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Stories of Grief Redeemed: An Interview with Janna Barber

We like to say around here that “community nourishes art,” and there is no joy like watching a piece of art grow from the seeds of friendship into a finished work. We’re excited to let you know our friend and contributor Janna Barber is about to release her debut memoir Hidden in Shadow. I met Janna at Hutchmoot 2011, and over the years have found in her a kindred writer spirit, someone who desires to grow in her craft and offer hope through her words.

It’s been an honor to support her through the process of writing, revision, and preparing for release day. We had a conversation about the eight-year making of Hidden in Shadow, the challenges of vulnerable storytelling, and her hope for the readers who experience her story.

Congratulations on your new book! I know this has been a long time coming, and I’m so excited for people to finally read it! How long have you been working on it?

I’ve been dreaming of writing my own memoir ever since I first read Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott, way back in 2002. I wanted to share a collection of powerful stories like Anne’s, only from the perspective of someone who grew up in a Christian home in the South. But it took several years of blogging and becoming a member of the Rabbit Room community to gather up the courage to start writing that book. It was after the second Hutchmoot that I finally got serious about it, and I finished the first draft in April of 2019. That’s almost eight years if you do the math, but I can assure you that I spent a lot more time not writing during those years than writing. I quit many times, for long periods of time, and I struggled to believe that my words were worth sharing with the world. But eventually I cobbled enough stories together that a theme emerged, and once I recognized that theme, I was able to get behind it enough to finish the work.

How would you describe your book? And what do you want readers to know going in?

Hidden in Shadow is a memoir, not a how-to kind of book. It’s a collection of stories from my life that demonstrate the value of expressing doubt and sorrow in an honest way. I don’t believe there’s a formula for how to deal with grief, so I tried to steer clear of providing easy take-aways for my readers. Instead, I chose to examine my memories with an eye focused on redemption, but hopefully not in a way that feels forced or fake. I’d like for people to be able to see themselves in my experiences, to feel a little less alone, and a lot more seen and understood.

The subtitle is Tales of Grief, Lamentation, and Faith — certainly not light subjects, but so important. Can you talk about why you chose to focus on grief in this book?

For much of my life I felt forbidden to grieve, but I don’t think I thought grief was bad. I simply never saw anyone engage in it, so I didn’t realize it was a thing I could do, let alone need. I just knew that I was scared to cry in front of others, and felt that outwardly expressing any emotions besides thankfulness, praise, or repentance would be some sort of betrayal of my faith. Even though I experienced a lot of anger and sadness during that time, I felt ashamed of those emotions, and tried to hide them from everyone. But the result of that hiding was severe depression and a complete lack of joy and hope.

Depression led me to therapy, which was the first place I experienced permission to grieve. I later began writing as a way to give myself more permission to grieve. What surprised me was that both of those processes led me toward hope, and eventually joy. Once I began to see that vital connection, I knew I had to share it with others, regardless of how heavy it might seem to some.

Hidden in Shadow cover art, gray clouds with dark text

You share a lot of vulnerable stories in this book. How did it feel to put them in writing, knowing others would read them?

It was pretty scary at first, and I still worry about what others might think of me from time to time. But I know that the stories that have made a lasting impact on my heart contain that same vulnerability. And when I think about the fact that others might find healing through my stories, it makes the fear less threatening.

What do you hope for people to experience when they read Hidden in Shadow?

I hope people will begin to see vulnerability as a strength, and not a weakness. I also hope my readers will find permission to feel all their feelings, without any shame, and that might, in turn, build their faith in a God who accepts and loves them just as they are—no matter what they’re feeling or expressing.

Earlier this year, you also put out a book of poetry! I’d love to hear how those writing experiences compared for you. I know for me, as a writer, telling the truth in a poem can feel very different from telling it in an essay or memoir type of piece. Curious how that is for you.

I think poetry is more mysterious than straight forward essays, so there’s a lot more room to say things that mean something different to you than they do to your reader. In that way it feels less vulnerable to me. However, I don’t think I’m as good of a poet as I am an essay writer, so I’m a bit more proud of my memoir than I am my poetry book. Then again, there’s nothing quite so powerful as hitting on the exact right metaphor and finding a form and sound that expresses it well, too. When that happens you might find yourself crying without knowing why. Poetry is special like that, and I hope I’ll always be able to write it.

Okay, maybe this is too soon and the worst question to ask a writer, but… what are you working on now? (Or is there something you’d like to try in the future?)

I would love to try a novel at some point, but I need a lot more practice with plotting and the ability to hone in on appropriate details. A couple of weeks ago I had an idea for a new work of nonfiction, but I’m not ready to talk about it yet. I didn’t think that would happen until next year, if ever, so I was pleasantly surprised. I look forward to writing in a more focused and regular way than I did with this book, so hopefully I’ll finish the next one in less than eight years!


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