Episode 121: Winter Books
Published December 1, 2017.
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.
Aminatou: Hello Ann Friedman!
Ann: Ugh, it's the most wonderful time of the year. A books episode.
Aminatou: [Laughs] It's like what is this girl smoking?
Ann: [Laughs] You know exactly what I'm smoking.
Aminatou: Oh my gosh.
Ann: For real though it's like it's reading season. I feel like I do more reading in the last month of the year than I do in the prior ten months or whatever.
Aminatou: You know, I hadn't noticed but you're probably right. But, you know, we're also constantly reading so it's hard to tell. But I will say I've been reading a lot more for pleasure recently and that's like a gamechanger for me.
Ann: Oh my god, you've given up your business books habit?
Aminatou: Okay, first of all that's always pleasure.
Aminatou: Please don't malign. Please don't malign biz books. Well, I guess maybe I should say that I'm reading more fiction which you know for me is nuts. I'm enjoying it so much. I'm just like oh, this is why people read fiction. This is fun. Imagination run rampant.
Ann: What is the best fiction book you've read this year?
Aminatou: It's called The Wedding Date and actually I interviewed the author Jasmine Guillory about it and you'll get to listen to it in a minute. But I can't tell you, Ann. You know how I feel about fiction. But this was super fun. The book is super sexy and funny. I read it all in like one sitting after I had surgery a few weeks ago and I never wanted it to finish. It's just like really funny and honest.
Aminatou: And it's a romance. Can you believe I'm telling you this? That I read a romance?
Ann: I can't even believe this.
Aminatou: And I loved it? Yes.
Ann: People can change.
Aminatou: No, I haven't changed. Jasmine Guillory's just amazing.
Ann: Ugh, yes.
Jasmine: My name is Jasmine Guillory. I am a writer and a lawyer living in California and my first book The Wedding Date comes out January 30th, 2018.
Aminatou: I love that you're a lawyer/writer because that's kind of what your book is about. [Laughs]
Jasmine: Yeah. A little bit. [Laughs]
Aminatou: Without giving out too many details can you tell the listeners the plot of the book?
Jasmine: Yes. The book is about a man and a woman who meet because they get stuck in an elevator in a hotel in San Francisco and he convinces her to be his date to his ex-girlfriend's wedding that's happening that weekend. And then they decide that they have some feelings for each other after being together at the wedding and all sorts of exciting things happen.
Aminatou: This makes me so happy because everybody who listens to CYG and my IRL friends know how I'm starved for reading fiction. I'm such an idiot. I never do. And when I do I'm like oh, imagination. Sparks. Creativity. This is how . . . it's like oh, this is how to activate another part of your brain. But the thing I loved about your book is just how modern it feels, you know? There's nothing hokey about it at all. It's super-modern, it's super-sexy, and it's very charming. And it's a romance.
Jasmine: Well thank you so much for saying that. I think it's funny that you talk about you read my book when you had surgery because one of the things that got me into reading romance novels was when I had surgery a few years ago and I -- before basically, and all during my recovery, I read zillions of romance novels. And I had been writing before that, but when I started reading them I was like these are delightful to read but I would never want to write one. And then a little while later I kept thinking I really enjoy reading books but there's so many that don't feel like my friends and me, you know?
Jasmine: People who live in cities and have jobs that they care about and like. There's so many people who have jobs that don't seem like part of their world, and a lot of people I know, jobs are central to their lives. And I wanted people who cared about their jobs and friends and lived in cities, but also fell in love and had a relationship with one another because of that. And so I'm really glad that you liked that about my book because that was really one of the things that I wanted to do.
Aminatou: Yeah. You know, I also love that race comes up in the book. And that's so in our lives, you and me at least, and I imagine a lot of people who are listening.
Aminatou: That's so normal, and it's not in this overwrought like "Oh my god, there's an interracial relationship. How will we handle this?" It's like no, some people are of color and some people are white and here is how that intersects in a romance and a life.
Jasmine: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that is normal to have those quick conversations about race, like not big like "We need to talk about this" things, but in a -- you know, when you're walking into a party and being like am I going to be the only person here? And not even just in a romantic relationship; like with my friends. Sometimes I go to a party at a friend's house and I'm like oh, who else are you inviting that might look like me? So I'm glad that that resonated with other women of color especially.
Aminatou: Yeah. You know, and I love also that Drew, the white male character in your book, he just becomes more and more mindful of his privilege and I'm like oh my god, is this the woke definition of sexy? Because I'm really into it.
Jasmine: [Laughs] One of the things that I wanted to do with Drew . . . it didn't feel realistic for him to have thought of some of those things, you know? Like I think when she first brings it up to him he's like oh, that never occurred to me, which is often what a lot of white people who hadn't thought about that will say when their black girlfriend or black friend brings that up. But having someone react in a good way is so important to continue a relationship. Like I hadn't thought of that and now I will think of it.
Jasmine: As opposed to "I haven't thought of that. That's a stupid thing for you to worry about. Don't worry, all of my friends are nice." Which is what some people say. "My friends don't worry about color." That is not the answer to that question. [Laughs]
Aminatou: The number one way that I've convinced everybody in my life to preorder your book is I've told them it's also very raunchy and I was like "Listen, you guys, this is very sexy writing and you're 100% going to be into it." And it makes sense, right? Because it's like their connection starts out as duh, physical. You know, like how many of us know that? It's like oh, I'm really into that person. And then you're like oh, maybe there's real feelings there.
Jasmine: Maybe there's something more.
Aminatou: There's such a thing about . . . I feel like we haven't had any good romcoms recently.
Aminatou: And so much of your book captures that perfect romcom feeling where it's like oh, I'm laughing, but also this is raunchy and this is sexy and it's funny. And it's just like so great.
