The Devil is Always Whispering

The Literary Kitchen’s Ariel Gore Talks to Narrow River, Wide Sky Author Jenny Forrester about Writing through What Haunts Us

 
On the Colorado Plateau between slot canyons and rattlesnakes, Jenny Forrester grew up with her mother and brother in a single-wide trailer proudly displaying an American flag…
The lyrical Western memoir she’s created from her memories has been called “an unsentimental portrait of small-town Colorado, a formative environment that both oppressed her and shaped her identity.” 
Jenny Forrester knows how to write about place.
Forward Reviews says, “Forrester doesn’t gloss over the difficult parts of her life, but rather tells stories of how that adversity formed a stronger individual.”
Jenny Forrester knows how not to gloss things over.
Many Literary Kitchen writers know Jenny as a student here, as the quiet force behind Portland’s Unchaste Readers Series—and we’ll soon know her as a teacher, too.
Jenny Forrester is breaking ground.
 
How long did it take you to write Narrow River, Wide Sky?
Twenty years to the final draft before publication.

 

Was there anything in taking that time that, in hindsight, feels particularly valuable?

The most valuable part really does seem to be all those years – I had to live and learn and it all took all that time. I wish it hadn’t.

 

The notion of what a memoir can be has changed so much in recent years—is still changing. What are your thoughts on memoir versus fiction in terms of your own creative expression and the stories you want to tell?

Fictionalizing is kind of what memory does. I mean, I’m not a neuroscientist or anything, but memory is a tricky thing. Even vision is tricky.

Stories are tricky, so if we say it’s all fiction, maybe we’re more honest, but I also know the patriarchy loves for us not to believe our memories, not to believe our stories.

I want to tell stories that matter, that could speak to power, that could tear down big men and bring up little women or show the truth that those men aren’t big and those women aren’t little and maybe gender is a fallacy, but patriarchy wants it not to be so it all seems to matter still. There needs to be a certain amount of fiction involved to topple them and bring ourselves and others up. So I trust memory, too. I trust that putting memory to the page matters. So mote it be.

 

As a small-town girl who has lived in the city for much of your life now, and as someone who grew up in conservative country but writes from a progressive, feminist perspective, what do you see as your unique insight into the multi-layered America we’re living in?

I love this question. I’m always thinking of myself as a small-town girl, as someone who’s been, and been among, the conservative mindset. It never feels like I’m safely progressive, fully feminist—the edge is always so close. I guess that’s unique—that I stand on the precipice and never really see things are changing for Them even though I’m part of a different We now. If that makes sense.

 

I mean, How did this Trump thing happen?

Maybe we don’t progress. We learn, we grow. To go back to the source of my understandings of things—the devil is always whispering and hissing. He never ceases to speak in that slithering way. He never rests.

 

One really interesting thing you do from a craft perspective in Narrow River, Wide Sky is the way that you move through time. Did you outline those movements and transitions or do you work more intuitively?

I can’t outline. That might be helpful, but I draw a lot—maps and circles and pies. I learned that from you. The pie thing. Moving through time is like this—sometimes we’re flying along having fun but the horrors are time-slowing.

I gave more words to the slow movements and fewer when I wanted to speed it up—like running. When you sprint, you take many more steps. When you want to cover distance, you stretch out those strides— fewer steps between mesas and mountains to close up the distance.

 

Kirkus calls the book, “A modest, thoughtful memoir that traces hard-won liberation from the past.” How important is liberation from the past? Do you think it’s possible?

I don’t know. Maybe we’re so much a part of the past and the steps we’ve already taken—we keep looking back to see what’s chasing us because it does seem something always is.

We can grow, we can change, we can move and all, but we live where our imprisonments happened or where the imprisoners live, if you will make allowances for that metaphor.

The places that trapped us, the places we left and we keep looking back like, seriously, did you SEE that? That’s how it is for me. Maybe other people can move on without looking back. I’m not them. I just know shapeshifting is temporary. Mostly, we maintain the forms we were born to.

 

So do you think you’re more or less haunted by the past for writing about it?

I used to believe there was some true answer, some redemptive piece of information I could find. Now, though. I do feel less haunted by the things I wrote about. But there are so many things I didn’t include so I am still working on those hauntings. I’m haunted by so much. I suppose we all are. I’m for facing ghosts. I’m for seeking solace. I’m for seeking freedom. I’ll continue.

 

Jenny Forrester’s debut memoir Narrow River, Wide Sky (Hawthorne Books, 2017) is available wherever books are sold. 

Revolutionary Mothering: An Interview In Letters

 well, theresa turned eight years old last week.  and i have backpacked through tear gas and couchsurfed through revolutions.  i have also cried harder and longer in fear and anger and loneliness, more than i could have ever imagined possible.  i have been more scared and more fearless, loved harder and had bones broken and pride broken and god, its been weary. i did what i wanted, but im not sure if id truly knew the price this world would extract for doing so, if i still would have done it.

–Mai’a Williams

Sarah Maria Medina

12/04/2015 Sunday

S.C.D.L.C, Chiapas, México

Dear Mai’a,

I’m writing to you from barrio Guadalupe, from a little house that rests alongside the road that runs past the farm lands. For the past few nights, after my daughter slept, I read chapters from your book, Revolutionary Mothering, all the while firecrackers popping off from the church up the hill. As I read the essays, poems and plays by the different mamas included in the anthology, I found myself humming, snapping, nodding, “Yes, damn, yes.” Someone was finally saying the words I’ve been searching for, and I was so filled with emotion, because, at the same time I was feeling so blessed to hold all these powerful mama stories in my hands, I was grieving the absence of this book from when I was a teenager. Grieving back to when at eighteen, I looked out on my future, and had to decide whether or not to keep my first pregnancy. Only fathered by my Puerto Rican pops weekends and summers, raised by a white mother on a riverboat, I was well politicked on feminist abortion rights, but so badly needed to hear about reproductive integrity, about the racism in overpopulation discourse, about the forced sterilization of Indigenous and Puerto Rican women. I found these discourses, but not until later, and they were articles that I came across because I searched hard for them through old microfilms at Hunter in New York, when I was looking at the Young Lordettes’ histories (the women of the Young Lords). I wish that your anthology had existed then, and am so hopeful for all the mamas who will find this book in their future. – I just had to pause my letter to you, and run up to our little herb garden, from where my daughter was calling me. “Mama,” she was shouting. A flower had bloomed, one that we hadn’t planted. It turned out to be a lily, and she felt that was a blessing as her name means water lily in Taino. – Yes, this anthology you having lovingly pieced together with your co-editors, Alexis* and China**, gives me hope. Now it’s evening and time to heat up the boiler for our baths. The dogs of the barrio are howling, and the birds that live in the tree across from our house are singing out their last songs.

