Welcome to Terspischore’s Atrium, where the Hermeneutic Chaos editors find delight in the elfin task of confronting their contributing authors with some really tough questions.
Today, our Editor-in-Chief Shinjini Bhattacharjee interviews Kalisha Buckhanon, who is undoubtedly one of the most talented writers in the contemporary literary milieu. Her debut venture, Upstate, was published in 2006 to massive critical acclaim, and won an American Library Association ALEX Award and an Audie Award in Literary Fiction for its audiobook, besides being a Hurston-Wright Foundation Debut Fiction finalist. Her sophomore novel, Conception, was greeted with much greater enthusiasm, and won a Friends of American Writers Adult Literature Award. Kalisha has been awarded an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose; a Zora Neale Hurston/Bessie Head Fiction Award at the Gwendolyn Brooks Black Literature and Writing Conference, for her short story “Card Parties” ; the Terry McMillan Young Author Award at the National Book Club Conference; an Honorable Mention in the Mary Roberts Rinehart Awards at George Mason University; a Presidential Scholarship at The New School; a Century Fellowship at University of Chicago; and an Andrew Mellon/Mays Foundation Minority Fellowship in Humanities.
We are honored to publish an excerpt from her upcoming novel Bleedsoe in Issue 5 of Hermeneutic Chaos. We request you to befriend the exquisitely written “Singer’s” here, and then come back to enjoy the interview.
1. “Singer’s” is one of the most profound fictions I have read recently. However, what intrigued me the most is the possessive apostrophe used in the title. I feel that it is somehow a part of the word yet estranged from it, similar to the delineations of the excerpt. How much narrative responsibility do you attribute to the title of your works?
Thank you and I appreciate you feeling such an impact from “Singer’s,” because I really wanted to build a palpable world to stick with readers around the characters I loved. I give a huge load of responsibility to titles, because if you are expecting a reader to make it through so much, you have to help them out immediately with mystery, provocation. A title can do that quickly as one thing or idea or concept to stick with them throughout.
This is my first time writing of a fictional setting. It took me a much longer time than usual to get my footing and bearings in a “no-place” than when writing a real place. I worried if it took me so much time and aggravation to get centered in my own place I was making up, what would it be like for strangers entering as readers? If that part of it all is catastrophic, there is no story and the characters just do not matter.
It is amazing to me that you caught the apostrophe punctuation and its possessive connotations. I wrote Singer’s to get the backstory of a trailer park located in Bledsoe, Mississippi, the perimeter of non-existent place of which Singer’s Trailer Park is a part. The inhabits of this makeshift community are black Americans seeking ownership in the world. They get a good start, however they do so outside of bureaucratic and state procedures. So their work is in vain. A white man with the last name Singer comes along with the upper class protocols and connections to capitalize on the black Americans who had more of an ancient, even squatter’s approach to possession. His access to state-sanctioned rules and procedures overcomes any history or mission of the place to make it his own, possess the land and essentially own black Americans as if on a plantation.
2. Singer’s begins with the line-“Even when their safest part of the world began to crumble and tumble down, it still smelled of fresh paint, like a stretch of new city projects some decades ago instead of now.” The language used here fills me with awe, because each word indulges in its own interpretations, and then swiftly masquerades another connotation when brought in contact with other words. How do you and your characters confront history through language?
Thank you. I flip-flop where I want my characters and story to be much more often than I would like. It is hard for me to stay in one head, time, place or tongue. My first published novel was letters back and forth between two people. One was in jail. In the second one a pregnant girl told the bulk of the story, with her fetus interrupting to offer up its spiritual past through history. I did not know how to include all the history and language styles I needed to finish the stories, but to break up the narrators and voices into parts suiting my needs. I believe there is a bilingual nature to black American language and speech many people are ashamed to recognize or admit, because a way of speaking and hearing words is associated with ignorant or uneducated people who have no respect as foreign tongues. I am aware of all that and fluent in all that, so by nature of that I think my writing could be an expanse at all times. All that variety and difference trying to come together.
