Interviewed by Michael Todd
The book: In The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic!, Miah Jeffra perfects apostrophe as canticle, a host of heroes beckoning the reader a knee deeper into the waters of another selfhood, Madonna, Mary Shelley, Felix Gonzalez Torres, Plato, and Jeffra’s mother among them. At once gossamer and gauze, Jeffra explores the nature of gender, sexuality, aesthetics, and love, taking a tiny hammer to the stability of the limits of perception, troubling the tether between perception and memory. At once memoir and cultural criticism, The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! discovers itself as a book about forgiveness, family, and the truths we find in “the lightness of a door,” “the probability of a radio,” the long line between one story and another.
The author: Miah Jeffra is a writer, artist, curator, and educator, currently living in San Francisco. A military brat, Jeffra moved throughout their childhood, but most identifies the South as home.They spent their high school years in Baltimore, and then moved to Atlanta, where they studied English, Music, and Theatre at Oglethorpe University.
Miah later studied in the MFA writing program in critical studies at the California Institute of the Arts and the MA program in English at San Francisco State University. Jeffra teaches Writing, Drama, Media and Cultural Studies at Santa Clara University and The San Francisco Art Institute, and is founding editor and production designer for queer literary collaborative, Foglifter Press.
Michael Todd: Let’s start with a quote from earlier in the collection:
Time provides a frame, borders nailed into right angles, suitable for hanging. A story. A photograph. Clear lines making memories with beginnings and ends. Enter mother, exit brother. Enter father, exit the bedroom door. Frames. Angles. A different vantage.
How was it that you first started thinking about photography in conjunct conjecture with writing or as a starting off point for your essays?
Miah Jeffra: I think because of my visual arts background, I tend to think about things in terms of composition always. And a lot of times the architectures of visual art informs the way I think about my own life and then, in turn, the way I write. So, I think it just comes naturally for me to both use a rhetoric that invokes the elements of photography or film or sculpture, while at the same time I also think sculpturally about writing. A lot of times I would look at one of the works and I would think about its architecture. And then I would design my essay to reflect that same way that I perceived that architecture. And that’s what makes it ekphrastic.
Because obviously, you can do ekphrastic in so many different ways, right? But a lot of it for me was that the way that I think about the frame, how I think about the three-dimensional space and what that could look like for writing. I even think about kind of the sinews of design and I’ll construct paragraphs with that in mind. So very much utilizing the visual art that these essays are either inspired by or just in general, my background in photographic training and sculpture.
MT: And did you find—especially for the essays which reference photos directly—how often were the essays born from interactions with the photos as starting points versus essays that you already had in progress or had completed, that you then found photography that sort of worked with that? Was there a mix of those things?
MJ: No, it all was born from the work. I never started an essay independently and then a found a relationship to something. One of my methodologies for the collection—eventually, it didn’t start that way—I was wanting to write to my queer art ancestors.
The very first essays were to Felix Gonzalez Torres, who is one of my favorite artists. And I just wanted to write something ekphrastic from that one billboard “Untitled.” 1991, which I think is such a powerful image.
And then Robert Mapplethorpe’s Self Portrait with Whip, which impacted me in this kind of shameful way when I was younger. And so, I wanted to kind of grapple with these great artists—Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz—through doing an ekphrastic response to their work. And then I just started seeing that certain themes were emerging that I was a little surprised about because I thought it would stay kind of political. But, of course, Audre Lorde taught us the personal is political.
A lot of my writing tends to be very social. So, it’s very much an outward lens of me asking questions through these narratives and stories. And I thought that’s what I was going to be doing, was this kind of my queer ancestors in art. But then I kept emerging and I was like, what the hell is going on? Why am I doing that? And after I’d done maybe about a dozen of those I started thinking about how I was perceiving myself through these reflections.
That’s when I started introducing my own personal photographs as I realized just how personal the collection was and how much of it was about constructing a sense of a particular identity was in the queer culture, and that even though it was in particular, it felt like it could be universal in some ways.
MT: Some of your essays are more straightforward in terms of their form, approached more from the perspective of criticism, while others such as the opening essay, If the Day Ever Comes, and then later on The Modern Prometheus, reprise, become more experimental and playful in the way that form helps to communicate the message.
Do you have any thoughts on the mix of various forms that you have used and how they might work together, complement one another or create some kind of tension?
MJ: Yeah, that was discovered after the fact. I didn’t go in with that intention at all because I really was bearing in mind the essence of the work. You know, for The Modern Prometheus, it was me thinking about the relationship between the novel and film adaptations. And I was trying to write in that space, to write the architecture of adaptation, which to me was incredibly lyrical but episodic in this kind of interesting way.
