A product of Catholic schooling from kindergarten through college, Kearns has a B.A. in theology and an MFA in creative writing. On the occasion of her book's release, we discuss with the author such topics as religion, politics and the book's fantastic premise of her book: women take charge of the country.
NBC: Kingdom of Women is being published at an interesting moment in time: when men from every position of power are finally getting called out for their harassment and mistreatment of women. Early in the novel, one of the characters comes across a leering stranger and notes: “There was an endless supply of these old lechers.” Eventually, that character (and many other women) push back.
How do current revelations against public figures change or guide the conversations you want readers to have about your book?
RMK: A lot of us didn’t need convincing, but now, at last, there seems to be general recognition that women are telling the truth about the harassment they’ve experienced. And two things have become clear: how widespread this predatory behavior is, and how damaging it’s been.
My novel’s prologue starts with a situation of harassment on the job. A woman graduate student has refused to sleep with an eminent professor in her field, and now he’s lashing out at her to destroy her academic career before it even starts. She knows that her complaint will go nowhere, that she won’t be believed. Her solution is to try to kill him.
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Even in the novel, the people around her argue against this decision. Readers will probably agree that her response is extreme, plus they’re witnessing a sea change, where harassers, no matter how prominent, are being named, fired from their jobs, brought to trial. It’s a much more civil way to go about things. But among the vast numbers of women saying #MeToo, surely some of us think about the other alternative—violent retaliation—even if only in daydreams.
NBC: How do you see the range of female characters in your novel engaging the contemporary conversations about femininity and feminism?
RMK: As a teenager I deeply resented the expectations placed on me as a woman—to downplay my intellect, to defer to men, to spend time and energy prettifying myself. One of the great gifts of feminism was to validate my feelings and encourage me to resist those pressures. Feminist authors freed me once and for all from even thinking about “femininity,” let alone trying to conform to it.
Late in the novel, during the war to overthrow patriarchy, a character is complaining that if a woman wants sex, then men call her a whore, but if she’s not interested, men call her a tease. She observes that the solution is to “make sure that what men think doesn’t matter.” And of course both [characters] Averil and Catherine have lived their lives like that, feeling no urge at all to be pleasing to men.
You would think that a priest and an assassin would be total opposites, but you’re right that Averil and Catherine complement each other. Averil uses words like “pure” and “perfect” to describe Catherine. She admires how unconflicted Catherine is about her purpose in life, her mission; she envies Catherine’s moral clarity. And even though Catherine is an atheist, she accepts Averil on her own terms rather than seeing her as self-deluded or eccentric or mentally ill.
They seem to represent diametrically opposed answers to the question of how to respond to male violence against women. Catherine’s first line of dialogue in the novel is “I’d slit your throat as soon as look at you,” addressed to a man who’s bullying the woman he’s with. Whereas in Averil’s first scene, she’s trying to convince someone not to retaliate with violence against an abuser. Yet the two women enjoy a deep, lifelong, harmonious friendship.
Which one is right? Is Averil right to forgive, or is Catherine right to kill abusers? I think novels should raise questions rather than offer definitive answers. Plus, I don’t know the answer.
NBC: The book envisions two possibilities: the creation of Erda, after North Dakota secedes from the nation, and Erda’s election of the first black female president in North America. You describe Erda as “a multiracial utopia that had left behind all the things that plagued the U.S.: crime against women, police brutality, racism, extremes of wealth and misery.” But this only sets the stage for a war between men and women.
Why does the impulse persist to imagine a "promised land," as other women of color writers like Toni Morrison have done?
RMK: We imagine them, yet they’re so ill-fated and conflicted, aren’t they? Earthseed is overrun. The Convent is overrun—and it was never much of a utopia to begin with.
When I was a kid, my mother loved to talk about the Puerto Rico she grew up in: life was better there, the people were friendlier, more genuine, the surroundings more beautiful. Pennsylvania was my home, but I also saw it through her eyes—as a foreign place. So I grew up with a sense that there’s somewhere else that’s better than here. Maybe you need that sense to imagine a utopia. The Earthseeds and other promised lands in African American novels may be drawing on a sense of a lost home, a past that can’t be retrieved but was surely better than this.
NBC: The novel defies easy categorization, and that’s part of its appeal—it will invite plenty of debate about where it belongs on the bookshelf. One aspect that’s hard to miss is the motifs of religion and secular cults — our politics and religion will not save us, but women can. Where do we go from here?
RMK: Asking where we go from here is, in part, asking whether there’s reason to hope, whether we should be optimistic or pessimistic about the possibilities of change in the direction of greater social justice.
I tend toward the pessimistic. But then again, why have I even written this novel, if not for some underlying impulse to imagine that things can get better?
We writers can at least contribute to the conversation, encouraging our readers to think more critically about the meaning of justice. Plenty of writers are praised for the beauty of their prose, their observant portrayals of human frailty, etc., but when you read their books you see they never really question the status quo. I can’t get excited by novels like that.