Plot Twist and Pandemics: Author Katherine Kimball ’17 on Finding Opportunity in Crisis
Story by Sarah Roberts ’21
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Katherine Kimball, who graduated in 2017 from Texas A&M with a B.S. in Economics and a B.A. in English, is used to rolling with life’s punches. Working as an ESL teacher in China at the time news of the pandemic broke, Kimball had just returned to the city of Shenzhen, located in the Guangdong province of China, when she was quickly ushered into quarantine as she arrived.
At first, the quarantine was a surprise. “I don’t speak Chinese very well because I’ve only been there for a year, so I didn’t really know what was going on,” Kimball said. “And then they took me to a hotel so I was like, so this is what is happening—I’m being quarantined.”
Faced with the boredom that accompanies a Chinese government-sanctioned quarantine, Kimball turned to one of her passions for distraction—writing. “You’re basically stuck with nothing,” Kimball said. “And I wasn’t given any head’s up that I’d be going into quarantine. So it was kind of a surprise, and I didn’t really have anything to prepare me. So, I just wrote a bunch of poems.”
On her last day of quarantine in China, Kimball received the unexpected news that her grandmother had passed away back in the United States. That same day, China announced that its borders were closing and travel would be restricted from outside countries. Kimball had to choose between staying in China for her job, or returning to the United States and being indefinitely trapped outside of the country where she worked. Kimball ultimately returned to the United States for her grandmother’s funeral, where she had to enter a second two-week quarantine, almost back-to-back with the one she just completed. Soon after, she was furloughed from her ESL teaching position until she could return to China. As a mechanism for processing the grief of a loved one’s death, the loss of her beloved teaching job, and the anxiety surrounding quarantine and the pandemic, Kimball continued to find refuge in writing. Eventually, Kimball’s growing stack of poems turned into a new book, called Truth and Poison, which was published September 8.
Needless to say, Kimball’s life has turned upside down since the start of the pandemic. “This book has honestly helped a lot because it’s always been a dream of mine to publish something. So getting the book, seeing the book, being able to hold it was just surreal in itself,” Kimball said. “It has totally changed everything in my life really. I mean, it changed my whole life plan.”
Kimball found a healing catharsis in writing: “I sort of realized that in all of the frustration that sort of comes with quarantine and things like that, that writing poetry really helps me process stuff. So, when I would write something, even when it turned out not to be a good poem that made the cut from the book, afterwards I would feel better about whatever I was writing about.”
By publishing her new book, Kimball realized a dream that she has always wanted, but never really thought possible. During her time at Texas A&M, Kimball was unsure how she would use her English degree in her future career, even though she loved the subject. “For a long time, I really thought my path was going to be Economics-oriented. Like I was going to do Behavioral Economics or Microeconomics for some nonprofit, and I even looked into getting a PhD in Economics,” Kimball said. “Being in the world, in the working world, English has actually helped me, as an ESL teacher, more than Economics ever did.”
Especially writing and publishing a book, Kimball heavily depended on the skills her English degree afforded her. “I definitely would have never been able to do it without my English degree from Texas A&M because I learned so much about poetry and writing from my degree.” Kimball continued, “Being able to communicate my thoughts on paper is huge because even if you’re not doing something English related, being able to sort your thoughts out and writing helps a lot more.”
Kimball’s return to her love of English has also prompted her to pursue her passion even further by getting her PhD in Literature—something she’d considered before but never did. Having taken a couple of years to discover her next step, she understands it can be hard for college students who haven’t pinned down the next five years of their life just yet, and encourages them to take all the time they need, despite the pressure they might feel to follow a certain path.
“I think it’s great that you don’t want to pick something that is going to tie you down and not give you options. Whereas I feel like people are going to try and tell you you need to pick something,” Kimball said. “No, that’s great. Don’t. Don’t pick anything. Just keep trying things!”
In addition to reminding college students that it’s okay to take the time they need to figure it out, Kimball also offered this advice to college students struggling with the chaotic virtual college environment, isolation, and the pandemic: “you can’t control the plot twists in your life, but what you can control is how you write your reaction to them.” From her extensive experience with the pandemic, quarantine, and the havoc it can wreak on future plans, Kimball added, “Remembering that even though we feel out of control over everything right now, we have control over what we do and how we react to things. I think that’s what has kept me sane in all of this. There’s still things I can control.”