Writer, artist and social entrepreneur Dasha Kelly is the author of the novel All Fall Down as well as Eats Peanuts and Call It Forth, both collections of poems, essays, and short stories. As a spoken word artist, Kelly has performed throughout North America and appeared on the final season of HBO presents Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam. Kelly has released four audio compilations and a poetry chapbook called Hither. She has also written for Upscale, Black Enterprise, and Milwaukee magazines and her narrative essays appear regularly online. Kelly holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. A former “Army brat,” she is currently based in Milwaukee, where she lives with her cat and two teen daughters.
Dasha’s second novel, Almost Crimson (Curbside Splendor), will appear on bookshelves nationwide this month and has already been named by BuzzFeed as one of the “16 of the Most Exciting Books of 2015 by Independent Publishers.” Reading it, I was riveted by the relationship between Kelly’s protagonist CeCe and her complicated mother. I had my own rough ride with my mom growing up and always appreciate a nuanced portrayal of mothers and daughters as they move through the world relating—and not—to one another. I was happy to talk to Kelly about Almost Crimson and her vibrant characters.
The Rumpus: Almost Crimson is extraordinary. CeCe, the arc of her life, her interiors, her strength, her fragility. Tell me about your relationship with her, tell me about creating her.
Dasha Kelly: Thank you! When I first conceived of CeCe, I approached her as that one friend we all have who is forever stumbling out of a mishap and into a crisis. By no fault of their own, usually. Life just keeps happening to them. As I started writing her into these situations—awkward dates, fickle friends, workplace bullies—I began to ask “why.” What was she missing, and why? What was the common thread, and why? Asking those questions and being authentic about the possible answers helped me shape CeCe’s temperament and her world. She evolved far beyond the vapid girl I’d initially planned to write her into. This CeCe, I came to absolutely love.
Rumpus: You paint an extraordinary portrait of struggles, plural. Too often, I think, we are given characters in novels with one “central struggle” instead of many. Was that intentional?
Kelly: Yes. With CeCe, her mother’s frailties impact every element of her journey, which can translate into sub-struggles, I suppose. At the same time, I didn’t want her issues to be so outsized that we wouldn’t be able to see the “everyday” in her story.
Giving her one struggle would have suggested a single reason for an entire challenging life. I don’t think many of us have that luxury where, if This One Thing were different or hadn’t happened, our worlds would be ideal. It’s usually rent paired with being the middle child tinged with quitting nursing school sprinkled with always falling for the clingy girlfriend and so on.
Whether we’re burdened with one enormous struggle or a weighted with a multitude of small ones, it still amounts to someone lugging around a lot of extra baggage.
Rumpus: You depict CeCe’s love for her mother and need to step beyond her mother’s painful orbit with elegance and grace. I think writing about mothers and daughters and their bonds and how those bonds are also weapons is important work. Can you talk about that?
Kelly: When I was trying on CeCe’s early “whys,” I loosely settled on “something with her mother” after overhearing a conversation between two women at a party. They were discussing some third woman growing up without her mother and noted that “she was cutting the onion from the wrong end.” It made me think of the zillions of unremarkable things we learn from the people who raise us. I don’t remember being told about better ends of an onion. Or maybe I had. I don’t think so. But I knew exactly what she meant. I started to think about how these tiniest of things compound. Our onion aggregate, if you will.
So what does it look like when things are missing? What happens when the incomplete inventory is everything a parent has? Our mothers are imperfect mortals, every one of them. CeCe and her mother were bound because of her mother’s deficiencies. So what happens to that clatter of emotions—when your mother is the reason for everything but at fault for nothing? When there’s nowhere to hang your anger and resentment? What happens when our thoughts and emotions becomes unspeakable? Charging through…
Rumpus: I came to love CeCe so much because of how her mother loved her and how her mother failed her. Can you talk a bit about their relationship?
