The Pirate Tree’s own E.M. Kokie has a new book out (ta-da!) so we wanted to celebrate it here. Radical–the story of one girl finding and losing her identity in a radical community of survivalists–is one of those books that you have to love. It will probably make you uncomfortable….and discomfort can be a good thing. Radical raises valid questions about guns, violence, sexuality, the Second Amendment, loyalty, family, American subcultures, and the law. (Perhaps only a lawyer like E.M. could have written the book in quite this way.) I enjoyed reading it very much so I asked E.M. to answer a few questions.
The Pirate Tree: I’m sure you’ve been asked how this story idea occurred to you a million times already, so instead, I’m going to ask, Why guns? What did you already know (or had experienced) about guns when you started this story and what have you since learned? And what did you do to research Bex’s lifestyle, beliefs, and the kind of people that populate her world?
E.M. Kokie: I started writing Radical about four years ago. The news was saturated with guns – shootings, political posturing, anti-gun and open carry activists. I’m a lawyer, so when something confuses or worries me, my instinct is to research. I wanted to better understand our country’s obsession with guns, and the subcultures that coalesce around guns – preppers, survivalists, private militias, politically motivated second amendment activists. I wanted to better understand the people who make up these movements. Too often we dismiss the “other side” on issues we feel strongly about, and I wanted to get beyond the wide brush strokes and assumptions.
The initial spark for Radical was a news story about a home-grown, Christian-influenced, anti-government group. They were alleged to have hatched a plan to incite armed revolt against the United States and various State and local governments. They called themselves a Militia, but it was a small, insular group. I stared at the mugshot of the youngest arrested member. He was still a teen; barely an adult. His pimply face haunted me. I wondered when a teenager becomes responsible for his actions if he has been indoctrinated, in his own home, since childhood.
What followed the initial spark was several years of research – into guns, the various movements that surround guns, the politics, the legalities. I started with online research, articles, news reports, and cases. Then more personal stories, blogs and forums and videos. For the gun research I had to get hands on, actually holding, shooting, and cleaning guns. I got a little taste of the obligations of responsible gun ownership, of the maintenance they take, and a little better understanding of how shooting can be fun and competitive for some. And I had to seek out experts.
Even after I was several drafts into working on the story, I had to keep tweaking the plot and the characters and the details as I discovered new information or learned one of my premises was inaccurate.
The Pirate Tree: Speaking of the Second Amendment, this is the one constitutional right that many liberals, in particular, feel uncomfortable about. Have you revised or expanded your ideas and beliefs about guns, society, and the Second Amendment as a result of writing this story? Why or why not?
E.M. Kokie: My feelings about guns and the constitutional questions surrounding them were complicated before writing Radical. They are even more complicated now. I’d never touched a gun before the research for Radical. I never thought I would touch a gun. Shooting several different guns didn’t make me any less certain that guns are dangerous, but I surprisingly didn’t hate the experience. There was a thrill in it. I could see how being or becoming proficient with firearms could be exciting and instill a sense of accomplishment, how shooting could be fun. I’m competitive. About pretty much everything. I could easily see that for those who grew up with guns, or who regularly went shooting, they might also get competitive, or want more and better weapons. And I gained a lot of insights in the familial and social culture of responsible, reasonable gun owners. The personal beliefs that fuel not only their ownership of guns, but the place guns have in their lives. More than one woman told me that, for them, gun ownership is a feminist issue. It was eye opening to get to the personal level.
The research did nothing to make me personally less concerned with how many guns there are in this country, or how easy they are to acquire – especially how easy it is to get an assault rifle. But I did gain insights into the “other side.”
The same research that helped me understand Bex’s fears and anxieties, and helped me understand her obsession with survivalist training, also helped me to better understand why so many gun owners fear any kind of regulation. For some it’s a regional or cultural belief in the absolutism of the right to own guns. And for many in the subcultures that most interested me, well, they already fear and don’t trust the government. Some want to be ready to act as a militia against a foreign force or domestic conflict. Some want to be able to defend themselves in a grid-down scenario. But some think there is a very real possibility that they might have to defend themselves and the people they love against their own government, maybe even a military state formed in part from militarized police forces. And the current law enforcement and political climate isn’t helping to diffuse those fears. They are predisposed to be distrustful of our government, and, therefore, to easily believe the argument that any regulation will inevitably lead to complete criminalization.
It obscures the issue and weakens any arguments for increased regulation of firearms to paint all gun owners, even avid gun owners, with the same broad strokes. There are many responsible, reasonable, rational gun owners, for whom guns are a part of their family and social traditions. For whom guns are sport, or a means to feed their families, and even entertainment. And many of them wouldn’t want to own an assault rifle, but still they fear regulation. So, while the research for Radical only intensified my fears about the prevalence and easy access to guns, it also helped me to better understand why the pervasive fears and anxieties that are feeding movements like the survivalist and private militia movements are also feeding resistance to firearm regulation.
