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An Interview With Janice Lee by David Hoenigman

Janice Lee

Janice Lee is a writer, artist, editor, and curator. She is interested in the relationships between metaphors of consciousness and theoretical neuroscience, and experimental narrative. Her work can be found in Big Toe Review, Zafusy, antennae, sidebrow, Action, Yes, Joyland, Luvina, Everyday Genius, and Black Warrior Review. She is the author of KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), a multidisciplinary exploration of cyborgs, brains, and the stakes of consciousness, and Daughter (Jaded Ibis, Forthcoming). She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from CalArts and currently lives in Los Angeles where she is a co-curator for the feminist reading series Mommy, Mommy!, co-editor of the online journal [out of nothing], and co-founder of the interdisciplinary arts organization Strophe. She can be found online at janicel.com.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a novel about our uncanny relationship with God and the consciousness of God. It’s about God and religion and the history of religion and the Bible, but it’s also about cyborgs and the technological singularity and the brain and religious experiences of the brain and the God experience. And then among other things, it’s also about confessions and spiders and daughters and the Antichrist.

I’m also trying to finish a sort of memoir-ish piece about my family. My mother passed away last month and I’ve been increasingly uncomfortable, but also more inclined, to go back to it. I’m sort of waiting.

And then I’m working on a collaborative text with Laura Vena, a book about time travel and something called the chronovisor. And a science fiction novel with my brother Eugene.

When and why did you begin writing?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. And why? Because I feel I have to.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

I don’t think this happened at any particular moment. It’s sort of a strange label, really. I write, so I guess that makes me a writer. I draw and make art too, so I guess I’m also an artist. Though really I feel like there’s too many labels we have to carry around: writer, artist, editor, curator, poet, novelist, teacher, professor, etc. Like little Cub Scout badges we can show off. Not sure why there can’t be a simpler term to encompass all of this, for someone who just contributes to the literary community at large, and does all of these things collaboratively and simultaneously, not in separation. Or really, no term at all. I feel like being a writer is really more a way of being in the world, than an occupation.

What inspired you to write your first book?

Technically speaking, my first book was KEROTAKIS, and it was my thesis at CalArts. Many things got me pointed in that direction. I had been reading a lot of neuroscience and consciousness studies and alchemy, and especially Julian Jaynes (whose book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind affected me greatly then).

The first book I really wrote, though, was this chaotic graphic text I wrote in undergrad at UCSD. Anna Joy Springer, a phenomenal teacher, influenced and helped and guided me a lot in my early years of writing. Though I’ve grown and changed a lot since then, I still give her a lot of credit. I worked on this angry and sort of crass book, about everything from God to war to race politics, Gramsci was a character, and there were all these crazy doodles and drawings. It’s easy to see the Kathy Acker influence in it.

Who or what has influenced your writing?

I’ve been influenced greatly by what I read. And I read a lot. Though unlike most writers I know, I don’t read a lot of fiction or poetry. I read a lot of scientific texts, like Antonio Damasio or V.S. Ramachandran or Paul Churchland. I read as many books as I can about the brain, about neuroscience, about psychology, and human memory. Knowledge is sort of an obsession for me. I follow many science journals, especially those concerning cognitive science or consciousness. I read anthropology, theology, alchemy, philosophy. Lately I’ve been studying the Bible and different translations and its history. All of this really feeds into my writing, and the writing reflects that, I think. Everything I’ve ever read has influenced me in some way. If I have to list some specifics off the top of my head: Julian Jaynes, Gramsci, Chomsky, Camus, Kierkegaard, George Lakoff, Nietzsche (the first time I read him I was in fourth grade), Kafka, e.e. cummings, Badiou, and an infinite number of others.

And I’ve been lucky to have had some really amazing teachers and mentors and friends. Anna Joy Springer: I might not be writing now if not for her. Jon Wagner: Phenomenal instructor and person. Laura Vena: Besides collaborating, we also workshop work regularly, give each other deadlines. Our relationship absolutely feeds into my writing productivity. Joe Milazzo: One of the best readers of my work. And he’s the one who inspired me to really become interested in the novel as a form again.

