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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Interview with Debra Di Blasi

Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Contemporary Xxperimental Prose by Women Writers  (Spuyten Duyvil) ed. Nava Renek

This is an interesting anthology that I would like to bring some attention to. I've decided that interviewing the short story writers about the particulars of their stories would be a provocative angle. I and some others will conduct these interviews. To see YouTube interviews with the editor and a few of the writers, go to Debra Di Blasi.

Below, is an interview with Debra Di Blasi.

Other interviews:

Debra Di Blasi's story "Sprung Up in the Years Since" is a collage fiction. In sidebars, set off with a light grey background, popular culture and political inanities are listed, followed by a final list of military terms. In numbered and titled narratives in the middle of the page stories of war in Africa appear: boy soldiers, rapes, forced conscriptions, slavery, torture. These narratives are interrupted by phrases in a grey font that may present a character's views on God, quotations from journalism and science and pop culture. Finally a number of illustrations appear throughout the story; of hands, mouths, eyes, and skeletal teeth.

1. You have some marvelous sentences in this story: "You cannot cross a new bridge without death swaggering drunk in your heart"; "But the ricochet silence that followed gunfire, the descending starlight of snare — drum silence in his ear that followed gunfire, bade the hungry locust enter. Ngabo felt each sword-bristle of leg, each tickle-snap of antennae, each buzz-flutter of wing in the silence, in the light, in the inexhaustible wellspring of blood under his boots sucking at the mud." What is so gripping about both of these sentences is that you bring together such seemingly disparate entities — a bridge and drunkenness, the sword bristle of a locust leg — in a vivid and coherent manner, not to mention your sudden return to the empirical reality of a soldier: boots and mud. 

Thank you for your kind comments. I’m not sure how to respond to this, except to say that I have, over the years, attempted to write as intuitively as I draw my visual art. One learns to trust the words and images that rise from the subconscious, that they will be precisely the right words, the most appropriately evocative images. Of course, one has to do one’s homework first, else the language simply is not available. That said, many of these new pieces draw from places in culture that, if one is paying attention, produce what Westerners might consider strange juxtapositions but are, to Africans, part of their culture. 

2. I am a little confused about the relationship of the sidebar to the horrific content in most of the main text. I see the juxtaposition of the pain and drama of people living at the edge of survival compared to the frivolity of celebrity culture. This appears again in section 6 where the voice of a prisoner who had his hands cut off is slowly drowned out by pop culture inanities written in a different font. 

Confusion is a good thing. 

Virtually all of my writing since my introduction to the World Wide Web explores the role of lacunae in our lives, certainly physical gaps in text and image, but also lacunae as existential metaphor for the gaps that occur in one’s body of knowledge – knowledge of other’s lives, of science, of history, of culture, of one’s self. What’s missing makes us who we are as much as what’s present; thus, we have people who think Sara Palin is smart. Until you begin at least asking yourself what’s missing, you cannot intelligently evolve as a human being. 

I expect my readers to be active participants, not passive, and therefore learn from whatever challenge I’m offering. When you study art history, for example, you’re required to analyze an artwork’s composition, medium(s), narrative, and historical/cultural references as they relate to you, the viewer so that you better understand the world around you. I want the reader to ask him/herself what is in fact the meaning of the gap between Paris Hilton and the mother feeding her daughter dust, between George W. Bush’s evident pride in his C-student status and an African captain biting off the breast of a girl-child after he rapes her. 

The structure of most of my stories since 1998 consists of mixed media fictions (texts + images) that subtlely or blatantly reference the architecture of the technological web and the interconnections in the web of living. I’m disgusted with most American (and world) literature that still clings to the 19th Century, that does not challenge our perceptions of “truth” or language or the media by which we’re inundated today, at this peculiar point in time. (I suspect such clinging is political, in the same way that the American educational system is political.) My intent is to manipulate the reader into an experience that says as much about the way we live today as do the events occurring within the story. 

3. In this story, what could be called the main character, Ngabo, 'allows' himself to be 'conscripted' as a boy soldier in exchange for his just-raped sister's life. Later, we see him raping an infant. To what extent is he a victim? 

The character of Ngabo is based on the child soldiers of Darfur and elsewhere in Africa who are stolen or forced to become killing machines. The idea of “choice” would not enter into the mind of a seven-year-old like Ngabo, who loves his sister and who is tremendously family-oriented, contrary to stereotypes you speak of in question 5, below. Ngabo is absolutely a victim, as are his young comrades who, we must assume, commit similar crimes out of an exponential madness resulting from traumas you or I cannot possibly imagine. As I write these African stories I know the situations are always worse – horrifyingly worse – than I can pen. I cannot, for example, make a reader experience every endless minute of every day of every five years a child soldier must endure, forced to kill and take the beatings and torture from the hands of his (or her) “leaders.” 

