Jac Jemc Is Living in the Gray Areas
The author of "False Bingo" on empathy, her grandparents, and the perils of call-out culture
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It is such a wonderful time to be lost in the specific and unfamiliar places in Jac Jemc’s new stories. In False Bingo, we spend time in a haunted guesthouse in the American South, an amateur taxidermy workspace, a bingo hall, a plastic surgery waiting room, and a yoga retreat. In our time of so much fear and mistrust, peeking into the idiosyncratic lives Jemc’s character live is a fascinating and consuming exercise in empathy.
I got to ask Jac Jemc about her process of empathy and how important the gray area is both in her stories and in our lives.
Jane Dykema: I saw Kelly Link interview Carmen Maria Machado once and she said for her first question she always likes to ask what the person’s grandparents did. I remembered that when I saw you dedicated False Bingo to your grandmothers, and I want to ask, what were your grandmothers like?
Jac Jemc: What a great question! When I was a kid, everyone told me I looked like my grandfathers, so I thought I identified with them more. One, Chester, was strong and silent, but very gentle. He’d keep me company when I was little and didn’t put up a fight when I wanted to play with my Barbies with him (as long as some sort of game was on in the background). The other, Raymond, was a real cornball. He had a seemingly endless supply of jokes—typical set-up and punchline style. A lot of groaners in his repertoire. At his funeral though, the place was jammed full of random people he’d made smile: grocery store checkout ladies and crossing guards. We always teased him for the way he’d default to telling jokes rather than having a normal conversation, but that way of being had spread a lot of joy. I share all of that as a way of setting a stage for who my grandmothers were and who they had to play off of.
Raymond’s wife, Lorraine, was a born hostess. She was a great cook—goulash and spitzbuben were her specialties. It was hard to get her to sit down at meals because she was always refilling bowls and glasses and checking on the next course. Neither of my grandmothers could drive, but this grandma would take us down to the Art Institute of Chicago on the bus. She introduced me to the miniature Thorne rooms in the basement of the museum, a childhood obsession. She took us to summer productions at the Theater on the Lake and square dances in her church basement. She made a gorgeous set of people out of wire and tissue paper for under her Christmas tree that all of us grandkids would fawn over and built a little grocery store in her spare bedroom that we could play with. She was the family documentarian, and took great photos and labeled them all clearly. She was my grandfather’s straight man, rolling her eyes at his jokes and telling him when enough was enough. I thought she was very glamorous. She always wore a fresh coat of bright lipstick and perfectly chosen brooch.
Chester’s wife, Dorothy, was a firecracker. She was smart as a whip up until the end. She had an earthshaking temper. She was practical to a fault and very frugal, but very quick to share the fruits of that penny-pinching. She had a stockpile of toys she’d bought on clearance in her back bedroom covered with a bedsheet that we knew better than to look under. If we completed a math or reading workbook, we could pick out a toy as a reward—everything had to be worked for. She was hard of hearing most of the time I knew her, but refused hearing aids. I think her condition suited her. She could talk whenever she wanted without having to worry about who she was interrupting. If someone else wanted to talk to her, it’d better be important and you’d have to address her very succinctly and very directly. In the last decade of her life she also developed macular degeneration, losing her vision from the center of her eyesight out, and that was very difficult for her because she was an avid reader. I tried to teach her to use audiobooks, but she’d lose her place with the tapes/CDs. She asked me to get her that “witch book,” by which she meant Harry Potter, so she could see what all the fuss was about, and we read it together and agreed we didn’t get it. My favorite detail about this time was that I’d visit her on weekends and we’d go through her mail together. If I tried to through out a flyer from AT&T or something, she’d catch me and say, “Now wait, what was that?” I’d tell her it was trash, and she’d ask me what it said. I’d tell her someone was trying to sell her the internet (which she never caught up to) and she’d scoff and say, “That’s trash! Throw it away! Don’t waste my time!” She never stopped wanting control.
The other fascinating aspect of her macular degeneration was that she started seeing visions, but she knew they were just images. She was convinced someone was projecting pictures into her house. She saw a naked man and she saw a little village scene, and she asked me to bring over my partner Jared, who is a videographer, to explain how someone was aiming a projector into her house. I did research and tried to tell her I thought it was something called Charles Bonnet Syndrome, essentially the parallel of a person feeling a phantom limb, but for sight. Where you no longer could see, your brain filled in images. She thought that was a reasonable theory, but insisted she was seeing these things in real life. I can’t blame her. How difficult must it be to reconcile the idea of something you’re seeing, like anything else, is made up by your brain?
JD: The way you describe them gives me a similar feeling to the way I felt when I was reading False Bingo. When I picture this book a series of really concisely detailed portraits flashes through my mind, pictures of these characters as complex and familiar as real people. And each person is so different from the others. I’m wondering about how you think of your process of inhabiting these different people and honoring them, and what implications that practice might have for the way you move through the world. It seems as though almost all of the hurting we do to each other, both on an individual level and on a systemic level, can be linked to us not being able or willing to imagine what it’s like to be someone else, someone we perceive to be very different from ourselves.
