Catholic Writing Today: Kaya Oakes

by | Jan 30, 2014 | Catholic Writing


Author Kaya Oakes

Kaya Oakes

This week, TJP’s Catholic Writing Series presents a familiar face: Kaya Oakes was kind enough to do an audio interview with us last spring. Back then we talked about her recently-published Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church. As you might guess from the title, Kaya is not the conventional Catholic. On might suppose that tattoos, a feminist streak, or a history with purple dreadlocks would a priori bar you from St. Bridget’s, but Kaya’s story stands as a corrective to such presumptions. It’s a big Church, folks, and if you want to hear about how Kaya found her place in it, give her interview a listen.

On to writing. Much of the conversation these days about Catholic literature revolves around the genre of fiction. This is understandable, considering that so many of the mid-20th century’s Catholic greats were best known as fiction writers. But the Church also boasts a long and venerable tradition of autobiography. One can’t rummage long on the Catholic bookshelf without running into the likes of St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and Thomas Merton, all of whom produced rich accounts of the movements of grace in their lives.

Recent decades have seen a rising wave of memoirs in popular literary culture. And although we probably shouldn’t make any hasty comparisons to St. Teresa, Catholics like Mary Karr, Stephanie Saldana, and Kaya Oakes have helped to keep the wave rolling. This week, Kaya talks about how faith and nonfiction intersect. As with our previous two authors, you can find a sample of her writing after the interview.

Give it a read and, as always, let’s keep the conversation going.


JH: Hey Kaya. Good to have you back with us. Fill our readers in on your work. You pretty much stick to nonfiction, right?

KO: These days, yes. I’m working mainly as an essayist and doing some journalistic pieces too. But my graduate degree is in poetry. Sad to say, however, that I haven’t written a poem in 7+ years. I’ve become more of a poetry reader than a poetry writer. And I’ve never written a stitch of fiction, honestly. Okay, I wrote a really bad novel in third grade.

JH: Alright, spill it – what was the novel about?

KO: It’s about two little girls who run away to New Orleans to start a jazz band. And they bring a cat. Now you see why I don’t write fiction.

JH: This is probably going to sound like an insult, but that sounds like a rad children’s book…

KO: Children’s books! That’s where the big money is, right?

JH: So there’s a lot of talk going on about the state of Catholic writing today. Most of it revolves around fiction writers. But what about nonfiction? How do you think Catholicism and nonfiction overlap today?

KO: There’s a lot of excellent nonfiction writing about Catholicism. Quite a few people were surprised that Mary Karr wrote about her adult conversion in her last book since she’s such a pottymouth and anti-authoritarian, but she’s been openly writing about Catholicism in her poetry for a while. Stephanie Saldana’s memoir also got a lot of press, but that’s likely because it’s about her falling in love with a monk while she was doing the Spiritual Exercises (juicy stuff…).

So part of the problem about the perspective on Catholic nonfiction might be that some of the memoirs tend to be a little sensationalistic. But that’s often true of memoir writing in general. More interesting to me are the kinds of nonfiction writing that blur the boundaries between being “about” Catholic faith and about politics, the natural world, etcetera. Annie Dillard, Fanny Howe and Rebecca Brown would all fall into the latter category. I think Dillard’s no longer a practicing Catholic but she can go from Teilhard to wave patterns to a maternity ward and it says more about faith than someone writing about going to Mass does, a lot of the time. Howe and Brown are more experimental writers but both are practicing Catholics with a lot of thoughtful things to say about what that means. You’ll notice these are all female writers; this is not to say that men don’t articulate interesting things about faith in nonfiction (viva Merton, one of my first inspirations), but we often get left out of the conversation.

JH: Gotcha. Question, though: Do you list more women writers to bring them into the conversation, or is it that more women than men are producing notable spiritual memoirs these days? I’m asking because the spiritual memoir has gained some speed as a genre in recent years, and your comments made me wonder if men or women are more on the scene there.

