The Ms. Q&A: Melissa Scholes Young on Feminism Rising from Rural Roots

(Courtesy of Melissa Scholes Young)

In politics, academia, pop culture and the arts, a very narrow image of rural America has been carelessly constructed and blindly reused to the point of sweeping generalizations overshadowing reality. We often see rural characters on the screen (think: films like Deliverance or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, as well as shows like Buckwild and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo) and on the page who are backwards: racist, homophobic, misogynistic, uneducated, uncultured, violent and even inbred—perpetuating the idea that everyone in rural communities must be some combination of those stereotypes.

Recently, films like Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland have attempted to undue some of this damage by uplifting stories and highlighting characters that represent a more nuanced account of rural America. These kinds of stories help to rewrite unfair narratives and spark long-overdue conversations about the responsibility of storytellers in portraying more authentic accounts of rural people—but they’re simply not enough.

When creating narratives that involve rural communities, it’s necessary to take into consideration rural America is vast and not at all homogenous: After all, one in every five Americans lives in a rural community. And while admittedly, raw numbers show rural residents do tend to be whiter, more conservative or whatever the stereotype may be, those characteristics do not apply to every one of the over 60 million rural Americans—of which, at least 22 percent are people of color and many are disenfranchised.

In her newest novel, The Hive, author Melissa Scholes Young takes on this responsibility when honoring her Midwestern roots and authentically immersing readers into a powerful story of sisters, secrets and survival. In the novel, Scholes Young artfully paints vibrant pictures of the Fehler women—mom, Grace, and her four daughters—and highlights their trials and triumphs while navigating life in rural Missouri after the death of their beloved patriarch, Robbie. The Hive is a story of women yearning for independence and equality against the backdrop of familial tragedy, a stark political divide, Rush Limbaugh devotees and a fourth-generation pest control business struggling to get by during the 2008 economic recession.

Ms. reporter Corinne Ahrens sat down with Scholes Young to discuss her role in carving out necessary space for authentic rural stories, the unique journeys taken by each of the Fehler women, feminism rising from rural roots and the importance of reinvesting in our rural communities.

Corinne Ahrens: The Fehler women are very similar with their strength, resilience and dedication to family; however, they don’t always agree—especially when it comes to politics. How do the Fehler family political divides mirror the fault lines in our country?

Melissa Scholes Young: I love that you saw that because I agree, I think they do very much mirror those fault lines, the political divides, in our country. I think they’re wrestling at the dinner table with the same things that families are, and that divided communities are, too. I think that that there are values that they share, like the grit and the hard work their belief, their community investment, but I think what they disagree about is which political institution is actually going to preserve those values. So, the end game is similar, but they disagree on the paths to actually get to where they want to be and I kind of suspect that those struggles are something maybe generational.

That’s not really a new concept, but I think it’s hard—in the community that they’re in—to be progressive, if what they’re surrounded by, exposed to, interacting with are just the same ideas. It’s really when you have an influx of new, or a new way of being, or a new set of values, or new religion—those kind of things that explain and explode your own way of thinking, right? I think if that foundation is really secure, it shouldn’t quite be so threatening, but I definitely wanted to explore that political divide in the way that it mirrors the fault lines in our country.

I was also curious about the ways that I think people sometimes vote against their own self-interest. I find that especially true in family businesses, which in our country often support a party that that I feel is more aligned with corporate interest than local communities. And so, when a family was sitting around the table and arguing about these issues, I wanted those tensions to be present in the conversation. I think it’s also kind of a safe place to do so and their family because it’s a big noisy conversation, but they also have a very strong foundation and I think that helps make those difficult conversations possible.

“I think people sometimes vote against their own self-interest. I find that especially true in family businesses, which in our country often support a party that that I feel is more aligned with corporate interest than local communities.”

Ahrens: Feminism rising from rural roots seems to be a major theme throughout the novel. While each of the Fehler women may not consider themselves a feminist, they all yearn for independence and to be treated as equals. What went in to developing such rich characters for each of the women?

Scholes Young: I’d say the number one thing that went into it was empathy. I think it’s a writer’s superpower to be able to see their characters with all their flaws and all their wonderful beings with compassion. I don’t think a writer should write a character if they can’t see them in an authentic way.

I think that label of feminism is problematic in rural culture; but the values of it, the equality, the independence, those are very familiar to me, those do not seem problematic at all. But it seems to be related to your first question, which is more about the conversation around that term ‘feminism.’

I would also say a lot of research went into the characters. I always start with questions, and my big question for Grace, specifically, was: How does this fear to drive you the sphere to protect your family (which every woman has, if they’re a mother)? What’s that line between wanting to protect your family and hoarding resources that might harm somebody else, and where does that line of preparation — the line where is it safe to prepare and take care of your own — crossover to a type of paranoia that I think leads to political violence in our country, too?

