Jay Ponteri, On The Year My Entire World Turned Upside Down

Jay Ponteri standing against a white wall.

Heaven-Leigh Carey (hvnly): 1989 is a big year for nostalgia. I wasn’t alive then, maybe the air was crisper, the stars brighter—I mean, something had to be happening for the ‘80s to maintain status as a juggernaut aesthetic. Those in the center of the Dismantle readers and Taylor Swift fans Venn diagram already know about 1989 and 1989 (Taylor’s Version), but we are honored to present 1989 (Jay Ponteri’s Version). 

Something about your recollections makes me think this is how a crow would write if we taught one how to use a typewriter. When we traveled to Philly together in 2023, I remember you showing up one day with a collection of Polaroids you had taken of the city on one of your walks, snippets of what you were seeing, things that interested you. Some of them were blurry like you had taken them at full speed as you passed. They were fantastic, and I learned a little bit about how your mind works by viewing those photos: what you see and how you process it. But your writing is a deeper look into how you code memories for long-term storage. 

What about the year 1989 inspired your reflective writings? How old were you in 1989? Did you have frosted tips? And were your jeans high-waisted?

Jay Ponteri: I was 18 years old. In the fall of 1989, I moved away from my childhood home in Mishawaka, Indiana, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I moved from a small town with very few people of color to a very diverse, albeit segregated, inner city. Two months into this move, away from my parents for the first time, the Berlin Wall came down. This was a momentous global event that many of us who weren’t in Eastern and Central Europe watched on TV. I became a Democrat that semester as I began to witness, then join in, the protests advocating for Marquette University—the school I attended—to disinvest all of its money from the apartheid state of South Africa. (Nelson Mandela was four months away from being released after spending 27 years incarcerated.) I stopped going to “concerts” and began going to “shows.” My entire world turned upside down, yet we were still within the decade that Ronald Reagan pulverized a significant amount of America’s social safety net, still within an AIDS epidemic that the governments of the global north were attempting to avoid through the vilification/marginalization of gay men. Spilled oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez—this occurred in the spring of 1989—continued to murder all sorts of sea and land creatures in and around Prince William Sound, Alaska. 1989 was the year my individuated eyes opened to the reality of the violence of the American project. Richard Linklater and his friends were dreaming of and/or making the film Slacker

I didn’t have access to cable television in my dorm room, but this was the video I wanted to see on MTV: REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Those relegated to the underground during the very conservative ‘80s were finding their way to the surface. 1989 was the year my parents divorced. It was the year I discovered the cafe and the bookstore, the year I read Beloved by Toni Morrison. And it should be noted that most of the year wasn’t like this.

In terms of my jeans, I wore them pretty loose, stone-washed, and I did have a mullet haircut (and nobody called it that yet), and mostly I wore T-shirts procured at concerts and shows and record stores. 

By the way, I only recently discovered that Taylor Swift had a record called 1989 (which I love! I’m a Swiftie!), and I realize that my 1989 pieces, the ones collected here, are pushing into a nostalgic experience, but I am also hoping they get at other kinds of experience too. I write from an experience of grief, as in, this entire way of living and being in the world has ceased to exist in a short period of time. I don’t exactly want to return to this world, but it still exists inside me, and I’m not sure what to do with it.

These pieces—many not included here, not yet ready to publish—also inventory the privileges that attend analog life amid whiteness, middle-class American, and manhood. I’m aware these pieces are hitting some of the same notes, but I have drafted other, still unfinished, fragments that speak more directly to the stifling political climate created by white America, in particular, the tyrannical global reign of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, along with some of the horrific violence that occurred in the early ‘90s, e.g., the acquittal of the cops who tried to murder Rodney King (and their eventual acquittal), the Oklahoma City bombing, Bush War 1, etcetera. As I write this, I understand how the pieces I’m making focus on the ordinary and that attention to the ordinary is meant to show, to paraphrase Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe, the slow violence of things.  

hvnly: You mention that you hope you are pushing into other kind of experiences, too, besides nostalgia, and you manage that brilliantly. There is very little about your teenage experience that mirrors my own, yet the stories you tell are achingly familiar. But wait, is that just nostalgia? Oh no, is it all just nostalgia all the time? Maybe once we hit a certain age, nostalgia just comes naturally. We don’t even have to aim for it, it’s just how we categorize the world after a certain point. When we’re young (and what even is young?), everything is about to happen, just ahead of us. But there are only so many new experiences one can have, and everything under the sun has been done before, so eventually, we taste the same flavor in everything we do and see and read and want. I don’t know! 

When I hit 30, I learned that everything I had been told about my 20s was a lie, and I wasn’t supposed to get anything done that decade (thank God!); but it also felt like all I could do was look back (wistfully/angrily/forlornly) and compare everything I was doing to something I had already done. 

In “Nobody’s home except the person knocking on the door,” I sense more of your present concerns than in your other pieces. Not that I doubt you were a self-aware young man—you are a stoutly intelligent person. I know from conversations we’ve had how acutely aware you are of the lasting legacy of white supremacy in this country, the echoes you mention: 

I was a white American boy tethered to an excess of inherited cultural shame that was, unbeknownst to me, the result of the TransAtlantic Chattel Slavery and the murderous foundations of the country in which I lived. I didn’t know I was contributing to the ongoing stealing of land from the Neshnabe Peoples but my body knew and it felt ashamed. 

This piece begins like the others but ripples outward/forward in time to what I imagine presently-adult-Jay thinks about. Do you find that your memories of youth have been deeply impacted by this knowledge, like in the guilt you mention being both unaware and aware of?

