Who better to translate the DC roller coaster into a great political fiction than someone who has spent decades enmeshed in the gridlock of the country’s capital?
Rich Garon is just the guy.
In the eighties and nineties, Garon worked as chief-of-staff of the US House Committee on International Relations. When he retired, he began writing books to capture the stress and struggle of policy work, but also the incredible good deeds that can come it.
Clearly his life’s earlier work affected his writing — from the character development of his stories to the fact that he’s donating all the proceeds of his debut novel, “Felling Big Trees,” to WhyHunger?, a non-profit organization that works to fight hunger and poverty across the globe.
“Felling Big Trees” is set in the 1990s and follows a disgraced and widowed congressman who seeks redemption in America’s heartland. Small-town anonymity intrigues him as he recovers from political disaster and tries to free himself — and his teenage daughter — from the grips of his politically powerful mother in law.
A story of romance, power and second chances, “Felling Big Trees” proves that compassion and tolerance are not only possible in a time of strident tone, but essential for survival.
Did your work as a chief-of- staff for the US House Committee on International Relations influence your work on Felling Big Trees? How so?
Yes, it did. In that position, I had the opportunity to be involved in policy-making on some of the critical issues of the day, such as arms control, human rights, and development assistance issues. Working on Capitol Hill for more than 25 years also gave me first-hand knowledge about how things worked, and an insight into the personal lives of members of Congress, such as how they juggled family with the demands of the job.
What inspired you to write Felling Big Trees?
I believed some of the things I referred to above were worth sharing. I had just retired from my position on Capitol Hill and I thought I could bring an authenticity to things I wrote about in a novel. Themes in the book, such as helping those with few resources and stepping out from apathy when large problems demand action, were themes I wanted to share.
How did you marry compassion and tolerance with a story that also has intrigue and pace?
I believe the essence of a good policy-maker is compassion — a concern for those who need help. I tried to develop characters whose actions could show the importance of compassion against a backdrop of forces that challenged and threatened these individuals. Felling Big Trees is also a romance novel, showing how two individuals develop a relationship of love and hope. It also showcases the importance of father-daughter relationships.
Why use writing as a tool to support ending hunger?
I’ve learned it is important to use as many platforms as possible to make people better aware of some of the larger problems facing our society. From that awareness can come a political will to work with others to develop policies to help end these problems. I first worked with WhyHunger over 40 years ago when it first started bringing attention to the hunger issue. It is a great organization that has been tirelessly working to reduce hunger and poverty. Accordingly, I decided to donate proceeds from the sale of this book to WhyHunger.
What is the biggest misconception about homelessness or hunger in America?
I don’t believe the scope of either problem is well known. While we have made some advances in the past, there are far too many who suffer from homelessness and hunger.
When and where do you write? Have you found you work better on a schedule or did you write when you felt motivated?
I write at home and prefer to start in the early morning. In my case, I’ve found that I have to write every day, usually till mid-day. There are other times when a great idea occurs or when I’ve realized something I’ve written just doesn’t work. I’ll jot down some notes and work on it when I’m back at the computer.
While working on this book, did you ever experience writer’s block or become stalled in your writing? If so, when and how did you push through it?
Yes, more than once. There are so many things involved in a novel of close to 300 pages. Characters, scenes, plots, so many things must tie together. Sometimes you can make quick-fixes. However, you’re often faced with major rewrites that you just have to accept and develop.
Do you have any tips for writers on how they can channel their life experience into their storytelling?
I found it’s the little things that make for compelling stories. Some small things you can remember about a person or place that are described well can make for a good read.
Will you write another novel?
I have three completed manuscripts (one’s a children’s book) and I hope to have them published.
If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party. Who would you invite and why?
C.S. Lewis, Graham Greene, and Jesus. The first two are my favorite authors; their writing skill and intellect never cease to amaze me. Jesus has also had a profound impact on their lives and on mine as well.
I’m lucky enough to have a handful of academics as friends in my Facebook feed. As the post-election noise gets ever more urgent and confusing, I’ve turned to these friends for article links, books to read as I scramble to get a more careful background on some of these issues, or calm, reasoned takes on what is happening now and what we can do in the future.
With the scourge of fake news stories and the normalization of prejudice-through-language happening in non-fake news sources, I’m overwhelmed. I guess I’m craving to see where we are through the lens of education and history, because those are where I’m convinced the path to truth and answers can be found.
Apropos, then, that I turn to Austin McCoy, a very well-educated historian.
I originally messaged him to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement. I focused my questions on how white people like me, and most of you readers, can be participants and how can we educate ourselves to be better advocates for equality.
I think the most obvious thing we can do is listen to minority experiences and then, with compassionate self-criticism, ask how we, especially white liberals, act out our own systemic bias. Because we do. I do, too.
The racism, straight-up not stirred, hurled at Austin on Twitter recently has been outrageous. I’m always in awe at how gracefully Austin handles the hatred, amazed at his ability to peel the leeches off and stay standing, fighting for what he believes in in a way that is underpinned by the calm, compassion and consideration he encourages his opponents to employ. That resilient courage is inspiring, which is probably why he’s become a strong voice in the organizing he leads.
As for me, I’ll be heading to the library after work today to pick up one of his book recommendations. And I look forward to soon buying his own book.
Tell us about your background and the work you do now.
I study 20th Century U.S. history, particularly African American history, social movements, and labor and political economy. Currently, I am working on a book project that examines the progressive left in the Midwest and their movements around the 1960s uprisings, police brutality, the war in Southeast Asia, and economic justice. I serve as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan.
My background inspired my research. I grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, which is a small deindustrialized city. Initially, I was interested in how progressives responded to factory shutdowns because so many closed in Mansfield. The Mansfield area lost twelve manufacturing plants, including the Mansfield-Ontario General Motors factory, since 1971. I am a son of the black working class. My grandfather, father, mother, uncle, and aunt worked in factories in Mansfield. I was also an activist looking for guidance in how to organize for racial and economic justice.
I did some organizing work as an undergraduate student at The Ohio State University, Mansfield. I focused mainly on issues of race and diversity. I was one of a very few African American students on campus. I barely saw any other black students on campus and was typically the only one in my classes. Some of us also organized and started a little leftist magazine—we called it Spirit of the Nation. Since I have been at the University of Michigan, I have organized around issues of racial justice on campus, police killings (“Black Lives Matter”), and now against white supremacists, or whom some in the media have called the “alt-right.” I helped organize an all-night teach-in to support black undergraduate students at Michigan seeking racial justice. I also participated in Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Cleveland, and Chicago.
When and how did your family first talk to you about race?
I cannot recall the first time my parents first spoke to me about race. I remember my mom would talk to me about always having to be careful because black men were becoming an “endangered species.” This was probably during the late-1980s or early-1990s. I was really young, maybe around ten- or eleven-years-old. My mother worried about me because she believed that I would be a target, or a fall guy, if I got into a bad situation while hanging around white and non-black folks. She talked to me more about how to interact with police and other authority figures as I entered my teenage years. This “endangered species” discourse circulated among other black folks too. I always tell people that one of the primary examples of this is in hip hop. Ice Cube and Chuck D recorded a song together that appeared on Cube’s first album,Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, called “Endangered Species.” This was a gendered phenomenon, obviously. My parents were protective of my sister, but mom never spoke as if she was in imminent danger.
What makes you proud to be a black man?
First, I’m proud because of my family—my parents, my sister, my brothers, my grandparents—especially the struggles we have endured. Second, I’m proud of our extremely complex history. It seems cliché, but since I went to college and started studying history, I became more inspired. Black folks destabilized the slave system and overturned Jim Crow in the South and simultaneously challenged racism in the North and West. Hip hop culture also instilled a pride in my racial identity. I would name some specific artists, but there are too many to name. Nas, Public Enemy, X-Clan, Dead Prez, Ice Cube, Talib Kweli, Lauryn Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Wu-Tang Clan are at the top of my list, though. Obviously, black history and hip hop culture are also crooked vessels. They are not perfect and can perpetuate problematic views of gender and sexuality. But, my point is that I had to learn how to hold what inspired me in tension with those problems.
What inspires you to do the work you do and face the hate you do on a daily basis?
Sometimes I do not know what motivates me besides the obvious—a desire to address and eradicate various forms of oppression and inequalities. I have been doing some sort of organizing work for a long time, so I often pull water from that well, and it runs deep. What keeps me going is knowing that the causes I believe in are just. But I also know that I do not have the luxury to be a bystander, especially now. In the last couple months, I have encountered racism more on social media since I have a presence. What also drives me now is the desire to help people organize themselves to change the world around them. I want to help anyone who wants to organize to be, well, better organizers than I. Watching folks develop the capacity to organize and resist is also inspirational.
How did these election results make you feel?
I felt terrible. I felt on-edge and on the verge of crying. I also felt physically sick. The thing that some Trump supporters clearly did not understand was that some of our feelings about the outcome of the contest actually transcended the election, itself. Many of us were, and are, not sad because a Republican won. Many of us are fearful because we have taken Trump at his word—about Muslims, undocumented folks, women, and Black Lives Matter.
Beyond the racist rhetoric and actions Trump has emboldened, are there any policies or actions the Trump campaign has promised that should have us on high alert?
The real question is where to start—the proposed Muslim registry, mass deportation, Trump’s demonization of Black Lives Matter and support for a national “stop and frisk” law (which would not be constitutional)? As I write this, social media and news outlets are reeling at Trump’s latest tweet suggesting that those who burn the American flag should lose their citizenship and/or be jailed. White nationalists and white supremacists see Trump as an inspiration and an opportunity to mainstream their ideas and influence policy. Trump’s rhetoric has emboldened many of these folks to harass people like myself on Twitter and social media, and, even more disturbingly, to commit hate crimes. Donald Trump and white nationalists are a threat to what little democracy we may have. What is good is that we are not sure what he will actually do, but we are wise to take him at his word, or tweet.
How is All Lives Matter counter-productive? What you say to people who come at you with that?
The counter-slogan, “All Lives Matter,” misses the point and is really a distraction from the problem that many people of color, particularly black people, face—disproportionate state violence. All African Americans, trans people of color, and Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police. Residential segregation, the poverty concentrated in these spaces, mass incarceration, and an unwillingness for Democrats and Republicans to devise policies that could address inequalities show a disregard for black bodies. Black folks, as well as many poor people, have become more disposable as inequalities have widened. So, the easy answer is there is no need for a black lives matter movement if all lives truly mattered. If all lives mattered, then there would never be a time when the state would circumscribe black folks’ civil liberties. We wouldn’t be criminalized by laws. We wouldn’t be racially profiled. We would not have to contend with negative racial stereotypes that suggests we are criminal, either due to biology, behavior, or geography. Our families would not have to contend with the negative racial stereotypes when loved ones are killed by the police. We would not be blamed for our own criminalization nor our own deaths.
What can white people who want to be agents of change do to help, especially in this oncoming environment of a Trump presidency?
First, white folks need to support the Movement for Black Lives’s platform. This needs to be a point of conversation among white folks. White and non-black folks should consider supporting and organizing around a political platform that doesn’t totally center on their own preferences, or what they consider a “universal” political vision. Then, as white folks voice their support for the Movement for Black Lives’s platform, they can continue to find ways to educate themselves about the history of structural racism, patriarchy, settler colonialism, Islamophobia, economic exploitation, and xenophobia. All of these phenomena are connected. These are the phenomena that obstruct unity, democracy, liberty, and equality. White folks, as well as all of us, have to think of the ways in which we are complicit individually and collectively.
Do you have any book or reading or even movie/ documentary recommendations for people who want to learn more about racial injustice? Where are good starting points for people who might not be educated on the complex history of racial injustice in America?
This is a tough question for an historian because there are so many!
Martin Luther King, Jr’s Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? has been formative in my understanding the challenge of attaining racial justice after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. In this text, Dr. King is extremely critical of white liberals and those who thought the movement had realized racial equality. He also offers his thoughts on the Poor People’s Movement and the prospects for democratic socialism in the U.S.
Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman: An Anthology is one of the first collections about intersectionality edited by a black woman. This text, published in 1970, provided necessary critiques of white liberal feminism, black power, and racist and sexist views of the black family and black womanhood. One cannot understand the history of the women’s liberation movement and black feminism without consulting this collection.
Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation and Jordan Camp’s and Christina Heatherton’s Policing the Planet:Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter are great resources for understanding the historical context of the Black Lives Matter movement. Taylor offers a concise radical interpretation of race, racism, black politics, and policing after the 1960s. Camp’s and Heatherton’s book is a collection of essays and interviews by intellectuals and activists. It examines the issue of policing and state violence from various points of view. I am teaching a class on resisting state violence next semester and I plan on assigning all of parts of both texts.
Can you offer any words of wisdom or hope to people and especially minorities who feel threatened by this new president?
There is not anything I can tell minorities, or folks marginalized in our society, something they do not already know. I think Trump supporters should try harder to understand why marginalized folks feel threatened. I am confident that the real defenders of democracy—justice-seeking students, community organizers, intellectuals, teachers, journalists, cultural critics, comedians, artists, and librarians—will challenge this new regime and make the president-elect feel uncomfortable with pursuing his program each day he is in office.My hope continues to lay in all of my friends, accomplices, and the folks that I don’t know, and their willingness to organize at the drop of a dime and put their bodies on the line. I do not have any words because there is no hope without us working and struggling together.
If you could invite three people to a dinner party, living or dead, who would they be and why?
