Kaya Oakes on Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church

Radical Reinvention

Earlier this evening Kaya Oakes celebrated the launch of her new book, Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church, at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, California. I tip my hat to Oakes (a friend of this blog, who I interviewed for the first time in late 2009 regarding her book, Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture) for writing a great book and giving it a great title that perfectly informs the reader what they are about to read. As a fellow Catholic, I could not pass up the chance to interview her about the new book.

Tim O’Shea: Do you think you would have come back to Catholicism if you had attended a more traditional conservative Catholic parish in another part of the country?

Kaya Oakes: That’s a good question, because I am Bay Area to the bone. I’ve only briefly lived in other parts of the country/world, and those were fairly liberal urban areas. My family parish in childhood was ultra progressive, and the Catholic schools I attended were run by liberal/progressive religious orders. So it’s very hard to imagine what my faith life would be like had I come from a more conservative place or set of circumstances. Frankly, I would probably not be back in a pew. In researching the book I did visit some more conservative local churches, including our local cathedral Mass, and I even went to a Latin Mass, and let’s just say that the urge to return is… nonexistent. The Catholicism I grew up with was social justice oriented, not just about sex and birth control. And after some searching, I did find that that kind of Catholicism is alive and well.

Did the process of writing the book allow you in some sense to gain a greater understanding of your late father?

Anyone who loses a parent at a young age, when the parent is also pretty young, is going to always have that young parent in her head. I’ll never know what my dad would be like at 73, which he’d be now. Nor did I know him before he was 32. So I have this 19 year window of understanding him to work from, and since he was an only child and his parents died before I knew them, a lot of his life remains a mystery. What I do understand a lot better about him after writing the book is how someone with such strong belief in equality and education could also comfortably have a strong sense of faith in God. As it turns out, those things are not antithetical.

It takes a strong person to divulge you suffered a nervous breakdown at one point in your life–how hesitant were you to broach that in the book? Along those lines, I really admire your ability to open up about your depression, I think anytime an author writes about depression, there is some reader struggling with it who will take solace in your experience.

It’s harder for me to talk about having an anxiety disorder and panic attacks than it is to admit I have a relatively mild though chronic form of depression (if you’re into the textbook thing it’s called dysthymia). It’s really a question of wondering how much admitting I spend a fairly big chunk of each day in a state of worry is going to affect the way people view me. As a person who teaches, anxiety feels like part of the stress of the job; however, in my case it turns out to be both genetic and exacerbated by the dysthymia and by having an introverted personality. And yet, I love teaching writing, and once the stage fright is under control I like giving readings too. But it’s such a cliché of creative nonfiction, and particularly of creative nonfiction by women, to talk about depression that I really struggled with how to be honest about this issue without falling into therapy talk. So I tried to see the irony of it, the fact that in Catholicism a lot of the saints we venerate, and even Jesus himself seem to have struggled with mood disorders (and the Old Testament God really needs anger management classes). Someday I’m going to go through Butler’s Lives of the Saints and the DSM at the same time. That should be extremely enlightening.

Along that same line (of opening up beyond your faith journey), you partially delve into the stress your marriage was under at some points in your life (like any marriage), how much convincing was there of Sage (your husband) for him to agree to revealing that aspect of your shared life?

Not much. Sage is a musician, and the fact that we’re both creative people means we make a lot of room for one another to do whatever it is we need to do to pursue that. And the fact that we’ve been together for 15 years means we know how to communicate. We don’t have one of those cliché relationships where a page falls out of my printer and into his hands or I go to every single gig he plays, but when it came time to write something that touched on our relationship, I did pass it by him just to make sure there was nothing he was uncomfortable with. And he did read the whole thing before it went off to my editor. The most edifying thing was that he laughed at a lot of it; he’s a funny guy so I appreciated that.

How did your editor, Roxy, help to make this a stronger book?

First of all, she took it on. My agent Michelle pitched the proposal to a lot of publishers who passed on it because they couldn’t figure out how to market it (a sad reality these days). But Roxy’s a lapsed Catholic, and a poet, and just a couple of years younger than me. From the beginning, she said she felt like the book was talking directly to her. She actually had a baby halfway through the proposal process, so there was a literal gestation on her part. But once we were officially working together we fell totally into synch. A good editor doesn’t mollycoddle a writer; a good editor praises what’s actually good and digs into what’s a mess in order to make it better. And Roxy does that with grace.

Do you think your pursuit of faith has had an impact to some degree on your poetry?

Forgive me father for I have sinned: I haven’t written a poem in five or so years. I went straight from promoting my last book into planning this one, and in that time I also started teaching some new courses that ate up a lot of time in terms of planning. So there wasn’t mental space to work in a different genre. One side effect of hanging out with Jesuits, however, was that I finally got into reading Hopkins, who I’d previously associated with Victorian drawing room poets like Robert Browning. No way! Hopkins was yet another visionary Catholic nutjob in the best way. His poetry is insane: he creates a whole new rhythmic pattern, writes about God like they’re on speaking terms, and venerates everything wrecked and weird in the world. The poor baby died young, too, and now I think of him as my beloved tubercular Jesuit lunatic poet-saint. If I ever write poetry again, Hopkins will lead the way.

In revisiting the RCIA process while writing the book were there new lessons you were able to gain about your faith?

