Talking Writing and Activism with Jarrod S. Chlapowski

I met Jarrod in an online forum dedicated to the “punk” literary genres — steam, diesel, clock, etc. Our stories have been published in various Writerpunk Press anthologies, and when I posted that I was looking for veterans to interview, he stepped forward.

J. S. Chlapowski served in the Army for five years as a Korean linguist, and trained at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, California, before moving on to Texas, then Korea, then Ft. Lewis, Washington. He finished his enlistment in 2005 and immediately began work as an activist and lobbyist, focusing on the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ He now teaches English overseas while taking time to develop himself as a writer. His writing has been featured on Huffington Post, Truthdig, and in a number of anthologies. His first novel, A Light in the Void, will be published by Inkshares (https://www.inkshares.com/books/a-light-in-the-void).

Q: You mentioned that you “generally avoid promoting my veteran status.” I’d really like to unpack that. What does that mean, both as an author, and in everyday life?

A: It means I really have no connection to the military anymore, and don’t think it’s fair to imply that I do. I think the moment that really hit home was when I went to a barbeque hosted by an old Army buddy. I was one of the few civilians present and half of the conversations were complete gibberish to me. I think once you lose touch with a community’s jargon, you really have very little connecting you to it. So I don’t. Connect myself to it, that is.

I also hesitate to call myself a veteran author. I feel like it’s cheap, cashing in on public sympathy in order to sell stories or books. I didn’t go to Iraq or Afghanistan. I didn’t join to be a hero. I just wanted money for school and easy access to an awesome language school, with the chance to travel on the government’s dime for five years, and I got exactly that. I don’t think many veterans deserve the hero-worship in current American dialogue. I definitely don’t. So I’d rather just keep that part out.

Q: You mentioned, also, that you HAVE used your veteran status while doing activism to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Can you talk a bit about that — what your activities were?

A: So, very briefly: I was heavily involved in the repeal, starting with some of the grassiest roots activism the movement had yet seen, moving up to become a lobbyist for the Human Right’s Campaign on behalf of the issue, then leading the entire field movement behind repeal. I wouldn’t have been able to do any of that if I didn’t have the credibility that being a gay veteran gave me. So I used my status as a veteran for a cause I felt was just, and after we won, I stopped.

Q: Do the themes and topics discussed above ever show up directly in your writing? Do you approach them in other ways? Or are they areas you choose to avoid in your creative work? And why?

A: When I first started writing, I wrote a few memoir-y pieces for HuffPo and a few other sites. They weren’t getting much play and I felt guilty writing them. Sure, I had some great experiences and had seen things that few have had the opportunity to see. But had I earned a memoir? After a great bit of soul-searching, I decided that I had not, and instead I try to channel those experiences into fiction. My writing now is a lot more interesting as a result, without the guilt.

Q: What are some of the common narratives concerning veterans that you’ve seen in the news/entertainment media? Do they coincide with your own themes? If you could choose to expand the range/variety of veteran stories, what themes/aspects would you choose, and why?

A: I think the media likes to frame veterans as unsung heroes who would never dare ask you to give them any credit for whatever sacrifice you imagine they make, but deserve it all the same, and more. And somehow all that sacrificing makes us unable to adapt to the civilian world and given us all a bad case of PTSD that will inevitably end in tragedy. It’s frustrating, and, again, a big reason why I don’t like to call myself a veteran unless I have to.

I think fixing that narrative isn’t the easiest, as it’s part of the larger military-civilian divide issue that is only getting worse each year. I’ve written a few posts about it on HuffPo, with simple requests like to stop thanking me for my service every other goddam second. The response from veterans was mostly in agreement. However, civilians took the posts incredibly defensively, and called me ungrateful and claimed I didn’t represent the majority of the military. The public likes us to be uncomplicated. We need to make the public uncomfortable if we’re to get anywhere close to where we should be.

Q: Who are some fellow military/veteran writers you might recommend? What makes you recommend them?

A: Kayla Williams. I went to school with her at DLI, and she does an incredible job conveying the deployed female Army experience. Plus she’s by far one of my favorite people.

Thanks once again to Jarrod for coming to talk writing and activism!

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