45.2 Feature: An Interview with Amanda Kallis – 2018 BWR Nonfiction Contest Winner
Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review (2018 Nonfiction Contest Winner), Spillway, Prelude, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and The Cincinnati Review. She’s received fellowships from the Edward F. Albee Foundation and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 2017 she graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with an MFA in Fiction. Currently she’s working on a speculative novel. Follow her on Twitter @amandaleekallis or her website http://amandakallis.com/
Interviewed by Elizabeth Theriot
Black Warrior Review: Kate Zambreno called “Social Body” an “elegant, pained mosaic of fracture and fragments.” Your content and form complicate and converse in rich ways. Can you talk about the decisions that went into the structure of this essay?
Amanda Kallis: Not so much decisions as a series of attempts. I put this essay draft down and picked it up again several times over the course of three years. Longer, if I include the photography in that count. The structure is accretionary because the writing was. I also was in the midst of a lot of change in my life and in my writing style. All of it felt cramped and recursive, and I was worming my way out of that. I was owning the writer identity for the first time and it was as if I couldn’t give myself more than a few inches, perched and buckled, trying to make myself as small as possible. I could mimic the intensity of an emotion but struggled to articulate the source. Clarity was elusive. I didn’t give room for it. So each time I went back to the essay I tried to find white space in it, not by unearned suggestive fragments or shelled metaphors, but by stating what I meant. Why is that so hard? But I found it very hard to do. I had to trust that there would still be depth inside clarity, that “the named generates far more complex and powerful associations than does the unnamed” (from Louise Glück’s “Ersatz Thought,” which quietly blew my mind). I don’t think I knew what I was writing until very late. The structure was the made in the act of looking.
(And a thank you to Kate Zambreno! She was very, very generous.)
BWR: The essay is complemented and interrupted by your own photographs. What has been your experience with and approach to photography and visual representation in the art you make?
AK: That they were separate interests. But when I introduced images in this essay, and later, gave them more space (a smart workshop suggestion)—they belonged. I like how they shift the pacing. I needed some stillness on the page, and the images did that. I think they offer an opportunity to pause, a place to float but not a place to exit.
Also: All writing confronts the problems of language, but this essay was, for me, the problems of language in crisis. With photography, here was another language to press to the problem. Greedily, I used it.
Last: There are spaces where photographers write about their practice, and spaces where theorists confront photography, but I didn’t (and this could easily be my ignorance) see much conversation between them. There’s so much distrust of photography! Yes, it’s violent. So is writing. Most tools are. Cameras gets right at the strangeness of perception, just like language does. Like with language—but much more immediate—photography shows how odd and flimsy perception is. It was an obvious choice to use photography in an essay about perceiving and being perceived, appearing and appearance, once I’d done it.
BWR: Your mother and grandmother feature prominently in “Social-Body.” How does matrilineal inheritance shape your writing and art?
AK: I was story hungry. I’d just decided I was going to be a writer and was terrified I had nothing to say. In part, this was because I was unable to write down what I was dealing with, finding my depression both impossible to confront and somewhat boring. Depression is ringing a void to hear it sound. What good is that echo? I was asking the people around me for their stories instead. Generally, the women in my family hadn’t told me their stories as readily as the men had, so more was new there. I’m extremely fortunate that they were willing to share such intimate memories.
The violence lurking in their stories was surprising to me but also made sense. I’d known it, hadn’t I, in how they talked? I was reading all these brainy works about memory, on the individual scale and the national scale. That influence is clear in the quoted texts. And then here was memory working between women in a way I recognized but hadn’t much thought about, before—and I wondered in what ways it colored how I saw the world, how I interacted with it, what I expected the world to have for me, do to me. I included their stories, and selfishly, tried to see what they meant.
BWR: Who are some of the creators you looked to for early inspiration and guidance?
AK: I began writing this in a workshop led by Charles D’Ambrosio; in the life of this essay that’s an early source of guidance without a doubt. This also builds on a sequence poem I began as an undergraduate, in a workshop led by Claudia Rankine—who is the teacher mentioned in the essay pushing me to state my subject, and what she’d call the “argument.” They are such different people as writers and mentors, but they both have a hand in this piece. I got very lucky.
BWR: I can’t stop thinking about the skull your young grandmother found in the graveyard. Can you tell us another strange family legend?
AK: Be careful calling it a legend, my grandma will have choice words for you.
Many of the legends in my family revolve around the men—my great-grandfather who, though he was dirt poor, quit his job because it gave him calluses that would come between him and his paint brush. My grandpa who told a bedtime story to his son that later Walt Disney wanted to buy (but didn’t). My other grandfather who as a young man had all of his teeth pulled out by a charlatan dentist. My family (as most do) has its stories, and I intend to continue stealing from them, so maybe I’ll stop there. The ones in this essay I used primarily because they don’t neatly fit into anyone’s narrative about our family, or themselves. They stuck out.
BWR: What writing/writers are you excited about right now?
AK: This is the impossible question for the best reasons. So much gorgeous writing out there. Let’s see, I’d be happy if Renee Gladman and I were mentioned in the same breath—so I’ll do it here. In fiction land: Alice Sola Kim is killing it. On my nightstand right now is The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang.
BWR: Please tell us what you’re currently working on!
AK: I’m writing a science fiction novel. Or speculative novel, whichever you like. In many ways it overlaps with this essay; it’s obsessed with perception, beauty, memory, intimacy. Female relationships, addiction, depression. I guess I’ll always be writing about those. Certainly there’s enough in there to busy yourself for a while. The novel is a coming of age set outside Los Angeles, like my own coming of age. Technologies appear that are freeing, addictive, helpful, dangerous, necessary—as they are now. Girls gather in a circle and pass around each other’s disembodied heads. That sort of thing.