AS KISHA LEWELLYN SCHLEGEL encounters the world around her, her past is seemingly always part of her present. Memories of a childhood spent in church and a grandfather who was once a preacher bleed into questions of faith, pop culture, and their intersection. The untimely death of her father when she was five is a constant reminder that loss is irreversible, and often grief is too. As she raises two small children in a world that seems more deranged by the minute, she reflects on the ways violence has impacted her life and might influence theirs.
Schlegel’s debut essay collection, Fear Icons, which won the inaugural Gournay Prize at Ohio State University’s Mad Creek Books, embraces an assemblage of forms to dissect the topics that obsess her: those directly informed by love and fear. Her lyrical investigation provides plot points that beg the reader to think deeply about the world around them, with compassion for it and themselves.
Schlegel and I spoke via phone from her home in Walla Walla, Washington, where she is an assistant professor at Whitman College.
MELYNDA FULLER: I love this line from the essay “Jesus”: “Who are we to each other when we’re afraid?” This question carries through the collection, particularly in some of the final essays like “The Veil,” “Dolly,” and “Liberace and the Ash Tree,” when you explore how the public reflects off pop culture and historical figures and how they work to control that reflection in some cases. Can you talk a little about that? How did you approach those figures through the lens of the collection?
KISHA LEWELLYN SCHLEGEL: That question was really helpful in orienting me to understand what I wanted to do for the whole collection.
The idea that fear separates us is something that’s really common. I wanted to pull at that notion, tear at its edges a little bit, because I started out thinking, “Yes, absolutely, fear is a separator.” But, yet, with every essay the same strange thing happened. I found I was connecting to others through fear, so there was this merged experience of connection and disconnection happening at the same time.
It was happening with people who I didn’t know. I don’t know Dick Cheney, except as a politician and vice president. But, when I think about his policies on torture, his politics, his voice — the quality of that voice — I feel afraid. Physically, I have a visceral response. His body shifts the fact of my body, and I wanted to invoke that range of connectivity in each of the essays.
In some ways, I just wanted to see how a connection to icons impacts our relation to fear and to each other. The question “who are we to each other when we’re afraid?” developed for me kind of late, and I was able to reframe things based on it.
The answer to the question of course is “we’re awful.” But, at the same time, we’re surprisingly kind and aware and brave and fallible and just all the things humans can be. These moments of fear were exposing that humanity in a way that was really full of heat for me. At first, I was just writing about different iconic figures and seeing what happened. It took a really smart friend of mine to say, “You know you’re writing about fear, right? All of these are actually about fear.” That’s how it developed from icons to fear.
The icons you were mentioning in particular were ones where I was following the impulse of the image and my reflection on the image or the stories I’d heard about it.
Liberace is a great one because I had heard an NPR story on him. It was a one-minute clip. It was so simple, but there was something about the story I couldn’t let go of. Then I started researching Liberace and found such a devastating story. You know, people kind of know about Liberace but not really.
I was interested in that essay in part because I remembered my aunt talking about him when I was a kid. She once said out of almost nowhere, “You know what they did to him when he died.” It was this really tragic thing she was trying to express.
Yes, the way he was hiding so much of himself in order to be himself in a way — there’s this weird presentation that’s happening. Also, what fascinated me was that these normative role-playing women of the 1950s and ’60s really adored him. I’d imagine your aunt of that age, or when my mom or my father-in-law read this, they’d say, “Oh yes, Liberace!” They have a real connection. He was a rock star like Madonna or Kanye, but for playing the piano and being bedazzled and bejeweled.
He seemed like a magpie to me: he needed to surround himself with all this glitter. Then, at the same time he was pretty intense with the people in his life.
That’s what’s interesting too about icons and fear. We think icons and fear mean one thing. It means “X.” So, I wanted to push up against those traditions and the closed boxes of those conclusions around what things mean and how they work.
A sizable part of the collection also deals with faith and fear — the original “icons.” How do you align the two, or do you align the two?
For me, they’re definitely related. I think part of what I fear is the way that — and this is a total generalization — but the ways in which religion teaches us to read iconic images as “X.” Belief has a centralized meaning and if you don’t agree with that, you don’t get the benefits of what it promises. So, as someone who grew up in a church where there weren’t a lot of icons, but there was very much the storytelling tradition of icons and what it would mean to believe, I felt fear when I stopped going to church and found that type of belief system didn’t exist for me. I also felt sadness that I don’t have that kind of faith. I actually really admire — or am kind of jealous of — people who can have that kind faith that seems so stable when nothing seems stable to me. For me, the most stable thing is the unstable and being able to locate that through the essay.
Faith and fear are always tangled up in really meaningful and generative ways. I’m not talking about the damnation principles of religion that we so often hear about. I’m talking about a feeling of belonging and who is allowed and who is not. Those texts are so often made to exclude and used to exclude, as we’re seeing on an almost daily basis in our current political climate. But you know, when you have people who are misusing religious texts that are so interpretable and they are laying claim to a singular meaning, that’s when the fear hackles go up hardcore for me. The closed mind, the one that is unwilling to think beyond the limits of its own perception, that’s when I’m extraordinarily afraid.
