Talking with Shann Ray about forgiveness, masculinity, and the violence of western literature

This past Saturday, Independent Bookstore Day, I interviewed author Shann Ray onstage at Phinney Books as part of the ongoing Dock Street Salon reading series. It is impossible to talk about Shann Ray without using sentences that go galumphing off into a long series of ands. Watch this: Shann Ray writes poems and non-fiction, and fiction about masculinity, bar fights, and forgiveness. His debut novel, American Copper, was praised by no less a Seattle luminary than Sherman Alexie as “tough, poetic, and beautiful.” Dave Eggers called him “lyrical, prophetic and brutal, yet ultimately hopeful.” And get a load of this passage from his bio:

He holds a dual MFA in poetry and fiction from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers at Eastern Washington University, a Masters in clinical psychology from Pepperdine, and a PhD in systems psychology from the University of Alberta in Canada. He has served as a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow, a research psychologist for the Centers for Disease Control, and as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

These ands could seemingly just keep and-ing off into infinity, with not a “but” or a “finally” in sight.

Ray is a stellar conversationalist and a charismatic reader. Before he read from American Copper, he read three poems written by other writers — Sherman Alexie, Robert Hass, and Catherine Barnett — and he sang a snippet of the Rick Springfield song “Jesse’s Girl” to further illustrate the Alexie poem. The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

I don't know if I can recall another reading when an author led with other writers' poems beforehand. Is that something that you always do, and if so, do you always lead with those poems?

I think my wife and I, as we talked after the readings that we went to, we often said, "That was the...boringest thing I've been to." Seriously. That's rude, I know, but there are a lot of readings that are boring. She's a performer and she's a musician, and I'd ask her, "What would you do with that?" So we just talked about it a lot.

I also was, long ago, reading Dana Gioia, who became the director of the National Endowment for the Arts. He's a poet, and he wrote a book, Why Poetry Matters. In that book he said we should be reading other people's poems, we should be exposing people to the poets that we love in readings. I thought, “that's great, I want to do that. I love so many poets. Let's get some of these poems out there.”

He was talking about how poetry got a bad rap from maybe the 1930s through the 1970s by getting taught in a way that made us hate it. Also, a lot of poets for awhile there were very inaccessible. You'd look at it and be like, "I have no idea what I just read." Now there are so many poets — then, too — that are just so accessible and they really speak to you. So that's probably the reason, and my wife telling me when I would get done with something, "That was totally boring. Why don't you sing some ‘Jessie's Girl?’" All right.

It makes everything better.

Yeah, “Jessie's Girl” makes everything better. So when I come across poems I think are very meaningful to me, I might shift these [poems that I read tonight] out. This book tour I've been doing these three, but if I do too many more dates, I'll definitely shift these out.

So we are here on Independent Bookstore Day, and I've noticed in reading interviews with you, that you can namecheck specific booksellers in your interviews.

They have some of the greatest names ever. [Queen Anne Book Company bookseller] Tegan Tigani? That's like Zinedine Zidane.

I just feel like the bookstores themselves — bookstores are always their own work of art. If you love beauty and you love art, it's like being at home when you're in any independent bookseller's place.

Auntie's Bookstore in Spokane, where I live now and I've lived for the last twenty-five years, used to be this massive — just one of the great old multi-floor bookstores. Three floors, everything was books. Then the big-name bookstores come in and that gets harder for Auntie's and it gets a little bit smaller. Then the Great Recession hits, and it's still gorgeous. You can still look up through the column in the middle, but all those two floors up there are now rented-out spaces, and everything around them is rented out. They’re still a big beautiful space, but it's probably a third of what it was at this point. They're living a life of art, and that is counter to the capitalist transaction culture, and I love that. I'm always trying to be in them and be with them.

It sounds like you're always working on a poem or another, and I wonder how that works in relation to all the different jobs you have and all the different writing projects you have, and if you can maybe give us a little bit of a window into your process.

I knew I loved writing — or the idea of writing; I wasn't a writer, but I loved the idea of it — in college. I also knew that if me or my family had to rely on my writing, we wouldn't have enough money to eat a hamburger. I think that came from my dad, too. He grew up very poor with this trapping and sheep-shearing family. My dad had severe poverty growing up. He always forced my brother and I to get good grades. He was forced out of high school. He did not successfully pass high school, but they gave him the diploma because they said, "You're a hellion and we don't want to see you again."

