Winter Books 2019
2/8/19 - We discuss what's on our bookshelf and talk to authors of some of our favorite recent titles. Nikki Darling and her protagonist (also named Nikki Darling) explore teen girlhood and '90s Los Angeles in her novel Fade Into You. Esmé Weijun Wang investigates mental illness, stigma and her own diagnosis in The Collected Schizophrenias.
Producer: Gina Delvac
Hosts: Aminatou Sow & Ann Friedman
Theme song: Call Your Girlfriend by Robyn
Composer: Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs.
Associate Producer: Destry Maria Sibley
Visual Creative Director: Kenesha Sneed
Merch Director: Caroline Knowles
Editorial Assistant: Laura Bertocci
Ad sales: Midroll
Appropriate for Destruction by Nikki Darling (her Axl Rose essay)
Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera
Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (Beatrice Sparks)
Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck
99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Magical Negro by Morgan Parker
Ada Twist Scientist by Andrea Beaty
Talent: A Novel by Juliet Lapidos
TRANSCRIPT: winter books 2019
Aminatou: Welcome to Call Your Girlfriend.
Ann: A podcast for long-distance besties everywhere.
Aminatou: I'm Aminatou Sow.
Ann: And I'm Ann Friedman. On this week's agenda we're talking about what we're reading! Books, books, books with special guests Nikki Darling and Esme Wang.
Aminatou: Hello Ann Friedman!
Ann: Hello, hello, hello.
Aminatou: I'm very excited about today's episode.
Ann: Books, books, books!
Aminatou: Books, books, books. You know in this family we love to read books.
Ann: Yeah, and I have to say I'll put in one more plug for our listener survey which is still live. You can take it at callyourgirlfriend.com/survey.
Aminatou: Y'all love books.
Ann: I mean 100% resounding agreement. You might disagree about what terms constitute racial identity but you agree on books.
Aminatou: [Laughs] Thank god. I love women who read, and women who read diverse -- you know, a diverse array of publishing offerings so this was cool.
Ann: Completely. And so we have a few interviews in this episode with authors of new or newish books that we're really loving and then at the end we'll also have a few other recommendations of what we both read lately. You all can join in. Use the hashtag #CYGBooks on Insta or Twitter and tell us what you're reading and what you recommend and why.
Aminatou: First up we have a book that you gave me actually.
Ann: Hey, hey.
Aminatou: That you gave me before the pub date. I love when you're the person that brings the advance copy in my life.
Ann: Not only the pleasure of recommending a great book but being the person to be like "Got it for you early." A great pleasure. [Laughs]
Aminatou: I know! So this book is The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Wang and it is truly, truly, truly brilliant. It's a book about mental illness and about Esme's journey but truly it is funny. It's also highly intelligent. It makes you question a lot of assumptions that you have about mental illness. You know, especially in this time, and as Esme points out where people are definitely freer and freer to talk about certain forms of mental illness. A lot of us over here bond about our depression and our anxiety, like that's cute. This is not the kind of stuff that people are super open to talking about and you leave both loving her as a human being and somebody who's just you're like yes, you dress well and you are very funny and you also are just like doing your best in this terrible world that we live in.
Ann: Total package.
Aminatou: I feel this on a personal level, but on a big ideas and big picture level it kind of really is opening your brain also and I appreciate that.
Aminatou: So here's Esme. Oh, and also Esme will say this at the end but her website is truly great so other authors please . . .
Ann: Take note.
Aminatou: Take note, like this website is popping.
Esme: My name is Esme Weijun Wang and the book I've written is The Collected Schizophrenias.
Aminatou: Congratulations Esme. This is big.
Esme: Thank you so much.
Aminatou: I feel like I've been following you for a while and so it's been kind of a treat to be on the journey of seeing this book being published. And when Ann gave it to me at her house the other day I was really excited. I was like ugh, thank you for having the thing that I knew I wanted to read in advance.
Aminatou: And you write so beautifully but also painfully about the stigma of mental illness. How did you know that you were ready to write about this?
Esme: Yeah. I mean I think it kind of goes back a ways to when I was not ready to even be open about having a diagnosis of severe mental illness. I've carried a number of diagnoses in the kind of mental health realm for a while beginning from when I was in my mid-teens and I'd always think to myself oh, eventually I want to write about mental health issues. But it wasn't until I started working at a startup company here in Silicon Valley that I thought to myself well I have a job and I can't not get a job because of being open about mental health issues. It was about as stable as I felt like I could be. So I decided to start being open on the Internet about having these mental health diagnoses. And then writing these essays the first one that was published was Perdition Days which is in the book. It was published in The Toast, rest in peace Toast.
Esme: [Laughs] RIP Toast. And that was kind of a very memoristic piece that I wrote when I was suffering from Cotard's delusion, the rare delusion that one is dead. I kind of considered it my beat to write about psychotic disorders and the schizophrenias in particular. That's where I ended up with 100 pages of essays about the schizophrenias.
Esme: And yeah, and deciding to submit to the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize and that's kind of what kicked it all off.
Aminatou: It is incredibly generous to share your diagnosis because I think that while it's true that, you know, there is a lot of talk about depression and about anxiety people talk about it in ways I find are not hyper specific and something that is very -- like obviously your diagnosis is different but you do talk about it in a very specific kind of way and very -- in a very clinical way. And you really explain that experience of just watching your mind pull away from you that I think is still something that -- you know, like schizophrenia just still terrifies people. Once we start getting like schizophrenia memes on the Internet maybe I'll believe that, you know, society is ready in general. But, you know, there's not a ton of memes about schizophrenia.
