Every time I see the word “Kentucky” in a book, I feel a strange mixture of thrill and terror.
Thrill because Kentucky is my home, and seeing the name of my home in published literature makes my heart soar. I think, “That’s me!” Representation matters.
But terror, too, because all too often, a reference to Kentucky is a negative or stereotyped one.
This is how I felt while reading “The Moment of Lift,” Melinda Gates’ newly published book. It mentions a trip Melinda and Bill Gates took to Floyd County, Kentucky, in 2015.
The book is partly Melinda Gates’ memoir, partly a documentary-style telling of women’s stories around the world, particularly women that the Gates have interacted with and helped through their foundation.
According to its website, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation partners with international allies to help improve health and reduce poverty in developing countries, as well as remedy the inequalities within the education system here in America.
Many of the stories that Gates tells describe people in poor situations who often lack the resources they need to help themselves.
Gates writes about these women (and men and children) in a respectful, often affectionate tone. She doesn’t come across as patronizing or condescending.
But still, I was expecting the worst when she mentioned Kentucky. I’ve been conditioned to do so.
She writes of Betsy Layne High School in Floyd County. According to Gates’ research, in the past, six counties in rural Eastern Kentucky were ranked in the nation’s bottom ten in income, education attainment, unemployment, obesity, disability and life expectancy.
But “amazingly,” Gates writes, student achievement in Floyd County improved from ranking 145th in the state of Kentucky to 12th.
I’ll let you read the details of Floyd County’s success yourself, but I was thrilled— no more terror!— that Kentucky was being presented as a place that can overcome hardship.
The Floyd County anecdote is a good representation of how Gates’ writes the whole book: she tells you stories about some of the worst hardships in the world, but nearly always ends them with at least a little hope.
Gates writes extensively about her own life, career and marriage, often sharing anecdotes of her own experiences with sexism. But she’s self-aware in her acknowledgment of her privilege and the relative ease of her struggles.
“One of the challenges of writing my stories and telling other people’s stories is the risk that I might be seen to be suggesting some equivalence between my stories and theirs,” Gates writes. “I think the best way to manage that risk is to state flat out that the challenges of the people I highlight in this book far outstrip mine. That’s why they’re in the book. They’re heroes of mine.”
One issue that Gates details, that I’ve read about before but strikes me every time as unbelievably horrible, is female genital mutilation. In a chapter focused on child marriage, Gates writes about the horrors of female genital mutilation, which is a required “tradition” for many girls across the country. It is tied to archaic, sexist beliefs concerning women’s sexuality and sexual purity, and it is very dangerous for girls to undergo.
This “tradition” doesn’t just occur in some distant country far from home where you can easily forget about it—the practice also occurs right here in Kentucky, according to a recent Courier Journal opinion piece. Near or far, we should care about it, and we should be trying to stop it.
An NPR review of Gates’ book calls it “more of a whisper than a call to action.” Maybe that’s true—Gates talks more about what her foundation has done than specific instructions for how the average, less wealthy reader can help. But I think it’s worth the read anyway.
There’s something very powerful about the simple telling of women’s stories, after all.