Bless,

Sarah Maria

*

Mai'a Williams

Dear Sarah Maria,

i am so sorry for this letter coming so late.  when i first read it was the day before i was moving from quito, ecuador, back to the states. there were half-filled boxes and maletas and a thousand tiny things to do before the flight.

then we arrived in minnesota and it was time for theresa’s birthday party on the 19th of april.  i am always nervous about christmas and birthday for her.  i am not very good at making celebrations for people.  the presents, the decorations, the balloons, the food.  i am better at telling strange stories and taking us on strange adventures.  at dancing with her one in the morning on top of a roof to salsa and reggaeton.

then i fell ill for the past week.  some virus.

and now i am finally writing you.

when we first dreamed of revolutionary mothering as an anthology, i said to lex, i want it to be the book i was looking for when i was pregnant.  the book that would tell me that this wasnt easy.  when i was pregnant i didnt feel like a madonna, like some glowing ethereal creature.  i felt heavy and tired and nauseous and tired and hungry and tired.  i felt like i was preparing to go to war.  i remember my in laws and my mother and my husband and well everyone around me telling me with words and looks that i was now going to settle down, have a little house with a little yard and a little life with a little child, and i would see that would be enough for me.  all of my big dreams of traveling and revolution and backpacking through war zones and dancing late at night to the sounds of live fire and live bands would have to be put aside.

well, theresa turned eight years old last week.  and i have backpacked through tear gas and couchsurfed through revolutions.  i have also cried harder and longer in fear and anger and loneliness, more than i could have ever imagined possible.  i have been more scared and more fearless, loved harder and had bones broken and pride broken and god, its been weary. i did what i wanted, but im not sure if id truly knew the price this world would extract for doing so, if i still would have done it.

when theresa was 6 months old, we moved to san cristobal de las casas and studied spanish for a couple of months and lived there for 6 months, until we ran out of money.  i loved it.  it was 2008 and i carried theresa in a rebozo and breastfed her in bars and hung out with zapatista women.  theresa, of course, doesnt remember any of this, so she is determined that we should go back there to live, now that we are done with ecuador.

so tell me about being a mama in chiapas, and maybe someday we will meet each other face to face in southern mexico.

with much love,

mai’a

*

28/04/2015

Mexico City, DF, Mexico

Dear Mai’a,

I am writing to you from a little hotel room we rent sometimes when we come to Mexico City, when we need to escape everyone and everything for a few days. The sunlight is pouring in through the yellow drapes from the balcony, and I’m sitting on the hardwood floors in the only spot that has Wi-Fi in our room.

We came to DF this week for a poetry reading in a Queer Festival of Languages, and there has been something so liberating for me to have my poems translated into Spanish, almost as if they take on a new life of their own, become a story that is no longer just my own. And that is why, this letter is also arriving later than I wanted it to.

I like so much your description of your immediate community suggesting in small ways that you would settle down in a little house once your daughter was born, and how you sought the opposite, carried her through countries in the midst of their revolutions, danced with her across rooftops to Reggaeton and Salsa, sought new words to explain oppression and racism and liberation. This is beautiful and inspiring, and I too would have loved to have held your book in my hands as I was pregnant, and also as I was leaving the little cabin the forest that my daughter spent her first months in, because sometimes I feel sad that she has had so little stability, so many houses. But then when I read your words, I feel inspired by this community of other mothers that extends out across the world from us, that have chosen another way of raising their child, and I feel less alone in this.

For me, living in Mexico, has offered me the space from the wounds I suffered when I grew up in the States, and this space has offered me the time to grow as a poet and writer, to turn my wounds into stories, into art. And this is something I also like about Revolutionary Mothering, that it doesn’t stop at the essay form, but that there is also a play, and poems and art. And that mothering includes queer ball culture and other radical inclusions of what it means to mutha our children and our communities.

I like to imagine you with Theresa tucked into your rebozo in Chiapas, meeting with the strong Zapatista women. We have travelled up the mountainside to visit their caracol. And have been blessed with being surrounded with such an openness about child raising, an inclusion of children within the public sphere, such as how normal nursing is in public here in the mountains.

You inspire me Mai’a. How are you and Theresa settling into Minnesota? Are your wings readying to fly away again?

Until our paths cross,

Bless,

Sarah Maria

*

dear sarah maria,

it is my turn to apologize for the late reply.

summer has finally come to minnesota, the days get longer and longer and the evenings are filled with the smell of sweet grass and the sound of birds and insects.  it has been so many years since i had summer in the states.  oddly familiar and yet bringing back all these memories of being a kid, riding bikes and reading books in the back yard.  picking dandelions and capturing fire flies in small glass jars.

sometimes i feel bad too that theresa has had so little stability. god, so many apartments, countries, languages, friends, sets of clothes, political realities. but then, last year, i was talking with china, another editor of the revolutionary mothering anthology, and she talked about moving so often with her daughter.  often times out of economic necessity.  and i met her daughter, who is in her twenties, and who is awesome.

and when i hung out with china, i saw so much of myself in her.  she was the punk rock mom, back when there was no such thing as punk rock moms.  i am the global activist mom, in a time when there is no such thing as such.

and now, of course, there are punk rock moms!  there are books and magazines and blogs and fashion dedicated to the punk rock mom lifestyle.  and maybe, a couple of decades from now, there will be global activist moms networks and co-ops and shared housing and poetry readings.  it seems almost inevitable, as the world on the one hand grows smaller and on the other hand as it becomes clearer that our survival requires that we fight for this planet and the most marginalized among us.  whether that be plant or animal, icebergs or babies.

oh!  i can just imagine how amazing it must be to hear your poems translated into another language, especially spanish which is a language which has its own rhythm and poetic life.  how beautiful.  every time i write to you, i just want to pack up and go to mexico.  i still havent seen frida’s house.

i am sad that this may be my last letter to you in this series.  i have thoroughly enjoyed this.  it marks my transition from ecuador to minnesota.  i have no idea what we are going to do next or where.  this summer, theresa is taking ballet and hip hop classes.  i applied to a montessori school for her near her father’s house in case we are here in the fall.  i bought a 1970s shwinn coaster bike so i can get around this small college town.  i am writing a lot in dollar store notebooks in downtown cafes and taking my health seriously for the first time in years.

perhaps we will see each other in mexico.

la lucha continua,

mai’a

ps did you see this weird lil interview that lex did with me about revolutionary motherhood?  if not, here you go…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJy7Djn_6bc

abrazos!

Here is Maia’s website: https://about.me/maiawilliams

Go Big or Go Home

“Sometimes the things that give us the most power and joy in our lives seem shameful, or the morally “right” answer is not the answer that makes the most sense to who we are, or how we see our lives.”

Jenny Forrester interviews Megan Kruse

Megan Kruse’s debut novel, Call Me Home, is just out from Hawthorne Books! We were lucky enough to get an interview with her during this busy book-launching time. Catch her on her epic book tour this spring.

What do you think you learned about your own philosophy of love when you were writing Call Me Home? Did the act of writing this story clarify your notions of human love?

For so much of the time that I wrote this novel I was adrift, trying to write, trying to live, not sure if I was succeeding at either. My characters were drifting in more overt ways, and I do think that guiding them through the mire and the dark helped me to start to define what is important to me, what it means to love each other and how to bridge the distance between ourselves.

I have always resisted dichotomies of good/bad, right/wrong, and I think that this novel was a chance for me to look closely at that. Sometimes the things that give us the most power and joy in our lives seem shameful, or the morally “right” answer is not the answer that makes the most sense to who we are, or how we see our lives. I think of my character Jackson, who is escorting in Portland, and that work gives him a brief feeling of power, of control that he hasn’t had in his life before, and affords him the things he needs. And the work hurts him, too, in some ways, but at this particularl moment in his life, he finds the net worth to be positive. Our choices aren’t always easy, but we have to come to terms with them. To love someone, I think, means to believe that they have made their choices for a reason, and to trust that your own experience doesn’t determine how someone else should live.

Beyond believing in each other’s choices, or at least acknowledging them as valid, I think that writing this novel was a reminder to me that we have to hold on to the people who make us want to consider ourselves. When you have found the people who keep you affixed to your life, the people holding the invisible tethers you can feel through the dark and across distance, it is your job to hold them close, to recognize the power of that connection, be thankful for it, and nurture it as best you can.

The landscape of this book is so integral to the storyline. I know some of the places in the book are places you have lived or known intimately. Did you return to those when you were writing? Do you have to be in a geographical place to write about it? Or do you write place from memory?

I spent the entirety of my twenties moving from place to place across the country. I had always thought that I would find the place I belonged–that it was out there somewhere, if I only looked hard enough. But I kept getting older and the people I loved were getting deeper and deeper into their own lives while I kept searching, and I finally began to realize that finding your place was only possible if you also stuck around.

I began writing this novel when I was living in Montana, and finished large parts of it in Texas, Nebraska, and Minnesota. Even as I was searching for the place I was meant to be, I was writing about the land I grew up on in Washington. As I wrote it, it was so vivid–steep banks, deep creeks that filled in winter, curtains of root and dirt and fallen trees that my brother and I knew as well as any suburban child must know his or her cul-de-sac. After I finished the first draft of the novel, I decided rather suddenly to move back to Washington state for the first time since I was seventeen. It’s only as I’m writing this now that I think those things had something to do with each other–that writing this story of home and belonging and recognizing how much that land is a part of me made me understand that my home was there all along. All of that writing was from memory, and that meant something; it made me realize the significance of that place.

That said, I’m still prone to restlessness and drifting. I blame it a little bit on poetry. I’ve always been haunted by the one-two punch of Elizabeth Bishop asking, “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?/Where should we be today?” and Mary Oliver chiming in, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”

Now that I’ve written about places I’ve lived and known intimately, I’ve decided I need to raise the bar–the novel I’m beginning to work on now is set in the Midwest in the years following World War II. I haven’t quite figured out how I will handle that process, since the setting of Call Me Home was written entirely from my experience of place and time. Go big or go home, I guess.

Do you have a particular audience or reader in mind for Call Me Home? What do you hope people came away from it feeling or wanting to do?

I dreamed of a lot of different readers as I was writing this novel. It began as the story of a young queer man trying to make his way without a clear path, trying to establish who he was by feeling with blind courage and hope. I hope that the audience for the novel begins to think about the relationship between place and identity–to consider that there are queer people making lives outside of urban centers, where the way is hazier, and where, despite so many gains, the world is still not a safe place.

I hope as well that people come away from the novel thinking about violence, and paying attention to its echoes around us. In the three years that I worked for a domestic violence intervention program, I began to see it everywhere–the way that an abuser can move into your path like a rock into a river and divert your life elsewhere. You can spend your life running from someone, or from the shadows they have cast on your life. I know that the experience of the family in my novel is only one story, but it is important to me to acknowledge that those stories surround us all the time.

Finishing things is difficult for some writers – what would be your advice for finishing?

I recently taught a class at Hugo House in Seattle called Seeing it Through: Finishing Your Novel. I went in to the course feeling like I didn’t have much right or enough knowledge to tell people how to go about completing a project, but over the course of those two days, I realized that I do have some strategies that I subscribe to, things that have worked for me.