JJ: Empathy is everything. I heard that the thing that marks humans as being different from other animals (though who knows?) is that we can hold two opposing thoughts in our head and continue to function. I love to play devil’s advocate and attempt to see the opposite side of an argument. Not that I don’t have my own beliefs and habits that can become rote or lazy, but I find the current political/geological/cultural moment lacks a lot of empathy. People are cutting themselves off from people who think differently from themselves and social media is helping to silo people in that way. Refusal to make changes to address the climate issues is a failure of empathy for future humans; it’s a selfishness that favors the here and now.
I find call out culture and the way we shun anyone who makes one slight misstep to be a massive failure to show compassion, so that now the safest thing to do publicly seems to be to call out someone else for their wrongs. I invest personal time and effort into prison reform work, and it’s easy for me to transfer a lot of the issues of incarceration onto the problems created by just totally shunning people who make public mistakes. I don’t think turning people away helps anything. I’m not saying any of this is 100% good or bad or easy to address, but it feels like we’re embracing a very black and white mentality here, when the nature of most things exists in between. Those grey areas were much of what I was thinking about while working on the stories in this collection and thinking how they related to each other.
The other thought that came to mind with your question is about the lens through which we see the world. I was watching the Eddie Murphy (talk about a gray area) episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld, and they were talking about how the difference between comedians and humans is that, no matter how tragic, comedians can always see the comedy in a situation. I don’t know that that’s always true of me, but it’s usually true, especially in regards to my own circumstances. When I feel sorry for myself, I often quickly transition to laughing at the absurdity in my situation. Or if someone says or does something that is meant to upset me, my instinct, after the hurt, is to imagine what would cause the person to behave in that way. I’m making myself out to be a saint, which I am not. At all. I love to complain about people, but part of the fun of complaining is the speculation as to what drives people to behave in the ways they do.
JD: There’s a lot in this answer I want to come back to, but where you ended makes me have to ask: can we talk about LISA? I will never, ever forget Lisa from “Maulawiyah.” My muscles are tensing just typing her name.
JJ: Oh gosh, Lisa. I have so much love in my heart for Lisa. She is struggling and she’s not shy to share her struggle. I guess she’s pretty selfish, but she ultimately seems good-natured, even if that doesn’t always manifest in the most considerate way. She forces Raila to face some of her own ugliness in an uncomfortable way, and I’m grateful for people like that in the world who can prompt you to reevaluate yourself.
I’ve been in therapy for over a decade, and it’s taken only about that long for me to learn you can’t change other people, you can only change yourself. I heard that advice for years before I could actually put it into practice at all, and I certainly can’t do it quickly and constantly, but it’s something I’m always thinking about: what would it take to not only get along with this person, but to enjoy their company? I adore all of the Real Housewives, and one of the things that fascinates me is the number of times they vow to never ever talk to someone again, and then weeks later, they’re inseparable best friends. My emotional/social scale is so much narrower than that, but I’m riveted by people who feel and behave in those extremes.
JD: Yes, I love where we end with both Raila and the reader really feeling Lisa’s absence, and despite, at least for me, the aversion I felt toward her desperation and selfishness, missing her! Opposing feelings! This is a good segue into the gray area you were operating in in these stories. I feel like one of the ways you’re constructing this gray area is through the use of lessons. There are some real lessons, like in “Don’t Let’s” and “Bull’s-Eye” and some false lessons like in “Loitering” and some totally surprising ones like in “The Halifax Slasher.” Did you have a specific effect in mind for the reader by putting all these experiences in conversation with each other?
JJ: If there was a specific effect I was after, I think it was examining that gray area from different angles, and finding various ways to approach it, maybe suggesting that whatever meaning we take from an event, it’s easy to imagine how a completely opposite meaning might have been gleaned, or how we might stop just short of being able to take away something useful from an experience, or how evidence can indicate a certain truth in many cases, but there are still exceptions and mistakes, and evidence is most often subjective because it’s selective or incomplete, but we might not even know what’s missing.
JD: Some of my favorite moments were these moments of deflation: when one character imagines an exchange she would have with her friend so thoroughly she decides not to have it, or when it’s clearly stated that the people leading unusual love lives have surrounded themselves with people who accept and nurture them and have no obstacles to overcome. These moments seem so excitingly real, and actually like a harder story to tell. In places like this, is the decision to tell it a certain way an instinctual choice or a conscious one? Are you thinking more about the characters or the readers?
JJ: I remembered that another thing I was thinking about was the idea of what makes a story happy (as is talked about in the story “Gladness or Joy”), and how a story needs conflict, even when it’s happy. If there’s no conflict, then even a happy ending doesn’t feel earned or satisfying. In a story like, “Pastoral,” which I think is what you’re referencing with the idea of the lack of obstacles, the story is maybe more unsettling because there’s implied conflict, but the narrator “deflates” (love that choice of word!) that conflict by insisting there isn’t a conflict. I have to admit that I’m a person who, even on a good day is evaluating the range of what I’m feeling. I can find something to grump over no matter what, but that downside brings the successes and joys into sharper relief. I can’t believe I’m copping to how much I love complaining a second time here, but it really serves a lot of purposes for me.