Esme: Yeah, yeah. That's something I talk about in the book like when I was searching on Facebook and I found all these memes about oh, the positive things about various forms of mental health diagnoses. Here are all the good things about depression. Well depression can cause you to become more sensitive and more in tune to your fellow human beings. Anxiety can cause you to pay more attention to detail. And as I was going through these memes I realized there's no way there's going to be something about schizophrenia in here. Nobody sees schizophrenia as something that carries positive traits. And lo and behold there wasn't anything positive about schizophrenia in those memes. So yeah, I agree with you. I look forward to that day but that day is not here yet.
Aminatou: Yeah. Do you think also it has to do with the fact that psychosis presents kind of differently for a lot of people? And so it's just harder to challenge like broader misconceptions about it.
Esme: Psychosis tends to present in a way that is very confusing to people. So there's the problem of people not really understanding what psychosis means so people will tend to kind of toss off words like psychotic or psycho. If you ask people "What is psychosis?" it'll kind of bring up things like oh, my psychotic ex-girlfriend instead of "Well, psychosis is made up of hallucinations which are false sensory perceptions or false beliefs which make up delusions." Things like that. So there's the kind of confusion about what psychosis even means. And then there's also the confusion and fear of inexplicable behavior which I think is something that really frightens people: the man screaming on the bus or, you know, the person walking down the street who is muttering to themselves. That person is not -- does not hue to our understanding of what people are supposed to act like. So that is something that kind of innately causes fear in the average person.
Aminatou: Yeah, you know, and then there's also just this feeling of we always group people with mental illness in two groups: there are the low-functioning people and then there are the high-functioning people. And even that language itself is so . . . it kind of makes no sense and it really just meant to induce like more stigma and shame I think.
Aminatou: And so I wonder if you can talk a little about that as somebody who is perceived as a high-functioning person with mental illness?
Esme: Yeah. There is an essay in the book called High Functioning. Wanting to align myself with a high-functioning group is very akin to the way in which people from marginalized groups tend to want to align themselves with the subsection of their marginalized group that is looked upon a little bit more favorably by the outside world. I'm thinking of the model minority, among people of color or people who are seen as more respectable among their minority group. The idea of being high-functioning is something that people aspire to because they don't want to be seen as kind of dangerous or messy as their counterparts. In that essay I'm at this mental health clinic in North Beach/Chinatown in San Francisco and I'm arguing with myself because I'm with these people who have been attending this schizophrenia support group for a very, very long time and I keep trying to remind myself you're not like these people. You're not like these people. But then I try to remind myself you are like these people and the more you try to push yourself away from that the more you alienate yourself and the more you alienate these people who are just as human as you are.
Aminatou: Yeah. You know, you've also written so much about fashion and using kind of costuming and fashion to pass as normal or . . . I'm just like wondering if you can expand a little bit more on that?
Esme: Yeah. I tend to -- I wrote this piece for Catapult called Fashioning Normal and I just find the phrase fashioning normal to be so helpful in discussing this. I feel like I've been able to assemble a wardrobe of clothing that allows me to come across as glamorous or as fashionable and that's definitely not the way people tend to think of individuals with severe mental illness, particularly psychotic disorders.
A piece I wrote for Elle recently, I think for their February issue this year, is about red lipstick and my relationship to red lipstick and how I like to put on red lipstick before I leave the house. And in part that's a nod to the stereotype of people with schizophrenia or the schizophrenia or psychotic disorders having smeared lipstick in public. You know, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? That kind of really terrifying smeared lipstick or Requiem For a Dream, that Ellen Burstyn character is just having this horrific face covered in smeared makeup. It's also a nod to my great aunt who was eventually institutionalized and died in a mental institution.
But my mom, some of the only memories my mom has of that great aunt is of her coming downstairs to eat and having lipstick smeared all over her face. It's a stereotype but also one that a lot of people have experienced and have witnessed as a sign of insanity.
Aminatou: I love that you spoke about your family because when I was reading the book a lot of what I thought about was -- you know, as a West African person -- that the immigrant stigma that is also . . . like that permeates all of the feelings about mental health is something that is so front-of-mind for me. Where, you know, there's this desire to present as high-functioning, for me a lot of times I realize that a lot of it is just tied into my national kind of identity.
Aminatou: And obviously, you know, gender also influences so much of that and class and so many other things. But I think that for me the immigrant line runs strongest. I was really curious about how your cultural background makes you think about a lot of these issues.
Esme: Yeah. I mean my cultural background really impacted even the way I was able to get treatment or not able to get treatment. When I first started to exhibit really serious symptoms of at the time clinical depression in my teenhood my parents didn't really know what to do with me. I would come to them in the middle of the night and show them these cuts all up and down my arms and they just kind of said "Well do you want to see a therapist?" And I was so scared and I just said no and they were like "Okay" and then they kind of didn't touch the topic again. But mostly they were just scared and they also had this stigma, this cultural stigma of not wanting to kind of mar my reputation. They didn't want to mar their reputation. They thought that I -- as immigrants they had given me everything that I could possibly want, and they said this to me when I first brought up the idea of going to therapy. They said "You know, we came to this country. We gave you food. You have a roof over your head. What more could you possibly want?"
And when I finally went to go see a psychiatrist upon the orders of my school counselor who I was seeing kind of in secret, but she determined that I was very severely depressed and needed to see somebody and they kind of called my mom in. We went to see a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist asked "Is there any history of mental illness in your family?" and my mom just said no.
Aminatou: Wow. [Laughs]
Esme: Yeah. I didn't find out until much later that the answer was definitely not no. Our family tree is marred by suicide and institutionalization and depression and panic and alcoholism and addiction and all kinds of things. But when I eventually asked my mom "Well why didn't you say anything to that doctor?" she said like [Chinese 0:16:29]. Like those are things that we don't talk about. So that even prevented me from getting the medical care that I could've used at that time, so yeah, that did have a large effect in many ways.
