By Joelyn Suarez
This interview accompanies Jacqueline Kolosov’s essay “Afterwards.”
Jacqueline Kolosov is a widely published author of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She has two YA novels out this year, and co-edited Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. Her collection of essays, Motherhood, and the Places Between, is forthcoming. One of the essays included in the collection is the 2013 recipient of the prestigious Burns Archive Prize for Nonfiction in the Bellevue Literary Review. She also teaches in the Department of English at Texas Tech University.
Kolosov took the time to talk with The Coachella Review about everything from her intriguing versatility as a writer to reproductive technologies and the Syrian refugee crisis.
The Coachella Review: Before we talk about your upcoming collection, Motherhood, and the Places Between, I wanted to talk about your blog. How important do you think it is, as an author, to maintain a blog or an internet presence in general? Is it to keep your readers updated, or more for you as a writer to be able to get some “casual” writing into your routine?
Jacqueline Kolosov: That’s a good question. When I published my last 2 YA novels—or pre-publication—the publisher advised me to start a blog in order to reach out to my audience. The blog at www.jacquelinekolosovreads.com, then, dates from March 2015, I believe, some two months before Along the Way came out. Around this same time, I attended the annual meeting of the Texas Library Association and was encouraged to attend a cocktail party with YA bloggers. I did just that. And Along the Way had “a blog tour”: meaning, it was reviewed and talked up on several blogs. But in all honesty, none of this really impacted sales in any significant way. My blog gets some 350–550 visits a week. Many of the people on the post list are students, former students, friends, and people with whom I’ve established some writerly connection. And recently, I had an article in The Writer’s Chronicle which brought more people to the blog. I realize I am being rather circuitous in my answer, but the truth is, I don’t think blogs make a huge difference. At least not in my experience. I have frequently visited the blogs of writers with much bigger national reputations than myself, and often they are very out-of-date. So, perhaps the author is too busy/successful to maintain it—I don’t know. At this point, I update my blog because I know many people are reading it, and so it gives me the opportunity to write about subjects that compel and trouble me (such as the situation in Syria and the fact that there are now 57.5 million refugees in the world) as well as to post updates on readings and other events such as an online class I’m teaching. I enjoy blogging so that’s why I’m staying with it.
TCR: Motherhood, and the Places Between is a series of linked essays about the challenges of trying to conceive, reproductive technologies, and parenthood. The advancements in the field of reproduction have come a long way. Not only can an infertile woman be impregnated, but she and her partner can also choose (at a cost) the sex of the baby or certain physical features. This has become widely controversial. What are your thoughts on this matter?
JK: Honestly, that’s a tough question. Tonight at dinner, my nine-year-old daughter asked me about the absence of a classmate’s father. My daughter has a friend over tonight, so I wasn’t sure how open I could be about conception in this situation. The fact is, though, that this classmate never had a father. Her parents are a lesbian couple, and they used a sperm donor. I told my daughter and her friend that “Clara does not have a father. In order to make Clara, her mothers needed the right ingredients.” My daughter asked: “So was he the sugar or the flour?” I don’t think I ever answered this question.
Basically, I have very mixed feelings about reproductive technologies. My first choice, personally, would have been adoption. However, given my age and my husband’s age—he is 11 years older than me—our choices were very limited. Some 11 years ago, I published a middle grade novel called Grace from China, about a mother-daughter journey to China to adopt a little girl. International adoption has been, for a long time, a dream of my own. And before we pursued the reproductive technologies angle, we investigated that route. However, the wait time has become very, very long, and because of certain abuses, some countries have closed international adoption. China, specifically, is very difficult now, especially for a couple over forty. Our option was to adopt a handicapped child, and as much as I admire parents who raise children with disabilities, that was not our calling.
I read about Kurdish children being orphaned in Iraq. I read about Syrian children being orphaned. I would adopt such a child in a heartbeat—but how do we reach these children? In Along the Way, my latest YA novel, one of the three protagonists’ mothers goes the IVF route, and this girl wishes that her mother had adopted given the tremendous need out there. That’s my soul talking. But the trouble is that it can be impossible to reach these children in need.
In terms of selecting the features or the sex of a future child, I do not support that. It seems like madness. My own daughter was conceived naturally. And the bottom line is that women are meant to have children before forty. I waited too long, or my life unfolded so that I did not have my daughter til I was nearing forty. But I know people who cannot have children because of various reproductive issues, and IVF and other technologies enable them to bear their own children—or find a surrogate to carry the child, or find sperm or…. Who would deny another human being the dream of bringing his/her child into the world?
