Author Interview – “A Language Translatable by No One” by Courtney Kersten

December 15, 2014

We’re so pleased to share our third volume, The Masters Review with Stories Selected by Lev Grossman. This annual compendium of stories reflects the best emerging writers in graduate-level creative writing programs, and continually impresses with a diverse range of content and style. To offer you a little more information on these authors and their stories, we’ve put together a series of interviews with the writers in the book. In a “A Language Translatable by No One,” Courtney Kersten writes about losing her mother. It is a beautiful piece and continues to be a favorite among readers. Enjoy!
language translate
“I arrange the boots, the dress, and the swimsuit so that we can powwow together: a triage support group. She left all of us! She was supposed to wear me! The Easter dress wails Irish wake style, her boots whimper, the swimsuit has retired to the far corner of the closet to weep.”


“A Language Translatable by No One” is such a personal piece. Rather than ask you about the motivation for the story, I’m curious how the process for writing this was. How did you approach the topic?

Initially, I was fascinated by the material aspects of mourning—the things we give, the things we keep, the material things left behind that loved ones must face. Yet, as I was writing, I realized that it was about something deeper than the things themselves. Ultimately, I was trying to figure out how to reconcile this dichotomy of my mother’s silence and the abundance of material things my family had. When, in reality, I longed for an abundance of her thoughts, her words, her final goodbyes, and would’ve asked for nothing else. So, when approaching the topic, I used the material goods as a starting point to access deeper emotional truths about my experience.

To me, there is a subtle and wry humor in this essay. Even the opening line: “Obviously when you are mourning you need cheese curds.” Was this a natural choice? Did it surprise you, or does your writing style often incorporate humor?

For me, it was a natural choice. Not only did I find the gifts like the cheese curds to be sort of absurd and estranging in light of the severity of death, but I also did think it was funny. A woman is dying and you give us seven pounds of cheese curds? When it happened, of course, and we were given gifts, they were given in kindness and we accepted them so. And I’m sure that none of our friends and family gave us gifts to be funny—they were earnestly trying to help and show support. But, on the page, I think the humor is highlighted when you isolate the object apart from the person who gifted it.

One of my favorite parts in “A Language Translatable by No One” is when your mother’s inanimate object come to life. “She left all of us! She was supposed to wear me! The Easter dress wails Irish wake style, her boots whimper, the swimsuit has retired to the far corner of the closet to weep.” It offers such a lovely balance of, again humor, but it was also one of the saddest moments for me as a reader. When did this make its way into the essay. How does it elevate the piece for you?

For me, that particular part arose when I started to think about the “ripple-effect” of losing someone. In the months directly after my mother’s death (and still now), I was and am continually aware of the scale of grief and how far the loss of someone extends. Not only do you lose that person, but you lose their role and their effect in communities small and large. When tasked with the job of sorting through my mother’s belongings, her absence, for me, felt so absurd and overwhelming, that I felt it even extended to the objects and clothing she left behind. In a way, I connected to the abandoned clothing as though, somehow, we were all in this together—trying to figure out where we belonged after the woman who had taken care of us was gone.

Can you talk about some of your favorite essayists and short story writers? Who are you reading now? Who did you turn to when you were writing this piece?

One of my favorite essayist is Jo Ann Beard. I initially connected to her work because she, too, is from the Midwest yet I also admire her work on a sentence level and her own brand of understated humor. She’s the author I read again and again while writing this piece when I needed to re-center. I also admire the work of Dinty Moore and Ander Monson. Both are quirky, imaginative, and supremely clever. They inspire me to keep challenging myself through form and to examine how playfulness in writing can lead you to examining deeper emotional truths.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m working on a memoir about my experiences with astrology, my mother’s death, and mourning in the Midwest. This fall, I’ve also been exploring photo essays and am currently working a photo-essay about Elvis impersonators.

At the time of submission you were pursuing your MFA from The University of Idaho. Can you talk about your experience there? 

My experience in Idaho’s MFA program has been spectacular. First off, I’m a huge fan of the location in Moscow, Idaho. We’re situated right in the middle of the rolling Palouse hills; it’s a beautiful and invigorating place to write. The writers and teachers I’ve been able to work with have all been generous and supportive in their feedback and imaginative and inspiring in their own work. Both inside and outside of the classroom, I am very thankful I have the chance to study and write here.


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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