And black American history—slave pasts, legal racism, state-created poverty—is a mandate of consideration behind most black American texts no matter where and when they are set. It’s a very jumbled situation to try to connect. So the place I am describing is definitely in the southern country, but I guess at the time I could not find any way to capture its connection to shared black history but to link it to the city via crumbled projects. So the work Singer’s feeds into is my first time transforming that wild tendency into a set third-person narrative all throughout, in one omniscient voice—but with way more characters than I’ve ever managed before. It was harder than I thought it would be.
3. Your writing pays an astute attention to geographic details, which are both noticeable and tangible. Does an incorporation of the familiar offer a metaphoric congruity to your psyche, or does it make you uneasy? What is your relationship with the familiar?
Oddly enough, the place I envision in Singer’s is one I visited on trips for my father’s family, who came from Mississippi to Illinois. My grandmother I visited there passed away in 2010 in my Illinois hometown, so I started to think about those trips and places much more than I ever had before. I am glad I captured something, because I was worried about not being a “native” of something but owning the right to write about it anyway.
I never want anything I write to be about me. It has to be about characters and what they want. For one thing, I am very private and I respect that with others who could be connected to my private life in recognizable ways. I want things to seem true and real, but I am very uneasy with familiarity to myself. And at the same time I think where I come from and where I have been in life, not to mention countless people and things my psyche has encountered, are very rich narratively and praiseworthy in ways only artists can respect. It’s a balance. It depends on your goals. I am firmly wedded to fiction, and hiding any realities I have which are just too boring or painful to depict except behind metaphors as many people as possible may enjoy.
4. Who decides the narrators in your stories- the author or the characters?
Wow I do not know! I wish I did. I would go talk to them about it. I would find out how in the world they did not make me an Olympic sprinter or swimmer who could stay thin with my gift and obsession, rather than knowing I am just going to plump up day by day. And then I would make them buy me a lifetime supply of Tylenol PM, the only thing that can put me to sleep when narrators are coming on full force based upon things going on in my small personal life or the larger outside world. I wish I could plan stories. My agent and I worked on that. I got there somewhat. But no, I have no clue why certain narrators or voices or people or things start coming around. I just type what I feel is best for them.
5. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte introduces the Red Room, which, apart from its various interpretations pertaining to feminism, also alludes to a secret writing space, one that appears to be calm and composed but revels as a fiery subversion inside the writer. How do you envisage your writing- a peaceful, quiet consequence or something else?
I would say it is very fiery, not at all peaceful. It’s a dragon. It’s the strongest thing I have. It’s the safest way for me to express opinions and disagreements in this world. I know I can say whatever I want to say and there will be no pain for it, maybe even praise.
I am a short, round, brown woman whose parents did not go to college but made careers out of those “regular jobs” that even white children must overcome the upper or professional classes’ condescension and dismissals due to. Now, I chose to put myself in elite environments where this laddering is acceptable and the norm, and that is how I learned this truth. I watched my parents come home drained and narrating bizarre stories about feeling unappreciated, overly challenged and treated like children. Then, once I left the nest and my small world where I was viewed as an ideal, I saw I was now them.
I don’t care if you have higher education or a philanthropist’s portfolio, a woman of color has a harder life. My name is ‘Kalisha,’ not Elizabeth or Margaret or Anne. I love Kate Middleton and find her very strong, but my name is not ‘Catherine.’ You must multiply the forces who want to quiet and deny Bronte’s women times ten for Kalishas. And even when women of color just want to write about growing up and love and societal pressures for women, that wild bucking horse of color oppressions stomps into the narratives.
I was writing for my life in an M.F.A. program because job searches were odd for me, despite a near perfect academic background and strong work history, since I had to work myself through college. Every single year a new research study comes out to reveal that resume names showing a sure black heritage get passed over, even hidden. A headhunter responded to me after I switched out the first name on my resume to my middle name: ‘Nicole.’ She met me and told me: “You are really smart so people could want to hire you, but your hair…” I do not straighten my hair. So, if the barrier was not my name before people met me it became my physical blackness after people met me. Bias and oppression are not figments. They are real physical organisms moving daily in our world.
