Jackson Bliss is the winner of the 2020 Noemi Press Award in Prose and the mixed race/HAPA author of Counterfactual Love Stories & Other Experiments (Noemi Press, 2021), Amnesia of June Bugs (7.13 Books, 2022), Dream Pop Origami (Unsolicited Press, 2022), and the speculative hypertext, Dukkha, My Love (2017). In this interview, Nidhi Shrivastava and Bliss discuss Amnesia of June Bugs, Jackson’s moving, genre-bending, and experimental debut novel set in New York City about four BIPOC characters. Not only does the city become a separate character in this novel, but as readers, we learn about people in the margins whose stories tend to be neglected in mainstream culture and the literary imaginary. The novel’s climax occurs as Hurricane Sandy approaches the Eastern seaboard. The characters get stuck in the subway, awaiting their next move, their lives changed forever. More than anything, Amnesia of June Bugs calls us to rethink who we are as people when conflict or disaster strikes. The answers might surprise you.
To begin, why was hurricane Sandy the focal point of the novel?
You’re the first person to ask me this question! I think that as awful as crises are, they tell you so much about people, the world they live in, the options available to them, their life paradigm, religiosity, spirituality, and cultural worldview, not to mention their coordinates on the selfishness/altruism scale. Whether it’s Covid or a natural disaster, people’s true nature comes out during catastrophes, so I think I kinda appreciate the catalyzing force that Hurricane Sandy plays in Amnesia of June Bugs in helping to bring out and develop the four main characters. Another thing, catastrophes tend to give us permission to temporarily break rules, whether it’s on a cultural and political level, like creating curfews, temporarily banning freedom of assembly, allowing employees to work from home, not pay student loans or a personal level, like transgressing rules of personal distance, politeness, speaking informally to strangers, being more open, more collaborative, or more vulnerable to complete strangers, sometimes even as a means of survival. Originally, this novel took place during the North American Blackout of 2003 but eventually my editor encouraged me to update the timeframe and I was happy to since I just needed a New York blackout. In addition to being cinematically powerful as an image, I was curious to know how New Yorkers and Americans in general would relate to each other when the rules of civilization were broken. How would they fill that void? That’s obviously one of the big questions and motifs in this novel.
What was the inspiration behind the narratives of the characters in the novel?
One thing I’ve learned as someone who is mixed-race/hapa/AAPI/BIPOC is that virtually every mixed-race person and virtually every immigrant (and every child of an immigrant) has a story about their migration to America, and that story is often part of their cultural/racial identity. Being the son of Japanese immigrants on my mom’s side, there are a series of important stories behind (and about) their move to America, but I’m hardly alone. What I find interesting about mixed-race, immigrant, and diasporic identity is how much of our cultural and/or racial identity is connected to our narrative identity (i.e., the stories our parents and grandparents told us about why they moved to the States, their reasons for leaving the motherland, the things they miss about home, and the things they’re glad to do without, not to mention the stories we might have told ourselves if we’re first generation immigrants). I’ve talked to so many mixed-race/hapa writers, for example, who’ve confirmed my own experiences of racial identification: I have to explain my mom/obāchan’s move to America all the time because I’m not legibly Asian but I’ve also had to accept that part of being mixed-race means being constantly misracialized, misunderstood, and excluded from all the racial communities I’m part of (or should be part of). I will never be Japanese enough for Japanese people and I will never be white enough for white people and some white people get hella hostile when I tell them I’m Asian and different communities claim and exclude me, which obviously comes with many advantages but also create a lot of racial melancholia for never being acknowledged or understood properly as I am. This is a very circuitous way of saying that I’m personally invested in the back stories of all four of the main characters in Amnesia precisely because I understand firsthand how important and how valuables stories are for mixed-race/BIPOC/AAPI people and this novel attempts to center backstories as much as possible. For many of us, stories are sometimes all that we have, especially if we’re racially ambiguous or if we’re like tenth generation and we can’t speak the language of our ancestors fluently. My hope is that if all four BIPOC characters in this novel have relatively full character arcs, then it will become impossible to reduce them to multicultural bullet points. There are so many things that non-white people have to struggle with every single day of their lives just to stay in the game and I guess I’m stubborn about defending and developing their subjectivities. Their stories are, in many ways, the keys to opening up their humanity I think.
