Not a person but a landscape:
An interview with Kasia Van Schaik
June 20, 2023
When I first met Kasia, we were fellow McGillians whose paths would occasionally cross at poetry readings around the city. I looked up to her for a number of reasons, including the fact that she was doing so many of the things I aspired to do: teaching at a top university, editing an internationally recognized publication, writing essays and short stories and poems that were being published as far as the eye could see.
There was so much that I admired about her then and there remains so much still. I raced through her first collection of poetry as well as her first book, and I’m now eagerly awaiting the publication of her next book. In sharing this interview, I am absolutely delighted both that we were able to connect in this way and that our exchange contains so much of the magic I associate with her and her work.
Jana M. Perkins, Founder and Editorial Director
Kasia Van Schaik is the author of the linked story collection We Have Never Lived on Earth, which explores what it means to come of age in a time of ecological crisis, and which was a finalist for the 2022 Concordia University First Book Prize. Her writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, CBC Books, The Rumpus, Maisonneuve Magazine, Electric Literature, and the Best Canadian Poetry, and her eco-poetry chapbook, Sea Burial Laws According to Country, was turned into a concerto and performed by the Montreal Music Lab in 2019. Kasia holds a PhD from McGill University where her thesis won the 2022 Arts Insights Award. A postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University, Kasia is currently working on a book of cultural criticism entitled Women Among Monuments and is also co-editing an essay collection, Shelter in Text, which interrogates the relationship between the physical and textual spaces we inhabit. Kasia lives in Tiohti:áke (Montreal). In 2021, Kasia served as a QWF CBC writer-in-residence.
How did your childhood shape your ideas about what work looked like and what was possible for you?
Kasia Van Schaik: Down in the bottom of my childhood my father stands laughing. This line from Tove Ditlevsen’s memoir, The Copenhagen Trilogy, is one I return to a lot. If I think about who stands laughing at the bottom of my own childhood, it’s not a person but a landscape. I grew up in a village in a semi-desert region of South Africa. I grew up barefoot and outdoors. There is a freedom that comes with that — living close to the earth — that I think continues to live inside me.
I grew up in a low income, single-parent household, where work was precarious. I don’t think I ever felt like I could become a lawyer or a doctor — though, to my own surprise, I did become a doctor, not that kind of doctor — but I was surrounded by artists, musicians, and creative people. For instance, I remember my godfather, who lived on a traveling theatre ship, visiting us and performing a one act play in our living room. This sense of making and doing and being opens up its own kind of possibility and sense of permission.
Fast-forward to today. How did the path to what you’re doing now unfold?
KVS: I guess I made passionate, financially impractical decisions and here I am now, continuing to make passionate, impractical — though hopefully slightly more calculated — decisions.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
KVS: I had a brilliant and generous academic supervisor for my PhD. For that I’m really thankful.
I would love to say I’ve had a host of strong creative mentors as well, but that has not been the case unfortunately. As a young person, most of my creative writing instructors were male. The line-ups for the local poetry events we attended usually consisted of variations of the same five or eight men. I would watch them form bonds with young male writers, clink late night pints with them, introduce them to visiting authors (also often male), facilitate publishing contracts, facilitate careers, but I knew that as a young woman — I say “woman” though I didn’t feel like I’d chosen or particularly wanted this gender marker — I did not have the same access to these spaces and forms of camaraderie.
I’m so relieved to see that some of this is changing slowly in the writing world. Recently I attended a conference where I fell into conversation with a high-ranking female academic and shared a bottle of sparkling wine with her at the bar. I got to feel, for the first time, the kind of informal social networking so ubiquitous in the boys’ club, and we even joked about it — look: we are networking at the bar like the old boys! I hope if I’m ever in the position of gatekeeper, I’ll be able to fling the doors wide for writers who have hitherto been barred from these forms of career uplift.
How would you describe what you do to a general audience?
KVS: I spend a long time staring into space and sometimes I produce something worth reading.
What was one of the first big aha moments of your career?
KVS: I’ve always suffered from imposter syndrome — even using the word “career” feels imposterish to me. But recently I have had some forms of recognition that makes it harder to subscribe completely to the imposter syndrome. For example, finishing my PhD and publishing a book. Overcoming these hurdles have made facing other hurdles feel more possible.
What task(s) do you start your day with?
KVS: I’ve actually written about this before. You can find an account of my routine — or lack of routine — here.
I no longer have a “floordrobe” (thankfully) but my mornings and days are usually all over the place and I always feel like I’m racing against the clock.
Outside of your work, what’s something you feel you’ve thought about a lot more deeply than most other people?
KVS: The angle of the sun in winter and which apartments in Montreal capture the most daylight.
Tell us about a time when you had to take a big risk in order to move forward. What did that experience teach you about how to navigate difficult circumstances?
KVS: I’ve moved a lot and that has felt deeply dislocative. As an immigrant it’s always been hard for me to feel at home anywhere, but I think that this unsettled state can be generative as well. Life always feels a little bit uncanny… maybe that’s a good thing.
What question(s) are you currently wrestling with?
KVS: How to live a creative life. What does that life look like in 2023 and what will it look like 10 or 20 years from now?
The importance of physical and intellectual space for the woman writer.
How to be healthy, to remain healthy.
What book have you most often gifted to others?
KVS: Marianne Robinson’s Housekeeping.
What advice would you give to someone who was just starting out in your field?
KVS: Write what you love and read widely. Read a lot of poetry. Especially if you’re a prose writer, read a lot of poetry.
Also, the writers and thinkers around you right now are your peers. You will have a long journey together, so treat each other with respect, curiosity, and kindness.
When you think of women who have inspired or influenced you, who comes to mind?
KVS: My friends come to mind. My mother. But also, many different authors. I’m influenced by the syntax of Jean Rhys and Marguerite Duras. Alice Munro’s story structures. Jamaica Kincaid’s writing on girlhood. Renee Gladman’s thinking about the materiality of language, of the sentence as a space for living. Rachel Cusk’s art of observation…
Where do you feel the most scarcity in your life? Where do you feel the most abundance?
KVS: Scarcity: job and economic security. Don’t get to see my family very often due to distance and economic insecurity.
Abundance: I’m surrounded by so many brilliant and hilarious people. So many sensitive, visionary thinkers, writers, and artists. I feel very lucky for this.
Also, I am surrounded by the abundance of my cat’s hair.
What keeps you going?
KVS: In a literal sense, coffee, oats and seltzer water. In a broader sense, the knowledge that I get to wake up and read a new book, or listen to a piece of music, or ride my bike. That I might get to make a new personal or artistic relationship, start a new conversation. And the joy that comes from writing a good sentence.
Where can our readers find you?
KVS: Twitter: @kasiajuno
We corresponded with Kasia over email in May. The text of our exchange has been edited for clarity.
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