Issue #62, Winter 2017
What We Can't See
A Conversation with Kim Kankiewicz
What We Can't See
Kim Kankiewicz's essay "Rumors of Lost Stars" is the winner of Creative Nonfiction's $1,000 "Joy" essay contest. Her story, chosen from 375 submissions, explores the end of the author's eating disorder and the beginning of her partial blindness—all during a summer she spent as a counselor at an astronomy camp, where she had trouble seeing stars both in the night sky and on her star chart. She writes, "Glints of light speckle the hundred-yard field where students hunch over notebooks, constellations for my earthbound eyes. How do I reconcile the vastness of the universe with the tightness in my chest?" Weaving in Greek mythology and Chinese folklore, Kankiewicz tells of her journey of discovering unseen beauty.
Kim Kankiewicz is a Seattle-area writer and editor. She writes essays, articles, and reviews for publications including Full Grown People, Salon, Pacific Standard, Colorado Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Brain, Child. Her work has been anthologized in Full Grown People’s Greatest Hits. She lives online at kimkankiewicz.com and tweets sporadically as @kimprobable.
CNF: Your essay opens with descriptions of your eating disorder and its effects on your body. Why did you choose to open the piece with this, when the story as a whole ultimately centers around your visual impairment?
Kankiewicz: In my memory, vision loss and disordered eating are so closely entwined that it’s impossible to think of one without the other. Eating disorders are often about how we see ourselves, and I saw myself as broken because of my visual impairment. I prefaced my essay by describing a time when I felt completely shattered as a contrast to the wholeness I felt when I saw the night sky.
CNF: You write about a summer you spent as a teaching assistant in an academic summer program focusing on astronomy, and how for the first time in your life you felt “effortlessly cool.” What made this summer under the stars so formative?
Kankiewicz: That summer was my first summer since childhood not dominated by obsessive eating and constant awareness of my imperfect body. What better environment for looking outward than an astronomy camp? I was surrounded by people who shared an eagerness to explore the world. I noticed beauty, near and far, that wasn’t visible to me when I was focused on myself. In a break-out session devoted to astronomy-themed theater, I noticed the theater professor’s expressive hands and felt happy watching them dance.
Incidentally, I’m not the only writer who found that camp transformative. Sarah Smarsh, who was a student in my group, dedicated several paragraphs to that summer in her breathtaking essay “The First Person on Mars.”
CNF: As a teaching assistant, you kept your vision loss a secret from classmates and campers. How did you get to the point of being able to write about it and share it with readers? Does this come with aging, or is it the progression of your vision loss, or are there other factors?
Kankiewicz: This is another area of overlap between my eating disorder and vision loss. I was ashamed of both and kept both a secret. The critical step toward recovery from bulimia was speaking openly about it. Having admitted my brokenness, I could begin to acknowledge my vision loss as well. I was already confiding in my friends by the time I became a teaching assistant, and by the following summer, I felt comfortable discussing it more publicly. Some of this was the progression of the vision loss—I was blind in my right eye a year after camp—but mostly I was just done pretending.
CNF: After losing vision in your right eye, you compare yourself to Orpheus and fear having offended Zeus. Why were you drawn to Greek mythology while writing about this period in your life?
Kankiewicz: We were so immersed in mythology that the entire summer took on a mythic feel. And I’d always been drawn to these stories. As a kid, I wrote about Cassiopeia on my dad’s typewriter after watching Clash of the Titans. Mythology or history or some other larger story often provides an entry point when I’m writing about personal experience.
CNF: What do you wish people better understood about visual impairment? Do you feel an obligation, as a writer, to be a tour guide of this experience?
Kankiewicz: I think most people equate blindness with darkness, like walking around with your eyes closed. And that is what it’s like in my right eye, but blindness comes in degrees and variations. I knew a woman in Colorado who was legally blind but saw well enough to ride a bike to work. Blindness is an individual experience, affecting diverse individuals. I can only be a tour guide of my own experience, and even then I’ve become less concerned with providing a comprehensive tour. An early draft of this essay was so exhaustively descriptive that it didn’t leave space for readers to connect. I’ve let go of the idea that sharing the world through my eyes means literally portraying everything I can and can’t see.
CNF: You jump between many different elements—from vision loss to stargazing to Chinese folklore. Was it challenging to braid all of these parts together? Was there anything else you wanted to include but couldn’t fit in?
Kankiewicz: Yes, it was challenging. I wrote a first draft of this essay fifteen years ago and became overwhelmed by the content. I dusted it off a few times over the years, but nothing clicked until Creative Nonfiction’s “Joy” issue gave me a new way to approach the theme. Once I’d settled on the three-act structure anchored by the Summer Triangle, the other elements fell into place. I wish I could have written more about my student Nadia, who left camp when her brother died of leukemia. I think about her often, but her story is a separate narrative.
CNF: Did writing this piece provide any catharsis for your younger self?
Kankiewicz: Drafting this essay fifteen years ago provided catharsis for my visually impaired self. Finally completing the essay was cathartic for my younger self, who had doubted she was a real writer.
CNF: What made you certain in the beauty of the stars, even the ones you couldn’t see?
Kankiewicz: This comes down to faith, one definition of which is being certain of what we can’t see. In essence, this essay is my journey of faith—brokenness to redemption, beauty from ashes, blind but now I see. It’s hard to translate that to the page, which is largely why it took fifteen years to finish the essay. It started from the same impulse that inspired one of my favorite psalms: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” There’s just something about waking up to the universe. How could it be anything but beautiful?
CNF: You end the piece with “Thirty years is not so long to learn to see.” What have you learned from not seeing?
Kankiewicz: By the conclusion of the essay, I’ve learned to recognize my value. I could have learned that without losing my physical sight, but maybe the shift in my self-image would have been less profound. Beyond the scope of this essay, visual impairment has taught me to expect loss and, to some extent, to cope with loss. I’m still learning this. Often I long for permanence or a return to what was, and I think vision loss has taught me that desire as well.
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