Jackson, who is fifty-five, grew up in Berkeley, California. She was a shy child, and her shyness manifested not as a speech impediment, per se, but as a dread of talking. Specifically, she said, as we settled into her living room and the sky outside darkened, she had a fantasy of speechlessness. “This is so gruesome, but it was a pleasant fantasy—that I might have my tongue cut out,” she confessed. “That I would wear, like, a piece of slate hanging around my neck with a piece of chalk dangling from it so I could write down what I wanted to say.” She added, “There was something about the pace of speech and the self-consciousness that was induced in me by people’s attention that made it impossible for me to frame a thought, or even imagine how it could be done.” One of the problems, she said, was that her vocabulary wasn’t playground-appropriate. It was bookish, sesquipedalian. As the headmistress in “Riddance” says, recalling her girlhood, “My style was scarcely juvenile. If anything, it was senescent, with the gaseous orotundity of an earlier era.”
Eventually, Jackson learned to think of speaking “as a kind of writing out loud,” and so “this handicap turned into my advantage,” she explained. I thought of an excerpt from the “Principles of Necrophysics”: “It is hard to believe that stuttering and stammering were ever regarded as speech impediments.”
Jackson was dressed in short shorts and a tank top that made visible several of her tattoos. An ampersand on her upper arm was acquired in her early twenties, when it served, she said, as a “declaration of fealty to the principle of plurality—not being willing to allow myself to be reduced to one identity or project, one art form.” In the decades since, she has made good on this declaration (and continues to sign off her e-mails with “”). Jackson is perhaps best known for an ongoing project called “Skin,” in which the words of a short story are tattooed, one by one, on volunteers, who then, as Jackson sees it, themselves become the story’s words. More than ten thousand people have applied to take part in the project since it began, in 2003; Jackson has accepted 1,875 of them. As she writes on her Web site, the participants in “Skin” are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear but as its embodiments: “Only the death of words effaces them from the text.” Many of the volunteers are total strangers to Jackson, yet she pledges that she “will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.”
It is unsurprising that a writer so in thrall to the mystery and materiality of things should also be known as one of the pioneers of electronic literature. Jackson’s experiments include “The Doll Games” (2001), which catalogues the childhood improvisations of her and her sister Pamela, complete with a florid introduction by a fictitious academic, J. F. Bellwether. “Patchwork Girl” (1995) is a non-chronological, hyper-textual rengagement with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” in which readers chooses their own virtual circuits through the text by jumping between links. (It is available to purchase in the corporeal form of a CD or USB drive.) Like “Patchwork Girl,” “My Body: A Wunderkammer” (1997), is an electronic, disembodied text thematically preoccupied with the human form. In an essay in “The Bloomsbury Handbook of Electronic Literature,” from 2017, Jackson invited people to consider reading “Moby-Dick” on an iPhone:
We gain a sense of the sleekness of water, of the depths concealed
beneath its bright and changing surface, and above all its
reflectivity, so important to Melville that he positioned the story of
Narcissus in his first paragraph. (So it is not a simple matter of one
medium being better or worse, more evocative or less, than another.
Different matter, different meaning.)
We lose, on the other hand, all the weight of the whale. We lose the
feeling of dissecting its great mass, slice by slice. We lose our
tactile measure of our slow progress through it.
Hypertext flourished in the mid- to late nineties the Internet’s quixotic teen-hood. Now that the Internet has entered bilious middle age, the future-facing genre seems curiously dated. Jackson admitted that the potential of the Internet still intrigues her. “But its reality has become so overwhelming that it kind of nauseates me,” she said. She is not on Twitter; her Web site, called Ineradicable Stain, remains an ornery, playful cabinet of curiosities rather than the self-promotional placeholder expected of contemporary writers. There is no ingratiating “About Me” section, for example, but, instead, a page with the existential header “Who Is Is,” subtitled “self-pollution.” Her most recent online project is a meandering short story told in Instagram posts of words traced in snow: ephemerality made permanent in the ether of a social-media app.