Jasmon Drain is a 2010 and 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee. HE was a finalist in the inaugural Terrrain.org fiction contest and a Notable Story of the Year (2013) in the Gemini Magazine fiction contest. Also, he has been published in Bird’s Thumb, The Chariton Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Foliate Oak Literary Journal, Ginosko Magazine, Indian River Review, The Jet Fuel Review, Lit Up Magazine, My Story Lives Magazine, New Purlieu Review, New Sound Magazine, The Quotable Magazine, Reverie, Sliver of Stone Magazine, Specter Literary Magazine, Tidal Basin Review, The Vermillion Literary Project, and the Wilderness House Literary Review.
In this interview with editor Dariel Suarez, Jasmon talks about boundaries and segregation, about internal struggles, and about hidden motivations. Also, a few words on achieving a controlled writing voice and the social engagement of writers.
Dariel Suarez: What inspired you to write “Headlights in Black Berlin”?
Jasmon Drain: “Headlights in Black Berlin” actually was inspired by my hometown of Chicago. As urban and cosmopolitan as Chicago truly is, diverse even, it is indeed one of the most racially segregated large cities in the United States. True, there are no visible “walls” separating people, only those that are imaginative or metaphorically created by years and years of gentrification. Certain streets are definitely indicators of such. And throughout my studies, especially into politics, race relations, ethnic boundaries, or perceptions of those boundaries, I’ve always questioned the ideas and teachings of separatism or segregation. The perspective I speak of is not necessarily in the cliché sense of North/South or the general Black vs. White (although that applies here as well), but delving deeper into what initial motivators bring a people to the point where their differences – however minute or expansive as they may be – become the basis for what they teach their youth. Furthermore, there was a curiosity as to how those teachings by the dominant group are taken as rule until some form of rebellion challenges them. In my opinion, this is imperialism and demagoguery at its embryonic stage. I wanted to explore and create from the question of what lengths and buttons a people may push to create a racialized society, an invented feeling of “better than others,” even one merely separated by blocks in a small neighborhood. I felt that exploring it from the venue of a small area, rather than attempting to arrogantly take on the subject and its polity as a whole, would give me a bit more room to find the originality of the story, and maybe have an authenticity to the characters. “Headlights in Black Berlin” is actually one of the first projects that brought forth the voice I created extensively from moving forward – that of a naïve black child later named Tracy – of which I eventually began to expand on in my art and has now become probably my strongest and most consistent.
DS: What are some of themes and topics you generally like to explore in your writing?
JD: Typically, I’d say that my work explores the perspectives of internal struggle in American citizens that I believe are often forgotten or are considered uninteresting. I don’t necessarily mean merely financial or economic struggle although those apply in a loose sense at times. My characters struggle in love, in fatherhood, in the everyday relationships that without the crutch of overused physical drama and violence are the true reason for the turmoil of our thoughts. Most times we are a confused people, questioning most everything, and there are hidden motivators in each character created, especially when properly fleshed out, and that’s where the compelling nature of fiction should lay in my opinion. I’ve explored war from the perspective of a high school boy watching his uncle’s rage and anger after enlisting in the military (and his subsequent following of this pattern), a man confused about dating a woman who has children he is never allowed to meet, a pair of sisters heading to a local mall to buy a wig after one experiences chemotherapy, and even a trio of black youth trekking south on the El Trains of Chicago all the while enduring dangerous and eye opening circumstances to simply view grass that is green.
DS: How socially engaged do you believe writers and artists should be?
JD: Writers, in my opinion, should be the most socially engaged of most all artists. Not to sound lofty, but it’s sort of the only way. Genre fiction is different, and maybe not taken as seriously, but in some aspects, literary fiction writers are simply liberated reporters – creative ones – documenting a perspective that they have a concern for and from their aesthetic. It’s subjective reporting. The further a writer can move from the autobiographical aspect of their work, especially writing on a socially engaging or political topic, the more compelling and resonant the art itself becomes. Most of the literature that has stood within time and continues to be revered does this very thing. The best writing usually touches on some level of social politics and definitely a deep level of the human experience, which is still a form of social engagement. Creating characters around this is the excitement of art, at least in creating literary fiction, and social engagement and its awareness are vital.