Three people? Wow. I am going to name five — Frederick Douglass, community organizer Ella Baker, author Toni Cade Bambara, historian Howard Zinn, and Martin Luther King. I would want to talk to all of them about how we can resist the new administration. I work best with a large team.
“I’m more of a weekend warrior,” says the Seattle-based entrepreneur, “who wants to cycle, snowmobile, ride mountain bikes, and hit the trails with my family.”
An active lifestyle has always been in Mehl’s wheelhouse—she was even a two-sport Division 1 athlete in college.
But as her busy life as a mom and business owner (and eventually a broken leg!) began to impede on her time to workout, Mehl and business partner Mike Rector began to design something that could make working out from home more accessible.
Excy is a total body-cross training system in the form of an exercise cycle. It comes in at 10 pounds dripping wet and is compact, so it’s easy to carry around if needed.
The Excy combines cardio fitness, strength training (up to 30 pounds of resistance!) and interactive mobile health technology. Users can log into the website to watch online video workouts, from beginner on up.
In this interview Michele talks about how her design helps people get those healthy choices in, whether they’re looking for something average or athletic. She’s got some great advice for burgeoning, already-busy business owners, too.
Why start Excy?
The statistics are staggering for how few people get the recommended 150 minutes of strength and cardiovascular physical activity per week (only 20 percent of Americans), even though research shows that small amounts of physical activity trigger dozens of beneficial changes in the body. We crafted Excy to make quality exercise more convenient, fun, and social anywhere and at any time to generate healthier outcomes worldwide and eliminate the obstacles of time and space. For me, this Excy journey is all about believing that quality exercise is medicine for a higher quality of life and to help reduce the risk of injury and preventable diseases.
How would you describe Excy’s approach to health?
It really comes down to giving people more freedom to balance being healthy and busy by connecting quality cardio and strength training to everyday life at home, work, or on the go. Excy weighs just 10 pounds, but folds for easy transport and storage. Our patent-pending approach offers over 100 different workouts with zero to 30 pounds of resistance and easily adapts to users of all levels, making it the perfect tool for physical therapy, home fitness, burning calories, and group training.
Tell me about being a working mother with a broken leg! You sound like wonder woman.
Ha! Not wonder woman, just surrounded by amazing friends and family. As painful and inconvenient as the injury was for me, I think it was even worse for my family and friends who volunteered to do a lot of stepping and fetching while I was laid up on the couch. I’m very independent, so it was hard to rely on people so much, but I also realized that the people who love me the most didn’t mind at all. I did learn something about myself as a mom during this period of time: I was helping my son too much in his everyday life. Picking up his toys, throwing away wrappers left behind, clearing dishes that didn’t get put away, etc. I couldn’t do any of those things with a broken leg and in fact, my son had to help me quite a bit. I hold him to much higher standards now for picking up after himself and having household chores.
What do you hope your customers get out of using Excy?
The ability to integrate exercise into their everyday life. Our hope is that one parent using Excy in the home cascades to the rest of the family realizing the importance of exercise for a higher quality of life and to prevent disease. We want the whole family using Excy.
What was the biggest hurdle you faced when starting Excy and how did you overcome it?
I co-founded and started my first company, the Seattle public relations firm Buzz Builders, when I was pregnant with my son who is now 11. He came into the world with a mom who worked full-time. I often carried a certain level of guilt for having him spend his days with a nanny and, then later, in daycare. So, when I decided to start Excy and transition from servicing startups to running one, I was 110 percent committed to getting my son’s permission and letting him have a say this time. I sat him down for a good talk that included a list of challenges that I would face that would impact him. That included missing sporting events, traveling more frequently, working more hours, working on vacation and being distracted.
But we also talked about other items specific to me that might impact him: People might say mean things about his mom that he’d have to brush off (i.e. not in shape enough, too skinny, too old, selfish to do something that takes me away from our family, etc.). I didn’t know this at the time, but getting the permission and complete buy-in from Jack (and my husband) has ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve made to date in bringing Excy to market. Not only have all the warnings become a reality that he was prepared for, but it also gave him a sense of ownership of being part of the journey.
Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs/ small business owners?
If an idea is keeping you awake at night and you can’t let it go in an almost obsessive way, go for it and don’t be afraid to push yourself outside your comfort zone.
How do you balance working out and maintaining a healthy lifestyle with being a business owner, partner and mother?
Staying healthy and balancing a heavy load is not easy to do. Between work, commuting, family commitments and trying to have a social life, I am often hard-pressed for time. When life gets chaotic, the last thing I want to do is spend hours working out, so that’s why I focus on high intensity interval training and short intense bursts or mini workouts. I use our mobile coaching application to do 30-45 seconds of all-out bursts on Excy, where I go as hard as I can, followed by 30-second brief recoveries. These short workouts are highly effective and allow me to quickly get back to being mom/business owner/wife/friend. I personally want to spend as little time working out as possible, so I focus on making my workouts highly efficient and effective. I see these mini workouts as a time saver and time is everything when trying to balance it all.
What has been inspiring you lately?
When we started this Excy journey, we knew in our hearts we could make exercise more accessible to help people who face unique challenges with getting exercise, but the thought never crossed my mind that the size, durability, and versatility of Excy would have so many applications for such a wide variety of people. The journey began because I never felt like there was time to workout and I wanted a better solution to get more active. In my mind, Excy was awesome. I lost almost 20 pounds in the first three months and felt more in charge of my genetic pathway that includes heart disease. We knew Excy could make a big difference in people’s health and I was excited.
Then, I broke my leg and was exposed to months of living with pain and the dreadful process of going through physical therapy. My eyes were open to the possibilities of how Excy could help with rehab, assist in increasing range of motion, and help people stay active with injuries, disabilities, and disease. It’s these scenarios that inspire me the most on a daily basis.
I’m very independent, so it was hard to rely on people so much, but I also realized that the people who love me the most didn’t mind at all.
Why is taking care of your body important to you? What motivates you to work out?
The health benefits of exercising goes on and on, from more energy, to a better night’s sleep, to being more productive, to a healthier lifestyle, and to fight preventable disease. I exercise for those reasons, but also because I think it makes me a better mom and I want to be one feisty, active person my whole life.
If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be and why?
Margaret Thatcher—amazing leader, tremendous grit, and it would be interesting to hear her thoughts on women in business and technology today. Thomas Jefferson—we always hear that our founding fathers would turn over in their grave if they experienced today’s modern political culture. Imagine being able to get his perspective and advice. Jesus—because he’s Jesus. Then, I’d bring my son to tag along so he could hear the conversation.
James Carpenter gave up writing in his twenties. It was “quite literally killing me,” he recalls.
That’s because he associated the act of writing with the act of drinking. To recover from his alcohol abuse, he needed to put down his pen.
The Pennsylvania native went on to teach middle and high school English and eventually spent 14 years as affiliated faculty at The Wharton School. He lectured in computer programming, system design, and entrepreneurship.
But when he retired, the calling to tell stories was clear.
He answered. And since then, Carpenter’s fiction work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Fiction International, Fifth Wednesday Journal, North Dakota Quarterly, and Ambit.
His new novel, “No Place to Pray,” came out this month from Twisted Road Publications, a publisher that aims to bring marginalized voices to the mainstream. The book is a moving example of how one’s personal experiences with issues we all can struggle with—addiction, mental health, spiritual search, race relations in America—can be lush if tempestuous landscapes for storytelling.
Here, Carpenter talks about why those subjects are so important; how Southern and American Gothic literature can tell these stories in a way other genres can’t; his advice for fledgling authors; his own daily writing practice; and notes on forgiveness and self-awareness, from a man who has had to learn a lot about both.
He also has one of my favorite answers to the dinner guest question.
Why title the book “No Place to Pray”?
The title has two senses. In the first, the characters, especially LeRoy and his mother, seek some kind of spiritual rescue from their difficult lives, but the institutions where they look for it forsake them, leaving them with no place to pray. In the other, many of the characters lead lives in trying and often squalid places: taprooms, brothels, tarpaper shacks along the flats beneath a bridge — places where it is difficult to pray. Similar to the way one might speak of a filthy apartment as no place to raise a child, we could say that where the characters have found themselves is no place to pray.
Why use the Southern Gothic style to address topics of social interactions, religious institutions, self-awareness, mental health, and race? What does that genre offer us today?
I didn’t set out to write a Southern Gothic novel. It’s obvious that writers so tagged are among my influences, especially William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams. Though most of the story is set in a fictional southern state, my model for place was where I grew up in western Pennsylvania. That it comes across as southern is not entirely coincidence, as there is a large expanse of our country, including western Pennsylvania, eastern and southern Ohio, and northern West Virginia, that bears a striking similarity to the deep south, often derisively referred to as Pennsyltucky. The characters’ colloquialisms and rhythms of speech are what I grew up with. When I wrote about the river and the countryside surrounding it, I had the Allegheny in mind. For the town, such places as Beaver Falls and New Castle, Pennsylvania served as my inspiration.
But Southern Gothic’s tropes are well suited to the broad issues your question addresses. We can’t shine a light into the darkness if we aren’t willing to enter into the darkness. We can’t help ourselves and those around us heal if we aren’t willing to describe our pained and damaged psyches.
I think it’s been a mistake to think of Southern Gothic as addressing a narrow segment of American culture. Niche audiences would not have made Faulkner a literary icon and Nobel laureate. Southern Gothic writers are concerned with Americans at the margins of our institutions because it’s there that the truth can be uncovered, which is very much the case not just in parts of the south, but from coast to coast. I prefer to think of the genre as American Gothic, a more generalized treatment of broken people that would include authors as diverse as Richard Wright, Louise Erdrich, and John Steinbeck, as well as settings ranging across the continent from the urban East to the Great Plains to Southern California.
What role does a human’s innate and individual spirituality play in this book and why was that important to you?
First, it’s important to me because I firmly believe that we are primarily spiritual beings capable of spiritual fulfillment and that much of our history has revolved around asking what that means. We’ve come up with a great many answers which, for the most part, emphasize love, compassion, peace, and joy. Unfortunately those answers have too often become codified in religious institutions, which reduces the animus intrinsic to spiritual fulfillment to dogma and ritual.
Several of the characters in No Place to Pray are driven by spiritual impulses—Agnes and LeRoy certainly, Miss Wells and Pastor Johnson ostensibly, and even Harmon, who sees visions in spite of himself. But the institutions that they’ve been taught to believe can provide the peace they seek let them down as they attempt to adhere to unrealizable admonitions to avoid angering God. From LeRoy’s comment that, “Pissing off a powerful celestial being ain’t a good move no matter how you slice it” to Miss Wells’s attempt to measure her life against the impossible theology of the New Testament verse her Sunday school students have memorized: “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” What they seek isn’t where they’ve been told to look.
But grace, whatever that might be, is actually everywhere. We and everything that surrounds us are imbued with and immersed in unimaginable immanent spiritual power, but like the truck crossing over the bridge and “unaware of the ethereal suchness through which it lumbered,” our eyes are too often closed to it.
We can’t help ourselves and those around us heal if we aren’t willing to describe our pained and damaged psyches. …The extent to which we are prisoners of past mistakes is a direct function of how stubborn we are in denying personal and collective responsibility for the wrongs we have committed.
How did you research for “No Place to Pray”? Was there anything particularly important for you to get right as far as your characters or setting?
It was critical that I get race right. I studied other white writers who dealt with race, William Styron, of course, as well as J.M. Coetzee, John Berryman, John Updike, and others. I studied the post-Civil War history of racial oppression, especially the largely successful efforts in the south to resurrect slavery as a legal institution, notably in the practices of tenant farming. But most of all, I simply talked with friends about their personal experiences, from what it’s like to walk into a restaurant as part of a mixed-race party in the 21st Century to what it was like to march in the south for civil rights and be beaten for doing so in the ’60s.
Is there anything you hope readers learn, think about, or take away from this book?
That however tolerant and open-minded we think we might be, all of us hold tight to unconscious misconceptions about people who are different from us. In the opening chapter, a group of black men agree that you can’t know what goes on in a white woman’s head. Then they amend that to mean any woman’s head. Whether you are a man or a woman, how many times have you heard, “You know how women (or men) are”? As innocuous as such consensus many seem in the moment, it is the seed from which egregious injustices can sprout and bloom. We have to do better. We can do better.
Does writing about these topics through a fictional lens offer you anything personally? For example, a relief in the sense of offering something to the conversation about social problems?
I had to give up writing when I was in my twenties. Struggling with my own debilitating alcohol addiction, I found that writing and drinking were inextricably intertwined with each other in how I saw myself: hunched over a typewriter in a dark room, the workspace haloed in the light of a desk lamp, with a cigarette burning in an ashtray, and a cocktail glass of bourbon right beside it. Writing was quite literally killing me. So I stopped writing and with the support of friends and family stopped drinking.
Some thirty-five years later I picked up my pen again. Much of my reason for writing “No Place to Pray” lay in telling myself my own story, a way to make sense of the insanity of my young life, and to find some sure foundation upon which to stand where the landscape didn’t shift with tectonic ruthlessness. Though “No Place to Pray” depicts a dark and uncertain world in which not everyone survives, those who do, come out of it strengthened and with their souls bruised but intact. I am one of them.
Also, I spent my childhood in a house inhabited not just by my parents and brothers, but by the demons of alcoholism and physical abuse. (As Hank Williams, Jr. sang, it was a family tradition.) Similarly to the way LeRoy retells his life story through his fantasies, rewriting them in ways that make the unbearable bearable, “No Place to Pray” helped bring me to a place of reconciliation with my own past.
Are we prisoners of our past mistakes — personally and culturally?
