The Rumpus Interview with Jess Row

By

Jess Row’s second collection of short stories, Nobody Ever Gets Lost, was published in February by indie startup publisher FiveChapters Books. In these daring stories, Row inhabits seven individuals trying to make sense of a world shaken by September 11th. Spanning Southeast Asia and the United States, Row grapples with questions of identity, religion, and extremism, exploring how we manage (or fail) to co-exist in a post 9/11 world.

Row’s first book, The Train to Lo Wu, a collection of short stories set in Hong Kong, was shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize. In 2007, he was named a “Best Young American Novelist” by Granta. His fiction has been anthologized twice in The Best American Short Stories, and has won two Pushcart Prizes and a PEN/O.Henry Award. A recipient of an NEA fellowship in fiction and a Whiting Writers Award, his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, and elsewhere.

Row lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with his wife Sonya and their two children, Mina and Asa. A longtime student and ordained dharma teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen, he is an associate professor of English and Buddhist chaplain at The College of New Jersey.

Row recently spoke with The Rumpus about violence, September 11th, assimilation, writing, and the shifting landscape of the publishing industry.

***

Rumpus: Many of the scenes in Nobody Ever Gets Lost are energized by a political or spiritual undercurrent In stories like “Amritsar” or “The Answer,” a lot of the scenes revolve around characters working through large ideas in conversation. How deliberate are you in infusing your dialogue with a certain intellectual rigor?

Row: I think it’s really a liability in contemporary American fiction that many of us are taught to avoid political or intellectual matters in our work. It’s a real weakness in the way that fiction is taught in this country. I began to include intellectual and political issues in my work more and more when I started to feel an impatience with having to limit my characters’ thoughts and dialogue to subjects narrowly concerned with their immediate lives or relationships. I wanted my characters to have available to them all of the resources and levels of consciousness that I have in my own life. If I spend a lot of time thinking about political or intellectual questions in my own experience—and I do, we all do—why shouldn’t my characters do the same?

It has to be said, too, that Nobody Ever Gets Lost is about is people who work out their emotional lives in abstractions, so the book couldn’t exist without people who adhere very strongly to these abstractions, often times wrong-headedly. The book had to be about people who work out their emotional lives in terms of political or intellectual matters. But I think that’s actually quite common—not just in the extreme cases I’ve described here.

Rumpus: Almost all of these stories take extreme or violent turns—in some cases toward physical violence, and in the final story, “Lives of the Saints,” toward symbolic, artistic violence. To your mind, what is the relationship between extremism in the political sense and extremism in the artistic sense? Is there a link between suicide vests and performance art?

Row: Part of what I tried to do in the collection by putting “Lives of the Saints” last was to create a kind of meta-narrative where we begin with very real violence, and end with violence that’s being performed in a conceptual artistic space.

The last decade (that is, the 2000s) began with September 11th, an extreme act of real, palpable, visceral violence, and as that event permeated the culture, the signifiers of 9/11 became absorbed into cultural discourse and recycled in a postmodern sense. (I have to say, part of this is because 9/11, thank God, so far, was a one-time thing. There was no follow up, as everyone imagined there might be.) So these signifiers became readapted and eventually they became available as artistic touchstones.

“Lives of the Saints” is about this young, very radical artist, trying to take the violence of a real event and through his artwork translate it into something that would puncture his audience’s aesthetic preoccupations or pretensions. In other words, he’s trying to take the violence and the suffering of the real world and translate it back through art to an audience of elite people who are accustomed to ignoring the real world in favor of living in an entirely aesthetic realm.

That purely aesthetic realm was really violated by September 11th, but by the end of the decade, a lot of people had gone back there. I believe by and large the culture has gone back there, because there was no second event, because the Bush regime ended, because the awareness of mortality, and the question of the loss of irony—“does irony exist anymore?”—brought about September 11th had almost entirely dwindled away by the end of the decade. I hate to say we are back to where we began on September 10, 2001—our culture is obviously changed in a geopolitical sense—but I’m not sure that culturally so much has changed in the last decade, in any permanent way, and that’s part of what that last story is about.

Rumpus: Nobody Ever Gets Lost is a very global collection. Your narrators span numerous ethnicities, and you overtly address some of the tensions of globalization, particularly in “Amritsar,” when a Sikh father says to his son, who is engaged to a white woman, “Some things cannot be so easily combined.” To your mind, what are some of the elements in our historical moment that are having trouble combining? Obviously, fundamentalist religions are having trouble combining, but what other tensions are you trying to explore?

Row: Part of what “Amritsar” is about is the way in which, even on the level of assimilation and integration into American culture, there can be a lot of alienation, there can be a lot of pain, but we don’t think of it as a violent process. I should say, my wife’s mother is from India, so this is something I have witnessed in an intimate, personal way in my own family.

