Karen Junker’s life has always been devoted to books. Though the tiny Washington town where she grew up, DuPont, didn’t have a library when she was young, “I loved reading more than anything.” One of her high school classmates was Robert Heinlein’s niece, and Junker clearly recalls her meeting with the sci-fi great to be a turning point in her life.
“Some people collect comics and baseball cards, and I collect meetings with famous authors,” Junker tells me on the phone, just before relaying an anecdote about accidentally bumping into George R. R. Martin. She’s about more than just the big names, though. Junker is well-connected in the literary community: she knows agents and editors and publishers and booksellers. And she admits that she’s “not afraid to call anyone and ask them for anything.”
Junker says she “likes to introduce people that will help other people.” One of her favorite things to do is to organize events that place a famous writer next to a lesser-known writer, creating the possibility to inexorably alter the course of a career. She’s organized conventions and a popular series of writing retreats called Writers Weekend and all sorts of other literary events.
Junker doesn’t believe in genre. She recalls a moment when she was younger that taught her not to look down her nose at someone for the kind of books they read: “I was working in a bookstore in West Seattle and I was helping a regular customer there and I said, ‘you seem like a really smart woman. Why do you read romance?’ She pretty much dressed me down. And rightfully so!” That customer turned out to be president of the local Romance Writers of America chapter, and she invited Junker to attend writing workshops. “It really opened up my mind and respect for that genre.”
After putting on some romance events, Junker started to branch out. She scored a rare appearance from sci-fi author Mercedes Lackey at a writing group, and then she started to expand her scope into a regular series of writing workshops. And now she’s expanding her scope event further with Readerfest, a free family-friendly book festival at Magnuson Park on Saturday, September 9th. Junker just started planning the festival five weeks ago, but she’s filed with Washington’s Secretary of State for nonprofit status and plans are proceeding at high speed. “I started making phone calls and people are getting on board,” she says. “We’re adding people and sponsors every day.”
“I’m a big fan of the writing community, especially in our region,” Junker tells me. “I started Readerfest because the Northwest Bookfest was so cool, and I feel that this is something I can do to organize a little tiny thing to build that back up again.” She admits to being “scared” by how quickly Readerfest is growing, but “I’ve done these for so long that if you get good people who you know can talk about what they do, I don’t have to manage that. It takes care of itself.”
Inclusivity is important to Junker. Readerfest will feature an indigenous arts tent, and there will be talks by local native artists. The festival will feature conversations about “cultural appropriation in literature, and race and gender representation in steampunk.” The festival does have more sci-fi authors on its slate than Northwest Bookfest, but Junker is looking to expand that slate as much as possible. “I have some poets, I have some non-fiction writers and some comics. We have spoken-word storytellers coming. We don’t have a lot of literary fiction writers yet.”
So what should you do if you want to participate in Readerfest? Junker says interested parties should email her if they’d like a table. The Readerfest site will be updated soon with information for volunteers and, as soon as the organization gets its nonprofit status approved, the ability to donate for future Readerfests.
In the end, Junker says, she just wants to put on an event that will connect people to books that they’ll love. “I just felt the need in the community for this kind of event — one that’s family-friendly but not exclusive of any genre. I’m a fan of all types of writing, and there’s a reader for everything,” she says.
Anastacia-Reneé is a poet who knows how to read her work — she takes control of an audience by refusing to conform to standardized modes of delivery. She reads about eating pussy in a roomful of straight people and indicts structural racism in white-dominated spaces. She throws her voice out into the room, but also pulls you in with a whisper or an aside. There is a fusion to her performance style that has obviously taken years to perfect — a commingling of spoken word, black radical oration, theatrical exposition, intergenerational storytelling, queer gossip, and academic training.
So perhaps it is surprising that Anastacia-Reneé’s first two full-length collections of poetry arrive now, at age 45 (a third, smaller volume — Answer(Me) — will follow later this year). But this is emblematic of how the barriers to publishing often function to keep out writers who don’t follow the rules.
Reading Anastacia-Reneé’s two major collections at once offers a rare syncretism. The books are stylistically different and yet thematically interlocked. The first, (v.), just out from local publisher Gramma Poetry, captures the impact of white supremacy on black women and girls — the fracturing of the psyche, the invasion of the spirit, and the plundering of the soul. Using a variety of forms, including alphabetical lists, free-verse, fairy tales, and narrative footnotes, Anastacia-Reneé moves through the contemporary and historical terrain of anti-black, anti-woman, and anti-child violence to unwind the damage.
On the surface, Forget It, just out from Black Radish Press, is a more narrative work, but it is a narrative that shows how narrative fails. Part dreamscape, part surrealist horror story, and part letter to self, Forget It shows how legacies of abuse break bodies and texts. Written in the internalized language of trauma — of sound, speech, error, and dismembered remembrance — Forget It shows how the pain of fitting a life together winds its way through the shock of everyday experience.
I’ll be joining Anastacia-Reneé for the Forget It book launch at Elliott Bay Book Company on July 25 (alongside Jane Wong and Shankar Narayan). In advance of the reading, I sat down with Anastacia-Reneé to talk about her two new poetry collections and the terrain they create together.
It was fun to read your work on the page for the first time — of course I’ve seen you read many times, but there’s a whole new level of textual depth that opens up when I see the ways you’ve arranged the words on the page. I wonder if you could talk about the texts that are inside and around and underneath other texts.
I grew up with reference books — the kind you could actually lug around, hold, flip pages and stare at — medical dictionaries, regular dictionaries, encyclopedias and maps. In my writing I like to mimic reference books and get the reader’s attention while talking about more than one thing or topic or subtopic — or, better still, a thing the reader isn't supposed to know but now knows. Or a thing I feel like the reader should infer but might not.
I was told a lot when I was younger to be quiet, or it was implied in the ‘70s and ‘80s that girls should not use their voices. The texts and subtexts are also a way for me to say fuck that, and use so many different mediums and modes of communicating that it takes the reader a long time to process it.
One thing that strikes me throughout both books is your insistence on indicting not just white supremacy, but its constituent parts — how histories of violence interact in everyday experience, from police brutality to internalized oppression, pop culture to intimate relationships.
I seek to indict, interrogate, and insert feelings of injustice. Sometimes I just want the reader to feel something — but the possibility that one could walk away from some of the pieces and feel ambivalent or apathetic is a hard coffee drink to swallow. My ultimate goal is not to sit the folks down in a chair and say “Look what you did”; I would, rather, like them to be walking down a journey and say, “Hmm, perhaps I need to change some things and take a look at a bigger picture.”
The texts are always fractured, and this allows us to see into both the ways creative expression forms and the mechanisms of the structural violence that you explore. When you play with words, it seems to me that you’re taking apart language to reveal the structures of feeling that produce meaning, but also setting them free to create new meanings. One poem that does this in particular is “DE[COLONIZE],” from (v.), where you reveal the colon inside colonization, which, if functioning properly, could release toxins instead of poisoning us all, right?
Yes! I wondered, though, if the readers would get it, or if they would put together more toxins. There were so many versions of this poem, and I almost didn’t put it in the book for fear of not executing it in the way I wanted it to read, be, and feel on the page.
I think it’s one of the clearest poems in the book — and, by never letting go of the ways that misogyny and sexual violence are tools of white supremacy, you offer an intersectional analysis in a deeply embodied way, especially in the poems about rape, where the feeling of dissociation is palpable.
This is important for me to talk about, but not in a preachy kind of way. I tried my best to talk about it in a creative way. Less academic essay, but with academic nuances. Also, some days there’s just no nice way to say, “Black women are dying, daily. Black people are dying, daily.”
In many of the poems you explore intergenerational trauma. In “MASTER TALE,” you show how the legacy of slavery plays out in the contemporary workplace.
“MASTER TALE” is actually part of a series that I first began working on when my art installation "The fabric of our lives" debuted at the Northwest African American Museum. The installation talked about the dirty laundry of systemic racism and oppression and the DNA legacy of the feeling of this oppression, which is sometimes felt but not seen right away by the naked eye — especially by white people. In one part of the installation I asked participants to write modern-day letters to current-day masters, at work or in the larger world. “MASTER TALE” is my take on that, and my letter.
I love your confessions: “I’m the creepy girl in all the scary movies.” Even though these are in a smaller font at the bottom of the pages, they are the movement that propels (v.) forward — and, set apart by the same (v.) of the title — they are the action, the verbs, but also, if we look at your constructed alphabet, we see words like ventricle, voice, vortex, void, vampire — and, nine times, vagina. Tell us about the (v.) of the title.
The (v.) is for whatever the reader wants it to mean. For me it means verb or vagina or both. I wanted to give the reader agency.
In both books, it seems to me like you are deliberately resisting closure — you’re making the reader face all the brutality and possibilities head-on. Was this your intention?
I don't think I was intentionally trying not to let the reader get closure, but I did want the reader to be faced with real shit. I wanted the readers to feel as trapped as some people do in the real world where presentation or privilege — or point of view, even — is not a choice.
It seems to me that black authors who are canonized within the white gaze are often required to offer redemption as a strategy for hope. Would you say that you are refusing this type of hope?
Yes, the kind of hope I am offering is "I hope you learn something." "I hope you become a better ally." "I hope you feel something."
I was wondering if Seattle would come up directly in these books, and when it does, in Forget It, it’s as a city of dog-walking and urban gardens and liberal amnesia, where “we begin to think people on drugs don’t need food & shelter & water.” Talk about this city.
Ah, this city. For me it truly is like a lover I love but at times am so ready to break up with. I want to tell Seattle do better, be better, and sometimes I want to say you are not better. On the days when I say you are not better, it's usually because someone who comes off as "progressive" or "fair" or "diversity-trained" ends up being a racist or sexist or just a complete idiot and not even admitting it because they are a "change-maker." I get frustrated with this city because we still have one of the highest rates of homelessness, and youth homelessness. I get frustrated with this city because it feels like it wants to be LA, with less meat and less sun. I want Seattle to be herself but better.
I have moved a lot, and Seattle is the longest place where I have lived as an adult. There are mountains and water, and I do like the rain — I am teased often because I do not celebrate when the sun comes out and I don't cry during winter about there being rain. And once I moved back here in 2012, Seattle was my sanctuary. My church with no pastors or pews.
When Tasmanian cartoonist Simon Hanselmann moved to Seattle, he instantly became one of the biggest cartoonists in town. His Fantagraphics comic Megahex attained the kind of critical and commercial success that a very small sampling of cartoonists manage to achieve in their careers. Hanselmann is a natural provocateur — in the span of a half-hour interview, he manages to say four or five things that could get him in trouble on social media if taken out of context – but he’s so cheerfully sarcastic about it that you can’t help but feel warmly toward him. Further, he’s such a fun interview that I barely noticed all the depressing stuff he lobbed at my head over the course of the conversation. We talked about illness, watercolor, the Hot Off the Press Book Fair at Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery this Saturday, and the problems with the Seattle comics scene. The following is a lightly edited transcription of our talk.
I don't want to take up too much of your time.
Thanks for that. I just did an interview with Dan Nadel from the Comics Journal last week and he just had no questions, no preparation. It was a shitstorm of rambling.
But the Comics Journal runs those novel-length interviews! I thought they would have tons of questions.
No, Dan's very lazy. There's stuff that got cut out of the interview where I talk to Dan about how shit the Comics Journal is now. He used to run Comic Comics, and then that merged with TCJ and combined they both became less than what they used to be. And he agreed: "Yes, it sucks. I'm terrible." But he cut that out of the interview. Anyway...
Well, we should definitely get that in this interview. You know, I was looking through your books and it just struck me for some reason: I was like, oh, holy shit, you're like a real cartoonist now. You've got three books from Fantagraphics! They're real, and they exist on bookshelves. Any idiot can get published, but you've been published three times so you’re at least a special kind of idiot.
Yeah, totally. Didn't totally screw it up.
I may have plateaued. Hopefully not.
They do make a chunky pile of books.
I look at my bookshelf, and I have books by Clowes and Burns and I have sort of a similar level of thickness going on. I've really been cranking this shit out. But really, it's still just battling to get work done and hating everything I do, trying to get better. And it normalizes the whole publishing thing.
Do you look through your old stuff? Some cartoonists don't.
Oh yeah. I do, I read all the reviews online. I read Amazon, GoodReads reviews. Probably shouldn't, but I do. There's valid criticism to be found, and people often pick up on things that I'm not picking up on. I think it's helpful to read the criticisms.
But yeah, I do look at my old stuff. Like for instance, I hate Megahex now. I just, feel all the older stuff, looking back on [work from] 2009, 2010 — it just looks horrible to me.
Is it just the craft of the drawing that you don't like about it?
It just looks bad to me, but people still like those books. I think a lot of people aren't aware I have other books after Megahex. It’s sort of become like: [TV announcer voice:] "Megahex: Available at Hot Topic." The popular cultural item.
Yeah, I can't stand it anymore. It's less mature than the other books. They're still all silly. I mean the new book's got a ridiculous big boner joke in it, it has pooping, and low-brow shenanigans.
I like the third book the most of the three. Some of the material in there is from like 2013 and it sort of collects of the dregs, the remnants with a bunch of new stuff. I think overall it's the strongest of the three. My personal preference.
Where do you feel like you grew the most in this book? What about your work is the strongest in this one?
Well, some of it is quite old. Some of it I drew before Megahex. It was in a book called Life Zone that Space Face put out. It's been out of print for a while, but I still like that material the most. I think Life Zone is my best book, those four stories worked well together.
So [One More Year] combines [Life Zone] with some of the Vice strips from last year. Some of them are terrible, but some of them I quite like. Really, it’s just a clearing-house kind of book. I wanted to get all of these out-of-print things together and it just kind of finishes off the trilogy.
Then, that's it — I'm moving on with Megg and Mogg, and it's gonna start progressing a lot more, with more forward momentum. It said in the back of Megahex, “To be concluded in Megg's Coven,” and then I never did that book. I've sorta been just putting it off. But now I'm finally going to start doing Megg's Coven, in which Owl has moved out, and everything progresses a bit more.
That was something I was going to ask you about. Do you think these Megg and Mogg stories are going to be your life's work, or a significant part of your life's work? Are these the characters you're going to follow, like Peter Bagge with his character Buddy Bradley?
I think so, yeah. I've been doing this for almost ten years now, which is terrifying. Next year, 2018, will be the ten-year anniversary of the first Megg and Mogg strip. It's gone by very quickly.
And this big Megg’s Coven project I'm planning will be minimum 400 pages, in European-style larger albums, hardbacks. One a year is my goal, starting next year.
So yeah, I've got plans for these characters. I've written very far ahead, like Werewolf Jones’s children — I know what happens to them, what they're like when they're teenagers, adults. There are still loose ends I have to sort of figure out. I'm still growing older and growing up, going through different phases.
Anyway, just how interesting could Megg and Mogg be when they're in their fifties? We'll see. It'll be the future then, so what kind of crazy technology will we have? It'll be about VR, and cyber-sex. It'll be amazing.
Yeah, there'll be camouflage pants that actually work — make our lower halves truly invisible.
Peter Bagge once said that Buddy Bradley was always 10 years behind him. is that something similar with you and Megg and Mogg, like they're at a place that is behind you in your development?
It's definitely predominately based on my times in Tasmania in my twenties — early to mid-twenties — hanging out in the Tasmanian noise and art scene, and all the shenanigans that happened. People in a small place, incestuously fucking each other's boyfriends and girlfriends, terrible alcohol problems, small-town pranks.
And then also my friend Grant [Gronewold], HTML Flowers, he's kind of like my co-writer. He and I get up to a lot of pretty cool shenanigans — or used to, before I moved to Seattle. So a lot of it's based on us doing horrible stupid things.
I'm in my mid-thirties now. I really shouldn't be climbing cranes, breaking into construction sites, and vomiting everywhere. We went to the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2015. It was terrible. Throwing glasses off balconies, really drunk, and we accidentally kicked Alan Cumming on a panel.
It was terrible, I think Alan Cumming was very upset.
Hold on, just to be clear: Alan Cumming the actor?
Yes. We were on a panel with Alan Cumming, for some reason. It was a weird festival — a very posh festival. The hotel was a five-star hotel. Grant vomited everywhere, it was quite terrible. We had just gotten back from Toronto, made a bunch of money — just throwing cash everywhere and just looking like rock star dickheads.
We're not really doing that anymore. I've moved to Seattle and I'm married and Grant has cystic fibrosis. It's kicking him in the balls, so he's in the hospital again. We’re both workaholics, so it must be really difficult for him, too.
I’m so sorry to hear that. To make an awkward transition, I know you get this a lot, but the coloring in your book is just amazing —
— I get the opposite also.
Really? That seems unbelievable. I was reading the book earlier this week and I was thinking to myself how different the impact of the strips would have if they didn't have that lightly washed-out watercolory feel to them. I kept trying to picture it with a gaudy digital overdone palette, and it just hit wrong.
Did you see the Free Comic Book Day Fantagraphics book?
It had flat computer colors and it was fine, but also it just looked dead and lifeless.
So yeah, I agree with you. I think there's something about that homestyle, mom-and-pop food coloring kind of washed out vibe. It doesn't look right with the computer colors.
I wish it did, because it would be much less laborious. But then I'd actually have to learn to use a computer. It’s nice of you to say, Paul, because I have heard people say, it’s bad coloring. It’s probably the thing I'm most proud of, in a way.
It’s such a significant part of your work. I'm a very bad comics critic because sometimes I will not even notice the color on a book at all. But it feels like such a significant part of your work. Some pages, you could almost take the lines out and you would still have the strip there. The emotional story would still be there. It's just really remarkable to me.
I'm working on a bunch of paintings right now. I’ve been doing sort of landscape paintings for an art show in October so this buoys my confidence while I'm painting. Thank you, Paul.
You’re welcome. I try not to gush in these interviews, because it always feels weird.
I do feel like a bad artist. I do look at my stuff and hate it. I do have a tendency to rush things.
I mean, I put a lot of work and a lot of time into things, but at the same time I'm barreling through them and just trying to desperately finish them. If I used computers, I could fix some of the mistakes through Photoshop but I kind of like that little mistakes are there.
But I have one chance — if I fuck up I cannot fix it. Because if I put whiteout or anything on a mistake, that will soak up the food coloring that I use for water coloring. So if I fuck up and make a mistake, I have to live with it.
And I kind of like that. Dangerous.
It must slow you down a little bit. I don't know much about physically working with materials but it sounds like watercolor takes a while for it to dry at least. Doesn't that change the rhythm of your work?
It dries quite quickly. I put an application down and it will dry in a minute or something, usually.
I don't do it page by page. I'll have a thirty-page strip and I'll go through and do all the fences, all the couches, all the bottles, all of Megg's faces, all of Megg's hair, the eyes, the cats. I use food coloring and it’s great — it's a certain Australian brand and it goes on really smooth, really flat.
Anyway, I've figured out the system over the years. It's laborious and horrible in the summer, particularly, because it's so hot and the watercolor dries really fucking quickly. You can see the steam coming off the page. I’ve got to be really quick.
Sometimes, I can't answer the phone, [Hanselmann’s wife] Jacq [Cohen]’s always like, "Simon, can you answer the door?" And I'm like "I can't — I'm in a paint hole."
That's my thing, paint holes, I'm always stuck painting, and if I stop it'll fuck the whole thing up and I'll have big streaks through it. When I'm painting I need reality to fuck off. I need to be in the zone.
Do you ever worry about the longevity of the physical work? Is the food coloring going to hold, or does it fade or get runny? Do you resell your work or anything like that, the originals?
Oh, I sell my originals like crazy yeah. Alvin Buenaventura was my art dealer. He worked with Clowes and Burns and with other amazing artists. He really got my prices up, and then he killed himself while owing me 10 grand. Which is unfortunate.
So I sell my artwork. But I do have pages from ten years ago made with the food coloring, and it's still just as bright as it was ten years ago. It seems to age quite well.
Okay, all right.
My prices are so high now, I sell a page for like two grand, but a lot of my fans are schlubby burnouts, they can't afford that. I kinda feel like an asshole moving over into this posh art realm. But I need to pay the bills, I have health care because I'm an American now.
Ha, ha. Joke’s on you!
Yeah I know. I move here and everything just falls to pieces. I really miss my free universal health care.
My mother’s quite sick now and she's just getting ambulances every day and they're nice and it's all free as it should be. I was saying to her, "bright side to this, Ma, is you're in Australia. If you were in America you'd just be fucked. You'd just owe a million dollars."
Like Grant, my best friend, he's from Chicago. But he moved to Australia for the health care, because he'd be dead now if he didn't move away.
Oh my god.
That's why it's so funny, that “America's like the greatest country in the world” talk. I'm like, “it's ... okay ... but it's pretty fucking shit, really." A bit dissatisfied with America.
But, anyway. I don't want to get deported. So, yay! Go Trump. I love America. Please don't let them beat me to death for being a crossdresser.
Oh my. That's a quote to take out of context! Kinda speaking about Trump, I was thinking about your Fantagraphics labelmate Matt Furie and Pepe the Frog and all that, and I was wondering: do you ever worry about Owl being co-opted by men’s rights activists or other terrible online people?
It could happen, there is a certain panel from Megahex with Werewolf Jones saying "It's going to get weird ... I'm going to make this weird." And that is re-blogged fucking everywhere. It has watermarks on it from meme people, I've seen it have like 300,000 notes on it on Tumblr, there's a rap album named after it, it's a low-level meme. It fucking gets around so easily someone could throw a Hitler mustache on it and it could end up a hate symbol.
But you can’t worry about that. For years the comedy page on 4Chan had a Megg and Mogg panel — a particularly offensive one that I never officially published. It involved rape. They put all these bits of paper with rape puns on Owl’s bedroom walls while he was out — just covered his room.
It could be offensive but at the time, 2008, it was like "ha-ha." But then I had several friends say "Look Simon, I was raped. This is not funny."
I didn't publish it in Megahex. It was in a mini-comic, but I left it out of the main stuff. The point of the comic was that Megg and Mogg were insensitive fucks. It succeeded, in a bad way.
I try not to worry about that stuff anymore — the censorship stuff. Most of my stuff is based on reality and real life things that have happened to me, so if someone complains it's like "Well, this is my experience. Sorry." It's not for everybody. Megg and Mogg are kind of horrible.
But who knows? The Internet's terrifying. Who knows what could happen? It's terrifying out there.
So next Saturday you're giving a presentation to celebrate the release of One More Year.
Yeah. I have it written on my hand, actually. My publisher said make sure to mention the thing on the 8th. So, yes! I do.
What a happy coincidence.
You've done your legwork, Paul.
Look at that! I know you're going to be at a place at a certain time.
More than Dan Nadel did.
I'm going to get that tattooed on me. Different cartoonists do different sorts of things when they project comics on a big screen: some people just put panels up and read the balloons, some people take the word balloons out. What do you do with your comic performance?
I'm pretty meat-and-potatoes really. I've seen all that bubble-taking-out stuff, which works quite well for Gabrielle Bell. She's great.
I use, first of all, single panels. I hate when people put up a whole page. That just subtracts all of the momentum from the reading. I cut out all the individual panels, and click through them, and do the voices, and try to keep it well-paced and lifelike. You want all the beats to hit.
I used to get audience members to do the voices. I'd say "I'll do Megg. Who will be my Werewolf Jones? Who will be my Mogg?" And it'd often work out quite well, people would have fun with that. There'd be some fuckups and it would be funny.
The thing I'm doing this Saturday is the drone story from One More Year. I assume you read it.
Yeah I did.
Yeah, I hope so, Paul. Nadel didn't.
I'm doing that story, and I'm doing both voices, and I have the musical element. I've got my keyboard, when they sing the songs [in the story] I sing the songs and play the music along with it. I've done it a few times and I've kind of enjoyed doing this one.
And I like that drone story. It's nice and depressing. I've done it two or three times now and people seem to have enjoyed it. I'm an entertainer, Paul.
So, yeah, I’m going to Hot Off the Press Book Fair at the Fantagraphics store in Georgetown on the 8th. I’ll be selling some zines there, and I guess [Fantagraphics Bookstore manager] Larry Reid will have me selling some books and I’ll be doing my little performance.
Nice. Who else do you know at the Fair?
