Rediscovering Home: A Conversation with DW McKinney



DW McKinney is the first Shenandoah BIPOC Editorial Fellow in Nonfiction. Interns Anna Hurst and Sophie Kidd emailed with her to discuss her life, her work, and what she is looking for as an editor.


Shenandoah: On your Shenandoah Instagram takeover, you mentioned that the theme for work you were selecting for the spring 2021 issue would be home. Why did you choose this theme, and how have your own imaginings of home influenced your work (“Sunflower, Caretaker” and the excerpt from Beneath the Pepper Trees come to mind)?


DW: I’ve been wrestling with my sense of belonging since 2018, maybe 2017. Moving to Nevada only aggravated that after leaving a state I had lived in for nearly a decade. Then 2020 left me completely unmoored. Thinking about my placement in this country, the world, and doing it all from the confines of my home, has forced me to reconsider what constitutes a “home” and how belonging, or being comfortable, has always fluctuated for me. I chose home as the theme because I wanted to know if anyone else felt as if they were in a constant shifting state as well.

Existing in quarantine—because living doesn’t quite feel like the right word sometimes—has challenged how I regard myself in my own house. I see my home through a more critical eye now. I’ve always been a responsible person, and I’ve always felt connected to nature, but isolation has taught me to value my personal spaces more, and I’ve rekindled my relationship with the earth through my backyard garden. “Sunflower, Caretaker” was an intentional creative attempt to bring myself out of just existing and into thriving despite my circumstances.


Shenandoah: Much of your work is concerned with your identity as a Black woman and family. What attracted you to writing about these themes?


DW: We often write well when we write about what we know intimately. Blackness and familial relationships are concepts most tangible to me. But they are also aspects of my life that I am in constant conversation with. So my essays are conduits for me to have those conversations and to parse related tensions that arise in my day-to-day.


Shenandoah: How did you hear about Shenandoah’s fellowship for BIPOC editors?


DW: Camille Wanliss, who is a lovely writer, founded Galleyway, which is a website dedicated to aggregating opportunities for writers with a specific aim to ensure that diverse voices are aware of them. Wanliss also does an amazing job championing creatives on Galleyway’s Instagram (@galleyway_), which is what attracted me to the account. I saw the fellowship announcement in one of Galleyway’s Instagram stories and immediately applied.


Shenandoah: What are your editorial priorities as the nonfiction fellow?


DW: I’m trying to fight the urge to say something cliché like, “I’m looking for a strong voice.” Yes, I want that, but also I want to read an essay that makes me holler or slap my desk or run downstairs, out the front door, and into the street where I shout about it. Or, you know, maybe something that makes me whisper “yes” as I read it. That’ll do. I also enjoy bold-faced honesty and confrontation of ideas, memories, and histories that we tend to keep hidden. I have a weak spot for language and imagery that’s completely immersive. I tend to savor (and favor) texts that are like beautiful quilts. Not simply ornate, but decorative and intricately woven.


Shenandoah: On your website, you have a huge selection of nonfiction, fiction, articles, and interviews. What is your favorite mode of storytelling and why?


DW: I love oral storytelling. I love telling a good story and listening to one. Hearing a story captivates me in a way that’s different from reading. Does that mean I should be narrating audiobooks instead? I don’t know. Anyway, even though I have written more nonfiction, I think I favor fiction because part of me comes alive in a way that just doesn’t happen when I’m writing essays. It feels like I’m physically kindling an inner flame, feeding it, making my inner magic happy.


Shenandoah: What do you look for when you’re picking out a new book?


DW: I need to be surprised. Like deep in my core, I need a book to rattle me. Most often I find that in fiction where characters have to confront the ugly parts of their nature or delve into realities made uncomfortable by some element, whether realistic, magical, or supernatural. But currently I have been enjoying a few southern writers who do this really well in their memoirs and essay collections, particularly Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.


Shenandoah: Your undergraduate degree is in biology; how did you go from there to becoming a writer?