KO: I taught a class on writing spiritual autobiography this past summer, and about 75% of my students were women. Whether that’s because women are more interested in the genre, or because we’re living in a time when women are more able to be open and honest about our experiences than we may have been historically, women are indeed writing more spiritual autobiography than men. But often enough, we’re also left out of the conversation about literature in general; our books are less likely to be reviewed, we’re less likely to have lead stories in magazines, we’re less likely to be editors, and we’re less likely to have a voice in the larger cultural dialogue about faith because fewer of us are in leadership positions within our religious traditions.

So yes, I have an agenda in bringing up those names. But I also think there’s an empowering function in writing spiritual autobiography. The experience of faith can be ephemeral and hard to process, and writing it down is a tool toward helping others name similar experiences. So, you can see how a historically marginalized group would seize the genre, run with it, and (ahem) reinvent it.

JH: Why do you think that the memoir as a genre has become more popular? It’s obviously not just relegated to religious writing – lots of readers are interested in others’ life stories, and plenty of writers these days are willing to set their lives down in print. Where does this interest come from?

KO: It’s what David Shields refers to as “reality hunger.” We’re living in an age of cultural escapism, and as a result, we crave truth. The intersection of this with the rise in creative nonfiction, longform essay, memoir, and so on is not a coincidence. There’s also been a shift in fiction toward the first person narrator. So this raises the question: can we feel the same truth coming from a fictional narrator that we feel from nonfiction? Yes and no. The fictional narrator is always going to come with degrees of manipulating the reader. I’ve read several novels this year alone where I could feel the writer making me want to feel things, putting the characters through horrific scenarios, just really being a jerk to the characters and ultimately to the reader as well. And perhaps readers are growing tired of that.

One of the things my spiritual autobiography students loved about reading Seven Storey Mountain was that they felt Merton was talking to them. There was an intimacy in that narrative that is very, very difficult to pull off in fiction, and Merton’s honesty about running away from his vocation again and again, f*cking up and failing again and again, really made him fully human as a narrator. He becomes a person in that book. The sad side of this relationship is that there’s a temptation for memoir and nonfiction writers to embroider and embellish past truth and into fictional territory (James Frey! what a scoundrel!), but done well, the personal narrative takes us away from escapism and into a conversation with the self: both our own, and the writer’s.

JH: So people want truth in what they read, which for them means an honest rendering of their experience of life… and readers were moved when they feel that a far off, spiritually accomplished and well-respected protagonist suddenly “became a person” for them – when he rendered himself human in his narrative by sharing his own weakness and resilience. This appeal sounds very familiar.

KO: Sure it does. Appropriately, we’re talking about this during Advent.1 We also read some of Augustine’s Confessions in my class, the granddaddy of spiritual autobiographies, and like A Certain Someone whose birthday is coming up, Augustine also had a pretty impressive mother. So we’re talking about a very old narrative: the person who “becomes a person” to us as readers by becoming, in some way “like us.” Most of us don’t feel even remotely Christ-like even on our best days, but when we can read about someone like Dorothy Day in her own words, and hear how she managed to be Christ-like, while still being sassy, and rebellious, and stubborn as heck – perhaps that’s why we like reading spiritual autobiography. Will any of us ever be Jesus? No. But can we be the Samaritan Woman, or the blind man, or even one of the Apostles whose name everybody forgets? Maybe. Can we be Dorothy Day? Probably not. But can we share experiences we’ve had that were like the ones she had, stories of our own long lonelinesses, stories of the Peter Maurins in our own lives? Sure we can.

Ultimately, what I think is exciting about spiritual autobiography and memoir is that it’s a chance to claim our faith. The laity can get passive about our role in the church; week after week, we’re just there, filling a seat, waiting on a sign, being a little bit bored, maybe once in a great while having a moment of inspiration. Telling stories of our spiritual lives can help us to understand that we keep showing up for a reason. We’re there to be fed, but sometimes, we need to feed one another. That’s where writing can be an empowering thing.

