Interview with Amy-Jean Muller
Ariana: You are an Emerge Literary Journal favorite, submitting work that hinges on mental illness themes. You’ve been published in three prior issues and now a fourth. David Didn’t Speak was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2020. We’ve been waiting for this moment.
AJM: Firstly, thank you for being such an incredible support to myself and many writers who try to explore themes that might not be easy to read. I was absolutely shocked and humbled when you nominated David didn’t Speak for a Pushcart in 2020. The story was one which I hoped emulated the hopelessness we feel during the ‘breakdown of our breakdowns’ and how everything seems to become nothing even when we have the opportunity to heal.
Ariana: When I Hear a Train tackles the topic of mental illness. What was it like to write this piece?
AJM: When I Hear a Train explores the fragmentation of ourselves as both the observer and the one who has a break with reality. I attempted to illustrate how there is a disassociation which happens in the face of a mental health breakdown, where we are both consciously aware of what is happening as an observer, yet completely helpless as we watch the other part of yourself falling into psychosis. To me, these seem to be in conflict, where the secondary element of our ‘self’, or ‘secondary madness’ attempts to convince every part of our observing consciousness that being alive, is futile. This work attempts to verbalise this moment and was challenging to write, as it needed to be both fragmented and incoherent, while being technically sound. I certainly hope it achieves this.
Ariana: Of the four pieces having been published by Emerge Literary Journal, Promises, David Didn’t Speak, Pocket, and When I Hear a Train, which captures your heart more and why?
AJM: It’s difficult to say which captures my heart, as everything I write is a piece of it illustrated in language. Given that a lot of my work reflects a current state of consciousness, or at least, the observation of such, it’s tough to say which is more ‘me’ because they are all ‘me’ in a sense. I always wonder if my heart will run out one day, when all the pieces have been made into words, and maybe that’s when you stop, but for now, there are a lot more words left to give.
Ariana: What inspired you to write When I Hear a Train?
AJM: I think it’s natural to say catharsis, but I really think writing about teetering on the precipice is more a record for me at times, to remind myself of the road made there so I can venture safely, and help both myself and others comprehend the experience. There is so much about our brains that we are yet to discover, and when things become so rattled, the feeling of ‘difference’ can be compounded by the feeling of ‘misunderstanding.’ For me, the appreciation for the cusp between ‘sanity’ and ‘madness’, helps me to function creatively as well as attempts to support the constant challenge to survive.
Ariana: Name one of your favorite things about someone in your family or a friend.
AJM: To me authenticity is one of the things I value in others and strive to emulate myself. At the moment, I see this quest of ‘self’ and ‘identity’ blooming within my Mother, who depicts the complete opposite of what society would expect from a woman of her ‘age.’ She stands as an example of someone who can overcome, and by doing so, she reinforces who she is in the face of adversity.
Ariana: If someone made a movie about When I Hear a Train, who would you cast as the narrator?
AJM: If When I Hear a Train was made into a short film, which would be amazing, I think both the narration and illustration of the text would be great to include. It would be something that cuts between different styles and approaches in music, sound, text and voice, simply to reiterate the disassociation and disjointed nature of the text. I think several voices speaking would be great to achieve this too. Perhaps together or independently.
Ariana: Do you dance around the room crazy when no one is looking?
AJM: Come to think of it, when I’ve happened upon a great piece of music, I might find myself going a few moves here and there. Oftentimes, I’ll be in hysterics listening to a podcast or comedy, which makes for interesting looks as I travel on my way to work. I find it rewarding to discover new music and find it extremely helpful to get into the flow state I need when writing too.
Ariana: What do you have to say about the power of writing through stigma?
AJM: I think the idea of stigma is an interesting one. As you know I love the etymology of words, especially if they have mythological and religious significance. If you think about Stigma and its origins were borrowed from Latin, where its meaning denotes being marked or branded, much like the stigmata in the crucifixion. If we think of it in that way, it’s not so much the one who is ‘branded’ at fault, rather the one who ‘brands.’
To me, being open about these experiences reinforces our authenticity, and by doing so it helps to change the minds of those who ‘brand’ mental health as somehow bad. Shame repudiates us from our power. And if anyone is familiar with my book ‘Baptism by Fire,’ they will know that the idea of shame is very much replaced with the reclamation of power. So, to write through the stigma of anything is really an act of empathy and love towards ourselves and the ones who brand us. This is because the opposite of love is indifference, and if we are indifferent to our power, then we can’t love ourselves.
Ariana: If you were to create a slogan for your work, what would it be and why?
AJM: It’s tough to create a short line for my work as my branding and marketing brain would go into overdrive trying to get the concept just right! But my work focuses on sexuality, femininity, women’s rights, coming of age, and mental health, so the pieces tend to be quite confrontational. I always hope the most heart wrenching pieces touch people in a way that’ll last long after reading, but there is something which sits on my website which states, “each piece will kick you in the teeth so hard the only thing left to do is shut up and listen,” and I think these words might work as a description of the things I hope to achieve.
Ariana: Name an article of clothing that best describes your writing style.
AJM: I like taking ideas that might not necessarily relate and merge them together in a story which pulls together tightly at the end of each piece. There is often a lot of symbolism and attempted ‘iconographic’ references and associations which might have different meanings for different people which are gleaned from various ideas. If I was to liken this to anything in my closet, perhaps a charm bracelet would be most fitting, where each item holds a story or idea that is precious in meaning yet related through the choice of their position and the interconnectedness of the place in which they exist.
Ariana: What was the most satisfying thing about writing When I Hear a Train?
AJM: Of course, it’s having it find a home with Emerge Literary Journal and to be shared in its entirety with the world and your readers. For me, to step up and be vulnerable is not necessarily a state where we are open to failure, it’s really about being in a position where we are willing to participate in the world in which we all inhabit, and hopefully, through the act of reflection, deliberation, honesty and truth, connect each of us through understanding, empathy and essentially power.
Amy-Jean Muller is an artist, writer and poet from South Africa who lives and works in London. Both her art and writing explore culture, memory, mental health, identity, and sexuality. She has exhibited her art in South Africa and London. Her writing can be found in various publications and is a regular contributor for Versification and The Daily Drunk. She also writes transgressive fiction and is currently completing her first novel. amyjeanmuller.com Twitter: @muller_aj