RCIA was a gift, but it was also hilarious. What does a priest do when somebody raises their hand and says “what exactly do you mean by SIN?” For the non-Catholics among us, RCIA is the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the series of catechism classes and rituals you go through in order to be baptized or confirmed. Going back through my RCIA days reminded me that our bumbling, confused, scrappy group of weirdoes really represented something universal. We were all after the elusive thing that is belief. I learned a lot about what a huge personal leap it is for anyone to take the steps of learning about a religion. And there were some really great moments I had to leave out. We were at a cathedral ritual one night before Easter, and at our parish, everyone applauds at the end of Mass. So at the end of the ritual, surrounded by hundreds of other RCIA people from other parishes, our group bursts into a round of applause, and everyone else looks around like, “WTF?”

What was the most challenging aspect of the book to write?

The chapter on women in the church and the chapter on LGBT people in the church required the most revisions. The propensity to get on a high horse and say “F U Vatican” was a problem. The propensity to keep running back to the library to crack open the Hebrew scriptures and figure out why the translations have been mangled was a problem (I can be an obsessive researcher). Roxy and me had to find a balance between the tone of righteous anger about the Vatican stance toward women’s ordination, birth control, and LGBT rights and gay marriage, and scholarly support for a new way of seeing those issues as part of Christ’s message of radical inclusion. And then there’s the problem of translating a spoken reflection, like the ones I gave in churches, into written prose. Ultimately, though, I’m really proud of the things I say in those chapters, because thus far those are the “love it or leave it” chapters for readers.

In the part of the book where you travel to Italy, you wrote of “needing to see faith in settings that would remind me of time and scale”. How early in your spiritual pursuit did you realize this was a specific priority to you?

It started to become apparent that I needed to make some sort of pilgrimage from the very beginning. I’d only seen the local version of Catholicism, and had only lived the Irish American version. The Holy Land interested me until my sister went with her Jewish husband and described the totally scary airport security. I nearly piss myself every time I walk through the TSA and am terrified of cops, so an interrogation did not appeal. I’ve also long wanted to do the Camino de Santiago in Spain, but I could only go in January due to teaching, and Spain in January is really, really cold. When I was in spiritual direction with an Italian Jesuit and mentioned that I was thinking of traveling there, he was so enthusiastic about he idea that he started bouncing in his chair. Also, I like food, art, tiny side streets, and elegant old men, all of which Italy has.

I was flummoxed by the Kirkus review, which states: “The author’s low self-esteem and the weight of her past drag her down throughout the book and are not alleviated by her spiritual quest, which seems, in the end, more a quest for community.” How frustrating is it when a reviewer completely misses the point of one’s book (and seemingly and incorrectly reviews your life, rather than your writing)?

That was a real pain in the ass. Kirkus is notorious for hating everything, and for billing themselves as “the world’s toughest book critics (TM!)”. My publicist forewarned me about it by sending an email saying “are you ready for some bullshit?” But it still felt like my whole faith life was being questioned and attacked. And it frankly hurt that the reviewer thinks he/she can judge who I am as a person when we’ve never met (unless it’s by one of my ex boyfriends…). Seriously Tim, that reviews says I have low self-esteem, but have you ever met a writer who doesn’t have low self esteem? Anyway, it was really bugging me in church that weekend to the point that I almost walked out of Mass because the review claimed I was only there for the community (and for fuck’s sake, what’s wrong with that?). When I saw my spiritual director a couple of days later and told her about it, she said very firmly that nobody can judge whether my faith life is real or not, and that I should not let doubt in because of someone else’s opinion. She’s a real tough talking but wise Catholic sister, by the way. I actually asked Anthony Swofford about this kind of personal attack from critics when he was reading from his new memoir in Berkeley, and he said he never reads any of his reviews. That takes some sort of superhuman willpower I just don’t have. Interestingly, the only writers who have ever told me that they don’t read their reviews have been men. Just sayin’…

A couple of weeks later, I got a starred review in Publishers Weekly (only given to books they think are “of outstanding quality”) which is much more influential and important than Kirkus (which, as it turns out, charges self publishing authors to review their books, went out of business several years ago, and had to be resurrected by a guy who owns strip malls).

You recently mentioned “My godfather sent me an epic email about the book which begins with a rap about Saint Augustine and John Henry Newman.” Could you elaborate on that, and how validating was it to get such a note from your godfather?

My godfather was one of my father’s best friends. They grew up together in Oakland in the 1940s and 50s. My godfather’s African American, and in that time tight friendships between guys of different races were rare, even in Oakland. Dad and godfather went to a Catholic elementary school that’s just a few blocks from where I live now and stayed friends for decades. My godfather’s a brilliant guy; he retired a few years ago from a long career with the United Nations and has lived all over the world, mainly in areas where he was needed to help oversee refugee evacuations. He’s multilingual and a voracious reader. As you can imagine, I grew up with this guy as a kind of mythical figure, but his response to the book was hilarious (on top of the rap he said that his main impression of the book was that I’m such a typical Irish Catholic, and a Don Quixote), and enlightening. He said a lot of things about the ways in which Europeans in particular have learned to politely ignore, stand up to and/or laugh at the Vatican. I saw some of this in Italy where, for example, the birth rate is really low; 25% of Italian women don’t have children, and 50% only have one child. They also have condom machines on the street just around the corner from huge, ancient cathedrals. So much for the rhythm method. But my godfather reinforced this idea that being Catholic is not about toeing the line, or even about fighting the bishops, because, as he says, they’re just windmills, and if I’m Don Quixote, I’ve got better things to do.