TCR: Congratulations on your essay “Dust, Light, Life” (which will be featured in Motherhood, and the Places Between) winning the 2013 Burns Archive Prize for Nonfiction in the Bellevue Literary Review. This essay weaves in several elements: the Miller moths invading Lubbock, the narrator’s friendship with her colleague Trudy, the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s, among other things. “Dust, Light, Life” is framed by Virginia Woolf’s essay “The Death of the Moth.” What inspired you to structure it this way? What in particular draws you to Woolf’s work?
JK: I could write a book on this question. Woolf is absolutely central to the entire collection, and I was privileged (thanks to a grant from my university) to travel to England and specifically to St. Ives in Cornwall where Woolf and her siblings spent their childhood summers. St. Ives is the location in Woolf’s most autobiographical novel, To the Lighthouse. The short answer is that I have always been drawn to Woolf’s vision, especially in To the Lighthouse. In this novel, she asks: What is it that abides? What lasts given so much that is ephemeral and fleeting? And by this she means the death of her own mother and of her sister. I, too, ask that question. Here, I’ll quote from the opening of “Pilgrimage to St. Ives,” which was originally published in The Sewanee Review. My family and I are journeying, via train, to St. Ives, and I’m thinking about the impact of To the Lighthouse at this point:
…what I’ve come to understand is the ways in which Woolf’s novel is itself engaged with seeking what shines out…in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral—. Her mother Julia Stephen, the real Mrs. Ramsay, died when her youngest daughter was thirteen (her last words to Virginia being, “Hold yourself straight, my little goat”). Woolf’s demanding, melancholic father followed a decade later; her half sister Stella died in the interim in the first year of her marriage in some complications regarding pregnancy; and not long after that, she lost her oldest brother Thoby. Death, in other words, the fragility of human lives, was fundamental to Woolf’s sense of being. But the stillness and the brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and tumult of night… and the flowers standing there, looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless, and so terrible.
The question, then, becomes—what remains unchanged? What abides? And I certainly don’t mean steep-roofed houses, howsoever starkly beautiful; a battered, blackened sea wall; some creaking seine boats that now take tourists to Seal Island; or even a bakery that has remained in a family for six generations, long enough for Woolf to have eaten this family’s saffron fruit buns (which I, too, will savor as I wind up and down the narrow streets on my first afternoon), their blackberry-apple pies, their scones glossy with the glaze of egg.
I love Woolf’s sensibility, and I share aspects of the ways in which she looked at the world. I am also interested in her sister, Vanessa Bell, who was a painter, and unlike Woolf, the mother of many children. Both sisters are present in my memoir-in-essays, though the driving vision is Woolf’s.
TCR: A few of the essays that will be in Motherhood, and the Places Between have been published separately in different literary magazines/ sites. Publishing parts of work, before it is released in a larger collection, seems to be more common in genres of poetry and nonfiction. Do you think that allowing the readers to get a “taste” for the collection ahead of time is more beneficial than say, simply providing a synopsis? If so, why?
JK: Yes, and here let me be very practical. Publishing a collection of essays is close to impossible unless you have a major national reputation or win a contest. By publishing individual essays in first-tier or well-known journals, a writer is increasing the chances of having her book come into being, if that makes sense. As for poetry, there is a very small market for poetry. I happen to buy books of poetry based on poems I read in journals. And I know others do this as well. And I don’t mean poems by Mark Strand or Billy Collins or Louise Glück, but poems by poets who are relatively unknown beyond a very small community. Journals, then, make their work accessible.
TCR: You have been very successful publishing in genres of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The kind of versatility that you have as a writer is not something that is seen often. How does sitting down to write poetry vary from prose? Do you approach each genre differently? If so, how?
JK: I do, to an extent. I am a very narrative-driven personality, for the most part, and I come from a family of storytellers. Nonfiction comes more naturally, I suppose, because the writer or essayist (in this form) is a presence and a character. And that suits me very well. The advantage of fiction is that one is not bound by “truths” of various kinds. One is free to invent. Is that freedom always enabling? Sometimes it can be overwhelming, but I love it when a character or a situation compels me so much that I need to sit down and discover the world in which that character belongs or the world that generated that situation. Poetry is, I suppose, purer to me than prose. And by purer, I mean, that it is not as directly tied to telling a story or to the linear movement of narrative. Poetry can be far more associative and image-driven. The most difficult, resonant, joyful, raw experiences of my life I have almost always explored first in poetry. But I love working in all of these genres and in hybrid genres as well.
TCR: You co-edited Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres, alongside Marcela Sulak. It seems that the days of strict structure are becoming a thing of the past. Are hybrid forms the new norm in the literary world?
