Debut author Keema Waterfield had a different sort of upbringing: she was born in a trailer in Alaska and then chased “music with her twenty-year-old mother on the Alaskan folk festival circuit, two small siblings in tow.” But the story she tells of that upbringing in her debut memoir, Inside Passage, which released in May, will resonate with many of us. Kirkus Reviews called the book, ” . . . a deeply stirring story of innocence lost and family found in this debut memoir,” and Diana Whitney wrote, “The fast-paced story unfolds in lyrical prose, lit with longing and graced with humor.” In an interview on Brevity Blog with author Heather Freese, Keema said, “I wanted to bond with my readers, to invite them in to the quirky, goofy, flawed human I am.” And she succeeded. Answering questions in the year of a book launch is always hard, especially when you’re rearing young children (as Keema is), so I’m so grateful she found the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully.
Christina: Your memoir, Inside Passage, is “an unflinching mother-daughter love story that leaves you laughing, weeping, and wanting more.” Did you ever consider fictionalizing your story? What drew you to memoir instead?
Keema: I never considered writing my story as fiction. I started writing into the absence of my father, really wanting to explore the mystery of this missing half of myself. What drew me to memoir were the questions I had been asking my whole life. Was I a kid worth leaving? How had my father’s negative space shaped me? Was it a gift, or a curse? I initially thought that was the thread I wanted to pull, but I found instead it was this love story between my mother and me, and that changed everything. Now my questions were: How had my mother’s presence prepared me for the obstacles we’d face? What had shaped her choices? Had I been a kid worth leaving and a kid worth staying for, and how do you hold those two truths at once? I wound up exploring all these questions, in the end.
Christina: That mother-daughter relationship can be both enchanting and maddening at the same time, and it’s a topic that will resonate with many readers. What do you think is so compelling about that relationship in particular?
Keema: The child/parent bond is so foundational. We spend our lives making sense of how our early years shaped us, whether we feel it was profoundly beautiful or hard special or adventurous. Many of us don’t arrive at the understanding that the person or people responsible for our safety and well-being and early development were up against their own human foibles until well into adulthood. It’s not always easy to arrive at compassion for our caregivers, particularly if you were a child who experienced hardship or whose parent struggled with perhaps mental illness or addiction, or themselves came up in abusive homes. Readers are drawn to new ways of seeing this dynamic that help them process their own experience. In this instance, my mother and brother and sister and I share a fierce connection that carried us through so many challenges that might have undone us, that has undone other families. The how and why of it is what makes our story so uniquely compelling for some readers.
Christina: Andromeda Romano Lax wrote of Inside Passage that you succeeded in telling your own story while relating “the perspectives of [your] parents and siblings with such tender understanding.” When did you begin to understand your parents? Was that something you struggled with as you wrote? How did you find the right balance between honoring them and honoring your truth?
Keema: I chose curiosity as my way in. I’ve always been interested in how my mother’s (honestly quite brutal) upbringing informed her choices and how that impacted my young life. I found it easiest to bring her to the page by letting her act without injecting commentary, and then show myself making sense of it. I also built in opportunities for her to reflect on our growing-up-together years within the narrative, because so much of my story is hers it felt right to hold that space for her. I gave myself very specific criteria about what and who to include. With every scene that involved another person I asked: Is it true? Does it serve the story? Have I allowed the person on the page with me to reveal themselves as honestly as I can?
While my father will always be a mystery to me, Mom took great pains to share her formative years with us from a very early age. It gave me a deep understanding of what compelled her. That knowledge didn’t empower me to heal or help her, but it did teach me how to sit with someone else’s pain, and I wanted to honor that teaching with my book. Too, I’ve been very fortunate that my mother is an artist and avid reader. Telling our story has not been easy on her heart every step of the way, but she has always insisted that it’s mine to tell and has supported me in doing so. She even wrote a touching review on Amazon, a rare gift in a memoirist’s family.
Christina: Every writer has a different writing process. How did you go about choosing which scenes to include in the book? Did anything surprise you as you dug through your trove of memories?
Keema: I initially wrote into every exciting, humorous, or wacky adventure from my childhood I could think of. But once I realized the central through line was this bond between my mother and me, and that I couldn’t do it justice without confronting some of the hard things we faced together, it really pared down the tangential storylines and shaped the tone. It meant some of the funniest bits weren’t included. And some time periods of my life were left out entirely because my mother and I were apart for so much of my young adulthood. I moved out at 14 and we only lived together again briefly when I was 16. We haven’t shared a zip code since.
One of the things that surprised me was how difficult it was to include my younger brother. He spent the bulk of our formative years in another town with his father. I don’t feel the book shows how powerfully much he was a part of our “peapod”, despite only having him with us for Christmas and summer break, or do justice to the breadth and depth of our relationship.
Christina: On Instagram, you revealed a little bit about your father, Dude, and described him as “a small town pot dealer in an era when it carried big time consequences.” Do your own children know the story of Dude? How do you decide what to tell your children and when? If you could tell your father one thing, what would it be?
Keema: My kids have an age-appropriate understanding of my father’s choices. They know that he is deceased and that he made choices that meant I grew up without him. In a lot of ways, my father was ahead of the legalization movement. He believed in the power of cannabis as a health aid and social conduit, but the law wasn’t behind him. I often wonder how differently things might have gone if legality hadn’t been an issue. I’ll look to my kids to show me when they’re ready to learn more. My daughter is five, and just this morning asked for the first time why I was on my own so early, why a father wouldn’t want to be with his kid. Unfortunately, it was just as she was supposed to log in for reading period with her online kindergarten class. I’m interested to see where our conversation goes at bedtime tonight.
If I could tell Dude one thing, I would tell him that my son resembles him so powerfully much that I’m reminded of the legacy of absence and longing he left behind every day. In some ways I find it helpful. It keeps me clear about my priorities as a parent and why I show up for my children the way I do.
Christina: Music connects you with your sister and mother (as well as your children), and its “a major thread throughout [your] memoir.” What does music do for you that other creative pursuits cannot? What types of music move you the most?
Keema: Music pulls me back to childhood the way I think old family photos might, if I had very many of those. Home was a sound. It was my mother and sister’s harmonies let loose in the car, the tent, or in a throng of musicians jamming at someone’s house. It brings me home to myself. I really appreciate all kinds of music, but I’m particularly drawn to lyrically complex narratives and strong harmonies in song. A story, but make it music.
Christina: What does literary success look like to you? What does it look like to your coauthors?
Keema: Oh, my coauthors. Early in lockdown I had a book coming out, a newly four-year-old and an eighteen-month-old. I had to find a way to get them on board with the time I needed to work, and I had to do it without any hope of childcare. I dubbed them my “coauthors” and told them, “We are writing a book!” There were tears. So many tears. Every day. From each of us. I wouldn’t recommend pandemic publishing with small people to anyone. Still, my kids love to read and when they hold Inside Passage you can see their pride in what we accomplished together during our lonely days of nursing and napping and building Magna Tiles and smashing paint on paper and avoiding human contact. “I chose this book cover,” my daughter told a passing neighbor one day. And it’s true, she did! (Lucky for me we’d agreed on her choice of five images my mother had supplied.) Sadly, my coauthors think holding the physical book in their tiny hands means it’s a wrap. They don’t really understand what goes into pushing a book into the world beyond their reach, and they’re deeply impatient with it now that we’re facing down another winter stuck at home.
Literary success for me looks like seeing my book in creative writing workshops and being read by fans of literary memoir wherever they can be found. Bonus points if it encourages publishers to bring more northern voices to the world.
Thanks to Keema for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.