JH: Agreed. But you and I have talked on multiple occasions about the difficulties of finding a wider audience for the kind of writing you do – even as popular and empowering as autobiography might be. I know you’ve kept up with the recent conversation between Dana Gioia and Gregory Wolfe about Catholic writing today. Both cite on the one hand a long-reigning cynical, secularist trend in literary circles that doesn’t welcome writers who focus on topics of faith. On the other hand, both agree that American Catholicism itself has put far too much emphasis on its political role in the so-called culture wars, causing its rich artistic heritage to recede from public view. What do you think? Why is it that, sixty or so years ago, Catholic writers had a prominent place in American literary circles, while now it seems hard for them to find a spot outside of the “spiritual writing” pigeonhole?

KO: I’m in my early 40s, so what was going on 60 years ago doesn’t have much relevance to the writing I do, or to my faith life, to be frank about it. For those of us born after Vatican II, there isn’t the same sort of nostalgia for the age of Catholic culture that Gioia and Paul Elie grew up in. And the problem with that nostalgia is that it can be calcifying, both creatively and in our faith lives. The Church has changed since Merton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy were writing, and if you listen to Pope Francis, you’ll understand that it’s not going back to the way it was before John XXIII opened the windows. And thank God it’s not going back. Do I love reading Merton’s books? Absolutely. Do I relate to him as a human being? Sure. Do I relate to the Church he writes about, the Latin Mass, the subjugation to the authority of his abbot, having to hide the fact that he fathered a child? No. I can’t. That’s not my Church. Nor did I experience Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic Church, or Percy’s.

The interesting parallel here is to publishing. Merton worked exclusively with the same editor and publisher throughout his career. I believe the same was true for O’Connor and Percy. That is not the case for most writers today. We move from publisher to publisher, editor to editor, agent to agent. Those relationships of loyalty between publisher and writer no longer exist, so writers have become more adept at being open to new ideas and new outlets. There is no such thing as the kind of literary circles those writers moved in any more. People move around more, change genres, publish online. We shift constantly. And our faith reflects that. We don’t typically attend the same parish cradle to grave, we ask questions, we examine what we believe more critically, and we’re more open to ideas from other religions and spiritual traditions. All of which are good for our writing and our faith. So we have to cast a wider net and not just write about faith for people in the same faith tradition we follow. We need to imagine a secular audience, an interfaith audience, a skeptical audience. If we don’t, we write for people inside of a bubble. And then we do indeed get pigeonholed, and even worse, the bubble starts running out of air, and our work ceases to breathe.

JH: This sounds like Gregory Wolfe’s recent commentary in The Wall Street Journal. With reference to O’Connor’s famous statement, he said that “today, the faith found in literature is more whispered than shouted.” The postmodern West is skeptical of grand narratives and institutions, and so artists are called to present faith in a way that emphasizes its subtlety, fleetingness, and mystery. On his blog, Paul Elie agreed with Wolfe’s analysis of where faith stands today, but then took issue with Wolfe’s suggested tactic. To present faith in literature only as a “still, small whisper,” Elie claimed, misses what’s at the heart of faith: the fullness of religious experience, which requires one to listen to the whisper but then to acknowledge the ultimate Other who’s doing the whispering. It’s this fullness that religious writers are responsible for presenting to the public. Is Elie being realistic here? Is this even the kind of writing that religious writers should produce? And if they did, does a presentation of the “fullest” religious experience stand a chance at capturing a public beyond the choir?

KO: It is incredibly difficult to capture the feeling of a religious experience in words. In fact, my 90-year-old priest recently told me that he has never had anything one would typically describe as a “religious experience”. Interesting, yes? Someone very committed to faith, very loving, very much in service of opening others up to experiences of faith, has lived 50+ years as a priest without the moment that Elie refers to in that blog post as “holding out for the phenomenal.” In Buddhism you have the Buddha, who achieves enlightenment, and then you have what Mahayana Buddhists call the shepherd bodhisattvas, who refuse enlightenment until all sentient beings are enlightened. Perhaps my 90-year-old priest, because he focuses so much on enlightening others, would not pass Elie’s test either?

