Show Me Something New
Jaded Ibis Press Is Dragging the Book into the Future
Debra Di Blasi's favorite word is "evolution." In conversation, she's always straining at the edges of the possible. She's fascinated by technology and eagerly awaits brain implants that will blur the line between humanity and computers. As a writer, she works hard to explode traditional narrative and build something new in the charred space that remains. And as the driving force behind publisher Jaded Ibis Press, she's uninterested in trends in fiction and best-seller status; she dismisses the current independent-small-publishing scene as being "stuck in this postmodern genre, which is dead." She pauses for a moment and adds, "Actually, I think [postmodernism] was born with the umbilical cord looped around its neck. It's a blue baby." After 20 self-described "looooong" years in Kansas City, Di Blasi moved to Seattle in April, and Jaded Ibis Press is poised to become one of the most significant publishers in town.
To understand Di Blasi's worldview (and therefore Jaded Ibis Press's aesthetic), it's best to read her fiction. Flip through her 2007 story collection The Jirí Chronicles and Other Fictions (FC2, $19.95), and you'll see immediately how she leans toward the unconventional. The first few pages look straightforward, like any other short-story collection, but once you dig deeper into the book, images start popping up in the text like alien intruders: advertisements, photographs, quizzes ("Is your marriage doomed?"), and even a slate-blue color that begins to tinge the pages near the end of the book.
Ostensibly a story about a Czech artist named Jirí Cêch who may be an American con man, the book broadens to consume a number of different stories. An unappreciated secretary tries to ignore a lump on her breast. A discussion about a platypus becomes a metatextual argument about meaning. A reference to houseflies spreads, viruslike, through the book until images of houseflies begin crawling over the text and shitting on the pages of the book.
What's more, Di Blasi supplements the story with its own commentary. A scrap of crossword puzzle appears on one page, but it is appended with a footnote explaining why the author couldn't use the actual crossword puzzle that inspired the reference. The anecdote—Di Blasi asked Tribune Media Services permission to run the corner of one of its crossword puzzles and was promptly charged $250 "not for reprint permission, but only for the right to ask permission is the kind of amusing aside that writers generally save for cocktail parties or postreading Q&A sessions. But why not include it in the text? There are dozens of "why not?" moments in Jirí, and Di Blasi exploits them all for maximum effect. She provides documentation of Cêch in the real world—or does she?—with advertisements for CDs full of music and depositions of trips that Cêch took to Cuba. She dedicates a masturbation guide for women (including an explicit diagram labeling parts of the female genitalia) to "those parents in the Kansas Blue Valley School District who are incapable of intelligently discussing with their teens the topic of masturbation." She uses the page full of fly shit, somehow, to speak out about world hunger.
Di Blasi also applies this "why not" attitude to Jaded Ibis Press, which started in part because she was tired of hearing about talented writers whose books were rejected from small publishers. "The editors who were making the decisions were grossly uneducated," Di Blasi says. "They couldn't even talk about the work in an appropriate way. I'm stunned that some of these were declined." She wanted to make a home for "new literature that's really dissolving these arbitrary, old boundaries." Once she saw that the quality of print-on-demand books had increased to a professional level, everything came together, and her press (whose slogan is "sustainable literature by digital means.™") was born.
Jaded Ibis is a response to the atrocious waste of the publishing industry. Di Blasi is disgusted by the long-standing publishing model, in which companies put out a hundred thousand copies of a book that then sells ten thousand copies, leaving the remainders to be shipped back for eventual pulping. Jaded Ibis's books aren't published until they've been ordered, cutting out the monumental wastefulness—from the miles of felled trees to the toxic ink to the fossil fuels expended in transporting every box of books to and from the publisher—that goes into the production of every book.
Almost every Jaded Ibis book sees print in several different forms: There are gorgeous full-color editions printed on heavy stock for around $50. (Most of the books contain some sort of nonlinguistic visual element; Di Blasi is a strong proponent of the visual arts and holds an open house in her Pioneer Square offices every Art Walk.) There are more affordable black-and-white print editions at the more typical trade-paperback price of $16.95. And every book will be available as an e-book for around $10, too. In addition, every Jaded Ibis book will have a "soundtrack" created by a recording artist as a kind of musical response to the book. Upcoming contributors include DJ Spooky, and the soundtracks will be released in anthologies on a semiregular basis.
Right now, only two Jaded Ibis e-books are available, and current technology has required those to be published in what Di Blasi calls "basic black and white." She's still trying to find a way to create the e-books she's envisioning, with full-color content and other multimedia aspects, although she always wants the e-book to come after the physical edition. "My first love is still print books," she says. "I want my stepson to know that when he picks up a book, it has a smell to it, and that means time has passed. There's an odor to time."