4. To what extent can the military horror in the portion of Africa that you are describing be blamed on the sadistic, perhaps unbalanced captain?

Oh, that’s too simplistic. The guerilla captain is essentially no different from the U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib who took obvious pleasure in torturing prisoners. No different from Enron executives remorselessly stealing life savings from thousands of their employees. No different from high school bullies, greedy mortgage lenders, abusive parents, intolerant religious leaders, corrupt politicians...perhaps no different from you or me. It’s the same fucking pot of offal. The circumstances create the results. Put a guy like Rush Limbaugh or Dick Cheney into a volatile environment wherein water and food are scarce and law has collapsed and see what happens. If tomorrow U.S. computers were hacked and our economy came to a dead halt, as it surely would, pandemonium would result as food and water ran out. History, ancient to contemporary, is full of sane men and women gone mad. 

5. Some readers may worry that this story plays into some stereotypes about Africa,that it's a lost cause where warlords run wild and there is no value put on human life? How would you answer them?

Not even Britney Spears is a lost cause (but ask me again tomorrow). 

If I believed Africa was a lost cause I wouldn’t be writing about it. I write about what I feel is important in comprehending the human condition – and what most writers can’t or won’t explore. “Sprung Up in the Years Since” is part of a new collection, nearly completed, of bifurcated and trifurcated fictions, many that contrast U.S. culture with African politics. The gap (there’s that word again) between First and Third World cultures shocks and dismays me, and I’ve seen it first-hand. Most Americans remain oblivious to what’s happening on the other side of the world. Ask 100 random people, “(1) Who is Robert Mugabe? And (2) who is Paris Hilton?” How many do you think would get the first part right? Yet millions of people are starving to death because of Mugabe – and perhaps because of Paris, too. Yes, I’m serious. The world is a system of interrelationships, one thing triggering another triggering another, ad infinitum. The space and time Paris takes up in the Western World’s psyche may in fact deflect attention from the ELEVEN MILLION PERCENT inflation in Zimbabwe. (By the way, all of the quotes by Paris, Lindsay, Britney, Ivanka and Dubya are real.) 

As for stereotypes? Africa’s a big damned continent – Egypt, Morocco, Kenya, Algeria, Liberia, Chad, Congo, Eritrea, Uganda... Each country has its own culture, it’s own level of success or failure. “Sprung Up” is one story about one region that has been in the news for the many years, now, though not nearly enough, in my opinion. The terrors of life in Darfur – from war to poverty and disease – should be on people’s minds more than, say, Lindsay Lohan but aren’t. Ngabo’s story begs this question. And Ngabo’s love for his sister, the mother’s love for her dying daughter, Farha’s love for her cousin…these too exist amid the muck as mystery that is love amid the ruins, to borrow a title from a classic novel. 

My recent mixed media fiction, “Quell the Mayhem Night”, takes place in a South African township where over a million people live like this, while I live like this when in South Africa.  The contrast is difficult to resolve and more economically complex than it appears.The two stories on which I’m working now also take place in South Africa.

6. What are your personal experiences with Africa and Africans? 

My husband was born and raised in South Africa. His parents were active in the anti-apartheid movement; his father was Nelson Mandela’s doctor during Mandela’s imprisonment. My husband still owns property in South Africa, so we travel there every year, spending about a month in Cape Town. In fact, just last week I returned from South Africa where political upheavals were rife. 

Though I’ve always been politically aware, since meeting my husband ten years ago, I’ve developed a passionate interest in the political and socioeconomic situations in South Africa, as well as some of the neighboring countries like Zimbabwe, especially because the contrast to U.S. culture is so great. And because the “cradle of civilization” is rotting from global neglect. It’s helpful to discuss the more intimate situations with S.A. nationals while I’m there, as the devil, said Mies van der Rohe, is in the detail[s]. I’d been reading about Darfur since the features of the conflict came to light. The concept of child soldiers sickened me; there are hundreds of thousands throughout the world. When I taught a war short stories class a few years ago, one of the sections focused on children in war; thus, sprang the seed for “Sprung Up.”

Last year in Cape Town, we viewed an exhibition of photographs of members of the Lord’s Resistance Army, notorious for stealing children (including girls whom they use as soldiers and/or for sexual gratification). It was the first time I’d seen a photo of the leader, Joseph Kony, on whom Ngabo’s captain is based. I found it grimly satisfying to see that my depiction of him was pretty damned accurate. Interestingly, and sadly, just two weeks ago, while driving in Cape Town, we heard that the Lord’s Resistance Army had just kidnapped 40 more children.

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