What follows is an account of a recent reading given by Georgina Kleege, a well-known essayist and a Lecturer in the English Department. This event was part of the Berkeley Writers at Work series, a forum in which campus writers can discuss their writing process.
During a sunny noon hour this past Wednesday, an assorted crowed of students, faculty, administrators and other Berkeley community members assembled themselves in the wood-paneled comfort of the Morrison Library. The occasion was a Berkeley Writers at Work event, a series sponsored by the College Writing Program that interviews a current writer from campus each semester. This fall, the writer was Georgina Kleege, a Lecturer in the Department of English.
Kleege is a well-known essayist and novelist, and her work often deals with the relationship between art, writing and disability, particularly blindness, a condition that Kleege has navigated since losing her sight when she was 11. She read from her most recent book, entitled Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller, which she published in 2006. She prefaced her reading with both an explanation and a confession. “I grew up hating Helen Keller,” she began pithily. Keller, Kleege explained, had been held up as an impossible role model for her when she was a young girl. Not only was she celebrated for her myriad accomplishments, but Kleege pointed out how she seemed to achieve them all with non-stop cheerfulness. “This was the part that really annoyed me most,” she said. Blind Rage thus functioned as a kind of exorcism for Kleege as she worked through her complicated relationship to Keller’s persona and tried to re-imagine some of the events that might have challenged her perpetual cheerfulness. Much of the book turned into a meditation on the bad days that Keller must have had that might help Kleege draw a fuller picture of what it must have been like to be her.
Kleege went on to read from a section in Blind Rage that reconstructed an event from Keller’s childhood. When she was 11 and a well-known student at Perkins School for the Blind, Keller was accused of plagiarizing a fairy tale she had written and was put on trial as eight teachers and the director of the school questioned her for two hours. Kleege explained that she felt this was an appropriate section to read at such an event since it was concerned with Keller’s status as a writer and, more specifically, one with disability. Since the form of Kleege’s book is epistolary – as the subtitle puts it, these are her letters to Helen Keller – Kleege pointed out that the “you” in her prose referred to Keller herself. She thus spoke of the necessity of casting off one’s identity and assuming that of Keller’s. With a wry smile, she directed the audience to repeat, “I am Helen Keller,” a task that everyone present performed with gusto and good humor.
The passage that Kleege read – from a large Braille manuscript – detailed the moment in which Keller is being questioned about how she could have known the fairy tale it appeared she had plagiarized. Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan had conjectured that she had heard a similar tale one summer on Cape Cod right after she had acquired language but before she was fluent in it. As Kleege dramatized Keller’s inner reactions to the questions from the teachers about how she could know the story but not remember learning it, she explored the questions of knowledge, sense perception and memory. “How are you supposed to know what you know?,” she imagined Keller asking herself. Kleege went on to investigate Keller’s mode of thought and knowing. Knowledge for Keller was not something that happened in the brain: “You know things,” Kleege writes,
because you touch them. You pick them up. You run your hands over and around them. You know things through your hands, the patch of palm where words are spelled, the soft pads of your fingertips where you feel the dots of Braille. What you know you know as texture and vibration. You feel it in your hands, your chest, the tuning fork of your ribs, the soles of your feet.
Articulating this kind of bodily knowledge and physical memory, Kleege addressed the way Keller had to admit to herself and to the panel before her that she had not always been the star student at Perkins, that there had been moments when she had not understood every word that was spelled out in her hand. Kleege spoke of the shame Keller might have felt at her former self and admitted
I know how much it costs you, because I’ve been there myself. When I was eleven, I lost my sight, but I passed as sighted for a long time. I felt ashamed to say ”I can’t read that,” or ”I can’t see where you’re pointing,” because it made me sound stupid.
This personal connection itself became physical since, at the thought of Keller’s experience in the endless rounds of questions, Kleege breaks off: “My hands are cold as I type; I am actually shivering. I will get back to you.”
From here, Kleege joined John Levine from College Writing for a conversation about her writing practices. She discussed her attitudes toward writing, its status as a craft at which she has to work constantly and the different audiences she imagines for her pieces. She detailed her writing practices: how she writes a quick first-draft – which, she admitted, was mostly “gibberish” – and then revises endlessly, the way she likes to work on a number of different projects at one time so she can alternate between composition and revision as the mood strikes her, how she sometimes wakes up with no desire to write but does so anyway. When asked about doubt and writer’s block, she had devised these specific practices over the years to keep combat those dangers, to keep herself writing. “Writing,” she said with candor and humility, “is hard.”