Kimberly Jean Smith won Flyway’s “Sweet Corn Fiction” contest with her piece “Lucette.” She was gracious enough to share with Flyway editors some of her thoughts on environmental writing, artistic creation, and wildness.
Flyway: Could you give us some background for “Lucette”? How did art, specifically, Van Gogh’s art and history inspire your story?
KJS: Well, I think Van Gogh’s work probably infused my psyche in ways that I’m not even aware.
For example, I know I worked for years at the Writing Center on my community college campus, and we had decorated one wall with a large dusty print of Starry Night. It was faded, the colors no longer true, and it hung in a somewhat battered plastic frame because that was the decoration we could afford at our center. Every morning I walked in and saw that until I was not even aware I was seeing it anymore.
It wasn’t until long after “Lucette” was written that I even remembered encountering that picture like that, every single time I walked into to work!
Also, I once saw an advertisement for a credit card. It featured Starry Night as one of a number of background designs you could choose for a card they were featuring.
So things like that, I think they leak in and mix with other things.
Things like, a longtime ago I saw a documentary about a very large gold mine in Brazil. It documented in vivid detail the labor of the place, the men climbing up from the bottom of a deep pit covered in mud with heavy bags of soil on their backs. The film included a group of women, living in nearby shacks, who serviced the miners with sex and perhaps other comforts. The women’s look of absolute boredom, the threadbare curtains between their rooms, their isolation, and what I imagined was a kind of unity between them stuck with me.
But more than anything, it was Adam Gopnik’s story about the night Van Gogh lost his ear, which ran a few years ago in the New Yorker that led to an awareness of my fictional Lucette.
It’s hard to know why. Gopnik’s story was very consumed with the details of Gaugin’s relationship to Van Gogh. In passing he mentioned the women of the Little Yellow House, and in particular a woman named Rachel.
That stuck out to me. I mean, at the time, neither painter was a man of note, maybe just messy hard workers like the miners, though they labored over canvases, which is a source of freedom no matter how poor you might be.
Now Gaugin and Van Gogh hold such large presences in our culture. I imagine it would have surprised the women whose time and attention they bought, and I wondered what those women would have had to do in their lives to warrant an article like Gopnik’s.
Truthfully, I put the magazine down, and the room seemed different. Maybe there was a little vibration, and then Lucette was just somehow there, an artist who’d lost sight and lived without ever having access to an artist’s materials.
Flyway: “Lucette” is set in and near Arles, France, and you have some striking setting descriptions, for instance, “Meadows, then woods, dark vibrating tree bark, red pointed berries against white stone. One summer thousands of pale gold flowers suddenly bloomed in the grasses, surrounding the barn, each with five needle thin petals that seemed to spin in the breeze.” Have you visited Arles? Or is this a more an imaginative landscape than one grounded in reality?
KJS: I have never been to Arles, though I have been to France a couple of times. I remember driving along and seeing open fields of sunflowers rolling on for miles it seemed, and I remember thinking in a vague kind of way, oh, so that’s where Van Gogh got that.
And then there’s those Courbet paintings of women working in the fields, he paid such careful attention to their clothing.
I tried to draw a lot of landscape details from Van Gogh’s work, the conceit being that Lucette and Van Gogh each experienced the same landscape at virtually the same historical point, and so it shaped their perception, but one was able to paint his experience and is remembered and one didn’t and she isn’t (also she’s fictional, but you get the idea).
Imagine all the artists in the world, who aren’t right now creating because of barriers they face. What if they were somehow able to begin creating? To what new manners of perception might we then be exposed?
Flyway: I’m interested in your choice to make Lucette blind. So much of your story deals with the visual, from Van Gogh’s art, to the striking French landscape, so what made you decide to make the central character blind? How did you balance describing the visual world with Lucette’s non-visual one?
KJS: I don’t know that I chose to make her blind. She showed up like that.
When I thought about her, I thought she might carry the memory of sight, and that might lead to a kind of super-vivid reconstruction of seeing, which is sort of how I experience Van Gogh’s work.
Instead of the balance being visual and non-visual, I think of the balance being more before and after. At one point she could see; and she carries those memories for her whole long life, and those memories attach to her experience of the world as a blind person, the way she hears, smells, touches, and tastes the world are informed by her memory of sight.
Like I’m guessing Van Gogh would have had a really vivid way of experiencing and recording life even without sight.
Maybe that isn’t true, but visual information, while certainly important for those of us with sight, isn’t the only way we experience the world. There are still all those other senses through which writers can create images.
Flyway: Here at Flyway we define “environmental writing” broadly, whether it’s writing that is strictly ecological or about environmentalism, or works, like “Lucette” where the physical environment plays an important part to the piece. How do you understand environmental writing? Do you read much environmental writing? Who are some authors who have influenced your own writing?
KJS: I think I have what might be a wrong idea about environmental writing––that it pits human beings against a landscape, a landscape which is always perfect prior to our arrival, and that always suffers through our presence.