Later he shifted. He played college basketball at a community college, met my mom, and she helped him figure out how to get better grades, and he became a student body president at community college. He went through and did eventually a master's degree. He was my brother and I's high school basketball coach and principal in the school we were in. In any case, that journey changed us into the sort of people who had to get a job. Some of it was leftover Depression-era stuff for him, too. My brother and I both have a hard time not working our guts out. That's a little part of it. But I also didn't want a job that I wouldn't be able to deeply love because I saw some jobs that different family members had had; his brother was an underground miner. But in any case, I knew I needed to go towards something I could love, so that became the psychology pursuit. I've been seeing couples and families as a psychologist for twenty-four years now, and I can see them out of my office at Gonzaga University where I teach, and I teach leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga. That job is what has allowed for the open space to writing for these last twenty-five years because I teach doctoral students every other weekend, so there's two weeks in between. I don't like writing to interfere with family, and I'm a night person anyway, so I usually go about ten to one at night. I've got the teaching job, I've got the psychology during the week, but it's all pretty open. I don't have any jobs that make me get up early in the morning. I see the girls off with my wife to school at about 6:45 in the morning then I go back to sleep, then writing at night. So that's what it looks like. Then carrying poems around, or it depends on what the big project is — if it's a novel then I'll be carrying around maybe ten pages of the novel to work on and revise. When a novel comes out, then it's usually poems, so most times I'm carrying around poems these days.

I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone who teaches forgiveness before, and forgiveness figures into your writing a great deal. I find that forgiveness is generally handled very poorly in fiction in that it happens almost like an epiphany. I've read novels about forgiveness and it tends to be a lot of dwelling and then when the book hits the five-sixths mark, forgiveness happens, and the whole process feels very unrealistic to me

Did that happen in my book?

No, there was obviously some thinking into it that I thought seemed really genuine.

That's good.

I was wondering if you could talk about how forgiveness plays into your work in terms of the psychology work that you do, and also if there are any other writers who you think handle forgiveness really well?

To shift a family system, they say it takes fifteen years. For behavioral character change, the research shows about three to five years from the point of what we call total brokenness or total willingness to change to something more intimate or more whole. All of that is long-term, and I love long-term projects. And art is long-term too.

Then I also hate things that are cheesy or too fast. In general, in the research, too fast of a forgiveness is probably codependency. We know that there are people who walk the earth that are almost living angels and I'm happy any time I get to brush my shoulders with them. Maybe they are the best symbols of unconditional forgiveness, so I don't want to over-condemn that either. I think they do exist. I think of Martin Luther King Jr's wife as like that. I think Corazon Aquino from the Philippines was like that. Their vessel is unconditional forgiveness. That's how they live, and I admire that.

In the development of art, maybe you have some people like that. I think [American Copper character] Evelynne’s a little bit like that; she can carry it. But then most of us think forgiveness is threatening, it's painful, it's self-shattering. It's all these other things. I don't think there's any such thing as an easy overcoming of massive harm. I think you're just trying to capture: how do people do it?

I know the Cheyenne, they were called “the beautiful people” by the military during the Sand Creek Massacre, which was a terrible massacre. The US military comes in and mows down the Cheyenne when they're flying a white flag of peace. It’s basically a blood orgy at that point. They're cutting off body parts, they're killing fetuses in the womb, and then they come back to a public stage in Denver and they parade the body parts and things like pubic scalps on the stage, and it's a big party. This is America.

So there's no way to say, "Okay, we forgive." That's just going to be anti-humanity or against real life. So at the same time, the Cheyenne are some of the most ultimate forgivers I've ever been around. You go there, they're not holding anything against you, me, or anyone else in the history of America. They're some of the most patriotic people.

Trying to capture that in the novel was just part of trying to understand ultimate forgiveness. The research now is profound: people with higher forgiveness capacity tend to have less anxiety — significantly less anxiety, significantly less depression, significantly less anger, and (an amazing one symbolically,) less heart disease. So cool. That's kind of amazing. The Mayo Clinic uses forgiveness treatment with all of their patients now because they're thinking it has pretty significant links to stronger immune system. So all of that, that's not in [American Copper], but it's in the bodies of the people in a way. Some people are never going to forgive and some people are never going to ask forgiveness. We have got to spend our lives looking at that if we're artists. That's always the task. How to have it breathe as a living art, and I think forgiveness has a big part of that.

And other writers who write forgiveness well?

C.D. Wright — who just died, the poet — her books are, I think they're just singing forgiveness, though maybe she never says the word “forgiveness.” So she'd be a huge one. Michael Ondaatje, another major figure for me. I think his [books] just have an underlying dignity that's something about forgiveness, even if, again, he might not directly say it. Those are some.

