Stitch Bitch: The Hypertext Author As Cyborg-Femme Narrator
Some of the most interesting hypertext work of the present moment is emerging from the computers of masterful women who develop their work outside the normal channels of institutional support.
One of these women, the writer and artist Shelley Jackson, holds an AB in studio art from Stanford University and an MFA in creative writing from Brown University but for the last few years has been working in a San Francisco bookstore.
Without the backing of a tenure-track American university gig or some well-funded European "art" center, she has managed to publish two complex, groundbreaking hyperfictions including the acclaimed Patchwork Girl (Eastgate, 1995) and the recently published My Body.
Her work was just featured at the Guggenheim Soho's first symposium devoted to digital art and, in October, she gave a major presentation of her work, called Stitch Bitch at MIT's Media in Transition project.
She is also a short story writer and illustrator of children's book. In this Amerika On-Line column I'd like to share a recent dialogue I had with her that revealed a playful poet whose sensuous introspections provided some surprising feedback on topics ranging from writerly method to the connection in her work between textuality and sexuality.
How did you first get involved with writing hypertext? When did you start writing Patchwork Girl and what sort of creative process was involved with its creation? Was it hypertext from the word go or, like many other hyperworks, did it start out by jotting down some conceptual framework followed by some straight-ahead writing and just morphed into a hypertext?
Shelley Jackson: Patchwork Girl started as a drawing on a page of my notebook, a naked woman with dotted-line scars. (It was 1993 and I was listening to George Landow talk about hypertext and critical theory.) I wrote most of the text in fragments in my notebook. I was planning to write a hypertext, so you could say I was predisposed to a meandering course, but in fact I've never written anything in a straight line from beginning to end, but always in the round, or in snatches that I later stitched together into a pattern (usually after staring at them for a very long time).
I had no conceptual framework for Patchwork Girl until very late in the process, what I had was a disorderly tangle of ideas, bits of narrative, quotes and drawings, all multiply interconnected in my own mind. At one point I sat down at the computer and began to try to simply reproduce this pattern of relationships by means of links, in hopes that something graceful and self-evident would emerge. It didn't. So I snipped everything apart again and started over. The structure of Patchwork Girl rose up out of this carnage; I found family resemblances within the bits, and grouped like parts together. Places where I contradicted myself or found myself drawn in two directions at once became the branch point for parallel structures, rather than a chatter of static I needed to resolve into one clear note. Once I began to see a sort of architecture emerge, I could work in relation to that. I began to think about what was suggested and what was missing. The graveyard section began, for example, as a rhetorical trope in the course of a long, looping mediation. But working in Storyspace, I persistently saw the rectangular corrals with their enclosed plots of smaller rectangles as cemeteries I was privileged to hover over, resurrecting text from this grave or that at will; an accident of resemblance, but a beautiful one. Hence the section of Patchwork Girl that is structured like a graveyard, where you dig up body parts and learn their histories. Of course these rectangles full of rectangles also brought to mind a quilt. Which is not unlike a graveyard, since traditional quilts are often machines for reminiscence, bringing together scraps of fabric, once in use, that memorialize family members and important times. And is also very like a Frankenstein monster (these multiply determined metaphors kept turning up). So I made a quilt, where each patch is itself a patchwork (in crazy-quilt style) of quotes from divers sources. The hardest bit of Patchwork Girl to write was the "story," which is also, and deliberately, the most like a conventional novel, even though it comes in two versions that meet and diverge and meet again. But even this part was written in fragments and strung onto a time line later on. So I suppose the short answer to your question is that hypertext permits me to write the way I ordinarily would, in related fragments with no overarching design, but then to allow a structure to arise out of the inclinations of the material itself, instead of imposing a linear order onto it--which is an interesting exercise, but not the only one worth trying.
What were some of the exciting discoveries you made composing with links and screen shots instead of standard narrative devices associated with print culture?
Shelley Jackson: I think in things: complicated ideas come to me in flesh, concrete metaphors with color, heft, stink. So it is easier and more pleasing for me to think of text as a thing or things, arranged in a place, than as a story told by a storyteller, or a piece of music, or a journey, or one of the other more linear metaphors for fiction. Hypertext makes it easy to place things side by side, rather than one after another, so it makes "thing" and "place" metaphors much easier. I guess you could say I want my fiction to be more like a world full of things that you can wander around in, rather than a record or memory of those wanderings. The quilt and graveyard sections, where a concrete metaphor that resonates with the themes of the work creates a literary structure, satisfy me in a very corporeal way. I salivate, my fingers itch.
Why did you glom on to the Frankenstein myth as your primary subject for PG and what led you to give it that major twist that turned the monster into a kind of storygrrl?
Shelley Jackson: I was thinking about hypertext fiction, what it could do, what would be different about it, and my patchworked girl monster emerged out of these more abstract concerns as a metaphor for a fragmented and dispossessed text that nevertheless had a loud, triumphant voice. (Baum's Patchwork Girl, by the way, is always pleased with herself, carefree, a bit addled, and greatly amused by the seriousness of others.)
I wanted to write about the liberating potential of that unseatedness, that lack of clear boundaries or a native ground. The stitched-together monster is an easy metaphor for any text, but especially hypertext, as the still uneasy offspring of a new technology and an old one: books, literature. (Note that Mary Shelley's original monster, brought to life by "a machine of mysterious complexity," essentially installs a human, humane soul into his inhuman frame by reading a small collection of books. He too is a cross-breed.)
But Frankenstein had been scratching a sore spot in the back of my brain for some time already. I like to think about Mary Shelley, age nineteen or so, hanging out with these oh-so-sensitive, even hysterical young poets (Byron, I seem to remember, used to get himself worked up into such a tizzy over a seance that he ran around the house wild-eyed and had to be tied down). I imagine they treated her with some condescension. She was not a writer, yet. A general challenge was issued, but it was Mary Shelley who stuck with it, and wrote a novel that became the quintessential modern myth, anticipating the nightmares of a century still to come. At the same time, Frankenstein is a strange book. The monster is a baddie for sure. He shouldn't exist, he's unnatural, a glitch. At the same time, he is a powerful, eloquent, confident, tragic figure, while the narrator is short-sighted, poor in empathy, cowardly, irresponsible, an all around shifty character. It's clear which one Mary Shelley prefers. She likes monsters; she birthed one, after all. Or rather, two--but Mary Shelley's second child, a patchwork girl as big and bad (as in baaad) as her brother, was ripped apart before the last thread was knotted. Which may have been a mercy killing: in the world Shelley knew, there could be no happy monsters. But only because of bad dad. A motherless monster with a shiftless dad runs amok, but what about a monster with a loving mother? I took up that inquiry, but--the Frankenstein monster having brought his tragic trajectory to a fiery end--I was more curious about Mary's second child. I might believe that women have a little more experience in growing up monstrous and still getting by. My monster is crucially more adaptive, wry, and made strong as well as handicapped by her monstrosity. (There's no point sitting around wishing we were all human.)
Like so many hypertexts that eventually get published, there are some threads in PG that make a clear connection with theory -- and I think this has to do with the fact that with books, we're so used to the medium that we tend to get lost in the transparent realism that so many novelists create for us whereas with computer hypertext, you can't help but feel that the medium is at least somehow part of the message, which then leads the writer to go "meta" on you -- what do you think? Are you still interested in theory and finding ways to use it in the development of your stories?
Shelley Jackson: I think you're right, though part of my motivation for writing Patchwork Girl in the first place was to interrogate hypertext in terms of its relationship to the rest of literature, so it was a foregone conclusion that my hypertext should have one foot in theory. But I'm not interested in transparent forms, language that dissolves and leaves a dream of the real world: in books as well as in hypertexts, I like to run up against the written thing, bruise myself on its edges. I like writing that's a little hard to swallow. And I'm not impressed by the difference between theory and fiction, anyway. All ideas about reality are fictional, and some of them are beautiful, too.
Do you think hypertext fiction is ultimately tied to the academy as a field of research and study, or does it actually have commercial potential and if so, how will it fulfill that potential? I mean, don't you wanna be a glam hypertextualized rock star?
Shelley Jackson: I'm so uninterested in commerce that it's hard for me to think about the future of hypertext in that light. But leaving money out of the picture for the nonce, I can't see any reason why hypertext can't be as popular as books have been, though most serious readers are still stuck on books, and for good reasons as well as bad--hey, the greatest literature ever written was not created for the computer screen. And most readers are reading for a familiar kind of experience, one that hypertext does not provide. In fact, much of the most interesting literature of this century doesn't provide it, and readers still haven't caught up. A mass conversion to hypertext fiction would mean a mass relinquishing of treasured habits, and that's not going to happen all at once. On the other hand the internet is making the experience of following links pretty ordinary for a lot of people.
But yeah, of course I want to be glam and all that. I'd like to dress up in spangled platform boots and plug that novel into a really big amp.
One of the problems with finding an audience for more playful yet complex hypertexts like the ones you write is that even some of our most educated readers have difficulty understanding what a hypertext is and some of the more conservative cultural critics even refuse to open themselves up to learning how to navigate through a link structure. Do you think this will change as more and more young people become computer-literate and if so, how will this change the average liberal arts student's perception of what literature is?
Shelley Jackson: Regular web-users already understand implicitly how to read a hypertext; they may not be accustomed to thinking about what they've just read as akin to novels and stories, but they will. I'm not sure what the average student's perception of literature is, but I suspect it has more to do with a vague image of leather-bound volumes in a wood-paneled room than with any immediate experience of reading, not because they haven't read, but because "literature" has become more of a dignified insignia than an noun in everyday use. If that noun expands to include hypertext, that's good news, because that image of leather binding and gold leaf will float back to Masterpiece Theater where it belongs and what's left will be words, sentences, paragraphs, a pattern of relationships.
Your recent web-work, MY BODY, integrates autobiography, illustration, the wunderkammer model and hypertext into one of the more exuberant web-fictions on the Net. How did you come to use yourself or, better yet, your body, as a surface to explore the connection between textuality and sexuality? It's a theme that resonates in both PG & MY BODY.
Shelley Jackson: I don't know whether to answer this as someone maturely wielding the tools of my trade or as the partly-perplexed observer of my own psychology. As I said above, I relate to language, ideas, in terms of very concrete imagery. Thinking is a kind of controlled synaesthesia for me; I understand things by scrutinizing my own metaphors until they come into sharp focus, until I could stub my toe on them in the dark. You might also think of the memory palace, that Renaissance discipline of remembering things by encoding them in imaginary objects (generated by puns and personal associations), permanently stashed in particular niches, drawers, wardrobes in imaginary but well-mapped castles. Only in my case it's not an exercise in codes and concentration but the way my mind works on its own; I see things. So language and thought already relates to my body, to my senses, and it gives me a visceral pleasure to make the connection explicit, by naming a piece of text "my foot" or "my fingernail."
Writing is like shedding skin, no, because it's living flesh, though writing is not like having babies, I've never quite taken to that metaphor (maybe because I've never had a baby), it's more like stitching together a monster out of bits of your self and bits of other stuff and sending it out to do things for you. It's a fetch, a demon double, neither you nor clearly separate from you. And it goes and presses itself on people, it infiltrates them. But this relationship works in reverse, as well: texts are like bodies, but bodies are like texts, too. They aren't simple, self-evident things, they're composed.