the mad heiress interview:
hilal omar al jamal
mh: what’s the genesis of terro(a)r? why did you write it? how autobiographical is it?
hj: i started the collection of poems some 9 years ago. i was just 20 years old then and had a handful of poems and short stories that i thought had some charm, for example the poem avalanche and the short story sign job. under the moniker brother mitya, i was very active in the diy scene doing underground lo-fi singer-songwriter junk—back when that was still cool. however, i was increasingly removing myself from the music scene in order to commit myself more and more to creative writing. why did i write it? i guess i just wanted to introduce myself to people and maybe reflect on or celebrate the first 25 years of my life. while in graduate school at notre dame, especially during the harsh winters, i spent a lot of hours composing (and trashing) a lot of work with a strong autobiographical dimension. i took many creative liberties with the narratives i was crafting out of chunks of my own experiences and experimented with form quite a bit. i spent a lot of time editing and revising the pieces that would make it into the chapbook. i moved to são paulo, brazil after grad school and that’s when i started the final stage, production, providing my beautiful friend kristina collantes with art direction for the illustrations, working on the layout with some assistance from my pal mark gattenuo, fundraising with the support of family, friends, and fans, and finally working out a distribution deal and collaboration with folktale records in los angeles to market terro(a)r as a literary follow-up to the ep i had released in 2010 titled terror.
mh: what role do kristina’s illustrations and your band brother mitya’s songs play in the work?
hj: kristina is one of my closest friends and collaborators. we have contributed a lot to each other’s lives and i’m extremely fortunate to count her among the very few people who have a fixed place in my heart. the terror ep, not to mention my song avalanche, were the result of an aesthetic decision i made to begin writing songs structured like poems rather than like formal songs. the poems came first, and the songs followed. i became increasingly disenchanted with lo-fi, folky music and music in general at the same time that i started reading obsessively—as is typically the case in grad school—both literature and comics again. i became obsessed with the written word and with intermedial art.
[note: kristina collantes is an accomplished visual artist whose work can be seen here.]
mh: the tone of the language seems to be a combination of violence and ecstasy. can you speak to that?
hj: in my mind, the tone is simply one of honesty. terr(o)r is an honest representation of myself as a poet and person—mind you, there’s a lot being said about my worldview in the totally fabricated elements of my narratives. violence and ecstasy: although certainly my style is very different from that of vicente aleixandre, his book la destrucción o el amor (destruction or love) had an important influence on my vision for the energy and argument that i wanted the book to carry. i am the harshest critic of my life, my work, and my vices, but i love myself and the people who have contributed to my violent, ecstatic life experience very intensely. i feel like i haven’t yet written a book that fully conveys that love, but this chapbook is certainly a step in that direction.
mh: what role does surrealism play in conveying particular ideas or feelings in the piece?
hj: i don’t consider my work surreal, nor do i consider it marvelously real or any of that hep jazz. in the book, i make fun of a moment in my life when i was trying to figure out what kind of writer i wanted to be. i think i say that i write in a subter-realist mode or some nonsense like that. i think what i meant to say was that i write in a way that reflects what is below the surface or my reality. i certainly don’t write oneiric, dreamscapes. i write things that are charged with my emotions, my intrusive thoughts, my insecurities, my little traumas, my resentments, my terrors, and of course my love, which is intense enough to strike some sort of pretty balance.
mh: why the use of lowercase throughout the piece?
hj: it started with my insisting on the lower case personal pronoun “i.” i wanted to communicate that my persona, my protagonist, feels small, maybe even a little pitiful. i think, in part, it was a way of saying “i’m not writing this because i feel like a protagonist; i’m writing it in an almost pitiful attempt to render a portrait of myself, an ugly but self-affirming and compassionate portrait of myself. it made sense to me that all of my words should have that same self-conscious character.
mh: how did you begin writing and what motivates you to write?
hj: writing is like music for me. i’ve been doing it since i was a very little kid. my earliest memories are of me writing short stories and playing little songs i’d write on the piano for my parents. i am motivated by impulse. i am an impulsive person: sometimes that has good results and sometimes really gnarly ones. i’ve got an addictive personality, you know. chasing artsy fixes is a real thing for me and actually does help me quiet my anxiety.
mh: do you have a writing schedule that you maintain?
