Deborah Wiles proved herself a master of historical fiction with her Sixties trilogy. Now she turns her formidable gaze toward the horrific events at Kent State University when, 50 years ago, the National Guard killed four students protesting the Vietnam War. Kent State is ambitious, elegiac, powerful—and urgently contemporary.
Kent State has a very distinct style. How did you arrive at this form?
I call this form “lineated prose.” It’s a conversation among six voices. In trying to find a way to tell this story, I worked closely with my editor, David Levithan. We had some conversations about “ways of telling,” and a book we’d both loved, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, came to both of us as a way to use disembodied voices to tell the story from afar. David then had the idea to use “collective memory” to tell the story of an event that has so many different angles of truth and myth that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happened and be totally factual.
May 4, 1970, was three days before your 16th birthday. What do you remember of your experience in that moment?
What I remember is kids whispering on the school bus on the way home from school and not knowing what they were talking about but understanding that it was ominous. Then, on the nightly news, there it was, the killing of four Kent State students and the wounding of nine more by the Ohio National Guard. I still remember the hair on the back of my neck standing on end, my throat closing, the skitter across my shoulders, thinking, “How can this happen in America?” and the talk at school for days and days after, trying to process it. We were all just stunned, and so was the country. It changed everything for me in how I looked at the war—and I was an Air Force kid, with a dad who was flying missions to Vietnam, taking supplies over and bringing bodies back. I wanted the war to end as much as those kids at Kent State did.
In your author’s note, you write that any storyteller worth her salt tries to “go there,” if possible. Did you go to Kent State before you decided to write this book, or after? What was it like? How did “going there” inform what you could bring to the page?
This is such a good question. I’d decided to write the book before I went to Kent State. I traveled there three times, and each time was different. The first time I went with my husband, and we met our helpers at the May 4 Visitors Center so they could guide us through the landscape and general history. We participated in the all-night silent vigil on May 3 and the yearly remembrance/observance on May 4. Anyone can go and take part in the vigil and observance each year. There is nothing like being there to give you a sense of the gravity of what happened there, and to know that the country is still grieving, still trying to come to terms with this slaughter. It’s a powerful experience, and it doesn’t leave you.
On subsequent trips, I interviewed survivors and worked in the Special Collections archive at Kent State’s library, which was a rich mother lode of meaningful information for the book, and where I discovered the BUS—Black United Students—and their story, which became an essential part of the book.
Can you discuss your decision to include what you call “faulty memory” in the book?
I grew up living with people who couldn’t or wouldn’t hear me when I tried to reason with them, so I know how helpless that feels and how powerless that renders the person who becomes invisible to others. People get desperate when they feel they have no voice. In this country, we’re in a time where people seem so divided in their worldviews that it’s hard to hear one another. The Kent State story is one where people couldn’t communicate, and where viewpoints about what led to the shootings and why they happened are so diverse and divided and so passionately held that I felt they deserved to be heard. From “They should have killed more of you” from the townies, to “We were just kids” from the students, to “You see a white man holding a gun and you don’t think it’s loaded?” from the Black United Students, to “We didn’t want to be there” from the National Guard. It was mayhem, and yet, taken all together, we have a story of a time and a place, and everyone is heard. They don’t have to agree. They need to be heard.
What gives you hope?
I hope it’s not too corny to say that the American people, as fractured as we appear to be at times, give me hope. At our best—and we are seeing this right now—we know what is most important, for ourselves and for the world. We hold these truths to be self-evident. And we have to be activists for those truths. People out there on the front lines right now, in all walks of life, are heroes. Those staying home and caring for one another are heroes, too. There will be time for other actions. And we will come together, I feel certain.
Author photo © David DeVries