And then, you know, these other types of essays, they came out more expository, like Trying to Shove Ourselves Back Together. I knew that if I wanted to make this feel like the kind of disparate yet thematically connected reflections I was making about my own life and about memory, it needed to have that dialectic tension.
I’ve never eschewed inconsistency in style; I think that trying to over-stylize puts too heavy a hand on the writing. So, I already like working in multiple styles, depending on what I’m doing just as a way to liberate myself as a writer and not get stuck, so that was an easy part. But then I did consciously think about how each of them would go together so that you created these ropes and hopefully the tension in between them is what kind of ignites people to think on their own. That’s the goal.
MT: Your work is, in several pieces, really rich with research: how the eyes and the brain process images; the malleable, unreliable nature of memory; queer theory; and philosophy, just to name a few. And you’re really endeavoring and exploring how this supplemental material can be woven into your own narratives. In your essay Eyewitness, you say:
Maybe the question of real is very different than the question of truth.
And I found this line to be really resonant because I think that in the creative nonfiction community, there is this debate that writers have long grappled with, and that we’ll likely continue to do so, this idea about what is truth and how do we serve truth in our work?
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit specifically about this relationship between photographs, which might deceivingly promise something tangible or seemingly irrefutable, versus memory, which we know is very complicated and unreliable.
MJ: Yeah, I mean, I’m really fascinated by this in a kind of literary sense. A few years ago, I submitted a piece to Creative Nonfiction. I’ll never forget this. And they responded and they were like, we really liked this, but is it true?
And the piece is about a moment when I walked into a coffee shop and there was this string of minor violence. This barista accidentally knocked a cup of coffee that he was serving a woman onto her blouse and she reacted and she screamed at him, Fuck you! And then there was this woman who had maybe a 10-year-old girl close by at a table who swung her head around and yelled at the woman something along the lines of, Excuse me! There’s a child here! But she said it in such a mean way.
And then the mother, who is upset, grabbed her child—I remember her name was Sabrina—really hard and yanked her out of the coffee shop.
So I had witnessed all of this, but I also witnessed the moment right after the guy spilled the coffee, and the look of apology on his face. And right after the woman yelled Fuck you! and saw the girl, felt apology on her face for doing that. I saw the woman grab her daughter and right afterword get upset with herself for extending her violence into her daughter.
And there was a section of the essay where I imagined what Sabrina did afterward, how she took that violence, and extended it into someone else. And that part was speculative. And so I told [Creative Nonfiction] yes, it’s truthful. It’s absolutely truthful. One section of it, I don’t know if it’s real. And they said that’s unethical. And I was really taken aback by that. I was like, unethical?
And then you bring it into art. We think of the photograph as being the truthful document, [but] it is also framed. And by being framed, we naturally intuit that there is something beyond the frame and the omission of what is beyond the frame changes what is mise-en-scène.
And so, yes, this is a truth, but is it real? I mean, that becomes a different question. It’s real within itself. And I started making connections between that with memory very specifically.
Obviously, I was prompted by my own childhood and how I started manufacturing memories, which was something that was really shameful to me and [that] I didn’t even investigate for a very long time. But then I come to find out that it’s actually quite common, just depending on the level of trauma or strain or circumstance, which can trigger it in different ways, but that we all do that.
The frame even of our memory shifts and changes and gets reconstructed. And so, I would go back to Creative Nonfiction and ask, well, if someone reports something from their memory that they believe is absolutely accurate, are you taking that to be truth? Because it’s not, you know? And what could possibly be exactly one hundred percent truth or real, for that matter?
But then you can use those things intertwineably, because I think the truth is somehow the thing in which we glean wisdom, whereas the real is that which is experienced if that makes any sense.
So, they serve different purposes, too. And I think we intertwine them in a way that also kind of problematizes their nature. I mean, you’re a writer of creative nonfiction. So what is your relationship to it?
MT: Well, I feel very similarly. And of course, when I first started writing nonfiction and studying nonfiction, we read everything from D’Agata and we talked about his stance on truth and, maybe to your point, what is“real” being less important than the truth of something.
We talked about The Lifespan of a Fact and the whole question between him and the fact-checker about what was real and what was not and how he had manipulated facts.
And that to me—the fact that you might change the way that someone killed themselves just to fit your story better—is not ethical. That is a very deliberate shift away and restructuring reality to fit what you want.
And as another small example: dialog. I think a lot of us know our loved ones well enough to kind of imagine, you know, if you can’t remember the exact conversation, every word, but you can recreate the basic idea of it. And in those moments where the actual reality of something is not available, you have the tools to create the next best thing.
