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American Book Review

An ABR Interview with Jon Wei of "The Telling Project"

A Web-Exclusive Supplement for Issue 34.5

John Wei interviews Lemuel Charley

Jon Wei (left) and Army veteran Lemuel Charley (right) in the interview studio in 2007 in Eugene, Oregon.

The act of telling is very important in the formation of community in spreading tales and events that give the public a sense of unity. How does this factor into the goals you set for performances?

It’s everything, though I think that unity is a bit of a tricky term. Unity doesn’t mean a unity of understanding, perspective, agenda, etc. Unity means, regarding The Telling Project, that we all come together to witness something that we agree is significant to ourselves, our community, our nation and our world. What that witnessing means to one person or another is highly individual (individuated), but the act of witnessing together gives us a common ground from which to start conversations.

How does this complicate the idea of "author"?

It doesn’t. It clarifies it. The idea of the author as a singular creator is exactly that - an idea. It’s not, however, the reality. There is always someone who does the work to get an object into the world, whether that’s a writer or a sculptor or a biomedical engineer or a farmer. If a farmer says, “I grew that,” we understand that he or she had help. Sun, rain, wind, cow shit, etc.. If an author says, “I wrote that,” we assume it sprung fully-formed from his or her pen. That’s just marketing. No author is singular. Which isn’t to say that the person who did the work doesn’t deserve compensation - they do. And it isn’t to say that some workers aren’t more skilled or diligent or deserving. It is to say, however, that no artist creates in a vacuum, all artists collaborate. Some are more forthcoming about that than others.

Why aren't we seeing more efforts to educate the public about the cost of war through art?

Mostly because it isn’t covered much. It is happening - everywhere. There are a tremendous number of artists who are taking this on. But the media has become a much more divisive entity in the last 10 years than I have ever seen it to be in my lifetime. It seeks strong, sensational stories, and art, when it is done well, isn’t that. To reiterate, war isn’t an idea, agenda or argument. It’s an infinitely various interaction, and good art tries to see it as such. A great writer I know once said that you always run into trouble when you try to fit a person into an idea. Ideas are small, people immense. This is the greatness of art - to see, and in seeing, to treat humans as humans. But this doesn’t sell papers. The media is much more about argumentation. Even “hard news” is heavily slanted. Just the fact that we refer to the ‘liberal’ media and the ‘conservative’ media is indicative of this state of affairs. I’ve heard this defended as being what people wish to read, but that seems like a fairly gross abnegation of social responsibility, even if it is true.

Why is art, in particular, the act of writing and theater, such a powerful medium to raise awareness?

See above?

How has this project raised your consciousness? And what are some of the results that you've witnessed?

I think it has, by most people’s standards, actually lowered my consciousness, though I’m saying this rhetorically of course. To explain, I think that we’ve largely fallen into a ‘state’ of consciousness in our culture based on argumentation - and we consider this to be a more sophisticated way of thinking. We have ideas about our society, about our fellow community members, about our world, about ourselves, and we spend a good deal of time finding ways in which these ideas are justified, whether that’s anecdotal, theoretical, evidentiary - we have a spectrum of methods at our disposal. I’m reasonably good at this way of thinking, having gone to a couple of ‘good’ academies and having spent a lot of time around people who have similar backgrounds. I’m never overwhelmed by an argument, I rarely encounter an idea that I haven’t heard before, and that I’m not prepared to deal with. I am, however, regularly blown away (and I mean all of the time) by being in the presence of someone who has been given (by him or herself and by me) permission to struggle honestly with his or her experience. It’s a pretty simple thing, really. I listen, I ask questions as they occur to me and the world changes. It gets bigger, it gets more complex and it gets closer. This project has had the singular effect on me of putting me in closer contact with the world - all of it. I believe this is what is happening for other folks as well - it is collapsing the distance between the individual and the ‘ideas’ of war, of military, of Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, violence, death, life. These are our experiences. As Americans, as citizens of the world, as community members, as voters and buyers, as humans, we all have a stake in them, we have all participated in them, we are all affected by them on a moment to moment, ongoing basis. People walk out of these performances closer to the ground, more in touch with their worlds, more in touch with themselves, more in touch with those around them. Is that higher or lower consciousness? Good question.

Interview by Manuel Luis Martinez

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Volume 38, Issue 2

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