No. I strongly believe that redemption is possible. But it can only come if we are honest about those mistakes and willing to go to whatever lengths are necessary to make rightthe harm we’ve caused. And that holds true across the full spectrum of our interactionswith each other, from verbal abuse within a relationship to the economic and political oppression of entire populations. The extent to which we are prisoners of past mistakes is a direct function of how stubborn we are in denying personal and collective responsibilityfor the wrongs we have committed.
What is your writing schedule like? Do you stick to a routine, and if so, what is it?
When I’m working, I write five days a week, usually the first thing in the morning before the day’s chores and responsibilities hijack my mind. I begin by reading poetry, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. I know when it’s time to go to my desk when the words on the page begin to spin into whatever story it is that I’m working on.
My goal is one page a day. I used to aim for 2,500 words per day, but the result was quite dismal. I was more concerned with word count than quality and I would find myself after several months with a few hundred pages of embarrassment, with no way that I could see to fix them. When I began to think in terms of a restricted daily count, the writing got better and the accumulated pages something I could work with.
Each morning I begin by reading aloud the last of what I wrote yesterday before turning to what’s new for the day. I write for however long it takes to complete 350 words. (If I’m really tuned in, I’ll let myself go on, but I have an absolute upper limit of 850 words. I make myself stop at that line, no matter how good I might think the writing is.) I finish by reading aloud what I’ve written for the day, making some adjustments, but not many. As I’m falling asleep that night I think about where the story is going and what I’ll do to advance it the next day.
Do you have any advice or tips for fledgling fiction writers?
Always be reading. Read widely. Read the masters and read books that receive really bad reviews. Ask what the difference is. What makes one opening sentence compel you to continue reading and another to set the entire book aside? Why does one author thoroughly describe their characters’ physical appearance and another give almost no description at all, and yet both make for fascinating reading? The time will come when you are struggling with some part of the craft, a description, a snippet of dialog, or a bit of action, and you will discover some other author’s solution to the same challenge somewhere in what you’ve read, to which you will find yourself saying, “Oh, that’s how they do it! I can do that!”
If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would you invite and why?
Gertrude Stein, Buckminster Fuller, and Martin Luther King. All three were visionaries, far ahead of their peers. They represent the pillars of any community, art, practical innovation, and the canons of justice and spirit upon which everything else rests. I imagine them gently polite and gracious over aperitifs. As the appetizers are served and they begin to understand one another, they laugh and nod knowingly. The conversation animates and rises through the courses as they connect and find their rhythm, and by the digestif, they’ve left all of us behind to wonder and marvel at what they have to teach us.
A number that a man keeps dreaming about turns out to be the identification number of the weapon he used in the Vietnam War.
Another realizes his neck pain in his current life is located in the same spot where his neck broke in a fatal accident generations earlier.
Another client sees how her interactions with her mother’s soul in past lifetimes could be contributing to co-dependent problems they’re having now.
These are just a few stories from Ann C. Barham’s new book The Past Life Perspective: Discovering Your True Nature Across Multiple Lifetimes. Barham is an internationally certified regression therapist.
She breaks up the book by client story, giving a high-level look at what the client experienced while undergoing a regression. At once professional and empathetic, Barham delivers an incredibly balanced, entertaining, and informative look at what exploring one’s past lives actually looks like — and the many ways the past can help an individual’s present.
She also offers practical ways to apply what she and her clients have learned to your own life. Whether you’re a believer or not. (Which, by the way, more and more of you are. According to recent Harris and Gallup polls, about 25 percent of American adults believe in reincarnation and another 27 percent don’t disbelieve ((raises hand)).)
At the end of each chapter Barham lists the Essential Truths Uncovered through a client’s work.
For example, a woman named Natalie was struggling with feeling comfortable leaving her home. In her therapy, Natalie saw that in one lifetime she was forced to leave her home in China as a child of war and in another her little sister was killed in a windstorm while their parents were away from the house. The Essential Truths from Natalie’s story included learning to forgive yourself and move on and valuing time you get to spend with your children. Knowing the potential source of a problem is always immeasurably helpful in solving it or letting it go.
As Barham writes, “People often come away with a greater realization of the eternal nature of their being, their connection to others, and a closer experience of the love-filled energy that underlies all life.”
This book’s worth a read, whether you’re just curious or convinced you were Joan of Arc. (Sorry though, you probably weren’t… Think how many everyday people have lived throughout the ages. Although, the book does cover experiences with a couple historical figures.)
The Past Life Perspective is full of stories of how past lives can affect current relationship dynamics, explain physical pains or birthmarks, or provide guidance for pursuing untapped talents.
Below, Barham expounds upon a few key outcomes of The Past Lives Perspective and what she does to relax when this work gets too challenging.
What made you want to study and practice past life regression therapy?
Past life therapy is an unusual specialty for a Marriage & Family Therapist, and many people wonder how this came about. I write about it in more detail in my book, The Past Life Perspective, but here it is in a nutshell:
I was raised in a conventional Catholic home, but that religion just didn’t fit for me. I embarked on a spiritual quest and did a lot of investigation into other traditions. When I stumbled upon the concept of reincarnation, it just resonated for me. It made total sense that we lived more than one human lifetime and we had multiple opportunities to master our lessons on the human plane.
After I had focused on more conventional therapeutic modes for some years, I found myself restless for something more. I wanted to help people more rapidly and on more levels simultaneously (emotional, relational, physical and especially spiritual). It occurred to me to pursue training in past life therapy as a specialty. I was lucky enough to train with some of the world’s foremost experts in the field at that time, including Dr. Brian Weiss and Dr. Roger Woolger (now deceased). I introduced past life work into my counseling practice and found it so rewarding and so helpful to clients that it soon became the main focus of my professional work. I believe that this is something that I bring forward from one of my own prior lifetimes.
Would you tell us about your breakthrough revelations from your own prior lives?
I’ve had a number of startling healings of physical symptoms thanks to my own past life work. The most dramatic, which I share in my book, happened in graduate school when my professor used me as the class ‘guinea pig’ to demonstrate when a client might come up with past life imagery. By going to a lifetime as a young Asian woman whose feet were bound, I was able to release a chronic problem in my feet literally overnight. I have also connected with some of my own prior personalities that were significantly different than my current personality – the most dramatic of these being as a Viking raider who loved to rape, pillage and plunder. He eventually met death from an axe through his skull in a dispute over a woman. Seeing life through the eyes of these prior personalities really advances the understanding of other people’s worldview and belief systems. It helps us to gain greater tolerance and compassion toward those different than ourselves. Probably the most fun for me has been to plug into past life memories while traveling. There are certain areas of the world that powerfully affect me when I’m there. Visiting sacred sites in both Egypt and Israel have evoked spontaneous past life recall for me.
Do you have a go-to example of how confronting a past life issue can open the door to forgiveness and emotional healing in a person’s present life?
There’s an interesting story that I explore fully in The Past Life Perspective about a woman who consulted me about her relationship with her husband, in which she felt like she was “fighting for her life.” We explored a series of lifetimes in which he did cause her death – but we also discovered that she had done the same to him. She was able to forgive him and herself, unhook from this unconscious dynamic and greatly improve the relationship between them.
This story also demonstrates the point that oftentimes the work is to forgive ourselves for past life transgressions or losses; people who battle with guilt or depression in the current life may trace this back to events in prior lifetimes that have not been fully processed and released. We are able to do this in session and help them move forward more freely in their current lives.
How can past life therapy contribute to overcoming prejudice and other forms of social injustice?
One of the things I love about past life work is the fact that we experience ourselves as having lived as a different race, religion, nationality, gender or sexual orientation, and having held dramatically different belief systems than we do now. This leads to a greater understanding and compassion for those who we may disagree with or have a hard time understanding in the present time. We find out that, many times, we have actually walked in their shoes and believed what they believe just as strongly as we hold our beliefs now. I like to call past life work “the great equalizer.” It points out the commonality of our human experiences, which transcends temporary differences.
How can confronting a past life issue open the door to healing a current life physical ailment? Do we often see physical problems or marks transcend lives?
This is always one of the most fascinating areas, when injuries from our prior lifetimes seem to come through and manifest in our current life. This may be seen as pain or injuries in the same location in the body, or it may come through more benignly as a birthmark in the same location as a past life injury. In my work I have found that when physical issues are carried through, they are typically also connected to an emotional or relational issue. At times, when we unearth the past life origin and work with the physical trauma and the emotional/relational aspect, we can actually release the physical issue in the current life, as I described with the issue with my feet. Other times we are able to at least understand more about the physical challenge, and work with the associated aspects that the recurring physical symptom is asking us to resolve. There are a number of client stories in The Past Life Perspective that include fascinating physical aspects.
Does this work ever get too intense for you? Some of these memories are horrific… What motivates you to keep doing this work?
Many sessions do get quite intense, and I pace myself so I’m always fresh and able to be fully present for each client. Sometimes that means playing a lot of tennis to get grounded again! The very fact, however, that we often see so many examples of man’s inhumanity to man over the ages is one of the things that keeps me motivated. The more we are able to unearth these memories and release their hold on individuals, the more progress we will make as a whole. You can’t go to a lifetime where you were the victim of extreme violence or prejudice and not be convinced that this should never happen to others. At the same time there are also many wonderful stories and profoundly fulfilling lifetimes that we visit. Working with people on such a deep level and helping them to be more effective and more spiritually connected in their current lives is my true motivation.
Where do you think our souls go in between lifetimes?
Most clients experience going to a wonderful, profoundly peaceful, joy and love-filled realm where they reconnect with ‘source’ – be that god or whatever you want to call it – and with other beings who are significant to them. I believe there is a non-physical dimension in which our souls reside and from which our human personalities are animated. Each individual human personality merges with that soul identity after death.
You stress in the book that all the stories are real even if a client’s memories differ from the historical record. Can you clarify the difference between real and factual?
As we all know, memories of events even in our current lives are variable and not always 100 percent accurate or factual. If you ask four different observers of a traffic accident what happened, you will probably get four slightly different versions of the ‘facts.’ However, our memories are ‘real’ to us because it’s how we experienced and remember the event. What is important in past life work is to uncover how a lifetime was experienced by the client who lived it, what the feelings were, the attitudes and decisions adopted, what meaning the individual made from the experience. That is ‘real’ to them and that’s what counts. And, we also know that history was written by people who often had a bias, so how completely accurate are our historical accounts anyway?
Seeing life through the eyes of these prior personalities really advances the understanding of other people’s worldview and belief systems.
Do you have any practical advice on how and where to begin if someone is eager to access their own past lives? Is it possible to DIY past life regression?
There are a number of exercises and suggested practices that you can do to expand your awareness of your own prior lifetimes in my book. There is also a guided past life meditation on my website, pastlives.org, that people can access. It is possible to retrieve some past life memories on your own, however they typically will not be as detailed nor as effective in releasing stuck places as you will get in an individualized session with a professional past life therapist to guide you through the process. And if the material is difficult or challenging, you probably will run into blocks that the therapist would be able to help you negotiate successfully, that you probably would not be able to do on your own. However, many people find that it is fun and at times insightful to experiment on their own.
If you could invite three people to a dinner party, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Well, if I wasn’t concerned about how the three people would get along, I’d have an eclectic mix. First I would invite Jesus of Nazareth because I would like to meet and talk with him in person, to know more about the man and experience first-hand his transformative loving kindness. I think another guest would be Queen Elizabeth I who ruled England in the 1500s. I don’t know if I’d like her particularly, but I think she’d be fascinating to observe and interact with. What an amazingly strong woman and leader from a time in history where women were not so highly regarded. Finally, I’d invite John Stewart for his wit and humor to keep us all laughing at ourselves – something I always try to remember!
The struggle for transgender equality has had top billing on all the news outlets the past few weeks, but the discussions these stories have spawned deserve much more than a soundbite or two. Thus, in order to help you (and I!) develop a deeper understanding and framework from which to discuss this human rights movement with our fellow humans, this week I’ll post a three-part series on different aspects of the transgender experience.
First up, Michael J. Morris guides us through an incredibly thoughtful exploration of the foundational questions, which are sometimes the most basic but most important concepts to understand.
It was Michael’s own personal process of understanding and exploring gender that led to their deep knowledge on the subject.
“I think it was Kate Bornstein, who I heard say, ‘You teach what you need to learn,’” Michael says. “I was drawn to transgender studies from my work on gender and sexuality in dance and performance because I needed to understand more about the ways in which we constitute, regulate and re-create our genders. … I came to this material first because I needed it in my own life.”
Today Michael teaches at Denison University about gender and sexuality in courses such as “Transgender Studies/ Transgender Issues” and “OnStage/OffStage: Dancing Gender and Sexuality.”
Beyond their scholarly work, Michael is a wonderful writer and most gracious human, making them perfect to kick off this series. Following, Michael discusses ways to respect all human experience, muses on how to respond to someone who says they “just don’t get it,” and answers questions about the transgender experience that you may have been shy to ask.
What does transgender mean?
First, it’s important to recognize that language is dynamic and that it changes over time. Language also carries a complex function of being a primarily social phenomenon—in that words belong to no one person and take their meanings from shared use in different contexts—while also being very personal in that in many ways words are how we come to know and understand ourselves. That being said, the term “transgender” has been used with a variety of meanings in different contexts and communities from the 1970s onward. Some of these usages overlap; some even contradict each other. The term came into more widespread use in the 1990s, and it is continuing to evolve in its use and function. It often means different things to different people who use it to describe their own unique lived experiences.
