Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Julian K. Jarboe

by Leslie Doyle Read the Story December 18, 2017

In this short piece, you touch on many issues of people’s bodies and the attempt by others to control them. The speaker feels pushed by teachers, medical professionals, and family to be what they expect, and the story conveys the struggle to wrest one’s body back from others’ requirements. Could you speak on this idea of fighting for bodily integrity?

The impetus for this story came, for me, from just how normalized it is to have one’s bodily autonomy violated or plain revoked under the pretense of care and protection. We are finally having public conversations about abuses by traditional authority figures and demanding consequences. This is fantastic. But in my experiences, just as often, people who can’t assert control over others through those means will do so under the guise of benevolence, as caretakers. Especially when I was a child and a teenager, many people “corrected” or “guided” me in ways I now understand as violent misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. A lot of these people had personas of harmlessness, enlightenment, nurturance, femininity. They may even have been basically fair and gentle folks outside of these roles, because abuse doesn’t spring fully formed from any one kind of person or identity. Power is relational, context is everything, and we all can and do participate in these terrible patterns.

So I was sitting in a hotel bed recovering from a voluntary double mastectomy, and I had some time on my hands to reflect on these kinds of experiences. I started writing sort of automatic, therapeutic monologues I called body-horror fairy tales. There’s another one from the series, “The Marks of Aegis,” over at Third Point Press. These are transgender stories for sure, about cis people mistreating and misunderstanding trans bodies (men, women, and otherwise), but they are just as much about the mistreatment and misunderstanding of bodies in general, and if it resonates with you then you are absolutely correct that it’s about you, too.

The request by the parents at the end is stunning, and of course horrifying. Did you know the story was going there as you wrote it?

Absolutely. I think I had the ending in my head first and wrote in stream of consciousness towards it. It is one of those tales as old as time that a parent in particular asks something of their child they think is reasonable and sensible, and can’t see that it’s actually devastating.

The title of your story is “The Heavy Things,” and things—sharp objects, tools—literally embody the speaker’s experiences. What is your relationship to things?

 Oh, I love this question! I studied art so I obviously love things for their own sake, as well as how even mundane things can be so evocative. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s short essay “Why We Need Things” was formative for me as a student. There’s an essay and book series called Object Lessons I’m obsessed with, and have contributed to in the past.

What draws you to flash fiction?

Flash fiction hits a sweet spot for me where almost all of the first drafts come out complete in one sitting. They can be weirder, more personal, more immediate in some ways, not because I think readers will tolerate experimentation in small doses like some people say; it’s my own ability as a writer to be more intuitive at that length. It’s hard to describe it more than that, but in my longer short stories, I never really do write long scenes. Everything breaks down into fragments about flash fiction length, and then I have to be very logistical in revisions to bring them all together.

If you were in charge of the overall medical system in the United States, what’s the first thing you would change?

That it’s run as a for-profit business! It’s evil. Patients and care workers alike get set up to lose, hurt one another, come away in catastrophic debt or see their pay and benefits bottom out. There is a book review at n+1 called “Not Every Kid-Bond Matures” that’s actually, if you get all the way through it, a long read about economics and healthcare and morality in the States with one large generation hitting old age and another large generation charged with their care as job stability and benefits erode. We’ve got to work together to fix that or we’ll keep tearing each other apart.

About the Author:

Julian K. Jarboe is a writer and sound designer living in Salem, MA. Their work can be found on their website,, and they tweet @JulianKJarboe.

About the Interviewer:

Leslie Doyle lives in New Jersey and teaches at Montclair State University. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Front Porch, Cobalt, Gigantic Sequins, The Fourth River, Electric Literature, The Forge, Fiction Southeast, and elsewhere.