How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?

When I was 8, my mother dropped The Holy Bible onto my desk in front of me and told me to read it and make up my own mind.

What genre are you most comfortable writing?

I really despise having to categorize my writing by what genre it is, though I often have to. I care much more about what the work is about and its concepts, than if it is really a poem or short story or hybrid work (I despise this term more) or something else. When I wrote KEROTAKIS, poets would tell me that it was a long poem. And fiction writers would tell me it was a novel. Sometimes I’m purposeful, like the project I’m working on now, I’m adamant in calling it a novel. But really the category is more a matter of convenience. Generally, I don’t think genre categorizations really accomplish much, and seem sort of outdated at this point.

Is there a message in your work that you want readers to grasp?

Message, no, but there is something I’m writing towards. And the objective is really more or less something impossible to obtain, but for me, absolutely necessary to work towards. I think failure is inevitable in my line of work, though I don’t think failure is necessary a negative. Though there are different kinds of failures, and for me, one kind of failure might be okay, while another, not really.

What really interests me is what happens when someone reads a text, and not just any text, but one that really affects them, changes them somehow. I’m interested in these changes, both conceptually speaking, but also physically, how these changes get manifested neurologically. I’m interested in introspection and the construction of a phenomenological self-model during reading, and in narrativization versus narrative.

I’m very interested in what Badiou terms the “event,” as a “rupture in ontology, a being-in-itself ­– through which the subject finds his or her realization and reconciliation with ‘truth.” Or even what Derrida termed the “blind spot,” or de Man’s point of literary disruption. I think these are talking about the same thing, that literature can potentially offer an alternate reality which actually creates a space for chances to be made in the conceptual system that structures this one.

In my opinion, the goal of experimental narrative should be, not to continue a futile anti-narrative aesthetic that ignores the inherent and necessary quality of narrativization for human understanding, but to push a narrative aesthetic that allows and inspires readers “to view their ideological embeddedness with fresh eyes.” (This quote I borrow from Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. writing about science fiction.)

What is needed then, is a reinvestigation of the writing event through the metaphor most suited to it: narrative. Writing is thus neither inherently narrative or anti-narrative, but the cognitive processes that dictate it, the understanding of it (there since truth is understanding, the “truth” of the matter), are. This isn’t anything new. Writers and thinkers have always known that truth is based on understanding. But I think recent discoveries in neuroscience are showing more and more that philosophical questions we’ve been tackling can be manifested physically too. Science is showing more and more that we are indeed physically wired to narrativize the world, and so it is becoming increasingly crucial to reconsider narrative in terms of mediating between the philosophical questions of truth and subjectivity in writing, and the biological/neurological mechanisms of science. I really do believe all the great disciplines have been asking the same big questions all along, and that the big questions do have answers. I also believe that writers, working uniquely and intimately with language and conceptual systems and narrative, have real power to do something about all this, to push people to really think about things.

I’ve said a little more about this before, concerning KEROTAKIS, here.

What book are you reading now?

Too many to count. I’m constantly cycling through books and might be reading anywhere between 6 and 20 books at a time. Though I will mention a book I read recently that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Aaron Kunin’s The Sore Throat, I reread it a couple times, something I almost never do. I won’t say much about it, just that it was phenomenal.

Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

I’m not sure how new “new” should be to. But I will say that I think one of the most important writers writing right now is Vanessa Place. I’m convinced that Notes On Conceptualisms (co-authored with Rob Fitterman) and La Medusa should be canonical texts. And her recent project Statement of Facts is even more interesting and supremely (though really productively) problematic.

Others writers who I think are amazing and some maybe not out there yet but when they are will blow your mind: Joe Milazzo, Ian McCarty, Maxi Kim, Laura Vena, Jared Woodland, Nancy Romero, Saehee Cho, Harold Abramowitz.

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