Issue 158 | September/October 2015
"I wish other people would write about loneliness more. It's hard to remember that it's not personal. That we live in a world that is built to make people lonely. That our society is structured around competition, so that we cannot connect we must always conquer. We are set up to think there is a finite amount of goodness in the world, and so if we are lacking in it it is because that bitch over there with the really good shoes is hoarding it. So it's difficult to remember that your loneliness is not really about you and everyone has it."
"I am interested in 'the woman in peril' because I am interested in the way our societ/y/ies manufactures this peril, how power imposes persecution, and ideology becomes violence. I write to posit a site of resistance, because it exists at the individual level, at least once in a while. I write because I need to create a world I want, even if it can only exist in words. I write because, even in my white cis overeducated body, there are still cultural vulnerabilities."
"Each book ultimately occupies the place, for me, of a memory loss; it stands in the stead of something obliviated by the sheer fact of living, supplanting, and thus prolonging it. It would be misguided, I think, to place fervor and disappointment at two ends of a traceable spectrum; I certainly wouldn't attempt to attribute a global understanding of my life as a writer into anything resembling distinct categories -- in part, out of philosophical conviction, but also because I lack the necessary distance (and am resolutely disinterested in archiving myself: Derrida -- "the first catastrophe, is the ignoble archive that rots everything..."). Disappointment is certainly not a place from which writing can take place; in that sense, it isn't a resignation, but a frustration, which is, or can be, far more activating (what I find most disappointing is disappointment itself; I have always been opposed to it)."
"Readers said well, at some point something HUGE is going to happen, right? And, outside of my own critique about literary forms that aren't "valid" or "true" unless they're shaped like a penis, it just wasn't my experience. I love summertime stories and stories about youth so much, and so I wanted to write one shaped like my summers, where everything seemed impossibly disastrous and monotonous and deep tender all the time."
What made Levi the ideal witness of the Holocaust was his superhuman self-repression. Exactly the quality that, as a conventional artist, might have left him to grope around his life in the equivalent of welder's goggles, was needed to examine the Holocaust, the glare of which blinded almost everyone else. Levi became the great ethnographer of good and evil, or of whatever the next moral level below them is. His poise and eye for detail aren't unusual in literature. He was always, in a sense, "ordinary," but his power to maintain his ordinariness in the most extreme conditions turned out to be unique. It isn't surprising that If This Is a Man, which, as with many great books on first reading, can seem like a slightly underplayed version of itself -- of the Holocaust of our imagination -- looked unexceptional to Einaudi editors in whose minds the history all around them hadn't yet registered. The sulfurous, blah rock photos taken by the Soviet probe Venera 13 become astounding when we consider they represent a mere 127 minutes (four times the robot's designed lifespan) on the surface of Venus.
"I've thought about this lately in relation to both the Dylann Roof murders and the sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for the Boston Marathon bombing. These events raise questions about justice and mercy, forgiveness and remorse. I don't know how much our own criminal justice system is capable of moral subtlety. But I find myself interested in the models of truth and reconciliation used in South Africa and Rwanda, and in the concept of Vergangenheitsbewšltigung used in Germany and other parts of Europe, and in other forms of transitional justice, those practiced in Greece, Argentina, and Chile, especially as they incorporate storytelling as a key part of the process of coming to terms with atrocities committed in the past. I'm also interested in the creative approach taken by some nations, notably the Scandinavians, to the penal system, where the primary purpose is not retribution but reintegration."
"When I was twenty-six years old, I finished a novel titled Coming Down. My MFA thesis advisor at Sarah Lawrence loved it and took it to his agent. It ended up with another agent and came close to finding a publisher, but only close. While the book was still on submission, my aunt Valerie, calling from Toronto, left an excited message on my Brooklyn answering machine in her charming South-African-English accent: 'Jessamyn! This year is the yeeeeeear of the book!' My roommate, Taylor from Texas, who had her own accent, replayed the message, imitating my aunt: 'The yeeeeeear of the book!' That was 2002. And every year after that, I would wonder is this the year of the book? And every year, for thirteen years, it wasn't. I felt more and more like a failure. So if I could go back, I would say, 'Jessamyn! It isn't going to be the yeeeeeear of the book anytime soon. So calm down and enjoy writing and your life.'"