So, the research part, going “prepper camp,” is a real thing that was useful in my writing because it helped me to understand what motivated Grace, and how there’s a fine line between that protection and I wouldn’t say harm toward her daughters, but certainly harm in the greater community. How big do you make your tribe? How big do you make your bubble? And who gets to decide? The danger in those divisions is that you’re othering other people, and when you other other people, and you live in this world in which you’ve sort of created a war zone of preparation and survivalism. It justifies a lot of behavior, a lot of bad behavior.

All of those things were on my mind when I was writing it but I think empathy is the superpower, as a teacher and as a writer, that I’ve had to develop the most. And that’s actually the biggest compliment I’ve gotten on this book is that The Hive is a book to change minds. That if you’ve never lived in a conservative family, or you’ve never understood what it’s like to have a feminist, liberal daughter, or you’ve never lived in a politically divided part of the country, that this book allows you to have some access to occupy that space. Not that you have to agree with it, but maybe you might be able to understand it.

Cover art for The Hive, out June 8.

Ahrens: While The Hive is truly a story about the Fehler sisters and their mother, the patriarchy always seems to rear its ugly head. How did you intentionally (and meaningfully) weave themes of the patriarchy into a female-focused story? Why was it important to discuss the patriarchy in connection to Robbie, Fehler Family Exterminating, or rural media and political heroes? 

Scholes Young: I think Robbie, even though he’s only in the first third of the book, has the most work to do because he represents so many of the institutions that are struggling for power in our in our country. He is this absolutely beloved figure—by his family, by his daughters, by his community—there’s no question about that. But Robbie is complicated, and in the same way that patriarchy is complicated, it’s not as simple as saying, “Let’s tear down that structure,” because there are plenty of women in our country that hold up the patriarchy and hold it tightest. So, it’s not just as simple as saying Robbie is the father who behaves this way and it needs to be destroyed, it’s not simple at all, but he has to die in the first part of the story in order to create space for the family to reorganize that structure.

“It can’t change” is the point in the story, it has to be destroyed; and Robbie’s death, in a very violent and traumatic way for the family, creates that space. In order for all of the Fehler sisters and for Grace to find their place, they had to be without Robbie, and there’s no other way to do that if he’s still in the story. So, I think by removing him from the structure through his sudden death, it kind of forces the change to happen more quickly.

Ahrens: Recently, films like Hillbilly Elegy and Nomadland have challenged continuing traditional tropes of rural communities as backwards. While some past films have perpetuated viscous stereotypes of rural America as impoverished, racist, classist and even inbred, what do you feel is the responsibility of Hollywood in telling authentic rural stories? 

Scholes Young: I tend to think we get the media that we ask for, that if we want different stories, then we shouldn’t watch or consume stories that don’t have an accurate portrait. I think rural voices are just as diverse as any region. There’s not just one way to be a Midwesterner, and there’s not just one way to be a Southerner or one way to be rural. Those populations within them are just as diverse as any population. It seems to me that there’s also a belief that rural voices don’t deserve literature in the same way and I find that incredibly classist, that the people in positions of power are making decisions about those populations, and especially about marginalized populations, people of color, that are really intentionally harmful. So, I do I like the word responsibility, because I think there is a huge responsibility to indict institutions rather than the people.

I think that’s what some of the more recent films that you mentioned, like the movie of Hillbilly Elegy, do, they indict institutions. Nomadland really brings up and traffics in “the way we’ve always done things” versus the freedom to not have a mortgage and to live in a nomadic way rather than buying into “everybody has to have a mortgage and a car and this is how you do things.” I love movies and films and books that push back against the mainstream and point out to us how many people are just blindly accepting them, rather than questioning them. Like, is that really what you want to do? Or do you want to live differently? What does it mean to have a foundation? What does it mean to have a home? What does it mean if that idea that you have of it is changed so suddenly like it is in The Hive.

The books and the stories that I’m reading most recently, and Hollywood too, have more of a responsibility to take apart structures, to question structures, rather than the worst thing I think Hollywood could do in their portrayals is blame poor people for being poor. I’m just exhausted by that narrative and I know that the people who write that again and again, have never spent a day in poverty, do not understand the stress, the rage, the pain, they don’t know what a day actually looks like.

And it’s really to the prepper-ism, that even prepping is very much a privilege, because you’re assuming there’s a future; you’re not just trying to survive the day, but you are deciding your future will be bright enough, that it’s worth preparing for. Most people I know are struggling to get through a day and it’s harder to think about how to survive longer than that.

I think Hollywood specifically has responsibility within their power and I’m starting to see that change a great deal. I’m starting to see accountability. Certainly, there’s some incredible films being made that are just so very thoughtful.

“We get the media that we ask for. … If we want different stories, then we shouldn’t watch or consume stories that don’t have an accurate portrait.”