JP: I like what you say about nostalgia, that it’s a way we process/name the present world. We use memory to encounter the sweet ache that seems to be absent in our present lives. And I do connect nostalgia with grief, loss, making visible what is absent, becoming a ghost and haunting our past selves. The danger of that sweet ache is it somehow romanticizes the past, projecting a false picture, and whiteness does this—engaging romance to erase the story of those oppressed and telling/reifying the “victor’s” story, which is actually the oppressor’s story. Admittedly, I’m not sure if any of these pieces work because they’re so new. I don’t necessarily want them to be about whiteness, but I do want the writing to make whiteness visible. Daisy Hildyard’s incredible novel Emergency does this; she occasionally acknowledges whiteness/white privilege, even as the novel mostly explores childhood memories of an immersively engaged interdependence, human children as part of, not separate from, the natural world. 

In response to your second good question, my reflection about anti-black racism, my pretty much constant reading of black writers, has been, continues to be, one of the great gifts in my life. I don’t want the work to express guilt because that’s another form of whiteness centering itself, but I do want to name the whiteness, which, for me, includes the complex assimilation of Southern-Italian American immigrants into whiteness that my parent’s generation or perhaps mine completed. Getting it right on the page, I think, is a tonal problem, a syntax problem, just the kind of problems I love to solve, and of course, this more technical thinking is linked to lots of reflection, humility, and listening, for holding space for unprotected demographics. 

The gift, by the way, is the truth, is the way truth can liberate one towards a more consistent practice of self-love, which echoes something James Baldwin said, paraphrasing here—white people needing to learn how to love ourselves, and the basis for that love—perhaps for all love?—exists in speaking and living in the truth. 

Part of what we have to do is learn to identify/reckon with the truth and receive it in our bodies without it activating shame because shame, which is a form of self-loathing, can so easily push one back into a defensive posture, into centering one’s own emotional experience in place of seeing this emotional experience connected with so many other beings and non-being beings. Believe me, I’m asking myself right this moment—what does any of this have to do with screening calls? Perhaps I might figure it out, or perhaps it happens within the mind of the reader. Or perhaps these pieces will come up short. 

hvnly: Oh no, I wouldn’t say these pieces come up short. I’m so pleased with the ones you opted to share with us. Not all of them are about whiteness; but once it was brought up, I did find myself re-reading the previous stories, searching between the lines to see if they spoke to the experience of whiteness and white privilege, albeit less obviously. Though, maybe that’s one of the many illusions that shield white privilege from plain sight—I can assume a story is just a story until it’s revealed that race and privilege are The Point™. As white North Americans, we are remarkably unchallenged when it comes to our reading comprehension. 

As you mention, you’re always reading, and you work very hard to make sure you aren’t only reading white men (who—and no hate to white men, some of my best friends are white men, but—write about the most basic moral revelations they had late in their lives as if entire groups of people subjected to various forms of oppression hadn’t been thinking complexly about morality since the age of like nine). What are some of those works you’ve read that have troubled nostalgia for you and made you reflect more critically on life in 1989 (and all the years before and after and presently and those to come still)?

JP: White writers tend to avoid encountering race, whiteness in their works, and it may or may not be linked to their reading practice of only reading white writers, that is, not reading native writers, black writers, latinx writers, Arab American writers, Asian American writers and writers who live in the global south. Jess Row wrote a book called White Flights, taking some white writers to task for making works that avoid any exploration of race in America. And I think any good memory-based work has to trouble nostalgia, has to work through/beyond that sweet ache to reveal all the contradictory feelings and conditions that attend the grief experience. 

One of the best books I have ever read—I do not say this lightly—is Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes. I have already reread it multiple times, and with every read, it continues to reveal its many beauties, its intensive depths of feelings and ideas, and its countless formal innovations. 2023 has been an incredible year for nonfiction. In addition to Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes, there is Cristina Rivera Garza’s Liliana’s Invincible Summer: A Sister’s Search for Justice and Dark Days: Fugitive Essays by Roger Reeves. Both are just beautiful, revelatory works. That these three books were released within a six-month period makes me so grateful to be a reader in this 2023 moment.

hvnly: Yes, I knew you would have stellar recommendations for us! Thank you so much, Jay, for sharing your writing with us. While we may not reach the same corners of the world as that other 1989, I think a lot of readers will find something familiar in your writings and hopefully trouble their own nostalgic impulse in the process. It’s been such a pleasure to chat with you, as always! Thank you, friend. 

JP: Heaven-Leigh, thank you so much for these questions, for reading and thinking about my work, too, and happy reading to you!

hvnly is a recent graduate living in the PNW. Her work allows her to justify reading and watching science fiction of all kinds, and her passion for the genre and its ability to help sculpt the future gives her plenty to think and write about. Bored with hopeless pessimism, hvnly advocates for radical community care as a tonic necessary for change. She lives with a small goblin.
Jay Ponteri directed the creative writing program at Marylhurst University from 2008-2018 and is now the program head of PNCA’s Low-Residency Creative Writing program. His book of creative nonfiction Someone Told Me was published by Widow+Orphan House, 2021. He’s also the author of Darkmouth Inside Me (Future Tense Books, 2014) and Wedlocked (Hawthorne Books, 2013), which received an Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction. Two of Ponteri’s essays, “Listen to this” and “On Navel Gazing” have earned “Notable Mentions” in Best American Essay Anthologies. His work has also appeared in many literary journals: Gaze, Ghost Proposal, Eye-Rhyme, Seattle Review, Forklift, Ohio, Knee-Jerk, Cimarron Review, Tin House, Clackamas Literary Review, While teaching at Marylhurst, Ponteri was twice awarded the Excellence in Teaching & Service Award. In 2007, Ponteri founded Show:Tell, The Workshop for Teen Artist and Writers, now part of summer programming at Portland's Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC.org) on whose Resource Council he serves. He lives in Portland, Oregon. Headshot courtesy of Alice Duffy.