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'Fear Icons' With Kisha Schlegel

From Donald Trump to the Virgin Mary, Darth Vader to the Dalai Lama, Schlegel turns cultural criticism personal with bracing intelligence and vulnerability as she explores what it means to be human, a woman, an artist, and, in particular, a parent: what it means to love a child beyond measure, someone so vulnerable, familiar, and strange. 

The following highlights are from a conversation with CMarie Fuhrman about her nonfiction and work as co-editor for the anthology, Native Voices. This program was recorded in Spokane, WA during their Get Lit! literary festival with the generous support of Spokane Public Radio. To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.

Part of what’s shocking about the collection is the mortaring of pieces. Right after “Jesus?” is “Bin Laden,” where you thread religion and violence. You write about watching a reenactment of watching the Navy Seals’ attack on Bin Laden and you address your own connection to violence. You write, “Believing violence is a form of safety as I do when I’m alone in bed at night and hear every creak of the house. . .” Can you talk about your relationship to violence and safety?

I’ve definitely had events in my life that were dangerous. I actually don’t think I need to go through those in order to think about the way the imagination exists in an atmosphere of fear that seems to be surrounding us. I know a lot of people talk about 9/11 as being this moment when we recognized so deeply the fearful state in which we were living, and I think that’s true. It was a much more anxiety-inducing and producing time. But I feel like I had always had a layer of that around me in my experience. I remember being a kid and having that same thought, of how to use a lamp as a weapon. Not that I ever could, or would, or would be successful at doing so, it’s just that was a safety hatch. That form of imagination was a way to survive the moment or my own internal thoughts about fear. I think violence is so pervasive and so much a part of our experience but not a part of conversation. It’s not something we’re even really good at talking about or good at even questioning or framing questions around what it’s like to experience violence as humans.

You brought up the word imagination, and in the essay, “Dick, About Your Heart,” which is about Dick Cheney, you stay in the conversation about firearms and write, “Imagination is the sidearm I carry.” The question that came to my mind was: what are the side arms that you are trying to give your children to carry?

I don’t know. I think I want them to give them the space to find their own sidearms. I think part of what I fear is indoctrination. I certainly want to show them lots of ways of being that are beyond my way of being so they can hopefully find what works for them to really live in this world and to live a life that is respectful and respected. How they go about doing that is really on them. Am I the best models for them as individuals? I don’t know that. I do hope that I will afford them some space to understand how imagination and literature are important in our lives. . .

I found myself accompanying you on these searches, specifically into the internet. But one of the moments that struck me, you wrote, “It’s Saturday in the middle of summer. I could be in a park somewhere, listening to birds. But I haven’t left this room all day.” What is your relationship to that mode of doing research and how it became central to the book?

I remember that moment so vividly, I had been given the gift of a tiny little office on a campus where I was teaching just one class. They’d given me this tiny office, it had no windows, and I could sit in there and really lose track of time and it really unsettled me. How easy it was to stay in there and stay in that mode of research, and getting looped into and sucked into whatever portal might open to me on the internet, and allowing that to feed the work. That felt really useful, and it was--it was very vital--but there was always a tension between doing that kind of work and not being out in the world, and not being with my family, not being with my children. It felt like a form of crazy, like this just does not make sense or track. At some point I had to just choose, make a conscious decision to say this is important enough to go back to. I’m trying to work through something that’s needling at me and if I walk out of here right now and I walk back into the sunshine I will hear the birds maybe half way, because I will still be thinking the face of this woman who looks a lot like me, a little too much like me, as she’s pretending to shoot Bin Laden because it gives her something. I have to figure out what that something is and why I can’t stop thinking about her.

It took me right to a question you ask in the essay San Andreas Fault which is, “Can I do what I love and give the people I love what they need?”

I don’t think so.

How do you negotiate that as an artist, and as woman who is also married to a poet?

And a woman who has a full time job that is no joke. I don’t know. I have no answer for all the things other than I have decided time in the way that it is read, is no longer how I read it. By that I mean, the expectations for my production as a writer are not on the clock that I am on. I am no longer interested in defining my days by productivity. I am no longer interested in meeting deadlines I have set for myself in order to meet a standard set by someone else. I am interested in being more present which is very difficult because I am also required to plan: schedules for my kids, schedules for my classes. So how to do that and also be present. . . I don’t have an answer for that, but it’s something I feel is getting easier for me, as my kids get older. Maybe this is just a shout out to all the new parents out  there who are also Creatives.  It will get easier. Those first five years are no joke. They are very time intensive but also emotionally and psychically draining. Your mind has to be in a very different place and state of being. . .  It’s life. It’s complicated and messy, and the minute you figure something out it changes and you have to start over again.

About the Book:

“Who are we to each other when we’re afraid?” Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel asks in Fear Icons, her moving and original debut essay collection. Her answer is a lyric examination of the icons that summon and soothe our fears. From Donald Trump to the Virgin Mary, Darth Vader to the Dalai Lama, Schlegel turns cultural criticism personal with bracing intelligence and vulnerability as she explores what it means to be human, a woman, an artist, and, in particular, a parent: what it means to love a child beyond measure, someone so vulnerable, familiar, and strange. Schlegel looks at fear and faith— the ways the two are more similar than we realize—and the many shapes our faith takes, from nationalism to friendship, from art to religious dogma. Each essay is woven through with other voices—Baldwin, Ashbery, Du Bois, Cixous—positioning Schlegel’s arguments and meditations within a diverse and dynamic literary lineage. Fear Icons is a vital and timely inquiry into the complex relationship between love and fear—and the ways that each intensifies the other.

Credit Kisha Schlegel
Kisha Schlegel

About the Author:

Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel is an essayist and Assistant Professor of English at Whitman College. Kisha has published essays in Tin House, The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. A recipient of the Richard J. Margolis Award and a Washington State Grant for Artist Projects, Kisha was most recently awarded a writing residency at the Bloedel Reserve. She is a graduate of the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies Program and the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program.

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