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“I’m a barefoot girl from red-dirt Oklahoma, and all the marble floors in the world will never change that.” That’s the first line in a new novel by award-winning author Kim Barnes. It’s the story of a young woman who leaves the dusty farmlands of 1960s Oklahoma to follow her husband to the oil fields of Saudi Arabia where lucrative work awaits. Like her heroine, Barnes grew up dirt poor and in a conservative Christian home. Her family members left this life for jobs in Saudi Arabia. Drawing on their memories and years of research, Barnes writes of a woman coming of age on an American oil compound in Saudi Arabia. She joins Diane to talk about a woman’s quest for knowledge in a male-dominated world in her new book, “In the Kingdom of Men.”
- Kim Barnes Professor of writing at the University of Idaho, and author of two memoirs and two previous novels, including "A Country Called Home."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. "In the Kingdom of Men" is the story of a young woman who leaves Oklahoma to follow her husband to the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. At her new home on the American compound, she meets women who drink alcohol, wear fancy dresses, and have stylish hairdos. But outside the compound, life is stifling. Author Kim Barnes joins me to talk about her story of a woman's search for independence in a foreign land.
MS. DIANE REHMKim Barnes is the author of two memoirs and two previous novels including "A Country Called Home," which received the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award in fiction. I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850, send us your email to email@example.com, feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, Kim. It's good to have you here.
MS. KIM BARNESIt's a pleasure to be here, Diane.
REHMThanks, Kim. I know that members of your own family went to work for Aramco in Saudi Arabia.
REHMTell us a little about that history.
BARNESMy aunt and uncle in the early '60s, he was a roughneck, for Halliburton actually, and was recruited by Aramco to job out and move to Arabia and the compound of Abqaiq, and they lived there for a couple of years until their two sons were old enough to have to go to boarding school, and they made the decision then to move back to Oklahoma where my family's all from.
REHMSo you talked to them extensively about their life there?
BARNESI didn't. At first, I was raised in the very isolated logging camps of north central Idaho. My father was never a gypo logger, which comes from the words gypsy. And I didn't really know my aunt and uncle because they were living in Oklahoma and then in Arabia. But what I knew came to me at Christmas when they came home for a visit because with them they brought gifts for me, little camel-hide purses embossed with caravans, and little Aladdin slippers with the little turned-up toe, and they were so exotic, and they still smelled like incense.
BARNESThat's really all I knew, along with the fact that their lives had changed in a way that I didn't understand as a girl because they had come into a new class -- economic class via their work.
REHMNew economic class, new understanding of the world...
REHM...everything. How old were you when those little slippers came?
BARNESI was just in grade school.
BARNESAnd really, I didn't have that much contact with them until they retired and moved to the northwest, and this has only been, oh, I think, five or six years ago. And then...
REHMAnd so you had already become a writer.
BARNESI was a writer, and my head had become a head full of story possibilities, and it was one Thanksgiving night when I was helping them out with their casserole dishes from my mother's house, and I started asking them questions. I had never asked them questions, and it just all started dawning on me what an amazing story this must have been. What a life for my aunt, whose life in its way is similar -- was similar to Gin's, except for the large dramatic things that happen in the book, of course.
REHMGin being the central female...
REHM...character in your story. Would you read for us from the very opening of the book?
BARNESI'd be glad to. "January 1, 1970, Rome, Italy. Here is the first thing you need to know about me. I’m a barefoot girl from red-dirt Oklahoma, and all the marble floors in the world will never change that. Here is the second thing. That young woman they pulled from the Arabian shore, her hair tangled with mangrove, my husband didn’t kill her, not the way they say he did. There is so much now that you will want to know that you believe I will be able to tell you. If not, why even begin? Because I can't stop thinking of her, not yet 18, perfectly, immutably silent, just as they wanted her to be.
BARNESIt is the dream of her face shining up from the sea like a watery moon that still haunts me. Not even her mother will speak her name, because among these Roman people whose language flows like a river over rocks, my own name drops heavy as a stone. No husband, no father, no family or tribe to tether me, because I don't know who I am anymore, and have forgotten who it was I meant to be. Let me tell it from the beginning then.