DS: Who are some of your main literary influences?
JD: I’ve been quite lucky that I was exposed early on to fiction that influenced my aesthetic and helped me achieve a controlled voice in my work. This isn’t only personal to me, as I’m sure most writers had this problem, but initially, while writing, I was doodling. I realize it now. Yes. Just. Doodling. I had no voice and I didn’t know what was necessarily important to write about or even what inspired my thought process to create anything at all. Well, my fiction writing teacher, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, introduced me to a collection of stories entitled, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” by Native American fiction writer Sherman Alexie. My eyes were opened from that point. He was the first modern writer I’d read who delved deep into the heart of a character and their motivations. He’s a writer who simply doesn’t apologize for talking about his people – brutally honest writing at times – about their oppression and confusion and addictions and love and community and hate and selflessness and poverty and education and…you get the point. That is when I grew hungry to learn, to use all the books of information my mother handed me while young and the information I’d gathered from my own experiences with my people.
Another writer that influenced me heavily was Sandra Cisneros. Coincidentally, she is from Chicago and in her early work she wrote about the city from a Latino-based and impoverished community, but you’d swear she was describing a section of Hawaiian landscape or alternately maybe the energy of downtown Tokyo. Her language is a 100 watt lightbulb, but still soft and elegant - you almost want to lick the ink on her pages. That’s when I began to not only understand the power of description, but that even the things you choose to describe change the narrative and theme of a story. She’s intricate in detail, but not heavy-handed in any way, and from her I can say I learned how to create scenes and characters that a reader hopefully “can care about.”
Also, John Steinbeck’s uncanny ability with dialogue was a powerful tool I attempted to acquire early on, along with some definite influence from a crime-fiction writer of the 70's by the name of Donald Goines. I felt he mastered tension and pacing in language in ways I don’t think I’ve truly seen since.
DS: You’ve been published in quite a few places and received some nice recognition. What advice do you have for aspiring writers who are trying to break into the publishing world?
JD: To believe that I can offer any aspiring writer advice concerning the publishing process would essentially mean that I’m saying that the process makes sense. Well, it doesn’t. I’m certain that more of the experienced and published writers would agree with that than those who wouldn’t. Literary fiction nowadays isn’t published because the work is so great or that the writer has a strong voice or…it’s simply about finding the match. And that is HARD. I’d offer a writer attempting to publish one little tidbit: do the work that you love, and love it like it’s that child of yours who has your weird lazy eye and nose that slightly points west or love it like it’s a hot pizza from Papa John’s with toppings no one eats but you, but you definitely better LOVE IT. Sure, it sounds trite but this is what will help keep you pushing. Because the rejections are coming – yes they are – and they aren’t usually personal, but you’re going to have to love what you do waaay more than anyone else in order that it’ll eventually and hopefully and luckily see the readers who do want to see YOU.
DS: What projects are you working on at this time?
JD: I’ve actually just finished a linked novel-in-stories entitled, “The Stateway Condo Gentrification.” I’m very very proud of it. The main theme is concerning a character, Tracy, whose project buildings in Chicago will be torn down and rebuilt into condominiums, and his subsequent confusion and analysis of this. It also focuses on other characters that live in the buildings with him. However it’s about 70% based in a narrative voice similar to the main character from “Headlights in Black Berlin.” I’ve had some very good leads and reads and snips and bites from agents and literary connections but none have come through so that’s been discouraging. Short stories aren’t in-vogue anymore so I’ve been told. But, oh well, I still don’t believe that.
DS: Where can readers go to see some of your most recent work?
JD: I’d actually be honored just knowing that readers wanted to read some of my other work. A simple Google of my name can lead anyone interested in me to some of my more recently published projects. And if anyone does, thank you indeed. Also, thanks to Middle Gray for this interview. It’s been a joy to add it to my career.