The Art Of Awareness: Interview with Melody Nixon of Apogee Journal
by Julia Lipscomb
In August, a couple friends and I decided to start a storytelling series called the “Personal Experience of Surveillance.” The purpose was to gather people who have experienced firsthand surveillance, whether by the government, employers, Internet, or friends, to share and build a better understanding of the breadth of surveillance. What we found is that both your privileges and anything that can be used against you — whether in your race, gender, sexuality, class, or even personality — are heightened significantly when you experience being surveilled. This can have consequences with your education, employment, health, personal relationships, and the way that you trust and interact with everyone.
At the storytelling series, I met Melody Nixon, editor-at-large of Apogee Journal, a literary journal specializing in art and literature that engages with issues of identity policy: race, gender, sexuality, class, and hyphenated identities. We discuss the language of activism, the privileges of writing, the different levels of being surveilled, and Melody’s story of her email being monitored and phone lines tapped by a government abroad.
I was reading your bio and I think our politically savvy readers would like to know more about you. What’s the day-to-day life of a literary activist, writer, editor and teacher?
I think the day-to-day life involves a lot of movement. It’s a combining of worlds. In New York and probably a lot of other places in the world, the literary spheres and the activist spheres tend to be quite separate.
You’ve perhaps noticed. There’s been some awareness developing about this lately. For example, within literary spheres, poetry readings tend to be white-only spaces or they tend to be people-of-color spaces. There isn’t a lot of mixing. Lately, some literary discussions — for example by Simone White at The Poetry Foundation — have addressed this fact. Activism spheres, on the other hand, have a bit more mixing, racially, class-wise, and otherwise. That really isn’t the case in the literary world. A lot of the work I do is about combining the activist approach to developing community to a literary context. Creating a literary community that is aware of racial, class and social injustices and including people from all backgrounds.
That’s great ’cause there is that disconnect. I think it’s almost a language issue. Literary people speak very differently than activists, with different terminology. Could you tell more about your experiences?
Sure. One term that speaks to what you’re saying is the term “ally,” which is a word in activist circles that people are comfortable using, whether as a queer ally, an ally for people-of-color, for women, etc. The term really isn’t used in literary circles so much. That is something that we’ve tried to introduce through Apogee Journal as a literary term — the idea of having literary allies. We have been developing a series of workshops on “Writing and Activism” led by Apogee editors. Our last one was titled “How To Be A Good Ally.” As active participants of the literary community, how can we be conscious of our privileges, and employ some of these concepts that are more well known in the activist world?
I read in Apogee that you used the term “Artivism.”
Yeah! It gets a lot of heat, but I think artivism is a cool term. I first heard of it at a film festival at Columbia University — the roving Artivist Film Festival, back in 2011. This showcased filmmakers looking to bring political subjects into their work while maintaining artistic integrity. It’s a tricky area and fine line between investigating something that has political implications for our daily life and getting on your soapbox or being dogmatic or falling into an ideology. Artivism is a term that keeps a dual focus on the artistic and political intentions of the work.
That’s a lot like where we’re coming with on the “Personal Experiences of Surveillance” panel series. We’re investigating instances of people being surveilled by the government and even their friends, in places that happen outside of the context of world news. There’s an art to creating a space where people can share and you can draw your own conclusions.
Absolutely. I think that’s great. So much of the efficacy of this sort of endeavor depends on the kind of space you’re looking to create and the intentions of that space — which then shape the dialogs that people have and the impact the project has. Creating a space where people can share in an open, uninhibited way is huge with any sort of political work. I think that’s been the foundation of a lot of social movements, even more recently with Occupy. There were a lot of things that were problematic with that movement, but to me its value laid in the way it created space for people’s voices without being funneled into a single voice, a single vision. I love the idea of having a storytelling panel rather than an instructional or educational panel.
Right, because that’s how people connect, through stories. Even amongst my co-curators, we’ve had different experiences. Our backgrounds and even our privileges have shaped that. Mine were more gender-based, and they’ve told stories of racial discrimination with their experiences.
I think we’ve each experienced prejudices, discrimination and privilege in different ways. One of the pressure points with activism is finding a language that enables people to recognize their own privileges. Talking about it in an intersectional way — that there are different types of privileges that intersect — is an effective tool.
I’m really curious — you’re one of the co-curators of the Personal Experiences of Surveillance panel in New York. Have you experienced surveillance as an activist?
