I think my higher karmic obligation to explore my relationship with “expectation” intervened. The fact that you modified “witty” with an adverb didn’t help either.
Wait, why are you in Portugal right now?
I’m working for Boom Festival (boomfestival.org) in Project Management and I’m booked as a speaker. You don’t still think one can support oneself writing, now do you?
Do you do this often?
Funny you should ask. Actually, yes. It’s a world I discovered shortly after the events I chronicle in Exile Nation, when I finally moved out to the West Coast. This is post-incarceration, post-failed reintegration, and post-activist disillusionment, when I was desperately seeking reinvention and purpose, and something to give a shit about. I found that in “Festival culture,” as it’s called.
Out on the West Coast it’s not just a counter-cultural spectacle, its an integral part of the regional economy, and an essential part of many artist resumes. And I’m not taking about Cochella or other clusterfuck corporate festivals, I’m talking about festivals that were built from the ground up with the specific intention of giving space to underground or “alternative” artists, and to create opportunities for a different kind of community building. All of these festivals basically grew out of the Burning Man model, and today are so numerous that many of us plan half our year around the touring schedule. And I dont mean dirty hippie van Dead Phish head lazy ass dropout touring, I mean working–building, producing, managing, performing—expanding our cultural purview, changing lives, making art, transforming ourselves and those around us. One of the topics I cover in my presentations is how this festival culture became a home for so many of the disenfranchised that populate the “exile nation.” It’s a place where creativity and personal integrity are the currencies, and it doesn’t matter if you have a criminal record. This phenomena is so prevalent, and powerful, my partner Mitch Schultz (DMT: The Spirit Molecule) and I are making a documentary about it.
So, no New York literary scene for you, then?
There’s still a literary scene in New York?
It’s debatable, but that’s a whole other can of worms. So…
Naw. I prefer actually living to sitting around talking about life. I also prefer to live where weed is basically legal. When you’re an ex-convict, and your lifestyle is criminalized, such as we do to anyone who uses drugs outside the narrow uses proscribed by our lovely government, even something as benign as cannabis can get you prison time. Beyond that, once corporate “synergy” hit the publishing world, and all the big houses were absorbed by conglomerates, and all the former editors became agents (analogous to Miles Davis writing commercial jingles), the literary “scene” morphed into “market share.” The old patrons vanished, and the tradition of nurturing writers into maturity was seemingly lost forever.
That corporatized publishing world is what gave us James Frey and A Million Little Lies. I only bring him up because my one foray into the corporate publishing world (agency and house will remain nameless) took place right at the same time that Frey was caught and exposed, and my agent began peddling me as, “Just like James Frey…but true.” Sadly, he wasn’t telling the truth either, because my life, and story, were of course nothing like Frey’s. Still, I have compassion for Frey. I know it wasn’t all his fault, that he was heavily influenced by his agent and publisher to turn his novel into a “memoir.” I know because the person representing me told me such things as: “Well, can you tone down the politics and play up the ‘nice middle class fish out of water’ story? People like prison stories, they just dont like prison politics.” The fact that I was not anything resembling a nice middle class fish out of water did not seem to trouble them. Also, you’ll be amused to know that every single agent, publisher, and editor I met asked me if I was raped in the shower. In fact, it was generally one of the first things I was asked by any of them. It certainly shows you where the mind of the industry is.
So, you also began as a novelist?
I spent ten years writing fiction & stage/screenplays before I switched to non-fiction, where I’ve spent the last ten years. I made the switch at the same time I quit smoking crack and got my life together, which was after 9/11. Everything that I was broke on that day. I mean, I was already (unwittingly at the time) deeply mired in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, so when a mass trauma like 9/11 hit, it just absolutely decimated me. Talk about your nervous breakdown Sheesh. So, anyway, when I finally emerged from the fog, and the smoke had cleared Manhattan, this voice in my head kept repeating This new world has no place for someone with a weakness like yours. So, I got my shit together…white knuckled and bare-toothed. One of the unforeseen side affects was that I lost any interest in fantasy or fiction, and became obsessed with reality. Nothing these days is stranger than the truth, or what is peddled for truth, anyways. And since I had spent the previous 15 years escaping reality, I certainly didn’t mind re-immersing myself in my efforts to reclaim myself.
Yeah, how did that turn out for ya?
Another nervous breakdown, three years later, after Bush was (ahem) “reelected.” But you can read all about that.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned as a published author?
That most reviewers never read past the first chapter, and your most vocal and vicious critics never bother to read your book at all.
In the same vein, what’s been your greatest joy?
Watching a complete stranger pick up and devour 3/4s of my book in a single afternoon.
What are your thoughts on the Israeli occupation of Palestine and their secret nuclear arsenal?
Are you trying to get me into trouble?
So, no questions about 9/11 then?
Nope. Just go rent Wag the Dog. It should suffice.
What are your thoughts on the Occupy Movement?
I think they need to buy helmets, goggles and facemasks.
Ok, I’ll get serious if you lighten up.
