Four Generations of Cherokee Women Navigate Love and Disaster
Kelli Jo Ford, author of "Crooked Hallelujah," on mother-daughter relationships, displacement, and rejecting religion
“Beautiful by-God circle of life this is,” belts the wry, guilt-ridden Justine, a dynamic force in Kelli Jo Ford’s debut novel-in-stories, Crooked Hallelujah. A beautiful series of circling lives might describe the book structurally, as the stories rotate through several perspectives over the course of about 40 years, rendering four generations of Cherokee women as they age in a religious, and ruthless, but still joyful world.
Tornados, fires, abusive men, sermons, sickness—disaster appears in many forms for the young mother, Justine, and her ambitious daughter, Reney. But in Ford’s work near concurrent with the disastrous is the wondrous: a harmony from the church choir at the hospital bed, a mother’s prayer through a payphone, a wedding in 112 degrees of Texas heat. It is perhaps this quality above many impressive others that makes Kelli Jo Ford such a special writer: fearlessness—or the will to make suffering, and love, seen.
Praise be to Crooked Hallelujah, where family is the source of both exile and salvation. I spoke to Ford, the Paris Review’s 2019 Plimpton Prize winner, over the phone on a Monday morning in late June about the book, her development as a writer, the world.
Alexander Sammartino: As a teenager Reney tells us: “After taking stock of all the ways we matched and saying, ‘Good night my Tiny Teeny Reney,’ she’d hold me close and whisper, ‘Don’t be like me. Don’t ever be like me.’” It’s a beautifully devastating moment, how Justine quickly shifts to self-loathing after expressing her love for her daughter in such tender, childish language. There’s this immediate conflict between joy and despair. It’s a tension that feels essential to understanding Reney and Justine as a family unit. I’m wondering if you can start us off by talking about what brought you to this particular mother-daughter relationship.
Kelli Jo Ford: I come from a long line of strong women, and often strong hearted people in close quarters can butt heads, even if they love one another. That relationship is certainly inspired by who I come from, where I come from. Like Reney, I grew up in a household that at times had four generations of women in it.
In terms of that scene, Justine is a character we see working so hard trying to make life different and better for Reney. But in doing so, she is carrying what she sees as her failures with her. As someone standing back and looking at the characters, that’s certainly not how I see it, and I would think that’s probably not how other readers see it either. I think it’s much more complex than that. She was raised in a religion that—to her—felt so oppressive and judgmental. Even years later, she’s seeing her life through the lens that, of her inability to live up to the near impossible standards set by her mother and their church. That’s how the character sees herself, but I see her as an immensely loving young woman—still a very young woman—who is working so hard to try to make things different.
Religion was forced upon her—and then also rejected her when she became pregnant. Imagine how scary that would be: if you’re being told that this is the one way and the only right way, and then you’re rejected by that authority? I think she carries that with her her whole life, down to the last moments we see her. There’s a deep internal conflict when you reject that thing that you feel is, perhaps, the answer to everything. What if you’re wrong?
AS: You said you set out to write one good short story. You ended up with this amazing debut. I’m very interested to hear about that.
KJF: It took me many years to write the book. And that’s in part because I didn’t sit down going, Today I’m going to start my novel. I realized after the fact that was what I was doing.
I kicked around for a long time. Worked in sandwich shops in Austin. I was the first person in my family to go to college, to graduate from college. I went to college right out of high school, I went to the University of Virginia as an out-of-state student, and I was overwhelmed and lost there. I had no idea what I was doing, how any of it even worked. I left UVA with them holding on to my transcripts because I owed them a lot of money. But eventually I found my way to AmeriCorps Programs, and I was able to get my transcript back and go back to college.
Studying English was the path of least resistance, which is probably how a lot of people end up here. You do what you can do. You just keep doing it. Eventually I went to George Mason. And there I studied with some people who were really supportive. In grad school, though, again, I never had any interest in writing a novel, because I didn’t conceive that I could. I was just trying write “art stories.”
I just didn’t quit. After I left grad school, I felt really burned out and didn’t want to think about writing for a while. When I picked it back up, I kept writing the same stories. It’s about following my obsessions, I guess. It became much harder when I became a mom, but there were some fellowships along the way that really, really helped me, that told me I could keep doing it. And also in a tangible way, that helped me financially.
AS: It’s a great story of perseverance, for sure.
I want to ask about an idea I noticed repeating throughout the book, this idea of fate. Very different characters express similar views of how the world feels determined for them. I’m thinking first of what comes from Justine’s grandmother—and I love this section, that we see her grandmother’s journal, the list of what she owes—but she writes: “I give nickels to pay on dollars I charge. I add up, take away. Nothing evens out, and I don’t think it will get fixed ever.” Later we hear from such a different character, Ferrell, an old white cowboy, who says: “Smoldering houses and charred land all over the Red River spoke to the notion that man can’t do much to change the course of nature.” I felt like all of the characters are coming up against the limits of what they can do in the world, and are struggling to negotiate that. How do you see fate operating in the book?
