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[interview]

Jessia

The Truth in the Joke

By Amal Alhomsi
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F

all, as a noun, is one of the sincerest words in the English language, as it is, be it the season or the vertical drop of a body of water, a word which is nothing more than the thing itself– a fall. Of course, many words in the English language retain the same characteristic, which is what we call deverbal nouns; nouns that are derived from actions. However, fall’s uniqueness is in its self-determination because it is a word that affirms itself only through a continuation of being the thing itself. Meeting Jessia made me realize that people can be deverbal nouns, too. From his laurel-colored eyes to the black flag he carries, everything about Jessia can only be described as Jessiaesque. He is so starkly himself that during our conversation, which Jessia showed up to without any make-up or special uniform, a European man came out of nowhere and said to him, “You are very cool, can I take some pictures of you?” In the hour and a half that followed, Jessia meandered through politics, art, history, and humor. He is one of the founders of the infamous Overheard in Banff, he’s the face-painted pirate loudly dancing on his bike downtown, and he’s the gentle-hearted community consultant who volunteers his time to safe-walk people home. 

 

We met under a small, rusty umbrella outside of a coffee shop. The July rain had emptied the streets & patios, but I was too absorbed in the conversation to notice my wet shoes. Jessia might dress like a pirate, but he speaks like a professor. “Banff is steeped in mythology,” he said while looking at a light-mottled Rundle mountain, “it is visually, culturally, politically, and legally distinct. It is the first Canadian municipality in a national park, and the way we are defined in our incorporation agreement makes us sound a lot like feudal serfs.” American ecocritic, Alison Byerly, agrees when she writes that “what we call nature or wilderness is a fiction, a cultural myth” (Harlod 53). Notions of “virgin lands” & “untouched wilderness” are delusions the early Europeans had which we cannot afford to believe today. Research has already shown how for thousands of years indigenous cultures have been shaping the landscape through controlled fires that facilitated bison hunts. And ecologists, such as Bill McKibben in his book The End of Nature, have argued that due to climate change & pollution there is not a place on earth or in the ocean that remains “untouched” by humans. Even the highest peaks in the Rockies are not as wild as you might think. Sid Marty, Banff’s previous warden, laments “the rapid melting of some Alberta glaciers has released persistent organic pollutants like PCB, DDT, and other poisons, which were deposited on the ice as airborne toxins two decades ago… The higher up the mountains, the greater the concentration of these toxins” (107). Hence, the nascent coining of the latest geological epoch as the Anthropocene– the human epoch. As for the feudal serfs comment, what Jessia was referring to is The Need to Reside policy that is defined on the Town of Banff website as follows: “To live in Banff, you need to work in Banff.” The policy is justified on the grounds that it “ensures housing is available to people in the community and not used as vacation properties.” The problem, however, is in the definition of the word “work.” Who decides what passes as a legible form of work. Is work only constituted by the self-serving hospitality sector, or are artists and TikTokers considered workers, too? If you follow Jessia’s social media, you’ll find that such issues are at the core of his activism. “If I wanted to reshape the political formation,” he said, “I want the decision makers to be the people actually running the show. I want things to be run by and for workers,” he paused, “I am a socialist!” But Jessia’s views are much more nuanced than the blind anarchy often associated with zealous socialists. He continued:

“There is a lot of earnestness in the Town, and people are doing the best they can. As far as municipalities go, the Town of Banff is doing a hell better than a lot of places in Alberta… The way we see power expressed and formulated strikes me as complete hogwash – everyone talks about the town and council beating us down. Council oversees a small budget, and it’s important stuff, but power here is in the ownership class– the people who own the land and property.”

 

To understand Jessia’s revolutionary revelations, it is better to place him first in the context of his past:

“I’ve been in Banff for five years. I came after withdrawing from grad school. I was studying communications and cultures… I was specifically interested in 4chan culture, then shifted to studying emergency management policy… This province has the distinct honor of having about half of all extreme weather events in Canada. So there is a lot of emergencies here. And I have never seen a mountain before. I’ve never seen the prairies. I slowly made my way to Banff because I heard that’s where the mountains and the young people are, and the jobs, O the jobs! I heard they fell off trees here.”

Jessia was able to find a job within the first 48 hours of his arrival, but an incident occurred at his work place that woke him up to the realities of working in Banff:

“I ran into some particular things that left a stark first impression – it sparked a fire in me that never went out… I knew a lady that was living in staff accommodation next to a friend of mine, and nobody really knows anybody when they move here… My friend had a knock on her door from the neighbour, and her neighbour said: ‘I don’t know anyone here. I just moved here, and my partner is on a lot of coke punching holes in the wall and destroying my stuff and I don’t know what to do.’ So my friend just gathered everyone in her housing unit and they went over and stuck around to make sure she was safe until the situation was resolved and the cops came… What is really striking is that the company kicked both her and her partner out– so they kicked a survivor of domestic abuse into the streets, which is absurd, and so I ran to HR and made a bunch of noise about it, and it took them longer than it should to take any action… They allowed her eventually to move back but she had already gone to stay with her family– the damage was done!”