I vacillate. Some days I appreciate what they did, because finally some Americans seemed to care about something, and they finally got off their asses and into the streets…where they proceeded to get beat to pulp. Regardless, their efforts brought a kind of collective silent suffering out into the open. Previous to Occupy, you’d be hard-pressed to find any Mainstream sign of an aggrieved populace. And trust me, theys be plenty aggrieved. But sadly, the Occupy movement also gave the fully armed, operational and utterly bored Police State the de facto justification it needed to come out of the closet. Because of that, I firmly believe that what we witnessed last Fall was an anomaly, a one-off. I dont think street activism is a smart choice these days, and this is coming from a retired Direct Action junkie. Aside from the now blatantly obvious fact that our local police forces are better armed and equipped than the IDF, Direct Action no longer accomplishes the stated goals (if there are any), and ironically, it tends to turn the Mainstream public against the movement. Additionally, anger and adolescent impetuosity are so 1960s, so it’s time to grow up. And the Chicken Little approach no longer works because after twelve years of O-Bush-ma politics, we’re all kinda suffering from outrage fatigue. That being said, there are better ways to go about attacking the Leviathan. I always recommend people take a cue from Bucky Fuller:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
That was the whole impetus behind the creation of “festival culture,” to use one example of many.
Where do you see America headed?
America is like Donald Trump. It’s loud, obnoxious, misinformed, and has a terrible comb-over. Only the most vicious, self-hating, ambition hounds will apprentice for it, and ultimately, it’s viewed as something of a side-show oddity, a boorish form of entertainment. The novelty of “you’re fired” has long worn off, and frankly, the rest of the world is looking on, wondering when America will wake up and realize it’s been fired as the world’s “beacon of freedom.” That being said, I think we’re in for a wild ride, and not the kind of wild that teenage boys and bored housewives dream of.
Do you regret becoming a writer?
I lament the burgeoning illiteracy of American culture, the commercialization of art, the dumbing down of politics, mass-consumption, mass-incarceration, and mass-deportation. I lament the apathy, the greed, the impunity of the rich, and the failure of justice. But I will never regret becoming a writer. I mean, in the end, someone had to do it. I’m glad it was me.
Would you like to take advantage of the obligatory-opportunity-for-an-exit-plug?
Indeed I would. I just finished principle photography on a new Exile Nation documentary that is a partial adaptation of my book, and a partial expansion of the whole “exile nation” theme. I’m working with Mitch Schultz on this one too, as well as a pair of producers from LA, Ronnie Pontiac and Tamra Spivey. The documentary introduces me and my book, and the themes of mass-incarceration, drug policy, and what I and others like Graham Hancock like to call the “War on Consciousness.” From there, we follow the drug war across the Mexican border and spend close to two acts examining the issue of mass-deportation. Very little known or understood by the Mainstream, our government has had a policy, since 2005, of deporting literally millions of “non-citizens” (which encompasses everyone from an illegal field worker in the country two months to a 20-year immigrant) There have been 2.5 million deported in just the last 2.5 years.
On the surface, this would seem like a good thing, right? Well, I came to learn that everything I thought I knew about this was wrong. First of all, the Naturalization process can take up to 30 years, and any tiny misstep in the Byzantine (and prohibitively expensive) paperwork requirements results in the applicant repeatedly being sent to the bottom of the stack, and generally they lose their status as well. And most immigrants actually pay as much in taxes as the average American, and in fact, shy away from Social Services because of the risk of identification and deportation (California notwithstanding). Out in the field (pun intended), we aren’t just deporting the random busload of undocumented field hands, we’re also deporting people who have lived in the US their entire lives and know no other way of life but ours. People who fled dangerous countries or regimes with their children 15, 20, 25 years ago are now finding themselves deported, or are seeing their culturally American children deported, mostly for petty “crimes” like drug possession, traffic infractions, or drunk driving. Yes, some are committing violent felonies, and are accordingly expelled. But they comprise only a small percentage these days. A recent report by the Applied Research Center estimated that these mass-deportation policies have left 15,000 or more children of immigrants essentially orphaned, and thus, wards of the State. I’m sorry, but how is this helping relieve budget crises? No, I hate to say it, because I open myself up to massive recrimination, but what’s happening these days is nothing short of a pogrom. This always follows the rise of a fascist regime in any society. It happened in Czarist Russia, in Nazi Germany, in Argentina and Chile, Iraq and Syria, China and Cambodia. And now it’s happening here.
These days we can take Pastor Martin Niemöller‘s words in a slightly different context:
First they came for the terrorists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a terrorist.
Then they came for the criminals
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a criminal.
Then they came for the Immigrants,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t an Immigrant.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Don’t you think you’re a little paranoid?
The question isn’t whether or not you’re paranoid these days, but whether you’re paranoid enough. If you don’t believe me, pick up a recent copy of Wired and read about what the NSA has been up lately.
Would you like some tea?
Yes, that would be lovely.
CHARLES SHAW is an award-winning journalist and editor, author of the critically-acclaimed memoir, Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality (2012, Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), and Director of the documentary, The Exile Nation Project: An Oral History of the War on Drugs & The American Criminal Justice System. Charles serves as Editor for the openDemocracy Drug & Criminal Justice Policy Forum and the Dictionary of Ethical Politics, both collaborative projects of Resurgence, openDemocracy, and the Tedworth Charitable Trust. Charles’ work has appeared in Alternet, Alternative Press Review, Conscious Choice, Common Ground, Grist, Guardian UK, Huffington Post, In These Times, Newtopia, The New York Times, openDemocracy, Planetizen, Punk Planet, Reality Sandwich, San Diego Uptown News, Scoop, Shift, Truthout, The Witness, YES!, and Znet. He was a Contributing Author to the 2008 Shift Report from the Institute for Noetic Sciences, and in Planetizen’s Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning (2007, Island Press). In 2009 he was recognized by the San Diego Press Club for excellence in journalism.
Email Charles: cshaw [at] exilenation [dot] org