DW: What a winding road that was! I never imagined that I would be a writer. I have always loved telling stories, reading them, and creating them in my head. I almost never wrote them down. That’s mostly because of an incident that happened in my childhood, but we won’t get into that. But I remember this distinctly: I was in college telling a story to a group of friends in my roommate’s bedroom. Everyone was laughing, hanging onto every word I said. It was a strange moment, realizing my power as a storyteller and seeing joy taking form in real time from what I was saying. After I finished speaking, a friend told me that he loved listening to me tell stories and wished that I could tell every story. I nearly cried. His words pierced deep inside me. Honestly, I think he cracked open something that had been locked up inside me since I was a child. From there, I questioned what I really wanted to do, if I really wanted to be a biologist and if I was doing it because I could, because I was good at it, or if I loved it. From there I went into a doctoral program, left it, got a degree in anthropology, did ethnography recording other people’s stories, and then eventually began focusing on my own.


Shenandoah: What inspired you to start the 3 PANELS column and what is your favorite graphic novel right now?


DW: I wanted a challenge. I started 3 PANELS because I wanted to exercise my writing abilities about a genre that I love but often don’t give myself the time to enjoy in-depth. I also want to author my own graphic novel(s) someday and so reading and reviewing them seems like a logical step to being able to do that in the future. Right now, I’m crazy about Walter Scott’s Wendy series. Last year I read Wendy, Master of Art and I laughed myself delirious while reading it. I also buried my face in shame and cringed many times too. It was like reading about my own graduate school experiences and reading about my own inability to get my life together in my twenties. There were also elements that resonated with me now, as a creative. Scott has two more Wendy books coming out this year, I believe, with Drawn & Quarterly, and I cannot wait to read them and then laugh myself sick.


Shenandoah: You mention your grandfather’s story of the haint in your memoir-in-progress and in “What is the Mythology of Your Loneliness.” How do you experience the haint; do you see it, or is it just a feeling? Do you view the haint as a malevolent force or something more complex like you describe in your article?


DW: I think this is my favorite question to have been asked thus far, ever. And I appreciate how much research you did to do so. Like I mentioned in “What is the Mythology of Your Loneliness?,” some family members don’t believe in the haint and call it just a story. But like any good folktale, the haint is equal parts culture, make-believe, and unexplained experiences. For me, the haint is a feeling, a presence that I cannot dismiss because of odd occurrences I have experienced as a child and later in my teens and twenties, some not haint-related. You can call it imagination or whatever, but I don’t dismiss it outright. That would be foolish.


Shenandoah: This question is more out of personal curiosity, but we read your piece about working for a mysterious millionaire and wanted to know if you think you will ever contact him again.


DW: Good God, no. I have asked myself that question several times, mostly out of my own journalistic curiosity. What would he say after reading my essay? But I would be doing myself a personal disservice interacting with him in any way again. One of the reasons why I quit working for him was because he accused me of stealing from him. As a Black woman being accused of stealing by a powerful, rich white man, I had an internal visceral reaction to his accusations that I do not yet know how to fully describe. It was like feeling the beginning and ending of myself, my creation and destruction, in a second. I would never put myself in that position to feel that again.


Shenandoah: Your short fiction piece, “Mother of 3 Joins Work Force, Burned at the Stake” was really funny while also offering good social commentary. Was there a specific person or incident that inspired this story or just the larger cultural expectation that women should “have it all” and a perfect work-life/family balance?


DW: Wow. What a throwback piece. I go back and forth between wanting to remove that from my writing history or not, so thank you for acknowledging it. Creating that story came out of a confluence of several things. I wrote this when I decided to buckle down and pursue my writing career. It was my first piece of writing that wasn’t for a Crossfit blog or about the best gelato spots in the city or whatever. I imagined that I would write a humor memoir like Laurie Notaro, Angela Nissel, Jenny Lawson, or David Sedaris—people I read religiously at the time. But I wanted to test my hand first and so I decided to try writing a little satire. I had also just started my first full-time job since giving birth to my first child because, despite wanting to be a writer, the bills had to get paid and now there’s diapers to buy too. On top of that, a lot of people kept asking me about being a working mother. They alluded to stress and strain and the implication was that I should be at home and not at work. Then I would read these articles and opinion pieces about mothers needing to stay in the home and that work distracted them from being a good mom. Just tripe. I decided to write “Mother of 3 Joins Work Force, Burned at the Stake” as a way to express my disdain for these beliefs while also dipping my toe in the writing realm. It was a way to prove myself as a writer and a mother. I was claiming a space for myself.