Shane McCrae, PULLING THE CHARIOT OF THE SUN: A Memoir of a Kidnapping

Shane McCrae, PULLING THE CHARIOT OF THE SUN: A Memoir of a Kidnapping

Zibby and award-winning poet Shane McCrae discuss his unforgettable memoir Pulling the Chariot of the Sun, which details the harrowing experience of being kidnapped at the age of four from his Black father and raised by his white supremacist grandparents. McCrae delves into the long-term emotional impact of this event and his journey to understand and write about it. McCrae’s narrative is noted to have a poetic quality, which he harnessed to express the often painful memories of his past. Lastly, he shares his best advice for aspiring authors and poets.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Shane. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your memoir, Pulling the Chariot of the Sun: A Memoir of a Kidnapping.

Shane McCrae: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. What a powerful story. Oh, my gosh, my heart just bleeds for you reading some of the things that have happened and your relationship with your grandfather and all of that. Tell me about what it was like writing this book for you, when you decided you wanted to make your life into a book. Just tell me about that whole process, please.

Shane: I probably first started thinking about it when I was in graduate school for the first time getting my MFA for poetry. That would’ve been, possibly, 2002, more likely, 2003, so about twenty years ago. Then I first started seriously writing it maybe ten years ago, or nine or so. I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with the story or how to do it until maybe three or four years ago. That’s when I started writing it in earnest. Maybe three years ago. Writing it, I was surprised to discover that there were times I enjoy writing prose, which is unlikely for me. I, generally speaking, although I like to read it, don’t really like writing it. I surprised myself. There were times when I was falling asleep or just going about my day where a bit of prose would occur to me. I would have to make a note about it, which is extremely unlikely a thing for me to do.

Zibby: Your poetry background shines through in basically every sentence. The way that you write, the way that the sentences are constructed, linked together, the short sections, the longer sections, the narrative itself is quite poetic. Yet the pain seeps through in every line. Can you tell me a little bit more about — or tell listeners, perhaps — the main crux of your story for people who don’t know anything about it and how you were kidnaped by your grandparents and what that meant to you, which you discuss in the book, but when you even acknowledged it was, in fact, a kidnapping.

Shane: My mother and father — my mother for sure and I think my father too — were both teenagers when I was born. Although, if not, my father was in his very early twenties. My mom was eighteen. My mother is white. My father is Black. My maternal grandparents were both racists. When I was three years and nine months — I just discovered this about a week ago, that that’s how old I was when it happened. I just thought it was three, but I didn’t have any sense of what time of year it was. When I was three years old and nine months, my grandfather on my father’s side, so my father’s dad, had just died. My father wanted to take me — I was with him in Salem at the time, Salem, Oregon. He wanted to take me to Phoenix, Arizona, for the funeral. My maternal grandparents, whom my father thought were still living in Salem, my grandmother came by and asked if I could stay with them just for a couple days. I think overnight, actually, was what it was. My father said sure. He let her know that we were going to go out of town. My grandmother took me. It turns out they weren’t living in Salem. They were living in Portland. They took me to Portland. When they didn’t come back and didn’t bring me back the next day, my father was, understandably, confused. They had gone to Portland, as I said, without telling my father where they went.

My mother wouldn’t tell him where they were. Some time later — it’s probably just a few days because they had to plan this all out — they took me to Texas, a suburb of Austin. They didn’t tell my father where I was. He had no further contact. My aunt, his sister, ran into my mother in Salem when I was nine. My mother said, “I’d love for you to be in contact with Shane.” He gave them a phone number, but it was a fake number. I didn’t hear from him again. I found him myself when I was sixteen. He had no idea where I was. That’s what happened. What it meant to me, it’s hard to say. It was my life at the time. I didn’t really know that I had been kidnapped when I was a kid because my grandparents were really invested in me not knowing. One of the things they did was they told me repeatedly, my father didn’t want me. Another thing that they did was they told me that what they did they had done when I was eighteen months old, not almost four. My sense of reality was really undermined, but I didn’t know it. I had no idea what was going on with regard to me being kidnapped or anything like that. I started to become aware of it probably in my late teens or early twenties, but it didn’t really hit me. There was a term I had used in my poetry for years, but it didn’t really hit me until I was writing this book. It was really very, very recent. I’m still not quite sure how to deal with it. It has meant recently, it’s been really devastating personally. That’s something I wish I could’ve dealt with years ago. That’s what happened.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What has been the effect of this realization in the last couple years? What would have happened differently had you confronted it, when you say you wish you had known years ago?

Shane: In so far as, I don’t have a therapist. I haven’t had one for about twenty years or so. Longer than that, actually. Maybe thirty years, almost. If I had really confronted it or even really been deeply aware of it thirty years ago, I would’ve had somebody, a medical professional, to talk to about it. It’s not as if I cannot connect with a therapist now. I suppose I could, but I would’ve had an environment sort of ready-made for me to deal with, to talk with folks, etc. As it is now, it’s just something that it feels like I kind of need to deal with on my own. I am trying to deal with it on my own. I’ve spent a lifetime not really thinking about it. Certainly, since I became conscious of it — at some level, even as a child, I was aware of it. Since I became conscious of it, I’ve still been not really thinking about it. What it has meant is when I’m thinking about it, when I was writing the memoir and this time, the memoir’s release, it’s sort of hard to do other things, very hard to write poems. Writing poems makes me extremely happy. It’s very difficult to do much of anything other than, well, nothing, sit around and not do things. I’m trying to figure out how to integrate an awareness of this into my life in a healthy way so that I can live with the constant presence of this fact of the kidnapping — the book is kind of manifestation of that — but also live my life in an ordinary way that is happy.