I’ve obviously had a wonderful and great life. I am beyond blessed by comparison to many. I have had fairy tale experiences. I am being interviewed by a brilliant woman from across the world due to my blessings. This does not happen to most people on any given day. So it feels uneasy and ungrateful to air these concerns and point out these patterns in real life. So that is why I write. That is the only reason I write. Millions upon millions, past and present and future, will never have the opportunities I have had to be able to share this truth. They will just suffer from it. Some will implode. Many are in jail and poverty. My writing is always peaceful for me personally. I love it. But it’s very red in there. God placed a deeper chamber full of silenced voices as part of my anatomy.
6. If writing were a rabbit hole, how would you want a writer to find it?
I think it depends on the writer and their goals. If this is a secret passion or side love or hobby, you’ll fall when you should. If you are a writer who wants to produce objects of text as a lifelong and consistent career doing nothing else, you cannot wait to fall down into the rabbit hole. You have to know where it is, mark it like a headstone or a mailbox at the curb, and put flowers there or check it every single day without fail. You have to develop a sustained practice where sitting down at a computer or with a notebook or on a typewriter is a 6-8 hour a day concern the rest of everything in your life pivots around.
I would say in my twenties most of my work was created in the more romantic and better glorified “rabbit hole” sense, this aggressive and inconvenient urge to work on scenes and conversations until I had what I thought of as a real story or wannabe-book. Catching that sensation and dreaming of the next time I could indulge was like playing a game with the rabbit hole, knowing it was there but not knowing where it was. It gave me a lot of energy and lots to look forward to in life, not just in writing but general days and future.
I still love that and have that. I prefer it actually. However, when most people take on more obligations in life such as family or material things, it is very easy to block that rabbit hole out. If you fall down in there, then you will not be on top of the more complicated worlds we have tendency to build in maturity and societal responsibility. So I, and most people I suspect, want to step around rabbit holes and leap over them. This is creative suicide. It is why people do not finish writing books or just stop writing.
I finally managed to get to know myself as a person for whom writing is a 6-8 hour concern. I did not know her before, because I was either in school or working a day job or nursing novel publications, or just caught up on others’ drama due to working from home. Drastic changes in my life and detachments kind of forced me into 6-8 hours at my computer every day, without me realizing it had happened. I finally learned what kind of “full-time” writer I am, how my body works and responds during it—from appetite to sleep. Once I got to know her, I was not afraid of her and I like being her. She’s much more productive jumping right into the rabbit hole, rather than slipping in by accident.
7. If you were given a chance to collaborate with any member of your writing desk to write a novel, what would you choose?
I would choose my computer screen. I would just talk to it, tell it what I think about this new person and that new person and their dilemma that would be such a great story. I would tell my screen what is so great about this story, and how I thought of it and why it’s so good. I would describe it, go on and on and on like all similar wishes I’ve heard from people who think writing is talking about what could be written—myself included.
And, while the screen completed the task my imagination must pair with my body—butt in the chair, or on my feet with elbows on the table and wrists at the keyboard, my hands always moving, my neck and back sensing the need to stretch, my arms needing to stretch and forehead needing a massage—Kalisha is going to be at the spa in the Jacuzzi or at the happy hour bar special. Or, I will be talking on the phone and watching reality television.
And then when I came back, I could just take my mouse and scroll down the computer screen to see my story has been performed just like Kalisha would have done it alone—but over hundreds more hours potentially, including 20 more pounds for all the sitting. I would merge my imagination with a machine, and write more than any author in history.
8. How are your forthcoming projects going to challenge you as an author?
I am proud of my new projects because they are about the love and the work without question or interference. They are the products of that little girl inside of me who would go without sleep on school nights to tap out my version of novels on a little electric typewriter my parents bought me or that young college woman who would scratch these odd visions when I was supposed to be taking calculus notes. However, they benefit from the practice we can only have with more time in life.
I think this is why I moved from first person narration to more third person. I didn’t want to be so limited anymore because it was limiting to what I could say of worlds and people myself as a writer. I have gotten nothing but positive feedback about that decision in my new works and it has given me so much fuel to keep going forward.