Aminatou: I mean that, you know, that sentence that you just said that those are just things that we don't talk about, that it's so -- it's so pervasive in almost every culture. It's just that, you know, every culture has their own very specific way that they handle that shame and that's why I keep going back to your book being so generous because I think that it gives a language to so many of us to talk about these things like very specifically. And also for me at least made me feel that mental health is something that I could talk to my African family about even though it sounds very scary because I think that you're right about looking at the family tree and saying like oh yeah, this is what's been going on here forever, you know? And in a way that makes you feel like less alone I guess knowing that it -- or for me at least it did that where I'm like this is part of my family tree and it's part of my legacy and didn't have to deal so much with the . . . I think a question that you wrestle with a lot about whether, you know, your mental illness is removed from this kind of impeccable self that you can have or is it just like a disorder that follows you? And for me at least I found a lot of solace in like okay, the women in my family be depressed, you know? And so we just . . .
Esme: [Laughs] Yeah.
Aminatou: Like that's part of my ancestry, and really trying to grapple with that. And so I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about that?
Esme: Yeah, I think for me . . . sometimes I don't know. I've talked to a couple of people about this, whether the idea of yes, there's an impeccable self and then the illness is kind of laid over you like small pox blankets or whether the illness or disorders are kind of integrated into you and you kind of grow with them and they're, you know, in you. Which is the most useful way of looking at it? And for me I think the latter has been more useful to me in part because I think that the more I search for this impeccable self -- pardon me for using this word -- but the more insane it makes me.
Like I can't . . . first of all I can't remember this impeccable self. The last time this person existed was probably when I was like four. I had mental illness issues from a very young age. I think to try to fight myself in a question for searching for that impeccable self is exhausting. And so I don't think I can find that person and I don't know if it's worth it to try to find that person even though it might be helpful for some people to think of the illness or the disorder as something that they can fight and it's something outside of themselves and you need to defeat it much in the way people talk about cancer as something you need to fight and beat. And then when somebody passes away as a result of cancer then it's like so-and-so lost their battle with cancer. I mean I don't know, I find that kind of language to be quite sad in a lot of ways. For me anyway that's much less helpful than thinking of it as this is a part of me and the more I move around in my life the more oscillations I experience, the more fluctuations I experience. I experience healing as a spiral where I go around and around in a spiral. It's not a linear thing.
Esme: This is something I learned from my therapist but you go around and around. So you keep coming back to the same spot essentially but you're a little bit further out on the spiral. And so that's how I see that concept.
Aminatou: I think that that's so much more helpful because otherwise, you know, we're still centering this idea that we are -- you know, it's like normal people versus crazy people.
Aminatou: And that if you are not -- you know, if every neurotransmitter is not firing 100% that day then there is something which is not normal about you, which it's such an unhelpful way to think but it's also a very unrealistic way to even start to think about that.
Esme: Yeah, I agree. I completely agree.
Aminatou: We talk a lot on the show about, you know, friendship obviously and mental health is something that is both -- you know, it's like an opportunity for friendship and it is also a threat in a lot of friendships because there are just people who don't get it. And I was so touched by everything that you talked about in that essay about being high-functioning because people who are not high-functioning are not seen as desirable in friendship either or in any kind of relationship spectrum. And so I would love to hear your thoughts on what are the challenges for people who have mental illness when they're friends with people who don't understand it but also how people who -- like people from all over the spectrum can be better friends to people who have mental illness.
Esme: Yeah, I mean I think some of the most amazing things that have happened for me over the years as I've gone through more acute phases of illness has been discovering who is willing to be a friend and who is willing to be helpful. When I was very, very ill in late 2013 and I was experiencing some of the worst psychosis I'd ever experienced my husband, C in the book, he put together a care calendar for people to come over and just sit with me for like hours every day just so I wouldn't be alone and so I could feel more safe.
And there was this one friend, and I'll name him -- shout-out to Colin -- and I did not know him at the time. He was a new partner of a friend of mine. But he volunteered for almost all the days. And I barely knew who he was but he showed up. He just kept showing up. And he was so good at just coming over and he brought his work and he would just sit there and he would talk to me sometimes if he felt like I needed, you know, somebody to talk to. But otherwise he would just be quiet and not force anything. And to me that was one of the most wonderful things to realize that people cared, like even people I didn't realize cared cared.
And then of course there are the people like my best friend Merriam whom I've known for over a decade now. She's been absolutely wonderful and just has stuck by me for years through thick and thin and those friendships are also so dear to me. It's also been really wild and interesting to see the friendships that fall away and it's been really important to me to, as I get older, to try and locate the toxicity and the friendships before they get out of control. That's something that I think at this point, now that I'm in my mid- to late-30s, that I need to really start figuring out before it's too late but I'm trying to get better at it.
Aminatou: What do you think are good ways to figure that out?
Esme: I think just warning signs. So much of it is for me ignoring my intuition, just that gut feeling that oh, this is not a good situation.
Esme: Or like, you know, going to my therapist over and over again and bringing up the same topics over and over again. Hearing my therapist very patiently like, you know, not telling me you need to get out of this situation but knowing that it's not a good situation because I keep bringing it up over and over again. And then, you know, finally after like over a year of bringing up the same thing every week finally getting the strength to break it off. I feel like I want to get to a point where as an adult I can kind of make that happen sooner.
Aminatou: I know, and just be surrounded by call ins. I need many more call ins.
Esme: Yeah, yeah, I agree. Everyone needs. Everyone needs more of those.
Aminatou: That's the best. But hey, listen, you're going on this kind of big book tour.
