Writers Talking About Anything but Writing

An Interview with Jess Rizkallah on Dreams, Tarot, and the Best of TV

Writers Talking About Anything but Writing is a series of interviews in which we ask writers to take a break from trying to document the world and just kinda chill out in it for a while.

Laura Villareal (LV)

You sent me a list of so many exciting topics that I’m not sure where to start. I think I want to put dreams, tarot, and alternate timelines under the umbrella of the esoteric and occult. Time is a unifying chord for all three of those, I think. Do you think dreams are speaking to the past, present, future, or all timelines? How do you go about interpreting meaning from them?

Jess Rizkallah (JR)

I think dreams troll on time all the time, or troll us for being so wound up about time. Or maybe dreams don’t know what time is because when we sleep we’re walking away from time to where dreams are waiting, are still going, and we jump in and out every sixteen hours. Dreams don’t notice because they’ve got fantastic quilting to do.

I’ve been writing down my dreams regularly for the last three years and my recall has improved, as well as my recognition and, like, spatial understanding of my dreams. Whenever I try to draw timelines I just end up with blueprints to a house. I open doors and I’m in the past, I take the stairs and I’m in the future. I go onto the balcony and I’m suspended over everything watching the past, the present, and the future. Everything is upside down and right side up. Everything is connected and happening all at once. Like if you took what Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians see and zigzagged it like red yarn through a dollhouse.

Me and my friend Josh Elbaum talk about dreams like they are timelines that spring into being every night, but we also wonder if maybe they’ve always been their own timelines and we are dipping into the worlds of our dream selves, and when they sleep they are dipping into our worlds. Like what if existence is a mirror! Lots of mirrors! Fun house mazes made of mirrors!

I’ve been having dreams lately where I’m returning to all these scenarios and settings I’ve dreamt before, months or even years before. I’m rewriting? Reliving? But not quite. Time has passed. The dream allows this so that I see how far I’ve come and what I’ve let go of (I tell myself) and I wake up with a clarity I try to hold on to all day. Sometimes I don’t know what meaning to interpret because I wake up cross-eyed feeling like a truck hit me between the eyes and there are cartoon stars floating around my head. But even when the images are concrete there’s still an ambiguity I feel, words I can’t find, but I can feel them. That initial feeling when you wake up: THAT is the meaning of a dream. What fills the gaps in our memories. Like recently I dreamt something where the things that happened didn’t line up with the hope I felt upon waking up. But hope is important because that’s what survived the dream. That’s what I am when I’m awake. I remind myself of this when I wake up unsure what a dream was. The body knows language that it won’t translate into words for us; we gotta meet it halfway and learn something.


Wow! I love that last thing you said about the body having language it won’t translate and meeting it halfway.

Everything you described is fascinating and complex. There are so many theories on why we dream. Freud famously believed that dreams reveal our unconscious desires. Scientists have speculated that we dream to process information and store memories. I read once, somewhere in the middle of an internet research rabbit hole, that some people believe dreams are a glimpse of alternate realities. What do you think?


I think dreams are all those things. Sometimes you really are just stressed and you’re gonna dream about being late for the first day of school. Or the world is scary so you keep having apocalypse dreams. Or you’re feeling twirly and bam a sex dream. Or dreaming is just encoding data. Yes, there are other realities pressing against ours. I love that thought a lot. I’m open to it. Especially when I dream inside the bodies and lives of people who are not me and everything is so linear and almost cinematic. I also believe dreams are where past life memories come through that explain a lot of our conscious aversions or reactions or passions or even connections to people we know, people we meet, people we pass.


The past, future, and present seem so intertwined when you describe dreams. I don’t know a lot about tarot, but it seems like they do similar work of intuiting time. How long have you been reading tarot cards?


I think I got my first deck after losing someone very important to me four years ago and noticing the grief intensify my reactions to things. My friend Ellyn gave me a reading and my brain felt so calm as I listened. Using tarot cards feels like you can touch the basin of water inside you that empties and refills every time you read a poem.

My favorite story about my deck is that the first time I used it, my roommate’s cat was hanging out in my windowsill for like an hour while I was hanging out on my bed. She was just not giving a shit about me. Then I cracked the plastic and took the cards out and I hear a meow and next thing I know she’s come across the room and is sitting right at my side watching me and the cards, purring. Later, I put them away and she went back to the window. I miss that cat.


Everyone has strange fears, but you mentioned you have a fear about watching movies? Is it a fear of watching a genre?


Well my fear is more an aversion. I get super into any media I consume, so when it abruptly ends I’m left feeling very empty and sad!!! A side effect of being a sentimental bitch who sucks at goodbyes, etc. I still watch movies sometimes, but I love TV shows because they kinda just go on forever and tackle a lot and you can keep walking around that world (usually). However, I’m definitely afraid of horror movies. I can’t even watch the previews. I feel like if nudity isn’t allowed to be shown in ads or whatever, why should I be forced to look at shit that’s actually terrible to look at? That would actually give me nightmares????? Am I a giant weenie???? Possibly!!!


TV shows are one of your passions, specifically CW TV shows like Riverdale and Jane the Virgin. If you could be a character in any television show, who would it be and why?


Oh damn, I don’t know. Probably something with lots of magic and mystery and time travel and pithiness. I just watched Umbrella Academy and now I’m obsessed. So actually that’s my answer. I really loved its world building and soundtrack and the futuristic shit mashed into the steampunk-old-timey shit mashed into 2019. Time being pockets. You can live on the moon if you want to. Lots of donuts. New York keeps being New York right until the last note. Birdwatching as courtship and one thousand crooked paintings reaching up to a vaulted ceiling. If you keep searching your own pockets, you’ve got something on you that can save the world. Moral ambiguity. I think we’re alone now. But when will Robert Sheehan text me back?


What would you like to see a TV show about? Would it be a remake of a comic like The Flash or a totally new show about something you don’t see a lot of in television?   


I’d like to see something like Lizzie McGuire or Girls but about Arab-American girls. I’d love to write it myself. There’d be a scene where her dad helps her put in her earring after it fell out and he’s kind of clumsy about it so she winces and he quietly recalls how bothered he was when she was a baby and they took her to get her ears pierced and her little baby face winced in pain. Then the earring clicks and he kisses the top of her head and goes to work. That happened to me today, that’s my memory. I love my dad.

Laura Villareal and Jess Rizkallah

Jess Rizkallah is a Lebanese-American writer and illustrator. She is an NYU MFA graduate, a Kundiman fellow, and editor-in-chief at pizza pi press. Her full-length collection The Magic My Body Becomes was a finalist for The Believer Poetry Award and won the 2017 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize as awarded by the Radius of Arab-American Writers and University of Arkansas Press. Find her at jessrizkallah.com.

Laura Villareal earned her MFA from Rutgers University-Newark. She is the author of The Cartography of Sleep (Nostrovia! Press). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Palette Poetry, Black Warrior Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere. She has received scholarships from Key West Literary Seminar and The Highlights Foundation.


Art credit: Pixabay