Jasmine: Oh, yay. Thank you so much. The funniest thing for me from that was when my dad read a galley of the book.
Aminatou: No! [Laughs] My dad will not be reading a galley of your book.
Jasmine: He did not appreciate . . . he did not appreciate the raunchiness. One text he sent me, to preface this my parents have been divorced for 15 years, he sent me a text that said "Oh my god, does your mother know?" [Laughs]
Aminatou: Oh my god. It's like does your mother know that you're a red-blooded woman?
Jasmine: Which just made me laugh very hard. Yes. Right.
Aminatou: Oh gosh. Yeah, my dad will not be reading your book. That's not going to happen. You know, what do you think about people who say that reading romance books is not feminist at all? Or that it's also an indulgence that women shouldn't do
Jasmine: I mean it just seems like more sexism, right?
Jasmine: Romance novels . . . the vast majority of romance novels are written by women for women. And of course people are going to look down on something that's about women being happy, right? I feel like all of society makes fun of things that women like, so of course people are going to make fun of romance novels because women like them. I mean of course there are feminist romance novels. Of course there are anti-feminist romance novels just like literally everything else in the world. It just makes me sort of roll my eyes. Of course people are going to do that. People do it with young adult books too because mostly teenage girls read them so of course they're going to make fun of them because everybody likes to make fun of teenage girls. And I think teenage girls are great and I also think that women are great so I like writing books for and about women.
Aminatou: Yeah. And surprise, surprise, both young adult novels and romance novels make hella money for the publishing industry. But because it's women-dominated nobody takes it seriously.
Jasmine: Right. Yeah. I just find . . . I mean I just find the whole thing . . . or people who've never read a romance novel, or the last one they read was written sometime in the '80s where someone got raped on their wedding night or like a whole Luke and Laura fell in love with your rapist thing.
Jasmine: Okay, but you know, seriously, that's not what romance novels written in 2017 are like so maybe read a few books and then update your feelings on that.
Aminatou: That's so real. I want to talk about work also. The whole time you were being a badass lawyer in California, were you like one day I'm going to write a novel? Or did you . . . you know, what was the trajectory there? Because I'm always so jealous of people who have demanding jobs who make time for creative output.
Jasmine: Well, so that's exactly why I started writing. I grew up as a huge reader and always have been but it never occurred to me to start writing until I was in my mid-30s. I mean I don't know exactly why that is. Maybe I just never envisioned myself as a writer or I thought of writers as being different kinds of people than the person that I was. But I was in a job where I kind of realized I wasn't doing anything creative. My job was taking a lot of energy but the creative part in my brain wasn't being used. And I'm thinking what can I do creative in my life? I can't sing. I can't draw. I really like to cook but that doesn't really feel like the thing. I've always loved to read. Maybe I should try writing. And I had a very tentative conversation with a friend who's a writer because I felt very nervous about it. I mean I wanted to be a lawyer since I was 12, so I always pictured myself as a lawyer, and it felt really strange and kind of like a betrayal to decide maybe I'll try something else. And my friend was like "Oh, yeah, absolutely. You should try it." And I just kind of started writing a novel then.
You know, I wrote that year. I got a lot of help from friends. And then I just sort of kept going, and then that's where this book came from. So this wasn't my first book, but I think everything I tried to write in the past helped me kind of develop as a better writer and my voice and to know what I wanted to write about I think too.
Aminatou: That's so cool, and also that you get to keep doing both of the things that you love doing.
Jasmine: Yes, absolutely.
Aminatou: Who do you want to play Drew and Alexa in the inevitable movie that's going to come out of this?
Jasmine: Oh my god. Well, first of all, let's sneak that into the world because that would be amazing.
Aminatou: Hollywood, call us.
Jasmine: People have asked me that a lot and I cannot think of the right woman for Alexa. For Drew I feel like one of the Chrises would be excellent.
Aminatou: One of the Chrises? Done. [Laughs]
Jasmine: Yeah, either Pine or . . .
Jasmine: The other one. Evans. Pine or Evans I feel like.
Aminatou: What about Thor? The big one?
Jasmine: He's a little too big I feel like.
Aminatou: Okay. Okay. Sorry, Chris Hemsworth, you don't get to participate in this.
Jasmine: Yeah. You don't -- yeah. The problem with Alexa is everybody I can think of that I know of in Hollywood is either the wrong age or a little too skinny, which I understand being too skinny is just going to be a thing in Hollywood so I'm sure that would change for any movie my vision of what the character is.
Aminatou: Maybe we'll find a young upstart, or maybe I'll become an actress just for you Jasmine.
Jasmine: Oh, that's a great idea. Excellent. Someone this weekend did suggest -- which I don't watch How to Get Away With Murder but someone suggested one of the women in that.
Aminatou: Oh, yes.
Jasmine: Kerry Washington I think is a little -- is not quite right, but I like the idea of Kerry Washington. She just doesn't seem quite right for the character.
Aminatou: Don't worry, Hollywood will find the right person for this.
Jasmine: All right. All right.
Aminatou: What's next for you after this? So the book comes out early next year, yes?
Jasmine: Yeah, the book comes out in January. So I have another book that I'm working on that is a follow-up to this book about Carlos who is Drew's best friend from this book called The Proposal. And that one is set in L.A.
Aminatou: Yes. I love that you've cornered this. I love that you've cornered the modern romance market.
Jasmine: Yeah, yeah. [Laughs]
Aminatou: That's great.
Jasmine: I'm really excited about the second one too. It's called The Proposal. It starts because a woman is at Dodger Stadium with her boyfriend. He proposes to her on the jumbotron and she says no.
Jasmine: And it's about what happens afterwards. And Carlos is sitting right behind her and sort of helps her get away from all of the people wanting to talk to her about it.
Aminatou: Holy shit, that's amazing. Well congrats Jasmine. Thank you so much for talking to us.
