Managing Editor Keene Short interviews Kristine Langley Mahler about her debut essay collection, Curing Season, out now from West Virginia Press.
KS: First, congratulations on the book! I’ll start with the most important question: If Curing Season were a meal, what would it be?
KLM: A bowl of Quaker 5-Minute Grits, with a big handful of cheddar cheese swirled in and a runny egg on top. I never ate grits when I lived in North Carolina—they sounded gross, they looked bland, I wasn’t having it. But as an adult, sick of the same lunch options, I paused in front of the grits in the grocery aisle and was like “Okay. Fine. I’ll try them.” Now I make myself cheese grits often. I do it the simple way, the accessible way—instant grits—and I know I’m not doing it “right,” I know I’m not doing it “traditional,” but I’m making them nonetheless. I’m cooking them nonetheless. I know what grits taste like, now, and I know how to modify them to make the meal into something I can swallow.
KS: I’m fascinated by the relationship between borrowed form essays (lists, research proposals, academic articles, archival collections) and a book subtitled “Artifacts.” What led you to the specific forms these essays took? What is your process for shaping a given essay?
KLM: I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, so forgive the retreaded lines, but I was actually surprised when I collected the essays for Curing Season together and saw how many forms I had apparently needed to use during the construction of these essays. It’s almost like they required the forms because I had wanted to create structure out of that time, but also had felt constrained by cultural structures I hadn’t built. If I pick one essay as an example—say, the academic article you referred to, “Excavation Report,” which is the first section of the essay suite called “A Pit Is Removed, a Hollow Remains”—I remember deciding that if I was going to dissemble a book on the page for readers in order to insert myself, I needed to first claim a sort of purported authority. The sections in “A Pit Is Removed” grow increasingly far from traditional essay structures as they progress, and I wanted the reader to witness how a discussion of history, prepared in “the right way,” could dissolve into questioning the authority of history in the first place. So I adopted a proper research tone for “Excavation Report” because all dissolution begins with the expected.
KS: The essay “Out Line,” for me, marked a turning point in the scope of the book, taking a broader historical view of Pitt County, North Carolina. This is where the book becomes more intertextual and also where it much more openly and bluntly acknowledges systemic white supremacy in the community. So I’m curious what role you think research (personal, interpersonal, collective) might play in challenging white supremacy in this country?
KLM: I appreciate the opportunity to address this because challenging white supremacy, both historically and currently, is desperately important. In Curing Season, I am constantly trying to insert myself into the history of a place where I felt like I didn’t belong. But everyone who lives in a place belongs to that place, regardless of the depth of their roots. So much “history” has been recorded into “truths” which fit the needs of those who controlled it—primarily white people—and the codified forms of these records then weaponized to suppress alternate threads of fact. White supremacy must be dismantled, and the inclusion of non-dominant history into the historical record complicates the convenient narratives previously recorded. The more “outsider” histories which can be brought to light, the more rich our understanding of the past can become. And in the present, we must recognize the vitality of all personal histories—especially those from people who feel like outsiders—and encourage all traditionally under-represented voices to be recorded, saved, added, and welcomed.
KS: Do you think of this as a polyvocal book, given your exploration of a community writ large and in particular through the use of other texts such as Chronicles of Pitt County but also, in some cases, social media?
KLM: Oooh, that’s a great question, because my typical reaction when asked if I’m an essayist is to say “No, no, you must see that I am a MEMOIRIST, because everything is always filtered through ME.” Can Curing Season be polyvocal when I only use other texts to reinforce or disassemble my own perspectives? I think the book must be, because—and this is somewhat related to my answer to the previous question—I use those other texts to specifically make elbow room for myself and my voice, and in doing so, I hope I am demonstrating to others that there is a way to make space for their voices as well.
KS: There’s a visual component to this book, too, a series of photographs juxtaposed with stories from Chronicles of Pitt County, where the author provides no words but provides images of herself and her adolescence. As a craft move, this simultaneously removes the author’s voice but imposes the author’s presence through curation alone. How much of this book do you think is curation, and is there a vulnerability in simply arranging things in a particular order?
KLM: Curing Season is absolutely a curated book! Over and over, I am collecting evidence that I belonged—or didn’t—and presenting it to the reader for them to interpret alongside me. The essay section you’re referring to, “Replacing,” is the penultimate section in “A Pit Is Removed, a Hollow Remains” and it comes after two sections where the text from Chronicles of Pitt County appears alongside my own histories as I try to align the two. By the time “Replacing” shows up, the narrator is no longer trying to give you her written evidence, but instead using these personal artifacts (the images) as documentation that her history can stand in place of the original. It’s a little unhinged, to be honest, and I think that’s where I might feel the most vulnerable, as you point out, because it’s really a deterioration of logic—to see how DESPERATELY the narrator wants to believe she can fit in, so much so that she will look for alignments between these artifacts of her history and cherry-picked clips from other peoples’ personal histories. This deterioration is curated, however. I will humble myself on the page to prove a point, but there is only so much I will reveal.
KS: The essay “Alignment” explores your interest in rituals (Catholic prayers, astrology), and at one point you admit you “take comfort in dictates that no person could feasibly follow” (176), because that impossibility “negates failure.” I’m curious if you can relate this to writing nonfiction—a genre whose one dictate is that it “has to be true.”
KLM: How much I LOVE that one dictate about nonfiction; seriously, I love it, because it is my favorite boundary to push up against! Nonfiction must always be true and yet it can never be fully true, because we are people with emotions which can override actual experience to create the only thing that remains: a moment that we decide to call true, because it is true to how we remember it. I love how complicated truth is; I love how hard we have to try to get it right, how easily something can jar and cause complete reconsideration of what we had been telling ourselves we knew. This just happened to me the other day as I was gathering artifacts for the book release: I found the old fortune-teller I reference in “Club Pines,” and apparently we did NOT actually put “Ryan” for Silver; in fact, his name doesn’t appear in the fortune-teller at all, which is fascinating because we named just about every other boy in our grade. What does it mean that we didn’t include him? Was I too nervous to say his name aloud? I had a long crush on that boy! And yet in my memory, I was CERTAIN I had put his name with silver because it was my favorite color. I put my own dang name down with COPPER, for some inexplicable reason—I HATE the color copper! Yet that’s my handwriting on the fortune-teller. I did it. It’s not how I remember it, but now there’s a little piece of evidence, complicating my memory, which sends me right back to the page to question the border between truth and “truth.”
Kristine Langley Mahler is a memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska, a city ridging the backbone of the West and the Midwest. Her debut essay collection, Curing Season: Artifacts, was published with WVU Press on October 1, 2022. A second collection of essays, A Calendar is a Snakeskin, is forthcoming with Autofocus in 2023.