But let’s look at the examples Elie uses of writers who do capture the epiphanic moment: James Joyce, George Elliott, and Flannery O’Connor. He adds that those writers did not “[fret] overmuch about what the culture supposedly won’t allow us to do.” Rather than blaming culture here (as we live in very different times than Joyce, Elliott, and O’Connor did, culturally), can we not acknowledge that for the average believer, she or he will rarely, if ever, experience the phenomenal in a manner that can be captured in prose? It’s interesting that Elie upholds Joyce as the example of the writer who best captures this experience of epiphany, since Joyce was notoriously critical of Catholicism, and once wrote to his partner Nora Barnacle that by leaving the church behind, he made himself a beggar but [retained] his pride. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of transcendence via religious experience. Joyce, by the way, was educated by Jesuits. I’m a product of Christian Brothers schools myself, but having done my time with the Spiritual Exercises, I imagine Joyce got his doses of AMDG and finding God in all things. But he was pretty fed up with the institutional church in Ireland. So his culture, which would have allowed him and would have even encouraged him to be expressive about religious experience, instead fueled his departure from religion.

I want to mention here a writer I heard who was doing a tour of churches reading from her memoir about a miraculous healing she experienced at a Marian shrine. The story was so dramatic and written with so much piety that it was clear she was only writing for an audience of her fellow Catholics who have Marian devotions and believe in miraculous healing. And I recognize that, for her and for those people, this is a real religious experience. But a friend who was sitting next to me made a good point: There were probably people in that congregation with cancer, or heart disease, who could not afford to travel to this shrine in Europe, and the writer made it clear that unless you went to this specific shrine, you’d never experience the miracles. So, a phenomenal moment? Yes. Something readers outside of Catholicism want to read about? Sorry, but that’s highly unlikely.

You ask if a writer who attempts this maneuver today will find an audience beyond her fellow believers. The answer is: perhaps. But again, let’s think about the reader. If she or he is not religious, will she or he be more willing to accept the writer who depicts God arriving in a whisper or God arriving in an earthquake? I’m guessing the whisper wins. Elie has his ambitions for Catholic writers going for the earthquake instead, and that’s great if they can swing it without falling into cliché (good luck, y’all). But again, we do not live in a Joycean or O’Connorean culture. If the transcendent arrives in our writing, it will be the transcendent of 2014. As to the form that will take in our work, we don’t know until we arrive at it. But if we exclude skeptics, non-believers, doubters and seekers from being a part of that transcendence by insisting on “the phenomenal”, we miss the point of expressing our faith in writing in the first place: to make it a shared thing.


From Searching for Bach, at Killing the Buddha, April 18, 2013

…The problem was that trying to live as a classical musician was like deciding you wanted to be an actor and assuming you could play King Lear even though you were a 15-year-old girl. I didn’t have the discipline. I was sloppy and lazy and no matter how much I tried to practice, there was usually something far more interesting to do, like staring out the window. I became an audience.

There was another story, intertwined but separate, one about God and Catholicism, something else I loved and left behind. And classical music was always about God.

Bach was mostly blind by the time he composed the B Minor Mass. One report says his death just a few years later was brought on by the “unhappy consequences” of an “unfortunate eye operation,” but contemporary scholars mostly believe he had a stroke. His much younger wife Anna Magdalena, who had copied down many of his compositions and had sung professionally throughout their marriage, was left destitute with two of her daughters and a stepdaughter when Bach’s sons quarreled over the estate. She was buried in a pauper’s grave, and the graveyard was destroyed during World War II. Jesu Juva.

I’ve listened to a lot of rock music, a lot of hip hop, country and folk and jazz, a lot of blues and roots and music from around the world. And as a person whose mind loves research and learning, I’ve read up on the lives of musicians and composers, read shelves of books and piles of scholarly and popular articles, and no story has ever made me sadder than the story of Bach and his dead children and destitute, gifted widow. Bach is a father figure to any classical musician, but he’s also a father figure to music itself; without him, we wouldn’t be able to do the things we do on instruments.

I lost my own father when I was still a teenager. I lost father figures who cared about the music I played and the things I wrote. And I lost God. But God came back, even when the fathers could not, and Bach came back, even when my prematurely wrecked hands couldn’t play his music any more. The gift of Bach is the gift of becoming an audience: we are witnesses to the motion of Grace, and finally we are all good enough.


  1. Editor’s Note: This part of our discussion took place in mid-December, 2013