KJF: With Justine’s grandmother, Annie Mae, that was me feeling interested in the crisis of faith in a longtime believer. I’m drawn to that moment of self-perceived weakness, and seeing a person grapple with that.
A lot of the notion Ferrell is expressing probably stems from growing up in a family of people who had to work very, very hard their entire lives, and were sold the myth in this country that you bootstrap it out and you work hard and you change your circumstances. Coming from people who I’ve seen work hard their entire lives at the expense of their bodies and well-being, and then not being able to have a good life once you no longer have the body to sacrifice—seeing people breaking their backs and struggling, but still ending up in circumstances that are hard, despite a lifetime of hard work.
AS: This makes me think too of how these characters, as Cherokee women, are experiencing the world. We’ve talked about the effects of this colonizing religion, but I think there’s also an awareness of how Native Americans are represented, or are not represented, in popular culture.
I’m thinking for instance of Justine, in the hospital, watching a Native American man cry, and it makes her think of an old commercial, and she says: “Everywhere in this whole hospital are sad Indians crying, but nobody thought to make a commercial to save our lives. So we keep playing different takes on the same scene nobody watches but us.” Also, when Reney is a kid, and she’s watching the westerns that Nina would tape: “She cheered for the Indians, though she knew John Wayne would always end up the hero.”
Can you say a little about this?
KJF: These characters are living through displacement. Displacement upon displacement. Oklahoma isn’t where Cherokee people came from. But Lula has been able to absolutely see it as her home and embrace it, whereas Justine made the decision to run looking for a better life. As a result, Reney is raised removed from her grandmothers. Justine also didn’t grow up experiencing a lot of Cherokee culture because of the church that they were a part of.
What I see in those passages are characters who are learning about or craving connection, and then they’re getting it from Westerns or commercials. Do you remember that old commercial? Tommy Orange also wrote about it (and beautifully!). The actor wasn’t even Native, so the characters are getting these three times removed representations, but they’re craving connection to their culture so they soak it up.
That’s something I experienced. There’s an actor, Chief Dan George, and anytime he would come on in a Western, it would just be so exciting. You’re craving because we don’t have those representations. We certainly didn’t when I was a kid.
AS: Right. And what is there to connect with is crooked. I’m thinking of the title again now.
I want to shift a bit here and talk about the language in the book. You’re such a master of the idiom. I’m thinking of Reney, as a kid, referring to Justine’s abusive boyfriend as “a sorry sack of snakes.” Justine says her daughter left without a “hi, bye, kiss my ass.” Ferrell calls the old women at the Dairy Queen “blue hairs.” I’d love for you to talk about your own relationship to the language here.
KJF: The language of the characters, when they’re speaking—I can probably take very little credit for that. I grew up around storytellers who are so naturally descriptive and funny my whole life. If a character is speaking and says something about a sorry sack of snakes—thank you! Take that, pluck it from the air, and stick it in there. You know? It comes from absorbing a lifetime of storytellers and really smart, funny people.
“Throw dirt on it”—that’s something that I grew up hearing my mom say all the time.
The language of where I come from is really wonderful.
AS: This is the last question I have for you, and it’s kind of a big one. There’s so much joy in this book. There’s also domestic violence, sexual violence, historical violence—but there’s always joy, right? There’s a sunset over Tenkiller Lake. There’s a mother and daughter driving from Texas to Oklahoma, singing along to Prince in a Mustang. I thought it would be nice to finish the interview hearing from you about some things that give you hope, in fiction and in the world, especially right now, when it feels like the world is ending.
KJF: That’s a tough one in terms of the real world right now. But I am taking great, great hope in seeing all the people—I feel like mostly young people—but people of all ages out in the streets right now, protesting for Black Lives Matter, the protests against police brutality of all kinds. On my more hopeful days, I feel like maybe we’re living through a moment that’s going to lead to substantial change.
But it can be hard to have hope. I feel like people can get on a trip and be like, “children are going to save us,” when it’s up to us first. That’s our job! But I often find the lines of that old Whitney Houston song— “I believe the children are our future”—going through my head unironically, because I really do feel like the younger generations are so with it and smart and sharp, and they care greatly. I think that they’re going to shake some stuff up.
I take great pride in fiction and in the real world in the connections that we work hard to maintain through generations. In the book, a mother to a daughter or a great grandmother to a grandchild—those things are there for the taking, perhaps, but they don’t last without great effort. In my book, the characters clearly have flaws and fail one another, sometimes in great ways, but I feel like they just keep fighting for one another out of love. I take great heart in that.