In her book Transgender History, historian Susan Stryker defines transgender as “people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross over (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender … it is the movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place—rather than any particular destination or mode of transition.” I find this to be a really effective and inclusive definition for what transgender means today.
There is not one way to be transgender, any more than there is one way to be a woman or one way to be a man. As with any gender, transgender is a personal identity negotiated
with-and-in a world of others with whom we must live, on whom we depend for various forms of recognition and support, and by whom we are identified. The ways in which we constitute our gender identities—trans or otherwise—are both personal and social, and that complexity works itself out in countless modes of living.
What does transgender not mean?
This is an interesting question. My first response is that transgender may not necessarily mean “transsexual”—someone who pursues medical reassignment from the sex they were assigned at birth to another sex. There are people who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth through changing their language—the words with which they identify themselves—through how they dress or present themselves, through the social roles they take on, through how they understand and enact their bodies, all without any reliance on medical intervention. That being said, there are also people who pursue medical procedures like hormone replacement therapy or surgeries as part of their gender transitions, and they may also identify as transgender. These identities—transgender and transsexual—may overlap, but historically these terms have referred to different ways of living gender variance.
Some people might be insistent that transgender does not mean cross-dressing or doing drag, and for many people who cross-dress or perform drag, this might be true. There are certainly people who perform drag or cross-dress who do not understand or identify themselves as transgender, who consider what they do to be a temporary performance apart from their abiding gendered sense of self. And this is very different from someone who understands and identifies their gender as different from the gender they were assigned at birth. However, historically, before the word “transgender” came into use, before there were medical reassignment options for those who would pursue medical reassignment, gender-variant people certainly engaged in practices we might now call drag or cross-dressing, and even into the 20 th and 21 st century, there continue to be overlapping and intersecting populations who engage in these practices that challenge, disrupt, or even parody the stability of gender identity. So, while none of these terms are fully identical in their functions, and while some people would adamantly argue that practices like drag and cross-dressing are not the same as being transgender, historically and even today, there are people who live in and through these various categories simultaneously, making it difficult to argue for their total discreetness.
From a more social justice perspective, I would say that transgender does not—must not—mean “less than human,” “disposable,” “unlovable,” “undesirable,” or “less real than someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.”
What is the difference between transgender and gay?
At their most basic, “transgender” refers to a gender identity and “gay” refers to a sexual orientation. In her book Redefining Realness, Janet Mock usefully writes, “Gender and gender identity, sex and sexuality, are spheres of self-discovery that overlap and relate but are not one and the same… Simply put, our sexual orientation has to do with whom we get into bed with, while our gender identity has to do with whom we get into bed as.” “Gay” usually refers to someone who sexually desires people who identify as the same gender—as in women who desire women and men who desire men. “Transgender” does not describe anything about who someone desires sexually. People who are transgender might desire people who are the same, similar, or a different gender from their own. We need to be able to understand gender and sexuality as distinct dimensions of our identities.
However, culturally, we confuse or collapse these aspects of personhood into one another constantly. When we perceive someone as “gay,” in the absence of witnessing any kind of same-sex physical affection or sexual behavior, it is often because they act in ways that deviate from the expectations we have for their gender. For example, we often perceive a man as gay based on the swish in his walk or the cadence or pitch of his voice, the clothes that he wears, or the way he gestures when he speaks. We might perceive a woman as a lesbian if her hair is cut short, if she wears baggy cargo shorts or flannel shirts, if she walks with a sturdy gate, and so on. These are stereotypes, I realize, but I offer them to make a point: all of these visual, verbal, movement, and sartorial cues have more to do with our expectations for someone’s gender than any demonstration of who they desire sexually. Culturally, specifically in the U.S., we tend to read gender variance—masculine women, feminine men, androgyny and gender ambiguity—as evidence of someone’s sexuality. There’s a history to these assumptions, a modern history in psychology and sexology that attempted to understand diverse sexualities as emerging from gender disorders, and we can see this carry over into our understandings of sexuality when we assign dominant or submissive sexual roles as masculine or feminine. But how we present ourselves, how we perform our genders, offers no direct evidence of someone’s sexuality. While we may read gender cues as indicative of sexuality, there is no necessary correspondence between the two, and we limit our understanding and imagination of both sexual diversity and gender diversity when we assume those correspondences.
‘Transgender’ does not describe anything about who someone desires sexually. People who are transgender might desire people who are the same, similar, or a different gender from their own. We need to be able to understand gender and sexuality as distinct dimensions of our identities.
Why all the focus now on the transgender community?
There are a lot of different perspectives and opinions on this. I think there are several reasons. First, and the reason for which I am most grateful, is that there are more transgender people moving into roles of cultural production, as writers, as scholars, as actors, as directors, as fashion icons, as artists, as programmers, as CEOs, etc. As trans people move into these roles, there are more opportunities for trans people to influence culture, to share their own stories, and to platform and amplify the stories of other trans people. I believe a lot of the focus on transgender people and communities is an effect of transgender people and allies operating in these positions as cultural producers.
Several years ago, Shine Louise Houston, a feminist pornographer and owner of Pink and White Productions said to me that she saw gender as the next cultural frontier. The 1970s and 1980s were so focused on the gay rights movement and expanding our understandings of sexuality and diversity in regards to sexual orientations and practices. Now we are having to face that gender is not as simple as we thought it was; gender is the next frontier. Houston’s work, for example, involves directing and producing feminist pornography that depicts a diverse range of bodies, genders, sexes, sexualities, and sexual practices, all determined by the performers themselves. By generating more representations of more genders in pornography, Houston creates space for more visibility for more genders and contributes to a culture that can become accustomed to and even excited by gender diversity.
Another reason for the saturation of transgender visibility in the media right now could relate to social justice and civil rights. In the United States, we are finally starting to see legal protection and equal rights for sexual minorities, specifically for lesbian and gay people. We are seeing increased attention being paid to the racial injustice in our country. Alongside and throughout these other civil rights movements, we are seeing increased attention to gender equality and the legal protection of transgender people. This push for civil rights is not without controversy or backlash—as we’re seeing with this current rise of “bathroom bills” being proposed and passed around the country—and I think particularly in this 24-hour- internet-news- cycle world, the struggle for civil rights provides compelling headlines.
Unfortunately, the focus on the transgender community is not always supportive, understanding, or life-affirming. Increased visibility can also mean increased surveillance—as when trans bodies are placed under heightened scrutiny when moving through airports and TSA—as well as increased violence. Trans people—specifically trans women of color—face disproportionate levels of vulnerability, harassment, and violence in our society. My view is that the existence of transgender people destabilizes some of the most calcified assumptions about gender and personhood in our society, and as transgender people become more visible, there are those who feel threatened by the existence of transgender people, and they retaliate. Judith Butler gave an excellent interview called “Why Do Men Kill Trans Women?” that addresses this aspect of increased visibility.
What are rude things to ask or say to a transgender person? For example, is it OK to ask a stranger if they are transgender?
My first response is that these are the kinds of things that we each have to work out with one another. There is no single guidebook. What is offensive to one person might not be offensive to another, and visa versa. I can speak for myself:
First, I would prefer if people didn’t presume my gender. Rather than “ma’am” or “sir,” “ladies and gentlemen,” “she” or “he,” try using gender-neutral language. You may not know how someone identifies based on visual or other social cues. I think it’s best not to presume.
I am not offended when someone asks how I identify, or if I identify as transgender. I would rather someone ask than assume. I identify as genderqueer or nonbinary, which I understand as a transgender identity. I’m open to sharing that with someone who asks, and talking about it if they don’t know what that means. That being said, I would also want people to consider: why do you need or want to know? Is knowing my gender necessary for our interaction? Do you need to know my gender in order to prepare my cappuccino, for instance? Do you need to know my gender in order to cash my check at the bank? I would be so much more comfortable in a world in which people interacted with me as a person rather than needing to figure out if I am transgender, a woman, or a man.
I realize I haven’t exactly answered your question.
I would advise not to ask people about their medical history unless you’re their doctor. Transgender people often get asked what kinds of procedures or surgeries they have undergone, and it’s really not anyone’s business. We don’t usually question one another about our medical histories; transgender people deserve that respect as well.
Although the language we use for transgender people has changed a lot over the last several decades, here are some good guidelines: refer to transgender people as people, such as “transgender people” or “transgender person,” or “people who are transgender” or “a person who is transgender.” The term “transgendered”—with the -ed—has been falling out of use the last few years. Avoid “transgenders” or “the transgenders” as a noun. And in general, it’s best to avoid the term “tranny.” It is a controversial term, and while there are some transgender people who identify with that term, I believe the vast majority find it to be deeply offensive and associate it with violent interactions.
Other than that, my advice would be to consider the assumptions and biases embedded in what you ask or say to a transgender person. For example, when I was hired at Denison University, an acquaintance asked me, “Wow, and they didn’t mind about your … how you dress?” The implication in the question was that they were surprised that the university hired me, seemingly because they assumed there would be some objection to my gender presentation. It felt like they were saying something like, “Wow, I would not have expected a university to hire someone like you.” The person didn’t intend harm, but that question felt rude to me. The actionable lesson from that interaction could be: think about the implications or assumptions that are communicated in what you ask or say to anyone, including transgender people.
How should someone ask a transgender individual which pronoun is preferred?
I think it would be amazing if we asked and gave our preferred pronouns in the same way we ask and give our names. One strategy would be: when you introduce yourself, offer your name and your preferred pronouns. Then when you ask someone else’s name, ask for their preferred pronouns as well. I think it’s really important that cisgender people—or people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth—recognize that they also have preferred pronouns; this is not something that’s special or unique to transgender people. Cis people often benefit from cultural assumptions about names and appearance, such that people usually—but not always—accurately assume the pronouns they prefer based of a variety of visual and social cues. That doesn’t change the fact that there is no necessary relationship between how someone looks or sounds and the pronouns they prefer. If we were all more consistent about offering our own preferred pronouns, it wouldn’t feel so unusual to ask about someone else’s.
We are all in a process of becoming our genders, whether that involves continuing to discover and make ourselves as the gender we were assigned at birth or whether we are engaged in a process of becoming another gender.
What other struggles — beyond discrimination, threats of violence and increased rates of suicide — do transgender people face?
This could be a really long list. Transgender people often face difficulty securing employment, accessing healthcare, and securing housing. Transgender people often face legal and financial hurdles when revising the gender markers on their documentation to reflect their gender identities, things like driver’s licenses, birth certificates, and passports. Transgender people often face rejection from their families and friends and social networks, leaving them with limited support networks. Even as we are seeing more media representation of transgender people, for a long time, the representations of trans people have been limited, and when they have been present in films and television shows, they have tended to be limited to the roles of sex workers, murder victims, or comedic devices. It’s difficult to live in a world in which the media teaches you that you might only ever be a joke, a prostitute, or killed.
What I find most difficult are the ways in which our world has been organized to regularly deny or fail to acknowledge the existence of trans people. This relates to the lack of media representation, but it also happens in more subtle, practical ways: as someone who identifies as nonbinary—meaning I do not identify as female or male—it’s difficult to fill out tax forms and medical forms and applications and forms on dating apps and legal documents that only list gender options M or F. It’s challenging to be in restaurants or public buildings that only have bathrooms marked “MEN” or “WOMEN,” and not know which I am supposed to use. It’s difficult to not only explain but defend my preferred pronouns—gender-neutral they/them/their—to people who are confused or feel inconvenienced by the words I prefer to use for myself. The assumption of gender as a binary is embedded in so many parts of our society, and each one of those sites and experiences can feel like a reminder that for many other people, people like me don’t exist.
What can an ally say to someone who says, “I just don’t get it” about being transgender?
Perhaps we don’t need to understand one another in order to respect and accept one another. In fact, perhaps the most radical form of coexistence would require us to accept and affirm those who are different from us, specifically when we do not understand. That’s my first response.
I would also offer to that person that each and every one of us are constantly making conscious and unconscious decisions about how we will continue to become who we want to be. We do this in terms of our professions, our occupations, our hobbies, our health, and our bodies. We could think of this as various forms of self-determination: we choose how we will cut our hair and what clothes we will wear; we make choices about exercise in order to support our health and also to shape our bodies in the ways we want them to be shaped; we take pharmaceuticals for any number of reasons that transform our bodies and our physical experiences at molecular and cellular levels; we choose what name we use with friends and colleagues, and sometimes we change our names to reflect changes in our lives, as when people change their names when they get married. Sometimes we seek our medical procedures in order to change our bodies and how we live as them. As we get older, our bodies change, and perhaps we make different choices in all these different areas. We all make choices of self-determination in all kinds of ways, and we do this with our genders as well.
All of us were assigned a gender at birth, a gender we did not choose, and we came into a world in which that gender carries expectations for how we will behave, how we will dress, how we will relate to others, the social roles we might occupy, the opportunities that will or will not become available to us, and so on. All of us feel various degrees of comfort and discomfort in those expectations. I have met very few people who have never felt any friction or frustration with what was expected of them as a girl or woman or as a boy or man. And yet many people find ways to be at ease within the gendered category to which they were assigned. Perhaps they come to identify with those gendered expectations and come to know themselves through those associated roles and behaviors. Or perhaps they find ways to push against, resist, or subvert the expectations of the gender they were assigned: much of the feminist movement has been shaped by people who identify as women challenging what it means to be a woman in our society. Transgender people are people who—in different ways and for diverse reasons—do not feel like they can become who they desire to be within the gender category they were assigned at birth, and they move away from that assignment towards another version of being and becoming themselves. When we understand transgender experiences on this continuum—the continuum on which all of us are just trying to find a place for ourselves in the world—then maybe it can be a little easier to “get it.”
