1. Nikolai Fraiture: Your writing style seems extremely passionate and involved. How do you go about choosing what you will devote so much of your time and self to?
Jay Griffiths: My subjects may seem different on the surface: I’ve written about Time and about Wildness and about the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, while at the moment I’m writing a book on Childhood. But underneath all these different things, I’m looking for the same quality, the ‘red thread’, the songline of the human spirit, whatever is lit by vitality and exuberance.
This is an age of what I’d call intellectual apartheid, where one single way of knowing has come to dominate the whole world. All my work is influenced by the philosophies and thoughtways of indigenous cultures: which can honour both humanity and the earth. So deep is that honouring that in some cultures, a plant (such as ayahuasca) can be a teacher.
I’m also acutely aware of the ways in which the dominant culture seeks to fence in and enclose the human spirit, as well as land and time. And I want to write in defiance of those enclosures, which make us all prisoners of artifice, over-policed prisoners of suffocating conventions. In an age of enclosure, I want to give people licence to trespass wisely. I wrote a short novel called Anarchipelago, about the fantasmagoria of the anti-roads protests, because those were acts of beautiful political trespass.
The work of singers, writers, musicians and artists is to take licence, to trespass, to cross borders and to understand the philosophy of the Edge, the lovely, fertile Edge. It is a shamanic role, even in cultures which have temporarily misplaced their shamanism.
The dominant culture seeks to outlaw something quintessential, some Dionysiac wildness, the convivial liveliness of carnival and dance. People want – and need – that effervescence, so pop stars (for example) become the figureheads of licence: not only the opposite of the police but far more necessary.
2. Fraiture: Upon initial glance, Jay came across to me as a man’s name. When I opened the cover of your book and saw a picture of you, the assimilation reminded me of George Sand. How have you found being a woman in the modern literary climate and is it even an issue nowadays?
Griffiths: Yes. (Sigh.)
In the UK, there is still a sense that there are ‘territories’ within literature. Fiction is acceptable territory for women, whereas non-fiction is far less so. Therefore, women who write non-fiction are automatically trespassing. Further, women are more readily acknowledged as intellectual if they are post-menopausal or lesbian or dead, i.e. they are not-fit-for-purpose in the view of a still-sexist society. So we have to trespass. Get arrested. Trespass further and better. My grandmother was a Pankhurst, though she didn’t know if they were related to the Proper Famous Pankhursts. But it has been a talisman for me anyway, and I am indebted to the politics of feminism.
I adore the erotic, lovely humanity of men, just as I adore the erotic, lovely humanity of women. I want my work to embrace women and men equally and to embarrass sexists, whether sexism comes from men or women, whether it is directed against men or women. Sexism is just so silly. It’s daft. It’s a pile of pants. Off-white-to-greying Y-fronts, pants. Sexism is the last refuge of the intellectually impotent. Sexism is a perverted habit, and I have sometimes been unable to resist wanting to flush out the sexists with the gorgeous, hot power of blood.
3. Fraiture: Your latest book, A Love Letter from a Stray Moon, is in part based on the life of Frida Kahlo. What about her, and/or her art moved you to write this book?
Griffiths: Ahhh. I’m glad you say ‘in part’ based on Frida Kahlo. In fact this book actually began as a highly autobiographical piece of writing. It was a spell I cast for myself, a prayer to transcend grief. But it was too naked. I gave far too much away. I wanted to tell the same truths but tell them masked, with that paradoxical freedom of the masquerade. While concealing one self, the mask allows you to reveal other, deeper selves. I changed the book – very little, but enough to slip a mask over my face.
Masks are often feathered, and this book is about flight – the human hunger for flying – metaphorically. Because we all live in two worlds: one is the real and actual world, the other is the world of metaphor, significance and meaning. In this second world is where we humans fly best.
I identify with Frida Kahlo as so many women do. Many aspects of women’s experience are invisible and inaudible, yet Frida Kahlo turns herself inside out and paints them, making them shockingly visible, and for that I feel a profound gratitude to her. I also find her enormously charismatic: as a character, she is irrepressible. She is the dirty laugh in the corner of the room, and the recklessly sensitive artist. She is bewitching, not as beauty bewitches but as fire does. She has a quality of flame: tepid and beige she is not.