BARNESRemember the truths of my own story so that I might better bear witness to hers, trace the threads to that place where our lives intertwined, one of us birthed to iron steep clay, the other to fallow sand. Each of us brought to this place by men borne of oil."
REHMKim Barnes reading from her new novel. It's titled "In the Kingdom of Men." It's quite dramatic, that opening, because we are immediately aware someone had died, someone is missing, someone is lost.
REHMSo there's a mystery at the center, but there's also this excitement of this young girl born dirt poor...
REHM...who is far more familiar with the soil of Oklahoma than she is with the sands of Saudi Arabia. And you were raised in the soil of Oklahoma.
BARNESMy family, my mother and father, were raised in the soil of Oklahoma. My father's father was a sharecropper with all that brought with it. Very economically marginalized, and -- marginalized in any number of ways, educationally, and my mother was the daughter of a gambler and a grifter, and was left to be raised by her grandmother at an early age. And my mother and father left that life in Oklahoma with its dysfunctions, or what we call now dysfunctions, and moved to the logging camps of north central Idaho in the late '50s to make a better life for themselves.
BARNESAnd that's where I came of age and was raised as a girl. An incredibly isolated environment, living without running water, living without electricity in one-room eight by twenty shacks that we hauled from one logging site to the other. It was in its way idyllic, but it was also incredibly isolated, and I realize now nomadic. And I think that as I began to research the life of the Bedouin, of the badu, I realized how much in my way I had in common with that.
REHMAnd what about schooling for you?
BARNESMm-hmm. It was very -- bussed into school in a very, very small school. I think it was a perfectly good education, but no one in my family had ever gone beyond high school. My mother did not take her high school diploma. She did get her GED later. My father always said that the only reason he graduated from high school is because his basketball coach made it so. But as far as college education, no one in my family had ever really even considered that, and I think there's a way in which I've come to realize that that marginalization and isolation really took a toll on my sense of the world, outside.
REHMAnd when you came of age, was college a possibility?
BARNESNever entered my mind, and of course, one of the reasons for that is with the isolation that I experienced, cultural, physical, you name it, we were also -- my family became deeply involved in Pentecostal fundamentalism, and a particular sect of Pentecostal fundamentalism called Pilgrim Holiness which taught separation from the world and created another kind of isolation. And along with that -- and you can see how the themes that come up in this book are very familiar to me because that particular doctrine taught that women as the daughters of Eve were a danger to themselves and those around them and must be silent and submissive, and we covered -- I mean, it really didn't dawn on me that this is what we were doing until I started researching this book.
BARNESI always knew about abayas and burkas and, you know, the covering, but it never dawned on me that the dictates of my faith, which said that women must not cut their hair because it is their veil of modesty, we covered, if you will, from neck to wrist to neck to calf to be modest. We couldn't wear makeup. We couldn't wear jewelry to draw the attention of men. We were covering.
REHMAnd at some point you decided you had to break away.
BARNESWhen I was really coming of age, at the age of 12, my father, who was a very, very devout man, a man of enormous conviction, and something of a autodidact. He had a curious, inquiring mind which came right up against the doctrine that said knowledge of the world is knowledge of evil. It will mess with your mind. But he was a reader, and so he turned his reading to the Bible, the King James Bible.
REHMAnd we'll talk more about Kim Barnes' new novel, "In the Kingdom of Men" and her fascinating background when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Kim Barnes is with me. She has a brand new novel. It's titled "In the Kingdom of Men" and refers to her primary characters moving to Saudi Arabia to take up positions that offer them some opportunity. The opportunity they could not have in Oklahoma in the dirt fields. But, Kim, before the break you were telling us about your own family history, the fact that your mother and father became very engaged in this Pentecostal movement but at some point there was a turning away. What happened?
BARNESUp until the time I was about 12 everything was fairly idyllic and very close in our family. My...
REHMWas it just you?
BARNESI have a younger brother who is three-and-a-half years younger than I am. But my father had a crisis of faith and began a quest that was quite a serious quest at one point. He isolated himself too fast for 40 days and 40 nights to know the will of God. And what he finally came to understand was that what God was asking him -- and this is what he told me before his death -- was that he must give up the thing he loved the most to prove his devotion to his God.
