Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Rebecca Beardsall, author of The Unfurling Frond: A Memoir of Belonging and Becoming.
FQ: It was an absolute joy to read The Unfurling Frond: A Memoir of Belonging and Becoming. I would like to begin by saying thank you and start out with a question or two about you. You have literally spanned the globe in the places you have lived (Pennsylvania, Scotland, Canada, Montana, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Bellingham, Washington). While the crux of your memoir focuses on New Zealand, please tell me something that stands out for you during your time in the other reaches of the world where you have lived.
BEARDSALL: I love Bellingham, Washington. It is like an oasis where I can be who I am without fear of judgment, and it is beautiful with the Salish Sea to the west and the Cascade mountain range to the east. Water and mountains and all the wonderful places in between. I particularly love all the walking trails around the city.
Last week, I thought about how lucky I’ve been to live in Montana, Scotland, and Canada. So many memories, like waking up to the sound of something chewing outside my bedroom in Montana, and when I looked out my window, there were six cows having a snack in our backyard. It was open range season, and it was my first time experiencing cohabitation with livestock roaming freely.
Bucks County in Pennsylvania is where I am rooted and where my ancestors reside, so it holds a special place for me, but I am not an East Coast girl, and I’m thrilled I no longer have to live in a place with poison ivy and humidity (ha!). But seeing the old stone homes and wandering about the not-so-little-now town that I grew up in always brings moments of peace. It is usually food I miss the most from home – like Pennsylvania-German specialties: funny cake, sticky buns, pumpernickel bread, soft pretzels, well pretzels in general – I love to tell my friends out here on the West Coast that in Pennsylvania, we have a whole grocery store aisle for pretzels (not pretzels mixed in with chips and other snacks – just pretzels).
One of my random memories in Scotland includes the afternoon my friend Jenny and I were walking back to work after grabbing some salt and vinegar chips (French fries). I believe I was the person holding the paper-wrapped bundle between us as we dipped our fingers into the gloriously salty and soggy chips, when some guy walking by put his hand into our chippy bag and took some, shouting a “thanks” as he walked on by. I was too shocked to even respond.
FQ: Your bio also notes that you are the nonfiction editor at Minerva Rising Press. If you had to impart words of advice on the art of writing nonfiction, what would that be, and why would you suggest that as key to their writing process?
BEARDSALL: Sadly, I recently resigned from Minerva Rising Press as their creative nonfiction editor to focus on my new work of offering creative writing MFA-like/Graduate level seminars for writers. Working for Minerva was an amazing experience, and I am so honored to have had the opportunity to work with such talented editors and writers like the memoir award winners I worked closely with, Janice Airhart and Jennifer Rieger.
With all writing, finding the genre that works for the story you want to tell is important. I was recently telling my students that I thought I was going to be a fiction writer, but I swiftly realized that was not my place – it couldn’t hold the story I needed to tell. I often bridge the space between poetry and creative nonfiction, but for me, the real delight is in form and technique. Our lives are layers and layers of story, and for me, creative nonfiction is my place to explore those layers. My best advice is to try all the genres, don’t lock yourself in, and let the story you need to tell direct you.
And read...read wide and deep in all the genres. That is one of the reasons I started offering courses to help students dive deep into texts, study the methodologies, and learn to read like a writer. I wanted to offer the same rigor of attending an MFA graduate course without all the stress of grades and a degree program.
FQ: You cite a myriad of works as sources (and references) in your book. I am a huge fan of Lewis Carroll and noticed you quoted him often. I don’t think I’m being presumptuous in stating it would appear you are quite a fan as well. Who is your favorite character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (and why this character)?
BEARDSALL: It was a necklace that prompted me to read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland a couple of years ago. Prior to that, my exposure to the story was indirect through theatre, ballet, and films. The story has been told repeatedly in multiple genres, but only in the reading did I see the connection to settler colonialism.
