Written On (and Under) the Skin
An interview with Shelley Jackson
by Rosita Nunes
Shelley Jackson, author of the story collection Melancholy of Anatomy, the early hypertext "Patchwork Girl" and numerous other works, has gained recent notoriety with her latest project, a short story to be tattooed one word at a time, one to a person, on 2095 volunteers. Well over 1,000 volunteers had signed up at the time of this interview to participate in "Skin" a story they have not read and will not see until they have already received their tattoos. The project has been written up in Newsweek, The New York Post, The Village Voice, The London Observer and People and other publications in the US and abroad, and covered on BBC radio, German and Canadian Public Radio and Polish News Radio. Tattoo Highway editorial staffer Rosita Nunes interviewed Jackson in December 2003, with a follow-up in early January '04.
Rosita Nunes: Your last book, The Melancholy of Anatomy, bordered on the world of magic realism where sperm walked, eggs ate you turned my view of anatomy upside down, which made me a bit queasy at first. There was a strong theme of consumption throughout the text. What spurred this quest to re-digest the way we view the body?
Shelley Jackson: I'm interested in the slippery territory between the self and the outside world. If consumption is a particularly strong theme in my stories, that's because swallowing and being swallowed literalize this metaphor of crossing a boundary between self and other. What we eat becomes us. What eats us we become.
I'm also interested in the stuff of the body flesh, fluid, and all the ooze in between because it seems to be situated right at the juncture of the material world and what you could call soul. But I put the egg, sperm, milk, blood out into the landscape, because their ambiguous status shows up better there: they act like animals or weather, but strangely knowing animals, very animate weather. Some of Kafka's mysterious objects are similarly charged with some ambiguous but personal agenda, but I look for my mysteries closer to home. Under the skin, in fact.
RN: Speaking of "Skin," your new project reframes what we think about writing. Since volunteers can’t choose their words, many will receive ands, buts, and the’s. The lucky ones may receive a noun, verb or adjective that they can connect to for a lifetime. But what does one do with punctuation in a story like this? How does this impact meaning?
SJ: I had originally planned to pass out punctuation marks individually, but decided it was more interesting to package them together with the words they were nearest. In other words you might see a tattoo like So, or "I. Punctuation, like words, are inked signs, so they survive the translation to skin. What does not survive is what is unmarked: gaps, sequence, the syntactic relationships between the parts. The different spaces between words, paragraphs and sections are all replaced by the spaces between people, whether they are in bed together or a continent apart.
There are two ways to look at how this impacts meaning. One, since each participant will get to read the story in its original sequence, the story will find its coherence in its readers' minds, rather than in the world. This is true of all stories, in a sense. Two, the original story is only the DNA; the real story as living organism is perpetually rearranging and revising itself, and its meaning is the aggregate of a myriad of idiosyncratic personal interpretations that will attach themselves to its words, interpretations I have invited but can't predict or control. This too is true of all stories, in a sense.
RN: Yet when individuals die, the story is erased word by word. Do you anticipate volunteers seeking to keep the story alive by reshuffling the living words?
SJ: One of my volunteers asked me, hypothetically, if he could will his word to his children, creating if everyone else followed suit a second edition, so that the story could live on. The story does belong to the words who make it up, and I'll be really interested if they start taking action against its demise. But the way I define the project, the successively shorter versions of the story that will be created by these deaths are also completely legitimate, right down to the one-word story that will be its final form.
RN: Having given life to the components of your story, would it matter to you if the story decided to reshape itself in a way that had nothing to do with your original intent?
SJ: I'd be very interested if the elements of my story began to react to form new versions. One of the pleasures of this project for me is seeing what people do with the material I give them; I've defined the project around the expectation that this is exactly what will happen. Of course that means that my "original intent" embraces revisions, so I'm safe!
RN: It doesn't appear that safety is your primary concern. In fact, you've been compared by literary critics to Kathy Acker and Angela Carter as "gutsy and original." Your latest project surely demonstrates this. How does your "Skin" project speak to your larger body of work?