Your novel deploys various experimental writing forms, which I found to be intriguing. I was wondering if you could speak more about it?
Of course. I think part of this is residual. When I first began writing short stories, they were almost always conceptual. The first short story I was actually proud of was “Sola’s Asterisk,” the centerpiece of Counterfactual Love Stories & Other Experiments, and is essentially about the eight divergent/overlapping destinies of the mixed-race/AAPI/BIPOC student as she makes her way through Chicago with her overdue library books, which creates a time delay in the storytelling. While most writers I know find comfort in the genre conventions of straight-up narrative fiction, which I can totally understand and respect, my writing tends to be kinda oppositional, conceptual, and innovative, the narrative structure often based on an idea or motif or rule. So, with Amnesia of June Bugs, I think partially I just wrote the novel I wanted to read as a mixed-race/AAPI lit student if that that student had read Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth first. The other thing about writing conceptually is that I find it extremely liberating in the same way that I find traditional narrative stultifying. Many writers love constraints and love rules, which I totally get, but I find myself constantly wanting to explore, challenge, defy, and distort genres to investigate how far I can stretch their conventions. That’s one underlining reason why Amnesia of June Bugs employs a reverse plot structure that goes backwards in time, why there’s a motif of insect metamorphosis throughout the novel, and why there are chapters written like a screenplay, listicle, the life cycle of a June bug, an impossible French job application, not to mention images, a web link to a supplemental application, and post-modern self-referentiality. Time collapses in this novel. Time is cyclical. It goes back and forth, just like memory. I’ve always found that writing non-linear narratives can be a powerful and contestatory artistic act.
Race and ethnicity play such an important role in this novel. I was wondering how did you you create the main characters and their identities. Were there any challenges you faced while writing them?
Word. I don’t think it’s possible to separate these characters from their racial/ethnic identities because as we all know, identities inform understanding of reality and vice-versa, which is why the four characters in this novel can never and will never live outside their racial and ethnic experiences, least of all because being BIPOC makes them targets but also hyper-conscious at different moments of their differential racial perspectives as they navigate spaces that change from multiracial spaces to white spaces and back. Aziz, for example, has to understand what white French people think about him before they do in order to stay vigilant and protect himself from police brutality, casual dehumanization, cultural marginalization, and color-blind white supremacy disguised as egalitarianism. In the beginning, I only had the smallest inkling of who these characters were and who they might become, so as I finished and revised the manuscript over the next fourteen years, each character slowly became clearer, more distinct, their idiosyncrasies more apparent. With every backstory and anecdote and conversation, I saw them more clearly and they began to assert their voices more and more. Eventually, I could see all their layers.
