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Inte(re)view: Geography of First Kisses, by Karin Cecile Davidson
by Ashley Holloway
One could define a story as having a beginning, a middle, and an end. Memorable stories are so much more than that. When I started The Geography of First Kisses, I initially thought it’d be a collection about love, however as I read on, I soon realized it was less about love and more about people. Messy, honest people who are searching for belonging and understanding. People who make mistakes, who cannot decide, who make a choice, who stay quiet, who say no, who say yes. Real people. And real people are what bind these stories into a sensual yet searching collection, forever highlighting how life rarely occurs in alphabetical order, no matter how much we want it to.
Carefully playing with time, the era of each individual story is not explicit, and yet it seems as though each story has been steeped in sepia tone. The author skillfully and seamlessly transitions between each story by altering the voice, gender, age, cadence, and context of the narrator. Some stories could be considered flash, while others literary fiction. Others yet, one could imagine as written within the genre of creative non-fiction. While some may argue this lack of consistency detracts from the continuity and purity of the stories and thus the entire collection, in effect this serves to reinforce the ever-evasive definition of story in a good way, strengthening this book’s appeal to the reader and keeping them turning the pages.
Each of the fourteen stories is uniquely tethered to the geography in such a way the characters almost become an extension of place, taking the reader on a journey through the vast landscapes that make up the United States. Not only does the reader travel through the mind’s eye with each page turned, but this also illustrates the depth, skill, and creativity of the author, highlighting her talent for rich descriptions and evocative language. Each word seems as though it was individually selected and carefully threaded together; technically, the writing demonstrates excellent use of simile, metaphor, and subtext, with the pace and rhythm of the stories following a particular cadence that invites intrigue.
As writers, we control the story; we make the decisions about when the reader joins the narrative. Who the reader is exposed to and when. We control the context, the place, the shape, and the characters; we control time. The Geography of First Kisses, by Karin Cecile Davidson, is a brilliant example of the breadth and width a collection of short stories can take, eschewing the notion of, per the description, “super-structured literature”, and a collection of stories that carries a power of its own. Read on, Unleash Community, read on.
The Geography of First Kisses will be released by Kalisto Gaia Press in April 2023.
Interview With the Author
AH: Why ‘geography’ of first kisses? What is the significance of the title?
KCD: Love this question! I’ll respond to this from several angles: in relation to the title story, the collection, and my writing as a whole. In terms of the title story, “geography” has multiple meanings for the young narrator: how she is navigating a middle year of high school, from the assigned subjects of world history, geometry, and literature to her first sexual encounters—the innocent summer kiss on a faraway rocky shore up north leading to less innocent backseat forays at a drive-in movie due east. Like all teenage girls she is finding her way along territory that isn’t always smooth, that involves self-reflection and wonderment, whether alone under the covers of her own single bed several hours beyond sunrise or wandering the seawall of Lake Pontchartrain at sunset. She realizes the topography of her life as flat, undefined, in need of something daring, and moves past this understanding, pushing its boundaries and trying to create contours, despite the questionable and dangerous directions she takes.
In thinking of the collection and all my writing, I believe strongly in establishing and exploring “place” so that the characters, and likewise the readers, are grounded. They have a place to stand that is solid, even if they are unsure of their direction, flight path, ocean crossing. Eudora Welty’s story “No Place for You, My Love”—somewhat of a road trip of the heart, from New Orleans to the mouth of the Mississippi River where it meets the Gulf of Mexico—floors me every time I read it. For me, the story is completely inspiring, for the writing itself as much as for the distance traveled and the heat-induced sense of place. As Welty wrote in her “Place in Fiction” essay: “Place is one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction.” In her essay “The Regional Writer,” Flannery O’Connor also added much to the discussion of place: “The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. [Her] problem is to find that location.”
So, in essence, one could say that I’m a bit obsessed with geography, location, sense of place, compass points, longitude and latitude, and the way characters might traverse the regions of their worlds, whether actual, physical areas or interior places like the heart or the mind, especially in relation to the searching that’s done within a narrative lifetime. At first, the title The Geography of First Kisses might seem crazy, sly, even whimsical, and maybe it is. In the end, it speaks to all the stories in the collection and thematically echoes into much of my writing.
AH: How did you choose which stories from your repertoire to include in this collection?
KCD: To be honest, these were the stories that called for revision, that eventually over a ten-year span, were all published individually in literary reviews, that evolved into a collection as they were each reworked. There were just as many stories written before these that allowed me to put pen to paper, to warm up toward better writing. By the time I wrote the pieces in this collection, I understood how to take a chance, how to find a story’s tenor and go with it, trust it. Over time, it seemed that most of my stories were written with the impression of place, the idea of home, a sense of belonging and longing, and were set in places I’ve lived and found community and friendships. The Gulf Coast is prevalent as I grew up in Florida and Louisiana, and most of the stories take place in or recall those states, and half of them either take place or have backstory in New Orleans. I lived in Iowa City and Berlin, spent time in Tulsa, and felt at home in all three, despite how very different they are. In eleven of the fourteen stories, women and girls are the viewpoint characters, and even if the narrators, like Sam of “We Are Here Because of a Horse” and Howdy in “Sweet Iowa,” are men, women carry these stories, women that are searching, completely in tune with what they want from life, that will never give up the paths that lead them where they need to be. Again, it all comes back to “place.”
AH: The stories seem as though they have been carefully ordered for a certain flow; how did you decide how you would arrange the stories in the order in which they appear?
KCD: Sequence is a strange and funny thing. Ages ago I stressed about the ordering of these stories, and there is a reality to the importance of which stories should appear first, which should follow, and how a collection should end. By the time The Geography of First Kisses won the Acacia Fiction Prize, the collection had made the contest and small press rounds on and off for ten years. During this time, the table of contents changed, as did the individual stories, then a few stories were subtracted, and the rest were refined. In the end, the prizewinners were placed first (the title story was awarded the Orlando Prize and “We Are Here Because of a Horse” won the Waasmode Prize, both in 2012), and the rest seemed to fall naturally into place.
In the first story, the title story, an unnamed teenage girl is the I-narrator, while in the final piece, “Bobwhite,” the slightly retrospective third-person limited viewpoint of a young girl leans toward omniscient at times. One might compare the sequencing of a story collection to that of a musical album, the stories each weighted differently, some more serious, more somber than others, the element of surprise singing out from one, humor from another, each with its own length and pacing, the characters calling the shots. From their initial appearance in literary reviews to their inclusion in this collection, the stories have changed, becoming more fully imagined and realized. Their order has as much to do with their individual content, which always strived to be clear, honest, striking, and true to the characters. Think of Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue,” for example, in the way love is given direction, recollection, wishes, sorrow, laughter, with the tempo and arrangement everchanging. If one looked at The Geography of First Kisses in this way, similarities could be found in the rhythms and patterns of the prose, the adagio and grave pacing contrasting the more upbeat allegro movements, each story placed with the balance of the one before and the one following and ultimately with the entire collection in mind.
Ashley Holloway gets bored easily, so she lives her life according to an ‘&.’ She teaches healthcare leadership in Calgary, AB, and is a nurse with a Master of Public Health, a graduate diploma in Global Leadership, with further studies in intercultural communication and international development. She writes in a variety of genres, including short fiction, book reviews, poetry, essays, academic works, and creative non-fiction. Her work has appeared across Canada and the US, and she has co-authored three books. Ashley is an editor for Unleash Press and her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She also really loves punctuation.