“Something Prickly and Strange”
In this edition of “The Writer’s Life,” we feature essays by two sisters, Kaitlyn and Kirsten Greenidge. Kirsten is an acclaimed playwright, and Kaitlyn is achieving early success as a fiction writer.
TW Executive Editor Elizabeth Langosy has known the Greenidge family since Kaitlyn and Kirsten were very young. She asked the sisters to write about the role of memories in their stories and plays.
“I don’t like to call my work autobiographical,” Kaitlyn notes, explaining:
The word ‘autobiographical’ has at times been used by critics to describe the work of women writers and writers of color, as a kind of code to gloss over the amount of craft that still has to go into creating a piece of writing. Critics also use it as shorthand to suggest the fiction produced by these writers is not ‘universal’ but the concerns of that one interest group.”
Don’t miss Kirsten’s companion piece, “Something Wonderfully Dionysian.”
When I first began writing, it was for a reason I think a lot of younger people start writing: revenge. Wanting to set the record straight.
Although I’ve never written a story based strictly on a memory, my earliest pieces were inspired by times in my life when I felt that an emotional justice had not been served or an emotional truth had been ignored. I wrote to feel justified as a person—as someone with valid feelings and opinions, someone whose observations and understanding of the world were real and credible.
In the long run, revenge can be a severely limiting motivation. I remember trying to start a novel in high school and worrying that I would soon run out of autobiographical material. I couldn’t conceive of writing a main character or narrator who didn’t have my same thoughts and feelings and family background.
As I became more practiced at writing—and especially as I read more—I found that when I read fiction I perceived as coming from that desire for reckoning, it left me dissatisfied. The work might be spirited and energetic, but I ended up feeling emotionally exhausted and embarrassed—for myself and for the writer.
Books that are profoundly unsettling in their first few pages excited me more. If I got an eerie, unquiet feeling in my stomach when reading them, I knew to keep pushing forward because good things were coming. They introduced me to intelligences so singular and odd, they frightened me: Collette’s Claudine novels, The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, and—most important—Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
All these novels are, of course, arguably autobiographical. But rather than exhausting me, reading them was like running my palm along a smooth metal banister and suddenly getting an electric shock. Instead of the shock being painful, it felt pleasurable; it made me want to do it again. Their craft allowed me to bump up against the author’s imagined memories, at once alien and achingly familiar, and to experience them as my own.
That’s where I believe the power and the art of writing from memories comes from. And those are the types of books that made me—still make me—want to be a writer.
Peter Carey, in his Paris Review interview “Peter Carey, The Art of Fiction No. 188,” describes the insertion of the author’s life into fiction this way:
Think of it like Robert Rauschenberg picking up a sock from the floor and using it in a painting. It’s still a sock, but it’s no longer a sock. When I write I look at what’s lying on the floor of my life. So I can pick up that river and that land and rip them up and glue them down to serve a whole new purpose.”
This distance from the source seems natural to me, probably because I had the unique experience of watching a writer at work from a pretty formative age. My sister Kirsten started writing and producing her plays when I was in eighth grade. In high school, I even acted in some of them, and at that time they included more recognizable elements of our family history.
It was profoundly odd to sit on a stage in a make-believe car beside an actress who looked nothing like my mother but spouted some of her favorite catch phrases—and then to have to mime the adolescent annoyance I really did feel toward my mother, back at that same actress. It was disorienting but kind of a gift. It was one of the many advantages of having Kirsten for a sister.
That experience taught me to be fearless with memory, that memory does not have to limit me in art. It helped me to understand that the things that happened are just a starting point. As a writer, one of my jobs is to weave those memories into something completely different, something a little bit prickly and strange.
• • •
One thing I have trouble with is story endings. When I first started to read novels, I was so, so, so frustrated with their endings. They always seemed so untrue, because I felt nothing is really tied up or resolved that easily.
If someone wrote my family history as a novel, I would think, they’d have to put in some untrue or completely unjustified resolution. So much of my family history was painful and stressful for me because there never were any resolutions. People disappeared, and you didn’t reunite with them on their deathbed. You just never saw them again. Money got stolen, and it wasn’t miraculously restored. It just stayed gone and you stayed poor.