Further, Jaded Ibis will publish a "fine art limited edition" of every book in its catalog. These editions will reinterpret the text into an art object that will sell for anywhere from $3,800 to ten or even twenty thousand dollars. According to the 2010–2011 Jaded Ibis catalog, the fine art edition of Janice Lee's upcoming lyric novel, Daughter, will feature an "autopsy kit containing handcrafted surgical tools and various medical artifacts, including casts of octopi body parts in apothecary bottles" in a wooden box whose secret compartment contains "the novel printed on transparent 'skin' and laid upon a bed of sand." Sister Spit member Anna Joy Springer's upcoming novel, The Vicious Red Relic, Love, will be paired with an album featuring music by Springer and other musicians, and the fine art edition will be "a quiver woven out of fabric pages of the book containing arrows made of tightly rolled posters by various artists" that also contains "wallpaper paste and a brush to adhere the posters to construction sites." (Di Blasi is still trying to determine whether the arrowheads will be made of glass or Red Hots cinnamon candy.) Yet another book will be etched onto a sturdy disk that is then submerged into a plexiglass box filled with K-Y Jelly, because the author wants the reader to have to stick their hand in something slimy and disgusting before reading the book.
Di Blasi considers the fine art editions to be a political statement that marks the beginning of a rehabilitation process for writing as a product of value. In part, she sees it as a callback to the pre-Gutenberg days, when only the wealthy could own a hand-copied book because the months and weeks of intensive work made them rare objects of desire. "I'm trying to bring the value of literature and art up to where it should be," she says. "If someone works five years on a novel, that novel is only worth 16 dollars and 95 cents? And they only make 7 percent of that [in royalties]?" Her exasperation is clear.
She says this cultural desire to make writing into something cheap or free "perpetuates the belief that there's no value in the arts," which is why local governments are cutting funding for humanities in schools. "We live in a capitalist country where we assign value to things," she says, and writing is "a commodity. You can want it to not be a commodity, but once you say it's not worth anything in a country where everything is valued in terms of money, you're basically biting off your own ass."
The Jaded Ibis books that Di Blasi has already published are experimental fictions of very high quality. David Hoenigman's Burn Your Belongings is a dense narrative of choppy sentences that elude the human desire for story at almost every turn. When read aloud, mantralike, the thick walls of text take on the feel of religious chant, a prayer to weariness and sickness and anxiety. At other times, they flutter with moments of happiness and love, and feel exponentially more like real life than anything Hemingway or any naturalist ever put to paper. In the margins of each page is a different vibrant color collage by Yasutoshi Yoshida. At times, the collage complements the text: A cool ocean full of paramecia fades down to a cracked blue-green sky seen through branches just above two owls in a basket held by a faceless woman, next to a passage where the narrator analyzes the minutiae of a woman's actions before realizing, "I don't remember anything. not one single face or pair of eyes." At other times: Volcanic fire volleys down the page next to an inward-pointing, reflective lament—is the illustration mocking the banality of the text? Revealing something that is hidden deeper than even words can go? The collages add another layer, another conversation, to the book.
The newest Jaded Ibis Press title, Unfinished by Lily Hoang, is its most high-concept release yet. Hoang asked 20 of her favorite writers (including Brian Evenson, Beth Couture, Blake Butler, and Carol Guess) to give her pieces of poems or stories that they couldn't or wouldn't finish. Hoang then completed the stories for them. The breadth of range is impressive—some entries are science fiction, some are field guides for fictional birds, some are descriptions of fantastic, otherworldly museums.
It's an anthology that doubles as a short-story collection, and it also serves as a kind of puzzle book. Hoang doesn't overtly reveal the seams between her contributions and the originator's text, leaving the reader to guess when Hoang stepped in and assumed the story's voice. (The fine art edition of Unfinished is an aluminum box "containing each story as an oversized jigsaw puzzle with one piece missing." The missing pieces are provided in a separate, sealed container.) The book is illustrated with drawings begun by one artist and completed by another (Di Blasi is especially fond of the sketch that was started by a 9-year-old), and several half-completed illustrations for the reader to finish.
Within the next year, Jaded Ibis will have published 12 new books, a remarkably ambitious slate for an untested small publisher. Di Blasi knows that, and she doesn't care. Her publishing model doesn't require much cash upfront, so she can float the books she's got and build a reputation. She trusts that the language will speak for itself. "Language is all that we are," she says. "When I read something that's new, I have to become someone else's mind; I have to shift my neurological pathways in order for me to navigate this piece of language. I love that." When she finds something new in a piece of quality fiction, she says, "I'm delighted, and I get smarter and I become a better human being. And I think that's the whole point of art anyway."