The Slide That Passes Through Two Dark Rooms: An interview with Kirsten Imani Kasai

6 Mar

The House of Erzulie is a Gothic horror novel that moves between a Creole-owned slave plantation and the home of a notorious New Orleans voodoo practitioner.

The first time I encountered the concept of verisimilitude was in an undergraduate fiction workshop. I was wowed by the size of the word but also underwhelmed by what it meant. Of course fiction ought to achieve the air of reality. Any liar knew this perfectly well. And yet writing realistic-seeming fiction quickly began tripping me up because it led to so many difficult-to-answer questions: Who is the narrator telling this story to? Why is he/she telling it? Would he/she really think/do/say that? Plus, so much of any story or novel is inherently unrealistic. Narrative creates a frame that leaves some information out and directs the reader’s attention to details that, in real life, might go unnoticed. As a beginning writer, once you start worrying about verisimilitude, you often can’t stop (and can’t start writing).

A great example of how to move past the block of seeming realistic can be found in Kirsten Imani Kasai’s new novel The House of Erzulie. In it, an architectural historian is working on a house outside of New Orleans that once was a plantation and discovers letters written by the Creole daughter of the former owner and the diary of her mixed-race husband who sailed from France for the marriage. The novel (and the historian) follows the couple as their marriage and world fall apart. It’s told through three first-person accounts: a standard narration for the historian, Emilie’s letters, and her husband Isidore’s diary.

If you’ve ever tried writing a story in the guide of letters, you will immediately understand the problem such a form poses. Letters are not written with the same intent as a novel, and any novel that adheres too closely to the form risks losing the reader by moving too quickly or not quickly enough. And yet letters have an innate appeal. Reading them (especially when they’re not written to us) gives the sense of peering into a life we weren’t meant to see. So, how can a writer use them in a way that seems realistic but also meets the requirements of a good narrative?

Here’s the opening of Emilie’s first letter:

April 19, 1851

Dearest friend,

Monsieur Saint-ange has been detained in New Orleans, and this delay throw Belle Rive into a phrenzy of anticipation. We have exchanged many cordial letters over the past year, and although he strikes me as the soul of gentility, I know nothing of his true nature. Is he kind and good-humored? Ill-tempered and brusque? Will my heart quicken at first sight of him or will dread chill my frame, knowing that I am to be forever harnessed to one whose form repulses me? I have received but one daguerreotype, of which he is very proud (having sat for this portrait at the Great Exhibition in London with the famed Crystal Palace glimmering behind him) and so I know him to be fine-looking, of deeper complection than myself, with black pomaded hair longer than is fashionable. There is a certain poignancy to his expression, a longing perhaps, expressed in the intensity of his gaze and the sensuous, mustachioed mouth that belies the sorrows of our ancient race. It is a face I shall have to look upon each day for the remained of our natural lives, and I nightly pray that his countenance shall gaze upon my own with tenderness.

Obviously, the letter looks like a letter; it has a date and a greeting. It also does the work of a letter, updating a friend on the latest news. But it also jumps straight to the business of creating suspense. Yes, the letter writer and recipient are in suspense as well, waiting for the future husband to arrive, but the paragraph could have been written much differently, giving details about the frenzy, for example. Or, it could have gone on any number of asides, the way one does in a letter. It could have also moved too quickly; after all, letters are designed to be read fairly quickly, all at once, not over a period of time like a novel.

The letter both creates the verisimilitude of a letter but also does the narrative work of introducing a mystery that the reader will desperate want to see resolved.

 

Kirsten Imani Kasai is the author three novels, most recently The House of Erzulie. She is the publisher and editor of Body Parts Magazine.

In this interview, Kasai talks about structuring storylines that take place in different years, using an epistolary narrative, and writing against the usual tropes in the novel’s portrayal of vodou.

Michael Noll

In a way, this novel is working in a popular genre: the multi-generational novel, in which storylines from different time periods eventually connect. But you did something quite different with the structure. Many novels move back and forth, chapter to chapter, between the time periods, but you didn’t break up the writing from Emilie’s letters and Isidore’s journal. Each comes in a long, uninterrupted section. For me anyway, this really worked. Once I got into one character’s story and POV, I didn’t want to leave. I’m curious, though: did you ever consider using a different structure?

Kirsten Imani Kasai

Establishing the structure was one of the more difficult aspects of the book and partly why it took so long to write (about four years). Because it’s a Gothic novel, it had to include the genre convention of the story-within-a-story. I played around with other structural iterations, but I wanted each section to be immersive, inescapable. To separate them would have been to dilute them. If I were to construct a model of the story, it would be a slide (Lydia) that passes through two dark “rooms” (Emilie and Isidore) but ends on a slight upward lift to indicate a break in the downward momentum and a potential propulsion into a more hopeful narrative, which the reader must imagine.

My intent was to write a “deconstructed” Gothic novel that hearkened back to the genre’s Victorian heyday and served as a testament to enduring classics like Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I’m a big fan of Edgar Allen Poe and wanted to evoke the sensual and textural ambience of his works. Structure, therefore, became just as important as the language, settings and themes.