I would be so much more comfortable in a world in which people interacted with me as a person rather than needing to figure out if I am transgender, a woman, or a man.
What are some solutions or practical changes that can be made to traditional society that will help encourage acceptance and understanding of the transgender community?
In December 2014, Leelah Alcorn, a trans teenager in Ohio, posted a suicide note to Tumblr and then committed suicide. I consider every suicide to be an indictment of society to some degree, a society that did not or could not meet the needs of a life that could no longer imagine going on living. Alcorn ended her note with the phrase, “Fix society. Please.” At the time, I wrote this list of suggestions as to how we might begin to fix society, things that each of us could do to examine ourselves within our daily lives. They continue to be relevant when I contemplate this question:
Question the certainty of your own gender, where it comes from, and why you believe it to be yourself.
Engage the possibility that all genders are processes and approximations that never fully account for all that a person is or might become.
Let the world—others and yourself—change; if we all accept that we are all transitioning in any number of ways, we might be more accepting and caring towards people who are trans*.
Be willing to experiment with language, to alter your own habits in order to create a space in language for others for whom there have not been words.
Let your desire be experimental; do not assume you know who you might love or what you might desire.
Do not assume that how you practice your own gender, language, or desire is innocent; be willing to challenge what has felt true if doing so would allow for more livability for others.
Grieve losses that might not otherwise be grieved.
Be caring, thoughtful, and loving, even if you do not understand (advice from Justin Vivian Bond.)
Do not assume you understand, and still be caring, thoughtful, and loving.
What are some of the misperceptions about transgender people that are commonly portrayed in pop culture?
Julia Serano has written critically about media representations of transgender people in her book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, particularly two stereotypes that occur in a lot of different films: the deceptive transsexual and the pathetic transsexual. On the one hand, transgender people are represented as deceiving other people, as if they owe other people a disclosure of their gender history. On the other hand, transgender people are often represented as pathetic, as “failing” to fully “pass” as the gender with which they identify.
The misperception of transgender people as deceptive is not only inaccurate, it creates the conditions for violence: if the world believes that transgender people owe them the disclosure of their gender history, then they may feel justified in acting out violently when that history is not given. Due to any number of factors, not the least of which are the possibilities of violence or duress, transgender people face the pressure to disclose their gender history within a range of contexts, particularly within intimate relationships, but also within broader social settings in which a public may ask or demand to know: are you a woman or a man? Transgender people do not owe anyone the disclosure of their gender history, and yet it is expected of them. I think that expectation depends on the assumption that a person’s gender presentation corresponds to a specific anatomy or gender assignment at birth, which is not the case. It’s an assumption that often proceeds from a heteronormative anxiety: for instance, if a straight man finds a woman attractive, and then finds out that she is transgender, his sexuality may take on complexity that he did not anticipate. He may believe that he is owed her disclosure in order to maintain the stability of his heterosexuality, a stability that may be in question if he finds that he has been attracted to someone who is transgender. This would be his anxiety, his problem, his discovery about himself; it is not a transgender person’s job to confirm anyone’s assumptions about themselves or the world, which seems to be the implication when disclosure is demanded.
Comedian Louis C.K. recently presented a brilliant sketch that addresses this assumption on Horace and Pete, in which a straight man anxiously questions a woman he’s just slept with as to whether or not she is trans. It is possible that similar scenes might unfold between lesbian transgender women and cisgender women, or between transgender men and cisgender men or women. In these negotiations of attraction and sexual orientation, a transgender person might be perceived as deceptive if they do not immediately disclose that they are trans, when in fact, such a disclosure only becomes necessary if a prospective partner proceeds on the assumption that the person with whom they are engaging is not transgender.
Of course, romantic or sexual intimacy is not the only situation in which a transgender person might be expected to disclose that they are trans. When friends or coworkers are informed that someone they know is transgender, perhaps they might also feel as if they were deceived. Because a person’s gender history or anatomy may not be legible from their appearance alone, people may not necessarily realize that someone they know or meet is transgender; however, it is absolutely necessary to remember that just because we might have assumed that someone is not transgender, that does not mean that person deceived us. Our assumption was in error.
The misperception of transgender people as pathetic is just as damaging. It depends on the assumption that there right and wrong ways to be or appear as a man or a woman, and that if a transgender person does not conform to or achieve those expectations, then they are failing in some way. In these representations, we are shown transgender people—usually transgender women—struggling to be perceived as the gender with which they identify—struggling to “pass” as cisgender. We might be shown a transgender woman struggling to walk in high heels, for example, or perhaps her makeup is not right, or perhaps her voice or the size of her hands or her broad shoulders “give her away” as “not really a woman.” These representations reinforce the beliefs that there are limited ways to be a woman, or that there are physical characteristics that invalidate a trans woman’s gender. One way we are seeing these assumptions shift is the hashtag #TransIsBeautiful launched by actress and producer Laverne Cox. With this hashtag, trans people across social media platforms are sharing images of themselves and others, proliferating diverse media representations of trans people, and affirming that beauty can take many, many forms. I find this hashtag really life-affirming because it claims that those features that make someone identifiable as transgender does not mark them as pathetic or failed; rather, they add to the possibilities of what it can mean to be beautiful as a woman, as a man, or as someone who identifies outside the binary.
It is absolutely necessary to remember that just because we might have assumed that someone is not transgender, that does not mean that person deceived us. Our assumption was in error.
Are there any examples of the transgender community in pop culture that we can reference or look to as examples of discussing or portraying the transgender community with thoughtfulness, equality and understanding?
Definitely! I am a big fan of the web-series Her Story on YouTube, written by Jen Richards and Laura Zak, directed by Sydney Freeland, and staring Richards, Zak, and Angelica Ross. This show is written, directed, and performed by trans people, and offers an accurate, thoughtful representation of trans people’s lives. I’m also an avid viewer of Caitlyn Jenner’s reality docu-series I Am Cait. Jenner has been a media sensation and something of a controversial figure, but what I love about this show is that in its two seasons, it features a range of transgender people living their lives, sharing their perspectives, learning from each other, and building a community together. It’s not without its flaws; it definitely dramatizes conflict and spectacle like most reality television shows, and it tends to idealize luxury and socio-economic privilege. However, it is the only show I can watch week after week that puts transgender people living their lives together at the focal point of a television show. I also recommend the Amazon series Transparent, created by Jil Soloway and starring Jeffrey Tambor. Transparent not only employs a historically unprecedented number of trans people—as both cast and crew—it also tells stories that do not often get told, specifically about transitioning later in life, aging, and navigating family and community. And most people have probably already seen Orange Is The New Black, but I think the show’s depiction of the character Sophia, played by Laverne Cox, is a really responsible representation of a transgender character in a show that focuses almost entirely on the lives of women.
I highly recommend Janet Mock’s New York Times bestselling memoir Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. It is a remarkably honest, insightful, and accessible account of her own life in her own words. I also recommend Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, and Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders. I also highly recommend Sam Feder’s documentary film Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Danger, in which we get to know this remarkable trailblazer in this transgender community. I think first-person accounts, autobiographies, and memoirs by transgender people are so necessary and vital. They give us an opportunity to know someone who is different from us in their own words at an intimate scale.
I recommend Susan Stryker’s Transgender History to everyone. Although Stryker is an academic scholar, this book is written for a general audience. I think if more people understood the history of gender variance and the emergence of identities like “transgender,” we might experience more understanding and respect.
Then there are countless online resources; here are a few of my favorites:
Music helps Donald Isom remember — things he’s seen, who he is, and where he’s going.
“When I was in second grade and getting ready for a test, I started playing music to help myself study,” Isom recalled. “My mom thought I was being ignorant, but I was like no, this helps me think. My grades went up when I started listening to music. She said, yeah you an artist, you have your grandfather’s ways.”
His grandfather was a painter, know for his storytelling style. A visit to Georgia in 2009 to try out for “So You Think You Can Dance?” and a stop at that same grandfather’s house set in motion a whole career — no, career isn’t the right word — passion path for Isom (you’ll read how).
The 27-year-old Cleveland native founded I Am D.A.N.C.E. four years ago. The performance and visual art company’s name is an acronym for I Am Determined And Never Concealing Energy.
“That right there is a state of mind,” Isom said. “I got so much energy traveling the world, traveling state to state, trying to see where I need to be in life. It’s beautiful. We also try to help other individuals in the community. The members right now are really growing. The community is what made I Am D.A.N.C.E. strong and that connection is what we want all around the world.”
The group is now 52 members deep, despite a lengthy but important (you’ll read why) application process, in Philadelphia, Indiana, Chicago, Ohio and California.
The dance and visual arts collective performs at various dance events, offers classes, volunteers in the community with groups like Columbus Parks and Rec and presents b-boy and b-girl dance competitions.
The money helps support a quality program and event, which, Isom said, “means you can bring in professional judges and we can educate a new generation. We want to be able to give quality knowledge about the street dance culture here.”
Since I Am D.A.N.C.E. started hosting this competition three years ago, attendance has gone form 100 to more than 1,000.
A lot of that has to do with the sheer talent present at these events. And it has a lot to do with Isom. He is dedicated and driven (you’ll read… well, you get the idea. Take notes. It’s so worth it.)
“I have so much more in me I have to give,” Isom said. “I’m just getting started.”
How’d you end up in Columbus?
I basically just jumped on a bus and took a leap of faith. Seeing my best friends starting to go to school down here. Cleveland at the time really felt like it was going through a great depression with jobs, especially for an artist. It was Oct. 30, 2008. That’s the day I threw my couch out the window and said, “Alright let’s go.”
At that time I tried some things in Cleveland. It wasn’t that Cleveland wasn’t good enough, but my grandfather told me sometimes you have to travel and go out and bring those resources to your city even if it takes you years and time. You have to go out and expand your mind. Because of that we do have a Cleveland chapter of I Am D.A.N.C.E.
Then I took another leap of faith and tried out for “So You Think You Can Dance?” That was fall 2009.
When I performed at Fox theater, even though I didn’t make the show, I started to really realize what I wanted to do. And I wanted to have a dance company. I did not want to have a dance crew. I did not want to own a dance studio.
I had a weird state of mind. When I sat there in line at 5:00 in the morning and saw that there were 100,000 dancers standing in one line. I was like, you all do know we can come together and build something on our own? Why do we have to stand in this line to get on one show? Great network, but why can’t we all just build our own? I know you all have your own resources out there. So that’s when I was like yeah, I don’t want to do this show again.
You also got to say goodbye to your grandfather during that trip, right?
It was an incredible experience but it also gave me a chance to say goodbye to my grandfather who had passed away years ago. I had never been to Atlanta to say goodbye. So I got to have that experience. He was a painter.
It was really peaceful because he passed away when I was 14. Everyday of my life people were telling me I looked like my grandaddy. Everybody said I was a storyteller when I danced and his name was The Art of Storytelling. Going to his house in Atlanta where he had all his paintings and all our history was in there, I could sense my grandfather’s presence and felt all his energy he had in this room because his art was there. His life was in that art. To say goodbye, I felt more at peace… After that I was like, I have to build something that’s going to build on not just for dancers but the arts of the world.
That’s such a spiritual and artistic journey. What did you do when you got back?
When I came back I bought some notebooks at CVS over there on Ohio State University’s campus and I just started writing night and day. I did not know exactly what I was writing about but everything that was on my mind, I just kept writing it. I got hungry to travel. So I went to New York, to Philly, took some buses, and just started to build my knowledge about dancing, about the industry, about visual arts and I just kept going. I was like, just feed me more. Whatever you know, just tell me. Forget being specific, what do you know about the culture of hip-hop and dancing and music and the history of art. Then I started touching on politics, on education, all that stuff was helping me filter what I wanted to do.
What is some advice you received as an artist that really influenced you?
I had a dance teacher… who exposed me to the art of dance and my state of mind as an entrepreneur. She said, “Don’t be scared to think outside the box. When you start to feel uncomfortable, that’s when you’re starting to do something.” When she told me that, that reminded me of my grandfather. After that it was like, sky’s the limit. She said, just do what you want to do. Just do it. Stop thinking so much. It was like this fire, I just flew like a mustang, just started going.
What did you learn during those early travels?
The biggest thing I learned as far as culture when I went to New York: They don’t care. Bottom line they just, when it comes to trying to succeed and trying to achieve goals, they’re not going to let nobody get in their way. So if you’re over here making a million dollars, they’re trying to pass you. So while you’re throwing money in the air, they’re still working toward their goals as a journalist, as a fashion designer, as a singer. I learned from their culture not to be scared. And don’t put nobody above me. Everybody’s a human being just like you.But the worst thing somebody can say to you is no.
Then I applied that to dancing. Don’t be scared to express what your body is really trying to tell you to do. Don’t try to stop it. Let it go. You don’t know what that move might do. That might be your million dollar move! I stopped trying to control all my movements. I started to study all the styles of dancing from the street dance culture to ballet to modern and African dance. When I started dancing more, my grooves and my rhythm started to change big time. So I went from this kid from Cleveland who had a couple dance moves in one or two styles to a young man who knew multiple styles. I understood the history and culture of them.
Was it difficult for you to let go like that? To not be scared?
