Miah Jeffra: Empathy and Memory in the Modern Era
Miah Jeffra is a writer, artist, curator and faculty in the English/Theater departments. A military brat, Jeffra moved throughout their childhood, but most identifies the South as home. Jeffra teaches Writing, Drama, Media and Cultural Studies at Santa Clara University and The San Francisco Art Institute, and is Founding Editor and Production Designer for queer literary collaborative, Foglifter Press.
In this conversation, we discuss the eclectic styles and themes of Miah’s books, thoughts on memory and how childhood is affecting us now, and advice for students.
Gavin Cosgrave: Your first book is called “The First Church of What’s Happening.” What is it about and why did you write it?
Miah Jeffra: I didn’t write essays until that book. I wrote scholarship, fiction and poetry, so I was in those discreet areas. I started writing the book in 2014, and a lot of it had to do with the technological dissociation I was seeing with people. I was seeing an evolution of the way empathy was being applied in interpersonal communications, and I was concerned. But I was trying to not just demonize it; I didn’t want to think about this emerging form of communication as purely negative.
The first book is navigating the idea of a high-technology, low-empathy America. How do we negotiate that? What is the resilience that we need to possess in light of that, and what strengths of it could we examine and cultivate in a way that would enhance empathy in a relatively divisive time?
GC: How do we become more empathetic? Any solutions?
MJ: I don’t have many answers, I have a lot of questions. One of the things that kept coming up in the essays I was writing was eliminating call-out culture altogether, and instead redirecting anger in other formats. I’m going to keep that vague because I’m not certain. I think it’s more attitudinal than anything we need to do in an applied way.
GC: How do you find new book ideas?
MJ: I’m more of a free writer. I usually just begin writing about exactly what I’m thinking about and use the writing process to make sense of my world. Zadie Smith has a great phrase, “The reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my life.” I write for myself, primarily. Most of that writing will never see the light of day. I make connections between the things I’m writing, then a book idea might emerge.
The book that’s coming out in March is called The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic. I noticed that I was writing through my relationships through different artworks and gleaning a couple of themes about gender, about sexuality, but also about perception and memory and how those two things constructed my purview and my own self-reflections of identities. I started researching the science of perception and memory, which is very limited in many regards. That got me thinking about my own life and the way that I recall memories in my life and how they’ve constructed me.
The same is true for the collection of short fiction that’s coming out next year. I write about violence because I grew up in a very violent place, in Baltimore in public housing. I noticed that many of my stories had violence as the center of the narrative. I started researching the nature of violence, social violence, linguistic violence and realized there was something to say about it.
GC: What’s something you want students to take away from your classes?
MJ: To not evaluate something before you ask questions of it. I think that’s a big takeaway in all my classes. We’re a Yelp culture. We observe something, but the observation is quick and we move right into an evaluative space. It eliminates the curiosity that might come out if we look at the thing as a phenomenon, ask questions, then maybe evaluate later. We’ve truncated the intermediate process. Just be curious and stare at things. See the world as new as you can.