Kristin Kovacic exposes self, family, and Carrick community to uncover painful truths in History of My Breath | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Kristin Kovacic exposes self, family, and Carrick community to uncover painful truths in History of My Breath

click to enlarge Kristin Kovacic
Kristin Kovacic

Kristin Kovacic admits she's lived an "incredibly ordinary life." Happily married with two adult children, the Carrick native and Oakland resident is not consumed by action and adventure. But as an essayist who tends to write about personal experiences, Kovacic finds a way to make her stories transcend that ordinariness.

"I haven't had experiences that are dramatic or traumatic," says Kovacic, the author of the new essay collection History of My Breath (Red Mountain Press). "They're the adventures of an ordinary life, and I've been really blessed to have those human adventures."

Kovacic, who teaches at Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside, has won a Pushcart Prize, and earned a Pennsylvania Fellowship for the Arts, and published a poetry collection, House of Women. Most of the essays in History of My Breath examine the dynamics of family life: her son’s bout with chronic gastrointestinal reflux disease (the title story), her daughter’s inability to grasp a grammatical nuance ("Comma Momma"), a family trip to France in search of the perfect cassoulet ("Preserved").

Aside from the family element, the essays are connected by another common theme. “This image of breath starts cycling through very subtly in every single essay,” Kovacic says. “There’s an image of holding your breath, taking breath. The experiences of domestic adventures are both endless and fleeting at the same time, like your breath.”

The centerpiece of History of My Breath is "Interrupted Journey," a long essay about Kovacic’s experiences growing up in Carrick during an infamous busing controversy. When she was in the third grade in 1971, a large segment of the community protested against a plan to bus students from Carrick to Knoxville Middle School, which was predominately Black, in order to comply with a Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission’s desegregation order. Parents kept children out of school and held classes at homes or places like the Carrick Literary and Social Club, a bar.

During a one-day boycott of all schools in the South Hills in April 1972, Kovacic and her brother were the only ones in attendance at Concord Community School. What she failed to realize then was her mother had made a decision that would affect the rest of Kovacic’s life.

“I didn't understand how hard it was for my mother until I was a mother," says Kovacic. "As a child, I was very confused by it and resentful and embarrassed to be the only one of my friends going to school, and jealous of my friends not going to school. The memory is vivid, and whenever you have an emotional experience, that's when your memory takes hold.”

The essay's title is borrowed from The Interrupted Journey, a book about a biracial couple who claimed they were abducted and probed by aliens in a flying saucer. Also in 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates made history not only by winning the World Series but also fielding the first all-Black starting lineup. 

It is only in hindsight, “the superpower of the memoir,” that Kovacic was able to see the patterns, and the racial biases, that would inform her beliefs as an adult. 

“What you can do in that distance is what interests me,” she says. “And this story, in particular, took some time to write because I had to expose, in many ways, myself, my family, my community, to see what that was all about. What I learned was it was all about racism and that I was living in a neighborhood that was openly hostile to integration. How did that form me?”

Between the Lines

Marianne Novy and David Carrier will appear on May 18 at Classic Lines in Squirrel Hill. Novy is the author of Shakespeare and Feminist Theory. Carrier's latest book is Aesthetics of the Margins / The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained. 1 p.m. Sat., May 18. Classic Lines, 5825 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill. 412-422-2220 or

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