Above all, writing this novel made me recognize that writing only really works if you understand it to be a long game. This wasn’t a very easy realization for me. I remember finishing the first draft of Call Me Home while I was on a residency in rural Minnesota in the spring of 2012, and sending it off to an agent. For the next week or two I marched purposefully around town, waiting for the call to come about how she wanted the book, and on top of that there was already an exorbitant offer or three. It didn’t come then; in fact, it was another few weeks before I heard back that it wasn’t a good fit.

It was a particularly lonely time in my life. That had something to do with being in an isolated place, but more to do with what I’d done to myself. I’d made myself believe that to become a writer was like watching your number come up in a lottery–that it would happen, and then the answers for everything else would fall into place. I thought my life would start when the book was published, and then someone would tell me how to live.

Instead, it was two years before the book sold. The things I began to work on during the early months of defeat have become my current projects, and my slow revision changed the novel remarkably. I think of that Alice Munro quote from The Moons of Jupiter: “They were all in their early thirties. An age at which it is sometimes hard to admit that what you are living is your life.” This a roundabout way to explain that I think the secret to finishing is recognizing that this is your writing life. You have to take away the timelines and the expectations–you’re doing it now, and you’ll be doing it tomorrow.

The other piece of advice I kept touting like a pundit in my recent course was to be greedy with your writing practice. This goes along with the idea that writing is a long game, with no clear endpoint. I believe in playing to your strengths and desires; write today what you want to write–as long as you write. I’m never going to be someone who writes each day from 6-7am, but maybe I feel like writing at 2 in the morning or maybe not today but tomorrow instead. Don’t let anyone fool you into how it’s supposed to be done. Be kind to yourself–that’s different from letting yourself off the hook.

You have an MFA. What advice would you give others about getting an MFA or not? If a writer does want to go the MFA route, how important is choosing the right program?

I know that there are hosts of opinions out there about the MFA–essential or useless? Homogenizing or inspiring? I think you should be clear to yourself about what you want to gain from a program, and where you’ll be coming out of it; those expectations should dictate if you enroll, or in what kind of program. I’d always been drawn to Montana and what I viewed as a Western voice–storytelling with a strong sense of place, of space. I tend to make decisions quickly and with great resolve, and the University of Montana was a wonderful spot for me–to be teaching and writing in a small town that felt analogous to the rural, tumble-down vistas I’d grown up in. I did struggle, as I think a lot of people do, with hoping that the path will become clear post-MFA; I was–and maybe still am–underemployed for a long time. I think that the choice to complete an MFA needs to be a conscious one. You can go and do it, and you can make it sustainable with teacherships, but don’t do it unless you can say to yourself honestly that this is a step along a path you’ll be on forever. The act of writing is what makes you a writer. I remember being nineteen, finishing up my first “novel,” a 250 page Jeanette Winterson lesbian fiction rip-off. I was so certain that I would turn a corner and suddenly be someone. It was exactly the same feeling I had in Minnesota, waiting for the agent to call about Call Me Home; it had taken me another ten years to really understand that it doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t matter what the milestone is–a first terrible novel, or an MFA; you work and work and then you get there, and it feels wonderful or anticlimactic, but regardless you keep going.

How much time do you spend on social media promoting your writing? How much do you think social media helps or hinders writers?

I used to be a super-weirdo about social media. I was really cagey about anyone knowing where I was or what I was doing, and I think I wanted to control peoples’ impressions of me. I remember demanding loudly of someone I was at dinner with, “Why on earth would you want to tag us here??” As time has gone on, I got over myself a little bit. I recognize, even if it’s still difficult, that you can’t control anyone’s opinions of you, beyond being certain to be a basically decent human. Once I let go of that, I started engaging more on social media. And here’s the thing–I cannot imagine going into this novel publication without that community. I have been tremendously lucky to have the support of so many incredible writers, friends and family, and the team at Hawthorne, who have been my greatest champions from day one. Social media is the forum where I can feel all of that support now, a place to reach otherwise nebulous, far-flung communities. Once I began to think of social media as a clearinghouse for sharing information and victories and questions about writing, my angst about the platform fell away.

This question made me think of the other day, when the news about Harper Lee’s second novel started circulating. I realize that there are still many questions about the publication which need resolution, but I bring this up purely as an example of the role of social media in my writing life now. I woke up and I heard the news, and because I am surrounded by writers and readers, my entire social media feed was on fire with it. I ran down to Georgetown in the weak winter sun to grab lunch with a friend and I was full with a rare joy for the whole world– a sense that we could all come together and be awed by something. I was grinning wildly at cars, thinking Harper Lee! As silly as it sounds, I know that feeling of connection is spectacular and rare, and if social media provides it, I can’t discount it.

Megan Kruse grew up in the rural Pacific Northwest. She studied creative writing at Oberlin College and earned her MFA at the University of Montana, writing about lonely places and our faulty, beautiful hearts. Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies, and she recently completed residencies at the Kimmel-Harding-Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska and the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center in Minnesota. Her debut novel, “Call Me Home,” releases from Hawthorne Books in March 2015, with an introduction by Elizabeth Gilbert. She currently lives in Seattle.

New issue of Hip Mama!

The cute FedEx guy just brought me so many boxes of this beautiful new issue of Hip Mama. Subscribe and I’ll send you one right away.

This issue features an inspiring interview with the super-pregnant Michelle Tea, personal essays on parenting young adults, getting knocked up DIY style, talking to our kids about racism, and so much more. There are yummy potato recipes, etiquette from Punk Rock Miss Manners, and a genderqueer paper doll no family should be without.

SUBSCRIBE & you’ll get this issue and 3 more.

 

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Milcah Halili Orbacedo Interviews Wendy C. Ortiz

 

Wendy C. Ortiz’s searing new memoir of growing up in Southern California in the ’80s and ’90s, Excavation, unearths the complicated legacy her five-year relationship with her charming and flawed teacher 15 years her senior. Her teacher — now a registered sex offender — encouraged her passion for writing while making her promise not to leave any written account of their dangerous sexual relationship. Excavation is just out from Future Tense.

You could make multiple twitter accounts from the different voices you use in your writing. In the business world, lacking a singular voice makes one less marketable. What drives you to write in your multiple voices when writing in a more singular voice may promote more traditional success?

If I stuck to one voice when in reality I contain a multiplicity of voices I wouldn’t feel like I’ve maintained the integrity of my work (and possibly my identities). Writing memoir specifically, it feels essential to me to unleash as many of the voices as possible (the ones I have access to, anyway). I also prefer a world where our multiple identities are given free range—which flies in the face of a singular voice and making one’s self “more” or “less” marketable. (The 28 year old in me is reading this going, Just how “marketable” have you ever been, and has being marketable ever really motivated you? for example.)

Excavation: a Memoir was just released this summer by Future Tense Books. Your next book, Hollywood Notebook, will be published by Writ Large Press in fall/winter. Will you offer readers of Hollywood Notebook a voice similar to Excavation? What should we expect next?

Hollywood Notebook takes place in Los Angeles after I’d spent eight years in Olympia, Washington in two separate serial monogamist relationships. I landed in my studio apartment in Hollywood, single, living alone for the first time in years. The voice spans the ages of twenty-eight to thirty-three and is very much influenced by the books, people, music, and experiences of that time. I call it a prose poem-ish memoir, as it contains eighty-some short chapters in the form of paragraphs, lists, and stream-of-consciousness passages.

After Hollywood Notebook I’m interested in returning to other works-in-progress: a book of music-themed essays, poetry centered on my mother and grandmother and our entwined relationships, a memoir based on my Modern Love column, and a memoir about the period in Olympia between the ages of 20-28 which I think of as a long gestation, and some other secret things.

If you could blend two of your voices together from any of your works (On the Trail of Mary Jane, Excavation, your essays at The Nervous Breakdown or Specter, etc.) which two voices would complement each other the most? Do you have a masterplan to eventually merge all your voices? Or you do enjoy the compartmentalization?

I’m fond of the voices that find themselves in my fiction (like “Black Car Land” in Specter, and some other fiction I’m working on)—there’s a starkness to the voices I feel both comfortable and very uncomfortable with. In some ways I blend the voices together when I put two stories next to one another, as I’m doing now with some fiction. The themes start to emerge from placing the work together and paying attention to whether the voices are complementary or not. The only master plan I have to is to see where the voices go, any of them, all of them.

No matter the voice, your writing is always very corporeal and visceral. You are very generous when it comes to material and emotional details, and it balances out very well. What are the physical drives that take you to the corporeal and visceral in your writing? What about the body and the emotions it manifests inspires you to write in such a way?

As someone who has struggled, then learned, then forgot, then remembered to stay in her body most of her life, focusing in on the corporeal and visceral feels necessary. It’s also what I enjoy about some of my favorite writers, how they bring me back to my body with their texts.

What would you say is the over-arching theme of your writing, the heart of your work?

I hesitate to say there’s one over-arching theme. If we think of a heart, the human heart with its four chambers, I might say abandonment (from others, of others, and of self); embodiment (of identities that help one to survive, however ‘survive’ is identified); exploration and troubling of the idea that there are only two sides to every story (which I don’t believe—I think there are many); and transformation. (It’s important to note that this is what I think today; if you asked me this yesterday or ask me tomorrow, the answer might differ. It’s not always static.)

Spitboy: An Interview with Michelle Gonzales, by Breezy Barcelo

I recently had the lucky chance of interviewing Michelle Gonzales, author of Pretty Bold For a Mexican Girl: Growing up in a Hick Town, former drummer and lyricist of the 1990s female punk band Spitboy, and creator of the zine Spitboy Rule. Check it out!

 

On the first page of your zine, you mention that being in Spitboy was one of the most formative experiences of your life – that you gained confidence, self-knowledge, etc. When did you realize that?

Michelle: I think I knew all along that I was gaining these things: I especially remember getting really comfortable during interviews, speaking articulately and confidently about women’s issues, and I was only between 21 and 26 during my days in Spitboy. I remember realizing at one point that I was able to answer interview questions more easily and clearly than when we first started. The self-knowledge grew over time, as it tends to do, but Spitboy spent a great deal of time reflecting on our experiences, processing out loud and being mindful. That was a good practice to learn in my twenties that served me well when I went back to school, became a mom, and began teaching community college.

In “The Spitboy Rule” story, it cracked me up when you said, “For some reason we always broke down in Wyoming. Wyoming was Spitboy’s Bermuda Triangle.” When I was 18, 19, and 20 and traveling with a bus full of punk and hippie kids, we always seemed to break down or get stuck with no gas money in the middle of Wyoming or Nebraska! Of all the time I’ve spent in big cities or camping in the middle of nowhere, and not feeling scared much, I was genuinely scared a couple of times in those states. Were you ever super scared in those breakdowns?

Michelle: You’re not the first person to comment on that Spitboy’s Bermuda Triangle line. I do remember being scared. In fact, I remember not opting to be one of the people who walked/hitchhiked to a service station to get help. Karin, our guitar player did that, and Paula too, since she knew how to work on cars, to talk parts. I stayed back with the van and read a book in an attempt to calm myself. I grew up with a lot of chaos, so I wasn’t always a lot of help in situations where I couldn’t imagine the outcome. People would usually look at us weird when they’d stop to help us or when we’d come sputtering into their service station, but on that first tour when it was just the four of us – four women – people were very willing to help us, even if it was in that “What-seems-to-be-the-problem-little-lady?” sort of way.

I can just picture “Huggy Bear Boy.” In fact, I’m pretty sure I dated him. Were there a lot of odd balls you had to interact with after your shows?

Michelle: Huggy Bear Boy was a nice guy. I just didn’t want to hug him or anybody else I didn’t know. Most people we met on tour were super nice. I do remember that there was one guy in particular in, I think, Savannah, Georgia, we were pretty freaked out by. I don’t remember his name, but he organized our show. We played in what seemed like sort of a biker bar, but it was an all ages show, since that’s all we would play – all ages venues. We went to the guy’s house before the show, and he had a bunch of reptiles, and the place smelled terrible. He was also the leering creepy type, and we were supposed to stay the night at his place after the show. We lied to him telling him that we had to leave that night because we had a long drive in front of us. We drove somewhere near the beach, slept in the van, and went to the beach in the morning before leaving for our next show. This is probably an example of one of the many ways being a band of women is quite different than being all-male.

After you made your statement on stage: “We’re not a riot grrl band,” did you have to explain yourself a lot? How did you, and how did you feel about having to do that?

Michelle: Everywhere we’d gone prior to making that statement, people had asked us if we were a riot grrl band. We had really grown tired of it. We did make enemies. A lot of riot grrls really hated us for it, which didn’t feel good at all, but we couldn’t really blame them after I had been so undiplomatic. Later, when we put out our “Mi Cuerpo Es Mio 7”, a riot grrl accused us of cultural appropriation. I’m writing a piece about this right now. I don’t think we would have been accused of cultural appropriation if I hadn’t said “We’re not a riot grrl band” in public. The accusation was a low blow and misdirected too since I’m a Chicana and the name of the 7” was my idea – a way for me to have the band represent an element of the band that we had never represented before – my Chicanisma.

You said at the end you would have gone about things differently, but not much differently. I’m glad. We needed girls like you in the scene to get the ball of change rolling. I mean, my boyfriend is a total feminist, so I’m glad you said that.

Michelle: Riot grrl was a really important movement, but it wasn’t our movement. Spitboy formed before riot grrl became a national movement, but I’m still really glad that they existed, but we existed too.

Just one last question before you go: What would you say to a young, feminist artist who is at that stage that you were when you first got to school and first met Adrienne? You mentioned that you didn’t know what you wanted to do and didn’t even know if you belonged in school.

Michelle: Since I’m now a community college English instructor, I think I have to say that you shouldn’t ever rule out school. I believe that too, that if you’re not ready for school, you can always go back later like I did. In fact, I know that I got a lot more out of college since I went back full-time in my late twenties, and I brought the confidence that I gained in Spitboy and the life experience to my classwork, which really helped all the studying, tests, and essays feel relevant and real-world. When I first went to college, I had no idea what I was doing, how to apply what I was learning, or how to navigate the complicated system of academia, and I also wanted to be making music. Some people can do both, but I wasn’t one of those people. If this young female artist is a true artist who does her research and engages in an artistic community, that can be an education too.

Thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions and to make your zine! Where can we all read MORE?

Michelle: The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Female Punk Band zine can be ordered for $4 plus shipping from Etsy at https://www.etsy.com/shop/PrettyBoldDesigns?ref=si_shop
or $3 plus shipping via Paypal: profesora.gonzales@gmail.com

Additional Spitboy Rule pieces can be read for free at http://pretty-bold-mexican-girl.com/

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Breezy Barcelo loves to write, make crafts and hang out with kids (including her own). She is currently working on a zine with her teenage daughter called Motherkin.

Living In Between (My Body and My Routine)

Nina Packebush Interviews Poet and Icarus Co-founder Jacks Ashley McNamara

I recently had the great pleasure of speaking with Jacks Ashley McNamara about writing and creativity, madness and identity, activism and survival. Jacks is a genderqueer writer, artist, activist, and Somatic healer. Jacks is the co-founder, along with Sascha Altman DuBrul, of the Icarus Project, an alternative, peer-run, mutual-aid mental health support network with over 12,000 members worldwide. The Icarus Project recently celebrated its tenth anniversary which happened to coincide with the release of Jacks’ new book of poetry, Inbetweenland, published by Deviant Type Press. Jacks was also the subject of the Ken Paul Rosenthal documentary Crooked Beauty. You may have even read about Jacks in the August 2013 issue of O Magazine as they talked about the history and future of the Radical Mental Health and Recovery Movement.

Many years ago I happened to stumble upon Jacks’ and Sascha’s book  Navigating the Space Between the Brilliance and Madness: A Reader and Roadmap of Bipolar Worlds, and that stumbling quite literally saved my life and the life of my kid. (You can download the original version  here. With that book and the Icarus website I was introduced to an entirely new way of thinking about mental health  and what it means to be “mad” in this crazy world.

When I heard that Jacks was releasing a new book of poetry I couldn’t wait to read it and I wasn’t disappointed. Inbetweenland  holds that same power as Dorothy Allison’s The Women Who Hate Me. This book is raw and beautiful, every poem hits hard and deep. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to crawl inside of it and never leave. Inbetweenland is a fierce collection of triumph and surrender, hot sex and identity, death and survival.

From Jacks’ poem The Other Side of Incantation

Sometimes what is real erupts
through the keys in our spine
to make music like earthquakes. Sometimes it plants
a kiss like a promise smudged in the corners of our souls.
Sometimes it leaves a ghost in our bellies
and an ache in our eyes. It does not offer instructions.
We do not understand that we must practice
over and over again. The other side of the incantation
is doing the work. It is not enough
to climb this mountain once.

Nina: CAn you talk about starting The Icarus Project with Sascha Altman Dubrul?

Jacks:  Well basically in the fall of 2002 Sascha wrote this article called The Bipolar World about his experience as an activist, writer, traveler, gardener who kept having these episodes of feeling incredible and then flying too high and crashing and burning, and  then getting back up again. He didn’t know how to reconcile the dramatic experiences he had with his mental health with his politics around corporate medicine and psychiatry. While he found that the hospitalizations were horribly traumatic, some of the meds actually really helped and that wasn’t something he could talk about in the sort of punk world he was coming from.

When I read this article—I didn’t know him—I felt like I was reading my life story on a certain level.  I ended up sending him this huge email, and we emailed for weeks, and finally met up and were just so shocked that we had such similar stories. And all these people had written to him with similar stories and all of us thought we were the only ones. We decided to start the Icarus Project as a way for people to come together and talk about their experiences. And so we began the project by creating a website. I did all the art and design and built the website. . . poorly. . . and then other people took it over and built it better. It was just one of those times where you do the right thing at the right time. There was a real niche and all these people started coming together. And then we started self-publishing books on radical mental health, and going on tour, and leading workshops, and bringing more people into the national organizing collective and it just mushroomed from there.

Nina: You have a powerful new book of poetry out, Inbetweenland. It touches on queer identity, mental health, sex, love, your mother dying, being a survivor and so much more. What inspired you to write it?

Jacks: Well I wasn’t writing it thinking I was writing a book. I started writing poems because I needed to make some kind of asymmetrical sense out of the disaster and beauty in my life. The oldest poems in the book I wrote in the year after my mom died which was a really horribly traumatic thing in my life and yeah, so I started writing poems… Well, let me backtrack. I have been writing poems forever, but I started writing the poems that ended up in that book the year after she died and then I just kept writing poems.

When I moved back to the Bay Area in 2009 I got really involved in the queer arts scene and started performing my writing a lot. I was also coming out to myself and the world as genderqueer and polyamorous and the intersection of these things produced a lot of writing and eventually somebody asked me if they could publish my writing as a book. I said yes and that’s what really brought everything together as a book project.

Nina: So talking about being queer… one of the things that draws so many people to The Icarus Project is that it looks at how oppression affects mental health.  How do you think being queer, and the oppression that queer people face in this world, impacts mental health?

Jacks: I think it depends on different peoples’ experiences. Thinking from my experience as someone who was coming out in the ’90s in Virginia and Maryland… there were absolutely zero visible role models of anyone queer that I could relate to in any way. So I had no idea of how the hell you grow up to be a queer adult. I also dealt with a lot of very visible homophobia and harassment from my family and people in the world. I felt very unsafe being queer.

I also felt very unsafe presenting as a woman. I got endlessly cat-called until I cut my hair off. So I would say for me the intersection of oppression around gender and sex and around my sexual choices deeply impacted my mental health… Because of all the harassment and the homophobia and the bullshit I had a ton of shame. I internalized a lot of the things I had been told by my family… that I was ugly because I looked like a man; that nobody would ever love me. I mean these were things that were said outright. I think that a lot of queer people, even if the level of homophobia and harassment they deal with isn’t as overt, still internalize a lot of messages that it’s not safe for us to be in this world; that the love we have isn’t safe; that we are ugly or different or unlovable. That hugely affects our mental health, hugely affects our ability to feel like we belong in the human race and whether we have any idea how to grow up and live lives that we actually want to live.

Nina: In your poem So Many Ways to Be Beautiful you have this great line this is a story about believing you have a broken heart and not a mental illness. I just love that line. Can you speak to that a little bit? What it means to you?

Jacks: Yeah, it makes me think of the line that goes around sometimes in alternative mental health where people talk about trauma informed care, and say, what if, instead of asking, “what’s wrong with you?” we asked, “what happened to you?” I think a lot of people’s mental health struggles come out of grief and trauma and broken hearts and that pathologizing the symptoms of distress that people experience is often totally missing the point and the root cause.

Nina: The title of your book, and one of my favorite poems in the book, is called Inbetweenland. What or where is Inbetweenland?

Jacks: Inbetween. (laughs)  It isn’t any one place. The idea of Inbetweenland first came to me when I was living in the Hudson Valley in New York and I was spending about 2/3s of my time in the Hudson Valley and 1/3 in New York City and feeling on both very literal levels and figurative levels that I lived between all these different realities. In between the country and the city, in between man and woman, in between class backgrounds, in between consensus reality and mythical realms of reality. I felt like I, and a lot of people I worked with and organized with, were bridge builders between all these different worlds and that we were clearing out some sort of Inbetweenland for ourselves because there wasn’t a place in society that made sense for us. And Inbetweenland in the context of that poem has taken on additional meaning for me as a trauma survivor sort of living in between my body and my routine. Not being entirely here and do I need to stick around here? It’s been a pretty active question for me for a lot of years.

Nina: I heard you say, in a Madness Radio interview, something about the symptoms of bipolar as being a stress response. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Jacks: Yeah sure. There are so many things I can say. I’m not very fond of the term bipolar. If I had to talk about it in poles I would be more likely to talk about it as poly-polar or multipolar, but given our current social discourse I find bipolar useful as an adjective. What I really object to is the idea of bipolar disorder as this life-long disease. And where I see the stress vulnerability idea coming in is that I do believe that I came into this world with a predisposition to be really sensitive, and under certain kinds of stress to become manic or depressed or one of the other states that are commonly identified with bipolar. I mean I have a pretty intense brain.

I’m adopted and when I was 21 my biological dad found me and he’s diagnosed bipolar. I have three other close family members who are diagnosed bipolar, and a more distant family member who is. None of these people raised me and, hmm, we all have this diagnosis. Yeah, I feel like ever since I was a little kid I have been really sensitive and had tendencies to go into altered states.

You know but when I look at myself and when I look at those members of my family I’ve had a lot more traumatic stress than they have and my “symptoms” have expressed a lot more strongly. And I think people have different kinds of stress vulnerabilities. You know some people are exposed to stress and they get heart disease, some people exposed to stress get panic attacks. If I’m exposed to certain kinds of stress I stop needing sleep much, have forty million ideas, over-pack my schedule and start talking to God. I don’t necessarily think that I have a disorder, certainly not a biological brain disorder, but I do think I have a stress vulnerability.

Nina: Do you see a link between creativity and madness?

Jacks: I mean I don’t think it’s a question with a constant answer, but I definitely know that most of the people that I know who are the most creative struggle with altered states and have windows of time where they can access nonlinear ways of thinking or other realms of reality that help with their creative work. I also think that the intensity of feeling that is experienced by folks that get labeled as mad lends itself to an intensity of expression… And I want to be careful not to romanticize emotional distress and suffering. There’s so much of what I’ve been through that would be labeled as madness experiences that I would happily give back if I could. I would trade them. I don’t want to be a tortured artist, but I do think there is a link between extreme states and creativity for sure.

