When Port Townsend author Judith Kitchen inherited boxes of family photographs and scrapbooks, they sparked curiosity and speculation. Piecing together her memories with the snapshots, Kitchen’s unusual memoir, Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate, explores the gray areas between the present and the past, family and self, certainty and uncertainty.
Reportersare told to ask and then answer a particular set of questions—who, what, where, when, why and how—and facts are usually presented in that order. The questions raised in Half in Shade are not reportorial, so I’ve decided to reverse the order. Here is my anti-journalistic description of the book’s methods, impulses and underlying questions.
Just jump in, somewhere in the middle. Look at the photograph and begin to wonder, or wander. Look at the edges, or outside the frame. Just jump in, somewhere in the middle of your living, and think about what it all means—these fragments of your history, these lives you haven’t lived, this one you have.
Well, why not? Because each person in the photograph had a living name. Lived a real life. And there must be something in their stories that will connect to mine. Tell me how to live. Because we all are half in shade, our deepest thoughts hidden behind the mask we show the world. Because we want to know—don’t we?—the secrets behind the secrets the photo reveals. Even if we have to make them up.
These pieces roam from continent to continent. When we moved west in 2003, I brought with me a collection of pieces I didn’t quite know what to call. I watched the manuscript fatten with new words: madrona, rain shadow, ferry, orca, peninsula, strait. I looked out my window and found metaphor in those messy, irritable crows, or that army of arrows on the TV screen that spells conversion zone. The Northwest had taken over the book’s present tense.
Well, that was what I wanted to know—who were those people? The ones that I didn’t know. The ones that I did, but not then, not there. My challenge as a writer was not to confirm, but to animate and resurrect. And who was I that I felt so compelled to dredge up their lives and force them to answer my questions?
That’s the underlying question for all books. We want to ferret out their origins, their underlying issues. Without the “else,” a book remains inert. I had been working on Half in Shade over a period of ten years, and the photographs had become my obsession. But what to do with them? These were people caught at the brink of the rest of their lives. It was only when I was confronted with serious illness that the book found its eventual shape and its reason for being. I decided to include three longer pieces exploring the uncertainties we all must learn to live with. Without an image to work from, I had to use another kind of reversal, writing the thousand words a photograph would have taken the place of. Not so surprisingly, my new landscape often served as metaphor:
. . . What does uncertainty look like, I wonder, though I know what it feels like. It feels something like driving a long stretch of Highway 2 across the northeastern part of Montana. A place so bleak and desolate where sky meets land that there seems to be no definition. A place where the meaning of beauty is called into question—then reinforced. A change in the horizon, a ripple of ground that might be canyon or rock formation, a dilapidated shed poking its ribcage into the air, gas station, bar, or billboard, anything at all becomes, for me, something to be added to my list of aesthetic pleasures. And the land itself, like an abstract painting: green against blue, yellow against blue, tan against grey, dark against light. There is absolutely no road I’d rather drive than Route 2, straight into nowhere.
Now, after the fact, I still find myself surprised by my surroundings. Darkness at 4 pm, or light until 10. Today in the fields, horses with blankets on their backs. Horses covered for the cold, when it isn’t even cold. Rain, yes. But nothing like the biting wind or snow that might warrant a blanket. Back east, horses stand nose to the wind, braving the weather. But they also have barns to retreat to. Hay, and water, and the soft shifting of others in their stalls. The car weaves past farms, rounds a curve, and there they are— mountains in the distance. Ten years, and still I find myself amazed at landscape that did not impress itself into the body while the body was ripe for impression. Ten years, and memory-in-the-making still catches me unawares.
Judith Kitchen is the author of three books of essays—Half in Shade (Coffee House, 2012); Distance and Direction (Coffee House, 2001) and Only the Dance (University of South Carolina Press, 1996). She is also the author of a novel, The House on Eccles Road (Graywolf, 2001), and a book of poetry, Perennials (winner of the Anhinga Prize, 1985). She has been awarded two Pushcart Prizes for essays and, for twenty-five years she has served as regular poetry reviewer for The Georgia Review. She lives in Port Townsend, WA and serves on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma.