Interview: Brandon Monokian!

Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing Brandon Monokian, an actor, writer and director. Please read more about Brandon in a bio sent by him before proceeding to the interview.

Brandon’s original plays have been presented throughout New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey. They have starred the likes of Christian Coulson (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and Style Network star Briella Calafiore (Jerseylicious, Glam Fairy). Brandon co-created the Page to Stage arts programming for Princeton Public Library (for which they produced a mini documentary highlighting the work) and spoke at their Tedx series about his theatre protest project Revolutionary Readings. Brandon received national attention through Revolutionary Readings, which was used to fight the banning of the book Revolutionary Voices from two New Jersey libraries. Bitch Magazine called Revolutionary Readings “an awesome way to protest the banning of this book.” As an actor he has performed at the Vineyard Playhouse and Luna Stage in readings of The Ride by Carol Lynn Maillard (founding member of the Grammy award-winning Sweet Honey in the Rock). The Ride is a companion piece to In Development, a work he co-created with acclaimed actress Suzzanne Douglas and poet Yorri J. Berry. Brandon also appeared in Obie Award Winning PearlDamour’s eight hour piece How to Build a Forest (The Kitchen), PastTENSE (dir. Robert Woodruff), Love is in The Air (dir. Jeremy Bloom, The Cell), Shlemiel the First (dir. David Gordon, Skirball Center) and Überboy: The Story of a Hero (dir. John Bow, GOCTC). He is a three-time director of The Vagina Monologues for the V Day campaign, helping to raise thousands for various women’s charities. Productions of The Vagina Monologues he has directed have starred Amy Warren (Broadway’sAugust: Osage County), Briella Calafiore (Jerseylicious), Jessica Romano (Glam Fairy), Elaine Bromka (Uncle Buck), Suzzanne Douglas (How Stella Got Her Groove Back, The Parent ‘Hood), Julie Fain Lawrence (Concussion) and Stephaine Roth Haberle (Phaedra Backwards). For more information, please visit http://www.brandonmakestheatre.com and twitter @brandonmonokian

‘Peter Pan is Dead’ the graphic novel of the play by Brandon with art by Sara Sciabbarrasi is on sale now. CLICK HERE to order! For tickets to the Philadelphia Fringe production of the play running September 6 – 21 CLICK HERE.

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How did you become inspired to pursue a career in the arts?

I saw Les Misérables on Broadway when I was six (I begged my parents to take me after being obsessed with the cast album). I saw a young Lacey Chabert (of Mean Girls and Party of Five fame) on stage and thought “if this kid my age can do this, so can I.” Thanks, Lacey Chabert!

Who and which forces have been most influential along your path?

My parents, coffee and wine. Also, I’ve been lucky to have a few incredible artists mentor me for some time after I graduated college. Suzzanne Douglas from How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Elaine Bromka from Uncle Buck and Julie Fain Lawrence from Concussion have all taught me more post graduation than was possible to learn in a classroom setting. I’m forever grateful they took time to both challenge and nurture me.

How do your social and personal identities affect your work?

My work is so personal to me, and since my social identities and personal experiences shape who I am, they are of course reflected in my work. When I was younger I got picked on a lot… “loser, worthless, faggot”, I’ve been called it all. Had things thrown at me, even. Growing up was rough in that respect, but as an adult I rarely have had to deal with any of that; but the reality is if I wasn’t living in this year, in a fairly liberal location, my adult experience would be very different. So I remember my experiences, pay attention to those of others and I take action in my words, my work, my vote, and where I spend my money.

Peter Pan is Dead

With both “Grimm Women” and “Peter Pan is Dead” you have used fairy tales as a motif. Why this theme?

I’m interested in the fact that the source material for these plays (Brother’s Grimm fairy tales and Peter Pan) are substantially darker than the versions we are fed as children. I think part of me felt cheated when I found this out. We’ve been programmed for a happy ending and relatively smooth journey, when that isn’t life, and it also isn’t these stories.

Peter Pan is Dead graphic novel preview 1

What was it like modernizing Ovid’s work for your play “echo, narcissus, narcissus, echo”?

I think Ovid’s original poem about Echo and Narcissus may be the most beautiful thing ever written. echo, narcissus, narcissus, echo is my darkest, most personal work because I saw myself in both of those characters simultaneously. Maybe because I’m a Gemini.

To date, what has been the most surprising reaction to your writing?

Someone was audibly sobbing in the audience during one of the performances of echo, narcissus, narcissus, echo. I’m talking a good ol’ ugly cry. It was flattering but it also made me nervous.

How has it been alternating among writing, directing, and acting? What are the similarities and differences among the three?

Best case scenario, the similarity is that you are creating something in a collaborative environment. Sometimes when you are acting, what you are doing on stage is more dictated to you than collaboration, but for the most part I’ve felt like my ideas about the characters I’ve played have been valued. With directing it’s 100% knowing how to communicate with people in whatever way they will listen best, which is completely different for everyone. You have to be good at reading people so you know how to bring out what you want from them. The most difficult thing about directing is dealing with people’s egos. I come from the Kelly Cutrone mindset of “if you have to cry, go outside” but most actors aren’t familiar with that concept. They are fragile beings, so you have to treat them like Precious Moments half the time, which frankly can be tiring, but that’s what end of the day red wine is for. Writing for me is pure emotion and instinct. I write drunk and edit sober. I’ve learned to write with specific people in mind, because it makes the characters more textured. When I first wrote Grimm Women, the Little Red Riding Hood character was a really dark, dreary part. When we got Briella from Jerseylicious to sign on, I re-wrote it and she became a really cool, edgy, pot smoking train wreck.

Which has been your favorite character to write, direct, and portray so far? Why?

Credit: Kevin Monko

Credit: Kevin Monko

Write: Adrestia, the goddess of revenge in Peter Pan is Dead, because she takes action where others won’t.

Direct: Eurydice in Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Ovid’s myth because she was so complex and poetic.

Portray: I was in an eight our performance art piece called How to Build a Forest (you can see the whole thing sped up to six minutes here: http://vimeo.com/32998219 ), so not necessarily the character, but the whole experience was my favorite because it was a group of people working together to create something truly epic. The ego free spirit everyone approached the work with was inspiring and since it was early in my career, set a great tone for me on how to behave in future experiences.

How was it directing a reading of Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology?

We did that to protest the fact that the book had been banned in two libraries. We called the performance Revolutionary Readings. At the time I had no idea what I was doing. I was just young and pissed off that this book was banned in both my school and public library. In the beginning of the process it was me, my partner in crime Victoria Fear, and a group of young, passionate, equally pissed off theatre artists just raising our voices in the town square, so to speak. At first we were just begging people to let us come and perform this work as a form of protest to this censorship, which we knew was a great injustice. We went from pleading to perform in small cafes, to getting invited to places like Rutgers University, Princeton Public Library and different Library conferences. News vans showed up to my parent’s house unannounced, I was getting called for interviews with different papers, and at one point for a brief moment was given a publicist. What we were doing was very controversial, and certainly a lot of people just wished we would shut up and go away, but we had a lot of people leave the performances in tears over the work because they were touched so deeply by it, which really spoke to why the material should not have been banned. I had just graduated college and couldn’t have foreseen the magnitude to which the project would grow. It was a trial by fire for me and so many involved. I gave a Tedx talk about it at the Princeton Public Library some time after the initial explosion of controversy. You can watch it here: http://youtu.be/w1X7TX4i1ew

Page to Stage series

What inspired you to co-found “Page to Stage” with Janie Hermann and how is it going so far?

Janie Hermann and the Princeton Public Library had us doing a performance of Revolutionary Readings as a part of their banned book week. It was around that time I got to see the power of literature being adapted for the stage. We developed the series to promote literacy by presenting theatrical adaptations of written works in an animated, physical way. It lasted for three years and it was one of the best experiences of my professional career. Princeton Public Library produced a really beautiful mini documentary about Page to Stage which you can see here: http://vimeo.com/57147953

What was it like being part of The Laramie Project and The Vagina Monologues? Relatedly, how do you perceive theatre as being part of social justice?

Those pieces have such history, meaning and weight to them, and it was an honor and a humbling experience to be involved in them. I used to think theatre was a way of making things up, but now see it as a vehicle in which to tell the truth. We can see ourselves in the characters and the stories on stage, and by seeing ourselves we are able to reflect and change as people, which is how all social change begins.

I enjoy your commercials for Hallmark. One seems to represent themes regarding adolescence, which is a time period you seem to focus on in that work. What is it about this era of life that is compelling?

Thank you! It’s so interesting you bring that up because I never thought of those commercials that way, but that is a theme prevalent in my other work. We were just trying to sell a product, but also create something fun that people would laugh at.

Brandon Monokian

In what ways is your work feminist?

I’m a three time director of The Vagina Monologues, which is the most globally recognizable feminist theatre piece. By doing that show we were able to raise a lot of money for various women’s charities, as well create awareness and a dialogue about the horrific sexual and physical violence women have suffered globally and in our own back yards. I’m absolutely a feminist, but I’m not sure I would describe my body of work as a whole as feminist or not feminist, it’s more just a reflection of my life experiences.

Which type of music have inspired you to make other types of art?

Music inspires me to write. I know you aren’t supposed to list modern, “trendy” acts as inspiration, but fuck it, Lana Del Rey very much inspired echo, narcissus, narcissus, echo and Peter Pan is Dead. I wrote them at the same time, drunk on red wine, while listening to Young and Beautiful on repeat.

What insights would you like to share with aspiring writers?

I was in a Gen Ed level writing course in college, and we had to write essays each week. Every time we handed one in, the teacher (a writer by the name of Jess Row) would pick one essay, black out the name, and make copies of it for the whole class to correct. He picked my essay every week except one. At first I was mortified. Then someone told me that he wouldn’t have picked mine (and picked mine so often!) if there wasn’t anything there to bring out of it. The truth is I could have been doing a lot better, but I was 18 years old, and didn’t give a fuck about anything. So by the end of that experience, I was motivated to give a fuck and represent myself in the way I wanted to be perceived.

What is next for you creatively?

I’ve worked with artist Sara Sciabbarrasi on creating a graphic novel of the Peter Pan is Dead script which you can order online now. I’d like to start concentrating on multi-disciplinary work. I like the idea of bringing things together that people don’t think necessarily belong together… like theatre and comic books. So creatively, much more of that. The graphic novel is on sale here: http://peterpanisdead.storenvy.com/products/9117253-peter-pan-is-dead-graphic-novel

Peter Pan is Dead graphic novel preview 2

I also have a product line of “wine-cessories” called Cork & Wood which I’m going to be expanding on substantially this coming year. They’re on sale here: http://corkandwood.storenvy.com/

-Sem

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Interview: Laura Erickson-Schroth about “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves!”

Underneath This had the informative and enjoyable experience of interviewing Laura Erickson-Schroth, psychiatrist and editor of the groundbreaking, “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves,” a compendium featuring an introduction by Jennifer Finney Boylan contributors from trans* and cisgender activists, theorists, authors, educators, artists, and health professionals.

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What were some experiences that inspired the idea for “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves?”

I grew up with the book Our Bodies, Ourselves on our shelf at home. It was something that answered a lot of the questions I had about bodies and sexuality. It was put together by women in Boston in the late 60’s, at a time when most physicians were male, and the women were turning to one another for information they needed. As I got older and met more and more trans people, I realized that in some ways they were in a similar position to those women – they were coming into contact with providers who weren’t as educated as they should be about trans health. I thought it would be great to create something like Our Bodies, Ourselves, written by trans people, for trans people.

What was the editing process like?

It was multi-layered. For each chapter, there were on average 10-15 advisers who read through and provided comments to help the authors shape the chapter. We also held an “editing weekend” where about 20 of us worked in small groups to make sure that the book was heading in the right direction. It was a lot of fun to get so many people together around a common goal.

How were the contributors and reviewers selected?

Chapter authors and reviewers were chosen based on their experience and expertise in the area. We’re really proud to have found great trans health providers, academics, lawyers, activists, and so many others to make the book what it is.

What was the process of choosing the 6 sections to focus on in the text?

The 6 sections really came together organically. We started deciding what topics were broad enough to warrant full chapters, and saw that they seemed to fall into sections.

How has your own professional work informed the content of “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves?”

Part of the reason I decided to start this project was that I was doing rotations in medical school on trans health and there seemed to be this incredible divide between trans people and providers. There was a lot of history of gatekeeping, and a lot of ignorance about trans people and trans health. I thought that a byproduct of trans people teaching each other about these issues could be that providers would read what they wrote, and learn more about trans communities.

If you wanted a reader to take one overall message away from reading this unique text, what would that be?

I think the most important take-away is that trans communities are extremely diverse. They’re made up of people from every background you can think of.

So far, have there been any surprising reactions to “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves” from the press, family, and/or friends?

TBTS Cover

People are most surprised by how big it is! It’s 650 pages long, and 3.5 pounds. Which means it represents that voices of many, many people.

What has been the response from trans* communities?

We’ve had great responses from both trans communities and friends, family, and providers. There were something like 500 people somehow involved in the project, and everyone is really excited to see their stories and ideas in print.

Which projects are you working on next?

I just started a fellowship at Columbia University Medical Center. Part of the fellowship is learning about public psychiatry, which includes the recovery model of mental illness, and systems like Medicaid, housing, and supported employment. The other part of the fellowship is through the LGBT Initiative at Columbia, which has goals of improving research, clinical work, education, and policy around LGBT issues.

What insights do you have for aspiring writers/editors?

If you have the luxury, do things that are meaningful to you. It makes late nights, copyediting, and deadlines worthwhile.

-Sem

Interview: Chris Stedman!

We had the meaningful experience of interviewing Chris Stedman, activist and author. Please read some more about Chris (from http://faitheistbook.com/theauthor) before proceeding to the interview.

Chris Stedman is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, “an intimate and deeply affecting portrait… [that] proves [he is] an activist in the truest sense and one to watch” (Booklist, Starred Review). The Executive Director and Coordinator of Humanist Life for the Yale Humanist Community, Chris previously served as a Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and as the Values 
in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard (where he was previously
 the inaugural Interfaith and Community Service Fellow). He is the atheist columnist for Religion News Service, Emeritus
 Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal
 of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and founder of the first blog
 dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement,
 NonProphet Status.

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Please describe your path to becoming an activist and author.

I grew up nonreligious but became an evangelical Christian around the age of 11, when I had a dramatic conversion experience. There were two primary causal factors. A year prior, at the age of 10, I read books like Roots, Hiroshima, Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl; these were books that not only increased my awareness of the fact that I lived in a world where people treated others in abusive ways, but they also told stories about what it was like to experience those things in a way that filled me with profoundly difficult questions about justice, purpose, and meaning. As much as any 10-year-old can be consumed by those questions, I was very deeply shaken and did not have a framework to unpack those questions.

The second factor occurred was when I was 11. My parents separated and it was a very disruptive experience—not only because they divorced but also because it set off a chain of events that created a really difficult situation financially and in terms of resources. My mother worked three jobs, worked nights, and was also our primary caretaker. She took courses for insurance licensing, juggled a lot; it was a very uprooting experience, so I was looking for stability and a safe place to land during a tumultuous time. That place happened to be this fundamentalist Christian church that I got invited to by friends from school.

At first, it was a perfect fit and incredibly welcoming. I was excited to be there; the church gave me a sense of community and provided a framework to think about human suffering and injustices. So, it all felt like a great fit. However, it became clear to me before too long that the community was not as welcoming as it seemed; it was vocally and vehemently anti-gay to the point of almost obsession. People would mention homosexuality in sermons for no apparent reason besides wanting to demonize gay people; talked about it in Bible study all the time; and there was a whole section in the church library with resources about homosexuality.

Their basic gist was that homosexuality was at best a bad decision or means of rebellion and, at worst, a sign of demonic possession—which is a terrifying message, particularly for a vulnerable and confused 11-year-old.

That propelled me into a difficult time, where I was fixated on trying to change my sexual orientation through prayer and fasting. I spent every night engaging in Bible study trying to change my sexual orientation. A big irony of the conversion was that I became Christian to address suffering and community, and ultimately ended up isolating myself and my personal suffering increased tenfold.

My mother eventually found a prayer journal that I kept and she took me to speak to someone at another Christian church who told me there was more than one view on homosexuality among Christians, which was the first time I had heard this. He gave me books that explored the intersections of the two, and he helped me find a safe space and acceptance—what I had been really looking for all along.

This was a very important thing for me not, just in terms of personal reconciliation but also became this was my safe space at a time when I started to come out as queer. I was the only openly queer person in my community and in my high school.

In fact, I had profoundly positive experiences in church during high school; so much so that I decided to go to college and thought I might study Christianity and religion with the goal of eventually working in ministry, because the people who helped me most during high school were Christian ministers. I wanted to pay it forward, so I thought I would go into the ministry.

Once there, I started studying religion academically and I was challenged by Christian professors to explore the foundations of my beliefs. It was through this process that I discovered I converted not because I thought the metaphysical premises were true but because I was looking for a community that pursued justice and everyone else said God was the source of these things: of community, of justice. Because this was what I cared about, it made sense. However, as I began to think about these experiences critically for myself, I realized that those passions and interests preceded my becoming Christian. Then, I allowed myself to really ask if I actually believed in God. I read Christian apologetics and felt increasingly unconvinced. Finally, I realized I was an atheist. After that, I was happy to debate religion in the classroom—but when it came to talking to people about my beliefs, I had only two strategies: avoidance or conflict.

This was because I had the assumption that religious disagreement lead to conflict, so either I was going to go into the conflict or just avoid it. In Faitheist, I write about my work at the Brian Coyle Community Center, which I still think about a lot. I once had a conversation with a Muslim woman there about our experiences of being on the margins, on the periphery; though our beliefs and backgrounds were very different, she was inviting me into a humanizing conversation that both recognized the fact that our beliefs were different but also acknowledged that we shared in the experience of being human. That was a kind of conversation that I did not know how to have at that time.

I realized that my “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach or all-out-conflict approach to religious differences were both fundamentally limited, and I wanted to find another way forward. I wanted to go into interfaith work, so I went back to school and studied alongside religious communities. In the process, I was reminded of how powerful of a role my Christian community played when I was younger, so I decided I wanted to see what was out there for atheists and nonreligious people. Through this, I discovered a couple of things: atheists are just as susceptible as anyone else to extreme tribalism, to an us-versus-them mentality with exclusionary community politics; but I also discovered humanism. This was the first time I was able to articulate my nonreligious, nontheistic worldview in a positive sense. I was able to express what I do believe, rather than define myself by what I am not. By making strong connections with religious believers, I learned to ground my sense of self in the values that I have.

In American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, there’s a fascinating finding: that religious Americans tend to be more civically engaged, give more money to charity, are more likely to vote, and are “better neighbors.” But the complicating aspect of that finding is that a nonbelieving spouse of a religious person who participated in the community was just as likely as the believing spouse to donate money. Based on this finding, the correlation between religiosity and civic engagement seems to have less to do with belief and more to do with belonging. Being part of a community that opens up a space for you to ask what it means to be a good person, gives a place to ground that work, and encourages you to be a moral agent for change in the world. Putnam and Campbell even speculated that morally bound communities for nonreligious people can serve a similar function of helping the nonreligious be more civically engaged. I wanted to see nonreligious people become more involved in civic initiatives that orient around religion, such as interfaith dialogues, and so I rediscovered the importance of community.

If my goal was to bring religious people and atheists together for the common good of humanity, I realized that I needed to invest in the idea of community for the nonreligious. So, I made the focus of my master’s degree pastoral care and counseling and studied community organizing and building. I became interested in the ideas that colleges and universities are great places for these conversations to happen, as colleges and universities can be a microcosm of the greater diversity we see in society. College is the first opportunity that many people have to be in really close community; for many people, it’s the first time they have experiences with people who have different beliefs and backgrounds. It is a great context for establishing identity and community, and learning more about different people’s experiences. Though I struggled to have those conversations while in college, it still was transformative in that way—and because my mother didn’t go to college, it was really something that I cherished. Now, the work that I do in both the university and broader contexts is very grounded in a recognition that, in the same way that colleges and universities take other aspects of identity seriously (i.e., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status), they must also take religious identities just as seriously—including people who identify as atheists, agnostics, and humanists.

How have your social and personal identities informed your work?

I think that being a nontheist is a big element of this, because if I take seriously the conviction that it is unlikely that divine forces will intervene in human affairs and solve our problems for us, then I have to be the change I want to see in the world, if you will. As a single individual, I cannot do that alone. I have to pursue common ground and find shared values with people whose identities are located on the margins in our broader cultural context.

As a queer person and an atheist, I stand on the margins in a number of different conversations, which deeply informs my desire to understand others’ perspective. Being a white male, I benefit from privilege, and I have a strong desire to understand how my own privilege affects the experiences of others and my own limited view of the world. All of this has moved me to try to understand better others’ experiences.
After having a prolonged and profound struggle with reconciling myself with my sexual orientation, I had to learn at a young age that who I was, was not necessarily going to map onto the assumptions of who I was supposed to be. That really cracked me open in an important way to question and challenge other assumptions I inherited, and inspired me to seek intersections with others. I think that everyone’s experiences are important and that everyone has a contribution to make to our understanding of identity, values, and ethics.

In Faitheist, I end the book by thanking the reader for letting me share my story and inviting them to share theirs. The best discussions are grounded in experience. Too often, they are grounded in the theoretical and abstract. By having a window into someone else’s experience, it is much harder to argue against their freedom. Sharing stories invites people to stop and listen so that they can empathize and learn.

You quote Carl Sagan and Rumi at the start of “Faitheist” and Eboo Patel, developer of Interfaith Youth Corps wrote the forward. How have they been inspirational to your activism? Who and what other forces have been influential?

Carl Sagan is someone who has really influenced the way I think about this work, because he recognized that simply trying to argue, with data or statistics, is not going to compel people to action. He was an incredible scientist but more than anything else, he was an effective science communicator; he would tell personal stories, or the stories of others, and did so in a way that was so elegant and that invited others into learning.

Regarding Rumi, Eboo and many others – I am a humanist and nontheist, and so a lot of my worldview has been informed by humanist and nontheistic writers. It is important to also acknowledge that many of the thinkers and writers who have informed who I am and how I see the world are religious thinkers; it is important for us to not just sequester ourselves in our community and only read writers and thinkers whom we think share our views. Some of the things I have been most influenced by, that have challenged me most, are the works of religious writers. It would be silly to try to claim that I have not been influenced by religious studies considering that I have spent much of my life studying religion—and continue to do so.

So I would say there would be so many writers, thinkers, activists, people in general who have influenced my thinking. I do not know where to begin, as my influences continue to change. I like to think that I am a work in progress, and constantly changing and evolving depending on whom I am around and to whom I am exposed. I try to keep my thinking fluid in that way, which was a challenge when thinking about writing a book, because it locks you in place, at least for a moment in time.

What has been the greatest challenge to engaging in and coordinating interfaith dialogues? What has been the most rewarding aspect so far?

The most challenging aspect has been just getting people to the table—because honestly it has been my experience that, once people are at the table, it does not take a ton of work to get the conversation going. I would love to say that facilitating these dialogues requires this really specialized skill set, but it doesn’t. Once you get people to the table and introduce what we’re gathered to do, people begin finding intersections, uncovering shared concerns and shared humanity, and start to share personal experiences. The dialogue goes from there, and the people who participate are the ones who make it happen.

Contentious momentous will arise, but I think one of the hardest aspects has simply been communicating to people—particularly nontheists—that interfaith work is not only something that would include them but also that their voice is really vital.

One of the most rewarding aspects is just watching those conversations unfold; it feels like a huge privilege to be a part of that, to watch people connect, and to see false barriers began to fall way. It is so great to hear that people who have never met a Muslim or an atheist before have an incredibly transformative experience. It is really amazing seeing that “aha” moment that registers for a person, when they realize that the person they saw as really different from them is actually not as different as they thought.

Among reactions to your work, what has been the most surprising?

In the last few years, I have been pleasantly surprised by just how many atheists have embraced this idea that constructive conversation across lines of religious difference is valuable. I’ve also been really surprised to hear from a lot of people in very conservative, Orthodox, and even fundamentalist religious communities who have reached out to say that various aspects of my story connected with them. Every day there is a new surprise, and that is part of what has made this work so exciting and rewarding. I love those moments of surprising connection, and I want to be constantly surprised by how we can find connections with people who seem really different.

I have done events at very, very conservative Christian colleges where students have to sign a waiver that they believe in God, abstain from sex before marriage, and won’t “practice homosexuality,” and I have been amazingly surprised by some of the realizations that have arisen in those moments. There is always a surprise, which is one of the one greatest parts of this work.

Sem: I commend you for taking on this work.

It can be very intimidating; I am intimidated by speaking in front others, I actually do not love public speaking at all – I kind of hate it, actually, but every time I push myself to do it, it’s always worth it. I have learned to really appreciate and even chase after the things that make me afraid. I want to pushing myself to grow as much as I can, and to go into those spaces where these conversations may not be happening already.

How have your family and friends responded to your work and writing?

I am really lucky to have such a supportive family. It was definitely a little challenging when the book came out. They got some threats but they took it in stride and even made jokes about it; I was angry on their behalf and probably got more upset more than they did.

As I have walked down different paths in life, I am so grateful for my family, and the same goes for my friends. I have a loving group of family and friends. I could not do what I do without supportive family and friends, so I am very grateful.

My family does not share 100 percent of my views but it is not about whether we are 100 percent on same page all of the time. We recognize that the love we have for each other is the most important thing.

How has your work been received in particular by queer communities?

That has been one of my favorite aspects of this work. I think that many queer people recognize the power of personal storytelling, and I have learned a lot from the queer movement. The queer community really understands that in order to make change we need to build relationships and share stories. Harvey Milk called us to come out to loved ones, and the queer community really understands that. My approach to this work has been informed by that perspective.

Many queer people have complicated relationships with religious and religious identity. So queer interfaith conversations can be so important. I am really happy with how I’ve seen these discussions unfold in queer spaces.

Some of the earliest and most prominent support for my work was from queer publications and book stores; I feel really grateful to be embraced by the queer community.

When I was in school, I interned in a queer drop-in shelter, and went to one before that. So much of my early experience of the church was in queer spaces. They have a lot to teach about identifying areas of shared humanity through bridge building and storytelling.

Do you maintain communication with people you knew from Teens Encounter Christ and the Brian Coyle Community Center and if so, what has their response been to interfaith dialogues?

I have a very good friend whom I met through Teens Encounter Christ and when I told her that I was an atheist, it was a struggle because she sincerely believes that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. She was legitimately concerned about my well-being and what would happen when I died.

Admittedly it would have been easy for us to go our separate ways but we stuck at it, maintained a friendship, and kept talking. We still have different beliefs but last year, I gave a reading at her wedding. She and her husband gave me the one reading in the service that was not from the Bible; they picked it on purpose so that I could read something that reflected my different worldview, which I thought was really thoughtful.

Most everyone that I still keep in touch with has been so supportive of this work. It says so much about why that was such a supportive community for me in high school. We love one another.

Because I kept a distance and had this wall up during my time at the Brian Coyle Community Center, where I was unwilling to have certain kinds of conversations, the people whom I worked with there didn’t know me very well. I didn’t ask them very much about themselves, so we didn’t keep in touch. But my work there influenced my desire to reach out, listen to, and learn from Muslim communities later on in my activism, so the Brian Coyle Community Center will always have an important place in my heart.

You describe yourself and your friend experiencing a hate crime while in Chicago. I am glad you are okay. How did you get through that experience and what can towns and cities do to make safer spaces for LGBTQ+ identified people?

Thank you. It was not the first time nor the last that I’ve experienced expressions of anti-LGBTQ hatred in my life. There have been many. Some have left me feeling defeated, like things won’t change. When I get into that headspace, I remind myself of the times in my life, where I have had positive encounters and have seen people’s perspectives change, and that reminder gives me hope.

I think it’s important for LGBTQ+ identified people to be careful. I was recently harassed by a stranger on the bus; they followed me for a while, and it was very scary. This is just a part of my reality. Regardless of what others do to make spaces safer, we have to be careful on our own. We have to prioritize our personal safety. And this is of course not just limited to LGB folks; in fact, 1 in 12 transgender people are murdered in the U.S., which is inconceivably horrifying, infuriating, and tragic. Trans people are incredibly targeted, and it’s a huge problem that needs to be addressed now.

Regarding what people can do to make cities, towns, and the broader cultural climate safer: This starts by creating spaces where people can share stories and speak honestly about who they are. I believe that when people are given an opportunity to identify with someone very different from themselves, they can more easily challenge their preconceived notions and biases. These conversations have a butterfly effect; they ripple out into society and make it safer for all people.

I’ve had surprising conversations with anti-gay activists, such as with a group of people who were proselytizing outside of a gay bar. I can’t say I think that people should always have those conversations, because they have to prioritize their own safety. I don’t think you have to build bridges at all times, because of your own safety, but also because I know I can’t always be my best self all the time. I can’t always meet people more than half way, and sometimes I’m just not up to the challenge of these risky conversations. But the more that we as a queer community can step out and have those conversations, the more society will be a safer place for people at large.

The experience you describe of being at the assassination site of Monsignor Oscar Romero was quite powerful. What was it like writing about the experience?

It was very strange; the process of writing personal narrative is strange in general because our experiences are not these rigid, unchanging things. Our connection to our experiences change as we change. It is an interesting experience to place yourself in your own shoes at a time in life that feels very separate from where you are now.

That experience in El Salvador embodies a larger phenomenon. When I stepped out of Christianity, I wanted to compartmentalize myself and say that I am not that person anymore; but we are deeply informed by all of our experiences. I am not a Christian anymore, but I will always be a person who was a Christian.

It was very difficult at times to put myself back in those shoes and try to remember what it felt like to have that experience in El Salvador, or to have an adolescent conversion experience. We are often so busy looking ahead in life to what’s next, that we just move quickly past experiences and put them out of our minds, so writing Faitheist was a very helpful experience for me. Revisiting and remembering enabled me to make peace with those things; I did not realize how much I was carrying around a lot of that weight with me. In El Salvador, I felt this powerful connection to the Christian beliefs I had moved beyond, but because I was uncomfortable with those feelings, I ignored them and pushed the experience aside. So it was very powerful to go back and write about it – to reclaim and revisit it. I am not just going to push those or any other feelings aside from now on; I am going to sit with and explore them.

I’d recommend that everyone go back to challenging or confusing moments in life and reflect on them, through writing or talking with someone about them. It’s a very helpful exercise f. I do not think that everyone needs to write a book to do this; I was lucky to get to publish a book, but there are many other ways to reflect.

From your perspective, what forces led to the rise of the New Atheism?

Some “New Atheists” identify 9-11 as the emergence of New Atheism as a movement. What I think led to the rise of New Atheism is the fact that many atheists for many years had been excluded from participating in broader public life. Atheists have been marginalized and demonized. I think that, combined with very legitimate frustrations that a number of atheists feel about abuses done in the name of religion, led to his pushback.

I believe that much of the “no” of atheism has been said, and that it’s time to speak more publicly and positively about what atheism and humanism are, not just what they aren’t.

How has Interfaith Youth Corps and other interfaith activists responded to New Atheists critiques of interfaith dialogue particularly that these movements do not sufficiently address religious privilege?

I think interfaith work is a prime forum to address religious privilege; that by participating in interfaith conversation, atheists can demonstrate that religion does not have a monopoly on morality—and that in and of itself is incredibly powerful. I think interfaith dialogues are really excellent spaces to have those difficult conversations about religious privilege—if those conversations are grounded in personal relationships. I think it’s much easier for people to hear and understand religious privilege when the explanation is coming from people whom you know and understand and like. Similarly, I’m a realist, and I know that some people will not hear me because I’m queer, or because I’m an atheist—and I can speak until I am out of air and it won’t matter, because they won’t hear me. But they will hear someone from their in-group, someone who shares their identity. So it’s important for me to have friends and allies in religious communities who can go back to their communities and relay what they have learned in an interfaith space. I hear the critique that interfaith dialogue does not address religious privilege, and I think sometimes interfaith groups have done a bad job, but I think that the factors are there for interfaith dialogues to address incredibly powerful forms of religious privilege—and I see it happening already, and it’s going well. When it’s done well, interfaith dialogue is an ideal forum to have these conversations.

What are some insights you have for aspiring activists?

I would say that I have really benefited from taking time to listen to and learn from other activists. I have ideas and opinions, but it’s not wise to barge into conversations without taking time to learn from others, particularly those who have been doing this work for a long time.

I try to think about it this way: for every minute you talk, spend at least 5 minutes listening; for every piece you publish, read 10 other pieces. You really just can’t do enough listening, learning and reading other people’s work. I feel like I have really benefited from that, and I try to continue doing that as much as I can.
Part of why I was nervous about writing this book and doing this work was because I am young, and I know that there is a lot that I do not know. But knowing that shouldn’t stop you from being a part of the conversation. I helped create a website for emerging young thinkers and activists because I think it’s so important for people to know that it is okay to be a work in progress while doing activism. That you can use your voice while still finding and refining it. I fully expect that I will keep growing and improving—but if I let that stop me, I wouldn’t have learned all that I have over the last few years. So I would say, start doing the work and allow yourself to make mistakes and keep learning. You may write something or participate in something, and later look back and say, ‘Wow, I was really wrong on that’ or ‘Yikes, that was not nuanced’—but that is okay. It’s a part of the process.

On what projects are you working currently?

I was the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and now I’m transitioning into the role of Executive Director and Coordinator of Humanist Life for the Yale Humanist Community. I have been working on getting this program going for the last year and I am incredibly excited about it!

Also, I am continuing to work with organizations within the movements I participate in. I have been part of Interfaith Youth Core for years and I am so thrilled that they have had a huge impact on this conversation. Years ago, when I was first getting involved, I did not encounter many other nontheists—now, based on their alumni survey, about 20 percent of [the Interfaith Youth Core] alums identify as secular humanists, atheists, agnostics or non-religious, which is much higher than the national average of people who identify with these labels.

I am also involved with Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist charity organization. The Challenge the Gap program, part of Foundation Beyond Belief, empowers atheists and humanists to give to religious organizations that engage in work that does not proselytize but improves the conditions of life for others; this also enables us to build relationships with religious groups and people.

I am also continuing to write—I write a regular column for Religion News Service. And I am trying to find the work-life balance. It’s an amazing challenge. I am so passionate about this work, I can always find a million reasons to be up working into the late hours of the night. I feel so privileged and grateful that now this work has gotten to the point to where there are too many different things that I can be contributing to, helping with, or learning from – I feel so fortunate to be in that place, it is truly amazing.

-Sem

Interview: Elliott DeLine (part 2 of 2) !

Underneath This is pleased to present the second part of the interview with talented writer, Elliott DeLine. Please read below!

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Your novels, “Refuse” and “I Know Very Well How I Got My Name” eloquently describes coming-of-age experiences of queer and trans young adults and youth. What inspired you to write these works?

Thank you. My own experiences inspired these works. I wanted to create something different from was out there already. I wrote the books I wanted to read when I was younger and struggling to find reflections of my own experiences.

What have been the most rewarding and challenging aspects of becoming an influential voice within trans and queer literature?

That’s a hard question to answer. I don’t really see myself as influential. Honestly, I have found it very challenging to “break out” so to speak, in the literary world. I’m not sure I’ve influenced other artists, but I have found it very rewarding to hear individually from readers, especially other trans people. I know that I have influenced some people’s lives with my work, and that is an awesome feeling.

I really appreciate your vulnerability in the essay, “Stages of Visibility.” How does composing nonfiction essays compare to writing fiction?

For me, the line between fiction and nonfiction is very blurry. I write both in much the same way. My fiction writing is very personal and almost always based off real life events, and my nonfiction is always using some poetic license.

“I Know Very Well How I Got My Name” includes experiences of bullying. If Dean were coming of age these days, how may his experiences be different?

I’m not sure. I work with queer youth and I get the sense they are still facing a lot of the same issues. Though it does seem like people are learning they are trans earlier and earlier. The media started talking more about bullying the past few years, but I’m skeptical that much has changed in schools. Maybe some schools.

How has the self-publishing process been?

It’s the only way I could do it. I’m a control freak when it comes to my art. But it’s also frustrating, because people don’t always take me as seriously as they do traditionally published authors. And I don’t make much money.

You were recently part of a Huffington Post live panel regarding trans and cisgender gay men dating each other. What do you think have been the barriers between cisgender queer and transgender communities collaborating more for social justice? In what ways has there been progress?

I’m not sure how or if there has been much progress. I’m probably the wrong person to ask. As far as barriers, the trans community is isolated from and misunderstood by cisgender people. Gay cis men are no different. It’s issues of language, class, priorities, privilege, etc., etc., etc. But if you’re asking specifically about cisgender queer people on the whole, I guess there has been some progress. If people identity as “cisgender queer people,” then I figure they at least get that I exist. But most people don’t call themselves that. I don’t think there has been that much progress in the LGB community towards accepting T and Q people. LGB people can be just as invested in upholding gender norms. In fact, if their idea of social justice is acceptance into the larger culture, then T people are really just getting in their way.

What feedback do you have for aspiring writers?

Oh god, I don’t know. Don’t take people’s feedback too seriously. If you realize no one is an authority, then you are more open to feedback. Just do your own thing and say what you mean and don’t freak out about being Literary. I agree with something Kurt Vonnegut said: “If you can talk, you can write.” Just tell a story. Write to be understood. Or don’t. I don’t know. Don’t listen to me.

-Sem

Interview: Bennett Madison!

Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing Bennett Madison. Per his brief bio statement, Bennett Madison is the author of several books for young people, including September Girls, The Blonde of the Joke and the Lulu Dark Mysteries. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Please describe your path to becoming a writer.

The short version is that I was living with my parents and working in a bookstore after I didn’t quite graduate college. All my friends had graduated at the appropriate time and were mostly in New York and I was miserable. Writing fiction was the only thing I knew I was good at, so I decided that selling a book would be the answer to my problems. It turned out not to be the solution to all of my problems, but at least it did get me out of my parents’ house. (For awhile.)

How do your personal and social identities affect your writing?

I would have a hard time thinking of ways in which my personal and social identities don’t affect my writing. I don’t know… my books are actually mostly about straight people, but, even so, I think they have a pretty obvious queer sensibility. I guess some people would probably disagree that a “queer sensibility” is a thing that even exists, and I’m willing to entertain that argument. But if it does exist, I think my books have it.

How did you decide which genres to write?

My first couple of books were mysteries because I heard publishers wanted mysteries at that moment, and it seemed fun.

For the most part, though, I’m not that wrapped up in the genre thing. I just sort of write what I feel like writing and let people call it whatever genre they want to. Most of what I write usually involves some type of weird mystical bullshit so sometimes it gets categorized as fantasy, which is more than fine with me. But a lot of what I write also takes place in shopping malls, and there are a lot of people who don’t think of that as a fantasy setting.

Basically if you don’t think of the shopping mall as a good place to set a fantasy novel, you probably won’t like my books. (I just thought of that but I think it actually is a pretty good rule of thumb.)

In what ways has growing up near DC affected your creative process?

No one has ever asked me this before! I don’t know– maybe just in the sense that I have an affinity for a certain type of suburban setting?

Actually, I guess the other thing that was nice about where I grew up is that I had a city accessible to me as a teenager. I went to a lot of shows; I sometimes snuck into bars. I spent a certain amount of time standing on street-corners batting my eyelashes and hoping someone would ask me out on a date and every now and then it worked. Particularly because I write mostly about teenagers, those experiences probably inform my work and my sensibility, but I bet not any more than if I had grown up near any other major mid-sized city. DC doesn’t offer a ton of artistic inspiration. Unless you write political thrillers, I guess.

Who and what have been your primary creative influences?

Liquid eyeliner, sparklers, boys, malls, baby-sitters, skipping school, cigarettes (though I quit), sad songs, comic books, trees, weather, certain types of nightclubs. Blond hair, obviously.

In terms of writers, people like Kelly Link, Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Mark Doty, Francesca Lia Block, Ben Neihart, Cookie Mueller, Lynda Barry. I mean, I don’t know if they’re influences exactly, but I like them and sometimes I try to copy them. More recently I really adored Danielle Evans’s Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self and Ariel Schrag’s Adam, which comes out in a month or two. But I guess I can’t really claim those as “influences” because I haven’t really written much since I read them.

Also: TV shows. Lots of music. Etc!

What has the process been like of writing from female protagonists’ (such as Lulu Dark) perspectives? What has the response been to this?

I’ve written from girls’ perspectives in several novels. It didn’t seem that hard. I wasn’t trying to say some big thing about how women think or what a woman’s perspective is; I was just trying to write from the point of view of these particular teenage girls. And while I’m not a woman, the characters were both similar and different from me in lots of ways.

Actually, writing from the point of view of a straight guy, which I did in September Girls, was kind of the hardest in some ways. (And that’s also the one people gave me the hardest time about, so.

In what ways is your writing feminist?

There are a couple of reasons that I don’t usually describe my writing as feminist.

First, I try not to have a political axe to grind with my fiction– I mean, I think that fiction is fundamentally political but I’m not usually a fan of stories that grow out of any political agenda.

Second, while I’m happy when my work is described as feminist, I don’t really think it’s my role to claim that title for myself.

Those caveats aside: I’m always interested in gender stuff, particularly when it comes to, like, gender performance, and so those things tend to show up in my books. This is probably especially true in September Girls, which has a lot to do with the narratives that are imposed on us because of our gender and the ways those narratives make us perform gender in certain ways and blah blah blah.

But it’s also a book about mythical sea creatures and sad dads and annoying moms and walking around on the beach and making out, because those are also things I’m interested in. I always have to point that.

What inspired you to write, “I Hate Valentine’s Day” and what has the response been to this book?

I Hate Valentine’s Day was a work-for-hire project, which means that someone at the publisher came up with the idea for it and then paid me to write it. In other words, I was twenty-three and I did it for the money. I don’t actually hate Valentine’s Day– in fact, I don’t really have any opinion on Valentine’s Day at all– which made it very hard to write an entire (short) book about it.

It’s not totally my favorite book I’ve ever written and I sort of wish I’d used a pen name on it, but I do think it has some funny parts. Actually I haven’t looked at it in forever, so who knows. I’m not even sure I have a copy anymore. My mom probably does, I guess.

Characters in your book, “The Blonde of the Joke” were ironically described as homophobic. What do you make of this reaction now?

The Blonde of the Joke is about two girls who do a bunch of fucked-up things. Mostly shoplifting, but they also smoke, skip school, drink alcohol. I could go on. Amidst all that bad behavior, they use the word “faggot” a couple of times, in various contexts. A few people had a real problem with that.

I guess I’m one of those annoying people who thinks that language changes meanings depending on the context. I don’t have a lot of patience for the Pee Wee Herman school of social justice, by which I mean, the thing where you make a list of hate-words and then sound the alarm any time anyone says one. The word “faggot” isn’t always homophobic, depending on who uses it and why, and there are plenty of people who manage to be complete homophobic assholes without ever uttering the word “faggot” at all. Also, I sort of hate to play this card, but I’ve been called a fag enough times in my life that it really infuriates me that anyone– especially a straight person, but really anyone– would try to tell me how I can and can’t use it myself.

I’m also annoying in the sense that I don’t think the views of a fictional character are necessarily the same as the perspective of the book they appear in. This issue came up again in a slightly different form when September Girls came out last year. The fact that several characters in the book exhibit fairly unenlightened and disrespectful attitudes about women, and use language to match those attitudes, is not only realistic in my estimation, it’s also a big part of what the book is about.

Every reader is entitled to their own interpretation when it comes to fiction. If you want to think Huckleberry Finn is a racist book because of certain words that appear in it, you can go right ahead. But just because you are allowed your own interpretation doesn’t mean that your own interpretation is not completely missing the point.

While I’m not seriously comparing my own books to Mark Twain’s, I do think that readers are well-served when they consider the way language functions in a novel as a whole rather than focusing on a few objectionable words. At least, I know I am.

That took me about two hours to sort out. I’ll answer the rest of these questions after I smoke a fag.

Have you written about transgender characters?

Not really. There was a recurring character in the Lulu Dark books who was a drag queen, but that’s perhaps different. At any rate, she was kind of a very unusual type of drag queen in that she seemed to be in drag, like, all the time. Which probably is really unrealistic to anything that would happen in real life, and also probably blurs some lines in ways that aren’t that helpful. If I was going to write those books again, I’d probably try to rethink that character. But anyway, the short answer is no.

From your perspective, what is the climate like for LGBTQ+ writers of young adult books these days? Are there differences in climate compared to heterosexual writers?

That’s a hard question. In a lot of ways it’s not an issue. There are obviously tons of queer people who work in the field of kids’ books, and there’s also a pretty strong tradition of gay people being very successful as authors of stuff for kids and teenagers. (Louise Fitzhugh, Maurice Sendak, M.E. Kerr, Ian Falconer, David Levithan, etc. etc.) So, for the most part, I think that the climate is basically great.

At the same time, I think that when it comes to writing gay content, one has to sort of adjust one’s standards of what commercial success is going to look like. By which I mean: swap in a gay character as the protagonist of any of John Green’s books and I don’t think that book would be nearly as successful. (Come to think of it, the one John Green book with a major gay supporting character is I think the only one that’s not on the New York Times bestseller list this week.)

A mass audience is often really reluctant to try anything that isn’t totally familiar to it, and most people aren’t gay. I think a gay love story, or a gay anything, really, is just going to have a much harder time crossing the threshold into real sales. Which is not to say it’s impossible, just that I think expectations are usually going to be lower. Which, you know, has a certain affect on what gets published and also on what people even bother writing.

You know, this week there was this big thing on Twitter this week about how there should be more diversity in YA books. Which, aside from how much I hate “diversity” as a euphemism, I obviously think there should be. Of course!

However! There are already “diverse” books out there. Not as many as there should be, but enough that there are plenty to choose from. It’s not like there’s this complete shortage of books by people who are not straight white men.

And yet… look at the New York Times bestseller list for teen fiction. Last week it was four white men and two white women, all of whom I think are straight (not to mention cisgender). I love a lot of these authors and a lot of these books– Gayle Forman is the total god of me. But as an author who is by some token “diverse,” it’s all a little frustrating. People of color, queer people, trans people, etc. should all be better represented in terms of what’s published, duh.

But what about the books that are already out there?

On what projects are you working on next? Is there another book in the works?

I’m working on another YA book that I think is going to be called THE LAST RULE OF MAGIC. It’s your typical platonic gay love story bildungsroman about magicians in New Jersey. It probably won’t be out for awhile because it’s kicking my ass right now. I’m also working on a grown-up book that will probably never be done. As usual I have more ideas than I can really execute.

What feedback do you have for aspiring writers?

Do your laundry. It’s easier than it seems and you’ll get ahead faster if you don’t stink. I have a hard time following this rule myself– Justine Larbalestier has scolded more than once for stinking– but I do try.

Interview: Elliott DeLine! (Part 1 of 2)

Underneath This just enjoyed interviewing Elliott DeLine. Please read some more about Elliott in his self-penned biographical statement before reading part 1 of the interview. Stay tuned for part two in the following weeks!

Elliott DeLine (born 1988) is a transgender writer and activist from Syracuse, NY. He is the author of the novel Refuse and the novella I Know Very Well How I Got My Name. His work has been featured in the Modern Love essay series of The New York Times, The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, and Original Plumbing Magazine. Elliott attended Purchase College and graduated from Syracuse University in 2012 with a BA in English. He is a founding board member of the nonprofit CNY for Solidarity, Inc., and the general coordinator of Queer Mart, and LGBTQ arts and crafts fair. Elliott currently lives in Syracuse, NY, where he works, volunteers, and writes.

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Please describe your path to becoming a writer.

It probably sounds corny, but I’ve always been writing, since I was able. I used to make books as a kid, with paper and staples. Growing up, writing was always something that came pretty naturally to me. That, along with books, music and art, was my way of escaping and expressing myself. I was pretty involved with my high school literary magazine and had a lot of poems and short pieces I would share that way. When I got to college, I decided I wanted to focus on creative writing the most, and not visual art I didn’t really know much about art, I just enjoyed making it. I didn’t like the classes so I switched to an English major and focused on reading and writing. The first times I was really published were in college literary magazines, prior to writing Refuse. Then I self-published Refuse, and then I was a runner-up in the New York Times Modern Love Essay Contest, and then my story was accepted for The Collection, a transgender anthology. Then I also became a blogger for Original Plumbing. Everything built upon itself and more and more people read Refuse. I started getting semi-regular “fan mail,” requests for interviews, and got to read or speak at some events and colleges. Nothing too crazy, but enough that some people took me seriously. I then self-published I Know Very Well How I Got My Name. That’s all it really was. Mostly, I asked people to read my book, or sell it at their store, or to read at their event, and enough people said yes. And it built upon itself.

How has living in Syracuse, NY informed your writing?

Very much so, given that it’s the setting of probably 75% of what I have written the past few years. I’ve lived here most my life, but it took going away a few times to get perspective on it. I’ve become fascinated with the city and region for these past five years or so. The architecture, history, demographics, crime, everything. It seems like everything about me is tied to my location, and I’d never noticed it before. I feel like Syracuse explained everything. Why I am who I am. It was empowering to stop being embarrassed about my history. I was embarrassed because it was so ordinary and I wasn’t anywhere near as worldly as my college friends at least pretended they were. So I wasn’t from some place hip or interesting. So what. I was glad. I am still glad. And people like that are wrong anyway. I’ve always had a lot of hometown pride. It’s common here. It’s a love-hate sort of thing. I think it’s a unique setting because it’s nothing special. Not to outsiders at least.

In what ways has your work been feminist and/or reflected social justice themes?

Like many trans people, I have a conflicted relationship with feminism. I think my books challenge the ways some (cisgender female) feminists view the world. I was actually surprised my second book, I Know Very Well How I Got My Name, didn’t get more backlash. I have to imagine it’s because so far fewer people read it. I thought the depiction of a trans person sexually abused by a cisgender female would be more controversial. Because it’s sort of the reversal of societal expectations, where the trans person is the predator, and male-identified people are predators, and cisgender women are victims only. Feminism is a tough one, because I’ve seen so many trans women as well as men hurt by the words of self-identified feminists. I don’t think my books are anti-feminist. But that wasn’t my concerns when writing those particular pieces. The social justice themes I am most concerned with in Refuse and I Know.. are probably access to healthcare for trans people and a sorta anticapitalist view of work, particularly given trans unemployment. And I think there is a lot to be said about class and location, like I previously mentioned. But I figure what is good for trans people is good for all gender equality. So in that sense, feminists and I are on the same page.

What was it like being part of the first annual QueerMart arts and craft fair?

It was wonderful. We put a lot of time and energy into promoting it and it really paid off. The crowds were big and everyone was so excited. Most the artists made a decent amount if money. I don’t think there’s ever been anything like it in Syracuse. I’m really proud of it. It really brought people together for something positive and fun. It felt empowering.

How did you become involved with CNY for Solidarity and how has this experience been?

Well, that is a long story. It started out as a small project of me and a few friends, because we wanted to spread the word on the CeCe McDonald story. We decided to march in the Syracuse Pride, which, like most LGBT stuff in the area, is overwhelmingly white and cisgender. We are white, so in a way it felt like, “Is this really our place?” But I was so glad we did it. We tried to make it clear that we weren’t speaking for trans women of color, just showing our support for them. Other women we were honoring included LaTeisha Green, who was murdered in Syracuse in 2008. We don’t want people to forget, because not much has changed since then and it could happen again. We wanted people to realize there are members of the LGBT community who have a lot more to worry about that marriage equality and how to decorate their float. Trans people should be a priority, because we are still second class citizens on the whole, and trans women of color should be the TOP priority because there’s nothing short of genocide against them. To be frank, we were a group of quiet but radical people who hadn’t ever felt connected to the LGBT community, particularly in Syracuse. It’s basically a buzzword for us at this point, but we wanted to focus on intersectionality. Single-issue trans activism really turned us all off. Eventually, the group got larger, and some older, very passionate and intelligent individuals got involved, giving us a huge energy boost. My friend Joey single-handedly did the research to make us an incorporated non-profit, with a board of directors. He established the LGBTQ food pantry, and a bus to get people down to Philadelphia for trans-positive care. It’s a mess up here, in terms of getting on hormones and getting general care as well, as a trans person. We try to focus on the real bare bones stuff, because needs just aren’t being met. We want to get people food, healthcare, shelter, jobs, safety, as well as support and empowerment. We have a support group now called Intersections Cafe, where we serve free coffee and dinner and we’re having another Queer mart on May 3rd. We’re starting an indiegogo soon, as well as applying for grants, and hope open our own center in downtown Syracuse. It would start as a resource center, and hopefully in time, we can also develop a solution for trans health care in Syracuse. The Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia has been very supportive of us in this endeavor. There is no general LGBTQ center in Syracuse. There’s one at Syracuse University for students, one for elderly/aging people, and one for youth. But the rest of us don’t really have anything but scattered support groups and gays bars that are always closing down a month after they open. Really, the amount that has been achieved in Syracuse by others is astounding. But it often seems like the left hand isn’t talking with the right. Unfortunately, that hasn’t really improved. But we offer a slew of new resources and services, and we hope in time that other community organization leaders warm up to us. But we try to focus on the community itself and not get bogged down in the politics. There’s work to be done and I’m trying to just move forward. We’re having elections soon for Board Officers, and forming committees, and hope to do some workshops on name change documents, food stamps, and other stuff that can be harder to obtain when you’re trans. We’ve got plenty of energy and ideas, now we just need the funding.

Who have been your creative inspirations?

I find music the most inspirational, which explains for all the references to Morrissey and The Smiths in my work. Morrissey has probably inspired me more than any other artist. This summer I was very inspired by Joni Mitchell. When it really comes down to it though, it’s the people in my life who inspire me the most. I don’t like the idea of “muses,” because there’s a gendered connotation to it that strikes me as gross. However, my desire to make sense of my relationships often drives my work.

I always have drawn inspiration from marginalized artists who were controversial in their communities. Philip Roth was someone I became fixated on for a while. Native Son by Richard Wright made me feel like it was OK to have a deeply flawed protagonist…one who may even appear on the surface to live up to stereotypes, but in reality, to the careful reader, is ultimately sympathetic and powerful in a way that the “poster boys” can never be. I like authors who play with fire, because that’s how you test your beliefs, and that’s the only way you’ll come to anything like the truth. James Baldwin’s Another Country gave me permission somehow, too- to focus on interpersonal relationships more than plot. Not to the point that it’s a soap opera, but it really is OK to just write about the world around you. It doesn’t have to be something far outside your experience and invented. In fact, I think it’s better when it isn’t.

Have you envisioned your novels being made into films? If so, what may that be like?

Yes. I think about this a lot too. I would love that. I’d want to be very involved of course, and I’d want to cast trans people as actors. I would particularly love to see Refuse as a movie. I’d love to pick the songs for the soundtrack. I always envision the opening scene as Dean riding a bike through the suburbs with the song “Please Help the Cause Against Loneliness” by Morrissey. And I always picture it in black and white. And then he’d go up to his room and sit down at the computer and there would be a sort of cheesy voice over narration as he typed. That would quickly fade into the past, or in other words the story that he’s writing. Those scenes would have no voice over. It would switch back and forth between present and past. Maybe the past could be in color, but the present part where it’s just Dean in his head at his parents’ house would be black and white.

What are some of the most salient issues facing trans people today in the United States? How can individuals be an informed ally to trans folks and communities?