Jasmine: Thank you so much.
Aminatou: CYG listeners, you can preorder The Wedding Date on Amazon or at your closest independent bookstore. You will not regret it.
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Ann: I am also excited because I interviewed the author of one of my favorite books of 2017, which is a short story collection called Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Mario Machado. It's so, so good. Honestly I know I keep saying I'm going to mail a copy to you and it's sitting in an envelope. I just haven't mailed it to you because you are going to love especially the chapter that is based on SVU.
Aminatou: Oh my god, send me this book.
Ann: I finally understand the appeal. [Laughs] It took like an amazing work of fiction to make me understand the appeal of SVU but I feel like I understand why people love SVU now.
Aminatou: Dun, dun.
Ann: Dun, dun. [Laughs] This book is so good. She was a finalist for the National Book Award and she did not end up winning it but she won the National Book Award of my heart and also she's incredible.
Aminatou: [Laughs] Please start giving out more awards from your heart.
Ann: Hi, thanks for being on the podcast today.
Carmen: Thank you so much for having me.
Ann: I am obsessed with this collection you've written and I want to first ask you about the biggest, longest piece in the middle that is about SVU because I think that a lot of our listeners, unlike me, are probably long-time Law and Order: SVU watchers and fans. I have forever been the one woman in my friend circle who doesn't watch it and doesn't get it. And I have to say that reading it, your take on this, especially in the context of your book, has made me kind of change my opinion or understand a little better what's appealing about watching it.
Ann: So maybe you could talk a little bit about that piece and what you're doing with the trope that is SVU.
Carmen: Yeah. It's so funny. You are the third or fourth person to say to me "I've never seen the show." People seem really interested in that story, and I think it's because . . . and I've heard somebody describe Law and Order: SVU as the fairy tale of our time. But there's this really great essay by Kate Bernheimer that I teach when I teach fairy tales as a writing teacher where she talks about how fairy tales have this very specific, very pleasurable form that repeats itself and that form includes things like sort of abstract language, what is called flatness, so basically this psychological depth. There isn't the traditional psychological depth that you'd imagine. People say "Oh, this character feels two dimensional and not three dimensional," and normally that's some sort of a bad thing. But she's like in a fairy tale that's very conventional, right? It's like the witch, the girl, the boy. It's not . . . you know, if the witch tries to eat somebody they don't become neurotic when they grow up, you know?
Carmen: So there's no psychological depth. But then her argument is that lack of psychological depth provokes a depth of response in the reader. And then also part of this convention is normalized magic, which in the original Law and Order, it's a realist show. There's no magic. There's no ghosts. But I definitely think I sort of took that and injected the magic that would make it a real fairy tale and sort of tried to get at the pleasure of that show which is the repeating formula that sort of brings us back to the beginning every time and tells us something very essential about how we think about sexual violence and how we think about women and how we think about ourselves. And I'm mostly really interested in the fact that Law and Order: SVU, I mean if you don't count the true crime one that's out now which I don't really because it's not really Law and Order . . .
Carmen: Like Law and Order: SVU is the only actively-running Law and Order franchise.
Carmen: And what does it mean that the rape one is the one that we can't stop watching and that is so successful and that people are really obsessed with? With this story I was trying to tackle my own complicated relationship with the show which I feel is both in some ways sort of exploitative and not super aware of its own problematic stance on a lot of things, and also in some ways it's very subversive. And so I don't know. I feel like I was like well, I have complicated feelings about this. I'm just going to try to tackle it as best as I know how.
Ann: Well, and for me that magical element was kind of a crucial way into it where I was like okay, you know, whatever you said about the episodes that are more true crime inspired is how I felt about it for a long time. But when I read it with this kind of magical twist, that definitely unlocks something for me about what other viewers are seeing.
Ann: And so I'm curious. We had on the podcast a couple of weeks ago Margaret Atwood.
Carmen: Oh, yeah.
Ann: And she was talking about speculative fiction and choosing that label over -- or perhaps preferring it over a label like science fiction.
Ann: And your work, I've seen it put in several different genre categories, both of those among them. To me that's usually a sign -- maybe this is a writerly thing -- that people can't put their finger on exactly what you're doing, or you're doing something that is actually kind of different than all of those things but those are the buckets we have for them.
Ann: And I'm curious if there is a label you use, or if any of those terms feel more right to you than others for your work.
Carmen: Yeah. I mean I feel like this is also an argument that happens where people get really stressed out depending on what camp or community they belong to. So I think . . . I love Margaret Atwood's work and I feel like she's been really -- people get really stressed out because I've heard her say things like "My work is . . ." Like she sort of uses these more moderating or softening labels. And people get mad. They're like "Oh, why wasn't she claiming she's a genre writer?" They get really stressed out about it. People in genres like science fiction and fantasy and horror are used to being sort of ghettoized and marginalized in the literary community, in the literary world. I sort of accept all labels just because I don't really care. [Laughs]
Carmen: Like I wouldn't say I'm a science fiction writer. I've only written one science fiction story, and that's Inventory. And so I feel like that I wouldn't label because I feel like that does not actually -- like I don't operate in those rules. I'd say I'm more of a luminal fantasy/magical realist/speculative fiction/literary surrealism. You know, I feel like I'm in there somewhere. But I'm not super interested in any of . . . or horror writer. Like I feel like I'm not really interested in fully occupying one of those buckets. It's like whatever you want to call it, I don't really care, because I get to do what I want to do.
I think my work is literary in the sense I'm very concerned with language and psychology. That's part of my project. And so that's a style. You can have literary fantasy and literary science fiction and literary horror, which just means the style is literary and the genre which is like the world building rules are horror or sci-fi or fantasy or whatever.
Ann: Well whatever label you use for it, I feel like we're living in this moment, especially for women, for people of color, for queer people, when the surreal has never felt more real.