It didn’t hurt that I thought about these characters all the time, sometimes imagining conversations they might have inside my head. Winnie, for example, was born during my NYC graffiti and culture jamming phase, thanks in part to Naomi Klein’s No Logo, Junot Diáz’s Drown, the movie, City of God, and a couple years spent in New York. Ginger, his mixed-race/AAPI girlfriend, was partially based on a number of mixed-race/AAPI women in my own life, including my wife. There was a time when she and I wanted to have kids. We tried IVF, came close once, and eventually had to let go of that dream, but parts of that experience showed up in this novel. And I understand what it’s like to identify racially with a side of you that people can’t see even if it exists genetically, racially, and culturally. Winnie and Ginger’s relationship, from the very beginning, was kinda my idealized romantic relationship that I hoped to have someday. I think their love for each other is palpable. With Aziz and Suzanne, they came at different times. Suzanne existed first as a strong, smart, desi character in a short story that predated this novel (the only character who existed before this novel did). At some point, I decided that I loved her autonomy, spunk, intelligence, and cultural defiance. She also helped represent a midwestern, South Asian, Chicago perspective that I really valued in a novel that centers East Asian cultural narratives in NYC, a city I’ve only lived in for a couple years. I love New York, but I also love and know Chicago and I’m a product of the Midwest, even if I’m an Angeleno in my soul, and I wanted to de-center some of New York’s cultural hegemony. Aziz just popped into the world one day. I first wrote “A Fire Walk through a Valley of False Idols” and suddenly had a vision of this Moroccan-French character who had spent his entire life navigating French racism and intolerance. Like Suzanne, Aziz is willing to love someone out of his racial, cultural, and class background, but he still has to rely on his intelligence and his ability to fall in love as a way to navigate a world that often hates him for shining brightly. He has to protect himself because he knows that France will not. Both Aziz and Suzanne are also escaping something: Suzanne is avoiding the cultural expectations of her parents by traveling to Seattle and New York and Aziz is escaping his own heartache, pain, and disfiguration in Paris (his surrogate father figure was killed by cops and he got dumped by his ex out of the blue). All of these particular details though came slowly. A little at a time. Every time I revised this novel, they showed me who they were just a tiny bit more. Ultimately, one of my best and worst tendencies as a writer is that I tend to love my characters, worry about them, and think about them all the time. Sometimes, they feel like friends of mine. Hopefully, they feel like the reader’s friends too. That’s the hope. That’s the goal.
Many authors struggle with developing gendered voices, but I the female characters in your novel felt real to me. Did you have any inspirations for the characters in this novel?
Oh, thank you for saying that! I’ll wear that as a badge of honor. TBH, I don’t have a secret sauce here. Besides giving Winnie some street slang, which can be an act of self-gendering in American culture, most of my characters are (almost) gender neutral except that only the women characters have to defend themselves verbally against the sexual harassment of aggressive men. I do decide on verbal tics eventually, for all my characters, and those can be slightly gendered. Suzanne says things like “Whah?” and “Jeez!” while Winnie says “Yo.” The other thing I tried really hard to do was enter into these characters and become them as I wrote their dialogue to help me figure out their vocalization. I tried to imagine how I would see the world and how I would talk if I were Ginger or Aziz or Winnie or Suzanne having gone through all the shit they have, struggling with the issues they’ve struggled with, searching for the things they’re searching for. This is one reason why I think it’s crucial as the author to understand my characters and their motivations by the end. I don’t have to understand them in the beginning. But once it’s time to revise and rewrite my novel, at some point I can’t do my job if I don’t understand my characters on some level because I won’t know what’s normal for them and what isn’t. I won’t know the things they would say and wouldn’t say and I won’t know their behavior enough to decide what’s in and out of character. So, I think a big part of my characterization is simply fighting for the humanity of my characters. Letting them be complex and contradictory, letting them surprise, delight, confuse, and move me. Being open to their own choices, ideas, behavior, and unique syntax. I think if you do that, your characters will become rich, layered, and nuanced and they will find their own voices to speak in whatever way they want. But maybe I’m being idealistic.
Please speak more to the structure of the novel and the timeline.
Believe it or not, this novel was once perfectly linear before I decided that the narrative wasn’t fragmented enough, that the linearity felt superimposed and artificial, and that the novel and its intersecting backstories didn’t really travel in a straight line and they shouldn’t be reconstituted or recreated in such a clean way either since memory plays such an important role in this novel. And memory, as we all know, is messy, circular, and confusing. Memory erodes and decays. It changes and recycles. It loops and collapses. So, telling this novel backwards was the only honest way I could think of being true to its vision, rules, complications, formal experimentation, and motifs. Beyond that, I divided the novel into the four stages of the insect life cycle almost ten years after my first definitive draft once the juxtaposition between API/BIPOC identity and the insect economy became clearer and clearer to me. Since all four characters in Amnesia of June Bugs are API and/or BIPOC, the insect metaphor works implicitly for them all and yet at the time, only one chapter (“Amnesia of June Bugs”) explicitly juxtaposed being Asian or BIPOC to being an insect, so I split up the plot structure into the four stages of the insect life cycle to make that metaphor explicit but also to help readers keep track of the novel’s timeframe. When readers are reading the adulthood section, all of which takes place in the New York subway, they know right away that they’re in the present tense. When they’re reading the egg sections, on the other hand, readers know they’re at the very beginning of the narrative.