I don't interact with the scene out here, with Seattle. I was actually trying to get a job at a Fanta store recently, like a Sunday job. I wanted to be the Sunday girl there, just to get me out of the house, doing something community-based. But they really didn't want me to work there. Thought it would be weird.
The thing I'm most excited about is Breakdown Press, which is a great British publisher. It's frustrating that the thing I'm most excited about at Hot Off the Press is a British thing.
I don't like the Seattle comics scene. It's okay, but it could be a hell of a lot fucking better. Melbourne had fucking great comic scene. There's some cool shit in Melbourne.
I think Seattle's kind of aggressive in a way. Gentlemen in flannels with beards just doing angry comics about being drunk. Short Run’s all right. I don't go to Dune or anything here, I'm too old to go to drawing nights now. That's a young man’s game — people figuring themselves out.
Okay. I think that’s all the questions I had for you.
We kept it focused! In the Nadel interview we didn't mention One More Year, and we did talk about it a bit in this interview. And we mentioned the Hot Off the Press event, so I think we've done it. We've done it, Paul!
Yup. Suck it, Comics Journal.
WSU Press just published the first book by Bellingham-based historian Candace Wellman. The full title gives you an idea of the topic: Peace Weavers: Uniting the Salish Coast Through Cross-Cultural Marriages. It's a book that follows the life stories of four indigenous women who married across cultural lines, making families with pioneer men.
While the fact of cross-cultural marriages was well known, the women in them were ignored, seen as appendages of the men, or cast in racial and gender stereotypes. It took a curious outsider to start questioning the assumptions of previous historians, and uncover what in retrospect is a seemingly obvious truth: these women had complex, rich lives, and their own stories to tell. Something more remarkable: Wellman uncovered pasts that none had bothered to look for. Outside of family histories, this is the first time their lives have been told.
By focusing on four women, Wellman was able to tell a rich story of life in 19th century Washington and investigate many heady topics that seem to be evergreen: the purpose of marriage, and what it means to marry outside of your race and culture.
I sat down and spent a nice morning with Wellman, who (in the strangest disclosure I've been impelled to write to date) is the mother of my first high school girlfriend. The transcript has been lightly edited.
This was an 18-year journey for you.
Every author I talk to, there's always that one spark that started them on the journey. In this case, a long journey with a lot of research for you. What was that initial spark?
I was a volunteer research assistant at the state archives in Bellingham, and one day a woman came in — she was from Montana, camper was out in the parking lot. She said, "My great-great grandmother was an Indian. Her name was Mary, and she was married to John Briggs here, and that's all we know about her. Will you help me find my family?" So we worked on her genealogy that day.
Six weeks later, another woman on vacation came in, and she said, "My great-great grandmother was an Indian, her name was Fanny. Would you help me find my family?" When we worked on her, I found that those two couples had been married together in the same house on the same day. That was the connection between those two couples. I thought that was really intriguing. Then I found a list of all the people who had been intermarried in the 1850s that was laying in this old historian, Howard Buswell's, files.
Then a newspaper reporter in Washington, DC, was referred to me for help on General Pickett and his Native wife. What I said to her was, "Everything that could be found out about her life was researched and published in the 1960s. There isn't any more." And she said, "Would you suspend that assumption and look again?" When I did, I found new information. So I said, "What else is out there about these other women that everyone thinks there's nothing out there about them?"
Suspending the assumption, as a starting point, is it looking at documents you've already looked at from a new point-of-view and looking for clues, or is it uncovering documents that you wouldn't have considered? Because you went to historical documents, you went to family documents, genealogical stuff. You had a wide variety of sources.
Huge variety of sources. It started off, I was going to write a two-year project about how the Native wives and the white wives lived together and helped each other in those very early years. As I worked, very quickly the white ladies, about whom we know a lot, became boring. And these other women became more fascinating, until I just decided to work on them. But one thing would lead to another. Like, I would take something that had been written about a husband, and I would just pick apart that paragraph and re-research everything. If it said "EC Fitzhugh went to Georgetown Law School," then I got hold of Georgetown and found out there was no law school at that time. It was a prep academy, which he got kicked out of.
If somebody said they went to West Point, then I checked with West Point and found out whether they did or they didn't. I just kept re-looking at everything. I started off with 22 women. Then I kept reducing it. If I couldn't keep the amount of information fairly even between husband and wife, then it had to go.
So the four women, was it kind of a natural evolution to whittle it down to the four women, or did you, at some point, have to pick between people you really wanted to write about, but maybe didn't have the time to, and these four women?
There are eight completed biographies. But the publisher wanted the book cut in half. Then I had to pick four. I looked for four that would give very different stories, very different looks at what was going on in the area, and what kind of lives they lived.
Can you talk a little bit about what marriages were like at that time in general? I think we carry a lot of 21st century assumptions about marriage backwards when we look at them. Or we have the historical assumptions that you talk about questioning. What was a day-to-day life like for a married couple in Whatcom County at that time?
That's the hardest thing to research, because men wrote about men's activities, and they didn't really write about what the women were doing. So it's very hard to pick and choose, and you have to look at what things were, in general. But what I found was that people keep saying that these cross-cultural marriages ... I actually had someone say to me, "But you don't think he really loved her, do you?" And they had been married for 30 years and had six children. There's an assumption that these men just sort of bought a girl to keep house, and be a sex partner, and have kids, and mend clothes. And that's not true. Because the families have their own agendas. You end up with two groups of women who are both in economic partnerships. The white women that came were not girls out of parlors in the middle of Boston. They were women who came west who could hold their own and be an economic partner.
On all the homesteads, whether the wife was a Native American, or whether she was white, they were all in charge of the gardens. They were in charge of the chickens. They made butter. They sold feathers. They sold butter. They worked just as hard as the mend did as an economic contributor; just at different tasks most of the time.
From 1854 to 1859, all the women who intermarried lived in one of three places: the mill, or mine settlements, or at Fort Bellingham. They had the company of many other women of both cultures. It appears that nearly all wives took boarders into their homes, which provided extra cash in a cash-poor economy. They housed, fed, nursed, and did laundry for working men.
You say "economic contributor," but also, in a sense, there was no other resource if you fell flat on something. You couldn't go to the store. There was no childcare. It wasn't —
Well, that's not completely true. Because the women took care of each other's kids. Even if they lived a mile apart, they were close friends. We didn't have doctors in this area until almost 1870, except for the military physician; the Army doctor at Fort Bellingham. Then, later on, he was clear over on San Juan Island. But he would come and help. Army doctors would run a private practice as well as their official practice, so they would help. But you had the Native women acting as midwives most of the time, and using Native medicines to help. You could also send for medicine to Victoria or down to Olympia. Seattle, in the early days, really wasn't anything. Everything was Olympia. It was, very much, the women had to help each other out here.
When you say early days, what's the —
The 1850s, 1860s, yeah. That's the period. But there might be one store, and that was it here. We went through a period where there were no stores here after the gold rush ended. Then the mine flooded and the mill burned down. Then there was nothing. So everything had to come from Victoria, or some other place. La Conner ended up with a little store.
Everybody was sort of living on the same level, for the most part. Struggling in little cabins, and then trying to build a house, and getting orchards in, and gardens in, and trying to find the crops that would go well here. Then you had the people that worked at the mine, had a little settlement, which could be dangerous with miners who were drinking on Friday night.
From what you know, then, what's the difference of life of being raised in a Native culture and living in — you talked about long houses, and some of the size of the long houses, then going to living in small cabins on pieces of land. Was there anything about that that you uncovered?
Well, the women talked about it being hard. It was really hard. However, one positive one was that when the families allied with these white county officials and military officers, the young women stayed pretty close to their families here. Because the custom, the Coast Salish custom, is to marry outside your village. So some young women would have been married clear up around Nanaimo and Duncan, BC, or much further south, and wouldn't have hardly seen their families, except perhaps yearly at a potlatch.
These girls were very close to home, so they saw their families all the time. That helped mentally. But they talked about loneliness; that it was lonely, when they were used to doing tasks together in the long house. The women would weave together and talk while they're taking care of the kids and stuff. All of the sudden, these young women are in charge of a cabin and children all by themselves.
And miles away sometimes. But closer, you say, than they may have been if they had married.
Closer than they might have been otherwise. That was a positive for the families; that they did get to see their mother on a regular basis, and their sisters and other relatives.
I think it's really interesting, you know, you talk again about assumptions that historians, or people reading about history, bring with them as they're reading about history. This book — it seems to me like it exists at an intersection of some really fascinating topics. I mean, first and foremost, the erasure of indigenous stories, but also diminishing of women's stories historically because they're told from a patriarchal point-of-view, or men are writing the histories. Also, the romanticizing of the American west, and the colonization of the west. Then, of course, the domination and kind of the decimation of existing cultures.
It's interesting because your book takes a more nuanced view on some of that. Which is not to say it ignores any of the truths that happened, but that kind of interweaving of cultures has been ... You know, I'd never heard of it before, obviously, and I think most people hadn't. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Yeah, well, this area up here in Bellingham was heavily dominated, about 90% of the marriages from the first 20 years from 1853 up until the early 1870s, about 90% of the marriages were cross-cultural. Then, when the history gets written, the women are gone for the most part. Other places were started by cross-cultural couples. I find a number of them in Washington. I know there's more that I don't have time to research. I believe they're all over the west; certainly Chicago, Detroit, Saint Louis, other towns like that, were started by cross-cultural communities.
Here it was so dominant because of the groups of men that came here; all these bachelors that came here and settled here. In other places, it might be just one or two couples. But the tip-off is always a community history that says, "The first white woman in town." Or, "The first white baby born here." That's the tip-off that there were cross-cultural couples there before. But people want the history to start with the all-American couples that have moved into the area. So they just ignored the others, wrote them out, failed to recognize contributions. I didn't expect to find this, but the longer I got into the research, the more I could see that this was going on everywhere. Just trying to find books to compare to my own for the book proposal, there wasn't anything out there, except over the border. Because there, they've written about the Hudson Bay company wives; fairly extensively. Although very few biographies that are wholly about the women. It's usually in conjunction to the male.
I think this went on everywhere, and it's just been pushed down in the name of the manifest destiny of America to conquer and own. I mentioned, like, in the Willamette Valley we talk about the Oregon Trail pioneers coming into this empty place waiting for them to settle. But when you go down to the Willamette Valley, you can go to Saint Paul, Oregon, and you find that they were fully engaged in building their brand-new, big, brick, Catholic church there in the middle of a farming community when those pioneers arrived with their wagons. It wasn't empty at all. There were communities; there were a number of communities. And big enough ones to have a brick church, not just a little shanty.
And some of the early communities here were Catholic, you mentioned. Is that correct?
And some of the indigenous cultures took on Catholicism?
Yes. They were the only missionaries that were out here to the Coast Salish. Most of the Coast Salish, at least in the upper Sound, or lower Sound around here, were converted in the 1840s. The Swinomish Reservation church is the oldest parish in the state of Washington, I believe. The one at Lummi Reservation may be the second oldest parish. It wasn't until the 1870s that you really saw an influx of the Protestant missionaries deciding to come in, and a population that came in that were all-white couples moving in as the homestead laws took effect, and there was ground that they could settle on, and making some inroads on Catholicism. But you find most of the tribes around are still heavily Catholic, and have taken back their own religion, their own spirituality too, sometimes combining the two together.
You've mentioned that you had to thread a needle a little bit, just because there's some, potentially, really explosive issues here as a white woman writing about Native women, especially. I would imagine there's some sensitivities that you go into the writing with. Can you talk to that a little bit?
Well, there's a lot of distrust, because of disrespect that has been shown to the grandmothers when they were written about, and distrust because of people coming in, perhaps to do a dissertation at a reservation and promising a book when they finished, and then nothing every materialized. This amounts to theft of intellectual property, and that's the way they feel about it.
I tried to go at it as if somebody came to my door and said, "I'm writing a book about your great grandmother. Please tell me everything you know." I would be going, "Whoa! Who are you? What are your intentions? What kind of a book are you writing?" So it takes a long period of developing personal ties. My mentors at Lummi Reservation, I met at the first public program I ever gave. They mentored me through this whole thing. Chief Tsi'li'xw has never had any problem telling me when I'm going down the wrong road, or I should never say something again, or, "That's not the way to say it." Or I'm being disrespectful, and teaching me all along, all these years.
Other people, I have one Nooksack woman friend who I met early on, and she told me, "Listen to your heart and their spirits will guide you." So I always go back to that sometimes when I get confused or don't know what I want to do. Then I sit and think, "What would those grandmothers think of what I'm writing, or how I'm phrasing things? What would they want me to say?"
Many times it seems like you are exposing stories that have been left out, or sometimes in family histories, but sometimes completely left out of the historical record. That is almost the premise of your book.
Right. And there's resentment because of that too; that they knew how fully partnered people were here. In the early days, the Lummis and the Nooksacks controlled the entire transportation system on the Sound; unless you caught an Army or a Navy steamer, or something else that was here very, very rarely. Like, once every two months, if you were lucky to catch it, you could go up the Sound on it.
So, if you wanted to move your household goods, if you wanted to take a little trip to Victoria, if you needed to go to Olympia for the legislature, you were going to hire a Native canoe of the proper size to take you where you needed to go. This has been completely left out of the history in favor of Captain Roeder building the first boat here, but it was not the first vessel here at all.
You talked about Roeder as well, and a hidden history there that ... Can you talk about that a little bit?
Well, the founder of Bellingham is considered to be Captain Henry Roeder, and his partner Russell Peabody, who had a number of businesses fail in California in the Gold Rush, and they came up here looking to start a mill. They received permission from the Lummi to start a mill at the little waterfall hill. The Lummis thought that this would be similar to the Hudson Bay Company arrangements where people weren't really permanent, they weren't building towns, they were cooperative businesses. That's not what Roeder and Peabody had in mind at all. The next thing the Lummis knew, there was a little town growing around the falls, and they were being told to stay out.
Roeder himself married a Native American woman from Lummi. But when his fiancée from Ohio was due to arrive, he sent this woman and their two children back to Lummi, where they died. For that, his reputation among the Lummi is very bad. I think people in town that know our history don't know why his reputation is so bad out there. But that's because they don't know about this marriage; this first marriage, because it was kept secret for 150 years.
You were a bookseller?
A little. Does being a bookseller teach you anything about, or did you learn anything about getting a book out there, or how to present it, or any marketing?
What did you learn?
That the spine of the book is extremely important, that you want a cover that catches people's eye immediately, that where they put the book in the store can make a great deal of difference. And booksellers like to talk to authors if you're not too pushy; if you don't bug them all the time. And if you can get booksellers to help sell your book, if you can get them interested in your book, they are your best advertisement.
My story is, when I was working at a bookstore here, was when Diana Gabaldon first wrote Outlander. Have you ever heard of that?
Oh, it's a TV series now.
Okay. So the booksellers didn't really know what to do with it. It's a little fantasy, it's a little time-travel, it is romance, it is historical fiction. She was a professor of biology when she started this, and it was big, and nobody had ever heard of her. But booksellers, like me, across the country, started pushing this book. For instance, a commercial fisherman came in one day and he said, "I'm going out on the water for four and a half months. I need a little library to read while I'm gone."
So I helped him assemble a library of things that men like. I talked to him about his interests. We put together some military stuff, fiction, and all kinds of stuff, some spy thrillers and stuff. Then, at the end, after we had about 10, 12 books, he said, "Now, what is the one book you want me to read that you know I won't?" And I said, Outlander, and he took it. And he came back in four and a half months later and said, "That was the best book I ever read." But that's how she became ... Then her second book went right to the top of the bestseller list, and all eight have been. But that's the effect a bookseller who likes your book can have on sales.
Oh, that's great.
Is there anything else that you wanted to say or mention that I didn't ask about?
Oh, yes. "Were they really married?" I always am confronted with this question, every single time I talk.
And there was some legal ... You wrote about this a little bit. One of the fascinating things is, I had this thought reading about some of the court cases that you had talked about in the early days, and realizing how we're not so far from that with gay marriage today, or same-sex marriage. That some of the conversations sounded very similar. But yes, please.
The marriage laws in the beginning had started in the 1850s. The first ones were boilerplate, based on other territories. Then they started fiddling with it, because most of the members of the legislature had Native wives, and those laws would have disinherited their children. They wanted their children to inherit whatever land or property they had. Then they started fiddling with this and putting amendments in to the point where at one ... But then they didn't want to legalize Native marriage either.
It just became this tangled mess so that at one point, it was illegal to marry a Native woman, and it was illegal not to marry your Native wife. They put up a $500 fine on any clergy or public official who would perform such a marriage. $500 then is about $5,000 today, and none of these people had that kind of money. The Catholic missionaries did not. Nobody had it. The Catholic's attitude was the same as it had been with the Hudson Bay Company; that you would marry because you presented yourself to the world as a married couple, and you considered yourself married, and that, whenever a priest would come by and you were ready to formalize it, that's when you did it. They were very understanding about the conditions that were going on.
But then, in the 1870s, when the Protestant ministers and all those white women moved in, they had standards; social standards. They did not consider Native women ladies. They had these ideas between ladies and women, and if you were common. They saw these old settlers, as they were always called, the old settlers, as fornicators, because they didn't have paper. But in this area in the early days, this was just how everybody got married. It was tribal custom marriage: an exchange of obligations and gifts between the husband and the woman's family, and you were married.
Then start the legal cases. They were politically connected. They charged a bunch of these men with fornication, and these men had been married for 20, 30 years, had a whole bunch of children, and it would have ruined them. I mean, they could have sent them to jail for this. Some of the people went and got married. Some of them got married with paper, church, or whatever. Some of them just went down to the courthouse and got a license so they had a piece of paper of some kind and said, "I'm not doing this." But when it got stopped, the prosecution stopped when Henry Barkhausen, who was a former county auditor and had been an election judge, and a highly respected man, he said, "I'm not doing it. I am not remarrying Julia. She has been my wife for all these years. We've got six kids, and I will not shame her by calling myself a fornicator."
Then it went to the chief justice of the territorial supreme court who came out with this beautiful treatise on the nature of marriage, that it has nothing to do with government or religion; that it is a contract between two people, and being a religious man, he went back to Adam and Eve. He said, "If you negate that marriage, then you must negate all contracts that have happened in the world since then." And, "There's all these other societies that don't use paper. Are you going to say that none of those people are married?" So this put it to rest. The prosecution stopped, and all of the tribal custom marriages were declared legal.
What year was that then?
1879, I think the decision came down. They started indicting them in '78. And '79, I believe is the date that —
Do you know, did they actually enforce the fines? Were there fines levied against?
Don't know. Because it was such a mess with this you-have-to-and-you-can't thing that nobody knew what was going on. I don't really know. I just know that it was a terrible legal mess, and people just quit paying attention to any of it for a long period, and continued to marry by tribal custom, and some people married with the county, or a priest, or a minister. But others just went ahead with the tribal custom marriages, because nobody could tell what they were supposed to do.
Charles Johnson has been one of the most influential members of Seattle’s writing community. He’s contributed to the community in a number of ways — as a professor at the University of Washington, as a writer, as a friend to writers. Johnson recently joined the writing and literacy nonprofit Seattle 7 Writers, which donates to literacy organizations and donates books to readers around the region in shelters, detention centers, food banks, and other locations where people have need of good literature.
On Saturday, June 24th, Johnson will be headlining a fundraising brunch for Seattle 7 Writers at the Mount Baker Community Center. Every table at the brunch will feature one local writer, so attendees will get close personal contact with writers including David Schmader, Donna Miscolta, Claire Dederer, Claudia Rowe, and more. I talked with Johnson about the brunch and what he’s been working on lately. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Your Wikipedia page says you're retired, and I think you're maybe one of the hardest-working retired men I've seen.
Oh, that's why you retire from teaching, so you can get your art on your schedule 24-7. Artists never retire, but college professors do. That's true.
And how has your retirement been?
Well, it's been very good. I retired [from the University of Washington] in 2009, and I have been working steadily on all kinds of projects. I've published five books in the last two years, and I'm just putting together now the manuscript for next year, which is a collection of stories. It'll be my third short story collection.
My editor at Scribner just went over it. She didn't really have anything she had to do in the way of editorial work, but she just went over the stories and sent them to me. And so I'm going over her comments and putting together a proper manuscript to get to her next week. It'll be published next May. The title is Night Hawks.
All one word?
I'm breaking it up into two words, "Night Hawks." That's the title story, which is a story I wrote about my 15-year friendship here in Seattle with August Wilson. We had really great eight-to-ten-hour dinner conversations at the old Broadway Bar and Grill, which is gone now, on Capitol Hill.
In December you published a book about creativity and writing. And I wanted to ask if, at this point in your career, if you're sort of taking your teaching wisdom out into the world and teaching sort of in a more informal space?
Well, that's an interesting way to put it. The Way of the Writer evolved out of a longer book called The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson, which was a year-long interview that poet Ethelbert Miller did with me on every subject under the sun. He asked me 400 questions about everything, and I answered 218, and a lot of them were about the craft of writing, because he's a poet and also a teacher of creative writing.
And then we looked at that, and a couple of people commented, who had seen Words and Wisdom, that there was a book here that could be developed on the craft of writing. And I agreed. It was all there. I simply had to maybe revisit and update the essays that I did in response to those questions. And then I added a couple of essays that I had written on the craft of writing over the years.
So this book is essentially a record of my experience for 33 years as a teacher of literary fiction. That's about half my life, actually, 33 years.
But I still do teach. I'm going to work with people at the Spirit Rock People of Color Buddhist Conference in September. And I'm going to do two sessions with their teachers talking about the Buddha, Dharma, and how you can serve your communities with Buddhist philosophy and practice.
Buddhism has been an ongoing theme in your work. Has your teaching shifted over into a more spiritual place since you formally retired?
I've always been a very spiritual person. I've always been a Buddhist practitioner — my entire, really, adult life. I didn't bring that into the classroom with me; I would leave it outside the door. But I think it's pretty well known that I'm a Buddhist practitioner.
And so, people ask me questions about that and I'm happy to respond. It's all total, together, you know. Art is mind, body and spirit, and they all reinforce each other and serve the creative process, I think.
You recently joined the Seattle 7 Writers. Can you talk about what you like about them?
I joined on the invitation of Garth Stein. And I met Garth because every year we do the Bedtime Stories fundraiser for Humanities Washington, and he is the MC. I've written a story for them for every year for 18 years; it'll be 19 years this fall.
I've seen some of them and they’re wonderful. And you always seem so eager to be there.
Oh yeah. I think it’s a great experience. You create something new and it serves a good cause — the programs at Humanities Washington. And the new story collection coming out, Night Hawks, all of those stories except one were written for Bedtime Stories. Ten of the 11 were written for that.
And in my previous book, Dr. King's Refrigerator, five of those stories were written for Bedtime Stories. After I do them for the event and read it, my agent places it somewhere, and then very often it gets an award or it's reprinted or anthologized. So for me, the Bedtime Stories event is a perfect stimulus.
And with regard to the very, very good MC [Stein], he invited me to join the group because I think he's doing good things. The group is doing good things with writers and readers in Seattle.
And can you give us a little preview of what you're going to talk about at the brunch?
I want to talk to Garth a little bit before I actually do it, but my hunch is that what I'll do is I may read bit of something from the last book, The Way of the Writer, and then engage whoever is present in a kind of spirited Q and A about the creative writing process.
And there will be writers at every table of the brunch spread throughout the room, so that'll make an interesting forum to talk about writing.
Last March, I went to the Tucson Festival of Books. I was on a panel with Colson Whitehead, and then I was on a panel with my UW colleague David Shields, and another guy who wrote a book called Thrill Me.
But the morning before that afternoon panel, I spoke to writers about writing using The Way of the Writer as my springboard. It was just real. It's a roomful of writers because it's a literary festival, so I'm pretty familiar with that group — what kind of questions writers can ask. They ask the best kind of questions because they are immersed in the creative process themselves.
Lately I've been asking writers about community. Throughout your career, you've had a terrific commitment to community. You work with Humanities Washington, and you just joined Seattle 7 Writers, and you're very generous with your time. I was wondering if you think that a writer does have an obligation to a community — or does it depend on the writer?
