Interview with Joshua Escobar
Mirene Arsanios: Thanks for writing such an evocative poem/ short-story/ playlist. I’m really intrigued by the form, maybe because when I first met you were writing fiction, and Caljforkya Voltage is a hybrid piece combining narrative sections with more poetic parts, though even that distinction feels wrong. Maybe we should think of your text as an assemblage, a sampling of experience, a playlist that accompanies the reader through a dystopian yet exhilarating landscape. Could you talk about how you landed on this form? And how the land you’re describing informs it?
Joshua Escobar: When we first met, you were working on The City Outside the Sentence, which I admire deeply, and I was struggling with form. Actually, I was 22 and struggling with many things: my artistic abilities, my upbringing, my “coming out” as queer. I had thought that writing fiction would yield some resolution. However, as I penned juvenilia about my hometown, I became disillusioned. My plots seemed reductive. My sentences ended up negating meanings, half-meanings, unfinished thoughts and complex emotions. My characters’ desires eventually overshadowed my own. Meanwhile at Bard, I was talking with you, Mina Zohal, and Alex Cuff, among others, about abstraction, fear, displacement. I saw the performances of Sound artists like Colin Self, Suzanne Kite and Nathan Young, who address the destruction and depravation that their communities have faced while contributing to the radical existence of their communities through conceptual practices. My education at Bard taught me so much about embodiment.
So I love how you’re thinking about Caljforkya Voltage. It’s a mish mash of different kinds of writing. Its lyricism accompanies the reader through a beautiful dystopia based off of my hometown, San Bernardino (which may soon be home to the most advanced shipping industry in the world). In my early experience with American arts and letters, I had seen San Bernardino cast as an inferior place. Mike Davis, Joan Didion, David Lynch (all whose work I respect otherwise) have depicted it as fundamentally broken, haphazard, deranged. One writer, celebrated in my urban studies classes, described it as the “id of Los Angeles.” At the same time I have witnessed in San Bernardino severe poverty, civic malfeasance, homophobia, the criminalization of youthfulness, and the crushing of native subcultures. I also understand it to be the birthplace (along with London) of raves and electronic dance music. From the beginning I’ve wanted my work to energize this region, this life I feel, which is readily dispossessed. However, with such ambitions, it’s easy to become overburdened and way too serious—like my juvenilia. Plus, my purpose isn’t to address these criticisms, since folks tend to discuss San Bernardino’s problems as baldly as they do the death of American poetry. Not to mention, my life beyond San Bernardino has enabled me to write. From my hometown, I have drawn a dystopia. And I’ve created a persona, DJ Ashtrae, who operates in this world where there is no difference between nightlife and the day-to-day. I find these moves to be fruitful and empowering. My form is ornate and somewhat narrative, poetic and fictional. It frequently shifts between different registers of sound, temporality, feeling. Grammar breaks down. It’s easy to become lost, but being lost feels pleasurable. Poet Leila Ortiz describes the people and places encountered in my work as “out of context and close to the heart.” She and I write a lot about the where we’re from (She grew up on the Lower East Side). And we struggle with being Latina and Latino even as we find our cultures to be deeply joyous.
MA: You say so many interesting things, some of which I’d like to unpack: I’m interested in the ways in which being in an interdisciplinary program has encouraged the breaking down of genre boundaries and allowed you to shift between registers. I’m curious about the ways in which experimentation doesn’t know what it is, but follows an impulse or a logic that is often rooted in the body—its dislocation, struggles, desires. This openness or venturing outside set conventions doesn’t make it easier, quite the opposite—it requires that you make the rules of your own writing as it is happening, while looking at literary precedents, people you’re in conversation with. What I’m trying to say is that literary innovation rarely happens in a vacuum; it is supported by an artistic community that enables finding “a form for half meanings, unfinished thoughts,” etc.
I’m straying here but I was wondering about the relationship between communities and an increasingly atomized society. I have a sense that your characters already live in a desolate, post-catastrophic or pre-apocalyptic world, while enjoying kale smoothies and beautifully sculpted bodies. Can you talk about what kind of community is possible under such conditions?
JE:Thanks for noting the characters! I love them fiercely. Their discipline and integrity drove me to seek something more fruitful than the retrograde coolness of the dystopian genre.
The dystopia of Caljforkya fascinates me. There are no capital markets, no weapons, and nobody works. Technology is dysfunctional. Oppression and catastrophe coincide. Subsiding in the chaos are the haunts and echoes of the old world. The characters understand this as history.
Since dystopian forces have turned the world inside out, community serves as a way to address the desolation of daily existence. Enjoying kale smoothies and beautifully sculpted bodies is not only fun. These are the very few joys that are left. Surviving in this dystopia is not based on violent domination, as it is in The Walking Dead, but on joy, ecstasy, mutual pleasure. Therefore, community restores the hope one needs to make it through another day’s, another month’s, another season’s brutalities.