Art is really mental to me. One thing I had to do was destroy my ego through this process of traveling and dancing and life. It’s really hard. That’s some nights, some days, took a couple tears. But it was this reality that if you want to go far, you’re going to have to destroy that ego or that ego will destroy you before you even see your own success. So when that happened I was opened to learning every single thing. I never held back. Someone want to teach me footwork? Yeah, show me! Traveling taught me about the culture of the individual. You have to understand the difference between a want and a need.
How do you think about I Am D.A.N.C.E. as a business?
I Am D.A.N.C.E. definitely is a kindergartener that is still trying to find its way. It started off as a baby. The more that we matured the more structure and responsibilities had to come. The older it gets the more accountability we have to take for what we do.
When we first started we were getting involved with everybody we could. At the beginning, I ain’t gonna lie, I think some members didn’t even know what they were in they were just happy to be there. But as I Am D.A.N.C.E. grew older I started to work with great people to figure out what is I Am D.A.N.C.E., what is our mission, what is our purpose, what goals do we have in the next five or ten years. And why? And how is this going to benefit the rest of the members of I Am D.A.N.C.E. Is it a visual company, is it a dance company, is it a movement with a bunch of people just coming together?
And I had to be realistic about my answers. Now I Am D.A.N.C.E. is a brand that is really starting to get to the moment of a true state of mind of what is it like to be a member. A member is someone that is willing to make a difference in their community no matter what part of the world they’re in.
What is the most important aspect of maintaining and growing that business?
Connection. Even in business as a customer service rep [at a bank] I had to learn how to connect with the customers. I had to learn how to sell the product of the savings account, checking account. Then with connection you have to know your product. I had to know my product before I could connect with my customer. I had to know the A’s and B’s of the product. I had to learn how every product and service of the business worked.
And that’s eventually what happened with I Am D.A.N.C.E. I had to learn how to connect with the members and the community and people who just wanted to support us. I learned how to connect with customers, especially in, like, five minutes.
What are you most proud of accomplishing through I Am D.A.N.C.E.?
TedX Columbus 2012 and TedX Youth 2013. It gave us a chance to do a performance on stage without even talking. We performed Michael Jackson “Stranger in Moscow,” and the crowd was crying. We told a whole story about three strangers coming together. I think that represents I Am D.A.N.C.E. right there. People could tell from there that we have a story to tell. From that we did America’s Got Talent in 2013.
Storytelling is important to me because you see a lot of dancers who get on stage and, you know, they’ll do a piece and then they get off stage. But when you go to a show where you see a professional artists, get on stage and perform you can see that that story that they’re doing is powerful because you can see the character, the creativity, the extra hits to the body, whatever style it is.
How do you think about dance now?
In New York they didn’t want you to just do the choreography. They wanted you to feel the choreography, put your life into the choreography. That’s what they wanted. Instead of short term dancing you were going to get that long term artist. So now when I teach I will make you run a move over hundreds of times until you make it yours. When you make it yours you are starting to write you story. You’re starting to write the beginning and the end of your style.
When members bring choreography into I Am D.A.N.C.E. I try to knit pick. “Hey make sure you get the crowd right there. That’s where you need to get the crowd at.” I’ve been like a creative director. You have to make sure that moment is part of your connection. That’s your chance right there. If you lose that chance, they’re not going to get you.
You want to become that Michael Jackson of dance, that James Brown, you want people to feel you. That’s why people love these artists. Michael Jackson was an entertainer but he made you feel Dirty Diana. And you be like, yeah, Dirty Diana!
When you see somebody move and they feel it, you are like, yes, I’m there with you. I don’t know your dance style, but I know the story you are telling.
Do you dance alone?
Oh yeah. I try to take all the time I can get. Whether it’s five minutes or 30 seconds. If I’m in the kitchen, if I could just get 30 seconds to work on a move. Music is like my truest therapy. I come from a family that loves music. I study music very tough because I’m breaking the sounds down and finding where the singer is really in their emotion. … It’s important to me to continue to dance because that’s how I express myself. That and my involvement within the community.
Who are your favorite musicians?
I love Maxwell. Kem Kemistry, he’s a jazz artist. Boney James. My R&B artists Musiq Soulchild, old Usher. I like these artists because I can feel their story. Neo-soul artists, I love almost every neo-soul artist I have ever heard — D’Angelo, India Arie. Hip-Hop is Nas, Jay-Z, J. Cole because there’s a lot of storytelling through their music. Everything I have been through in my life I can connect through a lot of my music.
What’s inspiring your work now?
People being more on their phones than they are on life. I’m inspired by people starting to get a little lazy. It’s kind of weird to say that. I was down in South Carolina not too long ago to see a good friend of mine graduate from the Marine Corps. And when I was watching him graduate, I was about to record him. I put the phone down and thought there’s some things you just can’t record. … So much terrible social media right now, I think people forget about how beautiful this world is. There are a lot of issues in this world that we need to pay attention to. So there’s a lot of pros and cons to social media. Life is making me motivated to continue on making I Am D.A.N.C.E. a bigger international company. Life brings stories and stories connect to people.
How do you find stories?
Just talking to people. Nobody just asks anymore, “Who are you?” I don’t do that on an everyday basis but if I’m out and you and I laugh at the same thing, I’ll start a conversation with you. I was in Starbucks once tying my shoes and I had an I Am D.A.N.C.E. shirt on and this guy came up to me and said, “My son is the guy who records all of J. Cole’s videos.” I was like where do you live? He goes, oh I live here in Columbus. Give me a call, man.
That’s why life right now is my motivation, because of how organic things are and the connections you can make. Some people forget to talk face to face now. Even friend to friend — they’re now arguing on Facebook. This is a part of life, having a face to face conversation about an issue or what’s going on. Social media has done great things to help people connect faster, but there are some organic things that social media just can’t replace. It can’t replace somebody’s passion.
What are your goals as a mentor?
As a mentor my goal is give whatever knowledge I have to the next generation or up and coming individual.
How do you become a member of I Am D.A.N.C.E.?
To become a member of I Am D.A.N.C.E. you go online and download an application, mail it back and we get in touch right away. But we don’t automatically say, “OK, you’re a member.” We take time to get to know you. What are your real goals? What is your gift? It goes back to the basics, that connection, not assuming he put in an application because he wants to be a dancer.
Some people put in an application and they need a family or they have goals but they don’t know how to pursue them or they’re trying to build a network. … What’s really going on? As a member you really go through that artist development. What’s your five year plan? We just had a representative graduate from the Marine Corps and he’s a b-boy. He loves the culture of hip-hop but he had dreams of being an FBI agent and that’s his community service active side kicking in. We make sure that for 30 to 45 days we take the time to invite you to community service, gatherings, training, fitness, everything we get into to learn more about you.
What are your goals for I Am D.A.N.C.E.?
Let’s say you go to Texas, I want you to be able to get online and say, hey are there any members of I Am D.A.N.C.E. in Texas? You should be able to say, “Yeah, I have three members down, what’s wrong?” “Ah, my car broke down and I don’t know nobody.” We want you to be able to have that resource.
I want to be like a Professor X. It was amazing to me to see the academy for people with special abilities, because I feel like that’s what artists are. We have special abilities and gifts. We’re not weird, we have a gift. And that goes for every style of art. We’re not weird we just have special abilities we’re blessed to have. One day I’d like to have schools and centers that represent that.
The biggest thing though is having resources. It’s like WWIII when you’re an artist trying to find opportunities and there’s no where to go. I hope to give that opportunity to people. I feel like we’re definitely en route.
What is the most difficult thing about being an artist?
Doing this without bank loans and investors. I made a promise to myself to try to stay away to getting investors. I have donors. My mentor was the one who said don’t you dare get a bank loan. He said, “I want you to do all you can without doing a bank loan. Don’t be a sellout to your own dream.”
The more I learn about business the more I understand now. When you bring certain individuals to the table they might squash your vision and they might think they’re doing a thing but they might cut off the head without even knowing it.
I’m realistic though. My dad told me to be ready. Study. Understand everything about it — pros, cons, numbers, just be careful.
Sometimes things get hard but I learn so much. There are other options out there. I’m blessed to be in the city where we have GCAC that’s so supportive of the arts. They’re an incredible organization. The Ohio Arts Council. Columbus Foundation. These are great community foundations that are very supportive. And there are individuals in this city that believe in our mission. I don’t feel like I have to hurry up and find an investor.
Sometimes I have a dream about stuff that I want to do. I write out the blueprint. And sometimes I have to bring myself back to earth so I don’t overdrive myself.
How do you differentiate, know when to scale back?
It’s instinct. It’s a gut feeling. You don’t have to rush for anybody. My uncle always told me to trust my own judgement. You work hard, you can trust yourself. If you feel that something’s wrong, than it’s wrong. You’re not ready? It’s OK. You will be ready someday.
What do you do when you get artist’s block?
When I get artist’s block I leave the state. I’ll find out what my two week plans are and I’ll get on a Greyhound bus and go to another state. I did it last summer. I went straight to Philly…. I just walk. I look at the culture of life. I people watch. I see how people act, how people react to things, how they move. They’re like pictures in my brain.
How is Columbus different from these places you visit?
A lot of other cities feel more hungry than us. Especially New York. It’s fast-paced. In Columbus it’s 3 am and the police are out making sure no one’s outside. In New York, it’s pizza and on to the next job or they’re in the studio creating their business. I love that. I love a city that never sleeps. They understand that if I stop now, someone else is about to get ahead of me. Or if I stop now I might not be able to remember this vision I had in front of me. My artist world kicks in between 3 and 6 in the morning.
What’s your greatest advice to young artists and dancers?
Be outside of the box. But do not try to reinvent the wheel. Don’t be scared to be different. Understand that connecting to the people all around the world is important. Don’t be scared to take classes, go to programs that will help you develop. The biggest thing about every owner, entrepreneur or artist is development. If you ignore development you’re going to have a long road.
How do you participate in self development?
I built myself around people that are challenge me on a daily basis. When I talk to my mentors or the people I look up to, they’re always challenging me to read about what’s going on in the world, in social media, traveling. They always challenge me on a different basis. I always try to make sure that I’m not getting comfortable. I’m always making sure my feet are still on fire.
If you could invite three artists, living or dead, to a dinner party who would they be?
Bruce Lee. His state of mind was ahead of his time. The way he felt about the world, the way he felt about martial arts. He felt that if you were a dancer, you were a martial artist. If you were a writer, you were a martial artist. Somebody who was thinking like that in the early 1970s. Where were you at in 1998 when I was going through all these changes in my life? It would be the most incredible conversation.
George Lucas. For him to sit there and build Star Wars as a religion for people? I need to know what is going through your mind as you built that!
Steve Jobs or JK Rowling. They’re brilliant. Or Jay-Z, of course. Whoever’s available to come over to dinner when Bruce Lee gets some time to fly down from the sky.
Talk to Nikolaos Hulme about his latest series of watercolor paintings, and it becomes fairly obvious he’s been wrastlin’ with some demons… wrastlin’ and learning where they go on the memory board and then putting and leaving them there to gather dust.
A curated version of the series is showing this month at Brothers Drake Meadery. The images are object memories watered down by time but ever as colorful—a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, a whale, a heroin needle and spoon.
“Some of the work is really racy,” Nikolaos said. “It will either offend people or they will look at it with an open mind.”
Of course, I recommend going in with an open mind so you can experience this artist’s great ability to tell a story with just a few objects. This series is a stark departure from his usual bold poppy subject matter (which is also so fun and gorgeous for their jagged line work and the way he’s able to inject his own voice into a popular or recognizable image without shouting over it and without ripping off the original idea).
I think it’s part of the mid-twenties life crisis. Nikolaos just turned 27. I think after 25 you start to learn to settle into past pain, or figure out a way around it, through it, over it. Whatever. You recognize that pain will always be here, but how can you manage it best? What do you want to say about it? How is it not anybody’s “fault,” per se?
When I talked to Nikolaos for this interview, he was still developing the series. Not in the final show, but part of the process, were other images reminiscent of his childhood but with a knowing grownup touch. The trailer he lived in when he was a kid, a grief stricken but acceptant Mary and Jesus.
What I love about this series is that I don’t think he’s judging anyone or anything related to the iconography, even if that iconography is a bottle of prescription pills, which likely holds a painful memory if you’re associating that with your childhood. There’s a humility and acceptance in the paintings that is comforting, and watercolor proves to be a very effective medium in balancing subtle power through color.
Nikolaos, 1. Demons… eh, .5?
“I don’t look at art as a way to make money. I look at it as my therapy,” Nikolaos said. “I want to leave something behind when I’m not here anymore. It’s nothing else. It’s what I want to do, what I’m passionate about.”
Love it! But, of course, y’all got bill$. We talked about that, too; balancing freelance work with personal projects. That and more below. Read it, then go see the show.
What’s your artist origin story?
I was just always drawing. It’s a natural thing for a kid to draw but it just always stuck with me. My grandma Hulme would sit down with me and draw batman and mermaids. I had a very supportive family. When I was very young they put me in the Saturday morning CCAD classes. I won a scholarship and it was a big deal to my family. I was always involved in contests. It was always an escape thing because I was never into sports and my dad would try to push my brother and I into boy scouts and football but I never connected, never really stuck. Art was always the outlet. I was always the weirdo drawing Garfield in class.
What mediums do you use?
Right now just water color and Indian ink. That’s what I’m mainly using. I love acrylics and oils. Oils are also therapeutic to me I just hate how long it takes for them to dry. I’ll just set it in the corner and run into it and ruin it.
I’m obsessed with these watercolors. I was just playing around one day. I fell in love with the technique. It’s easy and it’s natural letting the water move the paint. You end up with this beautiful, organic-feeling piece of artwork. If you don’t do it right the first time, you have to do it again. If I don’t like something I’ll just do multiple versions of it or I’ll scrap it all together.