It’s not that I love David Abram’s book, The Spell of the Sensuous, but I would be lying if I didn’t say it’s had a huge effect on my writing. There’s some part of me that’s always arguing against my understanding of his thesis, that we, as human beings, are failing, failing to live “rightly” I suppose, which he supports with ideas about how our very use of language leads us astray.
I love language and have a great faith in its powers and possibilities. But in every internal argument I have with Abram, trying to restore humanity’s good name before his harsh and judging eye, I always loop back to a position similar to his.
As much as language is about possibility, every word is also a kind of limitation on, or a narrowing of, our ideas about what a thing might be. I mean, once we call a tree a tree then it quickly tends to fall into all our accepted patterns for what trees can be, and, in a way, we can no longer experience a tree with any fullness. It’s become that one thing alone, and our perception is limited by whatever that word means to us.
Such narrowing blinds us to wonder and allows us to destroy because we can no longer experience wonder, and language is implicated in that.
But it sometimes seems to me that to take on the label environmentalist, ecologist, and so on, one must disavow humanity, and I love humanity. How are we that different from ants, bees, ravens, dogs, or all those other social creatures, living in close quarters and manipulating their environments to one degree or another for comfort? We are animals like that and the things we build I think arrive from similar impulses––to create more efficient connections between our fellows.
For the most part, I’m comfortable in cities amongst my brothers and sisters, and for me such environments are a form of nature in that we are always and forever also an expression of nature, our nature.
I mean, I get it, we’re have a larger effect on our environment than can ever possibly be sustained. We should do something about that, but the very impulse to build skyscrapers, ports, roads and so on, might be the animal in us.
I remember a story the photographer Zoe Leonard once told about her time in Alaska. She lived in a very remote area, miles and miles and even more miles from large groups of other human beings. Even so, she said for many weeks the wind continued to sound like an approaching car. It took her some time to adjust and not jump out of the way every time a strong breeze blew.
And then, I think it was her, who told this story, one day she came across an old dented coke can, out where no one was but her. That small sign of humanity where you would least expect if felt very comforting to her in a manner similar to how I get excited about seeing a raccoon run across a city street or smell a skunk at night––experiencing something “wild” where I didn’t expect it. Both examples somehow mean we are not alone.
Of course, a giant landfill of coke cans doesn’t offer any comfort, unless, of course, your income is dependent on gathering them. Then I suppose, it might look like a small mountain of gold or at least a good meal.
Flyway: Could you give us insight to your writing process? Is there any writing advice you find particularly helpful?
KJS: I’ve stopped believing that it’s me inventing these fictional people and their worlds. It feels more as if I discover them through a careful listening, by staying silent, and not getting bossy or having too big of an agenda for a story. Rather my job is simply to record what I see and hear and that always seems more vivid than anything I could invent.
As long as I hold distance from what’s ending up on the page, hold true to the idea that it’s not me creating it, I find I have greater courage to really see what I see when I’m looking and hear what I hear in that space, which, I suppose, is what we call imagination.
I guess, and I think, imagination is a shared space. All the things that shape my seeing and hearing, which are outside of my control, they don’t have anything to do with me: that I am born a woman; and white; and I’ve read these books and not those; and have heard those songs but not others. I read certain books and hear certain songs in large part because of my social positioning.
I’m very influenced by Barthes’ ideas about writers, and I find what he says about how readers write a text even more than writers do very liberating. I like the idea that my cultural expresses through my genetic and sensory material, the times I was born to, and all things that are outside of my control. My part is either paying attention to or ignoring the impulse to create, or maybe it’s better to say “record” what passes through my particular set of cells at this historical time period.
Of course, by the time, I’m working with a draft, well, I revise carefully. I tinker and polish a lot. It feels industrious and precise, and I am very willful in that space; I want it to be “right,” whatever that means. It’s not necessarily for best ends, I suppose, but I don’t know how else to do it because I want people to read my work, I really do, and I hope they connect to it, which I think is what revision is about. Helping my imagined reader find a way into a story. Maybe revision is about seduction. Every gesture on the page matters if I can only focus my energy long enough to exact some mysterious something that others can sense as well.
I say all that about being a witness to imagination, but then I remember I often have an over-arching premise for my work, something that acts as a kind of constraint, a formal structure, whose terms must be met––a big agenda––as is the case with Lucette.
I knew it would be told in the third person, though the narration is closely aligned with her point of view, meaning I couldn’t provide a lot of visual information for large parts of the story. That was the constraint, which made the story interesting and challenging for me to write.
So, I guess all my artistic impulses are contradictory; these fictions are mine and not mine. I passively watch, and I maniacally polish.
My advice: Don’t wait for permission. Write as if all the permission you’re ever going to get has already arrived. The writing act itself is its own permission, so write whether or not it’s ugly or whether or not its good, something else is always on its way, if only you keep writing.