I think you hit it when you said it depends on the writer. Some people are very eager to interact with other writers — to understand what they do, to do things with other writers that are for good causes. Like Humanities Washington, for example. I mean, I enjoy helping other writers, particularly younger ones, get published and get awards and colleagues.
I'm working right now with philosopher George Yancy on a book that he's going to do on Buddhism and whiteness, a critical race theory. I just alerted a lot of friends that I have in the Buddhist community, or the Sangha, to what George was doing. And maybe they'll make a contribution to it and make the book even richer.
I talk about that in The Way of the Writer, probably in the introduction. We don't live in isolation. I think we live in a world of interconnectedness with others. We might feel isolated sometimes; writing's a very lonely activity. You're doing this by yourself, usually, right? In a little room somewhere or, I don't know, wherever people write.
And you kind of forget that it takes a lot of people to get a book out there. The writer writes it, but then there's the editor who gives a good critical eye to something the writer might have missed. And there's the publisher, right? And then there's the bookstores. It really is a network, as Martin Luther King would say, a network of mutuality, that brings a book into being.
I've always been conscious of that, and grateful, too, and thankful for the people who enable a book to become a public object after it leaves the hands of the author. And maybe other writers don't feel that way, but I do think we're all conscious of the fact that we were given something by others, and it's very good, if we can, to give back.
This weekend, the eighth annual Comics & Medicine Conference will take place in Seattle. Registration is full, but the conference also hosts a number of programs at the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library that are free and open to the public. The conference is bringing local and international cartoonists together to discuss the many ways that narrative comics about medicine can inform, entertain, and inspire the general public. Last week, I talked on the phone with MK Czerwiec, a co-founder of the conference, about how she came to comics as a medical professional, and why she believes that health care is everyone's business. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Why comics and medicine? What makes those two things a good fit?
There are a lot of wonderful answers to that question, which is why we love having annual conferences — because people come from all over the world to tell us their answer. In general, it seems that comics have the power to convey important information in ways that people who are dealing with issues in health care and caregiving find appealing to absorb.
One example of how comics are used in medicine and why comics and health care go together is that there's a long history of public health messaging through comics because they're accessible. They can potentially transcend language barriers — the visual appeal. They can take a lot of information and make it kind of quick and well-organized.
It’s also a great patient education tool, but what we found too is that it's an incredibly powerful tool for patients to use as a form of reflection and for storytelling about their experiences of illness. And then it's an incredibly powerful experience to bear witness to those experiences and kind of have that empathy connection.
And comics are being used to teach in medical schools and nursing schools and across many different areas of education — in and outside of health care.
And how did you come to health care storytelling through comics?
I came to it really out of necessity. I was working as a nurse at the height of the AIDS crisis in Chicago, and I would come home and I just felt this huge chasm between my everyday life and my work life. I was having a lot of trouble making a bridge between those two things. And I also was really having a hard time processing all of these intense sufferings, experiences, and these lives that were kind of coming to an end before me.
I had tried [writing those experiences through] text alone and that worked a little bit — like keeping a journal. I sometimes had occasionally tried images alone — making memorial paintings and painting screens in memory of people who I cared about, just sort of the symbolic language to remind me of things that were important to me about them. And then, it got to a point where, after doing this for five or six years, each of those individual methods were failing.
It came down to one day when I had to figure out how to get all of that out of my head. When I showed up at work, my patients deserved for me to be present to them, not my own suffering. I sat down with a blank piece of paper and I drew just this picture of myself and wrote above it, "I feel miserable." And then I put a box around it, and then I put another box, and then I just found myself combining image and text in this sequential fashion.
And I didn't set out to do it, but what I had done was I made a comic. And the thing that was really surprising to me was that I found myself in a completely different place than when I started. Something about the process of making that comic was transformative for me. And I just kept using that as a tool, as a nurse, to cope with what I was bearing witness to, and I found that it was really helpful.
And when did your experiments become more formal?
I ended up going into the field of Medical Humanities and Bioethics, in part because I really wanted to study why it is that certain ways of telling stories can be so helpful to us when it comes to illness. And I wanted to inform my comics, because I continued to make comics, and I knew I wanted to continue to do that.
But I wanted them to be better, and I wanted to inform them with a lot of theory and thinking about story and illness and health care. When I was working as a nurse, I was doing comics as a way of being present to the now and being able to be there for my patients. When I went into the academic side and started looking at this with a critical eye, that was when I started thinking about all the possible applications.
And then, I came across a book while I was doing my Master's studies called Mom's Cancer, by Brian Fies. And it changed my way of thinking. I just thought, "Wow.”
I got in touch through the internet with a few people who were starting to think along the same lines. And that's where we are today.
That was around a time when comics were coming to be more accepted in academia generally. Did you get a lot of pushback when you were trying to put comics and medicine together?
No. Quite the opposite. I could tell that I was in a really supportive environment at Northwestern, where some of the people around me saw the potential even more than I do. They were very encouraging to pursue it and pursue it thoughtfully. I've actually been surprised how embraced we've been. The Journal of Internal Medicine now has a graphic medicine page, and that really blows my mind because that's such a traditional medical journal.
Seattle has a huge global health and public health community here — we have PATH and the Gates Foundation and all that. And we also have a strong comics community as well. Is that why you chose Seattle for this conference? Or was it just our time? Or did you throw a dart at a map?
No, all that was absolutely a part of it. We had been hearing from some great Seattle creators, Mita Mahato being one of them. She’s our on-the-ground organizer [for the Seattle conference] who's, of course, a PhD literature scholar who has used comics in her teaching and really got invested in graphic medicine. But then at the same time, she is just an astonishingly talented papercut artist and comics creator in working on her own narratives, and she's been really active in the community.
And of course Meredith Li-Vollmer at the Seattle King County Public Health Department has come to our conferences in the past and presented projects that she's done with David Lasky in the public health arena. And Ellen Forney has been a keynote for us. We had so many people we knew in Seattle. When a couple of them said, "we think that we could get the support here to do this," we were really excited.
The registration is sold out, but you have a lot of free and open components to the conference. Do you have any advice for somebody who is thinking about attending some of the free programming? Do you need to be a medical professional to get a lot out of this?
I think anyone who has an interest in stories and health care and the ways in which we could approach how we think about health care differently would get a lot out of this. I think they will be really excited about what's happening in the graphic medicine community.
The title of my graphic memoir that just came out recently is Taking Turns, and what that title refers to is this idea that we really all are people taking turns being sick, and the divide between provider and patient is an artificial one — a necessary one, but an artificial one — and I think that it's important to remember that we all have a stake in this. Not just providers, not just caregivers, but all of us. And so I absolutely think that the public is welcome, and I don't think there's any kind of information anyone would need to know about graphic medicine before they come.
All of our keynote addresses are open to the public, and a number of the sessions. I think people will be really excited about this just right off the street.
Do you find yourself focusing any more on the political side of health care because of the AHCA and Obamacare?
We absolutely focus on it. We chose the theme of “Access Points” [for this year's conference] partly to think about some of those things. Who gets care? Who gets what kind of care? And how is that changing in this current climate? The threat to that access is more acute than ever.
I like to think that graphic medicine draws on the deep traditions of comics as both coming from the underground and bearing witness to stigmatized truth, but also the political tradition. The long tradition of political comics is alive and well. And access to health care, and comics about access to health care, are a big part of that.
Ivan Schneider (far left) joined bestselling author and UW writing prof David Shields on his evening pedestrian commute two weeks ago. Judging by the evidence, their interview took a turn for the personal — but not the person you'd expect. Below is Schneider's follow-up email, thanking Shields for his time and recounting some of the ground they covered.
To: David Shields
From: Ivan Schneider
Date: June 1, 2017
Subj: Other People
Thank you for participating in our May 16 walk-and-talk interview for the Seattle Review of Books.
We covered a lot of ground — the University District, Wallingford, the aisles of Safeway — and many intriguing conversation topics as well. Yet on reflection, our talk was more about you interviewing me than me interviewing you.
To recap, you asked about my current project, an academic paper on my working hypothesis that Cervantes had initially intended to include a dog narrator in Don Quijote, and you found this to be a “preposterous” interpretative misprision akin to Charles Kinbote’s commentary on John Shade’s poem in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I’m not offended in the least, mind you, as I am acutely aware of the apparent absurdity of my claim. It would be ridiculous enough for someone with my academic non-stature to offer a novel reinterpretation of a foundational 400-year-old text, let alone through some wild theory about a talking-dog narrator.
I recognize the potential humor in the situation. Imagine: Here’s an unaffiliated scholar-turned-autodidact, a close reader of Cervantes’ Spanish who can barely scrape together a single spoken Spanish sentence, who, despite being under no financial or professional compulsion to do so, takes up the challenge of conveying in academic prose a theory of such apparent incredibility as to defy belief. And then, to pursue publication in an academic journal, to seek recognition from the sober and serious-minded, to desire to become a published expert on talking dogs in literature — were that a disingenuous stance or an invented pose rather than a genuine scholarly interest, it would be a stunt of Andy Kaufman-esque proportions.
Sometimes I even question my own perception, that despite my extensive readings of literary theory, narratology, animal studies, and the literature of Golden Age Spain, I’m playing at wish fulfillment, delusions of grandeur, or just plain old delusions. Yet despite my inability to articulate myself convincingly during our meeting, I believe that when I put the arguments together in my upcoming paper, it will crystallize into a coherent and convincing brief worthy of scholarly attention. We also talked about my CV and my family, but enough about me.
Ours was the first interview I’ve done for the Seattle Review of Books, and I’m still trying to get the hang of the form. I would imagine that it’s easier to interview authors of fictional novels, as I would be able to ask basic questions about the nonfictional basis for the author’s fictional creations: “What inspired you to write this and that?” and “Tell me about your childhood.” But I can hardly ask you those questions, can I? It’s all there, already in print, anything I’d care to know, wrapped up in artfully arranged, bite-sized chunks.
Perhaps I should have asked you, the nonfiction writer, to spin me a fiction. You’d have to invent a character on the spot and conduct the interview entirely in that character’s voice. “You are in an imaginary world populated by fantastic creatures, where everything is not quite what it seems. Now, tell me what you see!” Ah yes, away from the comfort zone of self-guided self-revelation and into the zone of unbridled artistic creation, what mysteries might your subconscious reveal?
Or if that’s too loosey-goosey, perhaps a game of Dungeons & Dragons would have done the trick, using a subtle mix of choice (“What’s your race? What’s your alignment?”) and randomness (“Rolling 3d6 for charisma!”) to convey a sense of identification and attachment with a made-up character. Say it, David, say it aloud: “I am the Dwarven Warrior they call Cloudshallot, wielder of a +3 waraxe and possessor of the finest senses of stonecunning and darkvision this side of the Greypeak Mountains!”
Not your thing, I’m guessing.
In Other People: Takes and Mistakes, you open with a Philip Roth quote from the first chapter of American Pastoral (it’s a great epigraph), but then you tell me that you’re not at all interested in reading Roth’s work. Well, I just re-read that first chapter of American Pastoral, and I have to say that I think you’re missing the point — and missing the fun.
The narrator Nathan Zuckerman pauses in his account of his dinner with the Swede to ruminate on the difficulty of understanding other people without superficiality or shallowness or unreal expectations or overloads of bias, hope, or arrogance. To overcome this difficulty, Zuckerman suggests three possible alternatives:
Let’s consider this passage in context. By virtue of the fact that you hold a fictional novel in your hand, Roth has taken door number one. We can imagine Philip Roth writing American Pastoral having gone off and locked the door and sat secluded like the lonely writers do, etc. He is a summoner who believes in summoners. Meanwhile, Roth’s fictional alter-ego Zuckerman, also a writer, takes door number two, as do you. You’re always going to open door number two, correct? No soundproof cells, no word people for you. Nor would you just go along for the ride.
Yet there’s an unmistakable irony in your underscoring the limitations of “word people” based on the soliloquy of an actual word person. It’s like when people quote Hamlet in graduation speeches: “To thine own self be true.” Uh, yeah, that’s in Hamlet, but it’s spoken by Polonius, who’s a real gasbag and a phony, and so what’s his advice worth? Same thing here — if a word person downplays the value of word people as a means of understanding other people, you should question the source.
I also think you’re missing the fun that can be had from word people. An example, from Roth:
… the humiliation Jerry had brought upon himself in our junior year of high school when he attempted to win the heart of a strikingly unexceptional girl in our class who you wouldn’t have thought required a production to get her to kiss you.
As a Valentine present, Jerry made a coat for her out of hamster skins, a hundred and seventy-five hamster skins that he cured in the sun and then sewed together with a curved sewing needle pilfered from his father’s factory, where the idea dawned upon him.
Is this not a beautifully evocative picture of misguided desperation? Here we have a son unsuccessfully trying to employ his father’s tools and methods in a flamboyant attempt to achieve a prize that, in Zuckerman’s callous estimation, hardly merited the effort. With all the killing and hiding and wooing, it’s the stuff of epic poetry.
Anyway, I neither expect nor want you to give Roth your undivided attention. There are more than enough authors competing to become the next generation’s Philip Roth, to inherit his Zuckermanhood, which will happen when a conclave of Roth specialists gathers in an ornately appointed drawing room somewhere in Connecticut, the faithful waiting outside for the wafting scent of smoked whitefish to signal the election of a new Philip.
David, you’re a pillar of creative nonfiction in our community, and I greatly admire what you’ve done in expanding your range as a writer within the nonfiction genre as you continue to redefine it. And if anyone asks me, “Where should I start with this David Shields?” I would enthusiastically recommend Other People: Takes & Mistakes. Through reading it, and on the basis of our conversations, I feel that I’ve gotten to know you at a fairly profound level in a relatively short time. But then again, I’m sure I have it all wrong.
P.S. Here's a link to the video of my talk "The Search for Dog in Cervantes" — given to the Harvard Extension Alumni Association (starts at 31:50).
Last Tuesday, the Seattle area’s newest bookstore opened its doors. Located in Redmond Town Center, Brick & Mortar Books is a general-interest new bookstore that will carry up to 30,000 titles when its shelves are full. For the next month, Brick & Mortar will be in soft-opening mode as its team of booksellers learn the ins and outs of bookselling and meet their community. On the weekend of June 23rd and 24th, the store will host its official grand opening weekend.
Brick & Mortar co-owner Dan Ullom was kind enough to chat on the phone with us late on the evening of his store’s second full day of business. He sounded tired but happy, and eager to learn more about his newly chosen career. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. To watch Brick & Mortar evolve and grow into its new space, you can follow the store on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Thank you so much for agreeing to talk. I'll try not to keep you on too long. I know you've had a bunch of long days. Can I ask, first of all, your title?
I'm one of three owners at Brick & Mortar Books. Actually, I should probably say four owners. We have three active owners — my mom, my dad, and I are all in the store every day. My wife, Heidi, is also an owner but she works at Seattle Children's Hospital. So far, every day she's also worked at the store, but she hasn't quit her day job.
Wow. So, it's a family affair.
It is. I have two kids and both of them worked in the store today. My son is an expert in breaking down boxes and my daughter is learning to shelve books.
May I ask how old they are?
My son is nine years old and my daughter is eleven.
I like that in your media appearances you talk fondly about the Borders Books and Music that used to be in Redmond. I think that would have been impossible fifteen years ago, for an independent book store owner to praise a chain bookseller like that.
Honestly, it's kind of funny. I taught for fifteen years and I suspect I would not have left teaching [for bookselling] had that Borders not gone out of business. It was just a community place — well-curated and fun. I know it was a loss for Redmond Town Center when that Borders went out.
That particular Borders did really well. The chain went out of business and, from my understanding, they were trying to keep a couple of successful stores alive and that was one of them. But I think in bankruptcy court, it's kind of an all or nothing thing, so they had to lose those stores, too.
We looked at a couple different sites, but here in Redmond Town Center, there was that community that's still missing Borders. It's funny — in the first two days, we had a ton of people come in and either clap or give us two thumbs up and tell us their story about missing Borders.
And right now, about a third of the shelves in our store are from that Borders.
Yeah. It took a lot of dusting and a lot of cleaning up, but they're holding books once again.
Where did you find those?
Redmond Town Center hadn't filled the void yet. They still had that spot that was open. The shelves were there and Steve Hansen, the guy that manages Redmond Town Center, said "if you open a bookstore, they're yours. You can have them."
That kind of leads into my next question, which was how Redmond Town Center has treated the store. I know an independently owned comic shop — the Comic Stop — rents there, so you're not the only independent business, but I don't think that people think of independent business when they think of that place.
I would say they should probably start thinking a little bit more of Redmond Town Center's independence. In the short time we've been there, they opened up The French Bakery. They have Sammamish owners, and I’ve hung out with them every day. I grab a coffee and hang out with Melanie and Kim.
The Comic Stop is great, too. My daughter learned to read at that comic shop. They're a big asset.
We also have Market Street Shoes that just went in. They're from Ballard, and you can go in there and you can talk to the owners, as well. They're an incredible store and they have really knowledgeable staff. Paint Away is a pottery studio and Hazel, the owner, you can see her there. There are a couple scattered throughout and just in the last couple of months that I've been there, they've added a few.
Do you have any bookselling experience?
In a sense, I do. I used to be a teacher. I taught fourth and fifth grade, and part of that job is convincing kids to read books that they should read and you'll know they love.
My mom was a librarian for Rachel Carson Elementary school in Sammamish, so she has that experience, as well. Weirdly enough, my dad has experience selling books but that was forty years ago. It may have been even longer than that — when he was maybe seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, he worked at a bookstore.
We know books. We didn't really know selling books and there's a lot for us to learn, still. But in the last two days, we've successfully sold books, so we're feeling good about ourselves. And we're definitely feeling good about Redmond Town Center and the community.
How do you go about opening up a bookstore with no experience? It's been done, obviously: The owners of Ada’s Technical Books on Capitol Hill had no experience at all selling books. What did you do? Did you read books on it or did you talk to booksellers?
We started by talking to people. Ada’s Technical Books is an amazing bookshop. One of the first things we did is we went to a bunch of bookshops and we talked to the owners and the people that worked there. [Ada’s co-owner] David [Hulton] was one of them — he told me, "you've got to carry these toys; you've got to carry this title. In your area, we really think these books will sell." I was like, "Wow, you're just giving me the trade secrets here."
I think the thing is, we all want to see each other succeed. I went to Village Books, and the owner of Village Books sat down with me for three or four hours and told me what the business was like and told me how to succeed. I went to Island Books and talked to people there. They're really helpful.
It really is a weird thing: I have a feeling if I was opening up a coffee shop, the other coffee shops wouldn't want to help me out. Maybe that's not true, but opening a bookstore is just such a unique, different thing.
One of the things I love to see is when a bookstore first opens, it gradually changes to fit the community, or the community shapes the bookstore. Can you see anything at this early date that you think your bookstore is going to change as it develops?
That's a really good question and there have been a couple of things already in just the two short days we've been open that we're looking at doing. We had a high interest in science fiction, graphic novels, and manga. [Before opening,] I didn't even know if we were really going to do manga. Not all those books have been ordered yet, we're still in the process, but I think we're going to double the size of those sections pretty quickly.
One of our employees, she's a science fiction expert. I was talking to a gentleman looking in the science fiction section and I said, “this is not my genre. I enjoy science fiction but I am not an expert. Turner is your expert, you'll want to talk to her." He ended up talking to Turner for half an hour. We ordered some books for him and he said, "I'll be back."
When we talk to people, we say, "what are the books that we don't carry that you'd like to see in the store?" We've read a lot of books, but we haven't read as much as the community. We don't want to try and make it like an algorithm.
We're going to have all the Stephen King books — they’re great; he's one of my favorite authors. But, we also have some authors that are a little less known — that our staff knows about and can talk about. Books that are equally as amazing, but maybe you didn't hear about them and maybe they didn't sell quite as well, but they should have.
You’re in your soft opening phase right now, and then you’re having a big weekend-long opening celebration the weekend of June 23rd and 24th. Are you going to have readings and events as the store progresses?
Yeah, that's something that we're working on all the time. We want to have author events and book clubs.
Something that I really want to do is we could get a couple people that are experts on sports books; we can have a panel and we can talk about that.
We are fortunate to live in an area with a high, high density of authors. We're working on a young adult panel right now that we're really excited about. We have a poet with three hundred thousand Instagram followers who's coming in a couple months, if all works out.
Is there anything that you really want the readers of the Seattle Review of Books to know about you?
We want to create a store that is a community store.
My dad reads three hundred books a year, I'm well-read, and my mom is a librarian, but we're learning in every part of this process. We just really want to find a way to keep the interest alive, keep the community alive, keep a group of people that can meet together and talk about books — learn about books that they had no idea even existed — and just have fun with literacy.
Of course, we are running this as a business and we want to make money, but none of us thought we're going to make more money leaving our jobs and opening a bookstore. We just really wanted to do something that we feel is close to our heart and we want to do something that we think our community needs. And it’s been great so far. We’ve had a couple teary-eyed moments in the first two days.
I'm really excited for you. It sounds like you're having a ball.
We are, yeah.
Our May poet-in-residence, Oliver de la Paz, is the first Seattle Review of Books-published poet who does not currently live in the Pacific Northwest. We wanted to spotlight him because for well over a decade, he was one of the best-respected writers in town — one of those rare selfless authors who would show up as a sign of support at book launch parties even when he wasn’t scheduled to read. You always get the sense from his work and his enthusiasm that de la Paz is honored to be a part of a community that is greater than he is.
De la Paz’s work is inquisitive and bold and formally strong, which is likely a reason why he is such a wonderful teacher of poetry: the thoughtfulness and intent he brings to his work is inspirational to young writers who have yet to formulate their own discipline. We talked on the phone last week about his origins, his technique, and what he misses about the Seattle area.
When did you leave Seattle?
I left in July 2016.
And how long were you a writer in Seattle?
Well, I actually lived in Bellingham, Washington, and the surrounding area from 2005 to 2016.
Whoops, yeah, sorry. Sometimes I use “Seattle” as a catch-all for the state and then Bellinghamsters and Spokaniacs get very mad at me ...
Spokaniacs? Is that really what they're called?
I don't believe so, no. I just made it up, but I'm going to stick with it. So for eleven years you were a really devoted member of the writing community. You were one of the most-liked poets in town, based on my conversations with other poets. And you left the area for a teaching job, correct?
Yeah, now I'm teaching at the College of the Holy Cross, which is in central Massachusetts.
I was wondering if you could maybe talk a little bit about what it’s been like moving across country, because you were so well-known in the region and well-loved in the community.
I'm a Northwesterner. I was raised in eastern Oregon, and I have a lot of family members who live in the Portland area. So Seattle was relatively close by, and we would sometimes meet up in Seattle. So I actually had a lot of family members living in or around the greater Northwest metropolitan hub.
And all of my children were born in Bellingham. As far as the poetry community is concerned, there were a number of close friendships that I made and that I still hold that were fostered by being in that I-5 corridor, and driving up and down the I-5 corridor to attend readings, or to be a participant in some of the readings. I miss that greatly. I miss the folks over there a tremendous amount. I had a community that was readily on hand in the Northwest.
And I'm in the process of building a community here. Really, it's just my family and I here, and most of my friends are in New York, so it's still a bit of a trek. I've been trying to reach out to folks and learn about the literary community here.
When I was in the Northwest, each moment, each reading, was a big event, and they were always quite well attended. It may be that I just don't know my way around the community [here] yet, but it feels like, because there's a very large concentration of writers and poets, it's a big pond and I'm a little fish. And in many ways, that's okay. I like that. I kind of like some of the anonymity that's going on here.
But I also miss — you know, it circles back to the community. I have a pretty strong poetry and writing community in the Northwest who I just profoundly miss.
Since we’re on the subject, can you talk about the importance of community, as a poet? Because a lot of people on the outside, I think, view writing as this sort of solitary at best — or misanthropic at worst — sort of lifestyle. And do you teach community to your writing students?
I believe art and the making of art is actually a collaborative exercise. I think that, you know, so much of the belief in writing is that it is indeed a solitary exercise. And part of that is true. Part of the endeavor of writing is being alone and delving deep within one’s own self.
But then there's that other part that, once the writing is done, in order to elevate it to the level of art, you have to celebrate it in the public sphere. And that is something that I'm trying to, you know, build back up for my own self here. But it was definitely something that was fully abundant in the Northwest, with that community of writers.