hj: these days i’m so caught up in music for my new project night auditor, not to mention editing and translating, that i can’t really maintain a creative writing schedule. i write impulsively, which is not good. i do, however, have a chapbook project in the works and am slowly but surely adding to that new collection. having a project in mind helps me figure out which ideas i should let go of and which merit taking the time to sit and articulate something relevant to the larger project.
mh: how do you know if an idea is better suited as a song, poem, or short story? do you find that you express different aspects of yourself in these different genres, such that the hilal in print differs from the hilal in music?
hj: i don’t know. it’s all impulse. and yes. i am very different across the board. if you were to put all of my personas in a room together, you’d realize i’m manic. i was a diy kid in outsider folk projects and now i am a soul-singer in an outsider funk/r&b project; i’ve written two chapbooks: one is weirdly autobiographical and the other is obscenely, graphically perverse—my chapbook smut consists of ten sonnets of fetishism inspired by pablo neruda’s sonnets of love. at a glance my artwork might seem to be all over the place, but there is a unifying theme: me. i’m a weirdo, unapologetically so.
mh: you’re also the editor of fine print magazine. how does this role influence your creative writing and song writing? for you, what is significant about fine print?
hj: fine print is one of the coolest things i’ve ever worked on. i am the managing editor, meaning that i work closely with our editor-in-chief christopher payne on finalizing selections, copyediting, and distribution in the midwest. fine print is a community-oriented, newsprint-style literary and visual arts magazine—considering that we circulate 10,000 copies at over a hundred independent bookstores, record shops, and café’s all over the us (including nashville), we don’t quite consider ourselves a small-scale zine). our focus is creative writing and illustration; we do our best to avoid publishing music-oriented content. we want to feature beautiful, well-crafted writing and entertaining, engaging illustrations not only by well-known authors and illustrators—tony millionaire, for example, designed the cover for our latest issue—but more so by up-and-coming artists who already have some notoriety in the diy scene but whose work we feel merits greater attention. each quarter, we feature an artist we feel deserves attention, interviewing him or her and inviting them to provide a rad centerfold illustration for the issue. it’s worth noting that we function like a non-profit. we are funded by ads taken out by organizations and small businesses supportive of diy culture, and we distribute our magazine free of cost with no profits to be gained from either a surplus in ad revenue or from distribution. it’s a very special project aimed at promoting the work of independent literary and visual artists, and we hope to keep it alive as long as possible.
mh: what projects do you have coming up?
hj: i’m currently working on a chapbook titled domestic silence, the summer issue of fine print, and night auditor’s forthcoming ep drugz, a follow-up to our debut release drugzdilla (2015). i also just released a single on folktale records: night auditor’s romance ep. all of my music is available to stream on spotify, itunes, bandcamp, soundcloud, youtube, etc.
mh: i give you a fur-covered pen and fur-covered paper. what next?
hj: we sit quietly and meditate on the death of that kind beast whose fur was used to coat a luxurious pen and whose pelt makes for an impractical writing medium.
mh: you’ve got a one-use time machine, there and back. when and where do you go to? why?
hj: i would go back to when i was a little boy—maybe five years old—at the reseda house. i’d like to just visit myself. not because i want to change things. i would just love to see myself then. maybe i’d introduce myself and, if the moment’s right, i might ask “hilalito, how are you?”. i’d really listen. listen to my little voice. i might say goodbye in this way: “hey, man. look, i have to go now, okay? but i want you to know something and i want you to remember this: i love you, little man. you’re going to go through a lot. everyone does. but, everything will be okay in the end. let life carry you! and if you’re drowning in it, lalito, ¡swim! swim and be brave and you’ll be okay.”
mh: if you lived in la before moving to nashville, how did the city influence your writing?
hj: los angeles is home, and i was bad, little street kid growing up. i mean i was bright and went to magnet schools and all that, but i had a lot of heavy domestic stuff to run away from and my neighborhood was really something else. i mean we’d be skating and getting stupid from the minute school was out until way late. i’m a “valley kid” (san fernando valley) through and through. i haven’t lived in los angeles county for a long time, but it’s home. i’ve been told i’m an l.a. type. i own up to that. that’s my blood and guts. and when i write or sing or perform or whatever, i try to let that shit spill.