Zibby: Wow. I referenced this earlier, but just the many, many times you talked about your grandfather beating you, it was almost like a poetic refrain, honestly, at the end of many chapters. Then my grandfather beat me for this and then for this and the dogs and this and that. Two things. One is, did you think about writing scenes of what that actually looked and felt like, or was this a way of coping, to sort of summarize it in that way? Did you think about going more in depth each time into what happened? You know what I mean?

Shane: Sure. Since I don’t remember what it looked and felt like, I couldn’t really write it. All I could do was write from the position of not remembering the specific events. As I talk about in the book a little bit, or a lot — the whole book is written in such a way as to make this a felt experience for the reader. Since I was very little, I’ve been blocking out painful memories. Probably, this started when I was kidnapped, but it’s hard to say. Apparently, my tools for doing this, my mechanism is extremely effective. I remember so little from my childhood. I don’t remember these events with my grandfather really at all. I almost don’t remember him. The only real way to talk about it that I could figure out was to write about not remembering it, which is what I did.

Zibby: What has been the response within your family about the book?

Shane: I don’t know. My father read it. He seems to have thought it was a good book. My mother, she just got it. I don’t know if she’s read it yet. Those would be the concerned parties, I suppose. My grandparents are dead. I don’t really know what they think, other than my dad thinks it’s good. I don’t know what my mother thinks.

Zibby: Aside from writing poetry, where else do you find joy in your life these days?

Shane: My own family, my children, my wife Melissa. I like playing video games. I like reading. I would say those are the main things.

Zibby: What’s your go-to video game? I’m well-versed in the video game world kids.

Shane: I should probably say that Skyrim is my go-to video game in so far as it’s the one that, playing it for ten years or whatever, it really got me into contemporary video games. There was a lacuna where I didn’t play them for years. I played that game more than I ever played any game in my entire life, and so I suppose that’s the one. I’m not playing it today. I might play it tomorrow. I guess that would be it.

Zibby: Interesting. How do you come to terms with the way you were raised when you’re raising your own kids? Do you parent with a sense of intention every day? How has it affected your parenting?

Shane: I have no idea. I don’t know that it would be possible to parent that way, but I suppose — when you’re parenting, at least for me — I shouldn’t speak for anybody else. When I’m parenting — I don’t know what it’s like for anybody else. I’m never sitting around thinking, my childhood was like this, so I’m going to do that. You are sort of responding to whatever it is that’s going on when it’s going on. There’s a way in which — a way in which, I fall back on that phrase all the time. I don’t even know if it has a lot of meaning for me. Because the central events of my childhood, at least the central negative events, were so extreme, there isn’t really a way for me to replicate them. The kidnaping is the central thing. I can’t imagine how that would come up. It’s not really a part of anything with regard to parenting. I don’t know. I just try to parent as well as I can and learn from my mistakes, basically.

Zibby: What types of books do you like to read? You mentioned you like reading prose even though you prefer to write poetry. What kinds of books? What are you reading now? What books do you love?

Shane: I don’t like reading prose that much. I used to read a lot of fiction. I used to read a lot of nonfiction. I really prefer to read poetry. I read the Bible every day. I do read literary criticism a good amount. Honestly, it may be that literary criticism is the prose that I’m reading these days. I need to change that, but I’m not — prose-wise, literary criticism and the Bible are what I’m doing.

Zibby: Who are some of your favorite poets?

Shane: Sylvia Plath was the reason I started writing, and so she’s sort of a permanent favorite even though I don’t necessarily read her all that much at the moment. Patricia Smith is an exciting poet. Louise Glück, for a long time, I thought of as my favorite poet of all time. That might still be the case. Robert Lowell and Geoffrey Hill are two poets who I like a lot. Sandra Lim is a poet I like a lot. Let me think. William Empson is a poet I like a lot. It’s an unending list.

Zibby: What do you want readers to take away from this book? Why share your experience? What do you want all of us to know, to feel, to think?

Shane: Nothing in particular. There’s a story at the center of the book that is an extreme story. I understand that people are going to be interested in the book — many of them will be interested in it for how shocking the story is. What I was interested in when I was writing the book was the writing itself. What I care about is technique. It sounds maybe almost a little offensive. I don’t mean it to. To the extent that my abilities, such as they are, would allow me to, I wanted to make a beautiful book. If, despite what’s being said in the book, despite the content, if a reader finds any part of it beautiful, that would be gratifying. The story was something that would allow me to do writing. What I care about is the writing itself.

Zibby: It is absolutely beautiful. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors or poets?

Shane: I do, but it’s probably the advice that they’ve already heard. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t hear it again, which is that they should read as much as they possibly can. They should study. They should study poetry seriously. They should take apart poems they read. They should figure out how poets do it. They should learn meter and rhyme even if they’re not going to write meter and rhyme. They should get a real serious knowledge of the thing that they’re devoting their life to if they’re really devoting their life to it. They should be experts. Study and read.

Zibby: Wonderful. Shane, thank you so much. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” What a feat, this beautiful book. Congratulations.

Shane: Thank you for having me. Thank you again.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

PULLING THE CHARIOT OF THE SUN: A Memoir of a Kidnapping by Shane McCrae

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