Vanessa Veselka has some identity issues. She has been, at various times, a teenage runaway, a sex-worker, a Buddhist, an expatriate, a musician, and now she’s a writer. She sold flowers on the LA freeways. She dug ditches in Dateland, Arizona. She worked as an underage stripper in New Orleans. She jumped freight trains out of the Pacific Northwest and rode them through Californian orchards.
“Do you hear the sound of this way of speaking?” Vanessa asked me while we were talking about the various chapters of her life. “This is the tone of identity. The features of the experience have been reduced for effect. It’s honed. It’s calcified. It’s narrative.”
Vanessa broke the traditional model for author bios (and ruffled some feathers over at The Millions) by including some of these identity sound bites on the back cover of her debut novel, Zazen. Her reasons for the bio were twofold: to tell readers a little about the things that made her a writer (listing degrees and publications would have been kind of dismal: “Vanessa Veselka is not a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop”) and to play with the idea of a transient self. As a Buddhist haunted by existential horror, Vanessa has a lot to say about her ‘self.’
When I first met Vanessa at BookExpo America, a massive annual trade show for people in the book business, she spiked my red lemonade with vodka. In the weeks that followed we talked at length—over email and in person—about her author bio, Buddhism, identity politics, and burning symbols.
The Rumpus: You’ve led many different lives. Is there a guiding principle that connects them?
Vanessa Veselka: There’s a range from dilettante to explorer, and I fall into all of those different… failures. Consecutive failure.
Rumpus: Failure is the common thread?
Veselka: Yeah. The thing about the sex-worker part [of my author bio] is that I’m not sure I would have put that in except for that it’s an experience that many women and men have that is under the table. I was an underage sex-worker, which sucked, and I hated it. It wasn’t an empowering feminist kind of thing. It was terrible, and I couldn’t stand it. But it was a part of an experience in a certain time in my life.
The rest of it—the paleontology, the Russian lit, or running a record label—I feel like I’m drawn to things that shift my perspective. When I get into things I get into them 100%. When I move on from things, I take a lot of them with me. I don’t feel like, “Oh, I’m not into that anymore.” They really come with me. I left paleontology and geology in 1996; the language and thoughts around geology and paleontology have stayed with me. It’s the same with union organizing, same with other forms of radical experience. I’ve explored different things, but I don’t feel like I’ve turned over a rock and put it back down and walked away, although I think it looks like that sometimes.
Rumpus: Is it important that you carry them with you? Do they inform each other, or are they separate?
Veselka: I don’t know that they’re synthesized, but they’re in a constant elliptical orbit in my mind. I tend to pass through them again and again in certain ways, but it changes. The thing with identity politics is—if I had to come down on one side or the other about whether it’s productive—it’s only productive as a means to destroy itself. I think that it’s natural, and kind of horrific. This identity obsession is a really strange modern thing, where we get our identities reflected back and marketed to us in such a particular way that there’s such a sort of ka-ching moment for taking on an identify. Taking on an identity feels like an arrival, and it feels like a solution in certain ways.
We see things now like: “I am a vegan.” I’m a really bad vegetarian. Sometimes I’m such a bad vegetarian, I’m not a vegetarian. I constantly move on this spectrum. But this idea of “I am a vegetarian,” is much different than “I usually don’t eat meat.” There’s so much weight that comes with it.
Rumpus: It’s black and white.
Veselka: It’s black and white. It’s a line you never cross. I see this as cultural signaling. It’s cultural signaling to try to find who you are in the world and who matches you. It’s just another courting ritual, like the blue feathers and the funny shiny rings that the birds bring around. It’s not that different. But part of that becomes alienation, and separation, and intolerance, which is nothing to strive for.
Rumpus: You’re well versed in alternative lifestyles. Do you think the current counterculture movements are heading in the right direction?
Veselka: We seem to have taken identity politics to the level of religion and, given the facile nature of social media, we can now transcend the confines of our geography. That’s a beautiful, promising, and highly problematic thing. On the one hand, a queer high school kid in a homophobic ranch town can ‘talk’ to others and have a community. On the other hand, particularly in urban areas, one can restrict their social world to nothing but their own mirror reflections. A raw foodist, pagan chainsaw sculptor can meet-up with other raw foodist, pagan chainsaw sculptors. On the surface, this is great, but it also means we never have to deal with our own geographical communities. We don’t have to talk with the conservative, gun-slinging guy down the street. We don’t form relationships with people we didn’t expect we would like. There’s something important about knowing you’re stuck with someone. It forces you to work it out. As far as cultural shifts go, I’m not sure the identity playground is what will pull us out of where we are, but maybe it leads to it. The shift I would like to see is a simple one: a radicalization based on the preciousness of life where we all just get sick of killing each other.
Rumpus: What’s lost when we transcend the confines of our geography?