Ann: Which is not to say that things have never been difficult. I think I would've read this book really differently if I had read it in the last year of Obama's term as opposed to now. And I know it's kind of a complicated thing to be like "Talk about the political."
Ann: But I'm curious about this idea of the surrealist elements and what is real and how in touch your characters or maybe you feel with the world, how that came into play while you were writing this.
Carmen: Yeah. You know, it's been really weird. Like I recently did an interview where someone asked me "Why do you think your book's doing so well?" And I was like "I feel part of it . . . it's really shitty, but part of the reason it's doing so well is because the world's coming apart." I mean it always was kind of coming apart, but I feel like it's coming apart now in a more active and sort of visible way. Yeah, it's weird because it's like I sold it when Obama was still president.
Ann: Right, right.
Carmen: But short story collections tend to think about whatever the writer's been thinking about for the past X number of years. And so for me and my book it just reflected this quality of how being a woman can really suck sometimes and how we hate women. I feel like those ideas are just kind of coming up naturally anyway. And so it's weird because then suddenly Trump was elected. These really ugly things that were maybe slightly more hidden before became a little more explicit. People started panicking and suddenly my book is there. But I don't know if it reflects the panic I was already having two years ago, or over the last five years.
Ann: There's like an inherent panic I think in some ways into -- god, when you step away from it a little bit and look at it a little more removed. It is horror. Like there's a lot about women's bodies. You know, and also the experience of being in one, the kind of inherent control and violence that we just slowly become used to. I don't know a way to ask this that doesn't seem totally invasive in a 15-minute interview, but your own relationship with your body, if there are things that like you are . . . you were like oh, yeah, this has got to be part of this story, or if there's something specific that you wanted to work through with some of those aspects of the book.
Carmen: I mean I feel like I wanted to write about sexual violence. I wanted to write about domestic abuse. I wanted to write about fatness. I wanted to write about sex and especially sex with men. I'm queer, I'm married to a woman, but I have been with lots of men. I was interested in sort of writing about that dynamic. So I feel like all the things that were on my mind, like mental health is another one. Like I wanted to write about mental health and how to talk about mental health as a woman and as a queer woman because, you know, there are these sort of stereotypes about the crazy lesbian and how women are insane and all these things. So I felt like . . .
Ann: What would drive a woman to queerness, right? That kind of thing?
Carmen: Yeah. Like there's just . . . I don't know. I really wanted to just kind of go face-in to all these things. The only thing that I didn't . . . that I don't really explicitly touch on in this collection, because I feel like I'm still kind of working through it, is I mean I'm Hispanic but I'm mixed. My mom is white. I'm really interested in writing about race and being a white passing person of color but also that's not a thing that really was in this book because it's something I'm still sort of thinking a lot about and then possibly writing about for my next. Not my next book, which is a memoir, but the book after that.
But mostly besides that I've touched on all the things that really in my personal life are things that I think about often, and I worked through them by writing stories about them. Which is weird because I feel like people are always like "Don't use your fiction as a therapist." And it's not like that. It's more just sort of like wow, I think about fatness constantly and the politics of fatness and I eventually wrote an essay about fatness but I had to write a short story first.
Ann: And so with a topic like that where you're like I know I want to explore fatness and I'm really thinking about what this means, how do you find the specific vehicle for knowing you want to tackle this higher-level thing that's happening in the world and maybe happening to you? Do those characters just come to you? Do you see a moment in the world where you're like that is where I can start? How does it work?
Carmen: It really depends on the story. I mean that . . . so Eight Bytes, which is a story in the collection that deals with a woman who has gastric bypass surgery and then becomes haunted by her own body, like her body that she has lost, my mother has had gastric bypass surgery, a lot of my aunts have had gastric bypass surgery, and as a fat woman I have a lot of thoughts about that. I don't know. I feel like I was constantly trying to work through them and it's not a thing that I talk to her about, or anybody who's had it about. And initially that story was supposed to be a retelling of The Little Mermaid and it ended up getting so far . . .
Ann: Whoa, whoa, whoa.
Carmen: Yeah, you would only know if you like looked really closely and you sort of knew what it was, because I ended up sort of burying/excising a lot of those elements.
Ann: Oh my god, I'm going to reread it.
Carmen: And I had that idea . . . yeah. And I had that idea, and I was sort of like okay, I want to tell the story about a woman who has this surgery. Then I was sort of thinking about my mother, and I was sort of thinking like . . . so in that story there's a daughter who's sort of distant from her and is angry about the fact that her mother seems to hate her own body, and therefore by extension hates the daughter's body too. Even the story is obviously not . . . it's not autobiographical in most ways. I should add it was important to be writing from the perspective of the mother and not the daughter.
And so that was really painful and really intense, but that's what I ended up doing. Every story is different though. Like The Husband Stitch, that was a story where I actually had the idea. I had kind of this fragment where I was like . . .
Ann: Maybe you should explain what The Husband Stitch is. Sorry, just for people who haven't had the privilege of reading . . .
Carmen: Oh, sure. So I have an aunt who's an OBGYN nurse, and so years ago I was talking to her. I don't even know how it came up but she sort of mentioned this thing called the husband stitch, and I was like what is that? She's like well, when women come in and they give birth and they have episiotomies, they have this sort of cut that's made in their . . . is it perineum? Between their vagina and anus basically to help the child birth. You know, it has to get sewn back up. And when that happens sometimes men will say things like "Oh, sew it up tight. Give it an extra stitch." You know, this fucked up way of talking about . . . right, like super fucked up.
Ann: Real life horror. That is like straight-up horror that is real.
Carmen: Yeah, and I was like what the fuck? I was like what are you talking about? But the phrase the husband stitch was just so chilling, and I literally just like . . . I have a whole file of potential titles, and I wrote down the husband stitch because I was like that's the creepiest phrase I've heard in my whole life, describing the creepiest thing I've ever heard described to me ever.