Kelly: I think they have a mutual empathy, both of them surviving the experience of “life living them.” Still, understanding is a cerebral exercise; it has little authority in the emotional department. Understanding why her mother was so limited didn’t keep CeCe from feeling the full wattage of the emotions that gripped her along the way. I think that’s what happens in any relationship, but particularly parents and children. Where our hearts belie the logic our brains have sorted out on our behalf. The crazy girlfriend. The insecure boss. The disorganized volunteer. The abusive parent. The overbearing sibling. We can articulate the hows, whys, and effects but still emote in a completely unexpected way. With mothers and daughters, the yearning is so elemental. I know Freud is so last century, but, hey: satisfying that yearning—or not—will evidence itself in all of us.
Rumpus: Your story says, to me, that we both can and can’t choose who we are. That we can make choices, but, too, we are shaped by our childhood and our family and some of that is something we can’t just choose past. I believe we always carry the past with us. That it’s alive in us every day. Your book reinforces that, in part through its structure of alternating past and present. Yet it also says that we can go beyond the scripts we are handed. Talk about that whole notion? And how you chose your structure?
Kelly: That can be such a tricky conversation, particularly in the ways we have it with ourselves. I mean, we’ve all seen enough Deepak and Oprah to at least articulate the principles of positive thinking, rising above our circumstance, owning ourselves, and all that gorgeous hippie talk. Misshapen, dimpled, lopsided, perfectly symmetrical, or evenly broken, we enter the rest our lives molded by everything we saw, experienced, and survived in childhood. On the best days, we can see our past and future as two distinct places in time, with two distinct sets of rules and realities. On the worst days, we chastise ourselves for ever imagining a new future. On in-between days, we just don’t know. At home, though, those sticky notes on the mirror and affirmation mantras can feel contrived. Especially when our internal thought battles are between who we were and who we want to be.
I think that’s what I liked about CeCe’s story, neither one of us really knew until the very end. The structure helped a lot. I feel that was the most arduous part of the editing, deciding how to line up the scenes of her past and present. Less than explaining why one thing did or didn’t happen in her adult life, I more hoped to offer benchmarks for the distances she traveled.
Rumpus: Can you tell us some of the books/writers/writing that have been important to you and some of the other important artistic influences on you and your work?
Kelly: I always feel like I’ve failed by not having a more erudite answer for this question. There are so many great stories I don’t even recall consuming, but I know they’re in there. My most memorable books are: To Beat the Turtle Drum, a book a read in elementary school that made me cry. It was the first time I realized that books could do that, too; The World According to Garp was one of many books I read because my mother had read it. I was in middle school, so reading the thick hard backs always felt so smart and grown-up. Plus, this time, I was just old enough to appreciate the tragedy inside the love story. When it became a movie, with Robin Williams no less, I felt like I’d earned a special badge; and Color Purple, so plush and vivid and elegantly raw… that book arrested every possible sense and sensibility.
Rumpus: What advice do you give emerging writers?
Kelly: Read everything. Everything. Magazines, blogs, smart Twitter accounts, biographies, indie fiction and poems. Everything. The greatest mistake is to believe that you have this writing thing perfected. You don’t. Also, give yourself permission to write. Sounds odd for a writer, but I still astound myself at how I wrestle writing into my schedule. I THINK about writing all the time, but then there’s laundry, and the residency gig, and quality time with the family, and removing the chipped polish from my nails… it doesn’t end. Writing is such a solitary and—air quotes—selfish endeavor, it gets slipped to the sidelines easily, especially when it’s not keeping the lights on. Write anyway.
Rumpus: I try to ask all the writers I interview if they have any thought on the way women writers are treated? The demand for likable characters. The personal attacks. The comments that we aren’t funny or as good or writing about important topics.
Kelly: Malarkey, I say, and keep it going.
Rumpus: Do you want to tell us what you’re working on now? What you’re thinking about these days? What work of others has moved you?
Kelly: I’m working on the next project that initially wrote as a screenplay, my first, but decided to “novelize” it. I missed the process of building all the interior dialogue and back history. The shortest tease I’d offer is to invite you to imagine all of your lovers being summoned to your funeral. In the story there’s a reason, but in our regular lives? Yeah. That’s what I’m thinking about these days.
Author photo © Catina Cole Photography.