2023 COURAGE to WRITE Awardee Feature of the Week:
Ryan D. Matthews, Country Music (Fiction), Brooklyn, NY
In Country Music, three students struggle within their impoverished rural community when a school shooting—perpetrated by one of the boys—leaves survivors reconciling the tragedy long into adulthood.
“I hope my work provokes reconsideration of rural poverty, the prohibitory bonds of masculinity, trauma’s echo through generations, and the abomination of armed white terror.”
“I grew up poor, in rural Washington State—where guns and bigotry were not so much prevalent as prevailing. And, as the victim of physical and emotional abuse during my teens, I’ve subsequently battled anxiety and depression for much of my life. Mercifully, these circumstances and experiences were formative but not determinative.
I now work for organizations that provide online therapy—attempting to destigmatize and broaden access to mental health care—and as a community activist—founding and hosting The Rally, a political reading series in Brooklyn.
My book is as much about the millions who witness the death, injury, and permanent maiming of loved ones as the 45,222 who actually perish each year from gun violence in the United States. To me these statistics are not abstract—mental illness and guns have played an outsized role in my life.
I’ve lost three close family members to suicide, and my mother’s family and community was upended by the 1996 Frontier Middle School shooting in Moses Lake, Washington—cited as inspiration for the Columbine massacre—in which fourteen-year-old Barry Dale Loukaitis killed a teacher and two of his peers. I’ve also witnessed the impacts of mass murder at close range when the niece of a family friend became a victim of the Isla Vista killings in Santa Barbara.
Perhaps most acutely, I’m always somehow thinking and writing about an incident that occurred during high school. After a night of partying at an abandoned house, a friend shot his older brother in the head with an Uzi as they attempted to steal a car. Though the motive remains unclear, he was subsequently convicted of manslaughter and served several years in juvenile detention at the state prison. I continue to grapple with how profoundly a family and a community can be changed in an instant by firearms.
The support of the De Groot Foundation will allow me, not only to press ahead with the political themes in my writing, but also to excavate other critical aspects of my work—the ways that language, perspective, and memory illustrate and complicate our most tangled social questions. I’m so grateful for this absolutely transformational support, which couldn’t have come at a more critical time—I’m as stunned and speechless today as when I first got the good news!”