Ahrens: Shifting back to The Hive—when you were writing, what was most important to you when telling this rural story? Did you feel responsible for shining a light on any particular elements of rural life or culture? 

Scholes Young: It is most important that I think readers embrace the family. I want the Fehlers to feel like their own. The Fehler family—they are loving, and they are flawed, and they are messy, and they are just trying to do their best with what they have and I hope that that is a familiar portrait of a family. Rather than, I think we spend way too much time sort of trafficking in the surface of what things look like versus the way things are. And so what I want people to see in the Fehler family, what was important to me in writing our story was that we kind of embrace the truth, rather than spend so much time putting up a portrait of perfection, that’s just absolutely false.

I think each of the sisters have different equipment and they have their own unique struggles. But they very much support each other, especially when they don’t agree. And that’s something that’s important to me that readers recognize also that you don’t have to agree with someone to be kind to them. You don’t have to agree with someone to respect their boundaries. And I think we in our politically divided country are so stuck on trying to persuade someone else or deciding that we agree, or drawing these lines, like ”If you voted for this person, I can’t be friends with you,” rather than simply trying to be kind to people because they are human, and they deserve it. I felt really responsible for shining a light on those basic core values of local community.

I feel the same way when I write about first-generation students on a college campus—those values are should be an asset, not a liability. And so when you focus on local community, and the community you build the one that you devote your talents you devote your energies to whether the family or not, right. I think it’s also really authentic to say, you know, that I’m going to maybe make my own family, right, but I’m going to choose a different kind of family. It doesn’t have to just look like your nuclear family, either that there’s a lot of value and seeking out that just like-minded people, but people that you want to build a community with. And I really do think that’s it, that you have to build the community. You can’t just take from a community you have to give back to it also. I think our actions have to match our intentions. And I think we move really quickly past our intentions. And that that requires I think work that’s  not just local, but that’s the kind of work that’s individual.

Ahrens: Moving from the page to the screen, what do you believe directors, producers, screenwriters, people at Sony Pictures or who anyone in Hollywood trying to tell this story would owe to the characters when it comes to uplifting rural voices?

Scholes Young: I liked that you used the word responsibility, but I also consider it accountability. Right, that it wouldn’t be authentic to write a story about rural Missouri and pretend that characters are suddenly so progressive and woke if they’re not—it wouldn’t make sense. But I’m more interested in watching a character wrestle with an idea and change because of it, or say something that’s pretty unsavory and be held accountable for it on the screen or the page.

It’s perfectly fine to have characters that are perfect. The question is, how does everybody else in the story respond and react around it? That’s what I hope Hollywood does, is have that type of accountability, rather than, which is complicated, right? Yeah, it requires a lot of conversation requires a lot of dialogue. And it requires people being willing to listen to each other. And I think when we fall back into those stereotypes and tropes of rural America, it defeats that purpose. And I think it just doesn’t do it justice. It’s just not that interesting.

You know, those shortcuts are just not as they’re not, they’re not worthy enough. of I think, the hard work we have to do, as a country, you know, in a divided, very, very political structure to just be better, to be better as individuals, but also within our community. And that’s a lot of work. A lot of work.

Ahrens: You bookend the novel with the idea that “the only moment that matters is the one you’re living.” In this moment we are currently living, what do you think matters most when it comes taking action to both reinvest in rural America and tell more authentic stories about rural America?

Scholes Young: I think that rural America is having growing pains, but I see progress in those pains, also. Change is hard, but we all have to do it, and I think that specifically the pandemic has been useful in testing that, and also in accelerating the change that all of our communities need. We’ve had to adapt and businesses, institutions, people; I think many of them have done so kind of spectacularly, but I think we’ve also failed in a lot of ways to change, and those are the structures that don’t survive.

Rural America has to have these growing pains. They can do it, I have faith. But it’s a matter of reinventing, it’s a matter of creatively thinking about the future, rather than holding on to an institution that really did not serve everyone. It might have created power structures and kept power in the hands of a few, but that’s just not a country I want to live in. So, the moment that matters and is really important to me in the book that everyone knows that they matter.

The Hive—a novel of sisters, secrets and survival—is out now. Also, keep an eye out for when Sony Pictures—along with a talented, all-female Midwestern writing team—brings the story of the Fehler family from the page to the screen.

Lastly, now is not the time to write off rural America, but rather to reinvest. If you are able, please donate to St. Louis Mutual Aid, a network of organizers, healers, artists, community leaders and everyday people coming together to deliver food and supplies, provide financial solidarity, offer emotional support and connect people to their neighbors.

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Corinne Ahrens is a recent graduate of The American University where she studied Political Science with a specialization in Gender, Race, & Politics as well as Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. Corinne has been writing for Ms. since October 2019 and is a former Ms. editorial intern. She currently works at Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy in their Philadelphia office.