Books·Magic 8 Q&A

How an album title inspired First Novel Award finalist Kaie Kellough to become a writer

The author of Accordéon answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Kaie Kellough is the author of the novel Accordéon. (Pablo Riquelme)

Kaie Kellough is a poet and sound artist whose debut novel, Accordéon, was a finalist for the 2017 First Novel Award.

Below, Kellough answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Jo Walton asks, "Do you use places and objects as inspiration and, if so, how do you seek them out?"

Place produces narrative. Place often determines what kind of experience a person will have. I am fascinated by narratives of migration, by the way a person's experience changes when they move from one continent, country, city, to another. How do these shifts in place impact how that person is seen and how they (re)construct their identity?

I recently wrote a short story about a boy whose family flees the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti and who comes of age amid the Haitian community in Montréal North. This story is very familiar to Montréal; it is embedded in the city's DNA. I would have written an entirely different story if I had been focused on Drumheller or Saskatoon. Further, that boy would have had a radically different experience had his family landed in Saskatoon.

2. Marc Raboy asks, "What is the most helpful advice you ever received from an editor?"

"There has to be a hierarchy among narratives." I think it was Kathleen Olmstead (my publisher at ARP Books) who told me this while editing Accordéon. It is such challenging advice because I find myself a stubborn opponent of hierarchy and a proponent of narrative equality. I have a high tolerance for chaotic and contradictory storylines, for subplots that multiply to infinity and for unresolvable situations. As an advocate for minor and marginal characters, I recoil from privileging one story over another and I struggle to find ways to avoid doing this. The act of establishing a hierarchy can easily engage the same cultural biases that, as a writer, I seek to disengage. At the same time, I want my work to be coherent. I want to be read and understood and this advice reminds me of the risks I run by either containing the intrigue or proceeding with abandon.

3. Trevor Cole asks, "How do you decide what to write about next?"

I allow a form of psychic natural selection to decide. I'm attracted to the ideas and stories that survive in my imagination despite the daily barrage of information, that endure the shifting compulsions of popular culture, changing headlines and changing interests. If a story or idea shows that kind of resilience, I know that it can withstand scrutiny, can grasp and hold human interest and can transcend trend.

4. Shyam Selvadurai asks, "What is the hardest thing about being a writer?"

I struggle with the tension between the slow pace at which a written work develops, the fact that it develops in silence and obscurity and the insatiable economy of social media, which is always demanding that we have something to say or to show for ourselves.

5. Anita Rau Badami asks, "Looking back, can you pinpoint the moment when you decided that you would be a writer? Is it something you had always wished to do?"

I can trace my decision to write to the title of a Wailers album: Confrontation. The record was in my parents' collection and I'd always thought Confrontation was a curious name for an album. Who were the parties in this confrontation? Where did it take place? Did it imply a violent reckoning or something more internal, like facing oneself? Why did it result in an album?

In my late teens, I discovered writing as a way of confronting some very hard experiences: sustained instances of discrimination and racial violence that coloured my boyhood in Alberta in the 1980s and 1990s. These issues were never addressed in school or in the media; they were like taboo subjects. At the time, social media did not exist and it was near impossible to bring these experiences up among friends, so I confessed them in my journals. It was a way of making them public, flinging them away from me, announcing them so that I no longer had to suffer their memory in silence. It was also a way of staging a confrontation with them and with their perpetrators, perhaps a way of having the final word.

6. Jen Sookfong Lee asks, "What book do you wish you had written?"

When I was in my late teens and early 20s I read in a furious and desperate way. It sounds dramatic, but I felt like I was reading for my life. I read authors like James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Angela Davis, Harryette Mullen, Dionne Brand, Kamau Brathwaite, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Ntozake Shange, out of a need for deep communication about who I was and how I ought to be in this society. Why was I here? What were the realities of colonialism, migration, slavery, global capitalism and how had they shaped my ancestral existence? I needed to know these things and, while all of those books were nourishing, naturally they didn't provide everything. They left me unsatisfied somehow and I had to remedy that by writing myself, sounding myself, articulating my immediate and historic experience into my surroundings.

7. Colleen Murphy asks, "Why do you love words?"

I don't know that I do love words. I feel a lot of anger toward them, also an abiding fascination and a wariness. Words are not all that I use to shape my thought and share it. I equally rely on non-linguistic sound, on vocal sound and electronic instrumentation. Sometimes I crave a total departure from words, an exit from the strictures of language.

8. Xue Yiwei asks, "How much, according to your experience, does a writer's fame rely on luck instead of diligence?"

All I can say is... I've been diligent.