Veselka: I once became friends with a woman I would not have given a second glance to had I not been geographically forced to deal with her regularly. Relationships I’ve formed through the Internet are often like candy, reinforcing my beliefs rather than challenging them, easy to drop. There’s something slightly disturbing about our ability to shuffle interactions into convenient slots—the 3am chat. Nothing is quite so “present” as a fussy neighbor on your doorstep or a party down the street that you wish would stop or a band of roving meth-heads that necessitate a community meeting—it puts you in a place and time. It makes you a member of your world.
Rumpus: What’s a writer’s role or duty in her geographic community?
Veselka: I really don’t know. I’m hoping to lead a creative writing class in some of our local high schools. But truthfully, I’m just as useful picking up neighborhood trash once a week, maybe more so. I think all writers are trying to get a home that can never be reached.
Let me say something about duty, though, because that’s an interesting one that is always getting negotiated through the lens of identity politics. Who do you owe what to? What’s the rule of duty? I don’t think we think about it that way, but it really comes down to this idea of duty. People have it in all sorts of ways, whether it’s boyfriends or girlfriends, or when they want to move social circles, or if they feel like they’re moving into a more enlightened crowd of folks. What do you do with people who don’t have the same playbook you do about dealing with confrontation? Or about being honest enough to write about your life? There is the identity thing that allows people to cut off those people, just absolutely, with no guilt. It’s: I am a vegan, anarchist, whatever. I don’t have to hang out with this redneck good-old boy cousin, meat-eating blah, blah, blah, that I used to know because I have made decisions and they’re not part of my world anymore. But the people I love and admire the most are the people who live really mixed lives.
The dark side of identity politics circles is that you use these kind of totems, expressions, and billboards of who you are to avoid talking about anything—rather than to get closer. It’s actually to say, Don’t ask me anything because you can see what I am by what I’m wearing. You can see what I am by the totems I carry.
There’s very little communication in that form. In some ways it seems like it’s meant to alienate people within a culture of a certain similarity rather than bind them together.
Rumpus: What about Buddhism? Is being a Buddhist an identity for you? Is that something you fully embrace?
Veselka: I haven’t taken refuge vows. I’ve come close at different times. For me, it’s not an identity and I think that’s exactly why I haven’t taken refuge. I can’t say I’m a Buddhist for the same reason I can’t say I’m a vegetarian.
Rumpus: Because it builds up more walls?
Veselka: I think it builds up walls, and I also think I just can’t do it and have integrity because I’m not 100% anything. There’s no way for me to say that and feel like I’m speaking honestly. I would feel like an imposter. That is a bit of my own nerdy puritanism, or something like that, that 70% is not there. The truth is that there are days I am 100% Buddhist, there are days I am 10%.
Rumpus: What determines that percentage?
Veselka: The amount of suffering that’s going on. That is usually one of the big drivers. Even if I’m not meditating on a daily basis, it has a place in my life. It’s a tool that I know is always there. My beliefs about how I work with struggle and things like that are deeply informed by Buddhism.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says that cultural views are the least important things for the identity of Buddhism. The cultural Buddhism doesn’t contain the freedom. That ultimately goes back to an earlier question you asked, if I were to find one thing that drives me circle to circle, it’s that I am always looking for freedom, misdirected or otherwise. I don’t mean freedom, necessarily, like I want to stay up til 5 a.m. or whatever. I don’t care about that. But I’m always looking for real freedom. That’s the thing that drives absolutely everything in my life.
Rumpus: What do you mean by freedom?
Veselka: The bigger vistas, the sense of knowing who you are but also having a sense of possibility. I think possibility is tied to freedom. I don’t know how to extricate those things. When I feel like a world gets too limited—and this is possibly a flaw in my character; this is not something that necessarily should be applauded—your being becomes too much of a full identity. As soon as you say, “I am this,” it seems to be so confining that you have the automatic reaction to say, “No, I’m not.” You end up pulled in that direction. If there’s any sort of wisdom in that, what I’ve learned at this point is that I don’t tend to say “I am this,” as much as I used to, and that allows me to stay present a little bit more.
Rumpus: Why are you so taken by self-immolation Zazen?
Veselka: Because I am so horribly conflicted by it. I see the power of it as a burning symbol of hopelessness and freedom turned into will. I have been deeply moved by the commitment it takes, the sorrow it engenders. But I also fear our tendency to speak and think symbolically. I worry that it is seductive in a way that human-to-human experience is not and that it leads us closer to a media driven world where only symbols matter.
Rumpus: What is the difference between symbols and lived experience?
Veselka: Symbols still burn. People don’t. That is the essential dilemma, right? I’m not being flip. Symbols last, they carry the cultural will forward. They aspire. But they are not the actual thing. The lived experience is passing. Going back to what I said about my author bio—the tone of identity and calcification—it’s a symbolic past. That’s why I’m so conflicted.