Aminatou: You know, you've written a book that people have been waiting for all year, or for years, and it's finally here. And I'm just wondering how -- like what your strategies are for taking care of yourself while you're on the road because so many people want so much from you right now.
Esme: Yeah, something that's really helped is that with the help of my agent and the person who is helping to manage my tour, Marissa at Graywolf, we've come up with this thing that we jokingly call my rock star rider. And it just describes all the things I want and need, having to do with food and travel.
Aminatou: Uh, please describe the rider in detail, like what is the food? What is the situation? We love a rider on team CYG.
Esme: [Laughs] It's like that stuff like oh, I need gluten-free food. It's got stuff like I can't fly in and then do an event on the same day. It's got stuff like I need wheelchair assist at airports. It helps to have my hotel room near the elevator. Stuff like that. So I've never made so many asks of anybody before. These are all things that I've just kind of struggled with in various other tours or festivals or whatever where I'm like oh, I've walked four blocks and was half-dead by the time I got to the festival. So, you know, I've realized that I need a golf cart to help me get from place to place.
Esme: These are all things that are accommodations that are important for me and we're really trying to make sure -- and I feel really lucky that my team is working really hard to make sure that all of my accommodations happen so that this tour can go as smoothly as possible. And I've also been really paying attention to say Roxane Gay and the way that she shares on social media how her accommodations work and how often she is thwarted or frustrated by people not taking her accommodations into consideration which I just find absolutely frustrating on her behalf because, you know, it's Roxane Gay. Come on. Get it together.
Aminatou: I mean it's also Esme Wang so, you know, it is . . . even the word accommodations, accommodation sends me into orbit in a way that I do not like. It's not accommodating you to ask people to do the bare minimum to make the world a place that you can live in. [Laughs] And so I'm so happy to hear that you have a good team behind you and that, you know, you are listening to your bod and to yourself.
Aminatou: And we are super excited for you. Thank you so much for coming on Call Your Girlfriend.
Esme: Thank you so much. This has been such a joy and a pleasure and an honor. Thank you.
Aminatou: Can you tell us where people can find your work?
Esme: Yes, people can find my work at esmewang.com. There's a whole wide world of excellent stuff there. It's not one of those bare-bones author websites.
Esme: It's like a whole menagerie of stuff. It's amazing.
Aminatou: We love a good author website. Thank you. That's genius.
Ann: One thing I love so much about this collection is it was an education for me but also just on a level of words and literature just so beautiful and so wonderfully-crafted. You know, and I feel like that's just a win/win/win.
Aminatou: I know, queen of words. Queen of self-care. [Laughter] I don't know. Also her name is amazing so I just -- total package. Love it. Triple threat. Multiple threat. Love it. You know what Ann? Let's take a break because Gina's in the room and she says we need an ad break.
[Music and Ads]
Ann: Okay, so speaking of multi-level threats and multi-talented women I spoke to one of my favorite writers and artists Nikki Darling.
Aminatou: Ugh, another incredible name.
Ann: Her given name, Nicole Felicia Darling, love you so much. She and I met because we read at the same reading, at the same small kind of group community reading many years ago. And by total random coincidence both of our stories featured a hamster, both of the things we were reading.
Aminatou: Oh your hamster story! Yeah! [Laughs]
Ann: Oh my god. Anyway, so we've been friends ever since and I've been a fan of her words ever since that first time I heard her read. And she's the author of a new novel called Fade Into You which is a work of what's sometimes called auto fiction or a new narrative. It is 100% a novel but it draws from a lot of themes and kind of broader contexts from her own life. The protagonist is also named Nikki Darling. I love it as an LA book. It's set in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1990s. I love it as a book that really centers and takes super seriously the experience of teen girls. You know there are some works of fiction, whether they're movies or novels or what have you, where you really just feel dropped into a time and place. Like they don't go out of their way to give you a lot of . . . you know like on The West Wing how everything's explained to Donna like she's dumb? You know, like there's not a lot of explained back story.
Aminatou: [Laughs] I feel triggered. I feel triggered and attacked.
Ann: My complaints about The West Wing are another story.
Aminatou: Awful. Let's go back.
Ann: I just love . . . I love narrative with that immersive quality where she's at her own speed and it's like get onboard and catch up, I'm just going to plunge you in. And that is very much how this novel feels to me. Here's Nikki on Fade Into You.
Ann: Nikki, hello.
Nikki: Hi Ann.
Ann: I love your novel so much. One of the reasons why I love it is because I know it draws on a lot of your experiences without being memoir, like it is a novel.
Nikki: It's completely a novel.
Ann: Yeah. And so I feel like as your pal I got to know you better from reading it but also not in this literal way where I'm like why didn't she tell me this story? I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what parts of yourself you decided to include in this and why.
Nikki: Yeah, so I decided to write it in the style of new narrative because that's the genre that my dissertation is about. New narrative being writers who make sort of literary choices that could blur the line between memoir and fiction like Ann Carson or Ilene Miles or a great example is Michelle T. So I decided to use my name because . . .
Ann: You mean for the main character?
Nikki: For the main character who has my name Nikki Darling specifically for the use of this novel because I wanted to create as little distance between the reader and the character as I could because I feel like being in the inferiority of a teenage girl is not something that readers are always familiar with unless they're specifically seeking out that type of literature. There is like a YA tradition of course but my novel is not a YA novel. Just in all my different works and areas of creative output my goal is always first and foremost to elevate the voices of women, and in particular young women. And so the high school in the novel is my high school. The characters in the novel . . .
Aminatou: Which is where?