Did you study art collegiately?
I am self-taught. I think if you’re passionate about anything the drive will push you to become better at whatever you’re into. You’re going to get better if you just keep doing something. I think art school’s an awesome thing, but I think we have an issue where we’re taught we have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars and put ourselves in debt to do what we love to do to survive. If we’re given a gift naturally, if you have a vision, you should pursue it, whether you have schooling or not.
What are your thoughts on the Columbus art scene?
I think it’s amazing. There’s a lot of diversity. The art scene’s growing. And it’s nice to feel appreciated. There’s so many people that are into art. They like to follow what you’re doing and that’s nice and it’s motivating. I think that helps give me drive.
Can you describe your artistic process?
Sometimes I’ll paint nonstop. Watercolors are so therapeutic and so simple. It’s easy to bust a couple out in a day. I like to incorporate things that stood out to me as a kid or teenager. Things that represent family members, good and bad experiences growing up. It’s me confronting demons, confronting things I struggled with and tried to hide or keep in. It’s me coming to terms with who I am as an adult.
I didn’t go to art school, I’m struggling to do what I love. Do I need to go school to get a piece of paper to do a job that I already know I’m qualified for? Painting is me coming to terms with who I am and learning to love myself and accept all that I’ve gone through.
What has painting this series (now at Brothers Drake) revealed to you? (Part of the show is pictured above.)
I realize there’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’m painting a trailer. It’s something I didn’t really think about, but once I painted it and thought about it, any shame I had about it came to the surface and I was like, “Who gives a fuck?”
It’s weird how we just tuck things away and forget about it and then you talk about it and you’re like, wait I feel so much better now that I told somebody that.
This series is the most personal I’ve gotten with my artwork. After I painted it and let it out, I realized something I didn’t realize was bothering me. I like the mystery.
Painting this series, I started off with the whales and the marine life. I was really intrigued by mermaids and fish and whales as a kid. My favorite animal is the humpback whale. I love their fins and how they swim and jump out of the water. I was just always obsessed with them and the idea of living underwater and all that weird stuff. Then I started painting palm trees, which led into my pre-teen years of living in Florida and then that all led into the bad experiences of living in Florida, and then it kind of took off from there and getting really personal with all the work. It’s fun. It’s weird because when you have this theme just start pouring out of you and stay on track. I haven’t thought hard about what I’ve been painting, I just let it naturally flow.
What other work have you done that you’re really proud of?
I’m obsessed with pop art. I did a series of Wizard of Oz paintings [that showed at The Candle Lab in the Short North]. The mechanical guy for Steve Aoki, when he was in town, he bought them all. It was awesome. That was the biggest sale I’ve done so far.
I have a problem with committing to one series. I’ll paint and paint and paint and then decide the next day, yeah I painted these 12 paintings but I don’t think I want to show them, and they’ll get tucked away in the attic. I do that all the time. If I don’t like and I’m not happy with it I won’t show it.
I did this series of circus illustrations that were weird and quirky. I didn’t do anything with them. I just become interested in different styles and I like to evolve my work. It’s my therapy.
How do you deal with painters’ block?
I get bored easily. I like having a distinct style that’s recognizable, but if I work on something too much I lose interest and I have to start doing something different. I just move on to something different. I go through spells where I won’t paint for a few months. I’ll just live life. I’ll work on projects Nina West or other local assignments or travel. I want to travel more, see more and do more things. That alone is inspiring. Life experiences are what I’m inspired by. There are stages where I don’t want to do anything or have a lot going on.
How do you balance freelancing with personal work?
Even when I do freelance work, unless they let me have free rein, I’m not completely happy with it.I’m learning as I get older how to be better at making time to paint for myself. If I have something bad or stressful or even good in my life, it’s good to paint it. It’s something that symbolizes it. I’m getting it out of my body. It’s just like a journal.
How do you get freelance work?
People just contact me and ask me to do paintings. If you’re involved in the community and do good work, your name will get around. It’s nice. I’ve been privileged to be able to do the freelancing. But again, I don’t do it all the time because I can get lost in it.
I’m horrible at procrastinating too. I embrace it. I wish I didn’t. I wish I would do what I was supposed to be doing. But I work really well under pressure. If I’m reaching a deadline, I will bust it out in a few days, which is kind of nice. That adrenaline and that motivation forces you to come up with an awesome project…. And lots of caffeine.
What do you want to do next?
I’ve already started working on my next series, which is a series of inkblots. I’m really obsessed with psychological things right now. I’m doing the water colors again and I’m letting them do their own things. So I’m examining these inkblots after I make them and try to figure out what I see in them. Then I will add to that. And I’m trying to give something to the audience too and give them something to see and explore too.
I want to experiment with more, or different elements of art. I want to learn how to get really good at oil and other mediums.
What’s the most challenging aspect of being an artist?
I’m crazy. My emotions are up and down constantly. You’re very in tune with everything around you and it kind of drives you insane sometimes. At least that’s how I feel. I think maybe we’re all just a little crazy. We’re expected to be robots or be a certain way. We have to be a certain way to succeed. Some of the most successful people in history were insane! Why can’t we all be insane? Being an artist pushes us to have our own identity and be ourselves.
What has been inspiring you lately?
I’m really into, this sounds tacky, but scientists and Nostradamus. I love watching those documentaries on Netflix. I am obsessed with how a lot of things were discovered by star gazing and studying the stars. I’m really inspired by what drives us to do certain things or live certain lifestyles and how it affects us.
What three artists, living or dead would you invite to a dinner party?
I’d probably have to go with David Lynch, Francis Bacon and Salvador Dalí. I’m sure that this mix would make for an interesting evening.
Oh, regular reader, you’ll notice this blergh’s got a brand new look. That’s thanks to this lady.
I met Caitlin Hay at The Candle Lab, where we both worked. She is deliciously honest. She’s also a great illustrator.
After moving back to Columbus, her hometown, following nearly a decade in the Big Apple (more on why she made the move soon), she decided to launch her own custom illustration business, Caitlin Hay Ink to Paper.
The business has been going strong for one year this month. In addition to her very detailed typography work — a real strong suit for her work — she spends a lot of time getting to know her clients or, because she gets a lot of commissioned work for wedding gifts, the people her work is for.
I had to fill out a questionnaire about my interests before she even got started on my Medusa meets Marie Antoinette meets me logo.
Congratulations on a year of business, Caitlin! In your honor, I ask you very personal questions about your art, running a business in Columbus, and why Shaq is awesome.
(deconstructed bride and groom)
Has art always been something you’ve felt compelled to do?
I drew a lot when I was young. I used to draw fake architectural plans when I was little. I would imagine the inside of houses and draw that. I remember a friend of mine and I used to sit at the kitchen table and we would draw every single person in our class, with their names written below. Fifth or sixth grade. Maybe even younger. It was almost like as important writing their name below each person.
I’ve always been really into handwriting and I remember I got reprimanded in first grade for writing in cursive. They asked me, “Please don’t write in cursive anymore. You’ll learn cursive next year.” But I just remember thinking, “Oh! I can’t wait to do it.” I’ve just always seen handwriting as art and so mostly what I would do when I was younger was write words and names and names of places. Really typography brought me to more of the illustration stuff.
When I was a teenager I stopped doing all of those things. I stopped being artistic at all. I started getting into sports and friends and boys. But I didn’t think about drawing as a career or a path for education at all. I actually wanted to be a writer and I did a lot of writing when I was younger. I actually began school as a journalism major and then I sort of realized that that probably who I wanted to be. I was bored of it. Gathering information is fun but the reporting wasn’t as fun to me and I wasn’t good at coming up with ideas of what to write about. Honestly, I don’t think I was mature enough for college yet. I wasn’t into it, so I took a break. I didn’t go to school at all for a while.
Then I saw “Lost in Translation” and that made me want to go to film school. The subtlety of it. The entire movie happens between the lines of what is shown on the screen and that’s what it’s about. The whole ending where he whispers in her ear. You don’t even know what he says and that’s the big climax of the movie and it’s fine. You don’t need to know what he says, you get the message. … I remember watching that movie and then driving around Columbus afterward.
I was a 19 year old hostess at the Buckeye Hall of Fame Cafe and I thought to myself, there’s so much more that I could be doing with this seed that’s inside of me. I know I could produce something beautiful but I want it to mean something. That’s kind of been my whole struggle in life. I want to make something that I can make that is meaningful to me but also meaningful to other people. And I thought, when I saw that movie, that’s how I’m going to do that.
So you decided to go to film school?
I had to quickly create an art portfolio in order to apply to film school. And I didn’t even take art in high school at all. In my group of friends I was the dramatic, poetic, writerly one. We already had an artistic girl in our group. I was that archetype and it never occurred to me, hey, maybe I could be an artist too.
I took continuing education at CCAD. At 19 I started learning actual techniques. I took two classes. I did a color theory class where we did shading and still lifes and color wheels, things like that. And that was pretty easy because it was following instructions and I’m good at that. But my figure drawing class was a bunch of people in a room with easels and a naked person in the center and we’re supposed to draw them, and our teacher taught us to look at the inside of the figure and where the light hits it and see those little shapes and start from the inside out. So I saw it like, here’s this woman’s rib as it’s hitting the side of her body and where the light is hitting it looks like a somewhat darker triangle than the rest of what’s around. … In the end it looked like a Picasso. Everything was mangled. It was a complete cluster fuck. He pulled me aside one day, he came up to my easel, and started laughing! … What he was trying to do was get us to draw something that had depth to it rather than the outline of a person. So he taught me another method and all of the sudden it was like bam. And I suddenly was exceptional at figure drawing. If you were naked right now I could draw the shit out of you.
What he told me was to get the proportions right, it’s OK to start with an edge. You can start with whatever edge appeals to you. So let’s say I want to start with your shoulder, so draw the line of the shoulder on the outside and exactly what shape it is. Then look for a line that’s on the other side of the body and down a little bit, where you also see another edge that looks like it’s kind of the same angle of the line you just drew. Then connect those two lines. So I would draw the outside of the shoulder and get real light with it and then draw all the way through and then start drawing the hip. Then maybe start with her armpit and draw down to the side of her stomach. In the end you have all these lines that are connecting it. Your body is connected. If your left shoulder is cocked, then your right hip will be cocked because your body is connected by the spinal cord. So it looks three dimensional even though I wasn’t trying. It would just start to happen. I’ll never forget it. I wish that there were more instances where I could employ that technique. There’s not a lot else in the world that is built from the inside out like a human. … That was the first instance where I was like, “Hey I might actually be good at this. And I might not actually hate it.”
Did you like art school?
I went to school for film at Massachusetts College of Art and Design and I took my core drawing classes and found them mostly to be tedious and boring. The content and the materials were things I wasn’t always comfortable with. I don’t use any crazy materials now. One time they had us use guache, but I’m not a painter so I would get frustrated because I would not be super great with my first painting ever. But it was due the next day. So I’d stay up all night and get frustrated. I don’t remember a lot of the work I did then. … I didn’t like the work I was doing because I wasn’t confident as an artist. Everything I did positively reeked of me. No matter what I touched, I would see something in my brain, but it would come out looking like I did it. I would have these grand ideas. I think I have now found the thing I’m OK with positively reeking of me. I’m not going to be able to do ghostly images and spooky, but if you want me to draw something exactly how it looks, then I got you. But in a whimsical way.
How’d you end up in New York?
I moved to New York with a man. He was going to grad school so it made sense for us to be together there and it made sense for me for film. I could go to LA or New York. I ended up working as a digital media coordinator at a post production house for an advertising agency. … It wasn’t creative but I liked it because I worked with creative people. Lots of film kids. Really nice job perks. That’s how they keep you in New York. Your life is so hard all the time because you’re struggling constantly and they don’t really pay you that much, but then they’ll, like, feed you.
How is being an artist in Columbus different from being an artist in New York?
Being an artist in Columbus gives you this really close knit supportive artist community. Here I feel like people have been more supportive of what I do than I ever could have imagined. Everything I turn out people get really excited about. There are so many smart, bright, talented people doing interesting stuff here in the arts. But in New York there’s so many, it’s hard to stand out. And I feel like people kind of want to pull you down there a little bit. I do miss New York, but I also feel I wouldn’t be as successful there as I am here. Here we all really like each other. I’ve met so many interesting people.
What I do is a niche thing and doing that here people recognize its uniqueness, whereas in New York there probably are a billion people doing this. Me standing out there is probably not going to happen.
What is the ratio of work you are doing?
About 50 percent wedding stuff. And that ranges from personalized wedding gifts for people, like illustrations other people commission to give as gifts, to invitations and any kind of signage. The rest of the time I’m doing small business art, logos, website stuff. I also make cards and things like that when I feel like it and sell those.
The balance is what’s important. And I like that I can do both. Typography comes more naturally to me because it’s really just a series of lines. People say all the time, “I wish I could draw! I don’t have a creative bone in my body.” … But you don’t really need training to draw a series of lines. You just have to be thoughtful about where you put them, and I think what it comes down to a lot of the time is just tedium. And tedium is something I really like. It’s therapeutic kind of. All drawing is is patience. … It’s comforting to know you do something well, too.
If you weren’t afraid or you knew you would succeed what would you do?
How did you start into typography?