Ann: Ugh. You mentioned that your next book is a memoir, and I'm curious especially with things like writing about fatness or writing about anything that you feel like maybe is a part of your personal story that you're still working through, maybe you can talk a bit about the memoir and where you're kind of focusing that and how you're . . . it always seems so difficult to me to try to figure out how to make literature out of your own life so I would love to hear how you're embarking on that and what your timeline is and a little bit more about that.
Carmen: Yeah, okay. So I also struggle with this very question which is why it's amazing that this is the next project I'm working on. So the memoir is called House in Indiana. It's being published by Grey Wolf in two years, so it's due to them next year from me, like the final version of it. So it is a memoir about domestic abuse in same-sex relationships which includes my own experience. When I first started working on this project I was sort of really looking -- doing a lot of research and trying to find information about historical accounts of domestic violence in same-sex relationships. Because if you look, if you're like I need examples of male artists who beat their girlfriends or their wives or killed them or something, you can find them everywhere. That's like there's no . . .
Ann: Right, like you just -- yeah. For days.
Carmen: It's like unfortunately there's no shortage of those accounts, right?
Carmen: But, you know, queer history is already very hard to sort of track down in terms of narratives. I only found out four years ago that Eleanor Roosevelt was queer. You know, and there are books and things written about it but I just never knew because no one ever told me and the history was just so sort of hidden and people don't want to talk about it or people are like "Oh, we don't really know that they were gay. Maybe they were just whatever." So that history's already hard to find, then if you add the complication of domestic violence to that or any kind of abuse it becomes even harder.
And so I was trying to do this research where I was looking for books about this exact topic and I found a couple of academic books and that was like it. I mean it's really . . . it's a really weirdly sort of barren literary space. But it's really hard. It's really hard to write about yourself. This is also why essays take me forever. I have a few essays published but I write maybe one a year because they take so much out of me and it's just such a different mental process where I can tear through short stories like nobody's business. I write way more short stories every year than I do essays or any other form.
Carmen: I don't know. I feel like as long as I feel like I'm adding something useful to this very, very narrow sort of body of inquiry then I guess that'll be my accomplishment in that field, in that area.
Ann: Yeah, that's what I was just going to say, the fact that you found so little when you went looking I feel like probably both makes this book all the more difficult but also all the more necessary.
Carmen: Right. And I mean it's funny. Some advice I always give students when they ask me about writing is you have to write about the things you want to see in the world. Whatever, that's fiction, non-fiction. If you don't see it and you want it, make it.
Ann: So last question, the structure of our podcast is two long-distance friends catching up on pretty much everything.
Ann: And so we always like to ask our guests about the friendships that have shaped their lives. And I'm curious when you think about Her Body and Other Parties in particular if there are friendships that either helped you see that process through and really got you there, or people whose friendship really contributed to some of the ideas in it. I would love to hear you shout out someone who's important.
Carmen: I mean I feel very lucky because I feel like one of the best sort of gifts of my life is I've had so many amazing friends. Like if I try to sit down and catalog them all . . . I don't know if you saw the acknowledgement section of my book which was ridiculously long.
Ann: I always read the acknowledgments first. I'm like a super-weird person that way.
Carmen: Oh, that's really sweet.
Ann: So I definitely saw them. Yeah.
Carmen: [Laughs] I mean I'd say the friend that saw me through the book -- this is cheating -- but my wife Val, who is my first reader for so many of these stories and is just my biggest champion and is amazing and I honestly could not have edited or done most of these stories without her. Which I mean that's cheating because she lives with me and we're married. So yeah. But then I think before that the friend that really comes to mind for me is my friend Ann and Ann was somebody that I met in college. I actually was not out to myself when I was in college at first. I was very confused because I thought about kissing girls constantly but did not understand what that meant, like a real weirdo.
Carmen: And so I sort of got to college and Ann was just like "I'm queer and I'm here." She was just like so amazing and was like "Embrace yourself!" She was the most open, sort of excited person I'd ever met and talked about sexuality and talked about being queer. And I sort of figured out . . . I was like oh, am I that thing also? I think I am! And it was this really intense process. And Ann has been a friend. We've been friends ever since. She actually just got married. I just went to her wedding. It's been really amazing sort of seeing each other evolve and grow over the course of the last like I guess it'd be 12 years? Is that right?
Ann: Totally. Like friends as models for what's possible?
Carmen: Yeah, exactly. You know, it's so weird, because again it's like how the hell did I not even realize? But I don't know. I literally was just sort of like okay, Ann wants to kiss girls. Ann is queer. She talks about being queer. She seems really happy. Wait, I want to kiss girls. I feel . . . wait, am I . . . it seems weird to say it like that, but yeah, it was like this model for what I could be and how my life could be.
Ann: Ugh, shout out to Ann. I love that.
Carmen: Shout out to Ann! She's the best. I freaking love her. She's one of my favorite human beings in the whole world, so yeah.
Ann: Ugh. Well listen, thank you so much. Thank you for being on the podcast today.
Carmen: Of course. Oh, thank you so much for having me and all the great questions. Yeah, I'm really glad you love the book.
[Music and Ads]
Ann: Ugh, and finally I interviewed Jaclyn Friedman, no relation to yours truly, about her new work of non-fiction Unscrewed, a timely book about basically sexual politics and power.
Ann: Jaclyn, thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Jaclyn: Oh, I'm so happy to be here.
Ann: Ugh, another Friedman. An unrelated but wonderful Friedman.
Jaclyn: Yes! Friedman love. Every time I quote you in something I always say "Ann Friedman, no relation to my great regret."
Ann: Sad face, I know. Yeah, so I have read your new book. Maybe you can, for those who are listening and have not had the privilege, give me the synopsis, like the gist of what it does and what you're trying to do with it.