Nikki: The Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. So the characters are composites of actual people but no one character is one person. Like I took different things from different people that I knew in high school. For instance the Dan character is based on a group of four boys that I knew and I used the face of the most beautiful boy and sort of homogenized the characteristics of the other boys to create the sort of composite. So nothing in the model would've been out of the ordinary in my actual high school experience. I knew intimately the setting in which I was writing.
Ann: The way I sort of read it is you took a few things from your life, and particularly this period of your life -- your teen years -- that were like deeper truths.
Nikki: Yes, yes.
Ann: And then kind of wrote out from there. And I'm wondering if you could talk about what some of those deeper truths or things you were wrestling with as a teen were, or maybe the character Nikki Darling, what is she wrestling with?
Nikki: I just wanted to explore the dynamics of female friendship and the voice of a girl who's not tragic, right? Like she's not tragic. She's had some terrible things happen to her but she still moves through the world and she's not viewed as a tragic character.
Ann: Yeah, I think that one thing that really stands out to me too when I think about things that I learned from this book, which there were many . . .
Nikki: Oh my god, really?
Ann: But, you know, her sort of sense of not just moving between two worlds in the sense that she is mixed-race.
Ann: But also the sense that moving through a lot of worlds, like her school world and her home world or her mom's world and her dad's world and her friend's world. And like, you know, this sense of you getting to see how she changes in these different environments and how that is really at this kind of vulnerable life stage in some ways, how she's internalizing that message that she has to be different in these different spaces.
Nikki: Yes Ann, exactly. Yeah. Yeah, that's exactly it. I mean she's a shape shifter and that element of the book I would say is the most memoir-esque that I pulled from, it's that I am mixed-race. It was really weird to grow up as a mixed-race person who passes. I do not look Latinx. So there are two questions I get asked a lot: is that your real name and what are you? What are you? Is that your real name? What are you? Is that your real name? I'm trying to get rid of that sense of self which is that I have to sort of explain why I'm in the room, right? Or explain who I am or yeah. Like qualify my presence. That's been the most difficult thing about being a mixed-race person is that you kind of are constantly having, yes, like you said to move between these different worlds and navigate.
But in another way that's a privilege, right? Like when I walk into a store I get to decide who I want to be. I mean I always identify myself if that's an issue now but as a child no one tells you how to do that. No one tells you how to navigate social interactions. And yeah, I was privy to a lot of racist conversations growing up because they thought I was just, you know, another white person in the room. And in a lot of ways I am because my access and the way I'm treated when I move through the world is like a white person. But then in my home, my actual home, I'm with my grandpa -- I mean everyone's a Rodriguez.
Ann: In some ways that feels very universal teen to me. When I think about my teen years it was like always feeling a little bit out of place.
Ann: Or kind of trying on different things that I was like does this fit? Do I want to be this?
Ann: And it was really interesting for me and like educational to read about that through lenses that I just did not and do not have. Also it's just like such a great LA time capsule of a period and a moment and a place of the city that I just will never experience because I moved here later than that. So maybe you can talk about that a little bit too and whether you thought consciously about trying to document a period in time in a place in Los Angeles?
Nikki: Absolutely. I mean that was a major factor in why I wrote the book. LA in the '90s was some might say dangerous or scary and certainly there are a lot of elements that were, you know, difficult to navigate. It was right after the riots and right after the earthquake and there was a bit of a recession happening in Los Angeles specifically. There was white flight. There was an influx of immigrants which to some people seem very threatening but that's a lot of what gave the San Gabriel Valley which is the main character in my novel the personality that I moved into.
When I was growing up I actually thought that Los Angeles was a lot more exciting and fun and free in the '90s. And I don't think just because I was a teenager. I talked to other people who lived here then and it was like a different city. First of all I never got carded. I started going out -- really going out at 15. I used to go out to school clubs and by that I mean I'm not joking, people's garages, and you would pay like five dollars to get in and local bands are playing. Then I got a fake ID and as soon as I made friends with slightly older kids I started going to clubs like Jabber Jaw and Cafe Blue and The Garage and Bricktops which Vaginal Davis used to have a -- not a burlesque but a night she was there.
Ann: Right, feminist performance icon Vaginal Davis.
Nikki: It was just a different place. My father who also grew up here, the only thing you can count on as an Angelino is the city you grew up in won't be there when you go looking for it.
Ann: I think that's true of a lot of places that are big and dynamic and draw -- you know, draw people from elsewhere frankly.
Ann: Because they are big and dynamic.
Nikki: But I think there's something extremely unique to Los Angeles that since it's known for cults and new age stuff which is real -- going back to the teens this was a place, like Aimee Semple McPherson, like I know this is a big word right now, like scammers. You know what I mean? It's always . . .
Ann: It's been a scammer paradise for a long time, yeah.
Nikki: Yeah, for charlatans and hucksters and all the way going back, then the movie industry which is fantasy and make believe and this . . .
Ann: A different kind of scammers' paradise. [Laughs]
Nikki: A different kind of scammers' paradise, exactly. But there are actually people who are from here and it is slightly unsettling to grow up having that constantly sort of pushed in your face, this sort of reinvention or this sort of like this isn't like a static place. Nothing beautiful ever lasts here longer than like 50 years. It will be torn down. Like if there's a building you like take a photo. It won't be there when you're like, I don't know . . .
Ann: Like my former gynecologist office in West Hollywood which was this beautiful pink and black and white building.
Nikki: Right, and now it's gone.
Ann: I loved it and now it's gone already and I've only lived here like a decade.
Nikki: That has been the story of my life growing up here and when I came back from New York every year when I was an undergrad it was like oh, what did they tear down now? And so there's this sort of ephemeral sense that nothing is static here and that you sort of have to continually rediscover and reinvent who you are. I wanted the novel to also acknowledge that there are people who have lived here their whole lives and are from here and have family that are from here where that becomes not a burden but it's difficult sometimes. It's a static relationship to a place that resists . . .
