Q&A with Alison Graham-Bertolini and Casey Kayser, editors of UNDERSTANDING THE SHORT FICTION OF CARSON MCCULLERS
By Ranha Beak
Dr. Alison Graham-Bertolini from North Dakota State University and Dr. Casey Kayser from University of Arkansas have teamed up to edit Carson McCullers for the literary scene today.
Dr. Alison Graham-Bertolini (left)
Ranging from political, racial, mental, sexual, and romantic aspects of McCullers’s litarry career, Graham-Bertolini and Kayser bring together various veiws on how McCullers fiction takes a stab at eah often-overlooked aspect in ther extensive works of short fiction.
Dr. Casey Kayser (right)
With the passing of McCullers’s psychiatrist Mary Mercer in 2013, Mercer handed her years’ collection of McCullers’s belongings to Columbus State University. The addition to McCullers’s archives allowed public access to an intimate look inside McCullers’s life, including transcripts of Mercer and McCullers’s sessions. The transcripts reveal truths about McCullers’s unstable marriage with Reeves McCullers and McCullers’s attraction to Mercer. Considering recent archival additions and the highly-speculated romantic relationship between Mercer and McCullers, Graham-Bertolini and Kayser invite readers to reconsider the conflict and torment within Carson McCullers’s short stories alongside conflicts we have today.
Understanding the Short Fiction of Carson McCullers is soon to be released on April 1, 2020. This essay collection welcomes diverse and inclusive readings of McCullers’s works.
Here is a Q&A with the editors Graham-Bertolini and Kayser on the process of presenting McCullers for the twenty-first century audience:
During the process of consolidating various perspectives on McCullers, was there a version of McCullers you wanted to portray in the essay collection?
Yes, we were most focused on demonstrating that McCullers’s work is more political and has more of a social conscience than most readers and critics have assumed in the past. We did our best to include chapters that highlight McCullers’s resistance to the status quo, often highlighting the fact that McCullers was very far ahead of her time. As we note in our preface, “Her short fiction includes interrogations of class-based, racial, and ableist prejudice; disconcerting portrayals of the social and political anxiety surrounding the Second World War; satirical eviscerations of some of the most oppressive social norms of the mid-twentieth century; and bold suggestions that lesbian desire, queer relationships, and female authority have a valid place in American culture.”
What led you to collaborate on researching McCullers?
We went to graduate school together at Louisiana State University, then worked together in revitalizing the Carson McCullers Society in 2014. Our first co-edited collection, Carson McCullers in the Twenty-First Century, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016. We share a love for the author and her work, and have learned we collaborate very well together!
Is there something about Southern Gothic genre that continues to resonate with today’s popular readership?
One of the most notable aspects of the Southern Gothic in McCullers is her uncanny use of the grotesque. In what we often think of as traditional grotesque portrayals in Southern fiction, authors use physical deformity to indicate a character’s moral deficiency. McCullers, on the other hand, often subverts these portrayals—her physically “other” characters, such as those who are deaf, mute, those with dwarfism, overtly masculine women, characters with repressed sexualities, and characters who are othered because of their race, are used to disclose society’s ugly assumptions and prejudices, instead of revealing something negative about the characters themselves.
We do think that contemporary audiences are drawn to the Southern Gothic genre. The popularity of recent books, films, and television shows, such as True Detective or Sharp Objects, just to name a few, seem to suggest that there is still a lot of interest in this genre.
What’s the reality for collaborative works of literary criticism? Do you have advice for current students interested in big-scale literary research projects?
Because Alison’s work sits at the intersection of women’s studies and literary studies there is often not a single journal for which it is suited. Casey has encountered the same issue with her interdisciplinary focus in literature and medicine. This of course does not invalidate our research, which is very much needed, but requires us to be more agential in finding ways for it to reach an academic audience. This is why smaller academic publishers such as Mercer [University Press] are so important; they encourage the publication of collaborative literary criticism about important authors such as McCullers who otherwise might be neglected or overlooked. My advice therefore to students interested in big-scale literary research projects is, “if there is no venue currently suitable in which to publish your work, CREATE a venue in which to publish your work.”
What’s the most significant takeaway from Carson McCullers’s transcripts with her psychiatrist Mary Mercer? How can McCullers’s writings contribute to conversations on mental health awareness today?
Casey has spent a good bit of time studying the therapy transcripts and other materials in the archives. It is fascinating to have such an intimate view into McCullers’s mental and physical health and the concerns of her life at that time through these transcripts. Some of the most significant takeaways are related to McCullers’s discussions about her sexuality and her feelings for her off-and-on husband Reeves, her piano teacher Mary Tucker, and her friend Annemarie Schwarzenbach. They also provide insight into Mercer and McCullers’s therapeutic relationship.
In many of McCullers’s works, we see characters yearning for and struggling to find belonging and connection with others, a problem which certainly still exists, and is perhaps even more salient in light of the ubiquitousness of technology today. People’s search for connection and belonging are certainly relevant in contemporary conversations about mental health.
In your opinion, who is the most eccentric character from McCullers’s stories?
Maybe Miss Amelia from Ballad of the Sad Café, but she is eccentric in a good and interesting way!
Compared to her contemporaries, how is the research process for Carson McCullers different? Are there different lenses of McCullers analyses you would like to see in the future?
We believe the new archival materials have provided new insights into McCullers and we would like to see scholars explore these further.
What are the most interesting perspectives or critical lenses you’ve encountered throughout your academic writing careers?
Literary criticism is dynamic and keeps changing and expanding, which keeps our field interesting. Currently, Alison has been pursuing Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure as a lens through which to examine McCullers’s fiction. The premise is that failure, even with its dark outcomes, can offer more creative ways of being in the world. This is an idea that maps well onto McCullers’s odd characters. We have been really excited by some of the approaches that scholars have taken in looking at McCullers recently, such as through comparative transatlantic readings, queer theory, disability studies, and critical animal theory.
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