When I interviewed Katie Kitamura for Slow Stories in 2021, she said this about fiction: “I think one of the things that fiction is very good at is looking at the relationship between the individual and the institution or the larger social structure. And I think it’s not only good at narrativizing what it’s like to be an individual caught within a larger structure . . . but also kind of minding the gap between individual experience and collective experience in a productive way.” In many ways, this tension is explored in her craft essay “Sprawl,” which is featured in the Sewanee Review’s Summer 2022 issue. Below, Kitamura meditates on collective authorship and solitude.
— Rachel Schwartzmann, guest contributor
RS: As I read “Sprawl,” I realized you had just returned from Italy when we initially spoke last September. You said then you’re “always interested in the things that don’t go away . . . the thing that returns, the thing that has a kind of circularity, the thing that [you] can’t shake off.” Let’s begin there: What are some things you haven’t been able to shake off lately? What did you hope to return to when writing this piece?
KK: I’ve been interested in collective authorship for a long time. I think that’s one of the reasons why I love works in translation so much—because they represent a collaborative, collective act of authorship. Without that interest, I don’t think I would have embarked on the project of a collaborative novel in the first place. Then, I was interested in the ecological and political dimensions of collectivity; like many writers, I’m trying to work out how to write about the climate crisis.
The more I write, the more I realize that my preoccupations don’t really go away. They just shift in form or adhere to something else. I rarely feel like I’m done thinking about or exploring something. At times I wish my mind metabolized material more rapidly, but there’s something to be said for sitting with something for a very long time. Things emerge that can only emerge once you’ve allowed yourself to sit inside an idea for longer than seems, strictly speaking, advisable.
RS: “Sprawl” asks us to consider consciousness and possibility beyond the individual self, the human gaze. If you were to attempt another collaborative project with these themes in mind, where would your writing process begin, knowing what you know now?
KK: I’m still very much in the learning phase of things, the stage of information gathering. But if I were to embark on something today, I would say that loosening—of control, of point of view, even of authorial consistency—would be central to the project. I teach creative writing, and we often end up discussing things like, for example, consistency of point of view. But what if we were to focus on and maximize those moments of inconsistency instead? That methodology could, I think, be useful even in projects that weren’t expressly collaborative, or focused on the question of nonhuman consciousness.
RS: I was struck by the conversations you had with people from all walks of life—from the immunologist to fellow writers. While abroad, you shared a particularly intimate moment with a curator who said, “One of the most beautiful things about trees is how they pool resources. . . . Trees in isolation are vulnerable, because they are deprived of this network of communication, this community.” Given the essay’s themes around distributed consciousness and collaboration, I wonder how these interactions impacted your relationship with solitude. How do you engage with the (vastly connected) natural world alone? Does solitude have a role to play in collective authorship?
KK: This is a really wonderful question. So much of writing is in the tension between solitude and collectivity. You write alone, but the text or the book really only exists in the space between the writer and the reader. You write alone, but you’re in constant dialogue with so many influences and external stimuli, natural and otherwise. So it’s always an act of collectivity, and at its best, it’s an act of communion. Oddly, I rarely feel alone when I write, and I never feel lonely. Writing is a bulwark against loneliness.