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Richmond Novelist Kelly Kerney Brings American-Guatemalan History to Life



Kelly Kerney’s describes her first book, “Born Again,” as a sort of trial run.

“I always wanted to write about Guatemala, but I didn’t know how to write books,” she says. “I needed to learn that first, so I could write the book I needed to write.”

Her 2006 book, “Born Again” — about a young, Midwestern girl struggling against her Christian upbringing — required less research for the Ohio-born author, who was raised as a strict Pentecostal Christian.

Now with “Hard Red Spring,” readers have her decade-long passion project, a multigenerational story of America’s involvement in Guatemalan politics told through four perspectives of the 20th century.

“I was 26 when I started it,” Kerney says. “I basically had to teach myself how to write a book like that. It was a steep learning curve to grow up in a lot of ways as a writer in the thick of it.”

The trick was to create human stories against the tumultuous, complicated landscape of the Central American country, and Kerney has succeeded. Four American characters find themselves swept up in American-backed coups, Mayan resistance to colonization, evangelical zeal, shady corporate dealings and reconciliation efforts.

It’s a history that Kerney first learned in college. “I grew up in a very cloistered environment and I was not exposed to much,” she says. “Latin American history class blew my mind. I feel like the floor fell out from beneath me and I saw this other world, the sadness, the tragedy.”

The connection also was personal, realizing that her parents gave to a Christian fundraising drive in the 1980s that later turned out to be funneling money to an oppressive dictator.

“Finding out about the Pat Robertson stuff, the role of evangelicals in 1983 — all these worlds folding in on themselves,” Kerney says — “it really stuck with me.”

Efraín Ríos Montt was a general who promised to end the Guatemalan civil war and bring the entire country to Jesus. Through his friendship with Robertson, he lobbied President Ronald Reagan to lift sanctions and allow funds and missionaries into the country.

“Robertson bragged he was going to raise $1 million to defeat the guerrillas with Operation: International Love Lift — to send missionaries, food and medical supplies to refugees,” Kerney says. “But all this money was going to Montt, to scorched earth campaigns, massacres of Mayan villages.”

Kerney also works as a museum research assistant, so research and writing seem to come naturally. “My first draft was over 800 pages,” she says. “It was all this research, a couple thousand years of history. The process was more carving away and making it as lean and mean as possible, figuring out what was vital.”

But she didn’t want to add to the many good works of nonfiction on Guatemalan-American relations.

“Fiction was really the way to bring it to the public,” she says. “Even if things didn’t exactly happen one way, it’s conveying deeper truths in a much more efficient, powerful way. Making history is a very personal experience.”

One character, a farmer in the first section, which takes places in 1902, tries to introduce the titular hard red spring wheat into the Mayan population’s corn-based diet.

“Bread is a very fraught symbol throughout the book and it’s really a physical manifestation of the forces of tragic history,” Kerney says. “It’s a symbol of oppression, but also of cultural misunderstanding.”

Mayans forcibly removed from their corn-growing land resisted the shift to wheat. “In the West,” she says, “we see bread as nourishment, welcome, salvation. But for the Maya, it represents much of the struggle over several hundred years.”

Bread also brought the Church Hill resident together with Sub Rosa Bakery.

Evrim Dogu, its co-owner and baker, says a mutual friend introduced him to the book and its author.

“The book is so good,” Dogu says. “Bread is already a loaded metaphor, and she explores both positive but very negative aspects of what bread might mean culturally.”

And to commemorate the book, Dogu says will bake a special run of bread made with hard red spring wheat: “The association that people might have with the bread as they’re reading the book — it’s a way of spurring people to think about some of the metaphors of the book in a tactile, real way.” S

Kelly Kerney will be at Sub Rosa Bakery at noon, Aug. 13, where copies of the book and bread made with hard red spring wheat will be available for purchase.

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