Jaclyn: Yeah, it's called Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All. And it's basically a call to move away from talking about female sexual empowerment as this individualistic narrative. Like as an individual lady you need to figure out what's going to make you feel the sexiest and go for it. And shifting away from that narrative. Not that there's anything wrong with doing that stuff that makes you feel sexy, but we need to not get so wrapped up in that conversation that we miss the systemic change that needs to happen. Like we need to look at the actual cultural institutions and systems that are keeping women as a group from accessing our full sexual sovereignty. And so in the book each chapter kind of takes a look at one of those systems and also profiles somebody who I think is doing really good work moving the ball down the field.
Ann: So, you know, just to make sure I'm understanding you right, the idea that I could be as an individual woman thinking about the things that bring me pleasure or the ways I want to express my sexuality and still feel unsafe or upset or not turned on and be kind of confused because there's a big, bad system in place. Is that another way of putting it?
Jaclyn: Yeah. And I think a lot of women really feel that way, that, you know, we take the pole dancing class or buy the sexy lingerie or whatever it is we think is going to make us feel our sexiest, most empowered selves. And yet we still feel this insecurity, like am I doing this right? It still feels sort of competitive in our heads. We also still might really get punished for it, right? Like if we do that sexually-empowered stuff and somebody sexually assaults us, oftentimes we're going to get blamed because we appear slutty just for doing that stuff where we're supposed to empower ourselves. Or somebody may non-consensually share a sexy picture of us that we said was only for them, or we may lose our job over this stuff or any number of things. We may not be able to get an abortion or birth control because the religious right is tied up in our government. So there's a lot of stuff we have to deal with that's totally external to whether you as an individual woman or I as an individual woman feel like our most sexual selves.
Ann: I'm curious about your personal evolution on this issue because I read and have on my shelf and filled out the worksheets in your previous book, What You Really, Really Want, which is about delving into and trying to separate what I as an individual feel sexy about versus the messages that I've gotten. And I'm curious about whether on the heels of that book you thought it was almost too individualized, or how you came to the idea that Unscrewed needed to be written to.
Jaclyn: I almost feel like it's a sequel, right? So the first book was actually inspired by the young women I met on tour for Yes Means Yes which was the anthology I did with Jessica Valenti before What You Really, Really Want, so there's three books. And I met so many young women who said "I love the idea of affirmative consent. I love yes means yes and no means no. But I don't know what I want to say yes or no to. Can you help me with that?" And I realized that I could, but I couldn't do it in a Q&A length which is why I wrote What You Really, Really Want.
But then I also realized that What You Really, Really Want takes for granted that the sexual culture is broken. And in fact culture is made of people, right? And so I didn't want to take for granted that the sexual culture was broken and so Unscrewed is about how do we fix it?
Ann: Which for me this is one of those things kind of like saying how do we make more equitable relationships in our home, or things like that. Like places that are outside the realm . . . sometimes outside the realm of law, if we're not talking about assault, if we're talking about just a fulfilling sexual relationship for example. Sometimes these are things that we can pass laws about. But are there specific examples that you have of things that are more in the realm of culture? Like this idea of oh, you know, women feeling shame for pursuing what they want. Things like that that are not like we can pass a law or file a lawsuit that are slow change. Do you have examples of good work being done there?
Jaclyn: Oh, sure. I mean I think a lot of the work on remaking our cultural ideas of masculinity fit in that category. You know, and I make an argument for really reaching younger in terms of intervening with boys before they develop really toxic ideas about masculinity, instead of doing work once those ideas have already set in. And I profile a group in Maine that is working with middle school boys where boys are really still forming their social ideas and they have this really promising program going on where they go into a school and they work with every boy in the grade. So it's a culture shift. It's not just these couple of boys went out into this program.
I'm also thinking about changing our ideas towards sex workers. There's some legal stuff that needs to change around sex work for sure, but the idea that whores are either victims or evil, right, really needs to be pulled out at the root culturally. Not just because it harms sex workers, although that should be enough of a reason, but because all of us sort of fall somewhere on what's called the whorearchy which I wish I'd coined that term, it's so great. It's just sort of how we rank women according to sluttiness, right? Any one of us can be called a whore in a way to punish or control us, and so how whores are considered in the culture really needs to shift for all of us to be free.
Ann: Yeah. And how do these issues affect people who may or may not identify as women who are part of the queer community too? Because I know that we definitely spend more time on this show talking about the cis, hetero female perspective on sex and on shame, but one of the many things I was interested in in your book is the places where the lens is expanded a little bit to show how it's not just a very traditional cis/femme presentation that gets you on the whorearchy if you still, you know? It's a lot of behavior that is outside sanctioned norms. Maybe you could talk about that a little bit.
Jaclyn: Yeah. I actually spent some time in a day program for queer, homeless, and housing-insecure young people and really learned a lot about how because those young people are seen as already devalued because of capitalism really, because they don't have money and they don't have financial stability, they therefore don't have respectability and they're treated as completely disposable. And they're exposed to all kinds of sexual risk because of it, right? Because they may be sleeping outdoors. I heard that waking up and finding a strange man in your sleeping bag is so common they don't even call it rape.
Jaclyn: It's like what's expected. Which every time I say that my gut just sort of like . . .
Jaclyn: I have to choke down the vomit. So there's all these crazy intersections between economic oppression and queer oppression and housing insecurity that we really have to look at all of it together. I think it's also true that a lot of queer people get raised with the notion, which doesn't come from nowhere, that they are devalued because of who they love and who they want to have sex with. And so if somebody wants to hurt them then they feel like that's expected because they already feel like they're bad and wrong. So that can really make queer people more vulnerable to sexual abuse of all kinds.
Queer kids also, along with girls of color, get called in on dress code infractions in school at crazy rates because they're falling outside the norms that are trying to be imposed on them by dress codes which are all about policing gendered and sexual bodies in school. So yeah, all the issues really collide.
Ann: Yeah. So talk to me about all that too, because when I think about the ways all of this stuff intersects it can get difficult really quickly to figure out what we do about it, right? Like in some ways you would say okay, great, when we work on one issue we're actually working on everything because it's all interconnected. But then there's this other perspective I have sometimes which is like oh my god, how do we do about changing the mentality of literally everyone in culture? [Laughs] And I get overwhelmed really quickly because we know that laws are shaped by people as well. And so I really do believe that even though I was drawing the distinction earlier between culture and laws, all this stuff is connected. So are you . . . is this book also a manual for where to start in terms of action or practical first steps?
Jaclyn: I mean it maybe falls shy of a manual, although the epilogue contains a practical guide, like a really 101 level guide to getting involved if you feel overwhelmed. You know, I tend to think of the case studies that I present in each chapter of somebody or a group who I think is doing really fantastic work making change on the institution that that chapter's about as a little bit of a roadmap, but it's not like you have to do like them. What I want readers to come away with is a sense of possibility in that the ways to do this social change work are infinite and that the best thing to do is pick a piece, the piece that most appeals to you, and plug in.
And then there are practical steps in the epilogue. My best, most basic advice is this: if you want to make change and it feels overwhelming, make the issues smaller. So maybe you want to change the way sex ed is taught in American schools. I certainly do. But that's a huge undertaking that's incredibly complicated. So what if you made it smaller? What about on the state level? Well, maybe that still feels impossible. What about at your schoolboard level or at your individual school? Maybe there's somebody already working on this that you can plug in with, right?
Another one of my tips in the epilogue is leaders need followers. You don't need to start something; you could also just find someone or a group that you think is already doing good work and ask them what help they need. The important thing to do is notice when you're feeling overwhelmed by the size of the challenge then sort of zoom in and zoom in until you find a piece that's small enough that you feel like you could get started.
Ann: Right. Your book is being born in this moment where . . . I mean I know it was born a lot earlier, but born into the world at a moment when I do feel like rape culture and, you know, power structures as they relate to sexuality and assumptions people make about sexuality, things like that, all of that is coming to the fore as we're seeing this wave of people coming forward about their experiences at the hands of largely powerful men, although some not so powerful. And I'm curious about whether you think that changes the context for this book. I mean obviously this stuff is not new. I mean everyone who's listening to this podcast knows that it's not like oh my god, all of a sudden harassment and abuse are a thing. But I do think in terms of the mainstream conversation, I open my daily New York Times and Daily Times email headline blasts and I see assault and harassment every day lately. Which that's how I feel about the world, and I'm like whoa, it's being reflected in headlines. I'm curious if you think that there is more possibility in this moment or if you're like this feels kind of like what's been going on for a long time. It's just that the conversation has expanded.
Jaclyn: I think it's a little more the latter. I mean we had a conversation a lot like this at this exact time last year after the Access Hollywood takes came out and there was a hashtag and all of that stuff.
Ann: You mean the tapes which our now-president admitted that he likes to assault women?
Ann: Right, those tapes.
Jaclyn: Yeah. Then a dozen women came forward and said he had sexually assaulted them. Then lots and lots of women got on Twitter and used a hashtag and said "This has happened to me too." Like literally the same pattern. But I do feel like there's an order of magnitude difference with this one. Like I keep being surprised at how long the conversation is lasting and how people are digging in. And that gives me hope that this is a step forward, right? That this is part of the ongoing work of anti-sexual violence work that people have been working on forever. But it does feel like a moment in which people are really open to thinking about it, and I hear a lot of people saying "What do we do and what needs to change? Where do we go from here?" And I'm hoping that Unscrewed can be part of that answer.
Ann: Yes. Oh my god. Okay, and final question, I know that it's probably not possible to spend the amount of time that you've spent working on this book without feeling some personal change or evolution. And I'm curious about whether you've met someone or encountered something new in the process that has made you feel differently about your own sexuality or your own choices or maybe your own beliefs about how to move forward.
Jaclyn: I mean working with and visiting with all the folks that I got to profile for the book has definitely made me feel both more hopeful in a general sense, but also just more connected. You know, a much more visceral sense that I'm part of a much larger interconnected set of movements and I don't have to do it all myself. But on a more personal level, as you know because I wrote about it in the book, I did have a set of revelations when I went . . . very unexpectedly when I went to watch porn for science.
Ann: Hmm. Tell me more.
Jaclyn: Which I thought would be just this sort of fun lark. It's this really interesting sex lab outside of Toronto that's studying women's sexual response and how it differs from men. So I was super interested to go but I didn't expect it to get deep. But the process of watching my sexual arousal on a chart and having somebody tell me it was normal . . .
Jaclyn: Kind of shook something loose in me that I didn't realize I wanted that validation so much. You know, I've lived so much of my life feeling outside the norm when it comes to my sexuality both as a queer/bisexual woman, as a fat woman, as a feminist anti-rape activist. You know, all of that stuff has made me feel kind of outside what was supposed to be normal and to hear that there's some level in which I'm totally normal was really validating on a monkey brain level. And then the fact that it was validating also really shook me.
Ann: You mean that what turned you on was "normal" by research standards. Is that what you mean by normal?
Jaclyn: No, it wasn't even what turned me on. I didn't get a choice of that. It was more my pattern, what happened in my body as I got turned on.
Ann: Oh, okay. Okay.
Jaclyn: It was the way most women's bodies work. It was that basic, right? Yeah. And I'm still sort of thinking about that. And I think it gets to the premise of the book which his that so many of us at root are just deeply insecure about ourselves as sexual humans, and the book is about why that is and what is going to be required in the hard work of making it so that we can all grow up and just feel sexual in our own ways and have those myriad of ways be really okay.
