Featured Fiction Writer: Jack Young
Updated: Sep 22, 2021
The Featured Fiction Writer for our 10th issue Jack Young, author of "You Stare like an Oyster from the Shell of Things." Join Young and Fiction Editor Ethan Brightbill for a discussion on gentrification, memory, queer ecological writing, and repulsive kinships.
Ethan Brightbill: Gentrification isn’t always associated with desire and queer identity, yet all three ideas are at the heart of this story. What connections do you see between them, and how does that play out in this piece?
Jack Young: Historically, there is a direct relationship between the onrush of gentrification and the erasure of LGBTQ+ communities and spaces, particularly for BPOC working-class people, such as the Mission District in San Francisco and Soho in London, among many other examples. I think one of the most important books on this is Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind, where she explores the socio-cultural effects of gentrification — the impoverishment of culture and ways of thinking and being — that goes alongside the more oft-documented consequences of rising rents and evictions.
Yet to come to the second part of your question, how these ideas play out in the piece: I wanted to approach gentrification from the perspective of my protagonist’s hometown — a deprived seaside town, which meant I had to explore multiple layers of loss and disconnection. To give a bit of context to readers outside the U.K.: there’s a particular melancholy about many English seaside towns, which in their heyday were wealthy Victorian holiday destinations but had a steady economic decline over the 20th Century, as manufacturing declined from the Thatcher years, young people moved to cities and cheap package holidays, and flights led to holidaymakers going elsewhere, leaving high levels of deprivation. In my protagonist’s case, there is the loss of familiar points of reference from his childhood, the shops and the pubs that have been shut down and the disassociation that arises from that, as well as the people that made up that earlier tapestry, such as his family, having now passed away.
Desire is caught up with loss in the story (I guess it always is?), because in many ways, my protagonist hated growing up in the small town and its homophobia, and yet it is an inescapable part of his makeup, of where he first began exploring his queerness. There is this pull between desire and disgust and shame, which is so common to many adolescent queer experiences, especially growing up in places where it can be dangerous to be out. Like the fear of knowing your desires can get you hurt. I recently read the artist Jamie Crewe use the phrase repulsive kinships to articulate relationships and ties that are shot through with difficulty and tension, yet are inextricable, no matter how much you might want them to be otherwise. I think that this is a powerful concept to express the contradictions the protagonist in this story holds between his connection to this place, and the fact it will always be the place that he grew up, will always be where he first fucked and loved, and yet has also been a place of cruelty and violence. Then there is this added complexity that the markers which tied him to it are becoming less and less clear with the shifting places and people that gentrification brings. It’s like you’re longing for a thing that is gone but was perhaps never there in the first place; you’ve rewritten it into fiction through the prism of memory.
EB: This story is in flux in so many ways, with places, bodies, the narrator’s perception of reality, and the boundaries between genres constantly transforming. However, the ending of the story seems to take that state of change and suspend the reader in it indefinitely, with the body always in movement yet “black waves lapping in the midst” forevermore. I was hoping you’d speak to the tension between stasis and change in this story, especially in that last scene.
JY: I wanted to explore grief and its shattering of how we perceive time. How in grief, time violently forces a suspension of how we move through the world. And yet, in this suspension there is the sense that nothing will ever be the same again; there is a ‘before’ the traumatic event and there is an ‘after.’ That’s a violent change that can feel extremely abrupt amidst the grief. Life and your perception of reality enters a kind of dream state and logic, and things seem to move strangely. This is definitely the case with the protagonist’s loss of his partner in the story.
Yet, I also wanted to use this tension between movement and suspension to explore both the protagonist’s relationship to his hometown, which feels washed out and stuck in time, and yet with the onset of gentrification and change. Another aspect of the tension between stasis and change surely came, without my conscious intention, through the fact it was written during the first lockdown, where we had this pull between utter stasis, our physical confinement to our homes and suspension of our everyday lives and the sense of immense change happening- both in terms of the pandemic and the escalating climate crisis. I wanted to weave this through the story with the shifting boundaries between dream and reality, human and non-human, land and sea, where time keeps feeling suspended and yet rushing away at the same time.
I was interested in the non-human landscape having its own agency, which is both connected to yet distinct from the human narrator. In reference to the last scene you mention, I wanted to delve into the wound of his emotional landscape and, as you say, suspend the reader there. I think there is often an obsession with closure in narratives, and I wanted to resist closure, to resist an easy ‘way out’, because this is at odds with the fragmented way we experience the world, especially grief, which is so unpredictable and constantly changing. To suspend the reader at the end is to resist closure, to hold the beauty and the pain of that longing, as well as hold the pain of a world that we are destroying and yet is still so full of beauty. I think what I’m interested in with writing is to resist closure and try and find more space, to keep trying to break things open.
