The Next Chapter

Why Kerry Lee Powell writes about trauma

The short stories that comprise Powell's short story collection, Willem de Kooning's Paintbrush, take an unflinching look at violence and abuse.
The short stories that comprise Willem de Kooning's Paintbrush take an unflinching look at violence and abuse. (CBC Books)

Kerry Lee Powell has been singled out as a rising star of CanLit. Her debut short story collection, Willem de Kooning's Paintbrush, has been a hit with critics and prize juries — it was a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, and was on the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. Her stories often feature a violent incident, exploring what happens to people and families after the violence occurs. 

On her difficult childhood

I would say that my biggest preoccupation as a writer has been with trauma, and more importantly with surviving trauma. I think that's largely related to my childhood. I was raised by someone who was severely mentally ill. My father was a lot older than my mother. He was in the Second World War, and he suffered terribly from post-traumatic stress disorder. He took his life when I was 18 years old.

On how her upbringing shapes her writing

I think growing up with someone who is that ill raises a lot of fundamental questions: How do we live? How do we survive? It creates a sense of alienation with the world. That's reflected in my characters — a lot of them are traumatized in some way. Their lives are very extreme and they can't or they won't see the world the same way others do around them. At the same time, I feel compelled to look for some lyricism, some kindness, and I think that this might be also because that's something I could never offer my father. 

Kerry Lee Powell's comments have been edited and condensed.