By Jackson Bliss
Trying to pick just five of my most important literary influences is like being asked to pick just five of my favorite fingers. I need them all! I can’t decide. Any list I might make will be highly unstable, mercurial, both arbitrary and simplistic. For me, picking five authors compacts the sheer range of genres, sub-genres, voices, styles, languages, and media that have shaped the writer I was and the writer I’ve become. For example, while I enjoy an original, ambitious, beautifully written, and richly characterized literary fiction novel, I also love a good space opera video game, a bold AAPI graphic novel, a hardboiled dramatic series on Netflix, an over-the-top Bollywood flick, high school romance manga, and an indie feature that leans way too much on its dialogue, characterization, and soundtrack. What can I say? I like what I like, but what I like is apparently almost limitless because there’s so much that I like artistically speaking, so a top-5 list feels in many ways like a lesson in self-mutilation. Nevertheless, with the understanding (and the plea for forgiveness) that there are at least a hundred influences to my body of work, here are my top five literary influences right now if a gun were pointed at my head and/or if Dream Pop Origami, my choose-your-own-adventure debut memoir about mixed-race identity, AAPI masculinities, and love were about to drop on say, July 26th 2022 by Unsolicited Press. But that was a totally random example that has nothing to do with this list.
1. Zadie Smith
I learned about the power and the importance of writing ambitiously, musically, and creatively from Zadie Smith. Because of White Teeth and NW, I found companionship and inspiration to not only (try to) write beautifully and lyrically on the sentence level but experimentally on the structural level. I learned to let my manuscripts have their own counterpoint of characters, voices, narrative strands, and ideas. I also learned that constructing BIPOC characters can be joy as well as responsibility and that one of the most important things I can do for my non-white characters is give them the space to make their own decisions (even if, as the author, I don’t always understand them), discover, challenge, insist on their own humanity, and just as importantly, fuck up, just as white characters have done forever. Like many other mixed-race/BIPOC writers I know, I hesitate sometimes to let my BIPOC characters make mistakes, aware of how much more harshly they’ll be judged by society and yet this is also how they stop being model minority myths and start being complex human beings. I normally write from a place of love for my characters, which means I often—unconsciously—try to protect my characters from harm. Zadie Smith showed me that the mistakes of my characters, even if they cause harm, are indispensable to their growth and humanity.
More than anything, I just love Murakami’s punk rock ethos when it comes to genre and content, the way this dude just writes about whatever he wants, in whatever genre he wants, for as long or as little as he wants. I also love his love of music that shows up in everything he writes. And then there’s just his multimodality, which is one of his greatest strengths I’d argue besides his female characters who are often the best characters in his books, that are often just crammed with boring, predictable, and clueless male protagonists. I love and marvel at the way he combines genres, particularly literary and commercial fiction, speculative fiction, hard boiled and coming-of-age, supernatural and straight-up narrative. Last thing, I think Murakami has a phenomenal imagination that is matched by an incredible stamina and insane powers of concentration. His output never compromises content.
3. Joan Didion
In grad school, I read The White Album (for the second time), The Year of Magical Thinking, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem. My whole idea of what CNF is and could be changed radically after that. I was particularly moved by the cadence and the phrasing in her language, her cultural criticism, her use of lists to tell stories, and the way she straddled an insider-outsider point of view in every essay. One moment she was in the recording studio of The Doors (not sleeping with the band, not necessarily even conversing the band, but just on the periphery), the next she was in Malibu, New York, or Medellín writing about the California apocalypse, the water crisis, inside jokes with her late husband, Black Panther interviews, and the Marilyn Manson murders with such controlled lyricism and such a good ear for the rhythm of her sentences.
4. Junot Díaz
While Yunior is a punk, a stereotypical misogynist, and also un playero de mierda, he’s also deeply human, borderline brilliant, hella perceptive, and he shows an endless potential to discover and uncover, his own redemption. That’s a credit to Junot Díaz, who has created one of the most complex, linguistically gifted, incredibly frustrating, but also profoundly important characters in English/Spanglish. Beyond that, Drown and The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao taught me so much about the raw power and beauty and imagination of immigrant vocalization. From Díaz, I learned to NOT translate my racial/cultural identity for the comfort of white readers. I learned about the tight spring that word economy creates on the page like a divine trap for readers. Most importantly for me, I learned that almost no character is beyond saving, that likeable characters are often flat characters, and that as readers, we all decide what types of flaws we’re willing to forgive and which ones we’re not.
From I Hotel I learned that a book can be almost anything and still work if the individual pieces are working together as Yamashita’s seminal novel do (and as I hope my memoir, Dream Pop Origami does). I also learned that multimodality isn’t the enemy of fiction or nonfiction, but rather, a never-ending toolbox for writers to write transgenerically in a way that explores, challenges, expands, and violates the genre conventions of texts while also opening up new possibilities for storytelling and interpretation. For example, years after I’d finished reading I Hotel for my dissertation, I began to slowly realize that my own memoir of racial/cultural fragmentation and self-discovery was going to be a permutational choose-your-own-adventure memoir that gives readers agency and turns reading into a process of textual unification: as they read this experimental memoir, readers slowly connect the fragmented essays and autobiographical lists together, making them interconnect and interlink until every chapter is part of a unified text of the mixed-race/AAPI/BIPOC/Nisei self. There are also quizzes, reading paradigms, pictures, graphics, and travelogue essays from around the world—all fairly radical ideas for a memoir. If I hadn’t read Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel first, I probably would never have thought it possible or permissible to write a memoir that broke more rules than it followed and asked so much for readers out of love, faith, hope, and possibility.
Next Five Up: 6. John D’Agata’s About a Mountain,7. Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, 8. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts,9. JD Salinger’s Franny & Zooey, & 10. Bioware’s Mass Effect Legendary Trilogy.
Jackson Bliss is the winner of the 2020 Noemi Press Award in Prose and the mixed-race/hapa author of Counterfactual Love Stories & Other Experiments(Noemi Press, 2021), Amnesia of June Bugs (7.13 Books, 2022), and the speculative fiction hypertext, Dukkha, My Love(2017). His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Ploughshares, Guernica, Antioch Review, ZYZZYVA, Longreads, TriQuarterly, Columbia Journal, Kenyon Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Witness, Fiction, Santa Monica Review, Boston Review, Juked, Quarterly West, Arts & Letters, Joyland, Huffington Post UK, The Daily Dot, and Multiethnic Literature in the US, among others. He is the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bowling Green State University and lives in LA with his wife and their two fashionably dressed dogs. Follow him on Twitter and IG: @jacksonbliss.
Dream Pop Origami releases July 26th with Unsolicited Press. This book is just a load of fun to engage with and you’ll see why below:
It is a beautiful, ambitious, interactive, and engrossing lyrical memoir about mixed-race identity, love, travel, AAPI masculinities, and personal metamorphosis. This experimental work of creative nonfiction examines, celebrates, and complicates what it means to be Asian & white, Nisei & hapa, Midwestern & Californian, Buddhist & American at the same time. In this stunning collection of choose-your-own-essays and autobiographical lists, multiracial identity is a counterpoint of memory, language, reflection, and imagination intersecting and interweaving into a coherent tapestry of text, emotion, and voice.