Sunday, May 6, 2018

Q&A with Kirsten Imani Kasai

Kirsten Imani Kasai, photo by Alanna Airitam Photography
Kirsten Imani Kasai is the author of the new novel The House of Erzulie. Her other books include Ice Song and Tattoo, and she is the publisher of Body Parts Magazine. She lives in California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The House of Erzulie?

A: I know that it started with the house, that degenerate, three-story townhouse that Lydia describes on pg. 96. That’s a scene from my own dream—the green door, the séance attendees tucked away within a shadowy, unknowable room, calling out to a ghost.

That house has been an evolving and recurrent motif in my dreams for years—it’s in much better shape, now. It even has a rooftop jazz bar and a docent.

The first little section that I wrote was Isidore as he floundered around the crossroads of science, Vodou and Spiritualism, trying to ascertain what was “real.”

Initially, I knew that there was something, a curse perhaps, connected to a bowl of blood and that both blood and curse tied together two disparate, yet similar storylines—the “red thread” between Isidore and Lydia.

I also knew that I wanted to examine the distressing history of the hierarchical race and caste systems of the American South during Antebellum times and how they influenced our conceptions of privilege, belonging and identity today.

Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater informed this work, as well as the mythology of the succubus and its villainizing of female sexuality.

I think of writing, or pre-writing, as being similar to making soup. All of these seemingly unrelated ideas (ingredients) go into a single pot to stew over time and become something else that is the sum of all that goes into it.

Finding answers to these questions was akin to stumbling through the dark, trying to understand that which is sensed, or felt, but unseen. I’m glad it came together so well in the end!

Fun fact—Isidore got his name from Isador Oglesby, a tenor soloist. I used to have his LP “Isador Sings Negro Spirituals By Contemporary Afro Americans” and the sound of his voice just stuck with me over the years, even though the album vanished somewhere along my travels.
Q: The novel includes sections set in the present and others set in the 19th century. Did you write the book in the order in which it appears, or did you focus first on one time period and then switch to the other one?

A: I started with Isidore, and then fleshed out the others. The hardest thing was organizing the story in a way that made sense to readers but also suited my purposes and those of the narrative. I conceived of the three sections as a triptych, which worked very well within the Gothic framing of “story-within-a-story” while honoring the genre’s reliance on mirroring.

Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you learn that particularly intrigued you?

A: Whatever I was working on would prompt questions. Writing about a dining scene led me to research what would have been served at a Southern plantation table or an upscale New York hotel in the 1850s, for example. I was delighted to find that others are equally curious about historical cuisine

I wanted the 19th century segments to be as accurate as possible, so I read archived articles, menus, cookbooks and more. I was astounded by the depth of cruelty and barbarism that the past holds, and despite the heartening news that things are getting better overall, there are more people enslaved today than at any other point in history.

As a species, I feel that we are very sluggishly dragging ourselves toward a more just and equitable existence, but it’s a slow and painful process.

Q: The novel includes the theme of mental health. Why did you choose to include that as part of the story?

A: I’m very interested in mental health and psychology in general, but I had become quite fascinated by the idea of epigenetic roots of transgenerational trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACE) as a contributor to mental illness and as an indicator of later-in-life health problems.

This was spurred by my own personal research into finding the roots of my own health issues, and examining how anxiety and depression have manifested in myself and some of my family members.

Also, as I said in the author’s note at the end of the book, I had been going through a tumultuous and painful time in my own life, including a divorce and my father’s death from cancer.

I felt very raw and porous for a long time, yet also keenly aware that I could not surrender to my various griefs because I have children and had to ensure that we all came through those periods of transition emotionally and spiritually intact. Lydia allowed me to give voice to that part of myself without having to actually experience it.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m tinkering with several projects, as I always do, a couple of novel ideas. Likely returning to speculative fiction, although I’ve enjoyed working in the Gothic genre so much, I’d like to write another.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If you’re in the New York or Washington, D.C., area, come see me! Upcoming events: Bluestockings Bookstore, May 12, and Duende District Bookstore Pop-Up at Torpedo Factory Art Center, June 9.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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