Communities are really, really essential, because there are ways that art can get lost if it's not performed or it's not shared in that public sphere, in that communal air.
I do want to add, Seattle is really, really fortunate to have a center like the Hugo House and the Jack Straw programs and Artist Trust and, of course, the Seattle Review of Books. There's some really great communities and networks for writers to get a handle on in the Northwest that I'm glad that I was able to take advantage of when I was there.
That first poem [published on the Seattle Review of Books in the first week of May], “Diaspora Sonnet,” that was a part of piece that was written in collaboration with Kundiman Fellows. Kundiman is an Asian-American literary arts organization that I have been a part of for quite some time now. And we were actually writing a number of these postcards and sending them out to each other; “Diaspora Sonnet” was one of the poems originally on a postcard.
The idea of community has been foundational to my pedagogy, my teaching. Part of the writing of art is also the celebration and elevation of art in the communal state, so that you are not just an artist, you are an artist-citizen. I find that family essential to the making of art.
And we're kind of moving backwards here, but I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your journey into poetry. Did you always know you were a poet, or is that something that came to you later in life?
When I started out in writing and letters, it was really by accident. My parents were immigrants — they immigrated from the Philippines in 1972. One of the first things that they did as new immigrants was they subscribed to Reader's Digest. And one of the benefits or perks of being a subscriber to Reader's Digest was you would get access to their book catalog.
And my father, who is pretty literate, and literary, and a reader, selected a whole bunch of books. And one of the books that he selected was The Selected Poems of Robert Penn Warren. Which is really bizarre.
I think that he picked Robert Penn Warren’s selected poems because All the King’s Men was sort of making a splash in the 70s and, you know, my father wanted to buy into that. That was my first poetry book, and it was bizarre. It was a very curious thing.
Flashing forward a little bit, I decided not to be a poet but to be a doctor. I was a pre-med student, and I was taking all these science classes at Loyola Marymount University. And you had to take classes in the humanities.
One of my classes was a poetry class, and I dug back into my memories of going through the Robert Penn Warren book and trying to experiment with poems on a typewriter. I wrote some poems for that class, and the teacher liked them and really encouraged me to keep writing. And eventually I got a minor in English, which ended up becoming a second major. And then I just decided, hey, this is what I wanted to do. This is what I wanted to pursue.
But honestly, I didn't really take it seriously until I was admitted into grad school for it — for the writing, for poetry. I just thought, “this is something to tide me over while I try to get into medical school, or while I pursue my degree in microbiology.”
Quite honestly, I was a scientist. I was deeply entrenched in the scientific field.
There’s obviously precedent with William Carlos Williams, as a doctor who's also a poet. Was that something you considered?
At the time, I had no idea. The weird thing is I was an EMT while I was writing, in Los Angeles County. And while I was an EMT, the LA riots happened. And so storefronts were getting burned out, and I had a horrible time, and it kind of turned me off to the whole endeavor.
I felt that I didn't have the temperament for the medical profession. And I think it was an extreme case, but it was just something that turned me off from it.
I just found I didn't have the temperament. I couldn't stomach it.
Wow. Sorry to do this, but circling back a minute, I don't think I realized that Robert Penn Warren wrote poetry. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like? Did you like it? Do you like it now?
No. No, not at all.
It was really odd and folksy, and he did a lot of experimentation with lineation and line break. There's a lot of white space.
I honestly don't remember much of it. It left that strong of an impression on me. All I remember is the physical space of the poems on the page, and that was what I was trying to duplicate.
I was really interested in the dynamic quality of what a line break looks like, and what a typewriter can do, and what pushing back that carriage return does to my wellbeing. So it was more of a physical response than an actual aesthetic understanding or an intellectual understanding, if that makes sense.
Do you still write on a typewriter?
No, I don't. I’m one of those terrible people. I write everything on a word processor, and I don't even save old drafts. I used to. I used to be pretty compulsive about that, but I just stopped because I was creating so much clutter.
I was the last generation in my high school to learn how to type on a typewriter, and I kept one around for a while. And my writing is very different on a typewriter — more aggressive and clipped, I think in part because of the mechanical nature of the carriage return.
Yeah, it was something that hummed in the body. You type, then you reach that end of the line, and then you would take your right arm and just shove that thing over to the left, pushing it all the way back, and it would make that great sound. That was writing to me when I was growing up: physical, kinesthetic.
I don't have anything to duplicate the physical interaction with the typewriter now, other than I actually listen to a lot of music and I kind of zone out when I'm writing. That's kind of the closest thing that I can think of at this moment.
So do you listen to music with lyrics when you're writing?
No, no I can't. That would drive me crazy. I listen to the band Explosions in the Sky, and some others. I like a lot of lot of fuzzed-out stuff, and even classical jazz that has no lyrics and no speaking.
If there was speaking or the human voice [in the music], I think it would mess with what I was doing on the page — or I should say the screen, since I'm not using a typewriter.
I wanted to thank you for sharing your poems with our readers. I think that it's an interesting mix of poems. You've got the Prince elegy and the story problems — there's a lot of humor in there. Do you think that this sampling, these five weeks, are representative of your work? Or what would you want someone who doesn’t know your work to know about these pieces?
That's an interesting question. I honestly don't ever think of myself as a humorous writer, or that what I'm doing is humorous. Except for the Prince poem. I thought that I was being intentionally cheeky with that poem, even though I wanted to elegize him. That was a poem that I had written immediately after finding out that he had died.
The story problems were never intentionally humorous, although I do think that they can be smartly funny or taken ironically in some regard.
And as far as a representation of my work, I'm constantly shifting what I'm doing. Out of boredom, or out of an understanding that sometimes a project needs a different set of principles or guidelines to push forward.
The story problems are actually a way for me to solve a problem I found in a current manuscript that needed some type of interruption — to keep it from being so much of a one-note thing. So I tried to shift direction, there. And the Diaspora poems are closer to the type of lyrics that I like to write when I'm writing shorter pieces.
But honestly, I still can't pin down what it is that I do, because often what I'm doing is in response to stuff that I'm reading. I read a lot — constantly.
We talked about how writing takes place in the community. I believe in a community of writers. Every time I write, I'm constantly responding to work that I'm reading, and sometimes that changes the shape of what I'm writing.
Okay. That's very interesting to me, obviously, since I co-founded a book review site. And also because a lot of poets seem to find their groove and then stick to it, but I don't know if I can pin a distinctive style on you. So I feel like that's some interesting insight in that your writing is in a relationship with your reading life. Do you read broadly, or do you read along certain avenues, or do you just happen across books?
I will look at who's winning the NBCC and the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards. I'll look into all of those books and I'll read all of them.
But I'll also dig into Small Press Distribution, stuff that's maybe a little more edgy and more experimental. And a lot of times when I do that, when I dig into some of the more obscure or experimental works, I'm hunting to find a way to solve a problem that I'm encountering in my own work that is not solvable by conventional means. Just to see how other writers are approaching analogous issues of writing.
Do you read a lot of poetry or prose, or both?
I read a lot of poetry. I basically read at least a collection a week, if not more. I just read Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary, which was a collection of lyric essays. She makes use of a lot of white space, which is attractive to me. That was something that was exciting to me as a poet, seeing how a nonfiction writer tackles long forms.
I've read a lot of Maggie Nelson; Bluets in particular was something that I loved. I look for nonfiction folks who write lyric essays and that's the other thing that I've been reading.
But I do read quite a few novels, and I listen to a lot of books on tape. I just read The Underground Railroad by Whitehead. If I could show you my library — it's so crammed with stuff right now, and I'm reluctant to give any of it away.
How much of it came across the country with you?
Almost all of it, which is insane. I tried to have a thing at my house where I was giving away books, and nobody took anything of great note. They took maybe like 200 books, but that didn't put that much of a dent into my collection.
I have a lot of books. And so I basically hauled them all across country, and that was the bulk of my freight cost.
What are you working on now? Do you have a break from school from teaching?
I do, yeah. It's now summer.
Thank you. I'm so happy to have summer.
The story problems are part of a book project. It's a sequence of prose poems based on my son, who's on the autistic spectrum.
Part of what I'm attempting in that collection — the problem is, I'm trying to find a way to write about him, while allowing him the dignity of his selfhood. And that was one of the more difficult things to consider when I was writing these. For a long time, I was really reluctant to even start writing about it, but he gave me permission.
There's an allegory that's running through the book, but then I needed some type of interruption from the allegory to make it biographical. That's where some of these mathematical problems are coming in, and that's where the story problems come in.
Can I ask how old is your son is?
He's nine years old. And he is quite a dude. He's interested in science. He's a hell of a mathematician.
You know, he's a total iPad junkie and video game nerd, which is kind of my type of people. And he's genuinely interested in the world, which couldn't make me happier.
It's interesting to me that you say you're a video game person, because I would think that would get in the way of the reading. I had to make a conscious decision to not get into video games because I wanted more time for reading. So, I'm impressed that you can do both.
I can barely sustain it, Paul. I mean, I can really barely sustain it. But in the summer I'm good — really well behaved.
Is there anything that you wanted to express to the readers of this site?
No, except that I just miss the Northwest terribly, and I miss my colleagues and my friends. And I will be back in late July/early August for the Pacific Lutheran University low residency.
Okay. And are you doing any readings in that time?
Yeah, I think I'm going to be reading for PLU's faculty reading — I believe it's the first Tuesday of the residency.
Okay, please let me know when you confirm it, because I would like to let people know about it. I know that you are terribly missed here as well.
Thank you, Paul.
I've known Ksenia Anske for almost twenty years. We were both students at Cornish College of the Arts, studying design, at the close of the Twentieth Century. A Russian who came to design school after studying architecture in her home country, her approach to design was always engaged, probing, and driven.
We'd occasionally stay in touch, but I hadn't talked to her in years when I heard she was one of the first round of writers (along with Seattle writer Scott Berkun) to be awarded the Amtrak Residency.
Her absolutely direct, and no-holds-barred, approach to writing, publishing, and getting the word out to her more than forty-six thousand Twitter followers is both intense and, I think, irresistible. As is her brutal honesty about her motivations and the difficult spaces she works within.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
It keeps me accountable. You know, if you're just alone at home, and you say "okay, this didn't work" — then you can say "all right, fine. I'll just forget about it and walk away." But if you actually state it, there's this feeling of guilt if you don't do it — because so many people have seen it. You think "oh my god, tomorrow they'll ask me about it." I mean literally, it's accountability.
Also, these are my readers, and my friends. Which is true: as a writer, my readers are my friends. I don't really go out much, and I don't really socialize. I have all these people in my head, and I'm on my own. I like being alone, I like being in silence. So these are the people who are waiting, and they've been waiting for too long for this particular book, since I won the Amtrak Residency and started writing it on the train. That was last March. It's the first book out of my — what is it? eight or nine, or something, I don't remember the number — that took me over a year to write. And I just can't wait to be done with it, but I cannot ship product that's unfinished, you know? This is my product.
So by tweeting, first, I'm venting — so that somebody will pat me on the shoulder and say "hey, you're doing okay." It helps; it's like "all right, sorry, I just whined for five minutes, I've lost it, I'm good now."
And second, it's accountability to all these people who pre-ordered the book: "hey, look. I'm working on it. I haven't forgotten. I'm not giving up." Every day I get up in the morning, and I get my coffee, and I start fixing it. This scene — today was the fourth day I'm fixing it, the fourth time I'm writing it, because it just wasn't right. So I get frustrated. But after I talk about it, I feel better. It's like you go out and shout in the world, "I'm angry," and then you go, "I got this off my chest, thanks for listening, I'm happy now."
Some writers kind of go away and close the door of their room, and then it's a black box, and you don't hear anything until the book comes out. You're very vocal not only about the process of writing, but also about the stories behind what you write and why you're writing. You go to some pretty dark places, both in your fiction and when talking about it.
Yes. My entire writing career started with me wanting to commit suicide, which is a really dark topic. People usually don't like hearing about it, and people who have gone through it don't know how to talk about it — or sometimes are afraid to talk about it, because it's still not a topic to discuss freely. Also depression; any kind of a mental illness or any kind of disorder that touches or somehow affects your psychology.
Especially if you're an artist. You're supposed to be the starving artist — there's this image we all have about that artist who's a little bit crazy — but it's actually a really, really serious topic, and it's a really big problem. Most of us creators and artists come to creating art from a dark place — when we hit the wall in life and art saves us.
We find a way to take this ugliness and make it into something beautiful. Not everybody can do it, but those of us who can, feel happy. It stops eating you from the inside, and this is why I'm sharing so much because ... let's say I came from a place in my life where I really wanted to die, where you stand there and you hate yourself and your life so much that you want to part with it. And then something happens. In my case, it was my children. I thought about them, and I thought, "this is really selfish, this is actually really terrible," and then it wasn't about me anymore. I couldn't leave them alone, and I decided not to.
And in that moment, something shifted. I stopped being afraid of things that I usually would not talk about. Like you're saying: dark places and dark things. Well — the fear fell off, after I decided to live. It just didn't bother me anymore, all these little problems were non-problems. And sharing this experience was what pulled me out of it.
Also my therapist literally told me to journal. I would go through these horrible panic attacks, and she told me, "You're going to buy a journal; you're going to write yourself out of those." That's how my writing started. That's how my trilogy started. I still have that journal! It has skulls on it, very fitting. It's black and has got really disturbing things inside of it, and I'm going to save it, because that was my road to writing, that was my first step toward it. That's why I don't have any fear about it anymore. It's gone.
I'm imagining you were journaling about things that were happening. How did you go from journaling to processing those things through fiction?
You know, surprisingly, I have been doing that since I was very little. I grew up in a very violent household, and I was abused in a variety of ways. I tried to cope with it as a child by being very silent — that was one of my weapons against adults who hurt me: I would not talk. Sometimes I would not talk for weeks.
I had a crazy imagination, which also is very typical, although I didn't know it at the time. As a child, when the people who hurt you are relatives or people who are supposed to love you and protect you, you can't process it — that somebody like that would hurt you. As a child you can't survive. So what you do is you suppress it, and you replace the image of that person with, often, an animal — something that is dark and scary. Usually it's a dog or a wolf or a bear; some kind of entity, some kind of animal, that in your child's mind you can justify would have hurt you, eaten you, bitten off your leg.
In my family — apart from the darkness and the anger and the hurt and the pain, and everything that was in there for generations that created the environment I grew up in — in addition, the culture in Russia was very well read and very intellectual. My great-grandmother had this huge library of books in her room. I'd been reading since I was very small, since I was four.
That was my solution to all my problems, and that was my helper: it was the books. I couldn't ask the adults about what was happening to me, so I would go and read books ... and I read books that I was not supposed to read, I think, at that age. But also things were happening to me that were not supposed to happen to me at that age. So the books explained it to me. For example, in One Thousand and One Nights, there's one fairytale about a gorilla falling on a woman — basically, a gorilla having sex with the woman — and I remember that it explained everything to me. I thought: "Oh, okay, this is normal. Oh, so it's a gorilla."
When I went to therapy and started remembering what was happening to me, at first, I remembered something black and furry like a gorilla. Then it was a black man; and then it was a man who was painted in black paint; and after that: "It's my father."
It took me so many layers to get to it, because the truth was pretty horrendous. And this is why it's taking me so long to write this book. Because it's a book about a woman remembering her sexual abuse at the hands of her father — which she has blocked — while she is on a train, and every compartment on the train contains a memory that she has to fight to see. So this, what you're asking about — what's funny and also not funny and tragic — is what I've been doing since I was little.
I would create stories in my head to explain what was happening to me based on fiction. I made it into fiction, and that's how I survived it. Everything I'm writing right now is coming from my five-year-old brain, six-year-old brain, seven-year-old brain ... All these stories that I made up in my head to be content with life and to continue functioning as a child, and then later to continue functioning as an adult. And so it's really not fiction for me.
People keep asking me, "How do you get these ideas?" I tell them they're not really ideas, but nightmares. I wish I had less, but there's so many that I just have to get them out of me. Otherwise I cannot be happy and smiling every day; it's too much. It's like living in a world where you have a trapdoor into a dungeon that you have to go in every day, and there's scary shit down there. Like in the movie The Road, have you seen it?
No, I haven't seen it.
Well, you probably read the book.
If you watch the movie, there's this scene where they come up and find this house where people hold hostages. In the book, it made my skin crawl — but the film, it's amazing the way they did it. Now when people ask me [how I get my ideas], I tell them "just go watch that scene." That is what I have in my room.
And that is where I have to go every morning. It's horrible, but once I get through it and I come out — and it's 3 p.m. and I'm done writing — I'm this happy cat.
You know, I heard from someone once that horror writers are the happiest and the sweetest people in the world.
It's because they process all their stuff, all their bad feelings and fears.
Yeah! So what I'm doing every day now is really what I've been been doing since I was little. Except now I'm putting it into words.
You mentioned reading, and you're obviously a lifelong reader. You publish the books you're reading on your Instagram feed, and you're a pretty voracious reader, it seems. What have you been reading lately that has struck you or that you like?
I'm trying to read books on business and on writing and how to plot. And at the same time I'm trying to read fiction, novel writers who can teach me how to write novels. And also short stories; every morning before I start writing, I read a short story just to prime myself for a particular style. At the moment it's Petrushevskaya, I'm re-reading her short stories. This one is There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself.
What a title.
Yeah, very lovely. She has been not published for a long time, she basically has been banned from publishing her stories in Russia, although there's nothing political in there and nothing really to persecute. But the government didn't want people to know the real lives of real people. The horrendous, dark shit that they have to go through. And she wrote about it — there's no beautifying it, no prettifying it. It's pretty dark and it's very stark and very painful. But there's this humor in it, this survival, and I absolutely love it. Her style is very simple. It's kind of like a fairytale: "there once lived a woman and her neighbor woman had a little baby and she wanted to kill the baby." She gives me inspiration to stop trying to "write," and just tell my story.
Another one I've been reading lately — I met the artist Victoria Lomasko, and I'm reading a book of hers that's journalism with illustrations. She talks about Russian people and their everyday lives. People on the outskirts of society, the sex workers, the kids in juvenile prisons, the LGBT people, and so on. It's very enlightening, because some of these people — even I was not aware of how their lives are, and the conditions they live in.
And let's see ... this book just absolutely changed my plotting. It's called The Story Grid, by Sean Coyne. I recommend it to everyone, and if I had the money, I'd buy it for every writer, because it taught me — based on reading The Silence of the Lambs, which is one of my favorites — how to hack your manuscript, and how to shape it into something that has very distinct parts. There's so many ways of doing it; it's just that his particular formula works for me really, really well.
You have every single one of these books on hand right here with you?
Hold on, I have this one, I'm actually really enjoying this one, it's very beautiful — it's called The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. It's a sort of apocalyptic novel about the world dying from a virus, but told from the perspective of the dead people, who don't really die until everybody who remembers them dies as well. So there's this in-between place. I'm enjoying it.
Next I'll be reading City Infernal by Edward Lee, which is supposedly this dark horror kind of a paperback book in America, which I haven't really read much. I mean, I love Stephen King, but this one has a bloodier kind of opening. Oh, here it is: "The man walks with difficulty down the street. The street sign reads ISCARIOT AVENUE. He is carrying a severed head on a stick, and the severed head talks. 'Can you spare any change?'"
I mean this is just perfect, this is my kind of stuff! I've seen all kinds of reviews of this, from one star — saying this is just awful, cheap horror — to five stars — saying 'this is great!' So I'm going to read this ... and god, I can talk to you about books for hours. I try to read about one hundred books a year, and this year, because of my editing, I don't think I'll hit the goal, but that's usually my goal.
You give all your books away for free on your website. And then you also sell bound copies. Why did you decide to give everything away for free?
Well, that goes back to the suicide and depression. My book literally saved my life, writing my first trilogy, so I vowed to give it away for free to anyone. Because it does talk about suicide, it talks about teenage suicide, in particular.
When I wrote my second book, Rosehead, people asked, "what are you going to do now?" And I said "What do you want?" And I had so many student readers who said, "I don't have money for books." So I said, "You can have it for free; it will all just even out." There's a donate button, and people occasionally donate; somebody recently donated $100. I was like, "Wow! That just paid for all of these free books that people downloaded."
But I also sell paperbacks, and I sell e-books on all kinds of sites. The idea is: you pay what you want, or you pay if you have money. Even on my website, you can choose to pay what you want. You can pay five dollars, which only covers the cost of the book. Or you can pay nine dollars, and I get four dollars and it pays for my team and for printing costs. Or you pay thirteen dollars, and I can pay my team, it covers my printing costs, and it also gives me another four dollars to invest into my growth as a business.
And you view this as an entrepreneur would, because you ran a company before you were writing?
Yeah, I had a start-up.
I know that's a story unto itself, but how did it change your approach to selling and marketing your books?
The selling idea itself, often people are afraid of it. They think that somehow it's getting into somebody's face and demanding money from them, and they're either shy or they're afraid. They think it's annoying, but that's actually not true. And that's what I learned from my start-up. It's really helping people, holding their hands, and people will be happy to pay you if you just have your shit together.
That's all it is. It's surprisingly easy, because there are so many businesses out there that don't do the smallest things: they don't say thank you, they don't do what they promised they'll do, they don't apologize if they screwed up. If you just behave like a human being, people will love you — they'll shower you with money, they'll come back to you.
Because it's so hard — I mean, life is so chaotic. We're bombarded with all this stuff, and people are constantly coming and going. So we come back to the brands that we trust, the businesses that we trust. We say, "these guys have been making my shoes for this many years, and at least they, when everything comes apart around me, will be there doing the shoes. Or if they are going to go bankrupt, because they always communicated with me honestly, they will tell me 'We're so sorry; we're screwed. But do not fret: we'll try to make your shoes.'"
It's the same with writing books. If you talk to people like a human being, saying "I'm sorry I screwed up" —
Here's an example. Today I was supposed to ship books to somebody who won them in my free giveaway, and another person in Canada. It was 2:15, and the post office closes at 3. I was writing; I usually stop writing at 2, but I looked and saw that was 2:15, and I said, "I'll write another 15 minutes. Half an hour is enough for me to walk or bike to the post office." Next thing I know, my son knocks on the door, says "Mum something something," and I look up and it's 2:45. I go "fuck," I jump up — I'm like, 15 minutes is just not enough, I have to change, pull on my biking shorts — then I realize that the box is too large, so I start running around. Finally I think "I can't do it," so I start composing an email in my head: "Hi, I'm so sorry, I got carried away into writing, I didn't ship the books."
And then my boyfriend shows up at 2:57, and I say "I can't do this," and he's like, "Get in the car, get in the car now. Grab your stuff." I jump in, and we get to the post office one minute late. Usually they close right on time. I run in ...
All of them know me, because I've brought them chocolate before. One lady typed in — it took her 30 minutes to type up all these books that I was sending to the Philippines and Pakistan, Iran, England, and — I can't remember, there's pockets of my readers all over the place — India. And so I said "Wow, you work so hard, I need to bring you chocolate." She kind of laughed it off, but I said "No, I'm dead serious." And next time I came, I brought them a box of chocolates. Now they call me the lady who brings chocolate.
So I ran in, I'm like, "I'm so sorry I'm late," and the boss started grumbling. So I said "Hey, but I brought you chocolate," and everybody was like "Yeah, yeah, this is the girl," and she goes, "Oh, that's fine; you can stay for as long as you want to." It's so cute, and I said "See? I paid for my overtime with chocolate."
But yeah — so I came home and I emailed, so happily, to my customers: "I shipped the books." This is a small business. Customer service is number one. I will go and die and hit my face on the ground, get bloody, but I will get those books to my readers against all odds, because they paid for them. I mean that's a miracle, somebody paid for my words, and they're going to spend their time reading them. That's great; it makes me ecstatic.
How do people mostly find you? Word of mouth?
Yeah. I also now have a big readership that suggests my books to friends; also on social media. For example, on Instagram: I send out these books to book readers, and Instagram has these book review Instagram accounts — most of them are kids, some of them are teenagers, some of them are over twenty. They're younger, and so they have these accounts where they read books and they review them, and somebody would just send me a message saying "I saw your book all over the place, all of my friends have it, can I have it too?" And that's how it goes. Or on Wattpad, one day on Twitter somebody asked me, "Are you going to put your books on Wattpad?" And I said, "What is Wattpad?" So I went and I looked and I thought "This is cool." I posted the book, and just this morning I woke up and I had 150 notifications. Why? I don't know! This is one of those things that I wish I knew ... all of a sudden everybody's reading Rosehead.