JK: No, I don’t think so. Hybrid forms have always existed. Emily Dickinson was, fundamentally, an epistolary writer, and a recent book entitled The Gorgeous Nothings dramatizes just how experimental and daring she was. And in the beginning, we had the oral tradition, and that was not strict in the least. Rather, oral storytelling was driven or embodied by the teller and his/her relationship to audience. What’s changed, I suppose, is the fact that “hybrid” as a term has become a more concrete or categorical (paradoxical as that sounds) part of the conversation. We now have short form nonfiction and flash fiction and prose poetry and lyric memoir and…. To some extent, these forms have been around for a very long time. I think, to an extent, that creative writing’s presence in academia and in the publishing marketplace has made us more aware of hybrid writing. I’m not doing hybrid forms justice, I know, for there certainly is much more freedom to experiment. But weren’t Marianne Moore and Walt Whitman exploding boundaries in their day? And what about what James Joyce and Virginia Woolf did for the novel?
TCR: You have produced a lot of quality writing. Last year and later this year, alone, you will have published four books. What’s next for you?
JK: Although it looks as if my publications this year are a bit of a deluge, as if a deluge wasn’t just that, many of these books took years to come into being.
I first drafted Paris, Modigliani & Me in the spring of 2009. I then returned to it in 2012 and again in 2013. The anthology, of course, took 3 years of consistent work.
In terms of future projects, for several years now, I have been working on a collection of short stories that simultaneously includes a novella. The collection shifts or evolves as I continue to write new work and reimagine how the collection is structured. In its last incarnation—around 2013—the collection was entitled Love, the Bittersweet after a fragment from Sappho. Then, in 2014, I wrote a story entitled “Exit, Pursued by a Bear” that focuses on a widowed Shakespeare professor (who lost his pregnant wife to gun violence in LA) and his nontraditional age student, Agnes, who is a surrogate for another couple. They strike up a friendship, one that hearkens back to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, my favorite of the romances and the source of that title which is possibly the best stage direction ever in my book. Anyway, Agnes and the professor, Peter, wouldn’t leave me alone, and soon I wrote another longer story about them entitled “A Course in Miracles.” The story collection now bears that name for a title, though I don’t think it will stick, as I’ve since learned that there’s a book, a sort of new age book, I think, called A Course in Miracles. My point is that the story collection, like my books of poems, evolve as I write. Along the way, I’ve submitted the story collection to contests, and it was recently the runner up with a small press (Fall 2015). The novella, Locks, is the grittiest piece I’ve ever written and it looks at a more disturbing side of family life than my stories usually wrestle with. By disturbing, I mean the threat of violence and a wife, in particular, who feels trapped by her lack of education and by her lack of choices. So the stories are still in the works. I am also working on a fourth book of poems.
In terms of radically new work, though, I have been giving a lot of thought to writing about Syria. In particular, I want to find a way to write about a family that has fled the country. I imagine the wife will be from the US and the husband will be Syrian and quite likely an intellectual. Or perhaps the wife will be Syrian, a physician most likely, and her husband will be American. They will have teenage children, probably twins, a son and a daughter. I am reading a great deal about the conflict in Syria now, as well as history. I do not know nearly enough, yet, to write this story, but I know, somehow, that I will. My own father was a refugee, of sorts, during World War II when his family had to flee the Soviets. My father, the son of “White Russians,” was born in Lithuania. My father’s family—and my mother’s—have been profoundly shaped by the wars and political turmoil of the twentieth century. And I have always been passionately invested in history as it impacts ordinary men and women and children. Just today, I spoke to my daughter’s third grade class about Ruth Kluger, the Viennese Jewish woman who helped smuggle Jews out of Europe via ship during 1939–1941. I wrote a YA novel based on this historical situation, and it’s since been adapted for theater and optioned for film. I mention all of this because I’m compelled by what it means to be in search of a homeland. Today, I recently read, there are fifty-seven million refugees in the world. Astonishing. I talked about all of this with my daughter’s class, and I was amazed and impressed by their compassion and curiosity.
In terms of related work, I’m increasingly involved in what could be called Arts for Healing or Arts in Medicine. I’ve helped bring artist volunteers (writers, visual artists) into the local women and children’s hospital, and I am now looking at building a program at the university’s cancer center, a program for patients and families. And then there is a place called TRANSITIONS, which enables or helps teens in foster care make that next step now that they are no longer in the system. All of these populations can benefit from the arts. I will be working with some of these people and training students to work with them, and inevitably I will write about this experience.
Joelyn Suarez lives in San Diego, CA with her fiancé and son. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UCR Palm Desert. Her essays “Home” and “How To Cut a Lemon” have been featured in NoiseMedium and Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers. She is the Nonfiction Editor for The Coachella Review.