by dein sofley
In her debut memoir, Narrow River, Wide Sky, a heart rendering portrayal of small-town life, Jenny Forrester vividly evokes the landscape and culture of the conservative Colorado town where she grew up surrounded by narrow-minded churchgoers, ranchers, Native Americans, and strident
patriots. The book explores the complex forces of family, politics, and religion that served as catalysts for the author’s feminist awakenings. Throughout the memoir, Forrester navigates feelings of isolation, loss and grief with sensitivity and resilience. It’s a breathtaking, story about one woman’s search for identity within the mythology of family and America itself.
Forrester is the force behind Portland’s Unchaste Readers—a quarterly reading series for women, now in its fifth year—and an award-winning flash fiction writer. Her stories have been published in Seattle’s City Arts Magazine, Gobshite Quarterly, PomPom Lit, Nailed Magazine, Hip Mama, The Literary Kitchen, Indiana Review, Columbia Journal and in the Listen to Your Mother anthology, published by Putnam. Her latest writings and photos can be found at www.jennyforrester.com.
The Coachella Review: The title Narrow River, Wide Sky reflects the Western pioneer mythology that, as a child, you struggled to navigate. In its injustices and contradictions is your genesis story. You forged your identity through the uncharted terrain of your upbringing. As a result, the word navigate emerges throughout your memoir. In your stories, you navigate the vast landscape of your western Coloradan heritage, along with your mother’s contradictions and feelings of isolation. As a child, you weren’t given the tools to navigate. Was writing a way for you to map your feelings?
Jenny Forrester: Writing became the way to deal with my feelings, with my moral core, with my desire to come to terms with loss, but also with many other things in life. I’d kept a diary and actually quoted from it in the book—it was a coming together of different sorts of writing I’d always done, but writing a book to be published was a dream. An ambition. Something I wanted, but wasn’t sure I could do for many reasons, ranging from the impact it could have on my family members to the artfulness and the how-to to the actual finding a publisher and then what.
TCR: What emerged in the process of writing your memoir that surprised you?
JF: The need that gathered in me to make it into a piece of art was surprising. I thought it was going to be a history book of the family from my perspective. It turned into something else entirely. It also surprised me that I wanted the book to heal my relationships or maybe what surprised me is that it didn’t.
TCR: In the epilogue you wrote “Whatever holds our grief is massive. I’m trying to build something big enough to contain it.” This brought to mind something that Cheryl Strayed wrote “when you experience my writing as sacred, what you are touching is the divine place within me that is my mother…the temple I built in my obliterated place.” Like the temple Strayed builds through her writing, was writing your memoir an act of building container?
JF: I love what Strayed said. That quote is exquisite. I hadn’t put them together, though it makes sense. We do build things to contain it all, whether it’s a savings account or RV Parks or gardens or books. My astrologer said it to me. She said I was trying to build something big enough to contain it—I owe her for it.
TCR: You began writing intently after your mom died to “save yourself from grief,” and “to figure out how to live without her and grow up….” Did your mother’s absence also free you to write your story?
JF: My mother’s being gone definitely gave me the freedom to write without hurting her feelings. I could also see her in a different way without all those layers of difficulty we have when people are alive. We can have very different relationships with them when they’re not having a real influence on us. It’s something I wrote into the book – about how I wish I could see everyone in such a light, but it’s not an easy thing to do.
TCR: Writing a memoir comes out of the desire to understand what was actually happening to you, and in turn to be understood. In your epilogue you write about your process of rewriting which involved numerous people reading your work and giving notes. Through the process, were you ever concerned about being misunderstood or that the influence of others would turn your attention away from your own truth?
