From Our Authors | July 30, 2019
An Interview with Jillian Weiss
Jillian Weiss is the author of our featured nonfiction prose piece “Awakening to Jake.” You can find the essay here. We recently had the pleasure of talking with Jillian about the inner workings and inspirations behind her essay.
Lauren Hynes and Lauren Ransom: Based on your experience in both England and the United States, how is the question of race relations treated differently in the two countries? How has that affected your family?
Jillian Weiss: I was very unaware of race relations in England as a teenager. I can only talk about what I observed in Hounslow. I heard people imitate the voices of “freshies” who had just gotten “off the boat” from India or Pakistan. Others poked fun at the “chavs” who seemed to be lower-class English people who wore large hoop earrings and knock-off athletic attire. I remember the Irish as crazy because I met one Irishman who tried to climb the wall of our church, claiming to be Spiderman. These are the only divisions and categories that I remember as harmful.
When I first went to a private university in North Carolina, the whiteness was unsettling and made me homesick. It wasn’t until I left college and moved elsewhere in North Carolina that I realized the American racial divide was so black and white. If I had tried to categorize groups of people as a teenager in London, I would have made two groups: the English and everyone else.
Lauren R/Lauren H: You write, “I fear that I too am not fighting for [Jake’s] life. I have certainly been slow to acknowledge that some people find his life less valuable. Perhaps this is an unforgivable failure.” Has that realization changed you? Are there ways you’ve begun to fight, where you didn’t before?
Jillian: My “fighting” has been slow and internal. As a teenager and even as an undergraduate student, I was extremely unaware of current events and history. I was very, very interested in my personal life and the lives of my friends. Awareness of racism and white privilege is something that I’ve had to practice in my daily life. Writing this essay was a form of practicing awareness. Intentionally listening to news broadcasts on my drives to and from work is, for me, practicing awareness. Discussing stories of injustice with my husband, friends, and students is practicing awareness. These changes feel significant when compared to my horrifyingly selfish adolescence.
Lauren H/Lauren R: Your family’s service as missionaries and your parents’ desire for you to attend church with your siblings are featured throughout the piece. How has your own experience with faith impacted your ideas about the value of human life and American views on race?
Jillian: Being a missionary kid enabled me to grow up in an incredibly diverse community. My neighbors and friends were from Ghana, Egypt, Germany, Armenia, Pakistan, and Barbados. My church was primarily South Asian, and the worship was sung in multiple languages. In my primary school classroom, I was a minority. I was certainly a celebrated minority—not only white, but American!—but I was still forced to learn about other cultures if I wanted to have friends. This particular upbringing gave me the gift of feeling at home in a church but also on a bus or street ringing with many languages. I had a strong connection with God during a time of intense diversity and so even today, faith can be difficult and can feel inauthentic without a diverse community.
Lauren R/Lauren H: In regard to your time working at the psychiatric residential treatment facility, what inspired you to take a job outside the fine arts field, and how did that experience impact your development as a writer?
Jillian: Except for teaching creative writing to teens, I’ve never had a job in the fine arts field. I’ve always been attracted to jobs where I can interact with children and be creative. My father was the youth minister of our church in London, so I grew up around children’s and youth programming and I have been unable to fully leave that sphere. I only worked for the psychiatric residential treatment facility for two months because it closed, so I can’t say it greatly impacted my development as a writer.
Lauren H/Lauren R: Throughout the piece you focus quite a bit on your family’s role in Jake’s life. What role did your family play regarding the construction of this essay?
Jillian: During the writing of this essay, I called my parents to ask them about their perspective on the events described. I was also able to have a great conversation with my father about his opinion on gun violence in America, since he’s lived as an adult in both America and England, and I included his insights in the essay. Of course I also spoke to Jake, as detailed in the last scene. I wondered if Jake knew about Black Lives Matter and my husband wisely told me to just ask him. So I did.
Lauren R/Lauren H: Based on your experiences, in what direction is our country moving regarding the treatment of those with autism, and what changes still need to be made to better understand and help individuals such as your brother?
Jillian: I can offer the following experiences:
1) Jake has two primary diagnoses: autism spectrum disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. My parents were told by various professionals that in order to apply for most services, they needed to choose a disorder. Did they want to address his autism or his ODD? It then became impossible to find a treatment facility or residential program that could provide the support Jake needed.
2) When we first moved back to America, my parents went to the nearest public school to enroll Jake in high school. The school happened to have a program for those on the spectrum; however, the administrators said that because he had not been diagnosed by the school, he would have to attend regular classes for his first year, and then only after he failed that year could he be accepted into the program. This astounded my father, and they found a different school.
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