NEA Literature Fellowships

Irene Keliher

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Irene Keliher

Photo by Bret Neuman

(2018 - Prose)

Excerpt from "Wild Backberries"

It is a treasure hunt and a battle, a dance and a game. I search for my quarry in thickets of grass, on crumbling tree stumps, and amidst dense English ivy, which is invasive, or woody salal, which is native and just as tough. On a green July afternoon I walk slowly down the quiet roads of my hometown, scanning the ditches and the underbrush. The Northwest sun filters through the maples and cedars; the air is still. Everyone else is at the beach or the country store for ice cream. I bend down to run my fingers along the bottom of an overgrown laurel hedge. There, a tangle of slim whitish vines. Here, a purple clump half-hidden by leaves.

A woman passes me in jogging clothes. She stops, peering curiously at me and removing her earbuds. I feel exposed and mildly ridiculous; I am knee-deep in brush about five feet off the road, and there is no apparent reason for it.

“What are you doing?” she asks, at last.

“Looking for blackberries,” I say. I peg her as a newcomer, or a visitor from California.

“No!” she exclaims. “Isn’t it early for them?”

“Not these kind,” I say, but I can tell from her too-wide smile that she doesn’t believe me.

“Sounds like fun,” she says, carefully, as she backs away and replaces her headphones.

At the end of a driveway, an angry old man in a red vest comes out to tell me it’s private property. “Just berry-picking,” I stammer, surprised until I see the Tea Party sign on his lawn. Most people in my town lean toward hippie, unless they’ve been around as long as my family has, but even then you can usually assume friendliness. Another newcomer, then.

As a girl I spent countless hours in these woods. I had favorite spots: a damp hollow behind a fallen tree, where I could read or pretend to be a pioneer; a thicket of sword ferns that provided good cover during hide-and-seek; the marsh near my cousins’ house, full of salmonberries and sneaky river otters. Indianola remains small, but then it was even smaller; the trees stretched more or less unbroken from behind my house to the crest of the hill, and beyond that through federal tribal land, all the way down to the north peninsula coast. Seattle lies across the Puget Sound, just close enough to make a long commute there feasible, but growing up, it always seemed worlds away. Indianola belonged to me. It was possible to spend days devoured by its trees, emerging only for snacks. The forest was forgiving, in its impartial way, and it was safe.

Before my parents’ divorce, my father controlled our finances and allotted paltry amounts for the grocery and clothing budget. After the divorce, my mother struggled to keep the house, we did not have health insurance, and there wasn’t room for even the small luxuries we sometimes enjoyed before. The woods were a sanctuary, the berries a gift freely given.

It takes most of a day to gather enough berries for even a single pie. On Loughery Street—the gravel part, just where it bends—I climb up a bank, having spotted a bunch of tiny, wild berries in the mess of ivy. I’m nervous because I’m close to someone’s yard, and there’s a dog barking; these aren’t folks I know. My foot sinks into a rotting log and I fall forward, jerking my ankle. I shake off my foot and inch forward. To pluck the berries free, I must snake my hand between the fine, vicious thorns.

Irene Keliher’s essays and short fiction have appeared in Narrative, The Millions, Salon, Calyx, the Bellingham Review, the New Ohio Review, and elsewhere. She has been the recipient of the Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction, the Potomac Review Fiction Award, and the Pearl Magazine Editor's Prize. A former librettist for the Houston Grand Opera and the Seattle Opera, she holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston and a BA in Spanish from Scripps College. After years of teaching writing in urban schools and community colleges, she now makes a living as an editor in the tech industry. Born and raised in the rural Pacific Northwest, she lives in Seattle with her wife and sons.

I got the call about the NEA on my way to pick up my younger son, running late from work and feeling stressed. When I answered the phone, I burst into tears. It took some time for the news to sink in, and to really imagine a world with more time and space for writing. I kept asking for more details while my son and his three year-old friends milled around me at the preschool’s big wooden gate. I still can’t quite believe it, and I’m thrilled. The NEA will give me the chance to breathe deeper, quite frankly. I’ll be able to take time off from my day job and pay for childcare so that I can declutter my days and focus on the work I most want to be doing.

It has been so hard to fit writing into my life over the last several years, and I have often despaired that I'm not writing “enough,” even though my professional life involves writing. When I left academia and took a full-time office job, I felt like I was leaving behind a piece of the writer life I couldn't get back. I have felt like it's impossible to be a successful writer and a working mom. And yet, and yet. I write, still, because I must. I’d write with or without the award, but the NEA gives me so much more time and freedom for it.

The award is also such an incredible vote of confidence for the deeply personal material about class, trauma, identity, and family I’ve begun to mine in my recent work. In fact, I hesitated to send the essay that I ultimately selected for my submission because it was all about home, with its focus on blackberries and pie, childhood fears, poverty, and the contours of my tiny town. Winning the fellowship for this essay in particular helps me believe in the power of my own voice and the importance of these stories. For so long they seemed off-limits, at once too powerful and frightening, and yet not literary enough. I’m diving in now, and I can’t wait to see where they take me.