Janice Kulyk Keefer
This conversation took place at Bissel House, St. George campus, University of Toronto, on 28th November 2001, with questions sent by Mary CondT, from London, UK, which were read by Laura Ferri.
Laura Ferri: Mary CondF heard that I was going to come to Canada and so the idea came up that she might send questions¨which she could have sent you directly, of course, but this way we have created an opportunity for me to see you again.
Janice Kulyk Keefer: Which is lovely!
L.F: So let me begin reading Mary CondT's questions.
Mary CondT: You have written many very accomplished short stories, besides writing critical articles on, for example, Mavis Gallant and Bronwen Wallace, and you are now writing a novel on Katherine Mansfield. Could you say something about your attitude to the short story as an art form? Do you prefer to write novels or short stories when you write prose?
J.K.K: That's a very dangerous and difficult question. . .I find that, in aesthetic terms, there is a real pleasure in writing short fiction. You have a couple of pages, you have a couple of ideas, you have a couple of impressions, of whatever you can work with and experiment on and make resonate. It's like when you were a little kid playing house or walking to school, pretending that you were God looking down on the earth, and everything was on a small scale, and you get the sense, not so much of control, as of the ability to play with and to achieve something complete and whole. It is an illusion, of course! And I think the best short stories are the ones that suggest that there are all sorts of things that have not been allowed inside their borders. But there's that paradoxical element of suggestiveness, of play and also of shaping, of bringing things together in some sort of meaningful structure. It's difficult to generalize, though. When I think of Katherine Mansfield's short stories, the best of them, often the endings are rather like poems. They have what the poet Tim Lilburn calls 'torque', which is the sense that the ending twists away from you, from the expected finishing place, which opens up a new door, a new window, and you look out there and see all kinds of possibilities. It often seems that the short story's main business is to lead you to that point where you see that you have been through an experience, but you also see what lies behind that, and that the experience is, in fact, endless and has other ramifications.
L.F.: So, with the short story, you can combine this sense of achievement and stay close to poetry at the same time. Also, short stories of the 'open form' type can serve the same reading needs that a novel does.
J.K.K: Yes! But I think also that reading a short story is similar in many ways to reading a poem, and I think that many people are afraid of poetry; many people feel that the powers of concentration required to actually read and comprehend and hold in one's hands a short story and all that the story has to give is perhaps too exacting, whereas with a novel you endlessly defer that moment when you have to, sort of, sum: 'What is this novel all about?' 'What does it mean?' 'Is the experience making it worthwhile?' . . .When I think of short story writers in this country, I think of the later Alice Munro: complex, demanding, multilayered short stories which are, in many ways, little novels. I'm not even thinking of interconnected books like Lives of Girls and Women or Who Do You Think You Are?, but of some of her very densely textured and layered later stories, which give you the sense of scope, spatial and temporal, that you wouldn't find in some of the very early stories, which are a frozen moment, or just a few elements, as in a sketch.
L.F.: Is there anything you can say about this book on Katherine Mansfield? Is it a biography?
J.K.K.: NoÓI'm in the middle of trying to give it some kind of shape. It seems to want to be rather...in formal terms I'd use 'disjunctive'. There are a number of different charactersÓFor example, a lover of Mansfield's who ended up living and dying in Canada.
