Karen's autobiographical "Chicken Pop Girl" story was featured on the Saturday, August 2, 2008
edition of America Public Radio's Weekend America.
Suzie Lechtenberg, Producer
Chicken Pop Girl: A Memoir of Skin, Race and Culture by Karen S. Williams is currently seeking representation. Serious inquiries from publishers or literary agents handling adult memoir only. To contact Karen, please visit the contact page.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
In a graduate writing class at Michigan State University, my professor, Marcia Aldrich, the author of Girlrearing (Norton, 1998), informed me that a memoir existed that offered within its pages a precise set of childhood and early adulthood experiences that somewhat paralleled mine. Its writer, contemporary poet and essayist Lucy Grealy, author of the award-winning Autobiography
of a Face (Houghton-Mifflin, 1994), had suffered facial disfigurement as a child, (as I had) and chose later in life to pen a healing and painfully aware narrative of disease.
In Autobiography… Grealy relates her encounter with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare and oft fatal form of cancer to have affected her from her pre-teens to her early years of adulthood. The disease prompted her to suffer years of radiation treatments, chemotherapy and surgeries to restore what it had eaten away, the jawbone of her pixyish face. In fact, a striking portrait of Grealy on the book’s cover waxes more than a little symbolic. Her windblown hair is nearly covered by a veil, a fabric so viscous and oblique it perhaps harkens to how she may have seen her wounded, diseased self in the mirror: clouded, obscured, yet ripe with possibility, a woman-child possessing a profound sense of the compassionate and prophetic beneath her wounds.
How could such a book exist, and I not know about it before this class, I wondered. But I could only retort as the maxim suggests: “The teacher will arrive when it’s time for the student to learn.” Thus with my newly acquired knowledge of the Grealy book, what was I to learn from it, and specifically in this class? What in the next 16 weeks of pondering, researching, writing and rewriting creative nonfiction lay before me?
When I registered for English 835, I did it with the intent of fleshing out a collection of medical short stories I was writing. Suffice it to say my chest briefly tightened when Marcia told our class her course had never been intended to be a fiction class. It was “written up” in the university scheduling bulletin as such by mistake. As a writer who appreciates how guided learning and critiquing sessions can fire even the most tired muse, I questioned how was I going to expand my collection if I did not write what I needed to on demand? And I needed to get these stories written. I further asked myself did I really want to give the genre of creative nonfiction a try? I had written many essays that had been published in local weeklies, so it was a genre I was familiar with. But the question still resonated: What was I destined to learn and do in this class? I can say for certain I learned this in the course: life often throws us its curve balls, doesn’t it? And later in the semester when Marcia shared with us sample books we could examine to get ideas as to what to write about in our memoirs, I realized one of those curve balls had smacked me – thwack! in the head. The moment she ushered out the Grealy book and said, “Karen, you should really read this,” it “hit” me that I was (1) destined to write creative non-fiction and not fiction during the semester, and 2) would later call myself what an old boyfriend calls a “feloric fool”, (someone so egregiously idiotic to not “get” what obviously should be “gotten”) if I didn’t take the opportunity given me to write (at least part of it,) what my body and spirit had longed to write for years. And it seemed, per Marcia, I wasn’t the only facially-disfigured writer who felt this way. Both Grealy and I suffered facial disfiguration as children…which means she (Grealy) more than likely knew what it meant to weep and feel “marked,” unlovable in a society that tells its socioculturally unacceptable “ You are more or less a misfit or leper. Try to assimilate if you must, but you’ll never belong.” That I could sympathize and empathize with Grealy excited me, prompting me to believe that in reading what was sure to be artful prose, I’d find nuances of myself in her text. But while her looks and experiences were shaped by cancer, mine were shaped by a less than innocent case of the Chicken Pox (Varicella).
When I briefly shared my plight with Marcia regarding bout with the disease and its variagated affects on by body and psyche, she suggested I read Autobiography before embarking on our next assignment: writing a literary memoir. To paraphrase, the assignment was to take something or an incident that is seemingly mundane (in my case, a child contracting the Chicken Pox), and create a biography of it or a memoir similar to Jamaica Kincaid’s “Biography of a Dress,” a lovely piece detailing Kincaid's mother making her a special dress to wear when she was a toddler on the isle of Antigua.
While my classmates juggled and pondered what they would write, I knew my topic immediately and instinctively. The “arrival” and “gift” of Grealy’s book cemented that. I had always wanted to write in-depth about my experiences regarding the Chicken Pox since scratching the surface of them (no pun intended) at that Virginia poetry workshop with acclaimed poet Toi Derricote held six years earlier that I spoke of in an earlier chapter.
After the workshop, dormant childhood and adolescent memories sprang to wakefulness and swelled my subconscious and conscious to overflowing. I had been energized to attempt to write poetically about the many luminous moments to have shaped me, poems that now housed in an unpublished collection. But though I waxed highly creative after the workshop, and for a pleasurable, if not rousing, extended period, an internal and artistic chasm remained. I had to somehow transform my renderings into something longer, more permanent, ultimately healing and effective in a global sense. I further felt this desire with urgency, with the desire peaking this spring when I learned there is a paucity of research and medical narratives addressing the experiences of the African-American dermatology patient, and specifically the keloid patient (or my case, a former patient) within this group.
Though Manhattan dermatologist, Deborah Simmons, MD, presented her introductory research on the psychosocial issues of the black keloid patient in her seminal article, “Patients with Keloids: Psychosocial Issues” in 1996, minimal research on the topic has been released since. A fact which somewhat surprised me. Many black burn and severe acne victims and others with considerable skin trauma within the community often develop keloids. Nonetheless, scant attention has been paid to issues of facial disfigurement in the black community in the black or popular press, particularly the short and long-term effects these issues on the disfigured and their families, and others they interact with. Thus, as I broached my assignment, I felt I had to write it not solely for my sake, but also to illuminate the intricate physical and emotional issues surrounding keloid trauma. Another part of me hoped one day the fleshed out piece would encourage its readers, readers like you, to consider or write about their own actual or symbolic scarring experiences, and perhaps even find meaningful resolution and or insight from this kind of reflection.
Copyright, Karen S. Williams, 2003
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED