Let’s Chat with Julian K. Jarboe

everyone on the moon is essential personnel

In the titular novella, Jarboe situates us in a dystopian near-future as a group of teens, in the throes of generational malaise, consider finding employment on the moon. In “The Heavy Things,” a young speaker experiences their maturing body as a flow of sharp objects and tools. Their struggle for bodily integrity is waged against time itself, as well as family and caretakers who use love and nurturing to control.

“The Nothing Spots Where Nobody Wants To Stay” spotlights a teen whose dad died in 9/11, their secret school makeout sessions, shoplifting stints, and nonbinary gender expression, offering a knotty take on American victimhood. In “Estranged Children of Storybook Houses,” Jarboe nods to classic fairy tales while exploring changelings, fairies, and how we define family and belonging.

Many of the stories in this collection are backgrounded by what feels like an imminent collapse of society as we know it, brought on by a heady mix of climate crisis, unregulated tech companies, and late capitalism—issues not far off from our current reality. What do you hope readers take away from these pieces? Should they serve as warnings? Guidelines for survival?

I think for some readers, the social and environmental circumstances in a number of the stories will feel like a warning about the near future, but for other readers these might reflect the past or the present. The typical survivalist apocalypse genre is fundamentally reactionary: it’s a fantasy about indulging brutality and individualism, and placing the worst things imaginable just ahead of us so bright and loud that nobody can bring up that settler colonialism and genocide and slavery and war crimes have been happening, are still happening, all along. Some of the characters in my stories joke with each other about preparing for the eventual end of the world (or subsume themselves in nostalgia for an irretrievable past) as a way of putting off dealing with the problems right in front of them. A few months ago a friend of mine said, “Things may and probably will get worse, but there will be no pre-apocalyptic moment where you get to shrug off your life. You have to keep living,” which resonated with me a lot as I was putting the book together. I’m a pessimistic person (a negativity apologist?), but I think if I’m offering a guideline for survival it’s that accepting just how bad and confusing things are can free up a lot of energy, clarity, and compassion to actually do something.

You’ve said that you are, and have been for some time, “incurably online” in a way that impacts everything you do. Can you speak to the relationship you have with technology—specifically the internet—and how it has affected your writing?

I’ve never known life without the internet but I’m also just old enough to remember certain shifts in attitudes about its use. At some point it was felt, not without reason, that it wasn’t a place for real research about anything serious, and so being online for hours was about the same as watching too much TV. I would sneak down to the family room in the middle of the night and hope that the 56k modem didn’t wake anyone up, so I could read about dragons and anime and things like that at very niche levels that weren’t available in a lot of library books. I got real into LiveJournal and AIM and so forth. It was expressive and social in a way that felt very safe for me, and so that’s where I ended up practicing my creative writing and conducting most of my social life for a while, too. So when I say that I’m “incurable online,” I mean that it’s impossible for me to disentangle some deeply set formative aspects of how I learn, think, and communicate from the technology of the internet. My biggest literary influence in the most literal sense has to be social media, because I have simply poured so much time into reading from it and writing on it. And I guess I’m impatient with the moralizing about whether or not this way of life is good or bad, stunting or enlightening, isolating or connecting. It’s more complicated than that.

Like many of your characters, you are a part of the queer community and have faced violence, discrimination, and anti-queer sentiment throughout your life. In the midst of the apocalyptic backdrop of your stories, the bonds between queer characters in your stories act almost as lifelines. Is this true to your lived experience within the queer community? Was it important for you to represent these relationships in this way?

It’s necessary for some groups of people, such as queer people, to at least be aware of each other, even if the infighting never ends (it will never end). People I’ve never met in person have saved my life, and that doesn’t even mean we’re friends, but that doesn’t matter. You might be insufferable and kind of dangerous and I still care if you live or die. I’ve still noticed you’re there, and want you to stay alive to be an annoying jerk well into old age, maybe even a sober one. It’s that deadly serious. And I am not talking about pity or romantic notions of shared experience. Community might be a cozier way to say interdependence, for better or worse. I didn’t set out to represent these kinds of relationships as a goal in itself, as some moral instruction, but how could I not write about them? It’s only because of people who have this habit of looking out for each other that I’m still around to write at all.

Faith and family are common motifs across this collection. What is it about these themes that compelled you to explore them? Why tackle them through the styles of magical realism and surrealism?

God shows up a whole lot in this book! Sometimes as an inscrutable tyrant, sometimes as the assurance of your inherent worth, and sometimes as your problematic mom. Faith and ritual are present in life whether we think they are or not. When I really started writing more and more to ask questions that I didn’t have a clever answer already lined up for, I discovered that I have several more thoughts and feelings about growing up Catholic than I previously believed. Speculative fiction, broadly, and magical realism or surrealism more specifically, offer me a way to externalize the sublime and irrational and extend points of view which might not otherwise develop or work in mimetic fiction.

The impermanence of one’s physical body and the myriad ways it can be altered, disrupted, or changed—by choice or by circumstance—is central to many of your stories. What is it about physical bodies that spurred you to examine both their capacities and limitations?

I’m continually fascinated by how our bodies are, literally, shaped by our environments, our experiences, and our choices, and by this weird ideology that there could be a “natural” state for a human body to inhabit. Things are done to our bodies that get called natural when they affirm some hierarchy or another, and everything else is supposedly artificial. You don’t even have to deviate on purpose to be artificial, you could do as little as be considered ugly or strange by others through no fault of your own (look at how we regard fatness as the failed modification of a hypothetical thin person, autism as a “stolen” neurotypical person, and so on). A lot of my characters are either living with the consequences of major change in their bodies or about to enact one to change their relationship with their circumstances, and either way they want to or have to disregard this trap of naturalness to pursue their ends.

About Julian K. Jarboe

Julian K. Jarboe is a writer and artist from Massachusetts. They are the recipient of a Writers’ Room of Boston Fellowship (2018), a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop (2018), an Honorable Mention from the Tiptree Fellowship (2018), and a residency from The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts (2016). They graduated from The Massachusetts College of Art and Design with Academic Honors (2012).

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