With the release of her new book, Solemn, we revisit Kalisha Buckhanon’s interview with Tara Betts, which appeared in Mosaic #23 in fall 2008.
When I was growing up in Kankakee, Illinois, Kalisha Buckhanon and I crossed paths in so many ways. We were both looking for ways to accomplish something. When I was on the way out as a high school senior, I remember seeing her onstage at our high school’s auditorium and saying that girl is going places. I remember chatting with her outside the Kankakee Public Library where I had my first job, and communicating over the years while she attended University of Chicago and I was on the north side attending Loyola University.
We managed to stay in touch. She curated readings with the likes of Sonia Sanchez, attended school, worked, and wrote at night. I curated readings and taught while performing and studying at night. She came to New York City to work on her MFA in creative writing. We talked about our love for James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, shared meals and couches on the East Coast and in the Midwest. After releasing her two novels Upstate and Conception (both on St. Martin’s Press) and in the middle of pursuing her PhD, Kalisha Buckhanon took a moment to talk with me about her work, young people, our hometown, black drama, and approaching the page.
Tara Betts: I remember you saying that you kept notebooks as a kid. What was writing like for you when you were a little girl?
Kalisha Buckhanon: It was more random and intuitive. Like now, I wrote based upon my emotions, but my imagination had not yet allowed reality into it. I didn’t realize that an imagined world could involve me and the world I experienced or that I could just write one to involve myself. Consequently, those early stories are really playful and convoluted, often with characters who weren’t black, simply because I rarely encountered books with black people in them when I was little.
TB: What were your first encounters with black people in books? I know I always think of discovering Raymond Andrews, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Sport of the Gods and for colored girls who’ve considered suicide at the Kankakee Public Library, and Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks being the two black poets in our high school’s textbooks.
KB: I must shout from the rooftops that I discovered The Bluest Eye in the Kankakee Public Library and it changed my life forever. I was a voracious reader, but my options were almost always books about white people, characters, their culture, language and speech. The little girl on the cover looked like me. The people inside talked like me and my people. That was when I realized that I, too, had stories to tell.
TB: How has working with young people informed your writing?
KB: I love our black children, but because of my life trajectories I don’t have the occasion to be around large groups of them that much. During the rare occasions when the atmosphere is just right in a classroom, teaching imagination is the way I like to play. It’s nice to get back to the basics of storytelling the way children make you do. “The dog is…the man looks…” I can’t walk into a room full of kids and not be reminded of the elegant simplicity of poetics. Unfortunately, it’s hard to teach writing and language arts in schools because both activities involve the intellect and fairly invisible mental processes. Not only do kids not read nearly as much as they used to, adults don’t either. What was once one of the most pleasurable and one of the simplest leisure activities one could undertake is now met with a lot of disdain in the classroom. As a civilization we don’t even have to read real letters and cards anymore—we have IM chat and quick texts instead of words on a page. It’s sad that so much of what makes us human—that ability to communicate and transmit to one another using language—has been eroded.
One of the reasons that spiritual motivation, personal accountability, and drive are always character builders for me in my work is that I see so much of that lacking these days in not just children but adults as well. I’m not always perfect myself in those areas, but I do wish as a whole we were more conscience of these traits. The gift of being able to teach writing is that if you’re good enough to pull it out, most children are good enough to express themselves and those drives to you.
TB: Since your book has had positive reception from young readers, what responses have you heard from them?
KB: They love the books! Usually, when I speak to kids, they are very specific about details and scenes when they ask questions. While I hate being caught off guard with something I can’t remember, I am always impressed! As a doctoral student, one of the requirements of my oral examination is close reading of a number of books. These children exhibit skills that make me proud when I am able to talk to them, in detail, about my books because they prove they can retain information and be provoked by a text. I’m not just proud because they are my books, obviously. I’m also proud that these kids will actually think hard about literature when they have something they really want to read. They can and will get into a story that is not on the big screen, TV, or the internet. It is still possible.
TB: In Upstate and Conception, you make an effort to share the voices of both the male and female character as the main focus of the book. What was it like to write in the voice of a male character versus a female character?
KB: I don’t really think that there was a huge discrepancy between them in the way that their voices came to my head. Of course, I was pulling from different experiences in order to capture those voices. Many of my own young crushes and boyfriends certainly came into play, because I do love the language of black men. They can talk that talk like no others can! It was a real challenge to keep the story going by playing off two characters, often making quick switches in my head. I think it worked in the final product.
TB: I enjoyed that both novels featured Natasha and Shivana speaking and acting like girls that we’ve known. What are some challenges that you experienced in doing justice to their voices?
KB: They speak like little girls we’ve known because I was once one of those little girls. I did not experience many challenges writing them. They were both joys to write, straight from the heart. Very close to me and my heart. In my head both of them always look like those girls people never bother to look at. It was nice for me as an older, more mature writer to recapture the emotional and psychological fragility of that age, and bring an understanding to these girls’ lives that is not necessarily there for them. Ironically, Natasha’s name in Upstate was Shivana, and my mentor Sapphire was heartbroken when I changed it to Natasha because she felt is was too Russian and not African American. She was right, but it sounded great with Antonio. I am so happy that I was able to bring that name back in Conception.
