Though her debut novel has been compared to luminaries such as Annie Proulx and Louise Erdrich, Richmond-based author Kelli Jo Ford has a style all her own. She writes with blunt force and a brilliant depth of perception into how families search for better lives and struggle to survive through decades of disasters both personal and natural.
In her new book, “Crooked Hallelujah,” the character Justine lives with her mother and grandmother in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Just 15 years old, she’s pregnant and feels caged by her mother’s oppressive nature. Once her daughter Reney is born, she moves to North Texas seeking financial freedom during the 1980s oil boom. There she encounters love and loss not so dissimilar to previous generations of women in her family. Meanwhile, Reney grows up somewhat alone while her mother works long hours and begins to wonder where she’s from and what home really looks like.
Flawlessly moving back and forth through time and place, from 1970s Oklahoma to North Texas in the new millennium and beyond, the author follows a family of mothers and daughters as they make sacrifices for love and hope. Ford is unafraid to write about work, truth and injustice. Her writing is stunning and has previously won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for fiction, the Everett Southwest Literary Award, the Katherine Bakeless Nason Award at Bread Loaf, as well as a National Artist Fellowship by the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation and a Dobie Paisano Fellowship. “Crooked Hallelujah” reads as though it has been lived.
Style Weekly caught up with Ford and asked her a few questions about her work.
Style Weekly: How has living in Richmond impacted your work?
Kelli Jo Ford: Richmond was a nice place to settle down and really get into the heavy lifting of turning the group of stories I’d been pecking away at into a book. We moved here when my daughter was 2, and we’d lived in four different states in three years at that point. So when we got here, it was a good time to sort of settle in and figure out how to be a family in one place and make a home. At that point, I had a lot of stories but not a good vision for the book. In Richmond, I really began working on the book’s larger narrative. My husband, Scott, teaches English at Reynolds [Community College] and writes too. So, as a couple of writers and teachers with a little kid, we don’t get out much. Richmond has been great though!
What role does personal experience play in your writing?
I draw so much inspiration in writing and life from my experiences growing up in a family of strong Cherokee women. Like the book’s youngest protagonist, when I was little there were times that I lived in a household of four generations of women: my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mom, her little sister, and me. I come from a family of powerful, smart, creative, funny women who are survivors and protectors. I’ve come to think that if I was going to end up making art in any form at all, I was going to be looking toward them. The book is a work of fiction, for sure, but it was inspired by the women who raised me.
Have you seen a shift in how readers approach more diverse voices?
There seems to be a greater awareness of the lack of representation in mainstream publishing and growing understanding that literature is so much better when it includes diverse voices. I think that extends to readers too. There’s often an expectation of underrepresented writers – and particularly Native writers – that our fiction should teach white readers about our cultures. I hope that more agents, editors, and readers come to BIPOC writers looking for engaging stories of all types, that our stories don’t have to carry the weight of being explainers of history and culture in addition to all the stuff that good fiction is made of.
Do you feel a responsibility to share these stories with an audience?
I feel a great responsibility toward the communities that I come from. I hope that other people from Native communities and families, people from rural places, people who come from poor and working-class backgrounds, might see something in my stories that helps give them more confidence that their stories matter and can make it into the world, that they can write those stories as they see them and not according to some outside expectations of what literature is “supposed” to be about.
As a native of Oklahoma, what do you miss most about home and what do you value most about being a member of the Richmond community?
Because of the pandemic, it’s been nine months since we’ve seen my parents. That’s by far the longest my daughter and I have ever gone without seeing them. It’s been really hard for all of us, though we are grateful to be healthy and to still have some work.
In general, I miss knowing the land of a place, knowing the fishing spots, knowing where to go if you want be alone in the woods. I’ve lived here five years, but I still feel like I’m getting to know Richmond. That being said, we’ve met some good people here and been welcomed by them. There’s good food and art, it’s laid back, pretty affordable and easy to get around. We live near Forest Hill Park and love to get out and enjoy the green space here.