By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
While a tide of new political activists is frothing across the nation, one seasoned revolutionary is quietly practicing his decades-long resistance in Mission Hills.
Harold Jaffe, author and San Diego State University professor, continues his quest to challenge popular perception in his 24th book, “Goosestep: Fictions and Docufictions” (Journal of Experimental Fiction Books, November 2016).
Jaffe has taught at SDSU for about 30 years, and traveled the world longer. He lives and writes in “what remains of nature” along a Mission Hills canyon.
“There are fewer birds now,” he said in a recent interview with San Diego Uptown News. “I think global warming is the prime suspect there. Wilderness being real-estated; land being contaminated; the weather being completely out of sorts; birds, when they migrate here in the winter, find the weather too warm. Without wildness, we’re damned. We must integrate with wild creatures, otherwise this earth is going to be quickly damned.”
It is hope of a more natural state for human creatures that seems to pervade Jaffe’s writing. If he can just jostle the reader enough without causing harm, the world might be a better place. His writing is sometimes subtle, sometimes not; it can leave the reader thinking “Well, of course” and other times deep in a quandary.
Jaffe questions a seeming endless list of contradictions and failures, from “American provincialism” to news as “propagandized entertainment” to “the fake moralizing that goes on in the country.” This might sound heavy, even unpleasant to some, but Jaffe performs his persistent examination with compassion and humor, albeit a bit dark. He asks the reader to see things another way, to look a second time, without socially constructed filters.
A segment of the first text in “Goosestep,” titled “Double,” challenges the reader with conflicting perceptions:
I see the homeless huddled against the steel-glass wall of the stock exchange.
You don’t see the homeless huddled against the steel-glass wall of the stock exchange.
I see for-profit prisons filled with colored poor.
You do not see for-profit prisons filled with colored poor.
The semi-invisible line defining (relative) civility is effaced.
There is no semi-invisible line defining (relative) civility.
Must the reader favor one view over the other — are they even opposites? — must a text be designated fiction or nonfiction?
“No,” Jaffe said, “I think that in effect there’s no difference except in proportion. Look at the so-called news. It’s not news, it’s ideology, it’s propagandized entertainment. I think fiction and nonfiction have always been combined, even before the net. … I’m emphasizing this to call attention to how the culture functions.”
He explained how he did this in a recent piece: “There was a [news] story about an Arab family displaced from Syria: Angry Muslim husband drops two children from a two-story window after wife confesses she wished she was a European woman. I looked into it. They were displaced for two years, living in Calais [France] in extremely difficult circumstances. She was very unhappy. She said something to the effect if she were a European woman she wouldn’t have to live like this. These people were in forced exile, because Syria is being destroyed. It was a combination of frustrations and anger. So I tried to turn it just a little bit so we saw all sides of it, to get a sense of the feeling of anguish that the people had.”
As insightful as critical, Jaffe’s writing reveals a profound empathy — an understanding that inhumanity is coupled to humanity, that pain abounds — and a commitment to art as his response. But art as activism, he said, “is not, generally speaking, an American disposition.” In the U.S., there is an effort “to dissociate art-making from activism.”
“But if the world is in pain,” Jaffe said, “how does art address it?”
It might be an unanswerable question collectively, but each artist — musician, painter, photographer, sculptor, dancer, writer — possesses tools and talents to take some action.
“It has to do with the first assumption, that the world is in pain,” Jaffe said, “and if an artist has any kind of feeling about the world, how does he or she address it? If you address it just plainly, you’re likely to drive the reader away. But if you stylize it — you can stylize it — you can shock the reader into some kind of recognition.”
Whether Jaffe draws readers to his work or drives them away, it is probable that his words will linger with them — however long they might exist, which is another conundrum. Consider the last section of “Double”:
The world as we know it perishes / humans take selfies.
The world as we know it does not perish, no one takes selfies.
—Kit-Bacon Gressitt writes commentary and essays on her blog Excuse Me, I’m Writing, is a founding editor of WritersResist.com, and has been published by Missing Slate, Ms. Magazine blog and Trivia: Voices of Feminism, among others. She formerly wrote for the North County Times. She also hosts Fallbrook Library’s monthly Writers Read authors series and open mic, and can be reached at email@example.com.