In the latest interview in our new series, Ampersand, we spoke with Kristin Kostick about anthropology, artificial intelligence, and re-reading one’s own work. Kostick was the winner of the 2015 Susan Atefat Prize for Creative Nonfiction for her essay “Hostage Situation,” which appeared in Issue 31.
If you are interested in submitting to the 2018 Susan Atefat Prize for Creative Nonfiction, or to either of our other Arts & Letters Prizes, submissions are open until March 31st.
A&L: So, you’re a writer and an anthropologist. Do you find that there is much overlap? Both disciplines attempt to understand humanity, each in its own way.
Kristin Kostick: This seems like a straightforward question, because the similarities seem so evident. Anthropologists observe human behavior, customs, cultures, and attempt to document everything objectively, but from an “insider’s” point of view. More recent forms of anthropology since the ‘60s reject objectivity and attempt to write “thick descriptions” of cultural phenomena through the lens of their own subjective perspectives, because it is assumed that it’s impossible to escape subjectivity. Writers, of course, do all of these things too. We take what we see around us and, consciously or unconsciously, put some mélange of our surrounding influences as well as ourselves (our histories, our imaginations, our personalities, our desires) into our writing. That’s what makes it good. That’s what makes people want to read it. The stories we tell (or the poems we write) show the reader something that can’t be seen objectively—something that literally doesn’t exist in the objective world, as it is so intertwined with what the writer sees, is able to see, wants you to see.
But I think that the same impulse that encourages good anthropologists to be “true” to their observations (rather than, say, staging scenes of quotidian life among the “natives,” as the famous anthropologist Franz Boas did, to show to his colleagues and to the Western world back home), so does the writer feel the need to question the sincerity of every sentence. At least I do. I mean, I try to. Because it’s so easy to get wrapped up in your own flow of writing that you really have to go back through with a fine-toothed comb and extract the artifice—the parts where you got carried away with an idea, or with your own voice or style, or with your own presumed wit. There’s a censor there, a wiser you who, like a parent, lovingly removes the ticks from her kid’s hair. It’s arguably the most humbling part of writing. But it’s also the most essential feature of a good anthropologist, this honesty. There are so many unconscious agendas operating at once. Some anthropologists want to paint their study communities (or themselves) in a certain light, while writers likewise want to guide your understandings of a story through the tools of plot, character development, or language. There’s an element of control there that needs to be dropped in order to be true to a story or an idea.
A&L: What have you been up to since winning the A&L Prize? Are you working on anything at the moment that particularly excites you?
KK: They say that the perception of time passing is relative to how much you fill that time. If that’s true, then I can understand why it feels so long ago that I won the A&L prize! I had just moved to Greece, was pregnant with my first son, and was finishing up my third and final year of an MFA at the University of Houston. I was also working remotely from Baylor College of Medicine and splitting my days into “academic” versus “creative” hours, a crude distinction that didn’t give enough credit to the creativity involved in academic writing, nor the strategy and scholarship often involved in creative writing. These days, the two are joined in almost all of my current projects. Over the past three years, I’ve been publishing papers on decision-making related to accepting live-or-die medical solutions to heart failure that involve highly invasive surgery and some serious lifestyle changes for people who accept the treatment technology—basically a big hunk of metal that attaches to your heart. This research led me to becoming the analyst for a study about longevity technologies and what has been called the “longevity movement,” where science and technology come together in an attempt to extend the human life span by radical measures, often accompanied by transhumanist ambitions to merge man with machine. What was not long ago considered to be science fiction now seems an emerging reality. You can imagine the giddiness with which I write about these things. Technically, it’s my job. But to me, it’s as fun as any creative writing—because, in essence, it is creative writing, imagining what our world, our bodies, our societies will look like over the next 100 years.
Since getting the news from A&L, I moved to Rio de Janeiro for two a half years, and just recently moved back to Greece with my husband and son, pregnant again with another boy. I’m now trying to focus on reworking some older nonfiction essays from my MFA manuscript to send out. They’re mostly about how self-deception can be adaptive—variants on the theme explored in “Hostage Situation.”
A&L: What is usually your predominant emotion just after having completed a piece of writing?
KK: I’d like to say it is one of humility, aware of the struggle involved in that journey from the blank page. But if I’m honest, what I feel after finishing a piece is usually one of great pride and shameless interest in reading and re-reading the piece over and over until the words themselves start to lose meaning, like when you say “bellyache” or “grasshopper” too many times as a kid and the words became an empty scaffolding for meaning. Part of this ritual of re-reading is surely a matter of self-indulgence; but I’m a strong believer that our proximate motivations (to self-congratulate, in this case) mask deeper, more adaptive agendas, and that this re-reading is actually a self-critical process to search for errors, sentences to rewrite, words to modify, conceptual blunders to fix.
A&L: What are you reading right now?
KK: I’m ashamed to say that I’ve nearly abandoned all poetry and fiction, and now seem to read only non-fiction, as a habit rather than a strict rule. Right now I’m reading Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension, by Stephen Hall, which offers an action-packed history of how life-extension technologies developed from discoveries with lowly lab worms and are now steeped in the labyrinthine world of political controversy and capitalistic ambition. I’m also reading Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, not only for his admirable steady-keel approach to persuasion, but for a paper I’m writing about alternatives (like technology and science) to religion for pursuing things once only associated with religion—morality, salvation, and eternal life.