Nikki: Stasis. That resists stasis. Thank you.
Ann: One of the things that I've always admired about you as an artist is that you are really great at just saying yeah, this is a thing I do and doing it. You know, there are a lot of people who are very tortured about like oh, I want to be a writer or I want to be a performer or I want to be a visual artist but they're not actually doing the thing. They just kind of feel a feeling. And you have always been someone who you're just like always doing the thing, or multiple things. It always feels to me at least that the external validation of a publisher or a gallery or all of these things that kind of signify you are in fact an artist or you are in fact a writer have been secondary to you. In this moment especially when there's a perception that you can put your work on the Internet or in the world and immediately people will tell you if it's good or not and if they don't say anything then it must not be good and people . . . you know, there's this sense of immediate feedback and that everything has to be working out right away. And I just wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you knew that for example this was a great idea for a novel? Because it actually is. And how did you kind of double down on that and stick with it?
Nikki: Oh wow, thank you. That's so nice. Well I didn't know this was a great idea for a novel. I was hoping. The other thing I should say is okay, by no means do I think I'm old. Like I don't think I'm old but I'm 38 so it's like I've been at this for a minute. But not everything I do gets recognized.
Ann: 100%, yeah.
Nikki: Is what I'm trying to say, so there's a lot of stuff I do that doesn't hit, right?
Nikki: I throw a lot of things and not everything sticks. But the things that do are usually the best ones and that's good because then people end up seeing the best of what I can do. But there are lots of things that I wanted in the world that didn't make it in the world and now I'm grateful for because I look back and I say oh, that publisher or that gallery or whatever, they were right. I don't think it's bad but it's not the best that I can do and perhaps it's not as focused or clear as I thought it was. I am an absolute and total workaholic. I am constantly working. So for every essay that gets recognized like the Axl Rose one there's . . .
Ann: Oh yeah, pause button. Do you want to give the brief synopsis of that? Because we can link it in the show notes too but I feel . . .
Nikki: Oh, just an essay that I wrote got into Best Music Writing a while ago.
Ann: A brilliant, brilliant essay about Axl Rose.
Nikki: Thank you.
Ann: That everyone who's listening to this should read.
Nikki: Thank you.
Ann: Yes, go on. Sorry.
Nikki: When I was a music journalist. That is just to say for every essay about Axl Rose there are six or seven others that never saw the light of day or if they did they just wilted on the vine, right? So it's like I do not want to pass soon, I have so much left to do, but if I were to pass and you were to open my Emily Dickinson trunk.
Ann: Oh you mean like die?
Ann: Sorry, I was like pass what? What's the test? Sorry.
Nikki: Yeah, if you found me -- you found my Emily Dickinson . . .
Ann: Trove, yeah.
Nikki: Trove. It would be filled with shit for someone who's 38. Like I have made and done so much fucking shit that has never seen the light of day and I have tried so hard to get it into the world and it's just never made it. So for me it feels as if my output that people end up seeing is actually very small compared to what I make.
Ann: Yeah, tip of your creative iceberg.
Nikki: Right. So that's just part of who I am is I'm always -- I'm never not working.
Ann: Right. It's funny because one thing we worked together on a million years ago was that you wrote an article for me about Kesha.
Ann: And I think of this sometimes because it was in an era when people were still kind of mocking her as a party girl before she had told her story about abuse and before she had become more of the advocate that I think she's kind of publicly positioned as today. And you really saw something in her and I feel like it's not dissimilar from the really kind of sweet and compassionate way you deal with these teen girls in your book. I wonder if you could just talk about that a little bit? About like young women and how you position your work towards them or how you center them in your work.
Nikki: Oh Ann, you're inching towards intimacy.
Nikki: I hate talking about my feelings. I also talk a lot because I'm a Gemini but I guess the short answer is I had a very difficult emotional time as a young person.
Nikki: I am a no longer active addict, you know, so I coped with a lot of my sort of difficult childhood through drugs and alcohol and acting out. You know, whatever. I stripped. [Laughs] Which I think is fine. Sex work is fine. I'm not saying that that's not fine, but for me it was not fine. It's fine for some people. For me it did not feel authentic to who I was. I just wanted a world where young women didn't have to feel like their only options to be seen or to succeed or to be heard were through submitting themselves willingly to a culture that is inherently misogynistic. And so if I could shed light on anything it was that we have no idea what teenage girls are feeling. And even the girl that's in the happiest home still has to bear the weight of being a teenage girl and it's infinitely more difficult than we give credit for because everything is just like . . . we don't give teenage girls enough credit. We shortchange them. We say their experience is fun or flirty or whatever but it's not. It's difficult and it's painful. Ann is crying and so I am fine now, not because I cried first. Ann cried first. [Laughs] I hate intimacy! It's so hard for me.
Ann: I mean this is exactly what's so good about your book though.
Nikki: Oh thank you. [Laughs]
Ann: I feel like that is actually, sorry, the emotional summary of what I love about your book.
Nikki: Oh thank you.
Ann: Last question.
Ann: I would love if you would talk about a few books that you see as being spiritual companions to your novel.
Nikki: Yes, I would love to. Well first . . .
Ann: Like for fans of . . .
Nikki: Yes. So I would first like to draw attention to a book that I recently read that is not even out yet that is so incredible and amazing and such a fantastic read, and it is a YA novel. It's by Lilliam Rivera who I am going to have a conversation in Lithub with. It's called Dealing in Dreams. It comes out in March. Freaking this book is so good! It is futuristic and dystopian but it takes place in the future and it's about a girl gang and it's also like a POC story which for me is so exciting because I feel like so many of the books that we get about kids of color revolve around, I don't know, Boys in the Hood type stuff which is fine. That's a beautiful film but it's like that's not the only experience, you know what I mean? So it's very cool to have these science fiction characters which is I think also in the long tradition itself with like Octavia Butler and different -- Samuel Delany, different science fiction writers.
Ann: Women of color own science fiction, let's be real.
Nikki: Yeah, yeah. And there is Samuel Delany who is queer but that book is amazing. I will never stop standing up for Go Ask Alice. It gets pooped on so much.
Ann: Who wrote Go Ask Alice?
Nikki: Anonymous. It's not -- I mean we know who wrote it now.
Ann: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Who wrote it?
Nikki: She was like a 35-year-old Christian counselor or something. She was trying to warn kids.
Ann: Beatrice Sparks.
Nikki: Also amazing literary name, like just say it was written by Beatrice Sparks. It's so great. But the reason I love this book is not because I think it should be laughed at but because I think it's incredibly well-written and it's kind of genre defining. A major part of why I wrote my novel the way that I did in sort of like staccato little sections was because I was greatly influenced by that book but also the first books do kind of employ what we now think of as Valley speech. Like it's just the rhythm as a writer that she has, her sort of da-da-da-da-da-da. Just like the poetic way in which her sentences unfold are so strange and I nerd out on it as a writer. Like it's written in this way that's actually extremely complicated and . . .
Ann: Right, as a kind of diary style but more than that.
Nikki: Well because it's not, right? It's not a diary.
Ann: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Nikki: In that way then it becomes surreal because it's like we're extending our level of imagination. But it's like the language is so cool.
Ann: Right, and this is a 1971 book that was really kind of seen as like fluffy teen girl, like . . .
Nikki: Right. It was panned.
Ann: A sad teen girl book, yeah.
Nikki: Well when it first came out it got really great reviews in the same way A Million Little Pieces did. But I think because it was seen as sensational people thought it was a memoir. Once it was revealed that it was not a memoir and that it was not a found diary and that it was written by a grown woman then it became like a joke.
Ann: Yeah, once it was some -- like a grown woman's art project about the experience of being a teen girl, yeah.
Nikki: Exactly. Exactly. And then I think the actual sentence-by-sentence quality of the book was never fully investigated. And I don't know, for me as a writer if someone were to write this book today I think people would just not be able to stop talking about how exciting it was to read. So I love that book.
Ann: I'm going to go read it. I don't think I even read it as a teen. I remember seeing it around but I never read it.
Nikki: But you know about it?
Ann: Yeah, I know about it. I'm going to read it.
Nikki: Oh my god, it's amazing. It's like the character is so snotty. So actually to plug a little thing I wrote recently -- I think you saw an article in Electric Literature about ten novels about addiction by women that are not Bukowski and that was one of them. So if you want to read my review of Go Ask Alice.
Ann: Electric Lit.
Nikki: Yeah. Also my book also, to stay in time with this, I love Less Than Zero. Like I think it's so good by Bret Easton Ellis.
Ann: Oh, Less Than Zero. Sorry, I didn't hear what you . . .
Nikki: And a little fun thing about my title Fade Into You, it was extremely deliberate. Nothing I do is accidental. I think that's the other thing I should tell people, I am a super control freak. Like I am not laid back at all. And everything I do has way more thought in it than I think people realize. So Go Ask Alice is a song lyric from Jefferson Airplane which sort of defined its generation.
Ann: Right, Less Than Zero.
Nikki: And the '80s Less Than Zero, Elvis Costello. And then Fade Into You is Mazzy Star.
Ann: Oh, I love it! The layahs as Mary Berry would say, the layahs.
Nikki: I was very much deliberately trying to put my novel in a sort of lineage with these teen novels.
Ann: Cool. Ugh.
Nikki: And they're both novels that are written in little chunky -- they don't have chapters.
Nikki: I think that bugged my editor. She's like "Why aren't there chapters?" I care very little for what other people think about what I'm doing as I'm making it.
Ann: Yes! That's what I mean.
Nikki: Yes. Once it's in the world then I'm interested to know what people think. That's when you can studio visit my book.
Ann: Right. So everyone who is listening to this should buy Fade Into You and you want them to read it and have feelings about it.
Aminatou: Nikki Darling, a legend.
Ann: A legend.
Aminatou: A legend. A Los Angeles legend.
Ann: Nikki Darling also has a website, nikkidarling.biz. [Laughs]
Aminatou: That's great. I'm really excited to read Nikki's book. Also total aside I love that we have the same structural problems with West Wing. That'll be another podcast.
Aminatou: But in the meantime what else has been on your reading shelf?
Ann: So at the . . . I think it was maybe last fall a friend of mine recommended a novel by a German writer named Jenny Erpenbeck called Go Went Gone and this really dovetails with a commitment I made to read more books by writers who are not from the United States or not living in America. More work in translation. And the book is a novel about a retired white college professor in East Berlin and the friendships and relationships he develops with a group of African men who are living in Berlin and kind of falling between the cracks of European refugee law.
Ann: And I hae to say that I think she does a pretty incredible job of letting you see the shortcomings and the kind of privileged blind spots of the narrator without letting you believe that she also adheres to those views. He's kind of one of these trying his best white people which, you know . . .
Aminatou: Whew child. [Laughs]
Ann: Listen, at certain points I'm going to speak for myself as a white human, like a trying my best white person is sometimes where I max out, you know? Not saying I'm proud of it. But anyway I love the way that this book takes something that has dominated headlines and gives it a true literary consideration and really does not try to make a statement about this is what should happen but really tries to investigate on a themes and values level what's going on with really, really incredible prose. I'm feeling some sadness that I'll never be able to read it in its original. I mean who knows? Maybe I'll master German at some point before I die but yeah. [Laughs] What are you reading?