Yes. When we first started talking about it back in March, and I think it started earlier for my co-curators. For me, the conversation started with a post on Facebook about being spied on by your friends. This spawned a huge discussion, and we started talking about everyday surveillance that we were too afraid to talk about. People would say “Oh that doesn’t matter” or wouldn’t find it interesting that it happened. I’ve had a couple personal experiences with surveillance before.
One was when I was much younger and publishing zines. That’s how I first got into interviewing people. I interviewed a musician who was friend of a friend. The interview felt a little off. He was a little narcissistic, and it made me uncomfortable. After the interview, I was transcribing and thinking “I really don’t like this.” My gut was telling me “Don’t publish this in my zine.” I had a MySpace music profile for my zine but didn’t have any photos attached to it, and when I first met him he was able to pick out who I was? I felt paranoid that he had found my personal profile page. In our messages, he would make comments on things I had posted in my personal profile page. I stopped contacting him. I found out, I think it was about 6 months later, there was an article published in the newspaper saying that he was a convicted child molester. I was 18 at the time when I had met him. Fortunately, I never had a trauma but that experience of being surveilled made me stop publishing zines (something that I love!) and it took me a couple years to go back to writing zines. That’s where I’m coming from.
Interesting — having your information publicly available on the internet, the potential problems of that, and then coming face-to-face with someone who was going to misuse that.
And there’s so much anxiety that people have with the internet and digital surveillance.
I was thinking about this before the panel. I was thinking “What is surveillance?” It happens on so many different levels. There are three levels that I am aware of. You have the government or state level, carried out in partnership with private companies, where the aim is to control a group of people, rather than individuals — so called “terrorists” or, say, “environmental terrorists” (environmental activists), “ecoterrorists,” or activists of many kinds. Then you have the internet surveillance level. The internet has made people surveilling each other possible on such a large scale, and people willingly offer up information for this to happen. And then you have this very personal experience in your home or work through CCTV and security cameras. It’s an interesting and complex issue happening on so many levels.
Tell me about your experience with surveillance.
I’ll try to be succinct because it’s a big story, but I became interested in the population of Uyghurs ([pronounced “weegers”)] in Western China. They’re an ethnic and religious — Islamic — minority. They live in the Xinjiang province. I don’t mean to say anything bad about the Uyghurs or China on the internet, but they are a very prosecuted and outright oppressed minority in China. There have been cases of everything from the banning of Uyghur language and culture to outright brutality, to the ‘disappearing’ of folks. For example, a Uyghur short fiction writer, Nurmuhemmet Yasins, published an allegorical story about a pigeon in a Kashgar literary journal back in 2004. The Chinese government decided it was separatist and anti-government. They incarcerated him, and he later died in jail. For writing a short story. Things like that are happening constantly. There’s so much oppression of writers, artists, and thinkers.
I met some Uyghur people when I was traveling near the region two summers ago. When I came back to the U.S., I wanted to create some discussion around what was happening there. I was running a film festival at Columbia University at the time called the Central Asian Film Series. We were screening films from local and foreign filmmakers in Central Asia, and decided to create a screening event of Uyghur films. I got a notable American scholar to be our keynote speaker. Naively, I, being concerned with humanitarian issues, turned it into an activist event and titled it “Lost Nation?” If you look at what’s happening with the Uyghurs, they are being driven out of their region, assimilated, outright having their culture and history erased. Xinjiang is also a very natural resource-rich area, which adds an incentive, you know? So I had titled the night “Lost Nation?” put together the promotions for it, and very quickly — I don’t know if it was the same day — I received a notice in my gmail that my account had been hacked by “state sponsored hackers” and that there was nothing Google could do. They could only notify me that my account was being monitored.
I had never seen anything like that before. I’d heard stories — from Tibetan activists here — but I didn’t realize it was a possibility for my email to be hacked. So I contacted [Google]. They were like, “Our technology can detect that this is happening, but their technology supersedes ours.” It didn’t go away. Then I got a phone call from the scholar who was the keynote speaker. She was very upset. She asked, “Are you kidding me? Why did you label it ‘Lost Nation?’ Why did you make this a political event? You’ve immediately attracted the attention of the Chinese government.”
’Cause of the wording?
Because of the wording and also I think there was something in the blurb I had written about the oppression of the Uyghurs, or the intention of the evening to look at the political situation in Xinjiang. Then she said that our phone conversation was tapped. “There’s no doubt. You’ve just attracted all of this attention, and you are being monitored now. This is potentially a threat for you, and for any Uyghurs you know.”