In that story I was trying to look into that experience of assimilation and the great pain that the father feels about the way that his son has become Americanized, and to use September 11th as a touchstone in thinking about the ways in which there’s a certain amount of violence even in the gradual processes of assimilation. Underneath the suburban, pastoral, peacefulness of middle class American lives—like the life that the doctor lives in that story—there is a great deal of potential violence, a great deal of anger and resentment. After September 11th, those things boiled up. You had Sikhs and other Indians and other groups that had nothing whatsoever to do with Islamic fundamentalism being targeted simply because they were different or because they were mistakenly associated with the Middle East.

One of the aftereffects of September 11th was a real questioning of how we deal with the violent, extremist undercurrents within our own culture. Again, I think that was a kind of short-lived moment in American society. Now, of course, we see that violent extremism is worse than it’s been in a long time. There was some anxiety about this immediately following 9/11, but again, it’s diffused itself into this feeling of American as a privileged bubble, or America as a special instance.

Rumpus: It seems you have a very unified sense of the themes in the collection, and it’s obvious reading the work as well. As you were writing this collection, at what point did you consciously begin tying these themes together?

Row: It was a similar process to the way I worked on my first collection. [The Train to Lo Wu]. At a certain point I knew I was writing a collection of stories about Hong Kong. Having that piece of information essentially conditioned the kinds of stories that were coming up in my creative unconscious, or whatever you want to call it. I would have an idea for a story, and begin writing a story, and not even think about “is it going to be in this collection or that collection?” and eventually the story would start to turn toward the thematics of the entire collection without me having to do anything with it on a conscious level.

That’s definitely the way it was with this collection. It’s not like I gave myself seven sets of talking points or whatever—far from it. I had these ideas for these stories, and as I wrote them, I felt them turning toward the central theme.

Rumpus: Ethnic tensions are somewhat central to the collection, and I’m curious how you arrived at this subject matter as a writer. In an interview you did with the Gotham Writers Workshop, you described how you originally went to Hong Kong wanting to write stories focused on Baltimore where you went to high school, like Hemingway in Paris writing the Nick Adams stories. As it turns out, your first book is about Hong Kong, your second book features a

panorama of various ethnicities, and in your upcoming novel, The Immigrant, race is a central theme. At what point did your subject matter begin to shift toward these global concerns?

Row: The short answer is that it had to do with my discovery that I was a white person. Early on when I went to Hong Kong, I had this experience when I went to Ikea, and I had these huge bags, and I went out to the curb and I tried to hail a cab and no cab would stop for me. They wouldn’t stop for me because I was out in the suburbs where almost no white people hang around. Cab drivers in Hong Kong generally don’t speak English, and for whatever reason, they were avoiding picking up a gwailo [Cantonese for white person]. Literally ten cabs must have gone by, and I was getting really desperate, almost in tears.

Finally this older man in the front seat of a cab made the driver stop and pick me up, but it took a good half hour or so. Of course, that’s an experience that black people have in New York or D.C. or in other places in the United States all the time. That was an experience of unfairness that was very raw and it had direct parallel of the experience of people of color in this country.

But woven more than that was the day to day experience in Hong Kong of being the only white person on the train, in the store, in the mall, in the restaurant. It wasn’t just the linguistic barrier. Hong Kong was up until 1997 a British Colony, so it’s not as if white people were unusual, but there was a sense in which the 98% of Hong Kong that is Chinese had evolved a relationship with Westerners where they essentially treated them as not visible, as completely alien. Again I’m using an American trope there, you know, Invisible Man, but how can I not? It was this very powerful sense of being invisible, and being isolated because of my skin color and ethnicity.

In a way it made it impossible for me to ever narrate a story with the feeling of complete organic ownership and centrality. I hate to use the word “dominance”—what I mean is the complete sense of, “this is a complete, unbroken, appropriate world,” the sense that you get from Hemingway’s early stories, the sense that you get from the work of many white writers, to one degree to another. The term from African American studies (from W.E.B. Dubois) is “double consciousness,” the sense of always being aware of yourself as an outsider, or aware of your own subjectivity, but also aware of how other people see you.

I would never want to compare my own experience to the experience of somebody who has lived their entire life as a member of a minority group, but I did have a very powerful experience for two years as a member of a very small minority, and it completely changed my way of thinking. Around that time I was reading Michael Ondaatje’s novel In The Skin of the Lion, and the epigraph of that novel is from John Berger’s novel G: “Never again will a story be told as if it is the only one.”

That sense really informed the organizing principle of The Train to Lo Wu, and it also it ultimately formed the organizing principle of Nobody Ever Gets Lost. It completely changed my idea of what a short story collection can be. We’re used to thinking of a short story collection as being essentially variations on a single character or a setting, and a classic definition of the short

story from Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice is that short story is a representative of a submerged population, a single submerged population. In the 21st century I find that idea sorely lacking. Of course lots of people do write story collection along those lines, but the collections I like the best are ones that have a lot of diversity within a single thematic frame.