Transgression, cross-dressing, truancy and bad behaviour are some of Frida Kahlo’s qualities. My book is a truanting, badly-behaved book. It’s the ‘wrong’ length for a conventional novel, and I don’t care. It’s a cross-dressing book, transgressive, cutting across conventional genres. And I don’t care about that either.
Frida Kahlo was an extremophile of the emotions: grief made electric, love made ferocious. She was also a political radical, and in the masquerade of my book, I wanted her to flirt with the masked hero of our age, the Mexican freedom fighter Subcomandante Marcos who, like Frida, was deeply influenced by indigenous Mexican thoughtways. Both of them share a sense of our human rootedness in earth, and our incendiary fire. Both of them dramatise in their lives the necessary defiance to the status quo. She as a painter and he as a writer also exemplify the fire at the heart of art: they are both anarchic poets of the soul.
4. Fraiture: Your writing has a lyrical and almost song-like quality to it. Are there any particular musical styles or songs that you listen to while you write or that may have influenced your writing?
Griffiths: Thank you – it’s a generous and kind thing to say. And thank you, too, for the enormous thoughtfulness of all your questions.
One of the most formative sounds for me as a child was silence. There was a lot of it. I also played the piano, and Debussy and Chopin are written into me. And then there was the great day when my brothers brought home the Sex Pistols Never Mind The Bollocks. It was the stone which smashed the greenhouse to smithereens. I loved it.
Music, for me, is a wide horizon: Manu Chao to Mozart, African jazz to the Ave Maria, Tinariwen to Tom Waits and Tchaikovsky. And when I first heard Louis Armstrong, I just wanted to curl up in his lap for the rest of my life. I don’t – can’t – listen to music when I write, because for those hours I only want to hear the melody of words, the music within language.
They say we humans sang before we spoke, that music was right there at the beginning of who we are. Further, I’d say there is music in the earth itself, metaphorical music, transposed into a different key, but music nonetheless, songs of the earth which you can hear with your ear to the ground. Sorry if that sounds daft, but it is how it sounds to me.
5. Fraiture: The Songlines of West Papua are referenced in both your works Pip Pip and Wild. Can you please tell us a little about them and why they are important to you?
Griffiths: West Papua is a land of singers. People sing songs of flirting, songs to the mountains, songs for going to a ‘dream shrine’ – places in the hills where you go to find a dream to guide you. There are songs for planting seeds, protest songs and freedom songs. As you walk, you find the whole land criss-crossed with song. So important is singing that in the West Papuan Highlands they call the soul ‘the seed of singing.’ It is also, by the way, a place where, when people know they’re going to fall over laughing, they lie down first.
West Papua – not Papua New Guinea, which is a wholly different country – was invaded by Indonesia almost fifty years ago, and there has been a genocide ever since: Amnesty International says 100,000 West Papuans have been murdered.
Indonesia is annihilating a nation of singers. And why is it allowed to happen? First because West Papua is cursed with resources and international corporations are making a killing. All puns intended. Supporting their corporations, international governments connive in the genocide.
Secondly, it is a matter of blunt and sickening racism: West Papuans are indigenous people and they don’t seem to count as humans in the eyes of most of the media who routinely ignore the issue.
There is nothing which can un-murder indigenous people killed in the past, in the historical exterminations from Australian Aboriginal people to Native Americans. But right now the same tragedy is happening in our time, on our watch, so to speak, across the Amazon and elsewhere. In West Papua, what is happening is the last stand for an entire indigenous way of life, people living as they choose to, with earth, dream, feathers and song.
The Ghost Dance of Native Americans still retains a shiver of tragic power, even though those days are long gone. In West Papua it is as if a Ghost Dance is being re-enacted right now, in a defiant, mysterious theatre of the human soul. Anyone who cares about indigenous people should care about West Papua.
We humans – all of us – are indigenous to this humane earth: we are kin with the kindness of earth, and that relationship is slipping through our fingers…. almost. In this sense, West Papuans are dancing the Ghost Dance for all of humanity, for the sake of nature, the seed of singing, for the sake of wild kindness.
Jay Griffiths is the author of Wild: An Elemental Journey published by Penguin UK.