CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH LITA KURTH
Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: The final scene in “Amanda” of your sister planting the cross and pink rose is very powerful and contrasting. Can you discuss the significance of these images to you?
Lita Kurth: Interestingly, I’m writing this on the cusp of a Christian holy day, Good Friday. The most significant theme of that day and this piece is agony, the agony of physical suffering and of seeing your child suffer. For those who endure and survive, sometimes we can do little gestures: plant a rose, write a poem. I don’t know how parents survive the excruciating death of a child. I am amazed that people can go on. In this situation, I felt a combination of pity and terror and later remembered it was Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. Although many images come, unbidden, from the unconscious, once I see a pattern, sometimes I choose to emphasize it, to repeat it or consider the best placement, for example, the white and gold in the coffin and the cross and the gold hair, the pink of her skin and the roses. The cross at the end, an empty Protestant cross, is on one level, to be honest, a rather kitschy decoration, but its denied meaning is torture. And there is that strange beauty and resilience that sometimes arises out of the most hideous events.
RR: Part of what heightens the tension and eerie tone of the piece is how you address the town as its own entity. How did you go about creating the world in this piece and characterizing the community?
LK: I have to acknowledge my unfairness. I feel tremendous ambivalence about my background. Every community is complex, but at times, the blind spots and idiocies of the particular community I grew up in madden, frustrate, and enrage me. And many aspects confused me then and confuse me now. I dwelt on the aspects that caught my attention and, undoubtedly, I overlooked many others. But I hope there was compassion somewhere in there as well.
RR: Who are your biggest inspirations when it comes to writing nonfiction?
LK: There are many. I greatly admire and honor people who can face extremely painful truths and describe their worlds vividly. When I finished reading Yvette Johnson’s memoir, The Song and the Silence, I felt “I want to be as courageous and as compassionate as she is.” And I’ve always wanted to bring below-the-radar lives into public consciousness. Going further back, I loved Maxim Gorky’s memoir, Childhood, in which he brings to unforgettable life, his fat little grandmother and manages to show how compelling and charismatic she was in spite of it, a sort of ugly goddess. Gorky’s childhood was full of suffering and dysfunction, one could say, but somehow the full humanity of the people he discusses vibrates through. With those writers, I feel close to the torn, beating heart of life.
RR: We understand you co-founded a reading series called San Jose’s Flash Fiction Forum. How has that experience influenced you as a fiction and nonfiction writer?
LK: Oh, it has been fantastic for revising and editing, especially tightening! And simplifying! We all know we should read our work aloud, but unless I’m really going to read it in public, I sometimes skip that practice (not a good idea). I’ve also developed, I hope, a stronger commitment to audience. I want them to have a good time, to stay with the writing, to be moved, to understand, even to be touched and inspired. When I started out as a writer, I was so obscure! I loved images and didn’t think a lot about sense or narrative. I also focused mainly on dark, difficult subjects. Now, I write a lot of humor, and I’ve become much more of—as Justin Cronin, who taught briefly in my MFA program said—a “plot whore” in both my fiction and nonfiction, even in my poetry. I want to make it easy, not hard, for the reader.
RR: How do you approach writing deeply personal pieces? Do you have any tips for nonfiction writers when it comes to approaching personal subjects?
LK: I usually write for myself in a journal first, just get out what happened, what I heard, saw, felt, thought. I have learned to write down as many sensory facts as possible, but I usually still have to consult pictures or websites because I am constantly surprised by the details I can’t remember. Sometimes I have to grit my teeth to admit some failing in myself that embarrasses me. Also, almost all my most important experiences involved someone else, so I worry and fear that the other person(s) will misunderstand or be offended. It’s not possible to be true to or even to know everyone’s experience of an event, and writers just have to accept that. I’m lucky to have a few writer friends I can trust with very personal pieces, so that’s often the next step.
There’s a place for every kind of writing—comic, light, intellectual, pensive—but I believe compassionate truthfulness about the worst experiences has a healing power. Maybe it helps us express our anguish in the face of tortures that cannot be avoided or changed. Maybe it helps readers feel less alone with suffering. Maybe it even motivates some readers to reconsider opinions and perspectives.
Lita Kurth’s work in Issue 6.2: