She is Black and she is queer. On her website, Jill Busby calls herself a writer and film-maker “critiquing, imploding, and barrel-laughing at our personal and communal hierarchies”. Even a cursory glance at her essays and discussions—known for their raw honesty and sharp, insightful analyses of the personal and the political—will make you nod in agreement.
Busby’s provocatively titled debut book, Unfollow Me: Essays on Complicity, a collection of intimate personal narratives, has already triggered a debate on a myriad of issues, including race, sexuality, social media, micro-fame, power and privileges. In an e-interview, Busby spoke to Frontline about the book, and beyond. Excerpts:
You call ‘Unfollow Me’ a collection of essays on complicity. Why complicity?
I wanted to discuss my own involvement, my own intentionality, my own participation in creating and sustaining hierarchy. In this book, complicity is actually a point of connection. Instead of discussing over and over again how I am impacted by my oppression—all that is thrust upon me—and allowing that oppression to either endear me or bond me to the reader, I thought it might be more interesting to connect through my choices instead—all that I thrust upon myself and other people.
I didn’t want to keep lying about the role I play in my own life. I didn’t want to keep assigning blame and pointing fingers. I am responsible for what I have agency over, and I want to be accountable as a full human—to myself and to the people who read me. I find uncomfortable truths and the freedom that facing them comes with to be inspiring.
You write that you want to focus on “what is universal about living in a world that quickly reduces you to either an exception or the rule.” What role does social media play in creating this scenario?
Social media is for entertainment. It enjoys symbols and representation. It sums everything up in a caption. It likes bold statements and viral sentiments. It hates and thrives on contradiction. It sells us on our own desire. It turns culture into costume. It gives us what we ask for, and a bit of what we didn’t. It controls who and what we see more and more all the time. It’s indulgence, peer pressure, and reduction all in one convenient scroll.
A vortex of fear and reaction. When no one is looking, someone is always looking. Observation can change behaviour, so who are we when we know we’re being observed? Can we even be ourselves that way? I don’t think so. If nothing else, I know that when I am posting, I am performing and when I am observing, I am observing a performance. As long as I am aware of that, I don’t have to make more meaning of it than what is necessary.
You discuss micro-fame, the Internet, and so on in your writings. Is micro-fame or even the Internet a trap?
A refusal to acknowledge what micro-fame requires or what the Internet requires is a trap. Lying to one’s self is a trap. The thrill of illusion is a trap. Hiding who we are and what we want from ourselves and others is a trap.
Your Instagram account Jillisblack was extremely popular while it lasted. You were creating content on really important issues, such as race, gender and sexuality. Why did you pick Instagram, a platform known for cat photos and dance videos, and so on for Jillisblack? And this was in 2011!
There were already strong messages there when I started. Cat photos are seen by the people who use Instagram for receiving cat photos. Strong messages are seen by the people who use Instagram for receiving strong messages. Some people want both. And at the time, I liked the accessibility of Instagram. You didn’t have to be a person who liked nonfiction books to receive the message.
But ‘Unfollow Me’ is a book. Why?
Quite simply, I couldn’t continue talking about social media on social media. I needed some distance from it so that content about content didn’t become more content, you know? I also wanted to reach people who wouldn’t run into me online. I tend to be a bit less performative when I write instead of when I speak or sit in front of a camera. This time, the message was about that performance, so I needed to write, instead. And I needed the space to write without a word limit. So, the book.
‘ Unfollow Me’ has a prose that is poetic. It also has chapters (“Fly Home”) that are paragraph- agnostic. Is this experimental style of writing a deliberate choice?
It’s incredibly deliberate. I love poetic prose, and I like to take risks as an artist. I knew that I never wanted to write a book that followed the rules because that’s not what I’m into. I needed the artistic risk to mimic the emotional risk.
You’re queer and an advocate of LGBTQ and Black rights. Do you think digital technologies have offered people like you a better platform to organise and create awareness?
Things that can harm can also help. They just have to be used as tools. Social media can be used as a tool. So, yes. I think it can help with organising and creating awareness. I think that it can help people feel less isolated and more empowered. And yes, there will be misinformation and hate speech and all sorts of other consequences. It can do whatever we do with it. That’s both the benefit and the risk of it. It still comes down to what we do.
What are you reading/watching now?
Right now, I’m working on my second book. So I’m writing more than I’m reading. As far as what I’m watching, Severance, and Years & Years. Oh—and sometimes Married at First Sight, but I’m not supposed to tell anyone about that one ( smiles).
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