As for characters, I am partial to the Cheshire Cat (and the Rabbit). As a child, and even today, I am drawn to animals. I have a sweet little bunny living in my lavender that I check on daily. And I have a real Cheshire cat in my house; the storybook cat was based on the look and grin of the British Shorthair cat breed. Myla is my second British Shorthair after our first British Shorthair, Myrtle, died in 2020 at the age of fourteen. A cat with big fluffy cheeks, a stocky build, and a smile, what is more fabulous than that?!
FQ: I was intrigued about the vibrations and (voices) that you sense. In your opinion, do you think there is a connection between meditation and how to open the channels to our inner self to awaken what the naked eye may never see (or the ears may never hear)?
BEARDSALL: I don’t really practice meditation. I have from time to time, but it is not how I really get connected. It was only recently that I returned to prayer as my form of meditation. I was taught as a child to pray, and in some way, I always kept the practice but didn’t initially connect it to the way others use meditation. Prayer for me is a release of self and a conversation – it is no longer the space of pleading and asking for forgiveness like it was when I was a child. I see them as reaching the same goal but through a different methodology, which seems so fitting for the person I am – taking what is known and recreating it in a new way for a new purpose. I also walk a lot, and that is often when I get in the zone of connection.
The big thing for me is to not be afraid or scared and to know that I am protected. I’ve wavered between the space of wanting to grow my skills to wanting to forget about them completely. However, a spiritual gift is a gift, and we have a choice to accept or reject it. I have finally accepted it.
FQ: You write many compelling insights throughout the book, but one that gave me goosebumps was: "...Alice has a cat as her guide, but it is always appearing and disappearing—a hint to spiritual gifts and the role of God/Spirit in my life. I’d say the most haunting aspect that resonates with me is the waking up in ‘home’ and realizing the work of continuing to understand self and place remains..." Elaborate on this further, please. This is very powerful.
BEARDSALL: The way a place sits inside you even when you are not there, and it can rejoin you at a moment's notice. In the book, I talk about that happening to me in Oahu. I can’t even really explain the strangeness of that moment. It was as if I was transported in time and place back to Auckland circa 1998. And when I looked up, I couldn’t understand where I was and why my room no longer looked like my room. I was in a hotel, not our apartment. It was seconds, but it felt like hours. I never quite know how those moments happen, but I know they do when I allow space for them to happen. I can feel and know I am in one place, but the reality is I am in another.
So, when struggling to think about belonging and can we really belong to a place, it haunts me that I can wrestle with that concept of “can I belong,” but at the same time, I can feel the place within me. And maybe that is Aotearoa and the spirit that resides there. And if that is the case, I feel blessed and honored to have it rejoin me and remind me that I, too, in my own way, am part of its story. The last line in that paragraph is: “To belong while always knowing belonging is impossible.” It is a haunting and a blessing.
FQ: In your acknowledgments, I applaud you for giving a shout-out to the STWP Literary Awards Program for the best compliment - "We loved the strange coolness of this manuscript...” There is a lot of ‘strange coolness’ to this body of work. There is an inherent undertone of spiritual connection and I wonder what other positive feedback you have received because of the mechanics of the storyline.
BEARDSALL: Strange coolness was like music to my heart. I’ve always pushed against the norm while still trying to maintain a sense of belonging, so those two words encapsulated the two – strange (my original self) and coolness (being part of the world).
People have commented on the weaving of poetry, flash nonfiction, essays, and, of course, the use of photos.
I decided to use the hermit crab method, a lyric essay technique named by my MFA professors Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in their book Tell it Slant. The hermit crab essay borrows a form to tell the story, and it did this in The Unfurling Frond using a memo to myself. Most of the people I’ve talked to about the book comment on the powerful use of the form and that it was a surprising method. I went with the memo, originally designed on the concept of the Microsoft Word template style, because it was something we used a lot in the mid-90s when the use of email was still in its infancy.
FQ: I enjoyed your scene about the tea party Alice joins uninvited. While they all (The March Hare, Dormouse, and Hatter) tell her there is no room at the tea party, she sits down anyway. Yet, it is the Hare that states: "It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited." Have you ever been in a situation where everyone feels the same way, but you’re the only one that actually says something out loud? What were the circumstances, and how was it received when you spoke up?
