Kalisha Buckhanon doesn’t have a smart phone. Her first advice to new writers is to get rid of it. She writes on an old desktop computer without internet for the same reason she likes being a writer in Chicago — it allows her to get work done.
And that’s lucky for us because her new novel, Speaking of Summer, is a dynamic and important story that will provoke needed conversations about the devastating effects of trauma and mental illness.
In the novel, Summer walks to the roof of the Harlem brownstone she shares with her twin sister and disappears into the cold winter night. The mysterious circumstances of her disappearance set up a compelling tale about safety and violence, mental health and trauma, and victim invisibility.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Kalisha Buckhanon over the phone. An edited transcript of our conversation appears below.
Rachel León: I know it’s a generic question, but I’m fascinated with the origins of stories — where did you get the idea for this novel?
Kalisha Buckhanon: I traveled to New York because that’s where I lived and have people I consider family. Just being in the environment sparked a story that was going to be a novel about a black couple who lost a child… who lived in a brownstone in Sugar Hill, a pretty legendary black neighborhood. And so that was the story I had going on — how people were working so hard and violence came in and interrupted their places and their peace and what they worked for and what their future legacy was going to be.
So that was already going on and then I just happened to be back home — I was doing a class reunion for my high school, Kankakee High School, at the same time the Sandra Bland video of the initial encounter she had with the cop had just come out and so it was something people were talking about. After having been around so many of my former classmates and seeing how we got to grow up and make our lives from where we came to what we were… I think because of the context in which I found out about her — celebrating my classmates and our adulthood lives — it was pretty horrific. It embedded in me almost like a relative passing.
Yeah, so black women and death and safety just kind of took over and that was the mood I kind of got in. And just sitting at home in Kankakee — a big part of the book is her small town existence or past — and so it all gelled. These writings about horror and a Harlem brownstone and a couple seeing everything they worked for fall apart just kind of gelled with a black woman seeing that for herself and just meeting tragedy from being unsafe from being un-thought about –– from being a target of law enforcement instead of the one they’re protecting. Those kind of things all just swirled to switch the story.
León: It sounds like you worked the story out as you wrote. Was that the case?
Buckhanon: I definitely knew what was really going on and I knew at some point that what was really going on needed to come out… I can definitely see how outlines are necessary but part of me wonders if you’re just getting started, if an outline is an inhibition as something you substitute for the story.
I think the biggest outlining structure for me was the seasons. I knew how the seasons would correspond to her enlightenments and discoveries and I tried to map those to correlate the action –– where her personality was, where this hunt for Summer was –– into a kind of a parallel to the seasons, or what we know of seasons or what we expect of seasons. So that when we meet her in winter, she’s in her hibernation mode and it’s getting a bit out of hand. Then by spring time, she’s a little more amenable to coming out and blossoming and pursuing justice, but trying to wake up, so to speak. By summer time, all hell breaks loose.
I knew I needed to push the character and push the story and that was very helpful to have as some sort of guide. I definitely recommend that people have something like that going on. I always have to have some benchmarks to be reaching in order to generate the content that gets you to the point.
León: Autumn is such a compelling character, partially because of the personal journey she goes on in this story. Did that never surprise you since you knew where you were going with that then?
Buckhanon: I surprised myself in terms of me, like, “Oh, I went there? Okay…” But the characters, no, they don’t surprise me, because I’m in control of them, in a way. I think things happen or come out during writing that surprise me only in terms of what maybe I thought of or done.
León: I really appreciated that this novel deals with mental illness and trauma, such relevant and prevalent topics that are under-represented in literature. Why do you think that is?… Assuming you agree.
Buckhanon: I do agree. For me when I was writing the book and when I realized, “Oh God, I’ve got to do this.” Because you get to a point of no return with something when you’ve invested the time and the pages and you see it and you can’t abandon it.
The vision that was driving me was having room for women talking about their issues of mental health or feeling unsafe. In my fantasy dream world of what I hope the lasting impact of the book would be is to ignite more of these conversations — and not on a surface sound bite, hashtag kind of way, but really in a way that becomes normalized that these various topics are just a part of curriculums, community conversations, church groups, book clubs. Where it just becomes a little more normalized and women can sit down openly and really share.
Just historically and at large, it’s changing that we are saying that mental health matters. And we have to address this and approach this seriously and structurally. It’s not something to be hushed up. How often have we known people have gone through things and the solution that we come up with is –– let’s just be there for them and not mention it when real support is honestly just listening. That’s the biggest support. But unfortunately people who are struggling with mental health or trauma are silent. They’re invisible. They have to pretend. And especially women more than men.
I feel like people see the women’s fiction and all of that and they think, “Oh, that’s just a story about women.” [We need] the elevation of that style of writing of women to the same place it is for men. You get these little stories about their existential crises and whatever. You know I love me some Catcher in the Rye, it’s one of my favorite novels. But they can go there and that’s literature, it’s art, you know, but when we do it it’s like, “Oh, it’s hormones, it’s hysteria.” No, it is literature. And it is happening and it is art and it’s the same class of respect. I’d love to see more stories like this from myself and other people.
León: You’re based in Chicago. What is your favorite thing about being a writer here?
Buckhanon: I’ve never been asked that question. Ever. And I think it’s an important question because Chicago remains a second city. We have a beyond vibrant arts and culture scene. We remain a very hardcore training ground for some of our most known artists in all various fields and genres.
But it’s a question I haven’t even asked myself. Maybe the thing I like about being a writer here is I don’t feel like a writer here. I go to New York, which is like a second home, and that’s where the part of me that feels the personality of it activate, because that’s what I went there for — I went to New York to be a writer on a professional scale, on a published scale, on an appearance scale. The whole vision and image of what a writer is certainly located in New York.
Here however, what I like is getting work done. I came to Chicago to work. People here are hard working. People here are job oriented. People here produce something. I think that general vibe and atmosphere from the city at large has been very healthy for me to transition from being a college student to being a professional writer. And I definitely take advantage of the winter. The cold is brutal and you’re out there for necessities only. It’s an effort, it’s a voyage. It’s very grounding and very disciplining for me here.
Note to readers: Kalisha Buckhanon will be in conversation with Dan Portincaso at Volumes on September 18.
Speaking of Summer by Kalisha Buckhanon
Published July 30, 2019
Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, BOMB Magazine, The Millions, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.