Aminatou: A book that I read recently that made me very happy is 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret which is like a very trashy biographic of Princess Margaret of The Crown fame, the British Crown fame.
Ann: Netflix's The Crown?
Aminatou: Of Netflix's The Crown. [Laughter] I just haven't read -- like I don't read a ton of biographies I realize. You know, I'm like who has the time? Turns out I have plenty of time and I'm putting biographies in heavy rotation. So Princess Margaret pops up in almost every other biography of her contemporaries. There's always a Princess Margaret moment.
Ann: She was a gal about time.
Aminatou: Yeah, she was like a real ho. Always like a social ho, like everywhere. The book is legit riveting. The family is so trashy. As I told you before I don't know how Meghan Markle's mom let her marry into this family. These people. These people.
Aminatou: You know, it's a study of this younger princess. She's never going to be queen so she's just trying to live her life. And the thing that's good about the book is it puts it all in context. She's somebody that Picasso desperately wanted to marry. She dated all these kind of just dudes that were alive in the 20th century.
Ann: Known misogynist Pablo Picasso?
Aminatou: Yeah, known misogynist Pablo Picasso had a huge thing for Princess Margaret. Honestly she's kind of a truant. Like that's the word that comes to mind. I was like oh, you just come from a rich family. If you were fully a black teenager somebody would be trying to arrest you to go back to school. [Laughs] Like all the time. The royal family is protected by so many gatekeepers and so usually that story gets really sanitized and it's told in a certain kind of way. And this book is written by a man. I don't read a lot of books written by men anymore but this . . .
Ann: Wow, buried the dirty secret. [Laughs]
Aminatou: I know, it's the dirty secret of this thing. You know, it's written by a man. Good job Craig Brown. This lady had a wild life.
Ann: I'm going to make a quick plug on the books that have to do with sisters and are a very quick, very absorbing read. For My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite it's not the kind of book I usually like because murder. But I read it in like one sitting on a relaxing weekend afternoon and recommend it.
Aminatou: Wow, you're recommending murder content?
Ann: You know what? There's a first time for everything.
Aminatou: I know. What did you like about it?
Ann: I liked that it is about a kind of complicated sisterly dynamic/a complicated relationship between two women and the dead people are men. Frankly I hate dead women content.
Ann: But I'm going to be honest with you about why this may have skipped through my filter. [Laughs]
Aminatou: You're like men? It's possible that the men die?
Ann: I know! This is why I don't do lots of other murder content because it's all dead women. Anyway.
Aminatou: There's some iconic SVU episodes where men die, let me tell you.
Aminatou: The other book that I read that also just came out recently is Morgan Parker's essay collection called Magical Negro.
Aminatou: And it's truly wonderful. Morgan is the undefeated MVP of naming a book. Like the SEO is delightful. But you feel her growing up through reading her where she's just in this place in life where things are more raw, they are more hyper-specific, and that thing you said about Nikki Darling earlier as somebody who can really put you in a time and a place, Morgan's poetry does that for me. And she is hyper-specific with her references and, you know, she really challenges the magical negro trope in every way and it's really an essay collection about celebrating just the ordinariness of black life and of her life. And it's a great read. And I want to make a plug for a book that I have been giving all of the babies in my life recently Ada Twist Scientist which is a picture book. You know, it's inspired by Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie. And so Ada Twist Scientist, it's basically championing girls and women scientists. But what I like to do is give it to all the boys in my life. It's just like a really great picture book and it gives you boundless imagination for what life can be.
Ann: Ugh, that's an amazing review. My last shout-out is another novel. It's called Talent, written by a wonderful writer and editor named Juliet Lapidos. And I just asked her to leave a little voice memo about the book and about what else she's reading and what inspired it. So I'm just going to kick it to her.
Juliet: I'm Juliet Lapidos, author of the new novel Talent. Talent is about a graduate student who can't finish her dissertation, a book binder with a spotty past, a dead short story writer who stopped writing short stories, and the notebooks that bind them all together. The novel takes its name from the New Testament parable of the talents. It's set in a place very much like New Haven, Connecticut but I don't call it that for reasons that will become clear if you read the book closely. When I was working on Talent I tried not to read novels that I thought were similar in style, structure, or objective. But here's a reading list of books that are kind of like mine but only better.
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis which is a very funny campus novel. Stoner by John Williams, a very sad campus novel. And The Aspirin Papers by Henry James, a truly great novella about an ambitious editor who is trying to get his hands on a dead poet's letters to his lover. I'd also like to recommend Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin, a Spanish language writer from Argentina who lives in Berlin. Fever Dream is a short spooky book that consists entirely of dialogue. It came out in 2017. Thanks and happy reading.
Aminatou: Ugh, look at this.
Ann: So much to read.
Aminatou: Reading books is good. It's always good. You can always tell the people in your life who don't read books. They say stupid things all the time. That's my plug for read more books, don't be dumb. Read books or we will read you.
Ann: Fair warning. Fair warning.
Aminatou: So that's usually how that works.
Ann: I will see you at the public library/independent bookseller.
Aminatou: [Laughs] You can find us many places on the Internet, on our website callyourgirlfriend.com, you can download the show anywhere you listen to your favs, or on Apple Podcasts where we would love it if you left us a review. You can email us at email@example.com. We're on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook at @callyrgf. You can even leave us a short and sweet voicemail at 714-681-2943. That's 714-681-CYGF. Our theme song is by Robyn, original music is composed by Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs, our logos are by Kenesha Sneed, our associate producer is Destry Maria Sibley. This podcast is produced by Gina Delvac.