TB: I remember seeing early beginnings of Conception, but I’m sure people would like to know where you got the idea to explore the different voices of unborn children.
KB: Yes, I remember you were the first person that I ever gave pages of Conception, back in 2005, before you moved to NYC. And I appreciate that early encouragement on the story because it helped. But I am privy to the situations facing many of our children. I know what they are going through. A lot of it I have been through myself. “What happens to a dream deferred?” It’s such a cliché, but Langston asked a question for the ages. From the opening of the book, I hope that it is clear that I am exploring the miracle of life and how too many children I have observed do not understand that they are miracles, partially because adults don’t understand it. It is time for us as adults to step up and get more involved in the lives of these children. It’s time to mentor a child, spend more time with your own, send a nice card to a kid who has accomplished something, or even just set a positive example for the young brothers and sisters on the block by watching language on the street or modeling courteous behavior. We have lost our sense of royalty as a people, and the unborn child is holding on to that secret for those who don’t know it yet.
TB: As a result of your first novel and volunteering as a mentor for the PEN Prison Writing Program, you have often been asked about the prison industrial complex. What observations became clearer or paralleled the situations you wrote about after Upstate was released?
KB: After the book was released, it pretty much has been the same old observations for me. Nothing changed except at least I had a platform in which to talk about something that had been on my mind for a while. And to think that given our upcoming presidential election, the powers that be have a large constituency of potential Obama voters right where they want them. This is an ongoing problem and situation. What I, and everyone else, can immediately do is get involved in the life of someone you see heading in that direction so that the horrendous numbers of black people locked up steadily declines in the same way it steadily rose.
TB: Since we both grew up in Kankakee, Illinois, do you ever see our hometown popping up in your writing? I felt this sense of place and speech, even though neither of your novels features the town.
KB: Well, I am who I am. I was shaped and molded there. It pops up in every word I write. Most of my observations about love, death, sickness, hardship, and love again were shaped there at a very young age because I grew up with a very large family on both parents’ sides. I was used to being around a lot of adults even though I was young. And they loved to talk and tell stories, which I still remember. Of course, there are certainly environmental factors which contribute to the ultimate psychological template one develops, but for the most part human nature is fairly, predictably consistent—regardless of place. Certainly, the impact of jail and prison on people’s lives was a subject I was passionate about because people will pay attention to an injustice or disproportionate number of convicts in Harlem, but little pockets of our country such as Kankakee, simply go uncharted and unnoticed in these discussions. One of the strongest memories informing Conception for me was the way in which pregnancy, abortion, and contraception were handled on a government level in a poor community with a consistently high teen pregnancy rate. There will always be a little girl from Kankakee, Illinois, inside of me throwing in her two cents. I can’t really separate myself from it at this point.
TB: Speaking of place, you won an award for an excerpt of a novel that you wrote before Upstate. Would you please talk a little bit about that work?
KB: I wanted to write rather than work 80 hours a week consulting after I graduated U of C. I was a medical secretary by day for almost a year and writing my little heart out at night. The book took a while to finish because it was my first, but I was blessed to have had agents fighting over me when I sent it out. I won a 2001 Illinois Arts Council Artist Fellowship in Prose for my first stab at a novel. It was entitled The Junction, and that was the nickname of the tiny circular neighborhood where I grew up in Kankakee. It was at a railroad junction, with a graveyard right in back. I liked the name because it connoted distance, journey, travel, a change, which could be applied in so many ways metaphorically and character wise. So, I wanted to write a historical novel about three generations of a family who had migrated south to a northern place called The Junction. And even better, our annual Summerfest picnic in Kankakee is where a crime is committed in the early 1920s that informed the rest of the century for the family. The novel was actually shopped on the market in 2001, well before my first book, but it was passed on for reasons that are now much clearer to me since I am more experienced as a writer and a published author. I made the mistake so many novelists make with that first work—they think it will be their only work. It was a massive book, with more tangents than I could reasonably engage and fulfill. I have actually borrowed some writing from it because since it was my first time, I can really see some passion in a lot of it. It was a joy to write because more than anything I’ve ever written, my hometown was hands down the model for setting. It will always be my baby, even if it never sees the light of day.
TB: With all the talk of MFAs and PhDs and how difficult it is for writers to find work in this economy, do you think it has impacted your time at the University of Chicago? Do you think it’s a valuable experience for writers?
KB: Writers should not approach the academy or a degree program thinking that they don’t have to work and will be flouncing around writing. A degree program should be a well-thought out strategic move, which will allow your knowledge and hopefully bank account to increase. But getting back into the mentality of being a student is not easy and there is a lot of work, all of which will harm most creative writers’ productivity. If you are a real writer you will always write no matter what, but your mind does slow down after having to write so much for school. I wanted my MFA in creative writing because after The Junction, despite the rejection of it for publication, I was not going to give up on my dream of writing. I had always wanted to live in New York City; I felt that is where the heart of publishing was. I wanted to be there so I matriculated to the New School. I first began to think of a PhD with a concentration on black female culture when I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. I was recruited to a program funded by the Mellon Foundation to work towards a career in academic research, and mentored by black studies professors who are still mentoring me to this day.