L. F.: So there is Canadian connection?
J.K.K.: Yes, one of her lovers ended up dying in Windsor, Ontario¨a lover by whom she became pregnant, when she was only 20, although she miscarried the child. When I found out that there was a Canadian connection to Mansfield, it immediately piqued my interest. But also, for me, writing on Mansfield and re-reading Mansfield and looking at her journals, her letters, and her notebooks was a curious revisiting of my own past, because I had done my master's degree on Virginia Woolf at the University of Sussex in the 1970s, and Katherine Mansfield was really seen, at that time and place, as a colonial and second rate writer. Why work on Mansfield when you can work on Virginia Woolf? And I shared that prejudice very much, and it was only much, much later that I stumbled on Mansfield's letters and journals, which seemed to me to have a really quite extraordinary insight into the way creative minds work or don't work. I mean the way she writes about the difficulty she has in writing, and not just technical aspects of writing, but also the sense of what she wants to convey, the vision she feels she can in some way unveil,Óher awareness of what is real and what is worthwhile living for and living through; and I also heard that she had tremendous difficulty with ill health, loneliness, and isolation, and I found that all the things that differentiate her from Virginia Woolf were the things that fascinated me: her sexual adventurousness, her experimentation, her living on the fringes of the social order, and her being very much a kind of bad girl, very much with the project of emancipation and experimentation, that ended up being disastrous because she died very young. She envied Virginia Woolf tremendously: the stability of Woolf's domestic arrangements, the husband who was always within call, although of course not understanding the terribly risky terrain of Woolf's own madness.
L.F.: How long do you think you may take to finish the book?
J.K.K.: I don't really know. I'd hoped to have a complete draft done by Christmas, but I think that's wildly over optimistic, partly because I think I'm trying to do something new in my writing with this novel, something I haven't done before, and I'm also dealing with a real figure, Mansfield, who has a prodigious body of writing behind her. So finding the points of entry into her story, how to tell her story in a way that leaves me room for exploration, or for some new areas of interrogating Mansfield's life, for examining what her relevance is, or her continued importance is¨and how to make resonant Mansfield's struggles as a writer and as a woman and her own understanding of what her life meant; how to make that resonant for a contemporary reader who doesn't know very much about Mansfield? I was shocked to find that a lot of people might have encountered one of her stories in an anthology, but know almost nothing about her life, about her geographical or social coordinates; they may have read that she is the model for Gudrun Brangwen in D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love, but that's about as far as it goes. So it may be another year, another two years, I don't know. But what I'm involved in right now is the process, trying to discover what the form of this book is going to be, as well as how I can manage all the vagaries of content, and the demands and challenges of content.
L.F.: Do you think there is a kind of poetical approach in the book? I expect you are transforming the biographic element with your power as a poet.
J.K:K.: Yes, well, I think one of the really interesting phenomena about Canadian writing is not so much the question whether the short story is a typical Canadian genre, which is an observation many people might be tempted to make because there are so many fine Canadian short story writers, but the way in which Canadian poets turn to fiction and often to novels and remake the form of the novel. Think of people like Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Óalthough, I think, her poetry and her fiction really remain in separate categories... people like Jane Urquhart and Anne Michaels, who are creating a kind of poetic prose. If you look at the way a novel like Fugitive Pieces is structured, you find it is very much structured in the way a poem is structured. I am just in the process now of re-reading a lot of Virginia Woolf because I'm going to be teaching her next semester. And Woolf's idea is about impassioned prose, and about a fusion of fact and vision, of the prosaic description or representation of everyday events and the contours of external reality, with an understanding or a vision of what are the defining features of reality¨those aspects of the world that elude us when we try to understand or to ask the great questions, "Why are we here?" "What are we doing?" "What is life?". There is that very freakish period in contemporary Canadian literary history in the 1960s and early 70s when poetry becomes, very briefly, the most important and dominant genre, in which a national literature really starts to define itself for the first time. You think of Gwendolyn McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Óyou think of Layton, Leonard Cohen and the huge excitement generated by poetry readings and people scrambling to buy books of poetry. That has been eclipsed by the dominance of the novel. . . Writers who start out as poets, and who, for whatever reasons, commercial or otherwise, have to move into another genre in order to simply be able to continue to function as writers in any kind of viable way, bring to their writing that poet's eye¨by looking at the novel and seeing how much more closely it can approximate or be made congruent with their vision as poets.
M.C.: The Green Library is your best known work here in the United Kingdom. How do you feel about this?