Yesterday was quiet. Somebody is always reading my books there, but sometimes it just goes boom. And that's why I'm starting to get my business sense together, because I really need to understand what makes those spikes, how to turn them into sales. I make sales when a new book comes out, because all of a sudden people are interested in the rest of my books — if they like this one, they purchase the rest of them. And then it goes down. So there's always a big spike [when I publish a new book], and I have to keep it going constantly to survive. At this moment I'm not supporting myself financially. It's in bursts. And my boyfriend is like, "I'm an investor, when you make those millions"; and I'm like, "yeah, I got you."
And you keep it kind of in the family. Your daughter does all of your book design, right?
She does. I remember when she was a baby, I taught her how to draw. This is what parents do to children: they're just raising them with this hidden agenda. And she laughs at this. Yeah, she's really good; she graduated from design school in Orange, California, and she does all of my book covers.
The best part about it that is we understand each other. I tell her, "Just do a blah blah blah," and she goes, "okay, I got it." I don't even have to explain — a couple hours later it's done.
We're going to change the Tube cover right now. She was traveling, so it was hard to find an image for her. I don't know if you've seen the discussion, but basically it looks like a nonfiction book, so I'm going to take feedback. This is one other reason that I share everything — I get raw feedback from people, and if eight people out of ten say the same thing, that helps me; it helps me write a better book, it helps me create a better product. So, yes, she does that, but then the rest of my team is all over the place. My editor and my proofreader, you know, formatter, and so on.
Anything that we didn't cover that you wanted to talk about?
Well, I'm excited because Tube is going to be done in about two months. Maybe it will take me a few read-throughs, but this is the final draft. I have decided that I could probably keep perfecting it forever, but I can't do it anymore.
What draft are you on now?
This is draft five. And I've never done this many before. Each draft is a complete rewrite; it's not just revising it, I scrub through from beginning to end. So when that book comes out, it's going to be very important. I'm very proud of it; I worked really hard on it, harder than on any of my other books.
It's my best writing so far, and it's also a really important story — like I said, about a woman remembering her sexual abuse. I tried to dramatize the process of remembering something when it's hidden so well in your child's mind inside of you that you're acting like a private investigator, literally going back into your past and reviewing it. And so it was really challenging, because she jumps from present to past constantly. I hope I did the job right. So I'm really excited about that — and after that I'm going to be writing my first thriller, The Dacha Murders.
Cool. And Tube was the one you wrote on the Amtrak residency?
Yeah, when I started that, it was just a goofy kind of idea. I actually didn't think I'd ever win. I just submitted this little paragraph. They ask "Why do you think you're going to win?" and I said something like "Because I'm going to write a book about trains." And then I won. And somehow, because I said that, when I got on the train, I had to do it, so it became a book about the train. But it changed very much from the original first draft.
All of my drafts are on my website. If people are curious, they can download them and compare. That is another reason why I put it up for free on my site — because when I started writing, I wished there was a resource like that where I could go and I could compare something — let's say The Da Vinci Code or one of Stephen King's books — if I could see the very first rough draft and compare it to the final one, that would really help me as a writer. But I could hardly find that information anywhere.
That's an approach to writing — sharing that stuff — that most writers would find horrifying.
Yeah ... and actually, there's another book I'm reading, by Kit Reed called Revision, if anybody is interested — in the back she has examples, because the book is about revision, they're manuscripts of the first draft and the final draft. But it's still not enough. So that's why I'm doing it — to give back to the community and also learn. People constantly send me feedback, so I get better.
Anything else you wanted to add?
Just send me coffee, coffee beans, my PO box address is on my website. Coffee beans will keep me going. If you want more books, send me more coffee.
Do you eat coffee beans while you write?
Yeah. Actually, I need an IV for that.
Cory Doctorow — father, skull-collector, multiple award-winning author, BoingBoing blog contributor, and revolutionary advocate for humankind's unrestricted internet access — appears in Seattle on Monday, May 15, to discuss his latest science fiction novel, Walkaway, with friend and fellow award-winner Neal Stephenson. But SRoB columnist Nisi Shawl got him to grant a phone interview first. The (lightly edited) transcription below mercifully does not reflect the technical and recording difficulties overcome; rather it allows you to revel in Cory's deep yet fast-paced flow of thought. Let his words carry you through his book's contemporary foundations to a future in which our best, most community-minded selves have opted for open-source abundance. According to Walkaway, we can get there from here.
How are you right now, Cory?
I am good. I am all atremble at the thought that I'm about to hit the road on tour for, effectively, three months. That's going to be crazy. I'm on the road for a month and then I come back and then the festival season starts. So I hit the road once or twice a week for the next two months really, just right until August. But I start a month's leave of absence next Tuesday from EFF. Yeah, it's going to be crazy.
And there's a lot going on at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I worked for the last three years on this project related to digital rights management in browsers, where the W3C — which is this consortium that has historically been very important in the open web — decided to make a compromise with some of the big entertainment companies and browser vendors and some very large companies based in Seattle, and to make DRM for the web. Which would mean that, because of laws that protect DRM, browsers couldn't be audited by security researchers, and also that people who wanted to improve browsers for people with sensory disabilities could face criminal and civil penalties if they had to break the DRM to do it.
So we organized a coalition of members of the consortium who voted to discontinue work on DRM unless the members who supported DRM agreed that they would sign a binding covenant not to sue people who did legitimate things; that they would only sue when there was copyright infringement and not when someone, for example, disclosed a security vulnerability that could put billions of people at risk. And they refused to negotiate that. They walked away from the table more than a year ago. So it came to a final vote this week, and we led this very large group of people who voted against it. Now they're at this crossroads where they have, for the first time in the organization's decades of history, come to the point where they're about to publish a spec that the members are deeply divided on, and where there's no consensus in sight. I'm about to leave just as that decision is being made. I do have colleagues who will take it in hand, but it has left me somewhat keyed up after a week of very, very, very intense work.
Yeah, yeah I can see that. Holy mackerel. What can you do? I mean, you can do stuff on the road, but not the stuff that needs, necessarily, to be done.
I'm not really going to try and do much of this while I'm traveling. As I say, I have very, very qualified and excellent colleagues who will keep the work going. The decision now is in the hands of Tim Berners-Lee, who created the web and founded W3C. He has signaled before that he would just go ahead and greenlight it regardless of the objections. But that was before this vote, and some very important members came forward in the vote; some of the world's leading accessibility organizations, and big tech companies, multiple browser vendors. So I think that it will be very hard for him to proceed at this point.
Unfortunately, this is one of those things where, if you ask your karate instructor, "What do I do if I'm walking down the road in the middle of the night and there's no one around, and three big guys step out, and my phone is out of battery, and the streetlights are all out, and there's no way for me to get away?" Your karate instructor will say, "Just don't be in the middle of the road at 3:00 in the morning with no phone battery and no streetlights." And so on.
Like, what do you do if you get to the point of no return and there's no consensus in sight? Well, the right thing to do in my view would have been a year ago — when the corporate members walked away from the negotiating table — to have said: "Guys, if you're not going to negotiate, we're not going to keep work going, because we don't think you'll be able to arrive at a consensus unless you continue to talk with people who have real, principled concerns about the work that you're doing. And since the W3C operates on a consensus, there's no point in continuing the technical work unless you also continue the policy work, because you'll just end up with heartbreak."
Having failed to do that, now we're at the heartbreak stage, and I don't know what to do. I really feel for him, because I'm a great admirer of his, but I think that he made a grave miscalculation, and I think, more importantly, the DRM advocates at the W3C made a really terrible miscalculation where they just put themselves in a position where any victory will be very pyrrhic indeed. It never works to walk away, except in my novel.
(laughs) Nice segue. I loved your novel, by the way. I really enjoyed it.
Oh, well that's kind of you. I saw your review. That was really nice of you.
You know, it came up over the weekend. I was at a regional science fiction convention, Norwescon. There was a panel, which I won't get too much into, we talked about dystopias and utopias, and one of my esteemed colleagues was talking about how being in Watts during the middle of this uprising was a dystopia. Because he was white and felt like the target. Eyes rolling, rolling off the table. I did collect myself enough to mention Walkaway as something that, in my opinion, was dystopia and utopia. Can you talk to that a little bit?
Sure. Well, my view is that what defines Utopianism is not systems that work well, it's systems that fail gracefully. Working well is cheap. It's easy to make things that work well. If you don't care about the occasional explosion and whether or not the brakes work, I can make you a very fast, fuel-efficient car. Right? If you don't care what happens when the babysitter goes wrong, I can find you a very cheap babysitter anytime, day or night. Right?
So failing gracefully is way more important than working well. It's an age-old principle for mechanical engineering. There's this funny thing where we use these terms "negative feedback loop" and "positive feedback loop," which are terms from engineering, and we use them completely backwards to their sense in engineering contexts. In engineering, a negative feedback loop is a process that senses when things are about to go off the rail and damps them down. And a positive feedback loop is a thing that just accelerates. Positive feedback loops are things that engineers try to keep out of their systems. Right? Engineers root out and destroy positive feedback loops in mechanical engineering systems and replace them with negative feedback loops. Because, left to their own devices, people will figure out ways to grow, to make things bigger, or better, or faster, and so on. That's all for the good. I'm enough of a laissez-faire person to think that that's a natural engine for growth and human progress. And I think that what we really need to do is just attend to the margins, where things are kind of going off the rails, and nudge them back on again.
In general, competitive market capitalism has a lot of great positive feedback loops, in that pitting people against one another produces lots of productivity gains. Right? It produces waste too, but if you look at the automobile today versus the automobile forty years ago, thanks to competitive market capitalism, the labor, material, and energy inputs to a car today are an infinitesimal fraction of what they were when I was a kid, and an unmeasurable fraction of what they were when these technologies were invented. That's mostly because, regardless of whether or not you care about labor, energy, or material, all of those things cost money, and every dollar you spend on inputs to a car is a dollar you deduct from the profits from the car. And since your competitors are also making cars, you're in a race to see who can make all of those things go to the bottom fastest.
And there are shortcuts around them. Maybe you can pollute, or you can outsource your labor to places where you can pay less than a living wage, or you can outsource your labor to places where you don't pay if your workers get killed in the line of duty. But as those things get plugged up, or at the limits of what you can do with those tactics, you still have to engage in efficiency.
The problem is that when we teach people that they don't have a shared destiny, that they only have an individual destiny, then we teach them that when things go wrong, the thing to do is not to turn to the person next to you and figure out how the two of you can dig someone else out of the rubble, it's to grab your bug-out bag and head for the hills before the person next to you comes after you. Right? This flies in the face of the actual reality of disasters. I took my inspiration largely from a wonderful writer I'm sure you're familiar with named Rebecca Solnit, who, in addition to having a legitimate claim to fame for coining the wonderful term "mansplaining," also wrote this brilliant historical book called A Paradise Built in Hell, which researches contemporaneous first-person accounts of people's conduct during great historic disasters — from the 1906 earthquake all the way up to Katrina and the Haiti quake. And traces the way that people survive disaster, which is that, by and large, normal people grab one another and help as much as they can.
And she writes about the way that we remember and report disaster, which is that the rich and the powerful and the distant are all convinced that the poors, the minute the lights go out, turn on each other and eat each other. Any example of it, including wholly fictional ones, gets seized on and amplified. Everything that runs counter to that narrative is discounted or distorted.
We're all familiar with the Katrina "black looter versus white person just trying to get by by getting fresh water from the local shop and leaving a note for the shopkeeper" scenario. That distortion is also front and center in the way Solnit describes these disasters.
But I think that, as human beings, we are prone to the availability heuristic; that things that are easier to imagine are overestimated as outcomes. So when we contemplate the possibility that the lights will go out, we find it easy to imagine The Walking Dead, and hard to imagine Walkaway, right? Hard to imagine that your neighbors will be the source of your salvation, rather than the cause of your problems.
That's very obvious in what you're writing, and I'm glad you brought it out. You see capitalism as an ongoing crisis of catastrophe, basically, and the reaction you have people going through is a very Solnitian one.
Yeah. Well, you know, it's an intervention. Right? I think if things that are easy to imagine are things that we increase the probability of, then giving people a vivid narrative through which they can imagine the mutual aid as the source of their solutions actually will help people come to one another's aid. As much as I like stories (including stories I've written) in which disaster is chased by barbarism — and they're fun stories, right? I like The Road, it's an amazing story — I think that they're also a slur; they’re a libel on humanity.
As much as I like stories (including stories I’ve written) in which disaster is chased by barbarism — and they’re fun stories, right? I like The Road, it’s an amazing story — I think that they’re also a slur; they’re a libel on humanity
There's a kind of profound statistical innumeracy in the idea that, by and large, people are untrustworthy and, given the first opportunity, will attack one another. Because most people who say that also say in the same breath, "And of course I don't mean you, and I don't mean me, and I don't mean my friends, and I don't mean my relatives. I just mean most other people."
And what is the likelihood, in a world in which 99.9% of people are wicked and untrustworthy, that everyone you know happens to fall in that 0.1%? Right? It's a lot less likely than the probability that you actually know a representative sample of people, and that people are good and bad together, and that we have noble nature and ignoble nature that wars within us, and that our executive function is what determines which of those things we act on. That executive function draws on things, like a view of what other people are likely to do, when contemplating its own course of action.
In that regard it's not so different from the executive office. Right? In America we have a bunch of people who historically have not voted for white supremacists, who voted for white supremacists. And we have a lot of argument about whether or not they are or are not white supremacists. I think the right way to understand it is that they have good nature and bad nature, and that our social constraints have loosened to allow this bad nature to come to the fore, and to sideline their nobility. If we are to rescue ourselves from this, we need to reassert the social unacceptability of letting your bad nature come to the fore.
I do think that we have unconscious bias. I do think that we have moments of ignobility. And I don't think that being good is failing to have bad thoughts; it's understanding that they're bad thoughts, and choosing not to act on them. That, in part, is driven by your unconscious automatic calculus of what other people will think of you, and what social consequences will come to bear if you act on those bad instincts.
I’ve come across this sort of thinking before in the writings of Ursula Le Guin, actually, who talks about the falsehood that nature is red in tooth and claw. She says that seeing that as the default is wrong.
Yeah. I had this amazing advisor, she's still around, at the University of Waterloo, before I dropped out; this biologist called Anne Innis Dagg, who wrote us a beautiful, scathing critique of Darwinian psychology, evolutionary psychology, called Love of Shopping Is Not a Gene. Anne, she is quite a noteworthy person. She was the first woman biologist from North America or Europe to go to Africa to study wildlife, macrofauna. She went to South Africa and studied giraffes. And giraffes are gay as hell, right? Male giraffes just screw the shit out of each other all the time. And no biologist had ever reported on this from the field, even though, unequivocally, they all saw this going on. She was the first biologist to come back and describe what was actually going on as opposed to what orthodoxy predicted would happen.
She went on to have this career as a somewhat heterodox, outspoken biologist, and the apotheosis of this, in my view anyways, this wonderful book, Love of Shopping. And she says, "When we characterize behaviors as being natural and evolved, we always do so without any kind of scientific rigor, and in particular, without any kind of disprovable hypothesis." If you say, you know, "Sperm competition existing in spiders proves that men want to fuck around and women only want one mate" — you can't run a controlled experiment to see if that happens. And we have lots of species in which there isn't sperm competition. The selection of this one species as your exemplar of what is our human destiny, or is our natural conduct, it's completely arbitrary. It's not a coincidence.
If you're an anthropologist or a biologist and you're studying these phenomena, you should turn your lens back around on yourself and ask yourself how it is that the only evolutionary psychology theories that are in vogue are the ones that also happen to validate the power inbalances and injustices that benefit the author and their funders. Right? Against that backdrop, there is a falsifiable hypothesis there. Right? The falsifiable hypothesis that Dagg has, is that we fiand evolutionary psychology a comforting way to wave away iniquity that makes us seem like we are beneficiaries of an unfair system instead of the winners of a meritocratic one. And that's a falsifiable hypothesis. You could just look at the advocates of different points of view and see whether it's true. And she makes a pretty compelling case that it is.
Again, to go back to this dual nature, humanity, our political systems, and nature itself exhibit competitive and cooperative components, and we can choose which ones we try to reinforce and which ones we sideline, and it's not an all-or-nothing proposition. We can have competition in some domains, and we can have cooperation in others, and the consequences of which one of those we choose includes a change in our theories of other people; of what other people are likely to do, and how trustworthy and good other people are, which in turn affects our wider social outcomes. Social, by definition, involves lots of other people.
Along those lines, I’m wondering, I know that you moved to the US from outside of the US. Are you regretting that now in light of the presidential election?
I don't think it makes a difference. This is a global phenomenon. Right? It's not like we could have stayed in the UK and enjoyed the land of milk and honey. I'm a Canadian, and people always say, "Well, you could move to Canada. You've got Quebecois Jesus running the country now." And Justin Trudeau...like, if looking good with your shirt off was a qualification for leadership, Putin would be the greatest leader in the world. Right? The fact that JT is willing to announce his support for a bunch of progressive policies is nowhere near as important as the fact that he's not willing to do things to support those policies.
I’m a Canadian, and people always say, “Well, you could move to Canada. You’ve got Quebecois Jesus running the country now.” And Justin Trudeau...like, if looking good with your shirt off was a qualification for leadership, Putin would be the greatest leader in the world.
Telling refugees they're welcome in Canada is cheap. Changing the laws so the refugees who are rejected at the US border can try their luck in Canada is hard, and that's the part that counts, and that's the part he didn't do. I am pretty skeptical of what's going on there. He just greenlit two more pipelines. He whipped his party in opposition to vote for a surveillance bill that can be most charitably called Patriot Act fan-fic, and promised that when he took office he'd repeal it. But just like Obama, who promised that when he took office he'd repeal immunity for the phone companies that participated in illegal spying, and then failed to do that in any way at all, JT has done exactly nothing to undo the mass surveillance bill that he ushered into law when he was the opposition.
It's like there's not a place we can go to get away from this, because all of this bad leadership stuff is epiphenomenal. It is an outcome of grotesque wealth concentration, and with it, the social and economic phenomena that go with it. The more wealthy the wealthy become, the more meritocracy has to be at the center of our political ideology, because otherwise it's completely unsustainable. Right? What is the argument for allowing a tiny number of people to be richer than everyone else in the world? Well, there's something great about those people that the rest of us lack; that they've won some fair system.
It's divine right, or something.
Well, or, if not divine right, market capitalism accounts for this by saying, you know, the Ayn Rand conception, "those people are the Galts," right? "They have some extraordinary ability that has been recognized by the invisible hand, and the invisible hand has thus elevated them so that that ability can be harnessed to work for the rest of us."
And that's empirically not true, and when you have an empirically untrue thing that is very salient to the social order, a whole bunch of other things have to be rearranged to not show off the emperor's nudity. So all of these other things, these are the cracks in the ground that arise from us holding together this radioactive bullshit fissure of meritocracy that is increasingly untrue, and increasingly damaging. It produces all of these other bad outcomes, right? It allows us to argue that it's okay to give the House of Saud all kinds of crazy weapons, which the Canadian government is doing, because "something, something, something, meritocracy, something, something." Right?
I think that this idea, which, again, surfaces in Walkaway, this idea that a big lie is necessary for the social order to be in any way justified, and therefore stable, is playing out around the world. And that explains a lot of the terrible things that have happened. Take the Egyptian uprising, the election of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the coup afterward. In the lead-up to the Arab Spring, it was obvious to anyone who didn't have a stake in denying it, that the reason that Mubarak was in government was not because he was competent, but because he got lots of money from America by having a politically convenient position on Israel. Like, that's just true. Right? It's not a conspiracy theory or anything.
He was willing to broker a kind of uneasy containment strategy for other Middle Eastern states and the Palestinians, and was a hedge against other problems. But that was not a thing that was within the Overton window in the US. It was not a thing anyone was allowed to say was true without sounding like a nutjob. So there was only one group of people who said this salient thing that everyone knew to be true, and that was the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, they required a penumbra of credibility that was otherwise undeserved, because most of the things the Muslim Brotherhood believes are bullshit. That one thing that they believed that wasn't bullshit led people to assume that all of the other stuff was probably not bullshit either. And this is how they took office.
And I think that you can see this in Trumpism. Right? I think that when you ask, "how is it that Trump got elected?" — well, in part it's because he went around saying the system was rigged. Well, the system is rigged. Right? The fact that he helps rig it, and benefits from it, and would do nothing to unrig it, was beside the point. Because to vote for anyone apart from Trump, or Sanders, at least during the primaries, would be to deny that the system was rigged. Since everybody knew the system was rigged, and since that was an enormously salient fact of life for millions of people, Trump was able to get votes that he didn't deserve, because he was willing to step outside the Overton window.
I love that analogy of Trump and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sure. Well, or Erdewan, right? Erdewan is willing to say, and same as Farage, he's willing to say, "The European Union mostly does the bidding of bankers. It doesn't offer a fair shake. Its social liberalism comes with an economic agenda that's corrosive to all but the super rich." The fact that Erdewan is this fantastically corrupt oligarch who is himself part of the super rich, doesn't change any of those facts. Right? They continue to be true. And if he's the only one willing to say them, and if they are fantastically salient to the lives of people in Turkey, they will vote to give him more power. Are you going to give more power to people who deny the truth, or the people who utter the truth, even if those people are materially unfit to rule?
Yeah. I think that's how we get there, and it's a long way to go, to say, "This is why I don't think it matters where you are." Right? I don't think it matters whether you're in Turkey, or Canada, or the UK, or the US, or Australia, or New Zealand, or Japan, or Hungary.
Wait, what about California? What if there is some kind of withdrawal movement or succession? People have seriously talked about it.
Well, yeah. No one serious has seriously talked about it, though. It's not going to happen. I mean, that's, at best, a science fiction plot, in the most pejorative sense. It is not a serious thing.
First of all, California may have the world's sixth-largest economy, but it has that in part because it has a tariff-free easy route to the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic Circle, and the Atlantic Ocean. The idea that a separate California would face no economic penalties is just wrong. Also, because it has free movement of labor from all of those territories. The fact that it's a net donor on a cash basis to the rest of the country doesn't mean that it doesn't have a net benefit from being federated with the rest of the country. It's posturing at best.
Hah! I have more things I wanted to bring up. One thing I noticed, probably as a craft-y question, I was really moved in Walkaway, and in For the Win and Little Brother, with your very realistic depictions of state violence. And I wonder what you based that on. Did that happen to you?
Well, you know, I grew up in the protest movement. I got arrested with my dad when I was a kid at a sit-in over nuclear guidance systems. We were detained by the cops, and then let go, but it sure made an impression on me. Then later on I was arrested as a teenager at an arms festival as well, which caused no end of headache for me when I became a US permanent resident, because I had these arrest records.
I grew up in the protest movement. I've seen a lot of it firsthand. I've been there when there was tear gas. I've been there when people were getting beaten up. I've watched it happen. As a journalist, I've covered it. Watching the color revolutions, watching Gezi Park, that was very much in my mind, when this was going on, when I was writing Walkaway.
The pictures of the people in Burger Kings with their eyes red from tear gas hiding out from the cops who were chasing them ... little children. It really made an impression on me. We live in a world where state violence is there for anyone to see. And, of course not least, Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, and so on, that has all been a big piece of it. I grew up in the protest movement, and the delegitimization of street protest, and the kind of pants-wetting terror with which street protest is greeted, where the cops act as though people walking down the street, or even people busting a few windows, constitutes a kind of existential threat to civilization itself, has been something I've watched with enormous dismay.
I, like so many people, was very, very upset with the Trump election. I talked to my mom about it, because I was really in a bad place, and she said, "Well, have you been out to any of the protests?" And I said, "Well no. I'm an immigrant. I'm on a green card. If I got arrested we could lose our home and my wife would lose her job. It could be really bad for my career. We'd be deported. My daughter would be out of school. It would be catastrophic for us as immigrants; we're very vulnerable.”
