2008 Changemaker: Kathryn Kysar’s “Riding Shotgun”

Feminist anthologist

Kathryn Kysar. Photo by Emma Freeman.

Kathryn Kysar. Photo by Emma Freeman.

It’s not the book Kathryn Kysar intended to produce. When she sent a proposal to Minnesota’s Borealis Books, the nonprofit publishing arm of the Minnesota Historical Society wasn’t so interested in the original idea she pitched, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t want to work with her.

Instead, they proposed that Kysar, a local poet and teacher, put together an anthology of women’s writings about their mothers. And women in Minnesota and elsewhere ought to be glad she did, for the resulting book of essays titled “Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers,” is a breathtaking exploration that runs the gamut from warm and fuzzy to volatile to funny to heart-rending. It is nuanced and in-your-face; it is rich in diversity. It’s a rare look into the lives of 21 very different mothers as seen through the honest and unflinching lens of their daughters.

“I’m so glad that you realized this is a feminist book,” said Kysar over coffee. She said that although she’s been a feminist all of her adult life, she didn’t consciously plan that “Riding Shotgun” would be a feminist anthology; the feminist themes happened naturally, she said, through the honesty of women’s storytelling about their mothers’ lives, experiences and relationships with their daughters.

When she set out to put together the book, Kysar first asked women who were either local to Minnesota or who had a Minnesota tie. It ended up being changed to Midwestern, then expanded nationwide. She was pleasantly surprised that most of the women she asked to contribute said yes. The diversity of the writers and their essays is one of the book’s great strengths; the honesty with which they tell of one of their most primal and important relationships is another (a third would have to be the varied beauty of their prose).

One “Riding Shotgun” contributor is Ka Vang, who writes about her mother’s emigration from Laos. Novelist Shannon Olson writes of how the newspaper clippings her suburban mother sends are her way of telling her daughter that she loves her and thinks of her often. Faith Sullivan writes with gratitude about the grandmother who nurtured and raised her.

There are stories of loss here too-losses experienced and anticipated. Susan Steger Welsh reflects on how her life today is impacted by the too-early loss of her mother. Alison McGhee’s tribute to her mother images her eventual death. There are so many wonderful stories that it is hard not to write about all of them.

Kysar’s book touches on important themes such as class, race, sexual orientation, neglect and more. These examinations of the relationship between mother and daughter give a voice to some who are voiceless, and they are a gift to all of us. It’s one you ought to share with a woman you love.

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“Riding Shotgun” is published by Borealis Press. For more about the author and the book, go to www.kysar.com.