The Pirate Tree: One of the things you explore in this novel is the idea that some people’s identity can’t really be stuffed into a single narrative or single world-view, that they don’t experience a unified way of understanding the world, at least, not in the way other people define it. I am often reminded of this whenever I encounter a reference to the group of women who identify as “pro-life feminists.” In your case, you have a main character who is a lesbian but also subscribes to a belief system about the world that is usually extremely anti-gay, the world of survivalists and conspiracy theorists who believe the world is about to end. What would you tell teenagers who are trying to reconcile disparate parts of themselves, or parts of themselves that other people tell them can’t be or shouldn’t be reconciled?
E.M. Kokie: I’d tell them that they don’t have to have all of the answers right now. If they are struggling to reconcile what they feel compared to what others tell them to feel or be, then give themselves time to figure out for themselves what is “right.” They might find ways to harmonize all those disparate parts, or they might find that they will outgrow some parts that just don’t fit. But they don’t necessarily have to make that decision right now. The important thing to remember is that they will have the right to decide for themselves, when they are ready.
The Pirate Tree: Your main character, Bex, experiences a radical shifting of her world view in the course of the novel, in particular because nobody from her support system actually supports her. This betrayal causes her to reassess her understanding of everything she’s previously believed in. Though most teens don’t experience quite the radical shift that Bex experiences, or the betrayal, most do question the assumptions, values, and beliefs that their parents hold dear. What thoughts do you have for teens as they go through this process?
E.M. Kokie: Yeah, Bex’s world is rocked hard, and it forces her to reconsider many of the things she thought were true. And it makes her consider what loyalty really means. From page one she is asking herself whether it is okay to save herself, if she has to. I hope readers think about both Bex’s assumptions and her decisions. I hope they consider what they might have done if confronted with similar challenges – maybe not in terms of the factual context, but the emotional ones.
Parents, and other adults, are people. People are fallible. They make mistakes. They are sometimes wrong. They sometimes give bad advice. And even when they love you or have the best of intentions, they can make decisions that affect you for the worse. Sometimes their own needs make them blind to yours. Sometimes they aren’t valuing you at all. Sometimes they hurt you, intentionally or unintentionally. As teens begin to make their own decisions and be more independent, parents and adults can worry. Sometimes those worries are justified, because they have lived longer and their brains are adult brains, and so pausing to consider the consequences is not a bad idea. But sometimes the worries are born out of fear of things they don’t understand or that are in conflict with their religious or cultural beliefs. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t love you. But as we grow up, we might find we are becoming people who don’t believe the same things as our families. That’s okay. But while you are a teen and dependent on them, it’s also okay to make decisions that keep you safe, financially and emotionally. It’s okay to love them, even when they make you angry or hurt.
Teens – especially queer teens, girls, and teens of color – can be bombarded with negative messages about their own value and worth that can get into their heads and hearts. If an adult is hurting you, or putting you in danger, tell someone. Find an organization or trusted adult and ask for help. You do not deserve to live in fear or pain.
But if it’s a matter of comfort, then you have to decide what you need – to be safe, to be taken care of financially and emotionally, and to be happy. I am a firm believer that coming out and living your true self is very important in the long run. But I also think we sometimes make teens feel like they are lying or cowardly if they aren’t ready to share who they are with the world. It’s okay to wait if you are not ready or if coming out would put you in danger.
And, ultimately, it’s okay to save yourself. Too many girls especially grow up with an ingrained sense of self-sacrifice. They need to know that it’s okay to survive, to ask for and demand what they need to thrive. It’s okay to save themselves if confronted with a situation in which they are being asked to sacrifice themselves for someone else.
The Pirate Tree: What would you like to say to readers or potential readers of Radical?
E.M. Kokie: I tend to let readers find their own ways into and through a story. I hope they enjoy it, that they find it a satisfying read. I know Radical asks more questions than it answers, but I hope those questions are intriguing ones. I know Radical might be a hard sell to some readers – some might be turned off by even the mention of guns, others by the lesbian relationship – but I hope they will give it a try.
The Pirate Tree: What are you reading right now or, rather, what is on your nightstand/bookshelf waiting to be read?
E.M. Kokie: I always have several TBR piles going, and a long list of books I’m really excited to read. Many of my current intended reads are queer books out this fall (check out the #FallLGBTQ hashtag on Twitter!).
Right now I am reading Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard and loving it. Like Radical, it also involves a butch queer girl, but one who is very different than Bex. And it has a lot to chew on in terms of being a bystander to bad behavior, and about when loyalty to a friend isn’t the most important thing.