My mom told me that I needed to get out to the protests, that I needed to see the resistance, and feel it, and hear it, and be a part of it. Because, you know, sitting here in my office with my skull collection, it's cute and all, but it makes it hard to understand in your guts what exactly is going on in the world.
My mom told me that I needed to get out to the protests, that I needed to see the resistance, and feel it, and hear it, and be a part of it. Because, you know, sitting here in my office with my skull collection, it’s cute and all, but it makes it hard to understand in your guts what exactly is going on in the world.
So we went to that Tax March here in LA, and I took my daughter, the way my parents took me when I was a kid. We all had two different civil rights lawyers' numbers written on our arms in magic marker. We were there and ready to go. It was great. It was so worth it.
Oh good. Yeah, some of my earliest memories are also of picketing and going to protests, so I know what you're talking about. I remember when I was here in Seattle, just in the beginning, when there was the first WTO protest, and I remember being just flabbergasted at the idea that there was a so-called “free speech zone,” which I thought was at least, you know, the whole country. So why was it be suddenly, like, two blocks as a “free-speech zone”?
Well, to get back to the book and to Piketty, who was a great inspiration for this, Thomas Piketty, and his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century — Piketty traces the history of equitable redistribution, or equitable distribution of wealth to a series of great historic cataclysms. So he says in the so-called new world, "Wealth didn't accumulate very much except through slavery." Because it was an agrarian society that was sparsely populated, by the simple rules of supply and demand, labor had the upper hand, and it was very hard for landowners to become wealthy, because to extract rents from lands, you need competition for labor.
Because they just couldn't get people across the border fast enough, they brutalized people and forced them to work for free. That was what made slavery sustainable. But as a consequence, manumission reset the clock on wealth accumulation in America, since the majority ... And he does this sort of numerically. Right? If you look at the clearing prices for enslaved people in the period of American slavery, a huge, huge piece of the alleged wealth of America was in the form of enslaved human beings. So manumission leveled out an enormous amount of the American wealth imbalance. Then, just as the amount of wealth was starting to accumulate into a few hands again, you had the two World Wars, which again reset the clock.
Piketty's argument is that a more equitable wealth distribution makes it harder to enact policy goals that favor the wealthy; that when the wealthy don't have as much money, it's harder for them to enact policies that give them more money. But the corollary of this is that when the wealthy become wealthy enough that they can start affecting policy outcomes, then it's like, back to positive feedback loops, the foot goes on the accelerator and the wealthy get wealthier much faster. He traces this moment empirically when he looks at capital flows, he traces it to the late 70s. That's the moment at which Mulroney is elected in Canada, Thatcher is elected in Britain, and Reagan is elected in America.
Anyway, that's the moment I grew up in. I came of political age in the early 80s. The first political memory I have was the election of Ronald Reagan being in the newspapers. As a political activist in the antinuclear proliferation and pro-choice movements, which were the two big movements in Canada when I was a kid, as well as the anti-apartheid movement, and movements against American intervention in South and Central America.
We relied on the trade union movement as the foundation on which everything else we did was built. From the people who had the envelopes and the stamps and the photocopiers, to the people who had the office space and the meeting halls.
When you look at Reagan, Thatcher, Pinochet, Mulroney, this is the moment at which the trade union movement started to fall apart. Although we were building good structures as activists — we were doing correct activist stuff — the base we were building it on was falling apart underneath us, and we didn't even realize it.
I think that the Battle in Seattle marks the turning point at which we stopped using the trade union movement — which also had its flaws, including a kind of intrinsic establishment focus, right? Where the kind of anti-establishment stuff that happened at the Battle in Seattle, the throwing off of the rules and respectability politics; the Black Bloc tactics and so on ... This is the moment at which we just said, "All right. In the absence of anyone to, on the one hand, be our base, and on the other hand, act as adult supervision, we're going to do something new."
This is the turning point. Everything since then has been the creation of a new politics; an intrinsically networked politics, a politics built around the internet, a politics that can afford to be less doctrinaire in many ways, because I think one of the reasons that doctrinaire politics flourishes is that, when the cost of making a group is expensive, the benefits of group-forming with people you know you're not going to be able to sustain an agreement with, are outweighed by the costs of making that group. Right? Then when the cost of making the group goes down, the kinds of coalitions you can build, the temporary nature of those coalitions, becomes more viable. So we have groups with less articulated politics, because we don't need to know that we all stand for all the same things, so long as we know we stand for some of the same things.
An apotheosis of this might be Occupy, but you see it even with Black Lives Matter, which has these internal divisions. You have this one faction of BLM that is advancing black capitalism as a way of ... and there's this Black Lives Matter-branded credit card now. Then you have other factions within BLM who are saying, "The problem isn't who's benefiting from an unfair system. The problem is the unfair system itself, and it doesn't matter if we can get a few Herman Cains, and Ben Carsons at the margin, or even Oprahs — that's not going to solve the profound racial injustice."
But the reason that those people are able to find coalition and work together is in part because it's cheaper for them to work together than it's ever been, because of networks, because finding people, mobilizing people, even arguing with people, is something that we can do much more cheaply than we ever could before.
This is like what Walkaway is about. When people used to ask me about futurism in science fiction, I would always say that "what the technology has given us is coordination more than anything else." People sometimes characterized Walkaway in the early reviews as a 3D-printing novel. It's not. It's a coordination novel.
We now can build encyclopedias the way that we used to organize bake sales. If you want to imagine the future that arises from this, imagine us building a space program or a skyscraper the way that we make Wikipedia today. It will be contentious. There will be arguments. It won't be pie in the sky. But we'll do it with the kind of hierarchy that we used to reserve for very lightweight projects, and we'll use it to build extremely heavyweight projects. That to me is the promise of a networked political future that we're headed towards since the Battle in Seattle.
So is that also part of why I notice so many arguments between characters in Walkaway? I was seeing it as a reflection of your experience in talking with people and disagreeing with them. But you see it as a way forward?
I love Hamilton, but I always take note of the fact that Hamilton does a lot of reification and glorification of writing, which is pretty funny. I'm always skeptical when writers tell me how glorious writing is. It seems a bit self-serving to locate Hamilton's great achievements as being with his pen. But that said, it is a Utopian idea to settle our disagreements by arguing with each other, even saying incredibly hurtful things to one another. Because historically, the way that we've done it is by killing each other, or at least that's one of the ways we've done it.
When you look at the history of revolutionary movements, the bloodshed has been, in many ways, the easy part. The hard part — and this is the part where I think Lin-Manuel Miranda fucking nails it with Hamilton — the hard part was after the bloodshed was over, figuring out how to get all these people that you nominally agreed with to do the same thing, and to believe to the same thing, and to find a compromise.
And to relate this back to where we started this conversation with the W3C, words carry weight on the internet. And this has been a theme in science fiction of all stripes. You know? This is a thing Scott Card, regardless of his warts and all, he completely nailed with Ender's Game. The war of words, of ideas, played out on a global stage, is not terminal, but it's influential in a way that has been missing from our politics in lots of ways historically; that we can have a more nuanced discussion. We can also have a discussion that consists entirely of 140-character slogans. But we can do both. Right? I would love to tilt the balance towards more nuance, as much as I love snappy rhetoric. I won't pretend that a fun slogan doesn't make me happy.
Or memes! Memes, with the illustrations.
Yeah. Yeah, sure. Although, I'm not a super visual dude, so I like the words. But yeah, memes too. There's that great Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where they encounter a species that speaks entirely in literary references, which is, again, writers talking about how awesome writers are. But there are some pretty cool moves that science fiction has done in its history that have invaded our politics, and one of them is the word "Orwellian": that we could take this super-abstract debate about whether and how we should deploy our technology to watch people around us to catch the bad guys in the act. And we were able to import a narrative that included an emotional non-abstract dimension that cut against the emotional appeal to stopping bad guys. And that kept much of the surveillance state at bay for decades.
I love the idea of a literary reference as a tool for invading our policy debates, and making those policy debates richer. You know, one of the reasons the 140-character tweet works, and memes too, is that so many of them reference deeper, wider stories.
I was just thinking about this because someone got really upset with me for using a colorful literary reference. And I was thinking about how colorful literary references are so useful. When the broadcast flag negotiation was under way, the movie studios were arguing that the FCC should have approval over all computers, because otherwise digital video piracy of high-definition videos would come, and that would destroy their industry.
And we at EFF, we kept pointing out that there was no appreciable piracy of high-definition video, and even if there was, there was no indication that it was harming their bottom line. And they kept saying, "Well, but yeah, it'll happen in the future, so that's why we want to take aim at it now." And we always used to say, "You don't eat your seatmate before the plane takes off on the off-chance that it's going to crash!" And this is a great [snaps fingers] snappy line. You know? It's great! It's a great way to import a whole bunch of other stuff into our discussions. It imparts a richness to it. I don't think it's unfair. I think it's enriching of our debate to import literary references, and that this is why and how literature can act on the world, is by giving us these emotional fly-throughs; these architectural renderings of the lived experience of different kinds of technologies and the ways that they could be deployed. It's fly-throughs. You know?
In the same way that, if you commission a building today, the architects will give you a 3D rendering that you can mouse through. A writer can give you a 3D emotional version of some future edifice that we're constructing out of technology and politics. And let us decide whether or not we want to sleepwalk into that future, or whether we want to intervene in it.
Getting back to Walkaway, I wanted to tell a story about a society that failed gracefully, that when a small band of greedy, deluded, meritocratic fools took control, that other people were able to cooperate their way out of it instead of reverting to the barbarism that the super-elite believed was their true nature.
And I loved it. Brilliant.
Aww, well thank you. But it's a political statement. Right? It's a thing that acts in the world.
Well, I hope it meets all sorts of success, and I really am looking forward to talking about it with more people as more people get to read it. Along those lines, I have just two more things I wanted to get to in our time. One is that since the election I've been invited to a bunch of resistance-themed anthologies, and I’m wondering if the same thing has happened to you?
Sure, although, my answer has been, "I'm sorry, I'm disappearing for three months worth of literary publicity and I'm keeping up all of my other stuff, so I'm trying to cram 12 months of work into nine months of worktime. So my answer to everything is no." And that's been my answer to everything, unfortunately. The resistance needs self-care, and self-care involves knowing your limits.
Yes, I had to say no to one of the four that I was invited to, so I totally understand.
Right. Although, that said, I am doing a resistance-themed panel at the Bay Area Book Festival with [John] Scalzi, and Charlie Jane [Anders], and Annalee [Newitz], and I forget who else; it might just be the four of us.
This is a thing Tor has been setting up, so I'm in the mode of looking at it and saying, "That all sounds kosher, go ahead." But not actually taking active note of it and writing it down or anything. They'll keep track of that for me.
The other thing I'm I'm involved in that I was wondering if you were is Red May — have you heard of that?
Okay, so when I heard that you were going to be here talking to Neal Stephenson, I more-or-less assumed, incorrectly, that your talk was be part of the Red May events. It's a monthlong thing with panels on, I think one of the two panels I'm on is about luxury communism.
Wow! That is so up my street! I tell you what!
I don't think you'll be here yet, though. That will be May 5th.
That does sound up my street, though. I am doing a thing in Cambridge, Mass., with Joey Edo on May Day, and we're talking about wearing red.
Yeah, "fully automated luxury communism." That's the term.
Yeah, that is my number one jam; fully automated luxury communism. I call — for people who know the term, I use that term to describe Walkaway all the time.
Okay, well we'll be talking about Walkway then, no doubt. Because I'll be there.
What is the thing with Neal Stephenson? How can I find our more about that?
I'm doing a bunch of events with other people, sort of these "in conversations." Neal was kind enough to read and blurb the book. My assumption was that we would sit on the stage, and he would ask me questions, and we'd talk about the book. I also took the precaution of reading Neal's amazing next book, which is the D.O.D.O. book, which is terrific.
It's a book he co-wrote with one of his Mongoliad co-authors, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., it's called. It's sort of Three Men in a Boat meets The Time Travelers. It's about a super-bureaucratic government agency that kind of muscles its way into practical time travel technology, but then has all of these super-recondite adventures.
At one point, the bureaucracy decides they have to be self-funding, so they're like, "Well how can we make time travel self-funding? I know! We will go back in time and we'll find this — " And they can't bring physical things through time. So they're like, "We'll go back in time, we'll steal some clothes, we'll go to this printer's office where they're printing the first book ever published in New England, which is now worth tens of millions of dollars, we'll have a cooper wrap it in oiled leather and then put it in an airtight barrel, and then we'll bury it in this field and we'll dig it up in the future." But it turns out that you can't just change the past. The past has lots of timelines. So you have to go back and change the past over and over and over again until enough timelines have this propagated through it that you can dig it up.
So then they're going back and doing it again, and then they show up one day and the place where they want to bury it now has a brewery there. They're like, "Oh shit! Who invested in this brewery? Oh, it's this guy in London. Okay, now we have to go back to London 20 years before and convince this guy to put his money in the Dutch East India Company." Then there's this whole other side &mdsah; They're like, "Oh my God! There's this swordfighter who protects this guy. Okay, we're going to have to learn swordfighting so we can beat this guy's bodyguard, so we can convince this guy to invest in the Dutch East India Company, so we can keep him from building the brewery, so we can go back and get the book, so we can have it sealed in a barrel, so we can stick it in this place where we can dig it up later, so that we can satisfy the bureaucratic requirement that we be self-funding."
It just kind of goes around and around in that way. It's very funny. It's very, for-the-want-of-a-nail-the-shoe-was-lost stuff.
He's super funny. He's so great.
I think the most recent thing I read of his was Seveneves.
Yeah, I love that.
People really don't give him credit for knowing when stuff is funny. Which he does.
Yeah, indeed. I mean, I think that his comic work is some of his best work. His first novel,The Big U, was a purely comic novel. Then he went on to write Zodiac, which is also a very comic novel. What's funny about him is that historically he's either written ambitious novels or comic novels, but not both. His ambitious System of the World books, and Anathem, and so on, they have moments of comedy, but they're not zany. They're very recondite. Right? I think that D.O.D.O. is a best of both worlds. It's a real Goldilocks in that it's super-duper ambitious, got lots of moving parts, tons and tons of characters, but it's also unbelievably funny; like screamingly funny in places. It's weird, because he's such a lifer freelancer. Right? It's been so long since he was in hardhat, and yet he's got the bureaucracy so tightly nailed. Some of that is probably his co-author, but he's been nailing bureaucracy for a long time. The sequence with the feds in Snow Crash is so good.
Is there something more you want to say? About other people's work, about your upcoming work, about the EFF, the stuff that you’re leaving in the middle of? Anything else?
No, I think we covered it. I mean, you know, I am in that point where the rocket is on the launchpad. We are past the point of no return. It is going to take off no matter what happens. I am just hoping that it all works out all right. You know? It's a very nail bite-ish moment. Right? I'd be lying if I didn't say that this was a moment of great nervousness for me, as well as a moment of great hope. I stand here before you, a man on the brink of a life-changing thing, as these tours always are, hoping that all goes well, and looking forward to seeing you and everyone else who reads this interview and reads your article; to seeing them on the tour.
Well, thank you, Cory.
Yeah. You too. Thank you for all the kind attention to the book. I mean, it means a lot. I'm a great admirer of your work, so when people you like like your books, it means a lot.
Cathy Malkasian’s fourth comic, Eartha, is a tense and gorgeous journey. Reading Malkasian’s comics is perhaps the closest equivalent to dreaming that you can experience while you’re awake. The comics feel raw and mysterious and unsettling and more than a little dangerous.
The titular character in Eartha is a naïve young woman who sets out to return dreams to her society. The book feels entirely set in the subconscious — a world in which people read four-word news blurbs printed on biscuits and then perform their emotions of distress about the news in public.
This Saturday, to celebrate the release of Eartha, Malkasian will appear in conversation with Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth at the Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery in Georgetown. We talked about Eartha and her work over the phone last week.
You’ve done a few books with Fantagraphics now. What’s it like putting a book together with them?
The editing process is pretty free. Gary [Groth] really wants the artist to have their own visions, so he'll just ask me if something isn't clear. Sometimes I would want to take out some narration, and he would encourage me maybe to leave it in. He’d just do certain things for clarity. For the most part, he's hands-off. Which is just amazing.
Did you have conversations about the look of the book? It's just a gorgeous book, in terms of production value.
Oh god, Keeli McCarthy's design is so beautiful on this book. Her cover graphic is like a walking labyrinth for the eyes. You could get lost in that world. All of her choices — for the endpapers, everything — it's just beautiful.
I had a bit of say, but I don't like to impose too much of my opinions because I think that kind of hampers the creative process of the designer. So I had comments now and then but I basically just wanted her to just take off and run with it.
One thing that I think that comics can do better than any other medium, including movies, is convey the dream state. I think they can show dreams in a way that no other medium can. This is a very sort of dreamy book to me. I was wondering whether you agree with that or if you disagree.
Well, my general feeling about books is that they're the ultimate interactive medium. When you are reading a book, you're bringing your own unconscious to it, so there's a little alchemy going on there between what you're reading and what you're thinking. Movies will never be able to do that for you because they're controlling the pacing and the editing, but when you read a book, you're in charge of the pacing.
So, yeah, I think for conveying dream-like states and surreal states, I agree. There's nothing like a book. Maybe the next best thing is painting, and some kinds of music, but books — they just do something to the brain that video games and movies just can't come close to, in my opinion.
Sometimes things have to be on-the-nose.
The part in Eartha about news being printed on biscuits and people publicly wailing over the news in a performative state really stuck with me. I'm probably bringing some of my own anxiety to this but, boy, it felt like social media to me. And it very uncomfortable but very appreciated. I don't imagine you probably want to talk too much about the meaning of your work or anything —
No, I think I was pretty insistent on that one. I was doing that on purpose. I'm really worried about addictive technologies and social media. I'm really concerned about what it's doing to people's brains and their outlooks. I don't care if people think I'm being obvious. That's okay. Sometimes the metaphor doesn't have to be very clothed.
Every time I do a book, it's like a time capsule of whatever is going on. There's this proliferation of addictive technologies, and the people inventing them are even saying that: ‘Yeah, we invent them to be addictive. We want you to be on your phone all the time.’
In your profession, you have to be connected all the time. It's gotta be crazy-making, don't you think?
I certainly feel that way right now, yes.
So you have a more of a hands-off approach to technology, then?
I've lived most of my life before all this but I've been working with Apple computers since the late '80s. I love all that stuff. But then around 10 years or so ago, I guess when the first smartphones came out, I just noticed things started to change.
People's attention spans started to change and then social media came on the scene and it just felt like this runaway train. I really think it's changed people. It's changed their outlooks, their sense of reality, a little too much. Then apart from social media you've got this proliferation of cable outlets and reality shows, so-called reality shows. When everybody's wailing over their biscuits in the book, they're all sort of in their own little reality show where they're the star.
I really felt it. I really appreciated that it felt like I was on Facebook watching somebody melt down over the news in front of me a little bit — that sort of neurotic feeling that I get from watching somebody demonstrate the performative angst that you see out there a lot. Did you worry that it would be too on-the-nose?
No, I didn't. Because sometimes things have to be on-the-nose. I'm not worried about being really, really clever and impressive and intellectually tricky with people. I don't care about that stuff. I care about emotion.
I love that the main character is not a traditionally attractive heroine — that she has a different body shape than many female comics characters. And there are, of course, people who are making comments about her body all the way through the book. Was she always the protagonist, and was she always in this form?
As a protagonist and a hero, I wanted her to be a very socially awkward person who didn't know her own strength. Because who can't relate to that?
I wanted her to be as ordinary as possible. I really like every protagonist in stories I do to be someone very ordinary — someone who is very reluctant about getting involved.
If you ever get around to reading my first book, Percy Gloom, he's very much in that mold. He does not want to get involved. He is really mouthy but he ends up affecting a lot of change just through no conscious action of his own. It's just kind of from being there.
Does that present any challenge for you as a storyteller, having your main characters start out that passive?
Yeah, it's really hard to plot for a protagonist that's kind of passive. It's a real challenge. With [Eartha], she's especially kind and passive. Like, what's gonna wake that giant?
So you’ve really gotta create an antagonist who is doing so much obvious damage to everyone around him that she just, as the main character, can't take it anymore.
Does that maybe relate to how you feel about social media and technologies addictiveness? Are you at a point where you can’t take it anymore?
Well, I don't know. Maybe. I think that everyone has to come to that point within themselves. And that's sort of the whole gist of the book is that you can shut off your misery at any time.
Everyone's addiction is voluntary in this book, even though they've been very much conditioned into it. I guess that's my attitude right now, is that we're inundated with stories from all directions — from TV, from blogs, from social media, we are inundated — and we're exhausted. But I think if you can just land on something that feels real and deep, at least for a little while, it takes you out of that addictive behavior.
Do you ever worry that you're adding to the inundation of culture with your books?
But I'm trying to work in a medium that consciously slows people down and gets them to focus. Because you just can't zip through any of the books I do. You’ve really gotta sit with them. You have to live with them and maybe read them a few times.
I know a lot of people don't want to do that, and that's fine. But for those that are looking for something to sit with and spend time with, then it can temporarily take them out of that.
The art is just gorgeous in this book, and it the sort of thing you want to spend time on every page because you put so much work into it, it's just very obvious.
Well, I'm trying to get people to slow down. That's part of the reason I did the artwork that way. I'm being so manipulative.
Is it moreso in this book that you're trying to get people to slow down, you think, or is that just your style?
Yeah, it is. Yeah, it's all of a piece.
I mean, the whole book is about people who are so fragmented to the point where they can't even dream anymore.
I know, from personal experimentation that if you have a day where you're on social media a lot or you have to be on the internet a lot, at the end of the day you are fragmented. It's really hard, for me at least, to concentrate or to even know what I think about anything because I've been taking in so many other stories. It's hard to know what my opinions are. It's hard to hear that still, small voice.
Can you tell me a little bit about what sort of techniques you used in the art to make people slow down?
Well, I'm trying to create environments and people that feel real to me.
You know, I can't spell it out for you, A-B-C. I'm not a trained artist. I'm more of a self-taught artist, so I go very much by instinct. And there's a stage — at right about the time when I'm writing and outlining and doing all that stuff — where I'm really envisioning the places and figuring out how the cities work and the countryside works and what the culture is and how the people treat each other.
I keep drawing until something feels real to me. And I don't even know what that mechanism is, but there's something that clicks, finally, and that's when it feels real to me. So I couldn't say, ‘oh, it's the composition,’or whatever. It's more like, ‘okay, I know I'm there now, I feel I'm there. Now the drawing's done.’
The same with characters, too. It just was really kind of a challenge to try and figure out how these personalities looked. Especially with Eartha. I drew so many versions of Eartha before I landed on the one that's in the book because she had to be powerful but very, very naïve and innocent-looking. She had to look very goodhearted and just open.
Finally, this is more of a personal note but I loved the character of Old Lloyd. I was wondering if it was based on a person or if it just came to you or what. I just loved that character.
Old Lloyd is my id. He's the character I relate to most when I get really disgusted about what's going on. He was very easy to write. Thank you for liking him, because he's my favorite character.
Yeah. He is. He's crafty and he's grumpy as hell but real deep down, he's really kind. He's just worried.
I'm glad you liked him.
This Saturday, every comic book store in the greater Seattle Area will celebrate Free Comic Book Day, an industry-specific holiday. FCBD is exactly what it sounds like: stores give away free comics — traditionally samplers of new and upcoming series that publishers would like to promote to new readers — to anyone who visits.
For many years, the Wallingford shop Comics Dungeon has put on Seattle’s greatest Free Comic Book Day show, with guest creator appearances, signings, and cosplayers dressed like superheroes or pop culture characters. One year, an entire team of Storm Troopers from Star Wars stood outside the store and waved people inside. Traffic in front of the store on NE 45th slowed down due to excessive rubbernecking.
Earlier this year, Comics Dungeon owner Scott Tomlin made a big announcement: he was taking his store nonprofit. Tomlin announced that he was founding a new comics-centric education program called Comics for Community, Compassion and Culture — C4C3 for short. We talked with Tomlin about his new roles as president of C4C3 and executive officer at Comics Dungeon, what C4C3 is all about, and what to expect for Free Comic Book Day this year.