BARNESAnd what he told me was that more than his wife, more than his children, what he loved more than anything else was the wilderness. Now is what we called the wilderness, what we know as the forested wilderness. And he believed that that was what God asked him to give up and so he did. When he came to that realization we packed up everything we owned in our Chevy and we moved 90 miles south to Lewiston, Idaho where I began junior high. And my life changed dramatically.
BARNESI came out of that isolation into what is a small western city but still it was 1969, 70 and there was sex, drugs, rock and roll, everything I had been isolated from. And my first year I kept myself faithful to the church but my -- I was really only allowed to go to church and go to school and be with family because of the enormous fear of sex, drugs, rock and roll. And I eventually rebelled against that. So by the time I was in 8th grade I ran away from home.
REHMIn 8th grade, which would've put at about 13?
REHMWhere did you run?
BARNESWell, I had a girlfriend -- the -- I was such a freak, if I can say that, where I was -- I mean it's 1970, we have blue eye shadow, we have fishnet stockings, miniskirts. I'm there with my modest skirt, no makeup and I began rolling up my skirt on the way to school and sneaking in makeup, rebelling in small ways. But the other teenagers who befriended me were the ones who were also marginalized. They were from what we called the children's home, the orphanage in town and kids who were already in states of rebellion for other reasons.
BARNESAnd one of those was my -- a close friend whose mother I realize now as a prostitute in fact. And I went to her house first and spent the night, which was an amazing experience because the Johns were coming and going all night. The next morning we were being picked up by an adult man who was going to take us to California. And my father found me before the man arrived.
REHMWhoa. Close call, Kim.
BARNESIt was a close call.
REHMBut you know, what you found was that you could lie in little ways and those little ways you got away with.
REHMAnd the little lies turned into bigger lies.
BARNESAnd betrayals. And this is what Gin McPhee my main character discovers is that when she first -- now she's raised by a Methodist grandfather. And people I think sometimes forget that the Methodist faith is actually what gave rise to Pentecostal fundamentalism. And what we think of the Methodist faith is now quite different from what it was early on. And it was restrictive, just like we think Pentecostal fundamentalism, especially this grandfather. And he...
REHMAnd we should say that Gin's mother and father die and this very controlling grandfather comes in and literally takes her away.
BARNESRight. And Gin, like me, was raised to cover and her grandfather whips her for cutting the sleeves from her blouse, you know, when it's 100 degrees in Oklahoma. And she does learn to lie. She learns to sneak out, which is what I did. I had a basement bedroom and there was a dirt track up to my room window where I would sneak out at night and run around town, very dangerous. You know, I was 13 years old. But it was the only way I felt like I could escape.
REHMSo when your father found you, brought you back home, how did life continue? Did you proceed through junior high and high school? You finished high school but somewhere within Kim Barnes was that seed that says I'm going to write.
REHMWhere did that come from?
BARNESYou know, it's a question I ask myself all the time. I know that my father was a great reader and I can go back and see what a curious mind he had. My mother bought us World Book Encyclopedias and all kinds of children's classics at -- you know, paying $2 a month or something. They knew that somehow education in its way, even inside the doctrine of the church -- against the doctrine of the church, might be one way out. But...
REHMBecause they were educating you about that very world against which they were trying to protect you.
BARNESIt's one of the paradoxes because my father, even though he demanded absolute submission, he didn't really respect you if you gave it to him. So...
REHMGive me an example.
BARNESWell, for instance, when I left home the night of high school graduation. So just backing up just a bit, when I ran away from home and he found me and he brought me home I was punished. I understood...
BARNESHe physically punished me. And I was sent to live with our minister and his family to deprogram me, if you will. And actually I think it was quite lucky because it worked. I ended up coming home after that summer, being isolated with this family -- and that's a story unto itself because they accused me of being demon possessed while I'm there. But I do come home back in the faith. I become very active in the church all through high school, a youth leader in the church, honor student, 4.0. But my father was still the man he was who demanded absolute obedience. And he didn't talk about it. You just obeyed.
BARNESAnd I asked if I could go to a high school graduation party, which was being supervised by the parents. And he said, let me think about it, which he always did. He was a man of enormous thought, thinking. And three days later he came back and he said no. And I said why and he said, you don't ask why. That's what he always said. And I said, what if I go anyway? And he said, you take your things and you never come back. I was 18 by a week and I took my things and I never went back.