The incident stirred Jessia into the role he plays today and encouraged him to create the resources he saw lacking: “People are tired of being in a campus town without campus resources. Where is the safe-walk program? Where is the drug testing? Where is the STI clinic?” With the transient nature of a ski town and the turnover of student summer jobs, Banff resembles a college town without the college. But, as many forget, we do have a college. The Banff Arts Center was established in 1933 as the Banff School of Drama. “It’s a campus,” said Jessia, “there should be students and programs that people can have access to… a lot of artists talk about the 80s & early 90s as this golden era. There was a really distinct culture and it was at the forefront of a lot. People came from all over the world to this vibrant campus that actually had people on it –it felt busy– you go now and it’s a ghost town. It has all this infrastructure for nobody!” Artists in the Bow Valley, some of whom are featured in this magazine, have no option but to turn their living space into their work office. The lack of studios and creative spaces discourages many from pursuing a livelihood in what they love most. Artistic freedom is as important of a right as any, and without the ability to express the self on a personal level, we become much more hesitant to articulate it publicly. Jessia continued, “if you want to get recording time at the Banff Center it is extremely unaffordable and it led to a recording studio opening up in the industrial area where they offer affordable recording sessions. We are filling these gaps because people are wanting these resources despite it being up there literally looking down at us from a hill.” 

One of the most known resources that Jessia gave this town is the facebook community group Overheard in Banff. It started as an idea by a group of front desk workers who wanted to share their work stories with each other, then other hotels and businesses started jumping on board, and now the group has 15,000 subscribers. 

“People often say it’s the community’s shit posting group, but through that shit posting group we’ve gotten community skating rinks; we managed to reverse decisions passed by town. It’s a group run by and for the community. All resort communities have facebook groups without fail– Whistler, Big White, Jasper– but ours is distinct from others where we’re not run by resort marketing staff.”

However, the group has often been critisized for becoming too political, to which Jessia responded,

 

“as a queer person there is no choice but to be politicized, and I don’t understand when people try to separate politics from anything online. Facebook is a politicized platform– it is run by capitalists. There is no way around politics. I get that you are there for the humor or to find your lost dog, which is fine, but also don’t get upset when it gets political, because life is political.” 

True to his word, Jessia’s life, from his identity to his art, is politicized. If you ever walk around Banff, you must have seen the black flag fluttering down its streets. “It is very jarring to see a dude dressed as a jester dancing on a bike with a gigantic black flag while playing revolutionary European anthems and old folk songs.” But if you’re wondering what the flag means, then you’re not the only one. “I’ve been having the same conversation about my flag maybe 50 to 80 times a day.” The flag, like Melville’s Moby-Dick, is interpreted endlessly. While Melville made his whale large enough to contain all possibilities of meaning, Jessia made his flag black enough to absorb all scrutiny:

 

“I like the range of guesses. I had a muslim guy asking if it was for mourning or for war, and yes, kind of both. I’m definitely mourning the loss of people. In Lethbridge, while helping in harm reduction, some of the people I handed granola bars to in the streets are now dead, and that’s what amounts to a state facilitated democide. The black flag is pretty in your face– it screams anti-authority, it screams pirate- pirate is my favorite guess because it connects me to my heritage. My father is from the Azores– a small cluster of islands in the middle of the ocean, and the Portuguese are fishermen, traders, slavers, or pirates. The flag is the closest I’ve gotten to connecting to my heritage in any meaningful sense… I like to think I am adding to the vibrancy of the place, but performance does not come naturally to me. I was afraid to dance & hug my friends when I moved to Banff. I had to break out of my shell.”

 

There was much more I wanted to know about Jessia. I wanted to ask about his writing career, about his make-up process, about his job as a consultant, but the rain was now soaking our backs. Before we parted, I asked Jessia if there was anything he wanted to add, and he said, “I guess it’s the actual lived experience on the other side of this, some people don’t really see. I feel like I’m very much out there, but I don’t think people really recognize that I’m pretty lonely,” he paused, “I have my own struggles.” Names do define us, but, as Oscar Wilde knew, they also trap us. If you see Jessia on the streets, talk to him, ask him questions, give him a hug, and, if you have time, ask him why he loves frogs so much! 

Sources:

1- Harold, and Cheryll Glotfelty. “The Picturesque Aesthetic and the National Park System.” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, University of Georgia Press, 1996. 

2- Marty, Sid, and Bernadette McDonald. “Ecological Integrity.” Extreme Landscape: The Lure of Mountain Spaces, National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C., 2002.