I thought resolutions were a failure of fiction, and as a misguided result, I rarely wrote a story with anything resembling an actual ending. This made grad school really hard. Nobody could get their head around the fact that not having an ending was, for me at that point, an artistic—and moral—choice. They just made a fuss about my not knowing how to structure a story.
Now, when I write, I realize that my choice of an ending is what makes what I am doing an art form. The artificiality of it lies in coaxing the reader—who knows as well as you do that life is hard and there are no endings and things are more likely to grind on and on than to ever get resolved—to believe where you decide to end a story.
Memories end for us when the rest of the information contained in the experience is no longer emotionally useful, and that is when a piece of fiction ends, too.
• • •
The project I’m working on now was hard to get started. It will be a novel, about a black family who is asked to raise their two daughters with a chimpanzee. This happens in an almost all-white town in Western Massachusetts in the early 1990s.
In my mind, the story is funny and sad and strange. I want it to be an enjoyable experience for the reader. But I’ve gotten mostly uncomfortable reactions from the few people I’ve discussed it with. I’ve seen people actually cringe when I describe the plot.
When I first started writing in high school, I would have relished this response. Since my writing was an act of revenge, I took a perverse pleasure in imagining and describing things I thought were really transgressive, things my family or friends wouldn’t agree with or would be embarrassed by.
Now, however, I’m just trying to get down whatever is true to the story or the character, whatever is true to the situation. So those cringes, those uncomfortable silences, cause me a great deal of anxiety. If this book is published, are people going to accuse me of being self-hating or bad for black people? I don’t want people to think I hate myself or black people. I love black people!
In all seriousness: Writing about African American experiences is, at least for me right now, one of the driving forces behind my work. I want to see my generation of women and men of color, the people I am lucky enough to call friends and fellow writers, the people who make me laugh, inspire me, make me weep, and make me think—I want to see those people and their wants and desires fully portrayed in fiction.
When I start thinking about this, I hyperventilate for a few days and IM or email anyone who will listen to my anxieties and generally play the stereotype of the self-important, neurotic writer to a T. Then I take a deep breath, tell myself to shut the fuck up, and force myself to keep writing what I want to write, regardless.
In the late ‘80s, it seemed like comedians always had a “white people do this/black people do this” section in their acts. Even as a little kid, I flinched whenever I heard that. I never found it funny, just sad and really claustrophobic. Worst of all, the rules they listed weren’t true for my family and friends or the people I loved (Really? Black people aren’t supposed to know how to swim? But my uncle was a state diving champ and worked with the Black Panthers. How do you explain that?).
It felt like there was an elaborate fiction created to say that’s how we all acted, and if you didn’t follow the rules, you somehow weren’t black. Even as a kid, I just knew I was going to break some of them, and as an adolescent, I did. It may not seem radical now, but let’s just say being a black thirteen-year-old Björk fan was rough in ‘94.
Of course, I put this into what I am writing now. The teenage narrator of the novel, Charlotte, who is basically a nerd and social outcast at her predominantly black high school in Boston, moves to what she thinks is an all-white town. At first, she’s excited. She’s seen the teen movies: White people think black people are cool. She’ll be the only black kid in town, and this will lend her some glamour and let her reinvent herself.
Much to her dismay, there’s another black girl there already who takes one look at Charlotte and decides she’s a sellout. This other girl, even though she’s been living in the town with her mom as the only other person of color, has come up with rules about what it means to be black. She always finds Charlotte lacking. Because they are both fourteen, Charlotte is drawn to this judgment, which amuses, horrifies, and tempts her, all at once.
Surprise, surprise, that’s kind of the mix I’ve felt growing up. See, my writing is autobiographical after all.
Kaitlyn Greenidge’s work has appeared in American Short Fiction and Afrobeat Journal, was shortlisted for Canteen Magazine’s 2009 Inaugural Fiction Prize, and is forthcoming in The Believer.
She has been awarded fellowships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was a 2008 Hertog Research Fellow at Hunter College, where she also won the 2010 Bernard Cohen Short Fiction Prize.
In March 2011, she was the Visiting Emerging Writer at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vermont. She holds an MFA from Hunter College’s Fiction Program. Kaitlyn lives in Brooklyn, New York.