On February 17, a rainy Thursday afternoon, Gailor Auditorium welcomed students, staff, and community members to a reading by author Dr. Gwen Kirby, Associate Director of Programs and Finance for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Professor of Creative Writing at Sewanee, and advisor to the Writing House. Kirby has an MFA from Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati and recently released her first collection of short stories, Shit Cassandra Saw.
“The collection is kind of two things, one being contemporary stories with a weird element and [second being] historical stories about women from the past,” Kirby said.
After an introduction from a student, Kirby began by reading two short stories from her collection. The first one was entitled, “How to Retile Your Bathroom in 6 Easy Steps!”. Modeled after a WikiHow article, this short story explores themes of self-doubt, isolation, and single motherhood. It is about a woman retiling her bathroom after her husband divorces her. The woman, never named in the story, struggles with the task, but refuses to admit to herself or her children that she needs a man. “You believe in not telling your children about your problems. Well done, you, for keeping that inside. You are a good mother. When you have made this bathroom beautiful, you will be an even better one.” Kirby’s voice expressing the mother’s dark humor surrounding the comically tragic situation brings out soft laughter from the audience.
During a talk following her reading, Kirby discussed how she writes her stories and how her style has improved over the years. “The more that I practice and write, the more I can tell if a story has legs, and this could be something,” Kirby said, “The only real way to tell if something is good, is to not look at it for a few months.”
The second short story from the collection read was “A Few Normal Things That Happen a Lot” which tells the story of women with interesting abilities and superpowers. It is the story of female werewolves, women with fangs, and radioactive cockroaches biting women in their sleep. These women are given powers and watch as the men shift their treatment of them rather suddenly. It explores the rampant sexism women experience daily, what a role reversal would look like, and women’s desires for freedom. “‘Can’t you take a joke?’ they shriek, and they almost feel bad, because two wrongs don’t make a right. But one wrong after wrong and wrong and wrong and wrong does make a cockroach woman feel better, reckless, free.”
When asked about the powers the women have, Kirby stated how she “just started writing” and thought “What’s the most absurd thing I could do?” She elaborated on the process of writing the story, saying, “The powers just came to me at first and the real challenge was allowing the story to build on itself.”
Kirby later talked about the title story of the collection, which inspired the title of the collection. “The title of my book is a shorter version of the title story of the collection which is, “Shit Cassandra Saw But Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at That Point Fuck Them Anyway,” Kirby said. “That was a story that changed my life as a writer. When you publish a short story, usually no one reads it. And that story was published online, and a ton of people read it. I went into that story being me, and that went well.”
Kirby, in addition to her many roles on Sewanee’s campus, also teaches Creative Writing classes. Kirby encourages her students to not be afraid to write “shitty first drafts” and one student who took her class remarked on how important this was to her. “I would struggle with my writing, like not feeling like it’s good enough,” Nicole Boyd (C’24) said. “But the important thing is to write something down and move forward with it.”
Boyd also elaborated on the chance to take one of her classes during her freshman year, and despite it being on Zoom, Kirby “made it very fun” and “kept us engaged.” Boyd concluded, “She really got us to experiment with our writing.”
Shit Cassandra Saw is a beautiful collection of stories that focus on feminism and the complex reality women have faced for all of history, and continue to face to this day. It’s a story about how much women know, and how much they are ignored. Kirby said, “Women are talking to you, if you’re interested in listening up.”