Cultural Appropriation, Scorpions, and Hobos: An Interview with Joe Jackson

By Tarin Kovalik

Joe Jackson was recently named the Mina Hohenberg Darden Chair in Creative Writing at Old Dominion University. He is a former reporter for the Virginian-Pilot and his most recent book is titled Black Elk. I sat down with Jackson at Borjo Coffeehouse to discuss his reading, the processes of writing, and any advice he has for aspiring writers.

TK: I thought the one question at your reading yesterday was really interesting. Are you expected to get backlash and whatnot for being a white man writing about a Native American and Native American culture?

JJ: I knew somebody was going to ask it. Cultural appropriation is a big question. I mean, I don’t think you can get away from it. And, you know, minorities have a right to their own history and there’s a real possessiveness of it.

TK: Of course.

JJ: At the same time, I think this is something that shouldn’t necessarily be – you know you can say one side is right and one side is wrong. It’s a strange time for writers like us where there’s nonfiction, fiction, and even poetry — I mean, if you’re saying that a white writer can’t write, can’t try to enter the mind of an Indian character or an Indian or black writer cant enter the mind of a white character then you’re really limiting the imagination.

TK: Yeah, I would agree with that.

JJ: So, I think, basically what you have to do is now you have a character, whether its you know a real person or a fictional person, I mean, I think you have to be as, you have to do your research. I think you have to be as honest to that person’s context you know place and time, things going on around him or her as you possibly can. But I would imagine I’m going to hit some resentment.

TK: Right.

JJ: I think when it comes up you have to address it. I also think it’s a mistake for a writer just to kind of hide within the first amendment and the rights of the imagination because I do think you have to address, you know, these old wounds and the feeling that you own your identity. And a big part of your identity is your history.

TK: So from going from Black Elk to, well, we’ve talked about your memoir before.

JJ: It’s not a done deal yet.

TK: Not a done deal yet! Well, in thinking about it, after writing Black Elk do you feel more comfortable writing a memoir?

JJ: No.

TK: It’s a transition?

JJ: It’ll be a transition. It’ll be a challenge because I’ve never, you know I’ve written about myself but usually what happens is that when I write a book or sometimes when I write reportage pieces I would use myself as an observer and I would say how I was affected by the text. So in the Black Elk book I’ve got an epilogue, an epilogue and prologue to kind of give my impressions of what I see as a frame. But the first person “Joe” only appears in the beginning and the end. If I were to do the memoir it wouldn’t be, this is what would be hard and challenging, it would really be a generational memoir of our two classes, it wouldn’t be just me.

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Throughout our 76-minute interview, Jackson and I went on tangents covering spirituality, drug addiction, and even the time he found a scorpion in his pants. Though some advice for me, and all young writers, came up when we were discussing job opportunities post my graduation.

TK: I would love to try comedy writing, like, I attempt that, but I don’t know how to quite approach it in our workshop. I don’t know if it’s a waste of time.

JJ: Try it. I mean, I’m not adverse to experimentation and if you’re not funny, you find out you’re not funny.

TK: Exactly!

JJ: It’s what you’re here for; you’ve got the time to try that. You know and if it doesn’t work you might find something else you have strength in. If we don’t laugh and we all just kind of glare at you…

TK: I’ll only feel stupid for a week or so then I’ll get over it! And hopefully, everyone will just forget.

JJ: When you’re in your twenties and you’re writing stuff, I mean you write all sorts of embarrassing things. When I was working on my MFA in fiction I was so enamored with hobos. I wrote hobo stories!

TK: What!

JJ: And I look back at it because I mean my grandfather had been a hobo for a while and – I even tried to catch a train once in Arkansas and decided I’d probably kill myself if I did that because they were going faster than they looked like they were going – I look back at those hobo stories now and I think to myself “what was I thinking?”

TK: Do you think hobo writing had any impact on what you write now? Was it a learning experience?

JJ: Yeah, I think so. And so you know, I think nothing of when I do – I have to plan it out logistically – but when I’m doing a book like this book Black Elk book or when I did my second book which took place out west or my jungle book – I mean I really think nothing of following in somebody’s footsteps you know out in the middle of nowhere. Yeah, I think it had some bearing.

TK: Yeah?

JJ: I think so because I mean all of my characters are travelers or wanderers in some sense, and I think that I still find the romance in that.

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Joe Jackson is the author of one novel and six nonfiction books, including The Thief at the End of the World, one of Time magazine’s Top Ten Books for 2008. Jackson holds an MFA from the University of Arkansas and was an investigative reporter for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, covering criminal justice and the state’s Death Row. His journalism resulted in the acquittal of a man wrongly convicted of murder and the recantations of two men whose testimony sent men to Death Row. His biography of Sioux holy man Black Elk will be released this fall. Jackson is currently the Mina Hohenberg Darden Endowed Professor of Creative Writing at Old Dominion University.

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Tarin Kovalik is an MFA candidate at Old Dominion University. Her writing has appeared on her mother’s Facebook page and in her sister’s spam folder. She is passionate about coffee, fried chicken, and beer, in that order. Tarin is testing the waters of adulthood and finding that she is not yet ready to swim, and a proper biography will come when this bitch is ready to be proper.