Talking with Margot Kahn about women and home

This Saturday, a familiar face in Seattle literary circles makes a welcome return to the scene. In 2011, Margot Kahn, who was well-known in the community for her work as a youth creative writing program director at Hugo House, published her first book — an excellent biography titled Horses That Buck: The Story of Champion Bronc Rider Bill Smith. Saturday night at Elliott Bay Book Company, with the help of readers including Claudia Castro Luna, Kate Lebo, and Jane Wong, Kahn introduces her second book, an anthology she co-edited with Kelly McMasters titled This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Kahn talked with me on the phone this week about how the book came to be and what she's been up to in the time between books. The transcript of this interview has been lightly edited.

It’s been a few years since Horses That Buck came out. What have you been up to between then and now?

I've been mostly raising a small human being, and that has occupied a lot of time. I've also been doing some writing for a couple of freelance publications — Edible Seattle and a couple of other places.

How did the idea for this anthology come to you?

As I said, almost seven years ago I had a baby, and I found myself at home more than I thought I would be as a parent.

I don't really know what I was expecting. I guess in part I did expect that I was going to take a brief leave of absence from the Hugo House and then return. And when it was time for me to go back, the House was in a bit of a different place than when I left it. I look back on that and think I probably should have done it, but they were asking me to do even more than what I had been doing when I left and I just didn't feel like I could at that moment in time.

At that time, I don't think anybody at the House had had a baby, and part of what seemed overwhelming to me was, I didn't know where I was going to nurse, and I didn't think anybody was going to get what I was going through, and there were sort of no parameters put into place for someone having a kid, and I just didn't feel like I could advocate for myself and my time in that way.

So anyway, I stayed home and got to thinking. When I was growing up I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. My grandparents had come to this country from Poland as World War II was getting started — they got out at basically the last possible moment. When I was with them when I was younger, I would always ask them to tell me stories about their growing-up years, and they had these wonderful, nostalgic, beautiful, fond memories. But also their stories of home were wrapped up with a lot of pain and they really only talked about home when I asked them to. I always carried that with me, and I really was always trying to understand what that must have been like for them, to leave a place that they loved so dearly to never go back, and to make a whole new life somewhere else.

And then fast-forward to my having a child and thinking about what making a home means — not just for myself but for someone else. And in between there was the general kind of moving about in one's 20s — or many people in their 20s, anyway — where, you know, it's one rental after another and kind of trying to decide where to live.

And then I was settling on a place that I felt good about, while not really totally understanding at the time that I was settling down. And then I was becoming a part of a community and buying a house and putting down roots somewhere, when that somewhere isn't the same place where my family is. At some point, it's like, “oh, wait! What have I done?”

All of those things sort of fed into my thinking about what makes a home. And every other perspective about homes that I read was really informative, and so this idea of an anthology, of a collection of voices of many different people grappling with the same idea, became really interesting to me.

The rule for anthologies is generally to make the theme as specific as possible. But this is a super wide-angle topic that goes in the opposite direction of that rule. But it works! Was it hard to get your contributors to stay on topic, or did people just immediately get what you were what you were going for with the theme?

I think people really did get what we were going for.

Where the work came was in whittling things down. That was really the hardest part. We wound up having a few pieces about moving around a lot, and we didn't want a few pieces about moving around a lot. We wound up getting a couple pieces about living in a very small space, and we had to choose one of them. We had a couple pieces about living in the West and sort of hardscrabble solitude and we had to choose one.

That’s the work I'd say came in in the curation. And we were very committed to having a diverse range of voices in every aspect we could think of, from age and geography and race and ethnicity to subject matter. All the things that we read were pretty amazing, and it was a question of which pieces are hanging together, and which pieces speak to each other.

Who belongs here? Who is welcome? Who is a part of this community?

Was the book always specifically related to women’s perspectives on the home?

It was, but we did grapple with that question. Kelly and I said to ourselves, and each other, "are we losing anything by not having men be a part of this? Are we perpetuating a stereotype that the woman's place is in the home? Are we marginalizing men in some way? Are we creating something that is not taking the dialogue in the direction that we can or should be going?"

Ultimately we what we came to is that traditionally and historically, the home has been seen as the domain of the woman. We wanted to address that — in this day and age, what does that mean for women? And in large part, we've been raised by our mothers and grandmothers — in fact, that is a thread that we saw throughout the book: mothers or grandmothers appear in almost every essay. And women's voices are still statistically not as represented [in publishing], so we wanted to have this place for women's voices to be heard, with [Seal Press,] a press that has been dedicated to publishing women's voices since 1976.

One interesting thing to both me and Kelly is that when we conceived of this book it was three years ago and we were really not thinking so much about politics. We were honestly thinking about own our own personal stories and wanting to hear other personal stories. And then it became a possibility that we were going to have a woman in the White House. It was going to be a whole new ballgame. And then suddenly that was not the case at all.

And so many of those issues come up in this book in some way, shape, or form. This thread of belonging, this sense of safety, and the longing that is at the heart of our assumptions or perceptions or being. That image of what home should be. And that feeling that we're seeking, and all the conversations we're having now on the national political stage, really boil down to the same questions: who belongs here? Who is welcome? Who is made to feel safe? Who is a part of this community?

What’s next for you? Another anthology?

I haven't thought about the next anthology, but I would be psyched to do one. I had so much fun working on this book. I never really thought that anthologies would be something that I would do, but having done it, it's like it's like the best kind of curation project — like organizing the best dinner party ever and inviting the most interesting, awesome people and having this fantastic conversation. So, yeah, I would do an anthology again for sure.

I'm thinking about doing another biography, actually. I said I would never do that again after the first one just because it took so long, and I got so involved in other people's lives, but there is somebody I'm interested in writing about.

And I also have started a novel that’s set in a community garden in Seattle. it’s about community and gentrification and gardening. I don't know if that's really going to happen, but that's sort of a fun side project.