And you had no idea?
I had no idea. That label — oppression — is very real, I mean, it translates to life and death reality in China. People really are being disappeared who speak out on the subject within China. I didn’t know it would extend all the way into America. It was very, very nerve-wracking. As you may know from your own experience, that presence — that idea that you’re being watched — gets under your skin. There’s a real psychology to it. There might not have even been a person who hacked into my account; it may have been a computer program. It might not have been a concerted effort to monitor me, but the knowledge of being monitored really messes with your psychology and sense of safety. It induces paranoia.
It’s a trauma.
It came down to, well I need to endure it, but also fix this somehow. I do want to go to China. I have Uyghur friends and don’t want to put them in danger. I want to be able to write about this subject. We changed the wording of the event at her request. The monitoring didn’t go away. Then we had the event, and an agent of the Chinese Embassy came along, sat in the middle of the audience, very very obviously. He didn’t try to disguise himself at all. It was very Kafka-esque. He was even in a suit.
I imagine at Columbia University, it was a casual event.
For sure. It was in a classroom. He just stared at us the entire time.
That body language, seeing in person the monitoring of the private information in your email, and that person just staring at you — I can’t imagine. That’s not comfortable for anyone in the room.
Yeah, I think surveillance at that level — the government level — is a very finely crafted act. There is certainly research and years of practice to draw on–the practices of the Chinese government, the Russian government, the Polish and Czech Soviets, undoubtedly the U.S. government as well. All of that is geared toward intimidating you and making you become silent. The keynote speaker refused to get into the politics of the situation in Xinjiang on the night. People in the audience were asking, “What’s happening? What’s the history?” She just wouldn’t go there. In the end, we had to sidestep and say, “Please research this more if you’re interested.” We didn’t let the discussion go further and watched the films. After the agent left, I felt fairly despondent because we weren’t able to have the discussion that I felt was very necessary. We went home and that night or the next morning, the warning bar was removed from my Gmail account. They had decided that I wasn’t a threat.
Wow. And they had to send someone in person to confirm that!
Right. And I think if we had tried to organize something or build a student movement on that night, create any sort of further discussion, I’m sure I would have remained on their radar. Probably I still am on their radar. The experience raised a lot of questions for me. These are such difficult issues. If you do do that, say “I’m going to create a movement” to raise awareness about this injustice, then I am potentially harming the very people the movement is trying to protect.
My impression is that they are surveilling everyone. I am so interested in the relationship with Google in this story. You know Google is banned in China. I have worked with Chinese colleagues, and when they travel back home, they can’t use Gmail, can’t use Google Docs, and it is normal for them to only use Google products in the United States and not there.
Same with Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. You can’t use them in China as well. There are massive sections of the internet that are blocked. WordPress, Blogspot, Dropbox, Vimeo. Wikileaks — ha. It makes any type of movement building within China difficult.
Right, and these social platforms often serve as documentation for cases. What happened with the musician I discussed earlier, a lot of the evidence against him was gained through police hacking into his profile sites.
Interesting. Yeah, social media has the power to be used positively and as a way to control people. The Arab Spring and Occupy Movements are classic examples of the ways that it can galvanize people. Even with the Ferguson protests this summer, they had a media blackout and the only way people found out what was happening was through Twitter and Instagram. It can be a huge tool in our favor as long as we maintain some power in determining how it’s used.
Even with all the events that snowballed after Occupy, I still think it was successful in raising awareness of the fact that wealthiest 1% control most of the wealth. It’s upsetting that we became so powerless in the movement.
It really tried to address that. I do think good things have come out of it. I don’t personally think it was a complete failure.
No, not at all! As far as awareness and outreach, it did exactly that.
With all the discussions at Occupy, there were a lot of frustrations with it not being targeted or directed enough. I think there’s been so much good dialogue that’s been generated since. There have been some great articles written. There’s a fantastic piece about privilege and intersectionality that we use in our Apogee workshops called “How To Explain White Privilege to a Broke White Person.” Anything that contributes to building a language, vocabulary, solidarity, is valuable. So much of the ability to build language was taken away by increased pressures on us to focus on survival, on staying alive, starting in the 80s under Reagan, and continuing on to today’s crippling student debt.