BEARDSALL: I am laughing not because of the question but because of the real examples that come to mind. I am often the person people turn to when the room gets awkward. I’ll hear the whispers, “Oh no,” “Rebecca, do something.” And in those moments, I do what I do best, offer a practical thing to do. Provide a call to action...like saying, “Well, thank you, everyone. That was great. Please help yourselves to some refreshments.” Or “Okay, well now it is time for a picture. Everyone outside.” It is quite odd that I have become this person in social gatherings when I would classify myself as socially awkward, but I know how to manage a situation and read the energy in a room.
FQ: On one of your later visits to New Zealand, you talk about your journey to the north ends in Auckland, but your trip continued to visit your husband’s brother, who lives in Urenui Taranaki region. Your reference the word ‘pa’ "...The Battle of Te Motu-Nui took place in the land between Okoki pa and the ocean..." I don’t understand what the word ‘pa’ means. Could you please enlighten me?
BEARDSALL: Pā refers to a Māori village or fortified settlement. Most were on raised ground utilizing the volcanic terrain of Aotearoa New Zealand. I am glad that you asked because I purposely decided not to translate te reo Māori into English in a few places in the book. Aotearoa New Zealand's two official languages are Māori and New Zealand Sign Language, and English is the de facto language. As a writer using other languages besides English, we are asked to translate it or provide a glossary; I don’t think that is necessary. It is especially not necessary in the Google world we live in. I’d much rather someone look up the word pā and go down a rabbit hole of learning than be simply fed the answer. We live in an amazing world with many people, cultures, and languages. Why not celebrate that and delight in the ways that we can share a conversation?
FQ: If you were asked to teach a class on past, present, and future, where would you place the most focus? I ask because you allude to the importance of past and future (and the circular motion of history coming around and will eventually meet with the future). Where does the present fit in? No disrespect intended, I’m just curious how you would map out a class on this subject matter.
BEARDSALL: I believe the present is the meeting of the past and future. The past is ahead of us, guiding us, and it keeps us grounded in the present. You can’t have a future without the past and present. The difference in the spiral understanding of time is that the emphasis is not on the future, which is inevitable, but on the learning, connecting, and understanding of self in the present and in the past. We are layers of time, not a single moment in time.
I have always had a different way of looking at time, and learning about the spiral of time gave me a theory and terminology to use. I’ve often received weird looks when I try to explain my understanding of time, but the only way people can really move into the space is to release the concept of time as linear. You remove the line from point A to point B, and now past, present, and future no longer have a specific place to be, and they can move to where we need them, not how we understand them. The spiral is a symbol of how time moves in and out simultaneously. The fern is often used to represent this, which is why I went with the book title The Unfurling Frond to represent the way time has moved through my life.
FQ: I want to thank you again for the privilege and honor to chat with you today. In my opinion, you have gifted the reading world with a body of work that is a tremendous source of guidance and introspection. Please tell me if you are working on your next book, and if so, are you able to share what your next writing adventure entails?
BEARDSALL: Thank you so much. The honor is all mine. I am delighted that you enjoyed the book and that it resonated with you. I have another book manuscript completed about my brother, who is mentioned in The Unfurling Frond. He died at the age of twenty-five in a farming accident when I was nineteen, and that moment altered my life, which I go into more detail about in the book. That manuscript is “resting,” as I like to call it. I had a few beta readers and a copyeditor go through the manuscript, so I know it is in a pretty good spot, but in the resting, I let it go to just be. I will return to it maybe sometime next year to see if there is anything else I need to add or remove. The editing process is just that...a process.
As for my next book/project that I am starting, I have some theories about the Little Red Riding Hood narrative...my famous last words before an obsession takes over. The layers, multiple versions, and the notion of the journey from mother to grandmother intrigue me. I believe it is time for me to step into the forest with the young girl in red and see where the narrative takes me.