MJ: And we do that in real life, too. I mean, it’s not just in writing. And that’s why I don’t see that as being manipulative. Now, consciously changing something to fit a narrative? That’s manipulation. And you’re right. There’s just no reason because that changes the truth of the thing. And you’re trying to discover the truth of the thing itself within itself. So, I absolutely agree with that. That would be fiction.
But when you’re manifesting that which you don’t have within your perception or in the way that you recall, that’s boundary extension, which we do in our memories anyway. So, in some ways, I feel like that’s even more truthful, because the way that we remember something is [that] we do fill in the space.
Certainly, we can take Dinty W. Moore’s approach where it’s like, I’m going to give you seven out of ten of the pieces because that’s all I know. And that works because the reader will then also create a boundary extension for their experience of that narrative or essay or whatever. But the writer can do it, too, and if it’s effectualizing the truth that they’re trying to glean, then I don’t feel like that is unethical.
MT: There are moments, too, where you feel so certain of things when it comes to your experiences because they were your experiences, but there’s also the fact that, sometimes, other people have witnessed or experienced those same things. You have shared experiences, and how do you prove whose reality is real? There’s just no way to really verify things or discredit things in some ways.
I mean, some things are easily discredited based on evidence that remains. But especially when it comes to when there’s distance, you think about things like childhood and the things that I remember from my childhood that my parents will say, well, that’s half right by my memory. But that’s my memory as a child. So, you can’t always rely on reality to create an accurate portrait of an event.
MJ: Because what is truthful is that the way that you remember it is how you have been constructed, no matter how minutely or profound that was. I think we keep those things so discrete, this idea of real or the truth.
And I’m certainly glad that there are some efforts to always seek what is actual, I think that’s really important; that’s science, we need that. We also just have to remember to not make our lives so discreet, that all of these categories blur as well and I’m very interested in that because I feel like we mostly exist in (that), we operate within that.
MT: And I think that’s so great, too. For example, with your story, I think that’s why creative nonfiction is so exciting, emphasis on the creative because you can have the more straightforward pieces where you are trying to stick as close to something verifiable as it can be.
But then something like, I guess, speculative nonfiction, maybe Creative Nonfiction would call it unethical but for me, it is part of trying to reach your own conclusion about something when you put yourself in Sabrina’s shoes and imagine what happened to her after that because, while you can’t know, what is the actual harm in wanting to round out that experience as best you can? I think that the genre should allow for that because otherwise we’re left with more holes than would create kind of a satisfying narrative in our work.
MJ: I agree.
MT: It’s funny that we’re talking about this because the next two questions kind of build off of that a little bit. So, in your essay See You When I See You, you say:
At least a poem in itself recognizes that it is the shadow of the cave and knows it relies on the firelight. But what of myth born from nothing? What is the light source casting the shadow?
And when I read this, it reminded me of a quote that I had seen by May Sarton:
The poem is an essence. It captures perhaps a moment of violent change, but it captures a moment, whereas the novel concerns itself with growth and change.
Now, granted, your collection is not a novel, but I was really interested in this difference between the perspective of poetry capturing a moment passed versus evolution and growth in something. Can you—if we haven’t already—talk about your thoughts on memory and this sort of accurate depiction of reality in nonfiction?
MJ: I tend to write moments initially. I think that’s why I move into the lyrical quite often, and because these little tiny truths emerge out of the lyrical for me, and then I can sequence them somehow to where it creates something that could remotely look like evolution. It doesn’t move in perfect sequence. It doesn’t move like a narrative at all. But I’m hoping that you feel like you travel somewhere as a result.
I didn’t want it to be a narrative traveling. I wanted it to be the understanding of a complex person and their relationship to the world, because it doesn’t happen narratively. I love narrative. Believe me, I’m writing a novel right now, and there’s something so gorgeous in that. But honestly, I feel like that is less truthful in some ways. No, I’ll take that back. I’m sorry. I think of it as less real.
Even if it was a sequential nonfiction memoir, it’s just not the way that things are discovered. It wasn’t like over the course of time I slowly grew to understand what the 15th rock was.
I had the moment while I was at the Kyoto Garden, and it didn’t really come up again for like seven years. And then when I look back, it’s like I can go, oh, there was this moment that kind of maybe contributed to me being able to understand it this way. But it’s like I can’t write a narrative for that because there’s all this stuff in between. I don’t know how memoirists do it sequentially, chronologically. To me, it didn’t feel authentic. And I was focusing on theme.
So, there might not be a very clear picture of me growing up. I grew up at different moments with different ideas and at different times, like some parts of me probably were maybe wise beyond my years regarding certain ways I approached the world. For example, it’s not in the book, but I came to terms with death very young. It’s something that I’ve been at peace with despite being a nonbeliever in any kind of a constructed afterlife.
