A Conversation with Kaie Kellough
Canisia Lubrin: Many writers over time have expressed the sentiment that the writer, in order to write, is always at odds with their society. I’m keen for your insights as a writer whose works locate that particular discordance across genres.
Kaie Kellough: Hello, Canisia, thank-you for your question. It’s nice to be in conversation with you about the relationship between the artist and their society. I also like that you’ve chosen the word “discordance” to refer to this relationship, because it references sound, and specifically a lack of sonic resolution. That quality can be difficult to endure. It can potentially aggress or repel listeners, but it can also compel deeper listening, and its lack of resolution can suggest resistance, or defiance. In performance I often use noise as a way of commenting socially: Garbling words, for instance, to express a frustration communicating about the cultural and experiential distance at which I stand, as a man of color with roots in South America, from an untroubled sense of belonging here in North America.
The complication that arises is that so many people feel at odds with society, but nobody is really outside of society, and performances of noisome defiance are not always progressive. Internet trolls and alt-right bigots proclaim themselves marginalized and alienated, and they embrace noise and defiance. And it seems that one of the major contrarian drives of our time, one of the major ways of appalling polite liberal society comes from revisiting the Nazis: performing their gestures, quoting Hitler, embracing their outlook and displaying their symbols. North America continues to be deeply divided, increasingly violent, and politically dissolute. In light of that, I’ve had to question some of the techniques I employ, and I’ve become more careful about how I choose to engage with questions of belonging and alienation.
I’ve been thinking that, in my own work, whether written or performed, the issue really is less about my ownership of the idea of alienation or outsider status, and more about identifying and investigating various areas of discord that exist in our society, using them as vehicles for narrative by locating characters along their fault-lines. Overall, if everyone is at odds with society, and we have splintered into innumerable groups that proclaim defiance, I would like to use art to hold a compassionate critical space that people can access to think about our divisions.
CL: This idea of compassion in writing is something I espouse. Yet, I must fool myself into ascribing this accepted orthography of society itself--what it is, what it constitutes, how it evolves--some degree of legitimacy. And that is where I begin. I begin with the trouble that what is often underwritten as “society” itself is mainly predicated on systems of power that pits our humanity into homogeneous modes of hierarchy. So, as you identify the things about our time that make the idea of society particularly unstable, I am drawn to investigate the work of writing in that disturbance. I am drawn to consider the fact that Western society’s ethos partly results from long histories of violence, theft, subjugation, jingoism, self-delusion, great ambition. Gwen Benaway, a poet I am deeply inspired by, recently expressed brilliantly, something that I've also given a lot of attention to in my writing life: the intent to elevate into visibility the continuing agency of people who exist in that instability outside the dominant structures. That we are part of society’s continuation, to my mind, elevates the work of art as meaningful--whether it “helps” society in some moralistic sense or not. Art is as art does and the artist must create.
I think that our current acute iteration of instability (because how can there ever have existed stable society?) is particularly armed with heightened imaginations of violence, of envisioning the self in stasis of threat, and revealing the work of language itself in the making of various identities, and by proxy, in making and destroying lives. Writing, whether poetry or fiction, nonfiction, or drama, etc. is an account of existence, it is a force capable of changing us, whether folks think this force is good or bad (I’m not sure this is a helpful distinction because it demands sureity) is another related matter. The wonder for me, is what makes the work of the writer particularly essential in this navigation of our divisions.
Even as I open this pandora’s box for us, I am resisting this idea that writers must be characterized as being default believers in these broader social systems that govern lives. Sometimes I get the sense that writers are part of a long experiment that sees us straddle lines of inclusion and rejection. To say that the dominance of “society” as a stalwart for being/non-being or humanity is something that seems almost accepted by default, a kind of fluency of meaning that is at odds with itself. Yet, part of evolving an understanding of how we are who we are, through language, calls for things that allow us to both expose our fault-lines and attempt to take us beyond the damages these fault-lines elicit.
This is one form of discordance that contains worlds of other discordances within it. And since my book takes as a point of departure this idea of the other as western myth, I take liberties with bringing it up here.
