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Jeff Parker: A Foreigner to Oneself

December 12, 2012

On how a sense of “disquiet” can enrich American fiction, and why traveling is like taking acid.

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Image from Flickr via LugoLounge

This summer, the third Disquiet International Literary Program will again bring writers to Lisbon, Portugal for workshops, readings, and cross-cultural events that emphasize Luso-American exchange. Jeff Parker, the director of Disquiet International, spoke with Guernica about the genesis of the program and the significance of “disquiet” for writers working in the age of globalization. Disquiet International—named after the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet—is a fitting name for a program taking place in one of the countries most affected by the Eurozone crisis. But the term also refers to the necessity for American writers to shake up their assumptions about the world. Travel of the kind afforded by Disquiet International, Parker says, can be almost hallucinogenic in its accentuation of both familiarity and strangeness. Such “disquieting” of oneself, Parker argues, is an essential part of the writing process. We spoke to Parker, also the author of Ovenman (Tin House, 2007) and The Taste of Penny (Dzanc Books, 2010), about why Lisbon was the right city for Disquiet, what effect travel has had on his own writing, and how his experiences in the “artifice incarnate” of St. Petersburg, Russia, influenced his upcoming book, Igor in Crisis.

For the third year in a row, Guernica is co-sponsoring the Dzanc Books/Guernica International Literature Award, which offers a chance to win a full scholarship to Disquiet 2013. The deadline for submission is January 31, 2013.

Mikey Angelo Rumore for Guernica

Guernica: Could you tell me a little bit about how Disquiet International came into being and what the “mission” of the program is?

Jeff Parker: I had worked in St. Petersburg for many years with a similar kind of program, and for many reasons that program had ceased to exist in 2008. And so I’d been looking for another opportunity, but I always thought that the success of something like this was completely dependent on the place. It had to be the right place at the right time. Part of what made the St. Petersburg program so invigorating was that it was taking place as Putin was reshaping Russia and all the positive and negative of that made up the energy that infused the program. So, I’d had a feeling that Lisbon might be a place in which the program would work, for a number of reasons. I thought that the place needed to have a strong literary and cultural history. It needed to have a thriving young literary scene, which I had heard that Lisbon had at the time—I didn’t know. And it had to have some practical aspects, you know. It had to be a place that was affordable by North American standards. I don’t think something like this works in Paris or Rome or London, at least not in the same way.

So, Lisbon seemed to have those characteristics and it also had some, sort of, personal attraction to me in that my grandfather’s side of the family was from there. And, so, over the years I had been thinking about Lisbon and I had met some people that had some other connections there. Oona Patrick was really invested in finding a place for Luso-American writers in contemporary American fiction, contemporary American literature. Scott Laughlin, who I met in St. Petersburg, had a mentor of a poet named Alberto de Lacerda. He had done several trips there for the purposes of his estate. And so I just got in touch with them and we collected all our connections, and Dzanc Books had been wanting to do something abroad, and so they basically asked me to do something and I said, “How about Lisbon? Let’s try Lisbon.” Scott and I went there in 2010. We had a handful of meetings with universities and cultural foundations. We didn’t really know if they would be receptive to the idea, but they were and they gave us some support. They committed to us and from there we went forward with it.

You get on a plane and land somewhere, and the world looks like the world that you recognize and know, but there are little things that are off, that make it hyper-real and hyper-strange.

Guernica: You had mentioned that the purpose of a program like Disquiet isn’t simply “cultural tourism,” as it’s called. What do you hope to get, or hope that people would get, out of a program like Disquiet?

Jeff Parker: Well, I hope that they’re disquieted to some degree. [laughs.] There’s that famous quote by the Swedish Nobel judge about American fiction being very insular, and to some degree that’s an over-generalization. On the other hand, the Raymond Carver, minimalist, suburban America short story, it seems to me, is the dominant form. It’s the dominant form of, like, New Yorker fiction, even though the New Yorker’s pretty good about publishing writers from other places. It seems like when they publish American writers, it’s always or more often than not, it’s some variant of that story. And after thirty, forty years of that story, I just find it a little bit boring. The world’s globalized in every other way.

Guernica: You said that you hope that the program disquiets people. What do you mean by that?

Jeff Parker: Well, I think there’s something to that idea of taking someone out of the usual street-vernacular, putting them in a totally different environment that shakes them up. And I think that’s an essential element in learning to write. You need to be shaken up. And if you look at all the great literary critics, they all talk about it in one way or another. Proust says something about to be a writer you have to become a foreigner to yourself. [Russian critic Viktor] Shklovsky talks about defamiliarization. I think in a way traveling is like taking acid, because you get on a plane and land somewhere, and the world looks like the world that you recognize and know, but there are little things that are off, that make it hyper-real and hyper-strange. For me, it was really important to tune into that strangeness. And I think that’s a process of disquieting oneself, non-pharmacologically.

You’ve got to go there some day. You know, it was built by a seven-foot tall madman in a swamp.

Guernica: Your upcoming book, Igor in Crisis, is set in St. Petersburg, so is it fair to say that St. Petersburg shook you up, disquieted you?

Jeff Parker: Oh, yeah. I was all the way disquieted by St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg is a really strange city. You’ve got to go there some day. You know, it was built by a seven-foot tall madman in a swamp. There’s no reason that a city should exist there, other than Peter the Great thought the Russian Empire needed a window on the west. So it’s built there on the bones of 150,000 serfs. Italian baroque architects designed it, so it looks on the face of it not unlike a European city, but it’s very, very Russian. You almost feel the artifice of that city. My friend Mikhail [Iossel] calls it “artifice incarnate.” You feel the inventedness of St. Petersburg at every moment you’re in it. And so, you’re walking through a fiction constantly. And it’s just a really powerful effect. It makes sense why so many of the great Russian writers were there, and the darkest ones and the weirdest ones—Dostoevsky and Gogol in particular. It makes sense why they were there.

Guernica: So, will your next book be set in Portugal?

Jeff Parker: [laughs.] I don’t think so. But I do think there’s something to—in a way, going to Portugal for me is like going back to where my family was from. So it’s kind of strange there because I have many Portuguese relatives up in the New Bedford area, and when I’m in Portugal I see those faces of my Portuguese cousins on the streets. So I kind of have that connection to that place, whereas in Russia, nothing. There’s no reason for me to be there at all. But, strangely, after having gone there for so many years, I feel less like a foreigner on the streets of Russia than I do in Florida, where I feel like a complete alien. How do you explain that? I don’t have any idea.

Mikey Angelo Rumore is an editorial intern with Guernica. He lives in New York City and comes from Florida, where he recently graduated from the University of Tampa. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Quilt, Glass Mountain, Portland Review Online, and Susquehanna Review.

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