Interview with Harold Jaffe
Copyright © 2010 by Beverly F. Price. All rights reserved.
Harold Jaffe, like most prophets, is largely unrecognized in his own country. Not so in the rest of the world. He is the author of 17 books, including 11 fiction (or docufiction) collections, five novels and one volume of essays — many of which have been translated into German, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, French, Turkish, Dutch, Czech, and Serbo-Croatian.
His short fiction has appeared in such journals as Mississippi Review; City Lights Review; Paris Review; New Directions in Prose and Poetry; Chicago Review; Chelsea; Fiction; Central Park; Witness; Black Ice; Minnesota Review; Boundary 2; ACM; Black Warrior Review; Cream City Review; Two Girls’ Review; and New Novel Review. His fictions have also been anthologized in Pushcart Prize; Best American Stories; Best of American Humor; Storming the Reality Studio; American Made; Avant Pop: Fiction for a Daydreaming Nation; After Yesterday’s Crash: The Avant-Pop Anthology; Bateria and Am Lit (Germany); Borderlands (Mexico); Praz (Italy); Positive (Japan); and elsewhere. He has won two NEA grants in fiction, two Fulbright fellowships, a New York CAPS grant, a California Arts Council fellowship in fiction, a San Diego fellowship (COMBO) in fiction, and three Pushcart Prizes in fiction.
His newest book, Anti-Twitter: 150 50-Word Stories, has just been published. And on February 19, 2010, he will be a guest presenter at Authors@Google.
Armageddon Buffet: In your description of docufiction — “…the usurpation of ‘fact’ has moved very rapidly, even exponentially, along with the almost total reliance on technology. Information becomes disinformation without apology; one datum contradicts a previous datum posted a few hours before…” you seem to document the “invention” of a new genre. How has this genre affected your creative process?
Harold Jaffe: I’ve moved more deliberately toward bending, treating, sometimes merely displacing a datum; that is leaving the figure (datum) intact or mostly intact, and simply altering the ground from, say, Al Jazeera or Huffington Post or Yahoo to my own docufiction. Altering the ground or context, even without changing the text, permits the reader to see the datum with different eyes.
I’ll put it this way: Shaman-like, I swallow the poison, and when I expel it, it has been metamorphosed into its opposite: a curative.
AB: Your writing tends to reflect your thematic interests, many of which continue to fascinate you, like sexuality and sexual expressions (Madonna and Other Spectacles, Eros Anti-Eros) serial killers (15 Serial Killers, Jesus Coyote), and “outlaw” cultures (Dos Indios). What continues to fascinate you about them?
HJ: My writings nearly always address the official culture in a dialectical way. When AIDS was fulminating in the late 80s and 90s, I wrote several books (Eros Anti-Eros, Straight Razor, Sex for the Millennium) interrogating the culture which had decreed the desiring body off-limits.
When the wars in Iraq — both pre- and post-9/11 — were being waged and the Palestine-Israel conflict became inflamed, I wrote False Positive and Terror-dot-Gov. Vis-á-vis the obsession with technology, I’ve written several books, including Beyond the Techno-Cave: A Guerrilla Writer’s Guide to Post-Millennial Culture and Anti-Twitter. Regarding the US’s voyeuristic, condemn-consume disposition to the country’s chronic mass and serial murders and to extremity in general, I wrote Madonna & Other Spectacles, 15 Serial Killers, and Jesus Coyote.
Not long after the Wounded Knee uprising in the late 70s, I wrote: Dos Indios and Mourning Crazy Horse.
I have employed Fiction International, the lit/cultural journal I edit, in similar ways, with thematic issues on The Body, Central American Writing, Third World Women’s Writing, Political Correctness, Eco-terrorism, etc.
The only trope that has remained constant is the artist-as-guerrilla, because, with Bataille, I believe that the strongest art has to do with the immoral subversion of the existing order. “Immoral,” because “morality” is in the possession of the existing order.
AB: You recently began exploring the effects of the new computer-generated technology on writing style (Anti-Twitter) but also on how these new technologies are changing our society (Terror-Dot-Gov). How do you see writing itself as evolving or adapting to the new technology? How has your writing style changed since the development of the home computer?
HJ: Like Orpheus (post-Millennium), I’ve descended into the very groin of electronic Hades with the intention of rescuing innocence. (I’m exaggerating.)
An artist is indentured to his or her culture as if to a dying animal. In the instance of technoculture, we are indentured to a virtual or inorganic “animal.”
Recognizing the ever-abbreviated attention-span which accompanies the increased speed of the culture, I have accommodated by working in shorter units, exhibiting more space, using as raw material more obvious givens with fewer references to so-called high culture.
Enforced accommodations are demeaning, but in some instances the accommodation compels the writer to open up previously inaccessible spaces in his or her consciousness, such that the necessity has unexpectedly become a discovery. Accommodation without capitulation is my governing mantra.
AB: Your work is known for “smashing” or “breaking” or “colliding” style and theme, much like atoms are “smashed” together — or broken apart — in a Hadron Collider. If you are operating as the literary version of a physicist, do you see yourself as inventing or discovering or both?
HJ: Discovery often amounts to invention.
AB: Your body of writing has received both popular and critical acclaim overseas — Asia and Europe especially — whereas here in the U.S. your work has received mostly critical recognition. To what do you attribute this phenomenon?
HJ: Lots of original-minded artists have been mostly neglected in their home countries. To establish a viable reputation as a serious writer at this juncture, you need to do the sorts of things many artists are loath to do: market yourself, network, attend conventions, curry favor all around …
Meanwhile the rewards are ever more scant. One needs a profession besides writing to make a living. If I weren’t a university professor I wouldn’t be able to continue writing.
When young people ask me what it takes to be a successful serious writer, I usually respond: luck, endurance and talent — in that order. In my instance, my Buddhist-anarchist politics have made it still harder. Unlike many so-called developed countries, the US does not have an ongoing history of progressive-minded imaginative writing.
AB: How is your work received in the rest of the Americas? Given the Central and South American tendency toward genre invention (magical realism) and their ready acceptance of artists and intellectuals as cultural/political leaders, I would tend to assume that your work is read widely there. Is this the case?
HJ: Some of my books have been translated in Cuba, in Mexico, and in Ecuador, but with no payment. And individual fictions and other texts of mine have found their way to that region. Several of the Central and South American countries are not in position to pay advances to “foreign” literature; and the wealthier countries — Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil — have not contacted me directly.
AB: In Eros Anti-Eros and — to a lesser degree in your website JaffeAntiJaffe.com you juxtapose the object (Eros, Jaffe) with its opposite (Anti-Eros, Anti-Jaffe) in order to, in your words, “Find a Seam, Plant a Mine, Slip Away.” In Anti-Twitter you didn’t begin with Twitter: You didn’t employ the technology or its 140-character requirement. Why not?
HJ: My response to Twitter and to technology mania generally is meant to be oblique, to describe a wider arc than just to re-inscribe technology as such. Technology has very rapidly changed the way the world is viewed, and it is that much broader question that interests me.
AB: Many of the 50-word stories in Anti-Twitter read like poetry — not in their language but in their use of the final sentence to “turn” the meaning of what came before. Was that your intent?
AB: Because I’ve constrained myself to work in 50-word units (mocking the imposed restraints on Twitter), there was very little space for the usual narrative modalities: character, setting, plot . . . I’ve often used the sharp turn, then, as a stratagem to entice prospective readers. That it resembles poetry is as it should be; I don’t make hard and fast distinctions among the traditional genres.