‘We Were the Universe’ explores relationships and grief in a Dallas suburb

Kimberly King Parsons’ debut story collection, “Black Light,” came out in 2019.

By Sarah AschMay 14, 2024 10:45 am, ,

Plenty of novels have been written celebrating heroic Texas archetypes. But Lubbock-born Kimberly King Parsons’ latest tracks a more modern and everyday archetypal Texan: A new mother named Kit navigating love and grief in the Dallas suburbs.

In “We Were the Universe,” the recent death of Kit’s sister and the duties of parenting have become a challenging emotional and mental backdrop to her life. A trip with a friend to Montana makes her question what she’s lost and who she is – and even, at times, the boundaries between fantasy and reality.

Parsons said she drew from her own life for pieces of the story.

“Although this is a highly fictionalized and synthesized version of my truth, I’ve experienced grief and great loss in my life myself,” she said. “And I also, like Kit, visited the Boiling River in Montana. And this is a place known for healing properties.

“And while I was sitting in this gorgeous setting, I suddenly felt all of this pain bubble up. And that’s sort of where I started the novel, was imagining this woman sort of haunted by her past, sitting in this water.”

Despite the serious subject matter, Parsons said she tried to bring humor to her story.

“The book is really funny in a lot of ways,” she said. “Kit is very self-deprecating. I knew I wanted to write a book about grief, but I wanted it to be a funny book about grief. And so I found my way to the voice, sort of through real-life circumstances. But then I went off in a really fictional direction.”

Parsons said she wanted to explore the way that grief transforms someone’s experience of the present.

“(Grief) really does consume time, and as a mother Kit is sort of in the mode of caretaking for her daughter. And kids really demand your attention and your presence,” she said. “And yet at the same time, she has this tug of nostalgia for the times when her sister was with her. Suddenly she’s no longer able to push aside that grief and loss. And she really turns to all kinds of things to relieve that acute pain – fantasy, you know, self-deprecation, all of those things – to sort of turn away from the thing that’s really hurting her.”

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The novel also tackles the issue of class and socioeconomic status.

“Kit is not quite middle-class. And she comes from a background that was really impoverished, and though she’s doing okay at this point, it’s definitely something that she thinks about quite a lot,” Parsons said. “And she’s in this essentially a well-to-do suburb of Dallas. And so, sure, she’s keeping up appearances to be a good mother, to be a good wife, to be, you know, someone who looks like she has her act together when inside she feels really like she’s falling apart in a lot of ways.”

Parsons said that while she never tips fully into magical realism, she explores the “transcendent connection” Kit feels she has with her sister Julie.

“Though Julie is no longer here, Kit still feels this sense of communication coming from her. And also another factor of the book is it has had some positive formative experiences with psychedelics when she was a teenager, and Julie was involved in those experiences as well, and she sort of felt that the boundary of communication had been lifted because of those experiences,” she said. “And so the book doesn’t really spend a lot of time wondering, is this real? Is Julie actually trying to communicate with her?”

Parsons said her starting point for the novel and the thing she kept coming back to was Kit’s voice as a character.

“Kit’s voice was urgent, and I could hear her so clearly,” she said. “And so it’s really just one character’s truth. And of course, because she is a woman and a mother, people have a lot of strong opinions about the way women should raise their children and the way women should experience desire or not.

“I think a lot of people expect women to sort of sublimate their personalities the second they have a child. And so although I didn’t set out necessarily to make statements about any of those things, certainly Kit’s truth led me to that.”

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