Michele Christle grew up in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. She served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon. She is currently attending the MFA program for Poets and Writers at UMass Amherst and lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her story “Lagon Bleu” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
This story is very much informed by the time I spent in Cameroon, ruminating on communication and the channels we allow ourselves or are forced into. The hardest part of writing this piece was figuring out how to illustrate the ways in which the languages that are spoken in that part of northern Cameroon fit together—French, Fulfulde, English, not to mention the indigenous languages each ethnic group speaks. Around 230 languages are spoken in Cameroon! I am interested in official fluency vs. fragmented language vs. the necessity of intuition—having to depend on one’s understanding of what people may mean vs. what they say, etc. While it can be challenging to convey these linguistic complexities in a way that can be understood by those living outside that context, for me, dialogue is also the most thrilling part to write.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
Prior to coming into the UMass MFA program, I had mostly written to get things out of my mind—to keep myself company, seldom sharing it with anyone. I rarely finished an actual story, essay or poem. I filled up pages with words, keeping a running log of events, overheard language and observations. Now, however, my writing has a shape to it. Stories become actual things, not amorphous blobs of language. Instead of simply collecting materials, I started making things with them. For me, the drive to create rather than collect comes with knowing that you have an audience—an audience with high expectations.
I’ve also learned a lot about productivity, discipline, and the value of displacement. In Cameroon, after my friends in the village went to sleep at night, I would stay up writing (amorphous blobs of text) by candlelight. While traveling across the Pacific Ocean on a containership recently, I experienced a similar ease and compulsion to write—with unparalleled focus. That is not to say that I did not stand on the bow and watch the anchor drop or see the occasional whale or have a yarn with the able-bodied seamen, rather that I would do all of those things and then retire to my room to write it all down.
Mostly, what these experiences gave me was a lot of time and little companionship in the night. As someone who lacks discipline and focus and doesn’t particularly like sitting still to write, situations where I am afraid to leave a room or a chair lead to much productivity. When I am in the thick of writing, it helps me to feel physically and mentally stuck, sur place.
Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
Kwani? magazine is great—they are based out of Nairobi, Kenya. Kwani? features mostly African writers, or writers who are writing from somewhere on the continent. The people behind Kwani? are doing some very exciting and remarkable things for contemporary African writers, including increasing their distribution—making their writing available to folks in rural Kenya and folks like myself here in the US.
Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a (hu)man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write?
I would say so. Sometimes, the verbal device or language might come before the emotional concept, or perhaps they are already living alongside each other when we sit down to write them. I am interested in what he says about the third stage, that if there is “no successful reading, the poem can hardly be said to exist in a practical sense at all.” Practical existence would be evocation of some sort, a mist that swells up around the poem or story, proof of its lasting value beyond the words themselves. I don’t know that readers ever feel quite as the writer feels when he/she is writing said poem or story, but hopefully they feel something. And we humans do like to feel, I think.
In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have regarding literature and books?
Perhaps simply that the value I hope to find in literature is loose and that it can and perhaps should sink/float back and forth in time, always applicable somehow, even as the human experience shifts. I suppose that credo rests as much on the shoulders of the reader as the writer. Admittedly, I have a hard time thinking so far into the future, which seems to be the direction a credo leads.
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
Noy Holland led the first workshop that I was ever in at UMass. When it was time for me to write my first story for workshop, I was overcome with a disabling fear. I had just come from spending over two years in the Peace Corps, where I did not have a computer. I went to Noy and said, “I don’t know what to write.” It seems shameful and not very writerly to “not know what to write”, but I had never been simultaneously faced with such freedom and pressure like this before. I had been working in such a vastly different environment that it was hard for me to feel like a legitimate writer, to shift my focus so drastically. Essentially (and perhaps this is verbatim), Noy told me to look for the thing that vibrates and to write from there, which I think I eventually was able to do—to look backwards and forwards into characters, moments and feelings that refused to settle into place. Another important lesson from Noy is that she is adamant about writing the story that needs to be written first and thinking about the implications of it later. If you want to publish it and you have the opportunity to publish it, fine, but the primary goal or concern should be writing what you need to write. In this way, your stories create their own demands. I am always striving to let my stories be the boss of me.
My sister has also been instrumental to my writing. As children, we were each other’s primary audience and collaborator—our language is still very much intertwined. She has always encouraged me, whether by suggesting I write down all of the strange encounters I had while working as a gardener at Boston Public Gardens or by helping me to create atmospheres to write in that mimic the worlds where my stories take place. One conversation we had led to me writing with a small pillow filled with pine needles at my side, which I would sniff (obsessively) while listening to George Winston’s “December” in my cold apartment. I became deeply lost in winter and this led to the death of a horse, which I doubt would have occurred were it not for the pervasive atmosphere she had helped me create.