Reckoning with Familial Origins: Kelly Fordon on Why She Writes – Michigan Quarterly Review

Reckoning with Familial Origins: Kelly Fordon on Why She Writes

MQR’s Online Series, “Celebrating Writers in Our Community,” is inspired by our upcoming special-themed issue, “Why We Write.” The series of interviews is a celebration of the diversity of Southeast Michigan writers, their talents, their motivations for writing, and their significance to our community. 

Kelly Fordon’s latest book is a short story collection called I Have the Answer (Wayne State University Press, 2020). Her novel-in-series, Garden for the Blind, (WSUP, 2015) is a 2016 Michigan Notable Book, a 2016 Foreword Reviews’ INDIEFAB Finalist, a Midwest Book Award Finalist, Eric Hoffer Finalist, and an IPPY Awards Bronze Medalist in the short story category. Her first full-length poetry collection, Goodbye Toothless House, (Kattywompus Press, 2019) was chosen as an Eyelands International Prize Finalist and an Eric Hoffer Finalist for poetry and was adapted into a play by Robin Martin, which was produced in Michigan in 2019, and published in The Kenyon Review Online. She is also the author of three poetry chapbooks. On the Street Where We Live won the 2012 Standing Rock Chapbook Award and the latest one, The Witness, won the 2016 Eric Hoffer Award for the Chapbook and was shortlisted for the Grand Prize. Her work has been published widely in literary journals and has received a Best of the Net Award, as well as Pushcart Prize nominations in poetry, fiction and nonfiction. She teaches at Springfed Arts and The InsideOut Literary Arts Project in Detroit, as well as online, where she also runs a monthly poetry and fiction blog.

The question of “Why I Write” led me to write this 1500 word piece. In fact, I feel very reticent to share it, and it will probably become glaringly apparent why when you read it. 

In order to answer the question of why I write, I have to reckon with my own origin story—quite frankly, the last thing I want to do. I would love to be able to say that I am a social justice warrior because I was the daughter of union workers or civil rights activists, or, in a perfect world, both. 

But the truth is, I was raised in Washington D.C., the daughter of a Republican congressman from Ohio and a conservative news reporter turned housewife from Wisconsin, and even though I’ve come a long way from that upbringing (a loooooonnnng way), I realize I still have some misperceptions to shed. Most often, when I write these days, I am asking myself the question: “What am I missing?” 

My family’s origin story was always presented to me as one of hard work and gumption. My father was a World War II veteran who married late. In the 1970s, when I was growing up, he was already closing in on 50. He had decided to run for Congress as a Republican because it was the party of Lincoln. Later he said that he half-regretted it, and I consider him fortunate to have left this planet two decades before the miserable reign of He Who Shall Not Be Named, when “half-regret” would surely have been an understatement. 

My parents had both fled the Midwest, they had both known plenty of family tragedy, and if they were ambitious, I now understand that their drive was fueled by desperation. Making it to D.C. was a pinnacle for both of them, and when they finally made it, their lives kicked into high gear. This was the era before oversight, when one could pour taxpayer money into Congressional junkets without fear of reprisal, and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that they got off one plane in order to board the next. (Later, my mother came up with the unfortunate idea of decoupaging photographs of their trips onto the dining room table at our cottage in Ohio, where every morning I am reminded anew of the great time they had without me.) 

I was an only child. During my parents’ frequent absences, I remained home in the care of our housekeeper, Olga Clarke, who also became, by default, my full-time babysitter. I loved her so much that I never questioned why she had stayed with me all those years despite the fact that she was supposed to be a housekeeper, not a full-time babysitter. I was 21 before I asked her about it. 

“I don’t know why people have children who have no time for them,” she said. “Honestly, I didn’t know what would happen to you if I left.” 

When my parents were campaigning in Ohio, Olga and I spent our evenings with my grandmother Mary on her porch overlooking Lake Erie. While I sat at the beveled glass table coloring in my coloring book, Mary and Olga talked about their lives. 

