Kristine Langley Mahler is the author of Curing Season: Artifacts (WVU Press, 2022) and A Calendar is a Snakeskin (Autofocus, 2023). Her work has been supported by the Nebraska Arts Council, named Notable in Best American Essays 2019 and 2021, and published in DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and Speculative Nonfiction, among others. A memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska, Kristine is also the director of Split/Lip Press. Find more about her projects at kristinelangleymahler.com or @suburbanprairie.
Kristine Langley Mahler’s hybrid collection Curing Season is a sensitive and meticulous excavation of the author’s origins as a teenager growing up in Eastern North Carolina. These dynamic essays sift through the belongings of girlhood toward a deeper understanding of belonging, particularly who gets left out or erased in history. While archival ephemera preserve that potent time in amber on the page, tender analysis and obsessive curiosity crack the past wide open. “It is exhausting making sense of myself,” Mahler writes, not only offering a realistic motto for writing creative nonfiction but a roadmap toward personal and societal realignment: try a new approach, again and again. When I saw Mahler’s social media post beseeching interviewers to analyze Curing Season’s astrological chart based on her book’s publication date, I pounced. After all, even books have origin stories.
Virgo Mercury, 3rd House: obsession over archiving, collecting information, analyzing, and critical thinking. An accumulation of archival material propels Curing Season: photos of high school notes, childhood photographs, scissor-cut quotations from the Pitt County Historical Society, chopped up-bits of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye. How did your research obsessions speak to each other while curating Curing Season?
Curing Season is like the closest thing you can get to actually being inside my house — my current house (but I suppose also my house in North Carolina). I have always loved being surrounded by my stuff — not in a hoarder way or a messy way, but in an “I need to see tangible reminders of my history” way: feathers stuck into cholla branches, photos taped on walls, a perfume bottle my friend brought back from Egypt on a shelf.
Research obsessions don’t always yield the same physical talismans (though I recently added the shark teeth I collected this past summer from Greens Mill Run to one of my shelves), but the discoveries tend to form themselves into like-minded collections, which is kind of how this book came together. These essays were scattered throughout a different book project I was trying (and failing) to make work, and then I thought “Why don’t I try pulling out the Pitt County essays and putting them together?” And here you have it! Curing Season is like a codified version of my research up to the point when the book was finalized, but no research is ever fully completed and packed away. Not in my house.
Libra Sun, 4th House: finding artistic alignment in relationships with a sharp focus on ancestry and balancing origins on the scales of justice. Curing Season keeps returning to a fraught relationship with a childhood friend who has since died in adulthood. Did retracing the same origin story in multiple essays change the way you wrote through unresolved conflict?
Nearly all of the essays in Curing Season feel like I’m asking myself “how do I balance the truth in these stories against what I’ve wanted to believe — and how does reexamination knock them off balance?” For instance, I’ve been looking at the narrative of Annie — but really, the narratives I’d told myself about Annie — for almost thirty years now, which is horrifying when I stop and realize how long I’ve been processing! But in retracing and reconsidering the stories I’d always used to reinforce (and justify) my emotions, I have learned to understand both Annie and myself differently over the years, with more grace and empathy for us both. I still cry every time I reread “Not Something That’s Gone,” however. You’ll never hear me read that one aloud.
Cancer Rising: Feeling with great sensitivity and depth, gripping tightly to memorialization, and a purpose of continual reflection on emotion and human connection. You write, “It is a superstition with a haunting premise: your belongings can absorb you,” though your essays also raise similar anxieties about the human drive to belong. How do you navigate memorialization in your writing without getting absorbed by belonging and belongings?
How do I avoid being absorbed by belonging? Not possible! Sorry, just making a joke to deflect from the fact that you’re calling out one of the biggest lessons I still need to learn. I about did a spit-take when I saw that my book’s rising sign was in Cancer because I am a Cancer sun myself (big surprise to anyone who’s read my work before, I’m sure) and my life has been circling and circling around the need for home — and then here’s my Cancer rising book reinforcing it like “Hey, just so you know, this is a book about . . . home.” But how to navigate memorialization without subsummation . . . I mean, I’m going to keep drawing on Cancer clichés here to say that I grip memories and I don’t let them go. My work is often asking the question do I belong to them or do they belong to me? In short: I can’t navigate it. When I remember a place or an object or a person, I remember how they became an inextricable part of me.
Sagittarius Moon, 6th House: Nourishing self and others through optimistic action and truth-seeking, particularly around systemic injustice and lack of autonomy. “A Pit is Removed, a Hollow Remains” examines the Pitt County historical records, “cracking open the rib cage of fact” around racial inequality and segregation. Excavation quickly turns to self-interrogation on growing up as a white girl in Pitt County, juxtaposing personal photographs against quotations lifted from the Historical Society chronicles. Can you speak about consciously writing yourself into history as an ethical practice?
I’m so grateful you asked that question because in Curing Season, I am constantly trying to insert myself into the history of a place where I felt like I didn’t belong — though everyone who lives in a place belongs to that place, regardless of the depth of their roots. One of my biggest goals with Curing Season was to crack open that door for other people; to pull them through the doorway, if you will, into belonging. I want people who have felt like outsiders in their communities to recognize that their histories — which may have been or are currently being suppressed; told they are invalid; told they are boring or inaccurate or shallow or what have you — are incredible and valuable and necessary additions to the historical record. I’m not the first person to say that history has been primarily recorded by those who have dominated it, and so I think that it’s vitally important to record as much nondominant (or “outsider”) history as possible. We live in an era where it is so easy and accessible to leave a record of our presence but also to push that record into the present. History may not always offer you a space, but you can get your elbows in there and make that space for yourself. Your experience is real, and writing yourself into it is necessary.
Libra Venus, 4th House: Centering self through creative expression with strength in bearing witness to others no matter who they are. In “Alignment,” you meditate on the rituals you’ve used “to bring everything into alignment” in daily life — astrology, prayers, numerology, gemstones, song lyrics. How do you stay in alignment as a writer, bearing witness to others while also centering yourself creatively in your work?
This book’s Venus is in Libra — one of its home domiciles — in the 4th house, one of my favorite houses, the house that grounds and homes and provides a line to the past and the present. I bring that up because one of the ways I try to stay in alignment as a writer — especially as a memoirist, which is to say someone who uses myself as a case study to lay bare the lessons I am learning so others might take something from them as well — is to remember that I am the in-between here. I come from ancestors who shaped who I have become (I’m obsessed with epigenetics), and I will leave behind descendants who will be shaped by what I am doing. Like a literal representation of the Libra scales, my work is to stay balanced because I am just a conduit, a medium between what has been and what will be. Whatever I can uncover is what I can leave for others to sort through, because what others have uncovered has been incalculably valuable in teaching me who I can become.
But future aside, I think often of how I cannot speak for the other people who affected my life in the ways I write about in my essays. I cannot speak for the way they have understood or interpreted situations we were both involved in — to say nothing of how they have understood or interpreted me as a person — and so I do think I owe them the honesty of questioning myself on the page, leaving a space for their history in case they choose to occupy it.