JF: I do worry about being misunderstood, but it makes me a stronger writer. In other words, when someone said they understood something to be a particular way that it was not, I learned how to work to make myself clearer and understood. The epilogue is my way of being transparent with all of that and to tie things together to create full metaphors and big circular themes and motifs. I guess I use my weaknesses to be stronger. Other people did influence me—for good and for ill, I’m sure. There were people who wanted to influence the language because they had rules about sentence construction—things like Don’t use short sentences or Don’t use the word was. These are not rules set in stone across the board— they’re guidelines, perhaps. If I’d listened to every instance of that, I wouldn’t have the language I have. I think writers want other writers to do what they want them to do, and I do think writers want to help each other. I think intentions are good. Yet. It’s not always best to listen to other writers. Philip Pullman even said this in this fantastic interview I read once. In the end, Ariel Gore, gave me the best advice. Read it through and go over everything and say Is this true? And if it isn’t, rewrite until it is.
TCR: In your memoir you ask the question, “Where do we bury our mothers when there is no where we belong?” It seems to me that we bury our mothers within ourselves, like the sandstone and snow to which you belong. Still, place is so relevant in your memoir. It informs who you’ve become, and reveals how living in a new place “healed the wounds of your upbringing.” Do you think that self-acceptance comes from being rightly placed or is it more about making sure our “compass includes the geography…beyond you”?
JF: Oh, I love that you say we bury our mothers within ourselves–it’s beautiful and powerful and sad. One of the underlying themes is erasure–erasure of people, tribes, nations. Erasure of women, of wilderness, of earth. Where are we when all is destroyed? Where is our heritage? Where do we belong if we’ve never truly had a right to belong somewhere in the first place? Or if we stole places? If we stole people? When my brother read Ariel Gore’s blurb, he answered, “Israel.” I’d love the reader to work on that. It’s quite an answer. He says he’s going to write his own book. I hope he does, but his narrative is the dominant narrative, obviously, though he doesn’t see it that way. His narrative is no longer mine. So, now that I’ve unraveled everything, there remains that question—where do I bury my mother when there’s nowhere I belong? Or maybe I belong to something else now.
TCR: Sex is a dicey currency in a sexist society. I frequently encounter judgements burrowed deep in my brain having been born to a set of culture beliefs that teach sexual shame. How did you come to terms with your abuse and sexual shame?
JF: I didn’t want to write out the sexual abuse scenes. I didn’t want to write out what Paul did. I wanted people to fill in the understanding without the details. I didn’t want to write so that anyone would totally vilify the others. I needed to tell the story, though. I told myself it could matter to someone. I told myself maybe I could be free. I told myself it was the experience of women and nature and that this was my work to do— to wrestle with these metaphors.
TCR: Like pussy and trailer trash, bitch and slut, the term “good girl” is a shaming word for many women. Was using the words in your story an act of reclamation?
JF: I didn’t use the phrase good girl as reclamation. My brother said I was a good girl way back when because it was important that I be good, that I not be the way I actually am—fully Unchaste, so to speak, but I wouldn’t have understood that word would become important to me someday.
TCR: There’s a pivotal moment, that moved me to tears, more than half-way through the book, when your mother softens “…into a mother [you] hadn’t seen before, the one [you] wanted all along—the one [you] needed all along.” It’s followed by a transformative moment where you and your mother tell each other your secrets and you express how your confessions to each other freed you both. Would you please talk about how your sharing your secrets with other women, like your mother, and the Unchaste Reading Series that you curate, has the ability to transform us and how the series informs or inspires your own work?
JF: It has been such a pleasure and so humbling and deeply transformative to work with other women in this massive collaboration that is the Unchaste Readers Series. The writing of the book took on an urgency to tell my story in a way that was sensitive, meaning aware of the impact of the events on others, the impact of the perspectives of some of the characters on others, and the impact on the types of social change that I’m about now. I’m deeply grateful to everyone who’s ever said yes to perform at Unchaste. There are no words for it—grateful is too small a word.
Dein Sofley teaches refugees English in the sanctuary city of Chicago. She earned her BA from Columbia College Chicago and is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction from UC Riverside’s low-residency program.