BARNESNow he didn't really speak to me for almost two years. He basically shunned me. But what came of that was a different relationship that he respected because I had made up my own mind. I had made my own decision.
REHMWhere was your mother in this discussion?
BARNESWell, she was hurting. Now my mother and father got married when they were 16 and 18 years old by choice. My father moved to the logging camps, he missed his high school sweetheart, he called her and she said, you bet I'll marry you. And she came out to Pierce, Idaho and they were married. She was just a girl and my father outside of the church was an extraordinarily dominating man. And I came out of this incredibly patriarchic culture -- patriarchal culture not just in the faith but in, you know, the rural Oklahoma and you might think of it as almost southern.
BARNESBut my mother had learned to be submissive. She was -- incredibly beautiful woman she is. And when she was young she was tall. Her name's Claudette named after the movie star and she did her own thing. My great grandma used to talk about looking out to the outhouse and seeing the smoke coming up where she was out there sneaking a cigarette. And she'd take off in the old farm pickup and roar off, you know, down the road. She was what we might call a free spirit, a spitfire.
BARNESAnd as she learned and as I learned and as Gin learns, women who operate against the rules will be punished. And my mother inside the church was taught that she must put away her makeup, she must put away her vanity. She must take on modesty and silence and submission, which she did. And that's who she still was when I ran away from home and when I left home the night of high school graduation.
REHMAnd where did you go this time?
BARNESI had scholarships to universities. I had made the decision that I was going to go to college. And it was never talked about but I had applied -- my counselors at the high school had helped me. And when that happened I could no longer pursue my education because I had to find a place to live. And I had to find a means to support myself. So instead of going to university on scholarship I went to work at the little drugstores a pharmaceutical technician.
BARNESAnd that lasted for about two-and-a-half years during which time I fell into a relationship with an abusive man. We'd call him now a sexual predator and that's what my second memoir's about. It's called "Hungry for the World." It's really no surprise, I understand now. I had not been raised to know how to arm myself against men like him.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'd like to talk about Gin and her decision to go with her husband Mason to Saudi Arabia. It seems like an absolutely wonderful opportunity for both of them to get out of poverty. And what they discover is a wealth of everything within this compound. Describe their lives.
BARNESWell, inside the compounds it was like -- it's been described as a miniature Disneyland or an embodiment, a postcard of the American dream. Now it didn't start out this way of course. When these camps -- these American camps, as they were initially called, first started they were just like any other exploration camp. Just, you know, tents and everything like this. But as Aramco needed to draw more and more men and workers into the labor force they did what frontiersmen and pioneering companies have always done. They called the wives in to make it civilized.
BARNESAnd the wives did come and they did begin civilizing and they did need their gardens and their flower gardens and their beauty shops. And they had to have something to do. So what Gin and Mason discover when they arrive at Abqaiq is that outside is this moonscape of an empty desert. Really, I mean, Abqaiq is what we think of as in the middle of nowhere. Dhahran is quite different. But Abqaiq is absolutely isolated.
BARNESAnd -- but once you're inside that gated compound the asphalt streets line out, you've got flowers and verandas and trees...
BARNES...swimming pools, recreation centers...
REHM...tennis courts, everything.
REHMAnd it's a life of luxury within that compound. But Gin is cautioned that life outside that compound is going to be very dangerous and she must be careful. She makes a good friend within the compound. These women are so different from anything she's ever known.
BARNESThat's right. Ruthie Doucet is a woman who's a little bit older than she is. And she's a Jewish woman actually who was schooled in Beirut and is married to Lucky Doucet who's a Cajun roughneck out of the swamplands, out of the oil patch of Louisiana. And she's been there 15 years and Ruthie knows her way around. I love Ruthie. She's a mentor I always wish I had. And so here come Gin who has become pregnant and married at a very young age, but she is an adventurer. And I often save this book in my own story. It's part cautionary tale, part adventure story.
BARNESBut in Ruthie Doucet and in Linda Dalton, she finds her guides into this other world that had been denied her all the time she was growing up. And denied by her poverty as well.