And yet this idea about how I am to treat people took a lot longer, and to not manipulate my relationships in order to keep them with me, because I was always fearful of the abandonment. I could not see—and maybe it’s just because I don’t have that kind of master narrative quality to my writing yet—but I could not see a trajectory that somehow assembled all those things in a way that worked sequentially.
MT: So, the last question I’d like to ask: while your book is not strictly a comedy, of course, I was definitely struck by so many of the sparks of humor that occur throughout the work. And you ask some really good questions. You tackle some very deeply resonating subject matter.
But then, for example, in the opening—I won’t quote it—but the opening To an Ex-Lover was very early on in the collection, and I laughed out loud. So, I was wondering if you could maybe talk about how humor comes into your work or functions in your work, and also a little bit about how maybe humor gets queered and becomes a tool in that respect?
MJ: Absolutely. Well one, it disarms. I mean, these are a lot of heavy topics. We’re talking about child molestation, we’re talking about severe dishonesty and the kind of the moral ambiguity as the speaker. So, from a craft perspective, comedy acts as a disarming. Comedy is a very vulnerable form. Comedy kind of rips things apart and that evisceration sometimes allows the reader to settle in a little bit more.
I definitely see comedy as queer activism. You even said “the queering of” and I hold to that. I think that sometimes the politicization of issues can reach a place where a person cannot access it anymore; they can’t access wisdom because they’re so weighed by the politics of the thing, which are obviously really essential.
I even say comedy is activism–a sugar on the tip. Like, it allows you to say, I’m human and political. And I’m tired of writing to the audience that doesn’t need to read the work. This is going to be an open criticism to the literary community, (but) they tend to self-congratulate themselves quite often on their ability to have an open mind or to be progressive in their thinking. They write to those people and then it’s like, oh, that’s brilliant! And it’s almost like the readers are then congratulating themselves for getting it. I find that to be real problematic.
And I like playing with attitude as well, even in the same essay. Like, yes, I’m approaching the platonic myth. You know, I’m going for the allegory and looking at it very contemporaneous and applied way through me shitting my pants. And I feel like anyone could read that essay who has any willingness to read and be like, oh, I get this. You know, it’s not trying to extend the allegory or problematize the allegory. What it’s doing is being like, look at this awesome tool that Socrates presented so long ago, that Aristotle presented so long ago and how we can apply it to our everyday lives.
And I want those little tidbits. I want the nibbles. Because I would like to broaden the reach of audience at some points. Not always. So personally, it allows me to be vulnerable.
Politically, it allows me to queer the sensibility. And then ultimately, it allows a broader audience. I would have to think about that a little more, too, because I know that I’m saying that off the cuff but I feel pretty convicted.
MT: You make some really great points. And I totally agree about the self-congratulatory nature of some parts of literature. And this is something that, again, has been debated time and time again and will continue to be so. But who are we writing for? Are we writing for other writers or we writing for the average Joe?
So, it becomes a question: who is your audience and how are you approaching them? Which is not to say that there is one singular audience to appeal to, of course. But, you know, I like that idea of [comedy] being not only a tool for relief but also a broadening, widening the lens a little bit.
MJ: And disarming. I love it when a writer disarms me, when I go in with an expectation and they’re just like, woop! And it usually is not done in the narrative. I could care less about plot, which is why I’m probably a bad fiction writer. But when the writer will just kind of disarm my sensibilities because I go in as like a writer who is going to read now, right? And they just go blunk, you know, something happens to me.
Kathy Acker used to do that to me. I was always so excited about that. Whoopi Golderg does that to me when I watch her standup, just like talk and subvert herself in these moments. I think about that with the Joe Goode dance company. I’ll be watching one of their performances and then they’ll have this, it’s almost like—oh, gosh, I can’t think of his name. Thirties, he wrote Mother Courage—
MT: Oh, Mother Courage and Her Children, right? Bertolt Brecht.
MJ: Yeah, Bertolt Brecht. You know, it’s ideas like, you go in with an expectation and then, all of the sudden, no matter what your critical dimensioning is going into the work, it immediately shifts so that you take on a fresh criticality because you’re like, well, I just slipped on a banana peel.
So now you’re reconfiguring yourself to navigate the experience in such a way that is not with what you kind of constructed your expectation to be. And I feel like that gives us more room for critical distancing, ironically. I think it gives us more room because we’re literally trying to feel out the space.
Now, that was kind of wrapped up right back to the first question, actually, right now. That tension that you were talking about creating space tension is the dialectic notion.
MT: It’s nice when that happens, isn’t it? Thank you so much for your time and your great answers and great tangents too.
MJ: Thank you so much.
The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic! is out now with Sibling Rivalry Press.