So along those lines, you write a lot about violence — the culture of violence and personal violence. To me you write about it in a way that is not the same as, but sort of in the tradition of, some writers of the West. When I think of writers from the East coast, I don't think of the same type of violence in their work and I wonder: do you think that out here in the West, we're closer to our violent past and that's why it features in the books, or do you disagree with my premise?

If you've ever read about the different nations that make up America, the West is one of them. The deep South is way different than the West, and the northern East coast — you see what I'm getting at. I think we're closer to the direct massacres in a way. We really are. I think there's a violence that is very visceral, but then I think also that we've lost something that the Native American writers didn't lose — and that when I think about my heritage, the Czech writers, some lost and some didn't — which is a sense of sacredness, not just cold fate or nihilism.

I think that the wilderness is oriented towards an elegant and maybe inescapable sense of sacredness. If you write [about the wilderness] from nihilism or from cold fate, you get wilderness as violence. Yes, that exists, that's true, but you almost never get wilderness as intimacy, which we've all felt tons of times in our lives.

I think that's something of privilege to write from cold fate, instead of from intimacy. People make a case in theology for the northern European theologies being cold theologies versus the equator theologies. You think of Colombia and South America and you think of some of the theologies that have come out of there like Romero and others. These are intimacy theologies, matriarchal often. Then you think of native America and you have this attachment, intimacy attachment.

I was reading a lot of people like Leslie Marmon Silko and James Welch again — these people, they never lose the sacredness in the writing. So that attracted me fundamentally to what we're talking about right here: okay, so yes there's violence, and maybe it's pretty framed as patriarchal, capitalistic, dominant culture violence. It's got to be a lot more complex than that. Where are the women? Where is the circle instead of the line? Where is the gift culture instead of the transaction culture? It just wasn't receiving writing as much. It exists, now, it's blooming quite a bit more — you think about the Native American Renaissance in writing and African-American Renaissance. We're getting more blood and flesh that's oriented towards intimacy.

You talk and think and write a lot about masculinity and femininity, and I don't mean to put you on the spot, but in the news right now-

Go ahead, Paul.

Yeah, I'm doing it. In the news right now there's a lot of conversation about transgender rights and bathroom bills, and it seems to be sort of tied into these questions-


And I was wondering if you had any thoughts about this.

Glad you asked it. I think we all, if you read any bell hooks or you read any of the people of critical race theory or you've been influenced by non-dominant culture, you can see the tension that the nation's in. Heavy, high-level tension. A lot of that tension, as I see it, is the masculine being unwilling to loosen its grip on power.

The research on that is incredibly compelling. Having worked with marriages, and I think we all know biologically, we all understand that we're made up chromosomally and biologically masculine and feminine, each person and the collective. So there's maybe no such thing as only masculine or only feminine. I think of that binary and how I think the transgender movement is collapsing or fracturing the binary, which is helpful to a nation that's been too linear. It doesn't mean our country isn't beautiful and a great place to live, if you've ever lived in other countries and especially in really desperate situations. We do have a beautiful country and a great country to live in in a lot of ways.

I think as artists we're trying to critique the things that maybe need to be critiqued. I'm always trying to do that in regard to the masculine and the feminine in that — what is a holistic masculine or feminine? That holistic masculine or feminine does something different with power. Okay: it's tough for people to relate to each other, tough for men and women to relate to each other, it's tough for men and men to relate to each other, women and women. Why is that?.

The divorce rate is high. What does that mean? It could mean a lot of different things. I think that says something about the masculine and the feminine. First of all, if a person divorces once, their divorce rate goes to eighty-six percent for the next marriage, if they get married again. You can see why a lot of people are avoiding marriage, too. Then if a person divorces twice, it goes to ninety-six percent. That gets us out of this mode where, that other person is the reason why I divorced. You start going, maybe I need to work on myself.

The stuff on that's really fascinating. Eighty percent of men who divorce, they all share one flaw. So what is that flaw? It's fascinating. It comes from thirty-five years of longitudinal research right here at the University of Washington — John Gottman and their teams of researchers. That flaw is those men do not receive the influence of the feminine. That's such a gorgeous finding. It tenders us down even hearing it. They don't receive the influence of the feminine. In a way, a man's work is to receive the influence of the feminine. That's a beautiful conception in a lot of ways. Eighty percent of women who divorce all share one flaw. Contempt for the masculine. Hatred for the masculine.

That's the context of war. Do you see what we're getting at? So I think the tensions, when I look at that, I think the resistances almost always come from the unwillingness to release some hold of power that I've earned or felt that I've earned. Most of us in our most inner moral core would want to release power in order to give life to those who have been less privileged than ourselves. But the defensive structure doesn't allow us to get to that inner core a lot of times. That's what I think about it.