REHMWhat is so interesting to me is that you've created this world that in a sense harkens back to your own world, yet deals with the reality of Aramco's creation. But what I'm not clear about is when and how you first began to write.
BARNESI first began to write -- so as I was growing up in this faith, it was very much understood that a woman's role was in the home. I read all the time, but they were all books by male authors. I never thought about being a writer. I knew I'd be a reader and I wanted to be a teacher. When I was in high school in Lewiston, Idaho, I had some teachers who mentored me. Actually beginning in junior high, I was an above average reader and they saw that. And these -- most of them were older women nearing retirement and they would sneak me books that others were not allowed, "Go Ask Alice." They put me on all the Shakespeare plays and what an amazing thing that was for me.
REHMWhat a wonderful opportunity.
BARNESIt was. And so by the time I was in high school graduating, I was the editor of our literary magazine and was writing poetry. But I hid those poems.
REHMYou hid them.
BARNESThey were dangerous. Not because they contained anything that was dangerous, except emotion observed. And in my family and many families, especially rural families and families that are marginalized, that is often the case. Do not speak what you feel most deeply.
REHMKim Barnes and the novel "In the Kingdom of Men." I'm sure many of you have questions. Do join us, 800-433-8850.
REHMAnd welcome back. Kim Barnes is with me. She's the author of two memoirs, two previous novels including "A Country Called Home" which received the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award in fiction. Her first memoir "In the Wilderness" was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Kim Barnes is a professor of writing at the University of Idaho. And we're talking about her latest novel, it's titled "In the Kingdom of Men." We have many callers 800-433-8850. First, let's turn to Charlottesville, Va. Good morning, Pam, you're on the air.
PAMGood morning, this is Pat Miller.
PAMThank you so much for taking my call.
PAMI have listened to you for over 18 years.
REHMOh, I'm glad. Thank you.
PAMOne of my questions is, to Miss Barnes, is I have a dear friend who in the '50s married an engineer who went -- and the both of them set off and had, you know, were living in poverty too until they went to Aramco. And that's why I was wondering where she got her information for. Because this friend of mine -- she said it was like paradise she said with everything that was available. But she felt like she was a prisoner. 'Cause she couldn't go out of the compound. In fact, when they decided to have a child she came home to the United States to have the child and then went back to Aramco.
PAMBut that's what I wondering why she chose Aramco to make this story and where did she get the information from?
BARNESI chose because my aunt and uncle were living in the compound of Abqaiq and were able to give me insight into their own experience. And you're absolutely right that what I discovered -- and this is Gin's story and this is part of what gives rise to the conflict in the story. Is that inside the compound she seemingly has everything she wants. The problem is that is not what Gin McPhee wants. She wants outside of the compound. She wants adventure. She wants to be a photographer. She wants to see and know what's out there.
BARNESAnd the idea of knowingness is one of the thematic concerns of the book. That the act of knowing for many women, let's say as it was for Eve or Pandora, is in itself the problem of all mankind. Or at least we're often given to understand. So what Gin discovers is that if she's happy enough with her lovely home and her swimming pool and her card games and her hooch that, you know, is made on the kitchen still she might be happy there. But she isn't happy there. She wants out. And once outside the gate she has to be in the company of male relatives, she cannot drive. Everything changes. And it is that exact conflict Pat that you mention that gives rise to the conflict in the book.
REHMTalk about Yash. One of the men in her household who is there really to do absolutely her bidding.
BARNESThat's right. Yash Sharma is her houseboy and when she -- everybody had houseboys. There were drivers, there were gardeners and of course they were all men because only men were allowed to work in this capacity. And what Gin discovers is that Yash, who's older than she is -- he's an educated man, he's Punjabi, he has a lot to teach her and it takes awhile for that to happen. But suddenly she has servants and people waiting on her. She can't even fold her own clothes. He cooks. Not all the houseboys were this way, but he is. And it's a situation she's not comfortable with at first but as Josh says she will learn to enjoy it.
REHMAll right. And to Winter Garden, Fla. Good morning, Sharon.
