By Catherine Kozak
Reprinted by permission of the Outer Banks Voice
To read a book review, click here
Within moments after she sat herself down, crossed her legs with her tan-colored prosthetic bare feet poking out from under her long, flowered dress and started reading from her memoir, The Wounds that Bind Us, it made sense not just what brought Kelley Shinn to the Outer Banks — specifically, Ocracoke — but why she stayed.
It’s not just that Shinn is irreverent, edgy, and funny, or even that her story perfectly fits the tossed-ashore-by-the-stormy-seas-of-life metaphor. It’s that she has cultivated how to make the best with what she’s been handed, figured out how to keep moving forward, and learned that family, friends and community matter the most.
Under the guidance of fellow writer and Outer Banks resident Angel Khoury, Shinn spent 90 minutes on the evening of Tuesday, July 25 at the College of The Albemarle (COA) in Manteo expounding on her 48 years of life that began in an orphanage, took her from a talented teen runner living with her adopted parents in Akron, Ohio, to a 16-year-old victim of a freak disease that destroyed both her lower legs. From there, it was on to single motherhood, off-road cross-country travel with her young daughter in tow in a Land Rover and brash adventures in Europe and the Bosnian war zone.
After returning to the U.S., she ended up in 2013 on Ocracoke Island as part of a writing fellowship, and ever since, the tiny fishing village has been home.
Long before that, shortly after she had recovered from having her legs amputated below the knees at age 16, she was on her way to Topsail Island, but somehow ended up on Ocracoke. Still feeling awkward about her body, she waited until the light was low and decided to go into the ocean.
“I took off my prosthetic legs and I crawled into the water,” she recalled. “And I started weeping… And then there was a double rainbow. I came back about 10 years ago, and I haven’t left.”
Shinn didn’t start the event, which was sponsored by Downtown Books in Manteo and COA, by talking about herself. At Khoury’s prompting, she launched into reading a part of her book detailing a gripping episode that took place around 2002 in Bosnia at a bombed-out bridge that had been built in 1566 by the Ottoman Turks.
Describing her attempt to take a photograph of the bridge, she dropped her camera and was determined to retrieve it, a pursuit that was replete with hazards.
“On the other side of the three-foot wall, two hundred feet below, the clear, turquoise Neretva flows,” Shinn read, her voice vivid, as if the image was still in front of her. “It turns out, at the end of this alley that is now a dead end, there was once a modern bridge. Far below me, in the froth, glowing in the midafternoon sunlight, the bombed bridge wreckage lies splayed out like an industrial open-heart surgery.”
She was drawn to Bosnia, she said, as a way to help those who had lost their limbs by stepping on unexploded land mines, some of which she saw littering a dirt path near the bridge. Ninety percent of land mine victims are women and children, Shinn told the audience at COA. “I thought, ‘Wow, I should be able to raise some money for them,’ she said. ‘A single mother with no legs!’”
Initially, Shinn wrote essays, short stories and a novel because she “wanted to protect people” from the harsh details of her personal story. She settled on a memoir only after an editor told her that her story “was too unbelievable for fiction.” When it came down to the revision and editing process, she was finally able to put her nose to the grindstone.
Shinn had earned a Master of Fine Arts degree at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. and had worked for years as an adjunct writing professor. She has been published in numerous publications, including the New York Times.
“I finished this version of the book in 31 days,” she said. “I wept, I laughed…so everything you feel in the book, I had to go through it all again.”
That included sexual assault, physical abuse, a stillbirth, divorce, among other difficulties she described. At the same time, Shinn said her travels provided tremendous experiences, friendships and opportunities for herself and her daughter, who is now 25. (Shinn has another child, a 17-year-old son.)
“The major theme of my book is compassion,” Shinn says. “Nobody’s a villain in my book — even in war.” And she credits the act of writing her memoir for helping her put it all, the bad and the good, in perspective, to see the connections in life, and to heal.
“I think we’re desperate for healing,” she said, “and the only way to heal is to share stories. I had to learn to sit presently with my pain. I didn’t want to hide from it. This is who I am; this is what I did.”
She is already working on her next book about living through Hurricane Dorian in 2019, which devastated Ocracoke with seven-foot floods from storm surge.
“It’s about trauma, resilience and loss,” Shinn said, adding jokingly, “I might get kicked off the island.”