(Note: KIMBILIO thanks Julia for her ongoing service to our community. Since 2014, she has graciously volunteered to prepare manuscript material for our retreat.)
Andrea Lee writes the kind of dazzling, lyrical prose that delights with its boldness—over three acclaimed novels, a New York Times Notable short story collection, and many essays and articles in publications like Time,The New Yorker, and Vogue, she explores matters of race, class, and culture with an erudition that is as playful as it is sophisticated. It was an honor and a pleasure to talk with her about her life and work, and collect some additional thoughts on her essay “Notes for a Speech Never Given (The Nile Swim Club),” which appears in Gulf Coast 28.2.
Julia Brown: Where in the world are you right now? What’s on your mind these days? What’s absorbing your attention?
Andrea Lee: I have just spent a month of work and play in Bangkok, Thailand, but where I am right now is in my house in Turin, Italy. It’s a 600-year-old villa in the country, and from my window I can see woods, a field with cows, the city in the distance, and the French Alps beyond that.
Dallas — On Friday, the city of Dallas was in mourning, and so was I.
We lost five police officers. They were gunned down at a peaceful protest on Thursday night that took place just a few blocks from where I live. I was at that protest too.
So was my friend Angela. She stayed longer than I did, leaving right before the shots rang out. “Peaceful crowd. Sprits lifted and prepped for action. Sad to see it turn out like this,” she later wrote on Facebook.
Everyone is sad to see it turn out like this. The city planned a prayer vigil for noon on Friday and I decided to go and maybe to stay until the end this time.
For the Kimbilio panel at AWP ’16, Cole Lavalais (’13, ’15) presented these remarks on directionality in fiction:
Several years ago during my first semester in graduate school, some of my classmates and I went out to a local watering hole after a rather tedious writing workshop. Which, by the way, was nothing new. I found my graduate writing workshops consistently difficult, not because I couldn’t take critique, but the focus of the workshop, at least my workshops, weren’t craft. Instead the professor and workshop participants’ critiques would often devolve into cultural anthropological digs, peppered with questions about the organizations and events taking place on the fictional black college campus where my novel was set. So while my classmates communed at the bar and I whined into my beer about my growing black-splaining fatigue, one of my white classmates countered, “Well, who is your audience?” Due to her tone and body language, I could tell it wasn’t a question she expected an answer to. On the contrary, it was one of those questions meant to shut me down or shut me up. Of course, being who I am and where I’m from, I’m not easily shut up, so I countered back with just as much pointedness: “People who read books are my audience.”
Returning Fellows Christi Cartwright (’13), Rosalyn Story (’13), and Andy Johnson (’14) will join the class of ’16 for the Annual Retreat in Taos. We asked our vets to offer some advice to our Newbie Kimbees.
Christi Cartwright Says:
Accept writing friendships and kindnesses from whomever/wherever they are given. Writing is a lonely venture and kindness helps a writer to persevere.
Remember every story on the page and from the mouth is a lesson (in some way) in how to be a better writer.
Be generous with your feedback. Try hard to help fellow writers produce their best work. Ultimately, the helpful suggestions you extend to another writer regarding their work will end up helping you as well.
Andy Johnson Says:
I once met a young writer at Kimbilio in 2014. I won’t use his name, but his initials were Brian Gilmore. Brian Gilmore decided to go walk in the woods. I told him not to go. I told him bears and mountain lions think black people taste like fried chicken. I tried to help a brother out. But Brian Gilmore was hard-headed. He wouldn’t even wear the free bear repellent that comes in the Kimbilio survival kit. Brian Gilmore got eaten by a bear.
Don’t be like Brian Gilmore.
Rosalyn Story Says:
Resist the urge to compare your work to others’. Everyone has something valuable to share, and every one of us, including the returning fellows, has an opportunity to learn. Further, I would give the first-timers the same advice I give myself – stay positive, stay flexible, and be open to change.
Cole Lavalais’s arresting debut novel, The Summer of the Cicadas, engages with a mother-daughter relationship, mental health, and first love, set on the campus of small black college in the South. The novel’s main character Viola (Vi) Moon is still emotionally fragile after a recent hospitalization at a mental health facility, but she’s also determined to step into her future. As she begins her freshman year in college, she gets involved with Perry, the only son of an elite black family. Then a family mystery further threatens Vi’s stability and leads her on a search for her father. From the devastating opening chapter to the final, revelatory pages, Summer of the Cicadas is a fresh, unforgettable story about the struggle to heal from wounds of the past.
Lavalais is a fellow of the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction, VONA/Voices, and the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshops. She has been awarded writing residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and The Noepe Center for the Literary Arts. Her short stories have appeared in publications including Obsidian, Apogee, WarpLand, Tidal Basin Review, and Aquarius Press. She holds an MFA from Chicago State University and a PhD from University of Illinois at Chicago. She has taught writing for over ten years. On the South Side of Chicago, Lavalais teaches a community-based writing workshop and hosts Colored People’s Time, a bi-monthly literary salon featuring fiction writers of color.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Cole Lavalais about Summer of the Cicada, why she’s a huge fan of outlining, and the importance of dedicated communities for black writers.