I was really interested in your connection to fear and death throughout the essays, particularly the way you approach the death of your father that then becomes connected to childhood sadness, and eventually to the little girl in the essay “Gun.”
What’s interesting about icons is that you kind of see yourself when you look at them. You’re revealing to yourself what you experienced. John Berger said this in Ways of Seeing, “A large part of our seeing depends on habit and convention.” He’s specifically talking about icons in that quote, and particularly in churches. I think that’s really true. Part of what I needed to do was read those habits, then break them. It was revealed to me in writing “Golden Gate” that I was seeing my dead father in so much of the work I was doing without actually writing about him. That grief and that loss were very foundational for me. It’s in my bones, the fear of that death.
And it’s really, as images go, the first I have. I have two memories [from before my dad’s death] and both are of him. The third is of the black limo that pulled up to our house to take us to his funeral. That’s really where my consciousness begins. With that memory, the reflection of my skirt in the door of the limo, I have all of these visual cues that are happening there along with the senses that are all clicked on in that moment. They’re really creating for me the way that I see and the way that I experience the world. That revelation in “Golden Gate” is very closely tied to the girl in “Gun.” That girl is like so many I’ve known who are just struggling to understand how to be loved in a world that so easily takes away what’s loved. That’s the ultimate fear that we all share, that that which we love will be taken away.
I’ve never really feared my own death. It’s not like I’m courting it — don’t get me wrong, I’m totally protective of my own life — but, the thought of death doesn’t really creep me out or make me feel deep anxiety. The thought of other people’s death absolutely does.
It was important for me to pull out this fear that people have — the fear of death — throughout the collection in a way that was super quiet, and the ways in which fear, too, is tied to love: we’re afraid of losing that which we love. Love and fear actually intensify each other.
Your children play a huge part in this collection. They allow you a surface to bounce new fears off of and create a new level of vulnerability through. I was thinking of “Darth Vader,” when your son seems to already be tapping into the violence that surrounds us all as he acts out the role of Luke Skywalker, to which you’re left dismayed. How did the birth of your children change your approach to writing this collection? How did they shape the theme?
The birth of my son is the reason for this collection. I had him and immediately realized the depths of fear, because there is nothing I fear more than the death of my children. It was palpable to me the minute he was born. About a year after his birth was when Bin Laden was killed and everyone was celebrating out in the streets. Their euphoria over someone else’s death, someone who did awful things, but still, hit me really hard. I don’t know if it was because I was holding my son as I was watching this unfold, but I do remember thinking: “This is the world in which my kid lives, and I’m really afraid.”
He’s eight this year, and I’ve written this book for his entire life. My daughter is four, and she sort of peeks out here and there. But, with the second kid, you’re like, “Yes, this is fear, this is what it feels like.” For my son, though, he tracks through all of these. Really in “Darth Vader” he is taking on some of those qualities in our culture that were initiating for me as a source of fear. In that moment, I have to find a way to sort of say, “This is his life, this is his body, this is just play.” I have to talk myself down from the layers of my history with fear and my history with violence to remember that this is his own thing. And yet, I still want to teach him this is not how we act. Sitting between those two desires: wanting him to be an independent person and helping him understand the limits of how we treat each other or what it means to treat each other with care — is so tricky. This book wouldn’t exist if I weren’t a parent.
I liked the inclusion of words by other writers that you scattered throughout the essays in the form a shadow text. Can you talk a little about the influence of others’ work on your own? How did you come to include the voices you chose?
If I’ve been writing an essay for a while and I don’t think it’s going anywhere, I’ll pick up some of my favorite books and read them and just try to get the language mechanisms going so I can at least free write. As I was doing that, I was also doing research around these different subjects. I think what’s curious to me about the shadow texts, though, is that very few of them are related to the subject matter. They really are more influential. Those influences came by luck. I’m thinking of the first essay, “Jesus,” where there’s that quote from “It Wants to go to Bed With Us” from Harper’s magazine, which was about [John] Ashbery. It was just happenstance that I came across that, but it speaks to what I am trying to say. So in some ways, the book is reading through so many forms of juxtaposition: juxtaposing images, juxtaposing moments of time, juxtaposing the personal with the cultural or the historical. These quotes, too, are like juxtapositions because they come between my language or my sentences that are about, ostensibly, Jesus, but then there’s a quote about “you,” the second person.
I should also say I sort of took the shadow text from a talk I heard Maggie Nelson give where she said she always has a shadow text. I might be misremembering this, but she said she has a book she keeps next to her while she’s writing, which is certainly very true for The Argonauts. She, also, has an actual shadow text for the book she’s writing. That’s what I had in mind with each of these works that I was reading, they were shadowing the work that I was doing and informing it, helping me better understand it. Of course that shadow has metaphorical implications that were really interesting to me as well. The ways in which fear shadows us; the ways in which icons shadow our culture.
I loved the texts because they acted as little moments of pause while I was reading.
I did want it to be like a little pause because it did feel like a pause in my own thinking. It’s restful when someone else says something that is speaking for you, when someone else can articulate for you what you have been laboring to say and then, there it is, so clearly. Your mind gets to be in that language for a moment, then have that language create something new in your own mind. It’s such a gift.