EB: You have a hybrid work called Urth forthcoming from Nottingham indie publisher Big White Shed that explores interspecies intimacies and post-gentrification city writing. Can you tell us more about that project? How does your story in Lammergeier compare?
JY: Urth is also a project I wrote during the first lockdown, whilst I was living in Catalonia. I’ve been interested for a while in art that explores queer ecologies. In this respect I’m thinking of artists and writers like Linda Stupart, Adham Faramawy, Daisy Lafarge and Rebecca Tamás (amongst others). I was also reading a lot about the evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis around that time and delving into her work showing that all larger organisms (such as fungi, animals, and plants) evolved symbiogenetically. For Margulis, evolution arose through what she calls the intimacy of strangers, i.e., cells, bodies, and organisms coming together in mutually beneficial ways, and she often cites examples of symbiotic organisms where it is impossible to tell where one species begins and another species ends. Inspired by this idea of interspecies intimacies, I wanted to write a series of hybrid pieces that collapse the boundaries between species, boundaries that have their origin in colonialism and the development of capitalist production and the rendering of the non-human world as both inferior, separate and an object of study, as opposed to living subjects and how this corresponded to Enlightenment ideals of the sanctified and superior human individual.
Writing these pieces during the pandemic was interesting as the myth of individualism in Western society was undermined so dramatically, through an awareness of how interdependent we are on one another (the essentialness of care work and the need for mutual aid, to take two key examples) but also the interconnectedness of the human and non-human, not least in the interspecies movement that developed the pathogen of Covid in the first place.
I have long been drawn to works of metamorphosis and human/animal transformations, from fairy tales as a kid, to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber as a teenager, and yet I wanted to lean into what we often deem some of the most abject aspects of the non-human world, such as insects and molluscs. It’s no surprise that in our racist, transphobic, and homophobic mainstream society, the language of insects is often invoked to dehumanise marginalised people, from Tory talk of ‘swarms of migrants’, to the slurs of ‘vermin’ that have been used to refer to queer people. So, in Urth I wanted to lean into that abjection and turn it on its head. I wanted the insects and molluscs of the work to be in positions of power, and where worms and slugs, termites and wasps, have deeply erotic resonance.
The pieces are all set in hollowed-out cities which, when I think about it now, must have been subconsciously influenced by the effect of the lockdown. That eerie and unsettling vacation of public space, where humans were so disconnected from one another. I think horror has a very valuable place in queer ecological writing, as it can be used to engender respect for different beings, such as the nonhuman. And respect is what is so desperately lacking in our relationship with the non-human in Western societies. I’m also a total folk-horror obsessive and was watching a lot of films at that time like Penda’s Fen and Midsommar, so it was a lot of fun to play around with this in Urth.
"You Stare Like an Oyster from the Shell of Things" (the Lammergeier story) was also written around this time and is definitely kindred to Urth. Yet it’s also distinct; in Urth I was interested in creatures of the soil, of creatures that dig and take root in the ground (or in the case of one parasitic wasp inspired story, take root in the bodies of others). Contrastingly, in "Oyster" I wanted to use the framing of the seaside town, a place where land and water meet, to delve into the dreamscape of tides and seas, and the metamorphoses between human and non-human found there.
EB: Where do you see your writing going from here? What forms are you currently interested in, and what other projects are you pursuing?
JY: I’m always drawn to hybrid work which unsettles the boundaries between genres, so I’m interested in writing between forms. Right now, I’m spending a lot of time writing non-fiction, something that will eventually be book-length, exploring Leigh Woods in Bristol, where I live, and mapping out my understanding of its history and ecology to a wider understanding of the politics and history of Bristol, and mapping this out even further to England and its colonial histories and the relationship between the history of plants and the history of people. The kind of global reverberations I’m finding from focusing on the microscale of my local woods blows my mind.
I’d go a bit mad if I only wrote non-fiction though, so I’m also writing quite a bit of unruly prose-poetry, a place to kind of let off some steam and play with language more. My writing always runs parallel to my participatory practice, and I’m developing a series of workshops with young people to explore some of the themes of this research, and I recently started a project with the photographer Anthony Elliott looking at the history of a country house called Ashton Court in Bristol, which we’d like to move into a long-form project with other creatives in the city, as well as develop into a play with young people in the local area, writing back forgotten stories from below.
EB: Finally, what’s your favorite bone?
JY: Maybe snake ribs? I like that they don’t join at the front, giving them a kind of elasticity and allowing the body to expand as much or as little as needed. Seems kind of amazing that your body could take up as much or as little space as you might need at any given moment; something I envy of snakes in all their sinuous power.