Thursday, January 28, 2016

Expat Author Interview with Christopher James

Christopher James
Christopher James, originally from London, England, lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. Recently James has launched Jellyfish Review, an online journal devoted to innovative brief fiction.

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IMBO: Christopher, welcome to I Must Be Off! You live in Jakarta. I've been to Bali a couple times, but never anywhere else in Indonesia. Tell us about your typical day in Jakarta. 
James: Hi Christopher, thank you for having me at IMBO! I’m delighted to be here.
Your first question comes at a strange time, because only a few days ago in Jakarta we had a dozen gunmen and suicide bombers attack the centre of the city. By all accounts they mostly failed in their attempt. Some of them got lost on their way to one of the city’s busiest malls, stopped and asked for directions, and exploded themselves in the mostly empty parking lot.
Sadly, that’s not the entire story. Several innocent people were killed, and some twenty or so are in critical condition. But Jakarta has been through a lot in the last thirty or so years. They overthrew a corrupt government. They suffered bomb attacks. The entire city is literally sinking into the sea, and they keep building new skyscrapers and multi-storey malls that exacerbate the problem.
I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this, except to say that there isn’t really any such thing as a typical day in Indonesia. People enjoy boring things here like sleeping in and visiting the shops. I teach a little every day, edit a little every day, write a little every day, swim in the sun a little every day. I grab some street meat for lunch. Everything’s covered in hot, spicy sambal. It seldom rains, but when it does it floods the streets. Most things are routine, and that extends to the things which change everything.
By the way, only a few hours after the suicide bombers came, life in Jakarta returned more or less back to normal. A line trended on Twitter – kita tidak takut. We are not afraid. 
IMBO: Where are you from, and how did this place shape you?
James: I’m from London, England. A lot of the old Londoners can, and do, complain about how their city has changed – how they can’t walk down the street anymore without hearing a thousand foreign voices. For me, that was the best thing about it. I’ve long been a traveller, and London is one of those special places in the world where you can trot the entire globe without leaving the city limits.
IMBO: I lived in London for a few years, so I was one of those foreign voices (American, very much from the South but mellowed over the years). I used to walk the Thames Path for hours and think; I miss that. What do you miss about London?
James: I get childishly excited whenever I see London in a movie. Those Georgian house-fronts. I miss the free museums and art galleries. I miss the outdoor performances. London is a cultural powerhouse, and it has something for everyone. I miss the second hand book markets along the Thames. I miss cheap whiskey and wine, and live music. I miss the graffiti and I miss walking through London after dark.
IMBO: How has being an expat in Indonesia shaped how you see the world? And how you write?
James: You’re unique and sexy in Indonesia if you have a pointy nose, and mine is especially fine in that regard. You’re popular if you’re tall. Everyone wants to be your friend if you can teach them the difference in pronunciation between beach and bitch, sheet and shit. There’s no doubt living here has been a bit of an ego-booster. But truthfully, I don’t know how it has shaped my writing. I like to think it has made me a better writer, but I couldn’t say for sure.
IMBO: I hear that from so many expats: that feeling of being exotic. I feel it here in Munich, Germany as well. But with that feeling comes also a twinge of alienation and discrimination. Not a week goes by—after 20 years—that I don’t have to field some comment about fat Americans, gun-toting Republicans, or weak coffee. What’s hard about being an expat in Jakarta?
James: I think it’s been easy for me, aside from some bureaucratic nightmares organizing visas and whatnots. But sometimes it’s hard for my girlfriend walking through the city with me. She’s Indonesian, and there’s always somebody who makes assumptions about us, which is not pleasant. However, I imagine that would happen anywhere, and Jakarta – or at least our little corner of Jakarta – is probably better for that than most places.
But there are times when anti-immigrant sentiment rears here – normally when the economy is struggling. When that happens it can feel like something to ride and hope you don’t fall off.
IMBO: You've recently started a literary journal devoted to flash fiction. Tell us a bit about Jellyfish Review. 
JamesJellyfish Review is amazing, if I do say so myself! We were interviewed recently for Six Questions For, and there’s something we said in that interview that I’d like to repeat and elaborate on here.
There’s an island in Kalimantan, nearby, called Kakaban, which once upon a time was shaped like a C and was home to many jellyfish. The earth shifted, and the C became an O, and the jellyfish were trapped in a lake cut off from the ocean and all its predators. The jellyfish had nothing threatening them, and over thousands of years they thrived in numbers. However, they also lost their sting. If you want, you can go to Kakaban and jump in the lake and let the jellyfish swarm all over your body. They’re entirely harmless. You’re advised not to wear sunscreen, as it can kill them.
Picture by Rian Castillo
We think that flash fiction needs challenge and change as much as the Kakaban jellyfish do, or it’s in danger of losing its sting. Of becoming vulnerable to sunscreen. Most flash fiction magazines are read by flash fiction writers. There are great venues – SmokeLong is one of them, of course – but even the best flash fiction venues cater to a relatively small crowd. We set up Jellyfish Review to try and publish some great flash fiction, but also to push flash fiction into places it rarely goes. 
It might work, it might not. We hope to have fun either way.
IMBO: Well, I wish you much success. You’ve already published some excellent work by some great writers. What have you been writing lately? Care to share a couple stories with us?
James: Since starting the magazine, my writing has slowed down a lot. I’m growing more aware of what I like to see in stories, and what an editor might look for. I used to write very quickly and send things out without an enormous amount of thought, and that’s something I’m doing less of.
These are a few of my most recently published pieces, from before the magazine. When I read them now, it feels like they were written by a different person!

"Of Small Talk at Parties and Everything Else"
"Jumping in and Falling Out"
"Brds, Shds, Gns, Plcmn"
IMBO: Thank you for sharing these stories with us, Christopher! And thanks for taking time to share your life with the readers of I Must Be Off!

I must be off,
Christopher

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Christopher James lives, works and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He has previously been published online in many venues, including Tin House, McSweeney’s, SmokeLong, and Wigleaf. He is the editor of Jellyfish Review.

Christopher Allen is the 2015 recipient of the Ginosko Literary Journal's award for flash fiction. His work appears in Indiana Review, Eclectica Magazine, Night Train, Camroc Press Review, Contrary and over 100 other journals. Read his book reviews in [PANK), The Lit Pub, Necessary Fiction and more. A former finalist at Glimmer Train, Allen is also a multiple nominee for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. Originally from Tennessee, Allen now splits his time between Munich and Dublin. He is the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.