Interview: Kristen Witucki
Kristen Witucki is a writer and teacher based in West Virginia, where she lives with her husband James, her son Langston, and her Seeing Eye dog, a black lab named Tad. Witucki’s fiction has been featured in numerous publications, including Exceptions, where her story “Test Run” was spotlighted in our Fall 2013 issue. Click here for that story, and read below for our interview with Kristen, in which she discusses her experiences, her influences, and how blindness has shaped her art.
Craig Pearson ::: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get to where you are today?
Kristen Witucki ::: I grew up in Southern New Jersey, where Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is considered to be the “big city.” After graduating from high school, I attended Vassar College where I majored in English, minored in German and earned certification to teach English to students in grades 7-12. I didn’t teach right away, though; instead, I was a perpetual student. I earned three Masters degrees: an MA in giftedness from Teachers College, Columbia University; an MFA in fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College; and finally, an M.ED. in blindness and visual impairment from Dominican College. While I was in graduate school, I held various customer service positions at Learning Ally in Princeton, NJ, but in 2012, I was accepted to teach English at the West Virginia School for the Blind, a position which has actually used knowledge from all of my degrees. So my family packed up one weekend and moved from New Jersey to Romney, West Virginia, and we’ve been here since then.
In the blind community, some people are born without vision, some experience vision loss over time, and others lose sight abruptly and unexpectedly. Where do you fit into this spectrum, and how do you think this has affected your experience?
I was born blind. For me as a child who came of age during ADA and IDEA when I had all of the blindness-related resources I needed, congenital blindness means that I don’t miss sight. Although there was a period during my late elementary school years when I wished I could see, I don’t think I wished for sight so much as for understanding and acceptance from my classmates. My family is sighted, and most of my friends are sighted, but sight itself has always seemed like a slightly bizarre psychic power more than anything. But congenital blindness does challenge me when writing from the point of view of sighted characters. My first book, The Transcriber, is told from the point of view of a sighted character, and I had to compile his experience without a real visual frame of reference. But the experience of wanting sight has always interested me, so I wrote about that in a still unpublished novel.
What have been the most important resources for you in adapting to life with vision loss?
People! My parents were very determined that I live a life which is as independent as possible, and my siblings treated me for the most part like they would any other sibling. I also had exceptional teachers, both general education teachers and special education teachers—I’m fortunate to say I have too many to mention. Mentoring in writing and in life was a huge part of my growing up, and I’m trying to pay it forward in various ways now at my current job. Finally, books were a wonderful resource. I read in braille and listened to cassettes when I was growing up, and much of what I’ve learned about living has come from books. Jean Little, a blind Canadian children’s author, helped me through that late elementary period of melodrama, though I never knew her, because she wrote so frankly about her own childhood as a blind child in a sighted world. But I’ve learned from sighted authors as well.
How does technology play a role in your life? What changes or improvements do you think are needed in visual assistive technology?
I daily use a computer running Jaws for Windows, a screen reading program, a Braille Note and a Victor Reader Stream. Technology helps me to teach and to write competently, though I know how to use a Perkins brailler if everything crashes.
What is your approach to writing? What do you write about?
Disability, particularly blindness, is my most powerful creative inspiration. I write both fiction and nonfiction about it. For me, there’s always a tension about conveying stories about blindness in a way that avoids the cliché obstacle-overcoming narrative while acknowledging that learning to live fully with blindness is often multi-faceted and complex. I haven’t gotten it right yet, so that keeps me writing. My nonfiction right now is primarily about motherhood as a blind person, because my husband, who is also blind, and I have a three-year-old sighted son.
What is your relationship with other creative outlets: books, music, art, film, etc.?
Books and music are the closest types of media to my heart and feed my inspiration for writing. As a teacher and a mother of a small child, I find making time for reading to be more challenging than it has been in the past, but I still read and write whenever I can. I’m inspired by modern writers such as Betty Smith, Langston Hughes and James Joyce and contemporary writers such as Joan Silber, Jenn Crowell, Jhumpa Lahiri and Cheryl Strayed. I also stand in awe of blind authors like Georgina Kliege and especially of Stephen Kuusisto. I played music for many years in school, so while I’m very far from the professionals, I know enough about the inner workings of music to enjoy it fully, I guess. Right now, my music playing cravings are satisfied by playing for my son and by occasionally joining Tapestry, our school’s choir, on the piano during the music programs.
What role do you think storytelling plays in our human experience?
Storytellers are, first and foremost, listeners, and storytelling has the power to expand the listener’s horizons past their own life experiences and those of their neighbors and friends. When a person tells his or her own stories, whether real or fiction, it paradoxically reaches both for universality—what we all share—and uniqueness—individual and cultural differences. Good storytelling and listening should be about the characters, not about a group of people, and in that way, it can reach for that larger meaning and feeling of interconnectedness we all have as human beings.
Describe your communities – your creative community, the blindness community, etc.
I’m almost tempted to borrow Sherman Alexie’s rumination toward the end of his book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, when Junior begins to name all of his tribes. My current flesh and blood, real-time community is a group of adolescents who are blind or visually impaired! But right now, I also live in a community which is not connected very well to the rest of the world via public transit, so the virtual worlds of blogs and Facebook, while they have their drawbacks when it comes to real interactions, do help to make my community more widespread.
What would you have to say to our community at Exceptions given the opportunity?
Well, I’ve published one short book and several short articles, so I’m still at the beginning of my writing journey. So far, I’ve learned that everyone has a story and that sometimes, it occurs in a place I initially didn’t believe possible.
For more information on Kristen and her work, please visit http://kristenwitucki.com/.