For more of Jacks’ poetry and visual art visit their website at: http://www.ashley-mcnamara.net/

 

A Queer and Pleasant Danger

Nina Packebush talks to Kate Bornstein about gender fluidity, writing from the scary places, and  Priscilla, Queen of the Desert 

by Nina Packebush

Reading Kate Bornstein’s A Queer and Pleasant Danger is like sitting down to coffee with any old friend. I found myself smiling, nodding my head in agreement, and crying more than a few tears.

Kate Bornstein is a self-described tranny, Jew, dyke, sadomasochist, adoptive Aunty to all the queer teenagers of the world, and lives with Borderline Personality Disorder. She calls herself a female, yet doesn’t identify as either a woman or a man and bucks most labels. In her new memoir,  A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She Is Today, Kate talks candidly about her 12-year stint and eventual excommunication from the Church of Scientology, her battles with leukemia, anorexia, and cutting and her journey from “a good Jewish boy” to a transsexual icon.

Kate wrote the book as a sort of open letter to her estranged daughter and grandchildren who remain within the Church of Scientology. She wrote the book hoping that they will read it and come “to see a few more dimensions of their dad and granddad,” and possibly, reunite.

In the mean time, A Queer and Pleasant Danger is an inspirational, moving and funny must-read for the rest of us.

Nina Packebush: You said your PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) stopped or lessened after writing this book. Is writing a form of therapy for you?

 

Kate Bornstein:  Yeah, yeah cuz one of the things that came with PTSD is memory loss and recreating a timeline of my life helped me plug stuff in. Not that I remembered much, but I was able to ask people who were around at certain gates, “Hey what happened?” And that got filled in. So yeah.

 

Nina:  You talk about your anorexia and cutting pretty openly in your book and I love that. I think it’s really helpful for other people to hear you discuss these issues. Do you still struggle with anorexia and cutting?

 

Kate:  From time to time of course I do. They never go away. I haven’t starved myself in over…well in about 6 or 7 years now. Not that I haven’t had the thoughts to or the ideation, sure of course I have. And I still struggle with self-image, but I’ve learned to trust other people when they say, “Kate you look so good.” And I think, okay I don’t believe you, but I trust you. I trust you have a decent pair of eyes in your head and you wouldn’t lie to me and I lean on that trust and it helps. As far as the cutting goes, I’ve folded that into my SM play. I like to cut myself during SM play or doing warrior marks, but never out of self-loathing or self-hatred.

 

Nina:  Was it difficult to write so publicly about the SM stuff? In your book, I mean, knowing your daughter might read it?

 

Kate:  Well in the book yeah, because it was for my daughter, but I wanted her to know, I still want her to know who I am. And I want all my kids to know who I am and I have lots of kids. Queer kids kind of own me as Aunty and I would like them to know who I am and I want to be respectful of people, so that is difficult. Of walking the line of respecting my reader and wanting to give enough detail, but not so much that it’s like that episode of South Park where he writes the book. No, I didn’t want that, so there is a fine line to walk. And where I think I learned to walk that line was in writing that book. I learned how to write about some pretty dangerous stuff in a way that wasn’t mean to my reader.

 

Nina:  You use the word “tranny” and obviously that’s a controversial word in the queer community. Can you speak to that?

 

Kate:  Well okay. I use the word because that’s how I self-identify. I learned the word from my first drag mom Dorris Fish who was an ultimate queen in San Francisco when I was there. She came from Sydney, Australia and I don’t know if you know the movie…the movie with the bus. Oh what was the movie with the bus?

 

Nina: Priscilla Queen of the Desert?

 

Kate:  That’s it. You will notice in there the relationship between the one transsexual and the drag queen. That’s how it used to be. It used to be that every male-to-female that was transsexual or drag or whatever would do the drag shows. That’s how they’d make money. The transsexuals would save up money, get the surgery, and then say goodbye to the drag queens. And there was a hierarchy. They both thought they were better than the other, but they agreed that there was one word because they were family. And they called themselves trannies. And that’s a nice thing. That’s a family word. Now I understand that it’s been used as a hate word. I get that.

And then let’s take a look at why it’s so hateful. Whenever I ask someone why is it such a hateful word I get, “Well just google tranny and see what you get.” And I google tranny and I get all of this great tranny porn. Wow, yeah so what’s the problem there? Of course there are people who have been terribly wounded by the word and I’m sorry for them. I am truly sorry for them, but I think the vast majority of people hate the word because it’s so sexy and does imply there’s a lot of sex involved in a gender change and I own that and I think more people will be happier if they did too.

 

Nina: I have a grandson that’s very gender fluid. He identifies as a boy, but will only wear “girl” clothes and claims he’s going to be a girl when he grows up. It seems that recently there’s a lot out there about kids like this, especially boys that show more female traits. There are blogs, appearances on TV, news stories, and even books like The Princess Boy. What’s your take on the recent media focus on these kids? Do you think some of these kids are being pushed into claiming an identity too early?

 

Kate:  I don’t think I’m qualified to speak on that. My point would be to if I were to meet your child I would simply respect his/her wishes and I would encourage the child to not make any drastic changes until their brain had fully formed at around 17 or 18 years old. There are, I understand, some really cool hormone blockers available and I would certainly be all for that. You got a child that’s insisting all along, “I’m another gender than you think I am,” well block the child’s hormones and when the child has become an adult in his or her own mind and in the reality of biology in the culture then let that person decide.

 

Nina:  What is fear’s function in art? How does fear fuel art or does it?

 

Kate:  It is the fuel. That’s why I make art, to get through. I think they’re symbiotic. I don’t think you can make art without fear. You can make great crafts. No, no I’m serious. It’s a different thing. It’s apples and orange. Sometimes I make very good crafts, I make comic books like that, but I wouldn’t call it art. But when I go and make crafts with the intention of walking through my fear it turns into art somehow.

 

Nina:  What can queer artists, or artists in general, do to change the world?

 

Kate:  Nothing. Not a damn thing. That’s just the way it is.

 

Nina:  Do you have any advice for writers?

 

Kate:  Yeah, I guess. Write every day. Every. Day. Write. And write into the scariest parts. When you’re faced with the decision of writing this or that, write the scarier choice.

 

 

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