Christopher Feliciano Arnold

Christopher Feliciano Arnold

Rumpus: Thinking about a different kind of submerged population, I’d like to shift gears here to think about your experiences in the publishing world, in particular, the world of small presses. As you articulated in a Slate commentary, there is sometimes this divide between the avant garde and the traditional, Marcus versus Franzen, so to speak. Small and large press authors don’t necessarily square off, but they sometimes defend camps. You’re working simultaneously with a startup press for your short story collection, and a large press for your upcoming novel. Why Five Chapters, and why Riverhead?

Row: Everybody knows there is a lot of reluctance among big publishers to publish short story collections. The model over the last 20 or 30 years is that these publishers will publish short story collections to make the authors happy, for a certain amount of prestige, and that occasionally there will be a big win like Jhumpa Lahiri or John Cheever’s collected stories, which won all the big prizes. But the vast majority of the time big publishers lose money (sometimes quite a lot of money) publishing story collections, because the market for story collections is quite small, and the overhead for publishing any book with a big publisher is huge. One editor at a major house told me that the absolute minimum cost of publishing my story collection, even if I received no advance at all, would be $35,000. If you do the math, and take into account how many books are now sold on Amazon—which usually discounts the cover price by 30%, and then takes 55% of what’s left—you’ll see that my book would have to sell far better than most story collections just to break even.

The economics of publishing have shifted so much so that big publishers can’t afford to take those kinds of losses as often as they used to. They still do sometimes invest, especially in a debut short story collection, because there’s a lot of energy around new authors, and I certainly benefited from that with The Train to Lo Wu. But in a sense the short story is kind of a niche format, and the big publishers as a whole have a very difficult time selling to niche groups in that way. Small presses have a much easier time focusing on the eyes and ears of people who really care about short stories. There is kind of a natural fit there.

What I really like about working with Five Chapters is the sense of equilibrium with the audience. Dave Daley publishes this wonderful website, fivechapters.com, and he’s sort of down on the ground on Facebook on Twitter, going out and meeting people, circulating the word about our books among the people who care the most about the short story. He’s doing it for the love, he’s not doing it to make money at all, so in a sense it’s more of a marketplace of ideas and of art and of people who are doing it out of their own enthusiasm. I really love that.

What the big presses have is distribution, systems for getting books to a large audience, so I feel, knock on wood, we’ll see what happens with my books going forward, but in some ways I like the idea of being in both worlds. The short story needs that sense of groundswell of a grassroots energy around it, because I think the idea of publishing collections and broadcasting them at a loss, spreading them around like pamphlets, which is what the big publishers have been doing, it doesn’t really serve the short story either. If the publishers think of them like a freebie, then I think it contributes to the way in which many people don’t take the short story as a form seriously. Whereas if you look at the way the magazine One Story treats stories as these little tiny things that they send in the mail, it returns a sense of preciousness and singularity to the short story, which I think is really important.

Rumpus: You were featured on a recent AWP panel, ”When Should We Write for Free?” It’s a question that a lot of writers are thinking about now, given the abundance of venues for writing on the web, and our finite time and energy. Where have you arrived in your thinking about this? When should writers write for free, under what circumstances, and for what purpose?

Row: My perspective is that the case where writing for free is always justified if it’s an initiative like The Rumpus where it’s an enterprise of people doing it for the love of it, and it’s basically, as I understand it, making enough money to survive, to keep itself online. It’s a collaborative effort, and enterprises like that are really the foundation of the literary world, and whether you get paid or not at the beginning is not really the issue, because you just want to keep the enterprise alive and going.

The issue of payment comes in for me fundamentally when you have some kind of literary project that’s attached to some platform in which people are making a great deal of money, and they just happen not to be the contributors. Huffington Post is the perfect example. Right after AWP it was announced that it [Huffington Post] was merging with AOL, and a number of technology and business commentators pointed out that Huffington Post gets much of its content for free. I suppose at one point HuffPo had kind of an insurgent quality to it, although I never really saw it in those terms myself. Now that it’s part of a giant money-making conglomerate, maybe people will start thinking of it differently.

My feeling is that if we’re talking about a large publicly traded media company, then the contributors ought to be paid something, even if it’s very little. The question of journalism being degraded so that it’s basically being treated as something that you just do for exposure or visibility or self-branding—perhaps it’s not a conspiracy per se, but it is by all accounts a corporate strategy. I have a lot of problems with the idea that we should be paid less for book reviews that appear online than those that appear in print. I understand that because of the internet the question of how any of these properties make money is very much up in the air, but somebody’s making money, and some people are making a great deal of money, and the people who aren’t making any money are the people who care the most about what they’re doing—the writers and the contributors and the journalists, the people on the ground. I think that’s an unacceptable position, and I think that’s an unacceptable model. It’s a good business model, but an unacceptable artistic or cultural model.


Chris Feliciano Arnold has written fiction, essays and journalism for Playboy, The Atlantic, Salon, The Millions and The Los Angeles Review of Books. More from this author →