the crap out of me.
When it came to writing about all of this, it just happened very organically. I sat down and wrote the entire chapter in a couple of days. All of the frustration and anger I had about failing to achieve any sort of spiritual tranquility in a setting meant to create it just dumped onto the page, and it required very little editing. Perhaps I wanted to let people know that when it comes to religion, following a well established path like a silent retreat can potentially be a total disaster.
FP: You pull from a wealth of sources to create a very readable history of the Church, and it seems like there would be a natural intersection between the research you must have done as you returned to Catholicism and the research you would need to do write this book. As you started your journey back to the church, were you already thinking about writing about (albeit in a different form)?
KO: I’m a research freak. When I tell my research writing students that, I get all kinds of side-eyes, but it’s true. Nothing excites me more than going down the rabbit hole for an essay or a book, and when we’re talking about Catholicism, it’s a 2000+ year rabbit hole. When I began taking adult catechism classes for lapsed Catholics, the first thing they handed me was a gigantic pile of reading material, including stuff by Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Saint Francis, Theresa of Avila: people who were rebels within the church. And that made me want to learn more about the parallel histories within Catholicism of women, historically marginalized groups, LGBTQ people, and so on. As a Berkeley faculty member I have access to ten million books in our library; on top of that, I get access to the Graduate Theological Union Library, and on top of that, we’re surrounded by some of the best bookstores in America. Danger! My tax slips for books bought for research were insane. The more I read, the more excited I got about this whole kind of undercover history. And as I got deeper into practicing the religion, the more I read, and yes, the more I wanted to write.
The challenge in writing was filtering that out to non Catholic readers, who I very much wanted (and want) to read this book. So that meant slowing down and remembering, hey, let’s explain transubstantiation, because it is insane. Let’s break down how consciousness works and why it overrides dogma, because that’s something people often fail to grasp. I passed sections about theology by my agnostic husband and had conversations with atheist friends and made sure that it made sense to someone unfamiliar with the wacky stuff Catholics do.
FP: Since you mentioned non-Catholic readers here, I was wondering if you had a specific audience in mind as you wrote this book. It seems to me that it could appeal to a wide range of people from believers to nonbelievers.
KO: It’s hard for writers to imagine who would be a potential reader for a book when the writing is at the idea stage, but that’s one thing I like about book proposals. Publishers want you to define your potential audience, and that forces you to conceptualize those people, to think beyond your own mind and into the mind of the reader (this is also something I increasingly encourage my creative nonfiction students to do). So from the beginning I did hope to reach out to other progressive Catholics, but also to people who may not know much about Catholicism beyond the media stories: people from other traditions, and also, according to Pew Research, the one in three people in Gen X and Gen Y who describe themselves as having “no religion”. I think it’s important to have liberal religious voices in the world. We are at risk of being drowned out by reactionary voices, which are always so much louder.
FP: One of the main issues in the book is dealing with you trying to fit your radical politics and feminist views into Catholicism, and you discuss the conservative reactions to more inclusive churches and are even labeled a heretic for speaking at Saint Sebastian, an LGBTQ-friendly Catholic church in San Francisco. What has the reaction been to your book now that it’s out? Have people within your own church read it? And if so, how have they responded?
KO: Well, it’s been a struggle to get reviews; that’s true for any book these days, but particularly books on religion, I think, because they’re seen as a niche thing. And this book doesn’t fall into a convenient niche. But when people do track it down, they’ve had one of two reactions: they think it’s awful or they think it’s great. It’s not surprising the reaction is so polarizing. It’s a polarizing topic. When magazines like Bitch and Bust love your book, it’s pretty clear that conservative Catholic bloggers are gonna hate it. I’ve had at least two bloggers call me Satan. The last time I checked, I’m not Satan.
And then there’s the opposite reaction. Almost everyone who’s in the book — from my church and other places I write about — has read it. And they’ve been incredibly supportive (yes, even the priests and nuns: my cloistered nun friend says she read the book at silent reading time and kept laughing out loud). Particularly, women and Queer people have reached out to me to say thanks. Somehow the book made them feel less alone, and more like there was a community of the disenfranchised out there somewhere. It’s also lead to some new friendships that are incredibly valuable to me. This may lead to some sort of future project: maybe a website, maybe a group, where people who are on the margins of Catholicism, or who’ve left it, or been forced out by dogma can get together and just talk. The institutional church is trying to offer things like that, but people who are scarred or alienated don’t want to walk into a church, much less talk to a priest. They need a less threatening person, and a less daunting environment. And my generation’s disinterest in religion is something I want to keep writing about. Many nonbeliving readers have said the book was fascinating because they were simply never exposed to these questions about faith. My research freak brain immediately turned on and said: how and why did that happen?
FP: For me, a non-Catholic, I was surprised to learn that progressive ideas were so common in the Catholic church–I’m thinking specifically now of the statistics involving how many women used birth control and how many people supported same sex marriage. It also seemed like so many of the people you met were in line with you politically. Do you think this represents the Church as a whole in the United States, or is it laregely due to your experience taking place in the Bay Area, which is already known for being quite progressive?
KO: As Jesuits like to say, both/and. It’s both a case of a lot of people who listen to their consciences instead of dogmatic pronouncements from guys who live behind walls in Rome, and a case of my coming from the Bay Area. However, I did fact check in multiple places to come up with those stats about birth control and gay marriage, and fact after fact showed that Catholics are overwhelmingly in support of women’s right to choose and marriage equality. On a person to person level, that’s going to be more obvious demographically here in the Bay, but I think it more significantly shows that there’s no one way to be Catholic.
FP: When I first encountered your work in the mid-2000s, you were writing poetry. Do you still write poetry or are you primarily a prose writer now? Is there much of a difference between the two modes for you?
KO: It’s been hard to fit poetry into the picture while working on back-to-back book length nonfiction projects. So, the short answer is no. I still read poetry, and take a lot from poetry and put it into my nonfiction: paying attention to rhythm, imagery, trying to sustain focus within a paragraph or a sentence. The cliche is that nonfiction is a marathon and poetry is a sprint; that’s kind of bullshit, though. Sometimes I write 6K words a day. Sometimes I write a phrase. Some poems in Telegraph took me 15 years to write. Some took a minute. I wrote Slanted and Enchanted — a 70K word book — in eight months, while teaching full time. I think it comes down to impulse. There are some things that can only be said in poetry. Some only work in an essay. And others take a book.
I do find that the more time elapses between when I wrote poetry and not writing it, the less engaged I feel in discussions about the role of poetry in culture (this just came up re. the inauguration). There’s less of a personal investment in getting into comment box wars, less care about who won what contest and which grant, and I don’t feel personally insulted when someone yawns during the inaugural poem. Po Biz starts to look like a foreign country I visited for a while and liked living in but it ultimately didn’t work out. But that could be true for anything one does and then moves away from. I consider myself a lapsed poet. That identity and style is still somewhere deep inside.
FP: Have you started working on a new project?
KO: I’m in the very early stages of a book proposal, yes. When I tell friends who’ve seen me write two books in five years about this, they kind of step slowly back. Yeah, I should take a break. But there’s a topic I’m really obsessed by at the moment, and if I don’t get started on writing about it there’ll be a lot of sleepless nights. So, in the immortal words of Operation Ivy, here we go again.