I want to move on to my favorite question. As someone who’s had a personal experience of surveillance, how do you heal? I suppose you can go to therapy. I’ve gone to therapy for other reasons, but for some reason not for this! [laughs] It’s such an elusive topic.
Maybe that’s a niche market that the government can sponsor? Surveillance therapy under private contract! [laughs] That’s really a good question. I think my main question first would be whether the surveillance had ended. Like any sort of trauma that’s ongoing, if you’re still in a warzone, or a violent or abusive situation, how do you heal while that trauma is ongoing? For a lot of activists, for the Uyghurs and Tibetan activists who are constantly monitored and the thousands, if not tens of thousands of Russian writers and activists who are constantly being monitored, how do you heal if the harassment is ongoing? I don’t know the answer to that. For me, I felt very tense and alert while I knew the Chinese government had access to all of my contacts and I felt I just needed the pressure to be over. Once it was over — in an obvious way, at least — I thought I can actually address what happened to me and reassess my own work.
There are some majorly strong people who have dealt with surveillance like Masha Gessen, for example, who is an amazing Russian activist and writer. She dealt with ongoing intimidation and chose to leave Russia because it was too much. It requires incredible strength in oneself to not be intimidated, perhaps to know and understand that this is a mind game. People are trying to control you. Once you see it as that, it might lose some of its power. It really is a mind game.
When I was studying in Russia, I saw some foreign (Chinese, actually) students being monitored and surveilled there. From talking to them about it, I learned how they dealt with it. “Oh, they’re just trying to intimidate me,” they said. “There’s no physical threat of violence — they’re not attacking me physically.” Until that point, god forbid it arrives, screw them. “This is my own life,” was their mentality, “I’m not going to let them get to me.” But when the point of violence arrives, what do you do?
One of the more important elements of coping with the trauma is exactly what you and your colleagues are doing: creating community. Creating resistance and healing through community and a place where you can share these stories and know that you’re not alone. Most of surveillance is designed to get you to be quiet, to get you to submit in some way. And so by speaking out about it, you can start to resist it.
That’s really powerful — knowing it’s by reclaiming your voice. I think that is a good transition to Apogee and your new issue and some of your current work. I’d like to end with what work you’re doing now.
I’m really thankful for Apogee Journal as a community. I was thinking recently we’ve had so much support and little criticism. And as far as I’m aware of, no surveillance. A huge part of our focus has been on creating a space to celebrate voices of dissent and non-normative voices rather than acting adversarial and exclusionary. There is a side of strong resistance that is about celebrating our voices. I think our latest issue, issue 04, really does that. It has such an array of voices that have not been published anywhere else. There are international writers in translation, migrant writers, queer poets-of-color who are writing about bodily experience or issues that mainstream literary publishers don’t consider “quality “enough. That’s often the justification that’s given.
I know — I feel like I’ve spent all my writing life fighting that, and I’m not the only one. There’s so much institutionalism in publishing when someone else is controlling you.
I was talking to this woman-of-color writer in Seattle at the AWP Writing Conference. She is with VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts), a writing workshop for writers of color. She was saying that her work is consistently turned down by publishers, and she is writing from a place of cultural “difference” or “diversity.” She approached one of the editors of a large literary journal that I won’t name and said, “Look — 80–90% of your authors that you publish consistently are white. Why is that? Have you not thought about the need to publish more writers of color?” The editor said to her, “We don’t worry about things like that. We just publish good writing.”
[laughs] What you think is good writing!
Right! Which I think is really the crux of it. The idea of “good writing” is shaped by social forces — that are in turn shaped by economic and historical forces — and our own identity privileges and privileges as editors (if we are editors). Determining what is good or bad is an aesthetic choice that requires the exercising of power. People who traditionally hold power in our society are white and male. That is what we [at Apogee] see as problematic. However, going out and just saying that that is problematic isn’t going to lend itself to constructive or effective dialogue. Instead what we are doing is saying “Hey — these are good writers here who have value, and this is quality, and this is good.” It’s a move to take back some of the power.
Yes! That’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. What is good versus what is bad is really just a human construct.
The whole notion of what is aesthetically pleasing is political. Assigning new terms of value to aesthetics — well, that’s what creating change in art is all about, right?
This interview has been condensed and edited. Image by Raphael Matto.
Julia Lipscomb is a writer and grad student in New York City who still regretfully uses Google products for most everything. Find her on Twitter at @mint_ju_lips.