Please share the crafting process of the novel. I know you had mentioned that it was based on your MFA thesis, but how did it become what it became?
Originally, my MFA thesis was almost five hundred pages back in 2007. It was still an ensemble novel like it is now, but there were six characters and six separate back stories, not four, which was kinda unruly and a bit overwhelming to revise, so I cut out a mixed-race Latine/white character and a French/Senegalese character from the novel and then converted their intersecting story line into a self-contained novella calls The Laws of Rhetoric & Drowning. Sometimes when I’m talking about Amnesia with people, I have to stop myself because I realize I’m talking about characters that I cut from this novel. Even more confusing, all of the self-contained chapters I published in literary journals before the structural partition, were from the part I removed, so suddenly I didn’t have an acknowledgement section until The Offing published “The Hungarian Divorce in Seven Movements.” Before 7.13 Books, I’d submitted an earlier version of this novel to Kaya Books, the New York indie that moved to USC’s campus, coincidentally enough around the time I’d started my PhD there. The board had rejected my manuscript but stated that they’d be willing to read a revised version of it, especially if I worked with press’s publisher, Sunyoung Lee, so for the next two years, she and I worked on the novel together. It was under her enlightened, generous, and brilliant tutelage that I not only rewrote the novel a million times, but simplified its exit ramps too. At some point when I was working with her, I decided to not only cut two characters from my novel (as explained above), but invert the novel’s plot structure by making it go backwards. And it was during my working with Leland Cheuk, the sharp AF editor at 7.13 Books, that I eventually decided to divide the novel into the four stages of the insect life cycle. I’d sent out query letters to hundreds of agents for this novel and submitted it to almost every reputable small press I could find for ten years before I found the right home. It was a lesson in futility and self-loathing. Many times, I abandoned this novel and focused my creative energy instead on Counterfactual Love Stories (that dropped in October 2021), on my speculative hypertext, Dukkha, My Love that I published in 2017, on my racial bildungsroman Ninjas of My Greater Self, which became part of my dissertation at USC, and on Dream Pop Origami, my choose-your-own-adventure memoir about mixed-race/API/hapa/Japanese American identity that came out on 26 July 2022. But in the back of my mind, hiding at the bottom of my heart, this novel kept coming back again and again. At some point, I realized I couldn’t abandon these characters because I loved them too much and they meant too much to me. They deserved to be out there in the world and frankly, so did I.
What message do you hope your readers get from your novel?
I don’t like micromanaging people’s interpretations of my work (or any work, for that matter) for the simple reason that our lived experiences, our education, our various identities, our relationship to English, to America, to urban society, and to literature, not to mention our psychological baggage, our psychosocial triggers, even our artistic and generic sensibilities, all collectively affect and shape both how we read and what we read. And who I am to tell someone how to understand my novel when they will bring different these skillsets, experiences, and frameworks to my book? The only thing I hope is that readers will see the richness of the human experience and acknowledge the inherent complexity of the four characters in Amnesia of June Bugs. I want readers to see the blatant cultural criticism in this novel, but also the love song that operates like an OS throughout. There is so much to be furious about in 2022 and we cannot look away from the conflagration we ignited with our own hands, but also cannot spend all of our time putting out other people’s fires. We have to try to celebrate the fleeting human experience when we can while we can because this is all we get, even as we fight for and demand a better world for all peoples, nations, and classes.
Interviewed by Nidhi Shrivastava