An Interview with Kaya Oakes

Kaya OakesKaya Oakes likes to keep busy.

“I guess I hate free time,” she emailed from sunny California, where she teaches writing at University of California’s Berkeley campus.

Oakes founded Kitchen Sink Magazine ten years ago and is the author of Telegraph, a collection of poetry which received the Transcontinental Poetry Prize from Pavement Saw Press. Her second book, Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture was selected as a San Francisco Chronicle notable book for 2009. Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church, Oakes’ most recent book published earlier this year, has gotten attention from the media and the clergy. 

Oakes will read with poet David Yezzi as part of the Frequency North reading series on Thursday, March 21, at 7:30pm, in the Hubbard Interfaith Sanctuary, 959 Madison Avenue. She’s looking forward to reading at Saint Rose, especially since it falls during Social Justice Week

In this interview, Oakes and I discuss volunteer work, writing, and of course, religion.

What has changed in your life since the publication of Radical Reinvention?

Well, now everybody knows I’m Catholic, which I’d successfully kept secret for five or so years. I’m writing essays on faith and doubt, feminism and faith, and my ongoing struggles with the institutional Catholic church, and editors and readers have been very kind about those pieces. I went on a long book tour (on the Greyhound, very low budget). I’m doing public speaking about faith issues. Planning a new book, also about faith. And am in the planning stages of a big project about the complex intersections between women and religion.

What was your biggest challenge during your return to Catholicism?

Being a woman, for many obvious reasons.

RadicalRevisionOakesCoverWhat was your biggest challenge writing this book?

Deciding to write it was the most challenging step. I’ve been an essayist and journalist for many years, but had never wanted to write such a personal book that would also be long-form. I’m not a big fan of a lot of memoir writing, because it implies a degree of megalomania that I’m wary of. But the book really needed a first person voice, and since it is my personal story, I had to be its narrator.

What advice do you have for other people who are looking to either return to their religious backgrounds or explore another religion?

A very important step is making sure that you’re really in it for the long haul, and prepared for the frustrations and doubts that are inevitable. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sampling your way to a religion; in fact, I recommend it. But once you find the one that works for you (perhaps the tradition you were born into, perhaps not), it’s important to be prepared for it to be imperfect. As a theology professor once told me, there is no such thing as a perfect religion.

Any thoughts on the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI?

Relief, mostly. To be frank, I was not a fan. But there is something touching about his saying, I’m done. Unless, of course, his resignation was prompted by yet another scandal. He was probably a better theologian than a leader.

So what direction do you think the Catholic church is going to go in?

Progressive and liberal Catholics like me are eternal optimists. We’re always hoping for what the leaders at Vatican II called aggiornamento: openness. Ideally, whoever is appointed the next Pope will wake up in the middle of his first night’s sleep in the Papal palace and say, “Crap. This church needs to get into the 21st century.”

The Church chose a new pope last week, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina, who chose the name Pope Francis. I know you were interested in Sister Simone Campbell. What are some of your thoughts on Pope Francis and what are some things you’d like to see him do with this position?

My first impression is that I’m happy to see a Pope who doesn’t wear swank vestments and pays his own hotel bill; I also heard that he ordered the Cardinals not to wear red vestments to their first meeting but to wear simple black ones. That’s a nice change from Benedict, right away. He seems to be turning down the pomp, which is important. And as a friend to many Jesuits, I know they are thrilled with the first Jesuit pope. His record on women and LGBTQ rights is not great, but if he’s as humble as people say, and as focused on the poor as people say, perhaps this could change. Saint Francis, after all, heard God telling him to “repair my house.” If he focuses on cleaning up some of the corruption at the Vatican, that would be a huge initial step in the right direction.

In your book, you spend a lot of time trying to find a safe space for your political and religious ideas. Have you found a place where they can coexist or are you still searching?

Yes, absolutely. I rotate between three churches, and at each one of them, I’m accepted for who I am, not in spite of my political beliefs. The church I write about in the book is where I do most of my churchgoing. The pastor literally pats me on the back every week. He’s awesome.

You write about the volunteer work you do in the book. What advice to you have to people who are looking to volunteer?

Find something that helps you use your gifts, whatever those are. It’s hard to stick with things that don’t fulfill you. Some people get a lot out of soup kitchens or shelters, others don’t. If you love writing, write for free (cause nobody gets paid for it these days anyway), but write about meaningful issues beyond your own experience. If you love cooking, cook for people. If you love organizing people, start a group that does something. A lot of people want to volunteer but they pick something that’s not meaningful to them or others. For example, this summer I’m teaching a free class on writing spiritual autobiography. It was just a matter of asking a place to host it and they were thrilled.

You’re visiting our campus during Social Justice Week. What does social justice mean to you?

When I was in adult catechism classes at my church, one night they asked us to go around and say what we believed in most strongly. I said equality. Socioeconomic, racial, gender, and equality for LGBTQ people are the things I’ll go down fighting for. To me, social justice is simply about giving everyone an equal footing.

At the end of the book, you and your husband go to Italy, almost as a religious Mecca. Would you ever consider taking any other trips in pursuit of religion, such as a service trip or missionary work?

Time permitting, I’d love to do something like Habitat for Humanity. But I’m wary of missionary work that intends to convert people. A friend of mine put it this way: at an Evangelical church, when homeless people go in to be fed, they have to sit through a two-hour conversion sermon before they get any food. At your average Catholic church or a public shelter, they just get the food. Belief should be a choice, not something you do in order to be treated like a human being.

Do you believe that communities of writers are as beneficial as religious communities?

Absolutely. My MFA program and my undergrad writing program were both at a small, Catholic liberal arts school. And the people I met there really helped me to discover my literary identity. Subsequently, I helped found and run an indie magazine, and that community once again pushed me and helped me to be a better writer. The tough thing is keeping that going in the “real” world. I haven’t been in a writing group in years, but now I rely on the community of editors I work with — all of whom are very generous people.

What are you currently working on?

I’m in the very beginning stages of a book proposal for a book loosely about why people lose faith or why they don’t need it. And I’m also in the very beginning stages of putting together an online project having to do with women on the margins of faith.

Finally: what advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I teach everything from very basic writing classes to more advanced nonfiction and narrative journalism, and the only takeaway advice most students mention if I see them years later is just to keep writing. There is so much potential for crushing discouragement in the literary life, and odds are you won’t make a living at it. However, if you see it as a vocation, something you’re called to do, you’ll keep going no matter what.

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About Daniel Nester

Essayist, journalist, poet, editor, and teacher.
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