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Interview with New Faculty: Dr. Jessica Alexander

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We have been pleased to welcome Dr. Jessica Alexander as Assistant Professor of Fiction to UL’s English Department. She earned her Ph.D. in Literature and Fiction Writing from the University of Utah in 2016; held a Visiting Assistant Professorship at Franklin & Marshall College from 2016-2018; and specializes in Creative Writing, Speculative Fiction, Contemporary Gothic & Horror Fiction, Queer Theory, and Experimental Writing & Hybrid forms.

Her story collection, Dear Enemy, was the winning manuscript in the 2016 Subito Prose Contest, and her fiction has been published in journals such as The Offbeat, Psychopomp Magazine, LIT, Fence, Black Warrior Review, PANK, Denver Quarterly, The Collagist, and DIAGRAM. She has given talks on the influence of theory on creative practice, queer desire in gothic fiction, and the serious work of a queer comic vision—all interests that inform her creative projects and invigorate her teaching practice.

Recently, Dr. Alexander was gracious enough to answer the following questions to help introduce her and her artistic, scholarly, and pedagogical approaches to us:

1. What books are on your nightstand? What/who are you currently reading?
I’m working through a stack right now, but I’ll tell you what’s on top: currently, James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone and a proof of Caren Beilin’s Spain. Spain is just this wonderfully slender and acerbic anti-travelogue, which will be released on November 1st. James Baldwin: well, shouldn’t we all just read everything he’s ever written? I just received (from Soft Skull Press) a copy of The Amputee’s Guide to Sex by the poet, performance artist, and disability rights activist, Jillian Weise. I’m also anxiously awaiting my copy of Henk Rossouw’s Xamissa.

2. What are your areas of expertise? In what areas do you wish to grow your expertise?
Discovery, for me, is so often accompanied by the violent shock of realizing how much more I have to learn about a subject, and so, expertise is a term I’d use reluctantly. But I have been interested, for some time, in gothic fiction, and this interest is a vortex. Initially, my aim was simple: to teach psychoanalysis, feminism, and queer theory through contemporary horror. But I needed, I learned, an arsenal of feminist, postcolonial, crip, queer, and critical race theories to approach that landscape. It’s a medium that throws these theories into sharp relief. I love, especially, teaching radical reinventions of familiar horror tropes. I love thinking about the multiplicity of a metaphor that’s been emptied and invested with new meanings. I have in mind Jewell Gomez’s The Gilda Stories and Jordan Peele’s Get Out. My love of parody has made me think, more recently, about comedy and its use as a queer, feminist tool to combat inequality and institutional abuse.

3. Can you tell us a little bit about a project you’re currently working on or one you just completed?
I’ve always been interested in parody or some way of wearing aesthetics wrong. In my story collection, Dear Enemy, I began with fairytales, a barbed but familiar form. I added to this a first person point of view. Through this point of view and the blunt brutality of fairytales, I hoped to transform the implicit prescriptions of such fictional worlds into an alienating violence. In later stories, I strove to create a similar tension by coupling fatalistic simplicity—the paratactic, transition-less shift from small talk to cocktails to death—with a blithe, whimsical, often ecstatic narrative voice. My current project, a gothic novella, extends many of these earlier thematic and formal concerns into new territory. As my fiction grew increasingly grotesque, I found myself imitating the ostentatious yet constrained syntax of Victorian novels. These seemingly disparate investments, I discovered, converged in the gothic form. Gothic progress operates in tandem with regression: the dead return unbidden and threaten the status of the living. In the gothic novel, history emerges—in the form of a corpse—to contest the rights of its inheritors. While the house, the locus of American gothic, contains the metonymic slide of self, it also entombs ghosts, supplants burial plots, hides—supreme object of epistemological horror—a corpse within its walls. My current project, like many fictions in my story collection, strives for excess, hyperbole, parody, and melodrama. My interest in fairytales and gothic fiction is an interest in the hypnotic repetition of old forms, a repressed that constantly returns in new guises.

4. How do you approach writing (can be creative or scholarly or both)? Teaching? Do those approaches ever inform the other?
I’ve always been bad at math, and, as an undergraduate, I had to take a math class. We were required to present proofs on the blackboard. One of my classmates had a real gift for it. She was brilliant. It looked so easy. I was at an age, I should say, when I thought big words were a sign of mastery. I spoke in abstractions. But my classmate was a magician. She turned a lexicon of unreality into something simple and almost palpable. She changed how I thought about mastery. This, too, was the genius that struck me, when I first picked up a copy of Amy Hempel’s stories. Her complexity looks easy. That spare and concrete elegance. Both Hempel and my former classmate seemed to know what a rare gift attention is. They did not forget they were speaking to somebody. They had something to communicate. It’s so simple. I think about it all the time when I teach and when I write.

5. What’s a bit of advice you have for current graduate students (can be professional, writerly, personal, etc.)?
In an interview with BANFF a few years back, the poet Ocean Vuong called reading, and reading poetry, a political act, “because it’s such an anti-capitalistic genre, that to engage with it at all is to resist almost everything that attempts to control and manipulate us towards capital.” I couldn’t agree more. And in addition to this, I believe what we choose to read, the filling of our nightstand stack, is a political act. What presses and writers are we choosing to support through purchasing or reviewing their books? Listening can be a radical act of generosity. Reading one’s work to a room full of strangers can also be a radical act of generosity. As writers it is easy to lose sight of this, to let our focus grow too narrow, to get solipsistic and so caught up in our own projects that we forget the larger community of writers of which we are a part. And so, my advice would be to remember the communities that make your work possible. Support the efforts of those around you: attend readings, review books, read works that explode what you think you know about this world, support journals when you can, and small presses—because, yes, writing is a big part of what we do, but without our passionate investment in literary communities, we run the risk of forgetting what our efforts mean and why they are significant.