Could you talk about the nonprofit, which I understand is fairly new?
Yeah it is. We actually launched the nonprofit in March at Emerald City Comic Con — we technically had applied a couple weeks before, but we launched then.
Our whole mission is about getting comic books into schools, libraries and classrooms. Over the years, we've done programs with schools and teachers and librarians, but we’ve been seeing this really big interest in the comics lately. One, because of the pop culture aspect — it's become more mainstream nowadays.
The medium of comics changes people's approach to education and reading, and we've found that the schools and libraries are actually surprisingly underfunded in some of these arenas. I just found out at least one of the middle schools in Edmonds, for example, has a zero dollar budget for their school library. We're finding that to be a little more common than not, unfortunately. When they do get money, they tend to focus on the staples and don't want to necessarily expand.
So that's what we're trying to do. Just last week, we opened up our grant period — our first one of the organization — where we're offering to librarians and teachers the opportunity to apply for grants of up to $300 to get comic books into the school library.
And what is the relationship between Comics Dungeon and Comics for Community, Compassion, and Culture?
The Comics Dungeon has actually been around for 26 years in Seattle. I owned it for 11 years. We just converted that organization into the nonprofit.
One kind of parallel, if it helps, is to think of us as the gift store at a museum. The museum's a nonprofit organization; they happen to have a retail arm. But all the profits we make out of this store go to funding our cause, and obviously paying salary of the staff. The store's our primary fundraising source but it's not our only one. We take donations and all of that as well.
Do you have any programs together yet? What does your outreach look like?
Our programs are going to be demand-driven initially. We have one in store; we're doing a kids art program. Basically, it's a drawing club. Kids who like to draw come together and hang out with other kids who like to draw. We have book clubs in the store as well, and we're going to be reaching to the schools and see what we can do about coming in and helping them out.
One of the things we're doing in this grant process is asking these educators what are they interested in having: Is it in-class presentations? Is it professional development presentations?
Has anything surprised you so far, in terms of the need and what people are interested in?
Yeah. When we launched at Emerald City, we were a little tentative. We weren't sure how people were going to react, basically, but we got an overwhelmingly positive reception. We met a lot of educators at the convention that were just doing backflips on the whole concept. People were asking, "can I volunteer for you tomorrow?" Things like that. That was really exciting.
What we found, too, is that we haven't yet found a teacher that wasn't interested. Whether you're a science teacher, a history teacher, an English teacher, or an art teacher, there's value for you in comic books. (We're still struggling with the math teachers, but we want to get there too.)
It's just really surprising how positive the reception has been and how generous people have been. We've received probably 10 longboxes as donations in our first month and a half, as well as a few hundred dollars’ worth of cash donations as well. It's been rewarding to see the value of what we're doing catching on so quickly.
That leads into my next question, which is what can people do to help?
Obviously, donations. It’s a great way to donate comic collections. A lot of comic collections aren't worth what people want them to be, and this allows them to have a better tax situation potentially at the end of the year.
And we obviously love cash donations, but the easiest thing to do is, if you buy comic books, just come shop here because it benefits our organization automatically. We're also going to be starting some volunteer programs to help us around the store.
We’re at http://www.C4C3.org, and our email is firstname.lastname@example.org. if you have any ideas or any interests we can be reached there and happy to discuss and figure something out.
With Free Comic Book Day, you guys have always had the biggest show in town. Do you have any plans for this year?
Yeah. This year, almost all day we’ll have at least one creator on hand. These are local creators that are producing well-known books. Obviously, we'll have the free comic books, and a sale to go along with that.
We always have our “Day After Free Comic Book Day Sale” as well. That focuses on back issues, and back issues are one of our best ways to raise money for the nonprofit, because that's typically where we have our best margins.
We might have some cosplayers this year, but we'll see. They're like herding cats, sometimes.
Last week, Thomas Frank was in town to read at Town Hall Seattle from his new-in-paperback book Listen, Liberal. If you're looking to understand what went wrong with the Democratic Party over the last few years, this is the book for you: Frank explains that Democratic leaders have over time shifted the Democrats from a working-class party to a league of meritocratic professional elites. While Frank was in Seattle, he agreed to meet for a podcast interview for my day job at Civic Ventures. The full interview will be released on Thursday of this week as the first episode of the second season of our new podcast, The Other Washington. (You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes or, as they say, wherever you get your podcasts.) But for now, here's a sample of our conversation.
I very much enjoyed Listen Liberal. I wish I'd read it sooner. A lot of the book is given over the argument that the Democratic Party is in thrall of elitists who've risen through the secondary education system. You argue that the Democratic Party has become a meritocracy that rewards cautious thinking and conventional wisdom. One thing about the book that I kept waiting for you to do — and one thing that the book always felt like it was on the precipice of doing — was going after secondary education in this country. Because all these elitist people have to come from a system, right? It just repeatedly walks up to the idea of talking about systemic educational reform and then backs off. I was wondering if that’s something you’re working on next?
I already did. There’s no reason why you would know this, but I wrote a series of essays for The Baffler magazine and Harper's magazine about universities, college admissions, all the various scandals in universities, and also about adjuncts.
Back in the 80s and 90s, I went to graduate school in American history. I got a PhD. I wanted to be a professor. I wanted to be a historian. What I discovered as soon as I got my PhD is that the path to being a tenured professor in the American university system had basically been closed to my generation, and to all the succeeding generations.
Instead, professors and university teachers have been casualized. You get your PhD and go out and you have to work as what's called an adjunct, you make very, very, very — you'd be surprised how little these people get paid to teach college students. The majority of university classes in America are taught by adjuncts. They get paid very, very, very little.
The university system has fascinated me because on the one hand the price tag is now, as we all know, outrageous. It's completely off the handle. University of Chicago, where I get my PhD, is close to $65,000 a year now. They're all like that. All of your top tier universities are like that.
State universities are following along behind as they get defunded by the states. The tuition is incredibly high, and yet the people who teach the courses are basically sub-minimum wage employees. Someone forwarded me an article a while ago; it was talking about various people who work at low-wage occupations and what they might do to help themselves. It was listing the low-wage occupations — like people who work in fast-food, people who are in housekeeping, this kind of thing.
One of the occupations that was listed was university teaching. You have to get a PhD to do that! That takes many, many, many years. You're supposed to be the smartest and the best, and all that crap, right? You've done well on your tests and everything, and you've got straight A’s and you've read every book in the goddamn library. That's your future, and it stinks.
That split — that universities are incredibly expensive and university teachers by and large get paid next to nothing — whoa, that is shocking when you put those two facts together and when you try to understand the American university system. And at the same time, the prestige of [the university system] grows and grows and grows.
I live in Bethesda, Maryland. More than 50 percent of the population has an advanced degree of some kind. Everybody has internalized the hierarchy of educational institutions. This is important to everyday life: where I live, people know that such and such a school is really, really, really good and such and such another school is not quite as good.
A friend of mine, his son, I think his son was ten at the time, said, "Daddy, is Williams above Princeton, or is Princeton above Williams?" Of course, his dad knew what he meant. The kid was trying to figure out the hierarchy of American higher education at age ten. This is common where I live. Where you go to college is this incredibly important thing — it's putting a brand label on you. We all know these stories once you start digging into the American university system — the words “fraud” and “scam” just instantly come to mind. Sorry, that's the way I feel about it.
At the same time, remember, I'm a great believer in this. I got a PhD. What would make me happiest in my life would be to spend all my day sitting in the stupid library and writing another dissertation. I love that way of life.
When news broke last month that Joan Swift had died, the Seattle literary community erupted in outpourings of grief. A shared sensation spread quickly around Facebook that something momentous had passed with her. At 90 years old, Swift was well-loved by many generations of Seattle writers, and she provided a direct link to the history of Northwest literature. She was one of the last living writers to learn directly from Seattle poetry godfather Theodore Roethke, and she shepherded generations of writers out of anonymity and into maturity.
Tess Gallagher (on the left on the photo) met Swift (on the right) in 1963 when both had enrolled in what would be Roethke’s final spring poetry workshop. Roethke developed nicknames for several of his students, and “he called [Swift] ‘Mother’ since she had two children and was a bit older than others” in the class, Gallagher recalls.
Gallagher was 20 years old, and one of the two youngest students in the workshop. “Joan was extremely kind to me and took me under her wing,” Gallagher writes in an email. “We sat near each other in the class and it helped me greatly that she took an interest in my poems and clarified things that were asked of us by Roethke from time to time.” She doesn’t know what she would have done had Swift not “made me welcome in her quiet, bemused but affable way.” Swift and Gallagher have been friends ever since. “I considered her a close friend with whom one could share life details and gossip a bit with and just laugh with in a special way,” she writes.
The Puget Sound region is full of stories like that — tales of how Swift reached out to others, and how that first act of kindness blossomed into a lifelong friendship. Seattle poet Esther Altshul Helfgott first saw Swift read at the Frye around the year 2000, and they became fast friends. Helfgott started the It’s About Time open mic series at Ravenna's Eckstein Senior Center a quarter-century ago as a way for new writers to practice their craft on a public platform. She says “some poets and writers of Joan's caliber wouldn't give us a second look, but Joan read for” the series on multiple occasions; she especially appreciated that Swift “treated me like an equal. That doesn’t happen with well-known people in the literary community. She was just so warm and giving.”
Swift had been a high-profile poet in the Seattle area for so long that her monolithic presence could sometimes overshadow the very fine, delicate work in her poems. “Her use of language is so beautiful and lyrical, and the warmth of her personality is reflected in her language,” Helfgott says.
“She is so entirely present in her encounters within the poem that, reading her poems, you accompany her at a high intensity,” Gallagher says. “Her endings often sink the poem deep into your memory so the poem is carried and not released. She is so exact in her image and language that one immediately trusts her, follows her. Her voice has its truth seemingly embedded within it.”
The honesty of Swift’s voice opened doors for other poets. Shortly after news of Swift’s death broke, Sherman Alexie told me about the impact that her work had on him as a young poet. “Way back when, in college, or just after college, I read a Joan Swift poem about eagles having sex as they plummet toward the earth, how they sometimes forget to uncouple and crash to their deaths,” Alexie says. “And I remember thinking, ‘Wait, it's cool to write a poem about eagles fucking to death? Awesome!’ Joan introduced a new rule of poetry to me. Or broke the old rules. Or both.”
“She writes about difficult subjects that others might shy away from,” Gallagher says, citing the poem “Shin-Ichi’s Tricycle” from Swift’s forthcoming book from Cave Moon press as an example. “That ending makes us wear the death of the little boy in the bombing of Hiroshima and she convicts us of us death in such a deadly no-escape way in her ending. She’s a take-no-prisoners kind of writer.”
Swift wrote candidly about rape, Gallagher says, “long before other women would write about it.” Helfgott says that one of the last poems Swift ever completed, “Sometimes a Lake” is one of her most courageous. The poem addresses the suicide of Swift’s daughter, Laurie, and it “is so gorgeous. When she would talk on the phone about Laurie, there was nothing in her voice or her words speaking to me that were like that poem.” In the poem, Swift captures the moment when she goes through Laurie’s effects, looking for a greater meaning that isn’t there.
These boxes are almost empty—
just air and losses.
But here’s a photo album where you’re smiling
with friends, your borderline disorder group.
Everyone I talked to remarks that Swift was working right up until the end. At 90, by all accounts, she was still as sharp a writer and reader as she’d ever been. Cave Moon Press publisher Doug Johnson was working closely with Swift on a volume of poems titled The Body that Follows Us that will be published next month. On Tuesday, May 16th, Open Books in Wallingford will host a memorial service for Swift that will serve as a launch for the book.
Johnson says that Swift was thoroughly involved with the editing process. Unlike some of the books he’s published, Swift “handed me an extremely well-formatted book,” one that was clean and well-formatted and basically ready for publication immediately. But they passed the manuscript back and forth for months, editing it and talking about fonts and making sure everything was perfect.
“Joan very much wanted to get it extremely right,” Johnson says. “She wanted to carry it through to the best of her ability.”
Grab Back Comics is a site that collects and publishes comics about sexual assault, harassment, advocacy, and consent education. It’s produced, edited, written, and curated by a Seattle cartoonist who uses the pseudonym “Erma Blood.” In person, Blood is thoughtful and eloquent. When the conversation turns to abuse stories, she’s always quick to turn the focus to survivors — what they need, what they feel, how to help. In less than an hour, the immense reserves of compassion and consideration she’s poured into the topic becomes apparent.
As the Trump-inspired name suggests, the idea for Grab Back Comics “came to me after the election,” Blood says. To celebrate her first wedding anniversary, “I went away on a trip with my wife and it was very sweet. But my experience of the coverage of sexual assaults and harassment during the election had really taken a toll.” She couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that a man who had openly bragged about his history as an abuser was about to become the most powerful human in the world. “It felt like it really shut me down. I just didn't feel like I was engaging in the way that I wanted to,” Blood says.
She knew from her own experiences that she wasn’t alone: “a lot of people are really suffering. And I wasn't sure what I could do, but I felt as though I needed to do something.” As corny as it sounds, the idea of Grab Back Comics came to her in a dream during that anniversary trip. Once she got back, she started work on building it in Wordpress. “It's pretty close to the way I imagined,” Blood says.
The first order of business was to seek out work that already existed. “I'm trained as a research scientist, and so this work of digging in and finding details and looking for more is familiar ground,” Blood explains. And once she started releasing Grab Back Comics into the world, “some comics friends of mine asked if they could contribute.” It’s been growing nonstop ever since.
Blood sees the site as a continuation of a Northwest tradition, born from “my own roots in riot grrrl and in punk rock and making independent fanzines when I was a teenager.” She learned as a young artist in the 1990s to “crystallize” her “anger and discomfort into something creative.” Her voice on the site is absolutely in that spirit of empathy and rage: — “very direct, very feminist, very no-nonsense, and at the same time, very supportive of people who are having a hard time, who are suffering from our current political climate.”
Just a handful of months in, the site is already a tremendous resource, collecting everything from Namibian comics that provide resources for survivors to “bro to bro” guides explaining consent to a 1984 Marvel Comic that discusses Spider-Man’s history as a survivor of sexual abuse. Blood also reviews books on the topic and interviews cartoonists. As you’d expect from someone who works in research, the site is fastidiously tagged so users can find first-person accounts, work relating specifically to date rape drugs or incest, and comics produced for public health campaigns.
The need for a site like Grab Back Comics is obvious. Just in terms of the amount of preexisting work it catalogues, it’s clear that artists have been working on this wavelength for decades. Why does Blood think that comics are such a useful medium for this kind of work? “With comics we can integrate more than one type of voice and perspective — a graphic voice, a written voice. We can integrate scenery and backgrounds and set moods that, I think, can be more richly rendered than in written narratives when they're done really well.”
Blood has been surprised by some of her findings. “I learned that there is a pretty impressive movement in India around sexual assault and child sexual abuse, particularly, by relatives,” she says. “Of all of the international comics I found, there seems to be a lot of energy in India around those topics. It's something that I'd like to learn more about.” She’s also happy to find that the work has become more inclusive: “conversations around all of these topics of consent and sexual assault and child abuse have expanded to include all genders” in the decades that they’ve been around, she says. When comics about assault first appeared, they tended to “focus very heavily on women, and particularly on middle-class white women, and that's really changed over time.”
Blood is looking for submissions to an upcoming print Grab Back Comics anthology. Between now and May 21st, cartoonists should submit their work relating to the whole array of experiences, from consent to abuse to recovery, to grab.back.comics[at]gmail.com. Blood will assemble those submissions into a minicomic which she’ll then distribute at the Comics and Medicine Conference, which is happening in Seattle this June, and at the Short Run Comix & Art Festival in November.
If you have a question about the anthology, you should get in touch with Blood. She’s also interested in connecting writers with artists, too. “Artists have told me they don't have a story to tell, and other people I know have told me they don't want to draw their own story. So I'm starting to try to link up artists with people who have stories,” she says.
For Blood, this journey has been inspiring. When I ask what themes she’s encountered in all the work she’s collected, she doesn’t hesitate. “I consistently am finding with all of these stories that there's so much bravery and honesty and a willingness to be vulnerable in order to create connection.” Grab Back Comics honors that spirit, and expands the connection to a whole new audience of readers.
Colleen Louise Barry publishes weird and wonderful books under the name Mount Analogue. It’s not just the name of her press so much as a pseudonym; the names “Mount Analogue” and “Colleen Louise Barry” are basically synonymous, the way “Nine Inch Nails” and “Trent Reznor” can be swapped out interchangeably.
Her books have a small print run and, externally, a minimalistic aesthetic. (Barry cites low-impact press Publication Studio as an inspiration for Mount Analogue’s look.) But open those covers and you’re likely to see something you’ve never seen before. Mount Analogue has published political pamphlets and weirdo poetry and hand-crafted erasures and books that are entirely made out of screen captures from episodes of The Bachelor with the closed-captioning left on. For the rest of this week, we’re going to review one Mount Analogue title per day, in order to give you a sense of the scope of her output.
In person, Barry exudes positivity: she smiles a lot, she wears clothing fashioned from bright and interesting fabrics, and she demonstrates enthusiasm for everything from comics to physics to booksellers to television shows. She’s curious and confident and full of energy and all those other qualities you want to see in a relatively new publisher.
So when we meet at Ada’s Technical Books one afternoon, I decide to open with the hardest question in the arsenal: Why, in the year 2017, would anyone want to be a publisher?
“When I graduated from college in 2010, I moved straight to New York and started working in publishing at Random House,” Barry explains. “We would have these grand meetings every week with all the publishers of each imprint,” she says, “and I happened to work for the mass-market trade paperback imprint: George Martin and Danielle Steele and all these people. We had this money-focused idea about books.”
Barry says every meeting hinged on defending books from some invisible attacker, with questions like: "How are we going to strategize, how are we going to survive ebooks? How are we going to survive Amazon?" Everyone focused on “the nostalgic value of books and the idea of the physicality of books,” but at the same time they were publishing books that were “produced so cheaply and so quickly and so cookie-cutter.” The stuff she was doing at her day job didn’t reflect her own “really personal relationship with books and with reading.” Barry recalls thinking to herself again and again at those meetings: "Well, y'all aren't the future of books."
“These small publishers and these communities that gather around the ideas in books and the way that books populate their lives physically as objects — that's the future,” she says. The future of books is “smaller” and more personal. “So I left Random House and went to grad school at UMass Amherst and did my MFA in poetry. My parents freaked out about that,” she admits.
Barry abruptly cut one future short and embraced another “partly because I wanted to not just be constantly worried about what was dying, but to really be a part of what I felt was the pulse and what was alive — which was communities, thoughtful production, thoughtful cross-genre, ways that books become other things, can become worlds.”
All of which is a great answer, of course, but it doesn’t get to the nut of the question: why publishing? Why not just writing? “I like having conversations about things — not necessarily conversations like sitting across from a table with someone and talking.” To her, publication is a process of conversation. She points to one of Mount Analogue’s books, Ted Powers’ Manners. “If, for example, Ted has this collection of poems and this collection of collages, I want to put them together and then I want to risograph them and publish them that way, because when you put them all together like that, that makes something totally new.”
The act of publishing, Barry says, does deal in “other peoples’ art, and it is so important and meaningful to me to give a platform to that. But also I feel that it's my art, too. It's really collaboration, I think.”
So far, Mount Analogue has been built on small local grants from organizations like the Office of Arts and Culture. Barry says when she publishes a title, they start with “about 200 books a print run, with the idea that we will do second runs in the future,” although she does leave open the option of completely changing the books between print runs, in an effort to make the mass production of books “meaningful, rather than just reprinting things.”
Mount Analogue is home to a number of projects including a quarterly series called Conversations with Women, which Barry describes as “basically an excuse for me to make art with a lot of really incredible people who identify as female in my life and beyond.” The first conversation is a “wild hybrid of fiction, tarot, comics, and field guides to birds. We put them all together in this deck of cards” into a “re-arrange-able short story.” The next conversation will be titled Fumetti for the Mothership. (Fumetti is an Italian word for comics made from photos instead of drawing.)
Barry doesn’t retain any snobbish distinctions between poetry or comics. To her, it’s all art. “I love comics, I draw comics, I think comics are maybe my window into our books and how I first encountered art in a serial book form, which is pretty important for me.” That’s one way that the city has “inspired” her work as a publisher: “there are so many great publishers and artists of comics in Seattle that it was really exciting when I first got here.”
But that raises another question: why did Barry move to Seattle after graduating from UMass? Why not, say, Brooklyn? Her answer for that is pretty straightforward: “money was a big factor.” But isn’t Seattle expensive, too? Why not Portland or Olympia? Barry says “the community here is really vibrant and a huge reason why what I do is even possible at all.”
When she was publishing her first books, she immediately found a number of people who were eager to work with her to bring her exact vision to life. She published with Saigon Printing on Beacon Hill and Phil’s Custom Bindery in Georgetown, and both were eager to work with her schedule and establish payment plans. The Factory offered to host her launch party for free. “Every single part of [the publication process] is so beautiful and unique,” Barry says. “I don't know if it would be possible in other cities to do something like that.”
This summer, Barry is collaborating with curator Molly Mac on a show called “Listen” at Georgetown gallery Equinox. “The show is audio work, essentially — audio and film and lots of ideas about listening, essentially, and what it means to listen.” She’s working on a companion book for the show, which she describes as “a strange art object.” And then in the fall, she’s publishing a book titled Clean Rooms, Low Rates, which is a collaboration featuring stories about hotel rooms written by a novelist named Jeff Parker and a photos of hotel rooms by a British photographer named Brendan Barry.
In the long run, Barry dreams of opening up a space for Mount Analogue somewhere in the city, something as freeform and inventive as the books she publishes. She describes a space to buy zines and small-press books, a performance space, a gallery, and an area for people to just come and talk about art, “a place where everything can coincide and collide into each other.” That’s about as good a definition for the Mount Analogue experience as any.
Last week was awfully long for Zine Archive and Publishing Project (ZAPP) managing director Graham Isaac and ZAPP volunteer operations coordinator Emily Cabaniss. On Monday night, the Seattle Review of Books published the news that Hugo House was donating ZAPP’s extensive collection — tens of thousands of zines collected over almost two decades at their headquarters in the Hugo House — to Seattle Public Library. On Tuesday, ZAPP published a statement saying that “we did not give up the archive, it was taken from us.” On Wednesday, I talked with Hugo House executive director Tree Swenson and SPL spokesperson Andra Addison about the move. By the time they met with me on Thursday afternoon, Isaac and Cabaniss looked pretty tired (“I’m exhausted,” Isaac wrote on Facebook earlier in the week.) But as they huddled over their coffees, Cabaniss and Isaac perked up when they talked about making zines. They’re clearly true believers in the DIY literature community, with a bottomless enthusiasm for self-expression. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
How did you come to be involved with ZAPP?
Graham Isaac: I got involved with ZAPP in 2009 as a volunteer, and then I was communications intern from 2010 through 2011. I stepped away for a few years, just volunteering at occasional events. Then I started getting back involved as a volunteer in 2013, when ZAPP left Hugo House. I was mainly doing things like press releases and whatnot, and then I stepped in as managing director in early 2015.
Emily Cabaniss: I came to ZAPP in December of 2014. First I was doing social media stuff. I have experience doing social media exhibits, so I did Tumblr exhibits for ZAPP.
That kind of morphed into being an extra set of hands for ZAPP. Then in early 2015, when Graham became the managing director, I took on a more active role doing ZAPP's budgets, representing ZAPP to our sponsor Shunpike, and planning meetings, strategies, delegation — a lot of stuff like that.
The way we present literature by default can be really disempowering to readers. It can make them feel like they’re just consumers.
When ZAPP first untethered from Hugo House and it was floating in limbo, what was your vision for it?
GI: At that point I was largely involved as an extra set of hands, but I think for everyone I talked to, and for everyone who has been involved, the dream vision has always been an independent space where ZAPP could run programming, have the entire archive accessible, and grow the archive. The goal since untethering has always been to find a space where ZAPP could be ZAPP, so to speak.