Healthcare, including mental healthcare. The healthcare system really fucks us over. Unemployment and poverty. The real bare bones stuff. Our community really suffers, on a grand scale, with basic needs going unmet. It’s sort of sickening. And then there’s isolation and loneliness. People can become informed by listening to us.

On what projects are you currently working?

I’m currently working on a book I’d like to have finished this summer. That’s all I’ll say.

Interview: Ruth Marimo!

Underneath This had the soulful and meaningful experience of interviewing Ruth Marimo. Before reading the interview, please read more about Ruth in the bio statement that she wrote.

Ruth Marimo was born and raised in the Southern African country of Zimbabwe. In 1999, at the age of nineteen, after arriving in England she found herself booking a round trip ticket to the United States. She never boarded her return flight. Ruth now lives in Omaha, Nebraska, where she feels her number one job is raising her two beautiful children. To support her family, she owns a small residential and commercial cleaning business, and in her free time she continues to work on her writing, advocating for immigration reform, and speaking out against the mistreatment of LGBTQ people in Africa as well as the world. You can learn more about Ruth’s current work by visiting her website: ruthmarimo.com.

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Please describe your path to becoming an activist and writer.

My path to becoming an activist and a published author was quite accidental. I started writing my life-story in jail awaiting deportation back in 2009, my book started as a goodbye letter to my two children. I was finally released from immigration hold after 30 days in jail. I went to church that first Sunday after my release and the pastor of the church preached an anti-gay sermon. I was so angry that I confronted him about who I was after the service. That was my first act of activism and I have never looked back since that incident.

In what ways have your social and personal identities influenced your activism and writing?

Who I am intersects on so many different levels with so many marginalized minority groups: I am an African immigrant who was undocumented; I am a single black mother; I am an out African lesbian woman; I was in an abusive interracial heterosexual marriage; I have children who are biracial; I was orphaned at the age of five; I date outside of my own race; and I am a woman from a third world nation. So in a sense I feel that I have so many causes to fight for, that my battle is never really done.

You have so much resilience. How have you survived and thrived through very challenging times?

As ironic as it sounds, I think losing my mother at such a young age and basically having this understanding that I was an outcast from childhood has made me resilient, I had to find ways of coping at such a young age and that has helped me deal with life’s trials as an adult. I have also been resilient because I have never wanted to repeat the actions my mother took, so I have never allowed myself to feel so defeated that I give up.

Your mother died by suicide when you were 5 years old. What could the world be doing more for those who have lost loved ones to suicide?

Society needs to understand the pain inflicted when suicide occurs – especially for children. I grew up in a culture where bad things are not talked about so I suffered in silence as a child. Society needs to understand that grief counseling is a must any time suicide occurs. Also silence about the person does not help, it is better to reflect on the person’s life and find healthy ways to remember them. Perhaps the most important thing is to foster environments that prevent suicide from occurring in the first place. Which could start by removing the stigma associated with mental health disorders.

What was the coming out process like for you as a woman from Zimbabwe?

It was extremely challenging. My ex-girlfriend had to literally force me to come out of the closet. When I finally did come out I faced a lot of homophobia from both family and friends. It was as if I had stopped being the person they knew, I felt shunned and people I was once close to distanced themselves in very obvious ways. It was lonely, even though I live in the United States.

Homophobia and heterosexism are experienced and perpetuated around the world, and there has been much focus on aversion to LGBTQ+ people in Africa today. What do you make of that and how do you respond?

I think it is so tragic the way African nations think they are fighting back against a Western influence by punishing their own citizens. The ability for Africans to easily turn violent against one another is something that has always bothered me. What is more disgraceful is the influence of the evangelical right from Western nations in perpetuating that hatred. That factor is actually one of the main reasons I have recently made a decision to walk away from religion. I can no longer identify with something that is so divisive.

What was it like emigrating from Zimbabwe to the UK?

It was a challenge because I was only eighteen and so uniformed about the ways of the world and its laws. I experienced some of the most difficult transitions in my life while living in the UK.

You are a survivor of domestic violence perpetuated by your ex-husband. What are ways that services can be more accessible to survivors of abuse?

I think funding programs that help employ people equipped to counsel survivors of abuse would help greatly. That area needs more case workers, more follow ups of these women and their children. Programs that actually help women escape abusive situations are imperative because most women stay because they have nowhere else to go, with no means of starting over alone. Here in Omaha Nebraska organizations like Heartland family services and Catholic Services are great examples.

What were some of the most challenging parts of being in the immigration detention center in the United States?

As an undocumented immigrant in custody I had no rights whatsoever and the jail that housed me had no information regarding my case . If I did not have relatives here who managed to hire an immigration lawyer on my behalf, I have no idea what would have become of me. The lack of rights undocumented immigrants have in detention centers is deplorable. I lost twenty pounds in thirty days – that is how miserable I was while in jail.

What has it been like living as a lesbian woman of color raising two children in Nebraska?

For the most part it has been good, we live in a great neighborhood in Papillion, which has some of the best schools in the nation and ranks among the safest in the country as well. My kids play outside with the rest of the kids in our neighborhood. I am out and open at their school which is diverse in terms of ethnicity, and ability, which makes the school terrific and inclusive. However racial disparities are very apparent in Omaha depending on where you live.

Speaking!

What have been some of the most rewarding experiences of the activism and motivational speaking you have done? The most challenging?

Last February I traveled to Yale as one of the featured speakers at the annual IVYQ (Ivy League Queer Conference) and last week I facilitated a creative writing workshop at a women’s symposium at Metropolitan Community College. I have had many challenges but I haven’t noticed them as much because my activism started from rock-bottom. I was prepared to stand entirely alone when I began this journey.

Congratulations that your next book, “OuTsider: Crossing Borders. Breaking Rules. Gaining Pride” is being released very soon, in fact on the National Day of Silence. Was this date selected intentionally?

Yes. So many aspects of my story are views we never hear. People living in the shadows are too busy trying to hide and survive and hence never speak up.

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What has the experience been of writing and publishing this work?

It was a grueling process, my editor, Stephanie Finnegan, was relentless in making sure I brought raw emotion to paper. The publishing team at Scout Publishing LLC, CEO Ryan Sallans and Art Director Erika Block, have respected my voice and believed in my story. My girlfriend, Deanne, is also a writer and helps to give me different perspectives.

How has your family responded to your art and activism?

They have been mostly silent, they don’t yet know how to react. I think writing my story is too revealing for them and who I am is still uncomfortable for them. We come from a culture woman don’t grow up to write books – let alone their life-stories. However my family has come a long in accepting my identity and I am included in anything that pertains to family.

In what ways is your work feminist?

Every aspect of it is, especially from an African perspective, I have done everything I grew up being told women simply can’t do.

How does the experience of performing poetry compare to writing a memoir?

They’re both cathartic and are inspired by my experiences so I guess the difference is only that I use more metaphors when I write and perform poetry and writing a memoir is more factual and with performing I’m in front of a crowd and in writing I’m alone.

In your poem, “Who Am I?”, you eloquently and vulnerably reflect on some of your experiences including being “an alien to my own nation.” What do those words mean to you now?

Those are deep words that remind me that I am less valued where I come from because of my sexual identity. That I am less understood by the people I share a blood line with. That I was an outcast among my own people because orphans are not loved equally in my culture. That my own biological father never bothered to have a relationship with me – most likely because I was a girl.

As an African woman, how do you perceive the LGBTQ+ rights movements in the United States? How inclusive are the communities?

The LGBTQ movement in the US still has a long way to go, there is often division within the community. We have a long way to go as far as being trans inclusive, particularly in making space for trans people of color at the table. The rainbow flag is still largely a white flag; and that needs to change.

What feedback do you have for aspiring activists and authors?

You have to master the ability to stand in your own truth. The ability to allow people to walk out of your life because they will. The ability to make new families made up of people who see you as you are and believe in what you say.

On what projects are you working on next?

My next focus will be the first of a 12 series children’s book, titled ‘What Is Africa Really Like’. I will partner with American based Cameroon artist, Gerard Pefung. The motivation behind the project is to give children everywhere an accurate depiction of far-away places in the world. Often the picture they get from television is largely one sided and inaccurate.

-Sem