SHARONHi. Good morning. What an interesting topic. I lived it. I went to Saudi Arabia as a dollar employee. I worked for Aramco in 1978 through 1983 and I watched an incredible transformation from a desert, nomadic existence. And they didn't have electricity in the eastern province until the 70s and I saw fishing villages turn into industrial complexes, Judao. (sp?) I actually got outside the compound quite a bit.
SHARONI was in my 20s and I had a friend who worked for a contractor and we both were curious. So we had many outings outside the compound and inside the compound -- I'll be interested in reading to hear. But there were a lot of unhappy people. And I found that getting out was a really good way to find out what the society was about and I learned quite a bit.
BARNESThat's right. You're making an excellent observation here because what I discovered in my research and talking with Aramcons, which is what they call themselves. The workers for Aramco. Was that there were really two types of people. Those who wanted to be there and those who didn't. And the women, like my aunt, who were curious and loved life and loved adventure were the ones who were often the most happy. And my aunt didn't feel restricted at all.
BARNESShe went out on the ladies limo it was called. You might remember this. And this is set in 1967 so it's a little earlier -- that would take them into, you know, the market towns and that kind of thing. Into Dhahran. But I tried in this book to bring forward all the various aspects of the experience there with the different woman who were happy and unhappy.
REHMWhat about the pay scale for the men?
BARNESDo you mean not just the American men but the Arab laborers?
REHMWell, really primarily for the American men which was part of what took them to Saudi Arabia in the first place.
BARNESWell, as my uncle said -- he was a man of few words but those few words always meant just what they needed to mean. And he said -- and this was all relative of course. But he said, Kimmy, he said, we had more money than we knew what to do with and we didn't have anywhere to spend it.
REHMSo did they take the money they earned and send it home?
BARNESNot really. They didn't, they didn't send it home. They saved it because everything was taken care of by Aramco.
BARNESTheir, you know, their housing, their health care, their food, the children who went to boarding school. It's the best boarding schools in the world. That was subsidized. University for the Aramco brats, as they were called, was subsidized. And really what is fascinating to me is how many of the women would go into say, Khobar, and buy these international, you know, designer clothes.
REHMDesigner clothing, yeah.
BARNESBring them back to the compound and have cocktail parties with this awful, you know, what we would have called white lightning in Oklahoma. And that is how they entertained themselves.
REHMKim, did you go to Saudi Arabia to research the book?
BARNESI -- and I think what Sharon mentioned is very important. I set this book in '67 because we are the cusp of change. There's this push to nationalize. Everything's about to change. We have The Six-Day War, which is going to foment other change. And when I started researching this, and it took me five years to really do the work on this book. I thought I will most certainly be going to Saudi Arabia. Well, of course, I immediately discovered you just don't decide to go to Saudi Arabia.
BARNESYou have to be sponsored. And the more I read about it the more I was having trouble -- who would sponsor me and this kind of thing. But I had a wonderful conversation with another writer named, Selden Edwards, who wrote "The Little Book," which is set in Venice in 1897. And we were at a conference together and he said, Kim, don't go. And he said that Arabia as Sharon says -- 1967 Arabia is gone. And you will not find it there. Learn about it from the people who were there and from what you can. Otherwise what you see now will take the place of what you should know about it.
REHMInteresting. All right. To Little Rock, Ark. Good morning, Pamela.
PAMELAGood morning. Thank you so much. Every word is just so intriguing to me so thank you so much. Anyway, I have very similar lifestyle raised in a very restricted relationship with the church. My grandfather was a preacher. All my uncles were preachers. My mother was my Sunday School teacher. Everything was church, church and more church all the time. And, of course, I did somewhat the similar things -- I was not allowed to go swimming in public. This was in the early 70s, as well. I was not allowed to go to public swimming pools because that was mixed bathing and that was sinful.
PAMELAYeah, and I wasn't allowed to go to the dances because that was sin. So I said I was required to go because I was a cheerleader. Of course I was dancing my tail off. But anyway I also have been writing and I'm so intrigued with how you -- your first work how you got it out there. Was it a book, was it whatever. I'm kind of focusing right now on a screenplay. I've written one and its, you know, it's a work in process and I'm just kind of curious how you got your stuff out there and what was your first major work?