Narrative structure is like the framing of a house. Everything else is built upon it. If the frame is weak, the story will collapse under its own weight. At the time, I was earning my creative writing teaching certification at Antioch and found the academic space to expand upon and explore my ideas and theories about narrative structure (as outlined in my thesis) being integral to a story’s initial construction, and as a diagnostic tool for revision. I even diagrammed the book to identify the sections and overlapping incidents or themes. This was very helpful. I expected, actually, that I might run up against some opposition about the structure, but I felt that it was right for this story, and necessary to its integrity. I’m just so glad that I found a publisher who appreciated my vision!

Michael Noll

Emilie and Isidore’s sections tell essentially the same story, built around the same central events, but they feel like utterly different narratives. What was your process for writing them? Did you start with a timeline and then write each section? Did you write one in its entirety and then write the other, or did you move back and forth as you wrote?

Kirsten Imani Kasai

Isidore was the first character who appeared to me, and so I worked on him first to establish the historical timeline. The back and forth came more during revision and editing. I wrote their sections in blocks, but each one had to also reflect the others to get that “funhouse mirror” effect I sought, where the readers sees multiple or overlapping images. Mirroring and thematic unity is very important in Gothic literature, and so I went back through the book toward its completion to make sure that all the links in the chain were intact.

Michael Noll

One of the things I loved about both sections, but in particular Emilie’s, is how the letters sounded like actual letters but also moved the story forward. In real life, of course, letters don’t always move with narrative efficiency. Did you have any trouble in maintaining the verisimilitude of the letter form while also doing the basic work of a novel?

Kirsten Imani Kasai

Letter writing was much different when it was the primary means of interpersonal communication. I did read a number of 19th century letters that were archived in historical collections to see how good correspondents shared their stories. Emilie is a competent writer who loves to read, and so it made sense that her letters would be as effusive and thorough as they are. Writing each character’s section as a whole piece helped keep me rooted within their voices, too.

The challenge with writing the letters was staying within the boundaries of her narrative voice. Same with Isidore. We are only privy to the thoughts they chose to share on paper, while we get to be inside Lydia’s head. So the Letters and the journal had to be constrained by what was likely to have been shared or reported by those authors. Isidore is more expansive in his journal because he’s only speaking to himself, but there’s a sense with Emilie that she’s putting on a brave face for her friend, who is more worldly.

Michael Noll

One of the things Isidore’s section does (and also the present-day sections told by Lydia) is blur the line between consensual reality and something resembling dream/madness/supernatural. In particular, Isidore’s crumbling reality is centered around vodou, which is seen by the characters around Isidore as both exotic and a practical aspect of everyday life. It’s also a religious practice that has been the subject of caricature in many stories. How did you research the practices that P’tit Marie would have used and the way it would have been seen by people at the time?

Kirsten Imani Kasai

Depending on your perspective, any religious practice can be viewed as strange or exotic.

However, I really strove to present vodou in a realistic way and avoid the fetishistic or lampoonish portrayals that often characterize it in popular culture. Albert J. Raboteau’s book Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South was incredibly helpful in helping me to access the intersection of Catholicism and Afro-Caribbean religions. One of the themes of the novel is how “othering” is used to further isolate or sublimate those who have less socio-economic power, but because this is a Gothic novel, however, I had to play up certain aspects of it to maintain the atmosphere of horror.

Slavery is all about breaking down the individual and dismantling any sense of personal and cultural identity. The determination about what is allowed and sanctified, versus what is heathenish and forbidden has always been decided by the conquerors. European colonizers villainized any religious or spiritual practice that challenged their rule and empowered its practitioners. Christian conversion was enforced because it destroyed the cultural bonds of African religions and substituted the convenient panacea of a “heavenly reward.” The Bilodeaus attempt to constrain the practice of vodou at Belle Rive plantation because they’re afraid of it, but they also rely on it for healing. It’s no wonder that Isidore becomes enthralled by P’tite Marie’s vodou and Emilie’s Spiritualism. Insanity or any form of mental illness has long been blamed on “conjuration” or witchcraft, so a part of him is easily convinced that he, too, has been conjured. Isidore is entirely alienated. He has no “home”—nowhere that he really belongs, and no foundational belief system to support him—therefore, he’s highly suggestible. This alienation contributes to his sense of disconnection and his ultimate unraveling.

Primarily, I wanted to convey the similarities between the Bilodeaus’ Catholicism Spiritualism and vodou—a belief in invisible forces and powers, the importance of ritual, the human need to commune with something greater than ourselves and the necessity of using religion to define the moral structures within our lives.

Finally, I was very drawn to the sense of the Virgin Mary, the Mater Dolorosa, as Erzulie (the Black Madonna) in her numerous manifestations (Erzulie Dantor, Erzulie Ge-Rouge, Erzulie Freda, etc.). Erzulie is a complete woman with many faces—she is loving, kind, wise, protective and maternal but also jealous and vengeful. In a way, I felt like she was the guiding spirit of the book, and so I had a duty to honor her with my portrayal.

March 2018

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories and author of The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction.

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