Interview

Kirsten Imani Kasai on Art with a Purpose

Kirsten Imani Kasai

The holiday season is traditionally a great time to relax, but recent events have made this year’s holidays more uncertain and stressful. Regardless of which holidays we celebrate, many of us are wondering what the future will look like for us after a year where seemingly nothing has gone right. In the United States especially, there’s a lot of uncertainty around the future status and treatment of minorities. Times like these call for writers with a purpose and stories that challenge the status quo.

Kirsten Imani Kasai is one such writer. An artist as well as an author of novels such as Ice Song, poetry, essays, and short fiction, she strives to create works that are intellectually challenging as well as entertaining. We asked her some questions about her art, and here’s what she had to say.

Writing and art in general seem to be a huge part of your life. What do you think lead you down the path of a writer?

Being a writer seems pre-destined for my personality type! Every astrology chart or personality test has said that I would be an artist or writer because I am driven to express myself creatively. I’ve been writing, drawing or painting my whole life. I grew up in a very creative, artistic household. My mom took us to a lot of museums and historical sites, and she loved the theater, costumes and acting on stage. My dad played piano and excelled at black and white photography, and he loved to read. Music, art and books were important in our household. Growing up in an environment where the arts were so valued gave me a unique outlook on life and my parents always encouraged various forays into the arts. My mom bought me an electric typewriter when I was in high school and that’s when I began to craft complete stories.

Your track record of types of writing and genres of interest is impressive. Do you enjoy all types of writing equally, or do you have your favorites in terms of style and/or genre? What do you like to read yourself?

My writing style is very lyrical, ornate, dark and exploratory in terms of subject or language. I love wordplay, musical sentences, rhythmic or visual patterning and learning new facts or ideas. I also enjoy playing with structure and genre, doing a bit of mix and match and shaking up traditional story formats. In terms of topics, I prefer stories about misfits, monsters and outliers—people or characters who don’t fit into the world or society around them.

I gravitate toward gritty historical fiction, literary sci-fi/fantasy, biographies and the occasional crime thriller or horror novel. I typically read up on the subjects that I’m writing about and enjoy reading nonfiction about medicine, disease, brain research and abnormal psychology. Last year I was on a Nordic noir binge, right now I’m book hopping between Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power, Helen Zahavi’s Brighton Boy and a book about metaphysics. The most stunning novel I’ve read recently was The Bees, by Laline Paull, which follows the extraordinary life of a honeybee. It’s kind of a mash-up between Watership Down and The Handmaid’s Tale.

I prefer stories about misfits, monsters and outliers—people or characters who don’t fit into the world or society around them.

In the same vein, you write about so many different things! What inspires you? Do you ever go searching for interesting material to write about, or does the material tend to find you instead?

Usually I’m just struck by an idea or image from something I’ve read in the news, sparked by an aspect of another story or even my dreams. They’re like dandelion seeds blowing in and taking root in my imagination. The stories and characters just grow and grow until I’m compelled to give them attention. Sometimes I want to write about a specific topic but simply have to wait until the story is ready to present itself, otherwise it’s lifeless on the page. I’ve learned that I can’t force the process.

I believe poetry and fiction should be challenging, emotionally stimulating and intellectually nourishing.

You say you have a particular taste for novelty. What are some of your current interests or goings-on in your life?

The election has really taken a toll. So many of my friends are struggling to make sense of Hillary’s defeat and the looming threats to social justice and personal rights under the coming administration. At the same time, it’s served as a catalyst to motivate me to re-evaluate my priorities as an artist and a citizen and to use my work to explore alternative futures. I’ve been working with a group of visual artists and writers to develop a platform to promote positivity and aggregate information about social reform groups, grassroots organizations and more with the goal of helping to portray the kind of world we want to see. It’s still in the planning stages but is a very hopeful effort to counter all the violence and negativity that seems so prevalent. Aside from that, I’m eager to start making illustrated poems—ink drawings in the style of 19th century illustrative technique—a little project I experimented with a couple of years ago during an arts residency at Djerassi. Other than that, enjoying holiday socializing with friends and family and tinkering about with home and repair projects in our fixer-upper (which makes me feel very brawny and frontiersman-like).

I am particularly interested in the mission statement you have on your website. How did that come about? Is there anything else you’d like to share with regards to that?

My mission statement summarizes what’s most important to me in my work. Those are the primary concerns or themes that I return to again and again, and the ideas that consume me. As I move through life, I find that writing about shifting social climates, gender roles and expectations through fiction, poetry and essays is a deeply impactful way to share ideas and spark conversations about these important topics.

Mission Statement
As a writer and artist, I seek to redefine prevalent cultural images of women and motherhood; question the nature of gender roles; establish a feminine vision of the future not rooted in technological alienation and destruction; and, of course, to write killer stories that satisfy our natural human lust for action, sex, love, violence and intrigue.

I believe poetry and fiction should be challenging, emotionally stimulating and intellectually nourishing. Literature is a change agent. It should shake us up, push us beyond our comfort zones and break us open or put us back together. It is the mirror, the lens—a coalescing beam that can illuminate, clarify, reflect or ignite. My writing examines the realities of women’s intricate physiologies, the interplays of internal and external experiences and how the layers of our lives are impacted by and, conversely, affect the world around us so that we can create change based on mutual empathy instead of alienation.

Finally, what should we look forward to from you? Do you have any great projects coming out, or any local events you’re going to be a part of in the near future?

My Gothic, historical novel The House of Erzulie is due out Feb 2018 from Shade Mountain Press. In January, I’m reading an essay at the Narrators in San Diego (a podcast of my 2016 reading is here) , and I’ll have an essay coming out in The Body Horror Book from Australia’s Oscillate Wildly Press. I’m also writing my fifth novel, and toying with the idea of putting together a collection of my published short stories and hand-making some copies of my poetry chapbook to sell. (Such a busy little bee!) Next year, I’d like to devote more time to curating and building up my site Beautiful Machines: Women’s Letters to Their Bodies. Hopefully, I’ll be accepted into the PhD program I applied to and will begin that in the fall and of course, the tinkering about the house will likely never end, there’s so much to be done.

Visit my website www.KirstenImaniKasai.com to keep up with what I’m doing.

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