Ann: Jaclyn, thanks so much and I can't wait for everyone to read this book and collectively change rape culture. [Laughs]
Jaclyn: Yes! Let's do it.
Aminatou: Yes, queens of reading books and being smart! [Laughs]
Ann: Queens of reading books and being smart. Aren't we all?
Aminatou: Listen, that's how I think of myself every day.
Ann: Finally do you want to do a shout out to something else that we each read this year that we were super into that we didn't get to talk about? Or do you have a reading rec? You know I always love hearing your non-fiction recs as well.
Aminatou: Oh my god. So I am actually reading -- and all I have is the galley -- is This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins, and that's out in January 2018. And it's good. It's a good feminist book written by a black feminist lady.
Ann: It's essays, right?
Aminatou: Yeah, it's a book of essays and it's exactly about that, like being black and female and feminist in white America. I think that's the tagline. It's been a while since I've enjoyed a good book of essays so I'm real excited for this one to come out. [Laughs] The other book that I just finished reading right now that I'm really excited about is the Ron Chernow Grant book. Listen, Ulysses was our most maligned president and he's always been in my top five so I'm so happy to see him get his due finally. And you know how those Ron Chernow books are. It's like a thousand pages, you like drink the whole thing, and you're like wow, history is so great.
Ann: Then you write an award-winning smash hit musical based on Ulysses S. Grant.
Aminatou: Listen, I went to see him speak with friend-of-the-pod Alexis Coe who is, you know, the best lady historian in the universe. So she took me to this talk and it was hilarious because we were definitely some of the youngest people there. But also my favorite thing about Ron Chernow is he's now ashamed of being a star fucker like other people in academia. Somebody made a reference to the Hamilton musical and he doesn't skip a beat and he's just like "Yeah, this is being turned into a movie. It just got optioned this morning." [Laughs]
Aminatou: I was like yes, I'm into it. I will watch the movie. I can't wait. It's going to be amazing. And then speaking of Alexis Coe, her book Alice and Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, is a book that I read not this year but I revisited this year and it's so good. It's about murder. It's a murderous teenager. It's like if you're into murders and teenagers, 100% best book for you.
Ann: True historical crime.
Aminatou: Yeah, true historical crime, and it's getting turned into a movie by the lady who made The Babadook so it's going to be amazing. Also we read a lot of poetry in this family this year I feel like.
Ann: Hmm, yes.
Aminatou: Morgan Parker's poetry collection There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonc and also . . .
Ann: Which I believe we have shouted out before but deserves a second shout out.
Aminatou: We have shouted it out before, but if you don't own it you should 100% own it. You know, and another book thing that I want to shout out is the Well Read Black Girl group and website.
Ann: Oh, yes, glory.
Aminatou: Yeah, that has been really, really, really good to me this year and is a really good resource. It's like yes, a book club that I can actually get down with. And right now they're reading Electric Arches, Eve Ewing's book, and it's really fucking great.
Ann: Amazing. I went hard on Rachel Cusk this year. I read both Transit and Outline and was super, super into it. What else did I read? I loved Zinzi Clemmons' novel What We Lose.
Aminatou: Yes! Queen! Queen of grief novels.
Ann: Really, really good. One of my top . . . I mean so good though. And really an amazing book about not just someone having an immediate grief experience right after a loved one dies but a book about the reverberations of loss throughout a lifetime. It's so powerful. It was so good. And also a really pleasant, quick read, and I know it sounds weird to say that about a book that's about grief, but I really, really loved it. I read in galley form friend-of-the-podcast Beth Pickens' Your Art Will Save Your Life which is a book I'm so excited to give to everyone I know in 2018. That is about making art, being a person with an artistic practice, but also being attuned to things that are happening in the world and being a force for political action on behalf of the things you believe. And I'm excited for everyone to read that next year.
What else did I read that I loved? Danzy Senna's New People I thought was pretty intense. That's the book that I'm like I'm not sure I loved reading this, but I want to talk about it with everyone. So if you read New People and have feelings, that too. I don't know. Many things. Many things. And I'm excited. I have like a reading list for the holiday book that is as long as everything I read previous in 2017.
Aminatou: Ooh. Here is what's on my holiday reading list is the Tina Brown Dianna Chronicles.
Ann: Oh my god.
Aminatou: And then Big Little Lies because everybody says it's better than the TV show which I don't ever believe about anything but these people are very credible. And then Lincoln in the Bardo, LOLs.
Ann: That's on my list too, LOL. Trend fiction.
Aminatou: I know. But I was told by multiple friends that Lincoln in the Bardo is an excellent audiobook with a really big cast.
Aminatou: And that it's worth audiobook listening, so I'm like I'm into it. You know that I usually save audiobooks for celebrity memoirs so this is a big deviation over here.
Ann: A major exception. Okay, so that is also on my list. I want to read Sing, Unburied, Sing, the Jesmyn Ward book that came out this year that I haven't read yet.
Aminatou: Very good.
Ann: And then also some previously published but re-released Eve Babitz material which is like I'm spending my holiday in L.A. kind of go to, including her novel Sex and Rage which I've heard is very good but I have not read it. So reading that too.
Aminatou: I can't wait until you check back in.
Ann: Ugh, yes. I would say see you on the Internet but we're both going to be reading. [Laughs]
Aminatou: You know what? See you in the text message thread.
Ann: Yeah, see you on the text thread.
Aminatou: You can find us many places on the Internet, on our website callyourgirlfriend.com, you can download it anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts, 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 subscribe to our monthly newsletter The Bleed on the Call Your Girlfriend website. 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. All other original music is composed by Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs. Our logos are by Kenesha Sneed and this podcast is produced by Gina Delvac.