The first Thursday of each month (second Thursday this month, due to circumstances), I post a Q-and-A with a Canadian author. Read more about who exactly is asking the questions, and if you’re a published writer and want to take part, let me know! This month: Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, whose most recent novel All the Broken Things has been called “a dreamy, tender elegy to human failure and imperfection” (Allisa York).
Who are you?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately, and asking people about why they think we need to have this thing we call “identity.” It’s a strange thing about humans that we want to individuate so much. I keep thinking that because I don’t know who I am. I have no real idea and I’d like to think it isn’t that important because it makes it easier for me to think that I still, after all these years, do not know who I am. I do know that I physically abhor some things (I had to change the font here from Calibri to New Times Roman, for instance) and things I love (velvet, art, dark chocolate, reading, writing, thinking). I guess we tend to define ourselves through those things we love, or those things we cannot help. If that is the parameter, then I am Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, a writer of unrealist and realist fiction, a person who reads and writes compulsively and with joy, a person who likes to cook, and eat, who likes to help people make art, and who likes to laugh.
How and why does fairytale and fable inform your work?
I like the dark strangeness of early stories, what might be lost or elided in the versions we have of these ancient, orally transmitted things, and the ways in which they also might be embellished. They have awkward, agitating shapes that feel so unrefined and raw that they tend to speak to a deeper, less constructed interior. They are so very unregulated—wild!
What also interests me about the early stories is the very fact they are repeated. Why do they continue to be told? What is it about them that seems to want reiteration, and recomposition? It’s a question that won’t ever be sufficiently answered, of course. It is the question of all art-making: why? And in a crucial way, the only reasonable answer defies reason itself. The answer to the why of art-making is that it allows us to make more art. Art begets art. It leaves a hole of no-meaning from which more art will be generated. Art is quixotic; it reads itself and dances for and mourns itself. It makes no sense like nothing else can make no sense. It might be the only form humans have complex enough for the open space of proper enquiry.
Is there a realist impulse to your work?
There is a strong mimetic impulse to my work. I am aiming for the limit of credulity. I want my readers to feel and see and smell and hear. The trick to this is nouns. There is also an inclination to play the edges of realism toward what I call unrealism. But even when things are unreal – when a Vietnamese bear wrestler takes the same novelistic space as a young child disabled through the effects of Agent Orange on her parents (as in my most recent novel, All the Broken Things), or when a feral pack of canines ride the subway in Toronto (Laikas I), or when adolescents wear codpieces as a fashion statement in a devastated, crumbling CN tower (Who Will Staunch The Wound?), or when bands of roving children fight a final crusade in a popular enclave in Toronto (Song of Otto), I am aiming to make the real feel less credible and the unreal more. This is because I want my readers to both wonder at the possible/impossible divide and because I want to ignite a tiny awakening of spirit. Maybe get a laugh? That would be a nice by-product, too!
Do you think about the reader when you write?
Yes and no. I don’t imagine a reader while I am in the act of composing a scene, because at that moment I am off in some strange place inside myself and outside myself. I am dispersed, and not thinking of real people at all, not even myself. But at the same time, and this might be a fact of years of writing and years of editing my own work, I am always thinking of the limits of ‘the reader’ to accept the thing I am writing. In editorial especially, I am trying to read as a reader, so that all the sentences make sense, and so (hopefully) there is a sway to the overall piece that holds the reader to it. I do not have an ideal reader, but I do sometimes read snippets of my work to friends who are writers or storytellers. But I do less and less of that the more I write. The interference can be distracting, and I’m more and more convinced that I can trust myself.
Did you experience any particular challenges in avoiding proselytizing when writing about Agent Orange and Canada’s culpability? While reading, I wondered about your decisions (and rewrites) in scenes like the one where Bo pretends to be Orange in a story-telling way (“I am Orange! I am ugly! I wander in the painted forest. So long has passed since the end of the war. The soldiers have all been forgiven!”).
I think what held that in check was the simple fact of representation, since I had decided very early on that I would be writing a severely disabled child, one for whom we all ought to feel both culpability and guilt, but who is a person, and who then deserves from me the same kind of authorial effacement as any other character. This approach was also taken with the bears in the novel. To say that a person is a victim is in a particular way to violate their agency, their ‘realness,’ and their personhood. I do feel that it is very dangerous to allegorize characters. No one, not even a character, ought to be a metaphor.
Do you prefer writing short fiction or novels? Why?
I really love the challenges of both. I don’t have a preference. I love the capaciousness of the novel, and the challenge of forcing a kind of capacity for enlargement on the short form, and I like the compression and magical intention of the epiphanic short form, and the challenge of telescopic moments and character realization in the novel. There are some stories that tend toward a shorter treatment and some that want to be investigated more intricately.
What has recently turned your crank as an artist (sentence, phrase, novel, short story, play, painting, philosophical question, deep understanding about art-making)? Why do you find it so exciting?
I’m reading Cruelty and Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century by Simon Dickie. I am reading a lot “in the eighteenth century” (as they say in academia) because I’m pursuing graduate work and will be writing about the novel as it is innovated in that epoch. I’m very excited about the insights this book is giving me into the way people understood things like disability, puns, sympathy, sex, body function and all that Dickie understands as the “unsettling world of feeling.” One of the very lovely things about this scholarly literary criticism is that it archives loads of really offensive, bawdy, scatological, sick jokes, most of which are also so strange and alien to our sensibilities, it’s hard to imagine the type of people (and Dickie makes the case that these were enjoyed by all classes) who constructed them, printed them, learned them for parties. One comes away imagining that everyone (men and women!) in eighteenth century England was like the drunk uncle one is embarrassed by at holiday gatherings. Of course, I am finding it hugely inspiring (for my graduate work but also for future creative possibilities).
* * *
Like this? Please share!
What a great interview. Kathryn’s work is miraculous. And when I read this — “They have awkward, agitating shapes that feel so unrefined and raw that they tend to speak to a deeper, less constructed interior.” — I know something about her source of originality.
Yes, I loved that part, too, and this: “I am aiming to make the real feel less credible and the unreal more.” Made lots of sense to me, as well. I mean, a kid living in High Park with a bear… but so lovely and beautiful and real it is. Thanks for your comment 🙂