Being at odds then, for me, is less about disagreement and more about disenchantment--whatever alienation thrusts upon you by forces outside of yourself. Of the many things that the language of “the social” can do, it does well to rail against factors that prohibit dignity, care and useful and generative provocation. I often feel like I’m performing a balancing act on high wire over a large pit of quicksand. Why am I drawn to the subjects that I am drawn to? I have worked in several genres myself and I wonder whether the realities of “the imperfect world” are much different for the writer, than for, say, the painter, the musician, etc..
KK: I like the thought you expressed earlier, that our societies are inherently unstable. As a writer, I draw from that instability as from a source of renewable energy. I certainly feel this instability in Québec. It concretizes into the worry that the infrastructure that connects us (The Turcot interchange, the 720 expressway, the Cartier bridge) may be in danger of collapse. Several years ago a part of the expressway did collapse. And it arises in discussions of language, culture, belonging, identity, freedom of religious expression, immigration, and nationhood, which are made urgent by the worry that Québécois culture and the French language are in decline. This worry nurtures itself. It also gives rise to divisive election campaigns and initiatives like the Charter of Values. It has invigorated the referendums of past decades, ones that depleted Montréal. It translates into a precarity that many communities of color experience. Although this instability stays dormant for long periods, it is always there, in a way that haunts our daily interactions and that troubles our sense of a collective future. I often wonder: If my current writing is drawn from and directed to this society, if its vocabulary is informed by French, English, as well as Créole, then will the writing necessarily inherit that instability? What does it mean for writing to become unstable, and how will this quality be reflected in form and structure, but also subject and language? Lately I’ve been writing both long and short fiction, and my characters seem to internalize this instability. They experience anxiety, aimlessness, and emotional volatility. These qualities also show up structurally as narratives that begin in one part of the world, abruptly break, and pick up in another, as interrupted timelines, as troubling and inconclusive scenarios, and as desires that go unfulfilled.
I would add that our societies are unstable but persistent. We don’t know what they will become, but they are always tethered to their histories of (as you noted above) exploitation and displacement. At the same time, they are affected by forces whose influence we can’t predict. What of the four thousand refugees presently being housed in the Olympic stadium, sleeping on cots? How will their influence be felt? When the Québec government issues them a one-time payment of roughly $624.00 apiece and expects them to find their way in society, how will they cope? How will their children construct their identities, and how will they transform this society?
In the early 1990s when The Famished Road was experiencing international success, I seem to remember Ben Okri saying that he was unable to write in Nigeria. The pressures of life, the immediacy and intensity of its struggles were overwhelming. He said that he found it much easier to write in England, even though he was writing about Nigeria. This placed him physically outside of Nigeria, but it seemed that he wasn’t completely in England either. If he was physically situated there, wasn’t he also intellectually distant? It’s curious that while the act of writing might require some retreat, the act itself seems to me one of engagement, empathy, searching, and identification across places and times. Writing can be disembodied, displaced, adrift, stateless, and yet it can connect across borders, across colonial divides. It is like a transference takes place in the process: thought and emotion move through writing into an engagement with the world, and can thereby agitate for liberation.
On a more personal note: I grew up in Western Canada in the 1980s, and was very unhappy there. Race played a big part in this, and I often thought of myself as a cultural outsider. I also started writing at a time when so few writers of color were being published that I was almost certain it was futile to try to publish. It has been a revelation to me that writing requires that I engage with what I always felt outside of, and what I also wanted to defy. So in this engagement there is also defiance, and that defiance mines personal and societal instability, extracts the uncertainty at its core, and uses it to power the imagination and the future.
Kaie Kellough is a novelist, poet, and sound performer. He is the author of two poetry
collections and the voice of two sound poetry recordings. His novel Accordéon was
shortlisted for the 2017 Walrus/Amazon first novel award. Kaie performs and publishes
internationally, and is currently working on long and short fiction.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Canisia Lubrin was born in St. Lucia. She has had work published in literary journals including Room, The Puritan, This Magazine, Arc, CV2and The City Series #3: Toronto Anthology. She has been an arts administrator and community advocate for close to two decades. Lubrin has contributed to the podcast On The Line, hosted by Kate Sutherland for The Rusty Toque. She studied at York University where she won the President's Prize in poetry and the Sylvia Ellen Hirsch Memorial Award in creative writing. Lubrin holds an MFA from the University of Guelph and teaches at Humber College. She lives in Whitby, Ontario.