EC: One of ZAPP's main values is radical accessibility. When we talk about the archive we also want to talk about the publishing component, and I think we intended the collection to be not really a special collection whose main priority was preservation, but instead to be this springboard for continued creativity. Be a way to preserve the voices of people who had made zines, but also show people that anyone's voice anyone can make a zine.
It boiled down to “read a zine, make a zine.” The idea was that you could make a zine and put it right in ZAPP. You could shelve it yourself.
This is a super-elementary question, but I actually don't think I've addressed this in my coverage so far, and it's really important for people who are just now hearing about ZAPP: Why are zines still relevant for you in 2017?
GI: There's a lot of reasons. I think for one, just the physical act of making something can be very powerful. Even if you [create] it on a computer but staple it yourself, you have a connection to the work that's really awesome.
I also think that as we're seeing more and more top-down arts organizations suffer and as we're seeing more and more surveillance of the internet and whatnot, the idea of something that is wholly independent is valuable. It doesn't have to go through various processes. This is important. But other things are important too, but this is important.
EC: When I think about zines, I think about the way that we're introduced to the literary tradition in school — the way we are given these books and are told, "these are the great books; you must read them." But there is not really that connection of “how did someone get to write great books? How did someone get their voice?" How does that happen?
The way we present literature by default can be really disempowering to readers. It can make them feel like they're just consumers. Zines to me are a way to short-circuit that process. To give people the power to make and create whatever they want. To make them feel like what they make has value, and to let their voices be heard and read and seen, unfettered by a publishing process.
GI: It's also just really satisfying.
EC: It's fun, yeah.
GI: Once you've made it and it's done and you look at it, it just feels great. Not to necessarily sound all, like, “woohoo!” about it, but just spreading that feeling and making it accessible and low-barrier has been very important.
You've issued your statement. It seems as though the collection is in the hands of, or is about to be in the hands of, Seattle Public Library. I mean, it's physically in their hands, but the custody rights may not officially be there. But it's almost there. It's very confusing.
GI: At this point, all the communication that we've received from Tree and the library indicated that any sort of final signatures were a mere formality. So, we have to operate with the assumption that it is going to the library and that it is a done deal.
It's a really tough time for you and I'm sorry about what happened. You've put a lot of work into this over the years. I want to know if there's anything you wanted to say to the community and the donors who've supported you over the years?
GI: Well, I think first off, just: thank you for that support, and for being there for us, and letting us do our best to be there for you. Also, we wanted to let people know that the way that this transpired was not the way we would have chosen. We recognize that many people who donated zines, time, and energy over the years have done so with the goal of a fully independent and sustainable ZAPP. And that's why we wanted to make sure people knew the details of the transaction.
EC: Yeah, we'd say thank you for your love, and it's been a really great experience to read all the memories that people have of ZAPP on social media — their Facebook comments and their articles. It makes me feel like this is not the end.
I would say to them: zines don't die. ZAPP closes, but you don't stop making zines, you don't stop being this person. So many people have said that ZAPP, and their experience of ZAPP, was this thing that made them the person that they are. I want to say to everyone who had an experience like that: go out and be the person that you are because of ZAPP. That's ZAPP's legacy.
GI: There are so many communities and projects that grew out of ZAPP over the years, and I think those will carry on regardless. I think that larger community is still going to be there, and I think that's excellent.
So, it sounds like we're on the “what's next” portion of the conversation. First I wanted to ask, what do you see your connection to this community being going forward? And then, what in would you, personally, like to do next?
GI: If I can bring back to ZAPP first, for a second: I think the one thing I want to say is I am glad at least, that we can pay it forward a little bit to things, places like Hollow Earth Radio, Short Run Festival, and IPRC. Those are examples of the communities I was talking about.
For myself, I'm going to work on some of my own art now, and try and engage with the community just as a member, as a listener, as a reader, as an artist. I'm not really trying to start any new nonprofits for a little while, you know?
EC: All of this work has been hugely educational for me personally. I'm grateful for that, because I'm a different person — hopefully a better person — now because of it.
I think kind of the same thing. I don't really want to start any nonprofits. I do want to put what I learned at ZAPP to work for other organizations. But I don't know. I think I need a break.
I really didn't have any connection with the community before I started with ZAPP. I'm a librarian, that's my job. And that was the route that I came to zines: someone I knew said, "You're a librarian, you want to talk about zines?"
Now, I know more people in the community, and I want to do more listening and I want to do more learning. We made something, and I want to keep making stuff. And I want to be an advocate for zines to people that I know.
GI: I definitely put some of my own writing and artistic projects on hold during this. I want to get back to some of that. You know, go make a zine.
One day, Jamaica Baldwin’s name just started popping up everywhere in Seattle literary circles. Two years ago, I had never seen her name before. Then from out of the blue in January of 2016 came this tweet from Kwame Dawes:
Remember this name: JAMAICA BALDWIN. A poet of power will cross your path soon.— Kwame Dawes (@kwamedawes) January 8, 2016
And then Baldwin was everywhere at once. She was part of the exclusive Margin Shift poetry collective’s reading series and the 2016 Lit Crawl and seemingly everywhere else in the Seattle literary scene. Adding to the drama of her out-of-nowhere debut was the mystery surrounding her name; as a poet, Baldwin was un-Google-able. You couldn’t find her poetry anywhere online.
That’s finally changed. Last month, Rattle published Baldwin’s stunning poem “Call Me By My Name” in both print and audio. And now she’s our March Poet in Residence, with a new poem published on the site every Tuesday. We’ve published two of her poems thus far, “Father/Less” and “Vigilant.” Together, the two poems reflect much of Baldwin’s interest: she writes passionately about race and politics, with an engaged voice and a tendency toward formalist structure.
Those lucky few who’ve seen her read might be surprised to learn that Baldwin, 40, describes herself as “a relatively new writer.” She started writing in 2009, and began taking writing seriously after she moved to moved New York City in 2011 and took a workshop at the Center for Fiction. She mostly wrote plays and fiction. But then “I got diagnosed with breast cancer,” she says, “and then, you know, something turned. I found myself reading a lot of poetry, and then I started writing poetry, and that was just kind of it.”
Baldwin has lived in Seattle off and on since she was “about 19.” At the time of her diagnosis, she was living in New York City, but she moved back west to be close to her family as she finished treatment. Sitting in a Fremont coffee shop on a gray March day, she seems healthy and strong, prone to infectious gales of laughter.
Though Baldwin has only been writing poetry for a few years, she’s been exposed to poetry her whole life. She wasn't a big reader of poetry as a child, but "my mom was a writer and so there was always a lot of poetry around the house,” she explains. “I would pick up a book here and there — some Nikki Giovanni laying around the house, or Mary Oliver. That kind of thing.”
“After cancer, I just thought about things in a different way,” Baldwin says. “And I think poetry helped me. The writing of poetry, the form of poetry attracted me and spoke to me.” Her reading became more varied and purposeful, focusing on poets of the African diaspora. Baldwin went to school with Laurie Ann Guerrero, last year’s poet laureate of Texas, and so she had a personal introduction to contemporary poetry. She found new meaning in the work of Ross Gay and Terrance Hayes. Locally, she praises the work of Maged Zaher and Quenton Baker, and she’s eager to learn from Elizabeth Austen’s “pitch perfect” presentation style as a 2017 Jack Straw Writer.
“I knew I was behind,” Baldwin says of her poetry education. “There was just so much out there to learn.” The thing about poetry, though, is that if you want to learn more, poets will show you the way. “I would read interviews by the poets that I was discovering, and then they would mention books or poets that they love. And then I would go and find those poets, so it was sort of this domino effect of just trying to read as much as I could.”
Having recently graduated from Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing Program with a focus on poetry, Baldwin worried that “without the deadlines, I would hit a dry spell and not be able to write. But it was almost the opposite.” She finds “there are plenty of things to write about every day. I mean, I get triggered by things that I read, or things that are going on in the world. And then I also get triggered by just reading other peoples’ poetry.” She describes stopping in the middle of reading a poem and writing a response to it right then and there. Poetry, for Baldwin, is a conversation — and that conversation is just getting started.
I first met Stephanie Han in Los Angeles in 1998 when we were chosen as fellows in a new literary mentorship program, PEN’s Emerging Voices. Looking back, we were both arrogant in the way of young untested writers, but at least Stephanie could back up her attitude. She was well-read and discerning about literature. During one workshop, she explained the Shakespearean allusions in the manuscript up for review; allusions that everyone else had missed.
We kept in touch when the program ended. During these years we learned the long game of a writer’s life. We trudged through periods of literary success and rejection while balancing responsibilities like caring for elder parents, working uninteresting jobs, having partners and raising kids. Stephanie lived abroad and in several U.S. cities during this time, and her first published story collection, Swimming in Hong Kong, examines the struggles of characters who are expatriates and immigrants. According to Han, the difference between the two categories hinges on one’s identity and national definitions. “The US doesn’t have expatriates in our social understanding of culture--we have immigrants,” she says. “You are expected to come here and assimilate and not hold your other national or cultural identity, but rather, add to the American identity.”
After finishing her collection, I found myself thinking more critically about identity, dislocation and movement. More specifically, her stories prompted me to consider the particular ways that Asian women are both visible and invisible.
These stories take place in Hong Kong and in cities across the U.S. Where did you grow up?
I am a 4th generation Korean American. Asia has been a part of my life geographically and personally, it is where my family is from. I know parts of it quite well, and as an adult, lived in both Korea and Hong Kong. Asia gave me a sense of belonging and purpose that I could not find in many places in the United States. But I was not raised in Asia.
I’m a product of the United States, and very specifically, claim a cultural heritage rooted in the Asian colonial settlers of Hawaii. The way that I think, what I believe, my perspective (in probably both positive and negative ways) is rooted in American culture, particularly through the lens of Hawaii, given my family’s history here.
But I was born in St. Louis Missouri. We moved every year until I was eight, at which point we moved from the Presidio base in San Francisco to a place on the outskirts of Iowa City. You know, the only Asian story. Apparently when I first went back to Hawaii as a three-year-old I started screaming and pointing at people and telling my mom “Look at all the Orientals!” I was excited. Kids notice difference. I used to ask my mom, where do I say I am from? And she would tell me to name the places I lived and people could choose one. And I’d tell my mom, I didn’t have any friends. And she would say, read a book. If you read books, you’ll always have friends. Writers are rather asocial beasts who have fits of being social. I would have fantasies when I was younger about fitting in, and at times, I did more than others, but in order to write, you do need to occupy a position as an outsider. That’s normal for any artist or thinker. When you’re younger, it can be hard. I kept journals.
My family moved down to Memphis, and I’ve also lived in Massachusetts, New York, Arizona, and California—the latter is where I really found myself as a writer. Hawaii was always where we returned to, back and forth for various family events and holidays. These days I feel like it took me a lifetime to get back home to Hawaii. Except for the Pacific Northwest, I’ve seen or lived in nearly every major region in the United States. I lived in Korea as a child on the US military base, and later as an expatriate, and in Hong Kong for quite a few years.
Movement and displacement define me, and while it used to be a source of anxiety or discomfort, I realize now that this is what I am familiar with and I’m finally comfortable with this position of being a permanent geographic outsider, home everywhere and nowhere.
What’s been your path as a writer?
I was one of those decent writers as a kid, but my confidence got a little knocked out of me when I went to boarding school. There were students who were way ahead of me in terms of analytical thinking and writing skills. As a teacher I know that the adolescent brain is peculiar and develops at a different pace dependent on the individual. At the time, I didn’t know it. I felt intimidated. I thought I was fairly good at English, but I wasn’t any sort of English class star. But my academic performance never killed my desire to read and write.
I also had parents who could afford a variety of bourgeois creative activity and instruction. I took music lessons, studied all manner of things, and in high school took tons of art classes with results being very mediocre at best. Still, I loved all kinds of art. I was tested and told I had perfect pitch, but I hated to practice music—I had studied piano, cello, guitar and violin. In fact, the only thing that I was free to do on my own, without any expectation of practicing and performing was to read. I could read as much as I want, whatever I wanted, and I didn’t have any recitals or expectations surrounding it. In other words, exposure to all sorts of arts helped me, but left to my own devices all I wanted to do was read and write, so in the end, that is probably why I became what I did.
After high school, I went to Barnard College/Columbia University for a few years, moved to Los Angeles trying to pursue screenwriting, and ended up finishing my degree at UC Santa Barbara, right after I got a grant to write my poetry chapbook. I then headed to Korea for a year before returning to California. That’s when we met at the PEN fellowship, this was the best due to its diversity and the fact that it drew in all kinds of people and writers. My partner and I went to San Francisco State for our Masters. I married someone who was a longtime UK expatriate and this determined a lot of my geographic journey as he was based in Asia. I did VONA with Junot Diaz who encouraged me to get the MFA, but I delayed a year, joining Stephen in Hong Kong. After a few years in Arizona, it was back to LA, and then after our child was born, we went back to HK.
I was thinking of quitting writing. I was really discouraged; hundreds of rejections do that. But I began to teach again, and students have a way of inspiring you. And I realized it wasn’t something I just could quit as it was tied to who I was and how I navigated and how I expressed myself. It defines my relationship to the world. There are a lot of different reasons for rejection, but partially it was that writers write of the present, but this is often a future that the vast majority of people cannot see or understand. This happens even if writers are writing of the past. The reason is how a writer sees, the lens through which they examine a subject or person or emotion, if slightly unfamiliar, is often easily rejected.
I’m not saying all published work is derivative, but there is a bit of a time element, and it’s easier if there is a set precedent. The story Swimming in Hong Kong, I couldn’t get published for the life of me. Asian Americans rejected it and quite rightfully, it wouldn’t have been published at an African American journal given my background. The end result was that everyone rejected it. It’s a story about an old Chinese man and a highly educated professional African American (specifically Jamaican American) woman’s friendship set in Hong Kong, features no sex, and was written by a Korean American. You can imagine how editors looked at this. What? It was finally published in a Hong Kong literary anthology a decade after it was written. In that locale people could understand it. But in the US, most could not imagine this type of scenario. Globalization has shifted how we see things, as has the Internet, so my stories are now of the present, despite most of them being written well over a decade ago.
In HK I got an offer to do the PhD, a full ride. This kind of opportunity would have never happened to me in the US, so I encourage people to look overseas when thinking of where they might head as writers. Being mobile gave me opportunities. I became the first student there, and they hired one professor and I was paid to read and write—not a lot, but something. This period of life helped to consolidate and theorize my ideas about writing and literature. I’m very grateful for this experience.
I don’t believe degrees are necessary to become a writer, but it was my path. Showing up to write, going into that hole by yourself can be a hard thing to do. Why am I writing this at 3AM? Does anyone really care? Believe me, if I could think of something else to do, I probably would have done it by now. I sometimes fantasize about finding some other sort of métier or passion, but I keep circling back to writing, so there you have it.
In several stories, bars serve as settings that are masculine and hostile. There’s that great scene in “Nantucket Laundry, 1985” where Lydia, who’s Asian American, is insulted by white male patrons and the bar bouncer, a black man, defends her. What’s striking is the way you subtly dramatize the racial and gender dynamics of that alcohol-fueled moment. The bouncer is a big man who “lumber[s] over” to the harassers, but he talks to them almost deferentially “in quiet syllables.” Can you talk more about bars as a fictional setting?
Wow. That is funny. I never thought about how many stories are placed in bars! Hmmm. Clearly bars have had more of a presence in my writing life than I thought! With Bill, the bar bouncer in Nantucket Laundry, I was trying to convey more of a physical presence than any sense of deference, but obviously Bill is aware of his surroundings in the all-white bar, and in my mind he was darker skinned, and bald, which would also play into perception of his physicality. Some men who are of large physical stature have rather low or soft voices—they don’t have to say much because of their size. Conversely when people are rather short, they can often be loud, something I tried to convey with Lydia’s confrontation when she swears at the men. Bars have a lot of potential for drama due to alcohol. There are more layers of obfuscation and people can hide behind alcohol, or are more emboldened to behave in ways that they would not in their regular lives.
I also would say that drinking culture and bars, particularly overseas or in places where people do not have to drive can really set the stage for some bizarre encounters. I think that in the US, outside of a very few urban areas, you are mostly driving from place to place, and while that doesn’t necessarily stop consumption of alcohol, it serves to stop a certain level of consumption. (I’m talking about outside of university campuses, mind you.) “Invisible” and “Hong Kong Rebound” are set in HK—which has a formidable nightlife and drinking culture. Also in some rather reticent or reserved kinds of cultures, bars are where people do loosen up. Americans idealize the extrovert, and many strive to be this type of personality. But it’s not the case with all people and cultures, and so bars offer an opportunity for alcohol inspired encounters that are sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes boring, but mostly just not the same as those without alcohol.
I sound like I’m advocating for bars or alcohol or something, but really, it’s just an observation. As for them being a masculine terrain, I think that this is often true. There are some, but a woman running a bar would create a very different environment.
The shortest stories in the collection, the short-shorts, are poetic. I’m thinking of what you’re able to coax from the scene in “Hong Kong Rebound” where a bar waitress tapes black paper over the windows. Can you talk about the connection between poetry and prose for you? Which genre do you prefer?
I turn to poetry when I have no words. This sounds strange, but it is what I go to in order to exercise a different part of my brain. It becomes a release. I’m drawn to narrative—it informs all of my work, poetry and prose, but I turn to poetry when I’m trying to sort through feelings. Prose is what I write when I want to solve, think about, or wrestle with a problem—it’s a bit further on down the line than poetry for me, at least. I feel a particular narrative in a more obvious way, and so this propels a prose piece. I read more prose than poetry. Poetry doesn’t require narrative, but most of the poetry I prefer has some sort of arc, a narrative feel, if only an emotional loyalty to story. I think poetry does also inform my prose, but this is when I get down to the sentence level. So I like both and use both. I think it’s good to move between different genres as one can inform the other.
Tell me about the earlier drafts of “The Ki Difference.” Was it always driven by dialog? What made you go in that direction?
I enjoy writing dialog. It’s fun. I started out years ago trying to write screenplays and I studied acting, so I enjoy dialog. Because of the character Dan and the idea of Los Angeles/Hollywood, dialog worked on a few different levels. I was thinking about the characters and their history and naturally the form of dialog followed this, as if this idea of the qualities of a particular type of genre, the screenplay, followed the characters and yielded this dialog heavy story. It’s interesting how form can be determined by characters.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
Help! This is a terrible question for me, as I read inconsistently and this list changes. I’ll pull out a book in the library and turn around to tie my shoe and then see another one and pull that one out. I should be more methodical about my reading, but am not terribly organized in this way. Anyway, I like Timothy Mo, a Chinese British writer. He is not read much in the US, but he should be. I’ll tell you what I am reading now: Finished up the Amitav Ghosh Ibis trilogy Flood of Fire, an amazing feat of historical research and plotting, Peter Wohlleben The Hidden Life of Trees, Winning Arguments by Stanley Fish, and Poetry magazine…There’s Jannette Winterson and Anis Shivani sitting there on my desk. Haven’t cracked the books open, but intend to. I’m reading about natural world stuff for my next project. I just picked up How to Read Water by Tristan Gooley. I had a terrible science background, so this is not easy reading for me, but for my next thing I want to think about myth, environmental crisis, and place.
Have you read the short story, “The Point,” by Charles D’Ambrosio? I’d like to teach your story, “Nantucket Laundry, 1985” and “The Point” together. I’m intrigued by how suicide hovers above the main narrative in both. Also, both stories are set in coastal towns and deal, in different ways, with the burdens of whiteness and WASP culture.
Oh no! I haven’t, but will!
Your characters express that they feel invisible in a variety of social contexts. Lydia feels invisible in overwhelmingly white Nantucket and an unnamed Korean American protagonist feels invisible sitting among Chinese inside a Hong Kong bar. Another character, Hana, says of the U.S., “I’ll always be a stranger here.” How do you view the loneliness that so many of these characters feel? Is it all attributable to race or is some of it an existential angst particular to our times?
I think loneliness or existential angst have to do with the nature of current global and domestic society due to modern life. Asian Americans are always perceived as outsiders to the American narrative. This is down to immigration history, language, and the disparate narratives of Asian Americans. In order for a group to coalesce within the US, there is a larger narrative that all acknowledge on some rock bottom level. With Native Americans there is the issue of land, of course, and genocide; with African Americans, the legacy of slavery; Latinos/as, Spanish language, and often Christian faith. Asian Americans have no singular binding narrative, religion, political belief or immigration history. We become Asian American here, meaning, we reach out across the tribal lines here in the US in a way that would have been impossible in Asia due to war and colonialism (ie Japan/Korea). There is a deep level of mistrust that comes from the US involvement in Asia in terms of war: WWII, Korea, Japan, the Mideast--the US spent a great part of the 20th century, and 21st century so far, battling in these areas of the world against and with people of Asian origin, and often with debatable outcomes.
I also think that some of this is down to Americans and how the Dream furthers both the idea of the individual and isolation. The American Dream is both wonderful and rather intense in how it stresses individual agency, personal will and ideology. This will to dream, to reinvention, to be whatever or whoever the person wants to be, this is really powerful. The flip side to this is that to cling to an individual dream can be terribly lonely. Everyone needs a sense of belonging. But belonging in the US is fraught with difficulties because how we belong varies so dramatically, how we construct ourselves becomes so personalized and determinedly unique, and the US presents the possibility of remaking the terms of the contract of belonging to such an extent that it can often paralyze people. We’re supposed to go out there on our own, be, and dream and fling ourselves forward to self-actualize in a way that yields material gain to prove our success. It can be a hard thing to do.
I’m not advocating conformity or being less adventurous or cautious in life, I’m just saying that doing your own thing, so to speak, can also be a lonely and hard journey. Not everyone feels brave all the time. It’s often nice if we have someone else, or a group, we can be lonely with together, we need a friend to be brave with, if that makes any sense. At the very least, it is comforting to read about people who feel the same way—deeply concerned, worried, distressed, or at odds with the demands of modern life.
You teach Asian diasporic literature. Have you thought about how your own writing fits within this literature?
Technically speaking, I’m a member of the Asian diasporic literature category (as would all Asian writers be who write in English), but I ultimately claim an American identity and consider myself to be an American writer. My work is rooted in a very American idea of narration/authorship and has an American sensibility and outlook—down to the fact that some of the stories are set in HK, yet I am not Chinese, but a 4th generation Korean American. I see that I was attempting to reckon with a perspective here as one who was inside and outside of the broad American narrative. Asian diasporic literature is another way of rearranging and re-categorizing literature. If you do this, you re-center the narrative of how a group writes and it becomes interesting to reconsider. But this is literary theory categorization is more of interest to those who are critics, as opposed to the writers themselves. I suppose as a trained writer or reader, this is of interest to me, too.
The category of Asian diasporic literature in English is a way of mitigating the hegemony of literature in English or American literature and moving the origins to Asia. The US is a new but powerful country and to center myself as part of the Asian diaspora then, gives more power or credence to Asia as my influence, as important to who and what I am.
But I am not concerned anymore about being perceived as American or Asian in writing and so leave this aspect of my own writing to others. I don’t have serious allegiance to any particular Asian national project, while I respect and see the merits and problems of all in various ways. I have no Asian language competency that matches my level of English, and don’t feel caught between the worlds, so to speak of Asia and the US. I embrace a pan-Asian American identity, one without the baggage that comes from ancestral animosities in Asia, but a shared sense of community based on our struggles in the United States, our negotiation with all kinds of people and cultures, and yes, our community’s negotiation with our historic and personal ties to Asia. The conflict of this situation is often more clearly marked in the writing and perspectives of 1st and 2nd generation Americans. It comes up in my writing too, but not always.
If someone wants to claim me as Korean, great! I claim both sides of my parents as Korean, 100%! I’m Korean! Yes, I am part of the Asian diasporic literature group and the American literature group. Probably due to being an expatriate for so long, I’m not as hung up one way or another. My mom vows in every situation that she’s an American. She’s still in that mid-20th century mindset of the promise of statehood for Hawaii. Now that’s under fire. But anyway, if I’m in a country and the person cannot understand my immigration history I’ll say I’m Korean to get to my destination. But not my mom. She’d never say it. I can go with whatever works. I consider my identity quite flexible. Such stuff is all down to personal experience, I meandered here…but I think these are the joys and complication of diaspora and diasporic literature.