I learned a lot of what other people wanted me to learn at U of C, but I was able to develop the tools to go out and learn what I wanted to learn through academic research. That appealed to me, but I was not ready to commit because I knew that the dream of writing would nag me until I felt I had proven to myself that I could do it. I got two novels out of the way before I went back for a PhD, and the first draft of Upstate was actually my thesis for the MFA. My vision for myself is to contribute to the establishment and visibility of black women’s studies for young minds that are interested, but have not been exposed. A PhD makes sense for me because I am earning my entrance and respect in that environment to make the impact I want to make. If it were not for my desire to change institutions and the visibility of black women’s studies, then I would probably be wasting my time because this is not a trust-funded pursuit! As long as the objectives are clear, and people are not going into it thinking that they are fancy free to write and waste time, the universities are provocative, inspiring, and resourceful environments for writers.
TB: I know you’re balancing critical and creative writing now, so could you talk a little more about those projects and how you create the time and space for writing?
KB: I’m taking it easy with creative writing right now. I think I have proven myself for now. I have a lot on my plate with trying to work towards a PhD in literature and promote the two works that I have out there. I also moved back to Chicago to work on the degree, and I have family and friends in Illinois who love me. Those relationships are important to me so I don’t have the same level of reclusiveness that I achieved in New York. I’m also devoting more time to cooking whole foods, exercising, and dating, so it’s hard to get insanely deep into a creative writing project right now. I am always writing a little something something. The caveat for me, at this time, is holding back from obsessing over a work or idea because I just don’t have the time and space to obsess about what’s in my head right now. Reality is a bit more immediate at this time. That is what is hard to communicate at this level. Unfortunately, the public has been conditioned to associate writers and writing with product; the question more often than not is “Are you working on a new book?” rather than “Have you been practicing your writing?” The latter is a more considerate question because down periods can be frustrating. The way I and most writers I know cope with that is by making sure that we do a little something when we can, even if it is a couple of paragraphs or lines. This is a lifelong practice for me. My goal as a writer is to stay healthy and whole, not to push myself to the point that what I produce is not even worth reading. I can’t tell that popular lie and say I write every day because I don’t, and I really don’t want to despite innumerable writers telling me that’s the way. I view the best characters and stories as gifts or guests who take a long time to get here and finally wear out their welcomes once they do. Given that, I’m more than content to relax and just wait for them to show up when they want to.
TB: I noticed that you’re focused on black female dramatists. I’m wondering who intrigues you and why?
KB: I want to do some fun research in the long run, and theater is usually fun. I don’t know where my interests will ultimately land or what the subject of a dissertation will be at this point, but I know that I am committed to illuminating the brilliance of as many black female artists as I can. Classes or conferences are never built around black women who write plays. Although I love them, there has been more than Suzan-Lori Parks, Lorraine Hansberry, Pearl Cleage, Anna Deveare-Smith, and Ntozake Shange. There has been Alice Childress, Beah Richards, most people don’t even know that Denise Nicholas (author of Freshwater Road) was an actress and noted playwright of the 1970s. After the Depression, the number of community theaters spearheaded by black women increased phenomenally. Many of those theaters are still running. As writers and theater developers, black women have certainly impacted the American theater scene in a way that is not talked about, so why not be the one to talk about it? It is an exciting time for black theater right now, it is really growing and major stars are developing. It’s a great time to resurrect a lot of that information and see how far we’ve come.
TB: Since you’ve been working on critical writing and dramatic work, what are some of the differences in the genres? How does it feel when you are writing in each one?
KB: You know, I just love to write. Even my emails and text messages are long! I truly love the written word. I would like to master all its forms. It’s easier for me to talk about what these forms share over how they’re different, because that’s a whole other story. They all share the challenge of facing a blank page, harnessing your mind and translating your silent, ever-changing ideas into a format that others can understand. That’s a tall order no matter what genre you are working in. The actual labor of the process is the same for me no matter what it is. It’s frightening and daunting, but alive and hopeful at the same time. I love writing dialogue, so I’ve found it a little easier to tangle through dramatic writing. Sometimes it’s tiring, especially when it’s late and you can’t remember what page had that very important fact or detail that you need to remember for another page!
Critical writing can be more frustrating for me, a lot more scientific in the sense of making sure all your t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted. It involves organizing a massive amount of information, connecting and contrasting that information, while also including others’ information in your conclusions, not to mention the stylistic and technical tenets of the discipline. The standard language in academic disciplines, and learning that language has been a huge challenge for me because it gets just about as erudite as it can at this level.
I hope that my experience as a creative writer will allow me to ultimately translate my discoveries about our culture to mass audiences who don’t normally pick up scholarly work. Angela Davis, bell hooks, Dorothy Roberts, Harryette Mullen, and Farah Jasmine Griffin are guiding examples of that important work.