J.K.K.: . . .The Green Library is an important book for me in many ways. It was one of the first times that I tried to engage with my own personal history, with my own ethnicity and my very conflicted feelings about that. It was a novel that involved certain risks for me¨whether in travelling to Kiev and actually spending time in newly independent Ukraine, or in trying to get a handle on some of the very complicated and fraught history of Ukraine, and particularly the problematic relations between Ukrainians, Jews, and Russians, and all of that vortex of facts and historical experiences that belong to Eastern Europe, the 'Other Empire', or whatever you want to call it. So I think that it is actually quite ironic that The Green Library is better known in England than something like Rest Harrow, because that was a novel I wrote while I was living in England. I was consciously using figures like Virginia and Katherine Mansfield to structure some of the possibilities of the characters' experience. I was looking at England under Thatcherism. It was a book that, I think, Canadians probably couldn't make very much of because it was so English in many ways, so topical, so involved with the problems of England in the 1980s at the end of the Thatcher era. On the other hand, The Green Library has to do with displaced people, with the history of immigration to Canada after the Second World War, with Eastern Europe, [when] the New World was bypassing Western Europe almost altogether. So it's an interesting irony, I suppose.
M.C.: You always seem to be considering important moral choices in your fiction. Do you regard yourself, in this way, as a very serious writer?
J.K.K.: I don't set out to debate or to examine moral questions, but invariably they are a part of the life one lives. There's a certain point where, if you start dissecting every action, every possibility of response or engagement, then you become almost paralyzed because the moral and ethical ramifications are so immense. But I do think that the way we live our lives matters and, also for writers who, like me, feel an enormous pressure or burden to respond to the world around us, to make something of the world we see passing by, to kind of capture it in language and try to turn it around in our words and examine it and ask questions about it.
L.F.: Have the events of September 11th had an impact on your attitude as a writer or do you think they will? Will you be concerned with Katherine Mansfield in the same way you were before that event?
J.K.K.: It's interesting, the mention of Katherine Mansfield, because it makes me think immediately of a point she made in a letter to John Middleton Murry, which had to do with the impact of the First World War not just on her writing, but on the writing of all her contemporaries. And she said that because of the war and the tremendous loss of life, the suffering and the cataclysmic effects of the war on the world order, society, politics, economics, whatever, she said that we can never go back to being the way we were, we will always see ourselves and our world in a different light, and we have to find new forms to express the new feelings which the war has created in us. And she talked actually about how a novel of Virginia Woolf's that had been published during the war or perhaps just after, Night and Day, was false to her because it did not register the impact of the war. And yet Mansfield said that she couldn't come out and simply write on those great themes and subjects: Death and Destruction. She had to approach them indirectly and obliquely. So the impact of the war might emerge in her fictionÓin the way a woman combs her hair in the window, or a boy eats a handful of strawberries, but that sense of death, in which everything had been drenched, the loss, the suffering, that sense of waste, of culpable waste of lives and possibilities and opportunities, the squandering of the future that the First World War had brought about, had to be there somewhere in her fiction, in her vision, but, again, indirectly and obliquely expressed. And I think the same thing is true in trying to deal with things like the terrorist attacks, the bombing of the World Trade Center. I left Canada very shortly after that and I spent five weeks just travelling in Europe and I began to write a long poem that was in the voice of a woman who had left New York City just after September 11th, who was leaving the city because her husband was dying of lung cancer. This is based on the lives of friends of friends in New York City. They have to leave the doubly poisonous atmosphere of New York and displace themselves: But she looks back at what happened on that day that the towers collapsed. . .It is just something I needed to try and do, to make those occurrences not just real for me, but to pay some sort of debt of attention, because one of the things that really profoundly engages me and troubles me, is the fact that these terrible things happen and yet we go about our lives in the same way: we go grocery shopping, we walk on the street, we buy boots and gloves for winter...
M.C.: Various kinds of travel, including emigration seem very important in your fiction. Are you still very conscious of your family history?