SJ: Angela Carter was very important to me when I was starting out as a writer. I admired the way she could melt down and recast old stories, transforming cautionary tales into incitements and provocations. Feminism, early on, gave rise to some tediously earnest prose; the politically engaged often mistrust showy and playful work. Carter demonstrated that acrobatics and ideas go together very well. I admire Acker for her piratical onslaught on the icons of literature and her fearlessness. I don't think the results are always interesting to read, but I doubt she would give a damn; "quality" is hardly the point. I rely on her as an inspiration without seeing much resemblance in our work.
RN: Where "The Melancholy of Anatomy" had a thematic thread of consumption, "Skin" seems to be a metaphor for creation, collectivity, adherence and change. Or is it something else that you are trying to say by this process?
SJ: As a whole, yes, the project (in ways I had not fully articulated for myself before undertaking it) embraces change, permeability, and collaboration. I was also moved by the image of reading as offering yourself to be wounded by a piece of writing. Like all tranformative experience, reading at its best does some kind of damage to the envelope in which you move about. It's a breach, but one that you suffer voluntarily. You open yourself to it, expecting and even hoping to be altered by it, without knowing how.
RN: Talk to me about the practical discoveries you have made by breaking new ground, or should I say new skin?
SJ: A moment ago, I used the word "envelope" for the invisible boundaries of the self. This project has torn mine open. When I published the call for participants, I had no idea if anyone would come forward. The world called my bluff. In rising to the occasion, I've taken on a responsibility to audience that I've never felt before.
I have discovered that sometimes when you throw a wild proposition into the world, the world says yes. Also, get an address stamp and keep the piles in order.
RN: Tell me where we stand on the volunteers to date? Where do they come from? What do you think motivates them to volunteer? And if you want more volunteers, how might interested folks contact you?
SJ: The latest-latest count [Jan. ’04 – ed.] is 1628, but I have hundreds of applicants who are waiting for an answer from one beleaguered author. I'm close to the end, but anyone who wants to inquire or just find out more about the project should visit my website: www.ineradicablestain.com/skin.html. America is most heavily represented, then Canada, England and Australia,but I have participants in Finland, The Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Spain, and Thailand. Some say they love books, some that they love tattoos, some that they want to feel like they are an essential part of something larger than themselves, something that ties them to people around the world with an invisible thread. They want to make an extravagant gesture of faith in literature, art, in the imagination in general. They tell me they love the smell of books; used to write on their arms with markers; get tattoos as other people might keep journals, to mark the passage of time. They write, "Now at least one person will be at my funeral."
RN: You mentioned one bearer asking if he could will his word to his child. And now another saying, "Now at least one person will be at my funeral," thus speaking to the inherent need of human beings to collect and associate. Do you envision reunions among bearers as the numbers begin to decline as with WWII veterans?
SJ: Yes. Many of my applicants write that they are yearning for a different kind of community, and hope that this might provide it. That might seem far-fetched, but in fact online groups have already formed to talk about the project, and some of my words have already met in the flesh. Some of my words sent me Christmas cards. One of my words is knitting me a scarf. I seem to have founded a strange sort of family.
RN: You said that the shorter versions of the story would be legitimate, "right down to the one-word story that will be its final form." Spoken like a true process purist! However, the writer inside you must be struggling against the compulsion to control the ultimate last word.
SJ: The process of enrolling in "Skin" is intricate, legalistic, bureacratic. This was meant, at least in part, as a vaguely Kafkaesque joke: to drape an absurdity in the trappings of law and order. But it is also an attempt to define with some precision the extent of my control of the project. Rules are not just restrictions, but also the armature of beauty. I'm not interested in totally relinquishing control. I have just redefined the work to include the whole process of its evolution, including its eventual demise. The writer in me wants to preserve the words, certainly, but not at the cost of the whole.
RN: Any last words?
SJ: I had considered myself an esoteric writer whose audience might always be small. I discovered that the world is more malleable and people more ready to embrace the improbable than I had ever imagined. Now it seems to me that it was subtly arrogant to imagine otherwise, and also kind of lazy. Now I think I should not let lack of precedent stop me from imagining preposterous things into being. The world can be rewritten.
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