BARNESAnd this is continuing on with the question that Diane had asked. So after I spent a couple of years out of high school I did go back to college. Now it wasn't Harvard where I had applied. But it was Lewis Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho. Very, very small school. And I went in pre-med and then went to pre-law and finally was talked into going into English. And of course that's what I always wanted to do. I had wanted to be an English teacher. And I loved to read and I thought I wanted to teach literature.
BARNESBut what I discovered was the creative writing classes taught by a poet named, Robert Wrigley. And I remembered that what I loved more than anything else was story. And with my instructor's encouragement I began writing poems. And those poems were mostly called "In the Wilderness." They were all autobiographical. And I began publishing them in small magazines. Very small magazines. And then I started writing short stories with titles like "In the Wilderness." Which were also autobiographical about growing up in this place and in this state.
BARNESStarted getting those published in small magazines. It really wasn't until I turned to essays that I found the voice that I needed for that particular story. And, once again, it was the small magazines that began picking up the material. But that led to my awareness -- I actually had an epiphany gardening one day that the soil I was turning over was like memory. That the river that was below me came from the feeding streams of the water that ran by these logging camps and that really I was turning over my own life.
BARNESAnd I literally dropped the shovel.
REHMYou can remember that moment?
BARNESYeah, it was my one epiphany. And I went in and I started writing what would become my first memoir "In the Wilderness." It came to me like a freight train that my own life story had an arc. And from there I worked on my second memoir.
REHMBut how did you find the publisher for that first book?
BARNESI had a friend, Judy Blunt, another writer who has a wonderful book called "Breaking Clean." And her agent at the time agreed to look at my first 30 pages. Took it on. Put it with the amazing editor, Carol Houk Smith, who called me and told me it was beautiful, but a bunch of B.S. And that I needed to realize I wasn't writing poetry and that what I needed to do was start at the beginning and go to the end which I did. And from there that book was sold on proposal.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Oklahoma City. Good morning, Derek. You're on the air.
DEREKGood morning, ladies.
DEREKI have two comments. But actually I agreed with Ms. Barnes' sources about that rot-gut white lightning. They call it sadiqi, which I believe the translation is "my friend."
BARNESThat's exactly right. It was code for -- and it was also called brown and white depending on what it was made out of.
DEREKAnd it didn't taste any better no matter what color.
BARNESOr whether it was first, second or third run.
DEREK(laugh) Anyway, okay. My first comment is for people who may be there. I found it to be a very eye-opening experience and very humbling. I may be one of the few vanilla faces who can understand what discrimination. Because when we left the compound -- she's right -- we had to eat in separate dining rooms, we had to walk in separate stores. Our sisters and mothers had to cover their heads, wear long pants. If we were in our American or ex-patriot dining room as they called it and one Saudi walked in we had to get up and leave.
REHMDerek, what year were you there?
DEREKI was born there in '82, left immediately and came back in '92. Lived there until 2000. And, I'm sorry.
BARNESNo, please go ahead.
DEREKAnd my second comment was for people thinking of going there. Absolutely, you should. But don't wall yourself off on that compound. Diane, you had mentioned that they're living in the lap of luxury. And I was telling your screener, that's true. But after you've been there three years you have done everything there is to do fifty times on that compound.
BARNESExactly. And that's what Gin finds. Now Mason her husband -- he works on the offshore rig and so he gets out.
REHMHe's gone, he's gone for two, three weeks at a time.
BARNESAnd I think, Derek, what's really interesting is you're talking about '82 and '92 and in '67 things were quite different because the American oil families had been given a kind of special dispensation. And the Wahabi were not as prominent then and agreed to kind of stay out of the oil towns. Now this all changed in the early 70s when they began to infiltrate. And we're talking about the Mutaween and the virtue police here. So in the early '60s, the women actually were allowed to go into Khobar, for instance, in what they might wear in Oklahoma City.
BARNESThey were told to dress, you know, modestly but, in fact, it looks like they were in a resort town when you see the photos. And they really didn't have to fear the Mutaween at that time.
REHMKim Barnes. And I wish that this hour would not come to an end. What a fascinating discussion. Kim Barnes, thank you so much for being here.
BARNESIt's been such a pleasure.
REHMHer new novel is titled "In the Kingdom of Men" and it is quite a read. Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm.
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