The book of Daniel: an interview with gay writer Daniel M. Jaffe
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A genuinely international experience, Foreign Affairs: Male Tales of Lust & Love (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2020) by Daniel M. Jaffe takes readers around the globe in search of love and healing. Multi-hyphenate Jaffe, who, in addition to writing fiction, poetry and essays, holds a law degree from Harvard, stamps our literary passports in Munich, Seville, Prague, Mexico City and other destinations. One character arrives in Dublin while Ireland is abuzz with the gay marriage vote.
Another character's mother expresses her concern for her son's safety regarding Nazis as he travels to Europe, making the release of this book especially timely. Jaffe was gracious enough to answer a few questions about Foreign Affairs shortly after the book was published.
Gregg Shapiro: Your new short story collection Foreign Affairs: Male Tales of Lust & Love should come with a warning sticker on the cover that reads: "Not meant to be read on an empty stomach" because of all the detailed descriptions of delicious food. Do you consider yourself to be a foodie?
Daniel Jaffe: [Laughs] that's so funny! Yes, I've enjoyed watching cooking shows and experimenting in the kitchen for decades. I most enjoy foods from cultures other than my own. When I travel, I do my best to try whatever the locals are known for, foods like Puerto Rican sancocho (a soup-stew full of local root vegetables) and mofongo (fried plantains mashed with cracklings and garlic, then topped with meat or seafood sauces), Czech roast duck and dumplings, Austrian weinerschnitzel, Spanish tapas of all kinds—they're worth the price of a plane ticket! Don't get me started on carbs: when I travel, I need to spend hours walking every day just to work off the calories from all the breads and desserts I sample.
What do you enjoy most about writing about food?
The process of writing is itself a way of reliving sensual experiences, bringing myself back to all those flavors, smells, and textures of a dish, the way it looked on the table, maybe even the sounds and pleasures I recall of the eating. As an element of fiction-writing, I incorporate food as a way of showing how my characters live; after all, any time a character chooses something, whether it's clothing or apartment furnishings or food, the character's revealing an aspect of self—taste and cultural norms as well as financial means.
Without giving away too much, in "Gift-Wrapped" you write about an airplane passenger traveling in a plastic bag for a specific reason. The story was written pre-COVID-19, but in some ways it could be a vision of what air travel might be like in future days as the pandemic continues. Does the story feel prescient to you?
I never thought about that association, but you've really got me thinking now. I hope we don't find ourselves having to wrap up in plastic bags to get on an airplane. Given the fuss so many people make about wearing masks, can you imagine the uproar if we're required to dress up in head-to-toe plastic bags?!
One way of regarding this story is that it's about adaptation of ancient religious practices to a modern, highly technological world. Do the adaptations all make sense? That's something societies are now confronting in a big way, whether it's religious teachings or legal issues—how do we adapt copyright laws, for example, laws originally intended for tangible books, now that so much is digitized and easily pirated?
Have you traveled by plane at all since spring 2020, and if not, what do you miss most about traveling?
No, I haven't. I was in Wilton Manors/Fort Lauderdale at the beginning of March. By that time, the country had already become aware that COVID was spreading, but the pandemic was still in its early stages. As each day brought more frightening news, I cut back on visiting cousins, going out to restaurants and clubs until I was simply spending all day alone in my AirBnb, working on revisions of Foreign Affairs. I was enjoying the creative surge I get whenever I'm away from home, so there was value in being away.
But then our charming Chaos-Creator-in-Chief made an offhand remark in an interview that he might shut down domestic travel to New York and California if COVID grew too prevalent in those states. Fearful of being unable to fly back home to California, and not relishing the alternative of driving cross-country, I cut my trip short and flew back to Santa Barbara immediately. Since then, I haven't flown anywhere.
My husband, Leo, and I had a trip planned for the summer, but canceled it like so many other folks have had to cancel theirs. We're still able to drive around parts of beautiful Southern California, so we have chances to take breaks from the routine of working at home and then entertaining ourselves with wild trips to the supermarket.
What's hardest is the unpredictability, not knowing when I'll feel comfortable traveling by air again. Just the other day, we Zoomed for a couple hours with an extremely close friend in Amsterdam whom I've known since she was six. She's now the middle-aged mother of twin teens. Chatting with her and the boys made me miss them even more. One of Leo's nephews is getting married in Puerto Rico next June, and has invited Leo to play an important role in the ceremony. Will we be able to attend?
The 'bearotica' tale "The Trickster" is one of the stories that puts your sense of humor on display. How important to you was it to include a funny story in the book?
It's very important, so as to add texture to the collection as a whole. That's one of the challenges in putting together a collection, especially one with a central theme like sexuality and travel: how to make the book's overall reading experience a varied one. I tried to address this by including a mix of countries and character experiences; a diversity of character types, ages, and sexual orientations/ gender identities; a variety of styles and a range of moods.
In "The Trickster," the humor is laced with sadness because the story's about a sad sack whose fantasies keep getting him in trouble. There's another story, "Walpurgisnacht," that I also think of as quite funny, even though it's about a serial killer in a bathhouse. I'll leave it to the readers to decide whether they agree or not!
I didn't expect to find a story such as "El Bochorno," about a straight man in the book.