J.K.K: For me, writing both The Green Library and the family memoir, Honey and Ashes: A Story of Family, was a way of dealing with questions of who I was, where I belonged¨the sense of multiple identities and displacement, exile, linguistic schizophrenia, all of that, in order to give them some kind of articulate shape and some sort of quasi-lasting form. Katherine Mansfield was a writer who was a displaced individual par excellence: she was always travelling because of ill health, trying to find the climatic conditions that would allow her to live a little bit longer, to survive the winter. She was an exile from New Zealand who longed to be in England, and when she was in England, longed to be in France or in Italy. She was never at home, wherever she was. So, I think, what I am trying to do is to move now from my own particular conditions of being the child of immigrants, and having a sense of displacement at the core of who I am, to looking at other experiences and conditions of displacement and exile.
M.C.: You have written with great sensitivity both about England and France. Could you say something about your attitude to each country?
J.K.K.: Well, I fell in love with England, of course in a completely literary way, through reading Virginia Woolf, particularly her novel The Waves. I was an undergraduate and decided that what I wanted to do more than anything else was to go to England (I had never travelled there before) and to work on Virginia Woolf. I did that. I did my master's degree at Sussex University on Woolf and stayed on to do a doctorate on Henry James and Joseph Conrad. I moved from Woolf, who was English, to two writers who were from other parts of the world, radically different parts of the world, but who found in England a place where they could live and write and examine their own relationship to their original countries in ways that permitted them to look at things perhaps more critically, or more openly, or in a more exploratory fashion. I loved being in England up until the time we left in the late 70s. We spent a year in France just at the point that Margaret Thatcher had been elected, and we came back to England after ten years. The year we came back was Thatcher's tenth year in power and everybody thought she was going to reign forever [...] I wrote the novel Rest Harrow out of an experience of... not disenchantment with England, but, I think, of an awakening to the reality of an England that was not simply a construct of my literary fantasy and experiences: I began to look at England as people as who lived there on a day-to-day basis, people whose lives were profoundly affected by Thatcherism.... France has always been a country that I have been attracted to, partly because, although I'm by no means fluent in any kind of correct way in French, I love the language, and partly, I think, because of the sense I have of the French political tradition, its openness to exiles, to people who have fled oppressive regimes and have ended up living in places like Paris. I have been connected to Paris also through my admiration for, and work on, the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant. I think the reasons she gives for being attracted to France, for finding Paris the only possible city for her to live in, are ones that I would agree with wholeheartedly. I think whenever you travel in foreign countries in which you somewhat paradoxically feel at home, it is because there are ways in which your powers of perception become sharpened or go a little bit awry or askew and you learn about yourself because of the displacement that you are undergoing. Certain possibilities open up for you and, therefore, ideas for stories or poems, or some kind of linguistic engagement with the world around you. There is a delight to be had in travelling. An epigraph for my book Travelling Ladies is from Degas, that the real traveller is the one that never arrives. And I think that that has to be at the heart of one's experience in any foreign country, the realization that you are a stranger and you'll never know it in the way that a native would, but also that being there gives you a kind of freedom, fluency and fluidity of observation that allows you, in some sense, a kind of honorary citizenship while you are there.
L.F.: Have you been 'a real traveller' to Italy, i.e., is Italy to you the country where 'one never arrives'? Or has your journeying there been completed?
J.K.K.: Ah, Italy was a country I discovered when I was in my early twenties. I discovered it, again through literature, but also through a professor of mine at the University of Toronto, Peter Marinelli, who taught me Renaissance literature in English, Spenser's Faerie Queene... He was of Italian background and grew up in New York. He talked to me about his experience in Italy, and how he loved to go to Italy, and the language... Do you know, I am not even sure what part of Italy he was from, and I think it didn't really matter to me because he was born in America, in New York: he wasn't attached to any one locality in Italy; Italy, as a kind of fantasy and cultural and intellectual construct, was, I think, a fantastical alternative to him to what was often a dreariness of life in Toronto, in the 1970s, before Toronto became a really multicultural city, a really cosmopolitan city. [...]
L.F.: I do hope you'll keep travelling to those 'astonishing' places and thank you very much for having been so generous with your time here in Toronto. It has been a great pleasure to hear you talk about literature, writers, places and, of course, your own work. ˛
The novel (title to be determined) will be out with HarperCollins Canada in the spring of 2004.