Through a Kaleidoscope
“I see like a person who looks through a kaleidoscope; my impressions of the world at once beautiful and largely useless,” writes Stephen Kuusisto in Planet of the Blind, a memoir of blindness and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Kuusisto, who read from his memoir in front of a packed house at the Writing Program’s second Nonfiction Reading Series event this semester, shared insights on the challenges he faced in public school, his mother’s expectations, and other moments in which he struggled with “trying to pass” in a world where blindness is stigmatized. He described his early experiences as “plummeting through the world”—a world where his blindness was treated as a kind of deviance that interfered with the social construction of normalcy.
Kuusisto, the Director of the Renee Crown Honors Program at Syracuse University, is a graduate of the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar. He thinks of himself as a poet who happens to write nonfiction, and the textures, sounds, and “nonsense language” of poetry run through his memoir. After reading excerpts from the book, Kuusisto noted that poetry showed him that language is gorgeous and potent. He explained the pleasure he finds in putting words together and seeing what happens: “joy in lingo.” Ivy Kleinbart, Nonfiction Reading Series Co-Chair, remarked when she introduced Kuusisto that she was struck by the “collision of lyricism, humor, and imagination that informs the writing and the precision with which Stephen renders memories of sound, texture, temperature, and smell.”
Members of the audience asked Kuusisto questions about his introduction to poetry, his mother’s reaction to the way she was portrayed in the book, and the process of creating a memoir. He talked about the challenge of writing about a difficult time in his life; being a child with a disability who was picked on by other kids was difficult. For people for whom that kind of childhood is reality, Kuusisto explains, “You internalize that pain. So if you go back and try to write about it, you have to relive it . . . . You have to revisit these things, and it’s not so easy.” But Kuusisto certainly made it look easy; he captivated the audience with beautiful excerpts from the book, thoughtful responses to tough questions, and even impressions of the Nixon/Kennedy debate—recast through the poetry of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams.
The Nonfiction Reading Series, which began in 2008, features local, national, and international writers of all types of nonfiction: memoir and autobiography, the personal essay, political essays, and historical narrative, among others.
—story by Emily Dressing
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