The way I conceptualize Foreign Affairs is that it's about the range of male sexuality, as reflected in stories about travel to different countries. Most of the book's stories involve gay men's experiences, to be sure, but a few, like "El Bochorno," focus on straight male characters. There are stories about bi and transgender characters, too. Given that most stories in the collection deal with finding flirtation, romance, or sex, I also wanted to include a story about loss, for a sort of balance.
Because of AIDS, gay men as a community have had so much experience with loss, right? My first impulse was to compose a story of a gay man struggling to cope with the loss of his husband, whether to AIDS, cancer, or something else.
But then I thought about the many exquisitely rendered, painful stories about such losses already in the canon of gay fiction and memoir, and thought that maybe I should just let those already written pieces represent the issue for now. Instead, I decided to take a different approach, challenging myself with a notion I hadn't yet considered: would a straight man's grief manifest any differently than a gay man's? After writing the story, I've concluded that a man's emotional despair and grief will be similar whether the loss is of husband or wife. "Loss is loss."
How many languages do you speak and how much language research was involved in writing the book?
In addition to English, I'm fairly strong in Russian, having studied the language for years in college and for a couple summers in Russia. I sometimes correspond with Russian friends and translate contemporary Russian literature, so that keeps me on my toes. I loved studying French in high school and college, and have taught myself rudimentary Spanish, enough so that I'm able to get by in Spanish-speaking countries—understanding newspapers and museum plaques describing artwork, for example, ordering in restaurants, and holding very basic conversations with people I meet.
Before traveling to Central Europe, I spent a few months studying just the fundamentals of German so that I could function in those societies. As a child, I studied Hebrew and Yiddish, and although I can no longer converse in them whatsoever, I remember a number of key words and phrases, especially those that carry emotional force for a child.
When it came to writing the stories in Foreign Affairs, I drew on the language knowledge I possessed, double-checking with dictionaries when necessary, and consulting a few times with Leo, whose first language is Spanish. I use non-English words and phrases primarily to add to a sense of local color in the stories, as sorts of punctuation points to support the atmosphere or a character's emotional charge.
Have you been to all the places that you wrote about in the book?
Yes, I've been to all the historical sights, museums, restaurants, hotels, cafés, clubs, train stations, neighborhoods, streets, parks, beaches, etc. where my characters wander. I did make up a couple of apartment interiors.
Every night after a day's travels, I typically make extensive notes about interesting places I've been, foods I've eaten, people I've met or watched (and sometimes fantasized about), conversations I've had or overheard, and story ideas sparked by the day.
Each story actually derives from real experiences in a given locale. For example, I wrote "Cobblestone Elegy," set in Kafka's hometown of Prague, in a Kafkaesque style that involves ghosts particular to Prague's unique Holocaust history, which was brought home to me during a tour of Terezín, a nearby former Nazi concentration camp and ghetto. In the collection's Afterword, I offer brief comments on how each story arose from personal experiences.
You have a knack for accents and dialect in the book. Does that come through when you do readings of these stories?
That's a great question with a little bit of a complicated answer. When doing a reading of the Irish story, "The Importance of Being Jurassic," I read the Irish characters' dialogues with my best Brogue. In "Gift-Wrapped," I hear in my head the old Jewish American character speaking English with a Yiddish accent, so that's how I would render his speech aloud.
However, in most of the stories, the non-American characters are not speaking English, but their own languages (even though I'm rendering that dialogue in English). When, say, a Russian character speaks Russian, she's not speaking with the accent that Americans hear when a Russian speaks English—she's just speaking neutrally. So, when doing a reading, I wouldn't render her Russian dialogue with an accent. I know this is a bit confusing. It comes down to intuition, I guess.
Could you ever see yourself writing more about one of these characters in a novel, perhaps?
It's possible—that's something I've done in the past. My first novel, The Limits of Pleasure, started out as a short story about a highly idiosyncratic gay man. After writing the story, the character wouldn't leave me. I started imagining him in different situations, so I kept writing more stories about him. Then more and more until I realized that I was working on a novel. That hasn't happened yet for me with any of the characters in Foreign Affairs, but I'm open to the possibility.
Of all the places you wrote about in the book, could you ever imagine making one of them your forever home?
Leo and I both love Spain, especially Madrid and Barcelona. I don't think we're likely to move there permanently, but we're looking forward to returning for a month at a time once the pandemic's no longer an issue.
That said, if the political situation in the U.S. continues to deteriorate, with the government continuing to empower violent hate groups and erode minority rights, we might reconsider our assumption that we'll remain in the U.S. I'm acutely aware of the repressions that grew in Nazi Germany during the 1930s, and am very much on the alert because we're a gay Jewish-Puerto Rican couple. Let's keep our fingers crossed that after the elections, the U.S. will begin returning to a sane society that strives, albeit with major missteps, to respect and protect the vulnerable.
Have you started thinking about working on your next book project?
The week we launched Foreign Affairs, I delivered another manuscript to my editor, Ian Henzel of Rattling Good Yarns Press. It's a darkly comic novel about a madman who stalks a group of gay men romping around Europe. Ian hasn't had a chance to read it yet, so I don't know if he'll deem it publishing-worthy. I had great fun writing it, so I'm hopeful!
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