Mary’s mother, my great-grandmother Delia, had raised two children by herself after her husband, Matthew, died suddenly in 1896, when the streetcar he was riding on plunged over an open viaduct into the Grand River. It was one of the biggest transportation accidents in history at the time, and all the major papers covered it. Seventeen people on board were killed. 

Delia returned to her work as a maid for a wealthy family in Cleveland, but she also received a settlement of $10,000 from the insurance company; the equivalent of $300,000 today. She didn’t touch the money until 1919, when she gave it to my grandmother Mary and my grandfather Frank, as seed money for his car dealership: a move that propelled our family out of poverty.

Olga told me her stories as well, but the seminal one for me was a story about her former employers. One time in the 1950s, she drove down south with them, and on the way (to Florida, I assume), they stopped at a diner. Because Olga was Black, the owners of the diner refused to let her in. She was forced to wait in the car while the family ate inside. 

Afterward, they brought her a sandwich.

“It wasn’t the fact that they didn’t let me in that bothered me,” she said; “I knew they weren’t going to let me in. What really bothered me was that this family I loved went in without me.” 

My father was a war hero who overcame the loss of four siblings to rise from obscurity in Painesville, Ohio, to the Congress of the United States, and I’m not knocking the Horatio Alger story he created for himself along the way. Still, it seemed to me that his success was part tenacity and part luck. In Ohio, I met plenty of people on the campaign trail, and even in our own family, who had not had the same good fortune. During his speeches, there were always one or two people glaring at him from the back of the room—people who would come up to him afterward and ask questions like: “What about more jobs?” “You said you were going to (insert here). Why did you let us down?” My father always shrugged off those encounters, but I could never forget what I thought of as “the ice eyes” from his constituents.

Without my grandfather’s insurance money, my family would have remained poor. Working as a maid, Delia could never have saved $10,000, and my grandfather could never have bought that car dealership. People at my father’s campaign stops also had real problems no amount of glad-handing was likely to remedy. In the 1950s, down south, no persistence, no hard work, no gumption on Olga’s part was going to change that racist system. Even the “good” white people back then were blindly handing out sandwiches to stave off their own shame. 

By the time I was a teenager, outrage was my default mode, and I acted out in all the normal teenage ways drinking, smoking, staying out late. What I felt, I now realize, was anger at being neglected, and that led me to a stance of solidarity with other people who were being overlooked, including my great-grandmother, who worked as a maid until she could hand her fortune off to her white, male son-in-law to seal the family’s financial fate. Including Olga, who was not only rendered invisible because of her gender but also her race.   

I wrote a book about racism in the suburbs called Garden for the Blind a few years back, and I have ended friendships with people over racist comments. But recently, I’ve come to realize that my outrage has also served as a shield; one I held up to block the truth. 

It’s admirable to battle systemic racism/sexism/inequities/other social ills through writing, but it’s also crucial to train the mirror on oneself. When I finally did, I found that despite my best intentions, I have been complicit. 

I still live in a suburb of Detroit with a long history of racism; I still walk around in white skin, I still benefit from an inherently racist system. I’m appalled by how late this occurred to me, how much I still have to learn, the injustice I fail to notice on a day-to-day basis. 

Reading the Orwell essay reminded me that, as he says, it’s hard to assess a person’s motivations without knowing something of a writer’s early development. My early development taught me that the world is not fair. That people get left behind. Nothing short of outrage is required to change the world, but some of that righteous indignation must be directed inward, especially if a person is white.

Orwell said that his starting point when writing was a sense of injustice, but also he hoped to expose lies. More than anything, right now, I am focused on rooting out the lies I tell myself. I come from a long line of Irish storytellers who prefer to play the hero in their own stories. The hero in a good story is traditionally the character who overcomes obstacles, but what about the characters who discover they are the obstacle? 

That’s where I am now. 

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