When I was working at iPatch, that job lent itself to some typography type stuff and people started to notice little notes I would leave for people and comment on how good my handwriting was. … One day I decided, I remember I was on the subway, and I thought, “I think I should make my best friend’s wedding invitations.” I knew that she was doing a lot of DIY stuff for her wedding. So I asked her as a gift if I could make her wedding invitations. I started working on them with no intention of turning it into anything other than that job, but I worked on them at work and people started noticing and talking about them a lot. There was one girl in particular who also had super perfectionistic handwriting and a wonderful artistic spirit, her name is Moitri, She was a dear friend to me and she would sit at my desk and we would draw together. She’d always encourage me to do this. She planted a seed. She encouraged me to step out of the box and turn it into something. That was two and a half years ago.
What is challenging about creating other business’ logos?
A logo’s really important. It’s going to be printed all over your entire life. It’s a lot of pressure. I’ve had hits and misses. I’ve had people who didn’t really know what they wanted, I’ve done something, and they loved it. I’ve also had clients who said it was close but it wasn’t quite right but couldn’t tell me what they wanted. … Art is personal, so I kind of take it personally when someone doesn’t like it. But I try not to. It’s business.
What are the pros and cons of being a freelancer?
I don’t consider myself a freelancer. The only distinction is that I don’t get hired by other companies to work on their time. I decide what I do. … I kind of feel like I’m making up everything as I go along, so to have another professional looking over my shoulder and seeing my process, they’d be like, “Did you just Google how to make a square on PhotoShop?” I’m still learning PhotoShop.
What are the pros and cons of being a business owner?
I am not a slave to my alarm clock and I’m able to work when I feel like working. I do work every day but I find a lot of times I want to work from 8 pm to 3 am, and that’s fine.
I’m trying to get faster at things. I just don’t take days off. I figure if I’m home and I’m just sitting around, I feel weird if I’m not drawing something or doing something.
Sometimes it feels like work I’m just not getting something right or someone keeps coming back to change something.
I use an app on my phone to track how long I work on jobs and now I’m seeing I work a lot more than I feel like I do. Who knew?
I do get distracted really easily. I haven’t been working for 20 minutes, I’ve been looking at Tinder. How did I get here? There’s a lot of forcing myself to get back on track, but how is that different than working at an office?
And I don’t even have to wear pants if I don’t want to.
Why is it important for you to get to know your customer?
I want them to like the work. If I know the person and I know what they like and what they’re about then I can give them a better product. And also I make a lot of friends.
Where do you do your work?
Out here on the patio. Or sometimes Crimson Cup in Clintonville. If I know I need to buckle down I’ll go out in public because I can’t be an asshole with my TV on and draped all over the furniture. I need to look like I’m doing something. That helps.
It must be temperature regulated and have iced coffee. And I want it to be a local business.
Goals for the next year?
I don’t put a lot of time into marketing. I’m a night before person. If I have a show coming up, I just keep everything in my car so I can roll up and set up and there you go. I should spend more time promoting. So far I’m busy, though.
I wanted to give myself a year with the business and see if it was what I wanted to pursue. To check in with my happiness level. Profitability, yeah, but I know it’s always going to be rocky terrain because it depends on other people. In August I’ll start thinking about new ways to grow as far as getting the word out and getting the products out. When I began this business I had no idea what it was going to be. If it was only going to be weddings or if I was going to do mostly custom work or not. It’s still developing and shaping into what it’s ultimately going to be. I think I’ll need to sit down and make a list of all the jobs I’ve had and what they’ve been like and where I want to go from there. With stuff like this you can’t force it. … It’s organically grown into something I don’t hate.
You’re a perfectionist?
It’s a blessing and a curse. I find I always have to do things in order. Sometimes there is no order but I feel I have to put an order on it. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I’m going to do something rather than just doing it. The fact that I’ve even begun this in the first place is massively deviant from my norm.
What led you back to Columbus?
My life sort of imploded a couple years ago. I moved back to my hometown [Columbus] from living in the city for almost 8 years. I knew what I was doing before wasn’t making me happy and it was all sort of wiped clean. I lost my job and had a really bad breakup. It happened all at once. I had two choices. I could either stay there in New York and face an uncertain rebuilding year where I would have to scrape myself off the floor and fight tooth and nail to get to where I was, which I had just done three years prior, or I could totally bail and come back to my hometown and face another uncertain future that could be completely different.
Why choose this?
Because I was tired. Tired of scraping. I missed my family and having the ability to keep a jacket in the car.
We’ll see. Jury’s still out. I’m happier in my day to day.
Three artists, living or dead, that you’d invite to a dinner party.
Shaquille O’Neal. Because I love him. He has no filter whatsoever.
The only thing Krista Botjer and Nathan Photos fight about is music.
“The fights are not about what we’re doing in music,” Krista says, “they’re about how we’re going to make this happen.”
The pair is the electronic duo Damn The Witch Siren and they have settled on a plan for making “it” happen: They’re moving from Columbus to Hollywood in July.
“I think I’m more nervous than she is,” Nathan admits, but their new album, “Superdelicious,” which they officially release Friday, has them both excited to make the transition, quality product in hand.
Krista and Nathan swear they fell in love at first sight, which only seems partly true. The rest of it was love at first sound. The two musicians were immeshed in the bands they were a part of at the time (you know Nathan from The Town Monster), and seeing the other play and perform music sealed the deal.
“He writes with heart,” Krista says. “I knew he had something to say and I wanted to be a part of that.”
Naturally, they formed a band, and in 2012 they put out their first compilation of songs, “Let’s Fall in Love.” When they play, Krista transforms into the sexy and fun Bobbi Kitten and Nathan into the brooding but bouncy Z Wolf.
On “Let’s Fall in Love” you can hear them finding their sound and finding each other.
“Superdelicious” is a pumping riot reminiscent of musicians who have truly grown together. It’s so fun to listen to, the songs are super catchy and the complicated sound artistry hits you in waves of fourth and fifth listens. (I wish you could hear right now me trying to imitate the sample of Krista’s voice on “Pearls and Lace” that is my favorite. My neighbors are probably worried I’ve hurt myself.)
Plus, they really rock it live. I’m a big Damn The Witch Siren fan, and I’ve already downloaded the music to my computer and the CD’s still spinning hot and sweaty in my car.
As the album sleeve eventually gathers dust on my bookshelf, I imagine it will grow grimy with gold glitter, atrophying into a kickass gothic unicorn that gallops off every night and returns at sunrise, leaving a hazy trail of delicious in its wake.
How would you describe the creative process of making “Superdelicious”?
Bobbi Kitten: We started some of our songs right after our first album. We kind of knew our direction. We knew that we wanted it to be very beat driven. It’s a hodge podge of collaboration.
Z Wolf: We’re both really into technology at the moment, so we use our iPads or iPhones to start songs. I’ll be at work and I’ll come home and she’ll be like, ‘I started this thing’ and it’s just a beat and then we’ll do a vocal and then we got the song “Honey, Honey.” I love working with her because we just bounce ideas off each other all the time.
Bobbi Kitten: Yeah, I’ll be like, come up with something that sounds like Devo.
Z Wolf: All the lyrics on this one are her. … I’m always kind of uncomfortable with singing, which is kind of a reason this is my dream band because she’s an awesome vocalist. I always use the analogy of why would you drive a pinto when you have a ferrari? I love to sing. I love it so much, but I also know my strenghts and weaknesses. And she’s way more charismatic on stage than I am.
Bobbi Kitten: We were trying to be mindful about being gratuitous with the vocals. “Honey, Honey” is vocals from start to finish, basically, but I think it’s cool to know your boundaries. I always worry about that as a vocalist. That’s my strongest instrument. But that’s also a double edged sword. I want to make a song out of all vocal samples. That’s a goal of mine. I don’t know if that will be something for us, but learning more about production and all that stuff, that’s one of my goals. I think we did a good job with “Microphone.” Nate produced most of the song. He put in a dub step fill and he wrote all that ominous part and it’s really cool. It’s cool to collaborate like that.
Z Wolf: I feel like we’ve barely done anything at this point. I’m dying to make an album that’s not really electronic at all. I feel like that’s career suicide, at least if you’re a big band. Most bands don’t do things like that–be one thing and then do a 180. But I’m sick and tired of the rules of music. Experimentation is why it’s so fun. Like, I love metal. I’d love to make a metal album and have her screaming on it.
Bobbi Kitten: We’ll see about that. I don’t know how cool my scream will be.
Z Wolf: No, you’ve got a great scream.
What’s the most difficult part about being a musician?
Z Wolf: Right now, for me, it’s juggling not making any money and having a shitty job that we have to go to everyday that just cuts our day in half. It just gets exhausting. Not a lot of payback for music at this point. It can get taxing on your soul. But at the same time it’s the most nourishing thing for your soul. It’s totally worth it.
Bobbi Kitten: I love my job. But the day job cuts into what you do want to do for the rest of your life. The exhaustion makes you feel like you’re getting old. Am I getting old? No! I’m just really fucking busy. How do you make money doing this? That’s the hardest part. How do you do it without selling out, put the most simple way. I’ve read so many blogs over the last two years about how to make it in music, and they’re like ‘You gotta write a number one hit!’ and it’s just like, um, OK. We want to write pop music, we want to write something that connects to a broad range of people, not for money but just because we want to make fun music, we want people to relax, we want people to go out and have a good time. We still want to say things, though. You’re juggling when you’re writing pop music between compromising your art, and we haven’t compromised, so maybe we won’t make money off this.
Z Wolf: I’ve always done what I wanted to do musically.
Bobbi Kitten: I always find myself going a little crazy because I’m like ‘I want to put this out there.’ And then I’m like, is that selfish of me? To want to put your art out there? Is that selfish to not wait until it’s ready? It makes it feel cheap. … It makes you feel cheap when you put it out on the internet. Oh what now?
Z Wolf: Yeah, there’s just so much out there nowadays. Everyone is making music and all the music is free. It does kind of give it a cheapness that we didn’t have when we were growing up. I cherished my small CD collection growing up. It’s not better, it’s just different. I kind of love this world we’re in, but it’s kind of crazy how much there is and it’s kind of scary where you feel like you’re in a very deep ocean with very little chance of actually making a career out of this. It also can be discouraging when you know no one cares about your album as much as you do. We’re clearly the most excited, but hopefully we can change that.
You guys are so fun to watch on stage, and the production of the videos you play behind you during your set are always relevant.
Z Wolf: It kills me that I can’t watch her.
Bobbi Kitten: Sometimes it feels very awkward. I love performing and it’s easy to get really lost in the music but then there are those moments where everyone’s staring and you can see people, you can make out people’s faces, and you’re like is this weird, are people enjoying themselves? I just want people to have fun. It’s easier when you’re having your own fun.
Z Wolf: We both hold back quite a bit. We don’t want to. We’re trying to unleash, but the crowd can make you awkward. In your mind it’s always a room full of people and they’re all dancing, and when it doesn’t happen you’re a little reserved. This generation just seems more reserved, a lot less prone to dance. It’s a divergence of so many different things, people are into so many different things. And, again, that’s not bad, it’s just different. But back when there was The Beatles, there was just The Beatles and everyone in the world just lost their minds for them and that was it. Now there’s so many choices and you can’t lose your mind like that unless you’re with a group of people losing their minds like that. Not everyone’s going to lose their minds like that to this little band playing a little club.
What inspired “Superdelicious,” your new album?
Z Wolf: Our first album was a lot about the two of us meeting. It was more of an internal thing, whereas this one is more about the outside world. There’s more on there about social media and the world we’re living in now and the overwhelming, huge amount of music there is out there and making something that has some validity in that context. There’s also a lot about fashion and the way women are treated and feminism.
Bobbi Kitten: “Pearls and Lace” is a really fun song. The meaning of the song is a lot about feminism. It’s about being a woman and it sounds tongue and cheek. It sounds like I’m a man, I’m a woman, I’m a man, I’m a woman, going back and forth and I feel like the song “Honey, Honey” is a lot like that too, just kind of standing up for being a woman. One of the lyrics in “Pearls and Lace” is “All hookered up in pearls and lace.” When I was in high school I got called to the principal’s office for wearing lace, but you couldn’t see anything, it’d be a lace shirt where you could see the shirt but not through the bodice of the shirt, yet men could wear really sexist T-shirts, like “Cool story, babe, now go make me a sandwich.” Teach men to stop sexualizing the female body so much instead of putting so many restrictions on women. There’s this female band whose members wear these cloaks all the way up to their chins and they want to put an end to all of this sex in pop music, which I understand to some degree, but then they’re covering up their bodies and it’s just like, you should be proud! Be proud! That’s not saying anything. That’s kind of going backward.
Z Wolf: There’s a lot of sexuality in our music. We just got our first writeup for the album and the guy said the one turnoff of the album for him was that the lyrics were racy. I think she comes off like a very powerful woman in her music. Someone who is a role model. My favorite part of “Pearls and Lace” is the second verse where she says “You looking like a dirty knock off/ rock and roll is here to stay/ they dubbed you the savior” and then all of the sudden she gets pitch shifted to down and she says “Move bitch, get out the way.” That’s my favorite part. It can be taken a lot of ways. It’s a throwback to the Ludacris song and it’s also kind of a symbol of how men can dominate in areas including pop culture.
Why write as your characters, Bobbi Kitten and Z Wolf?
Bobbi Kitten: It’s fun.
Z Wolf: We love theater and theatrics. Sometimes people want their pop and rock stars to be really relatable and be like them and wear flannel. Other artists you want to be larger than life, ridiculous, and I think we’re just naturally more of that camp by nature. Film, puppets, experimentation.
Bobbi Kitten: Some of my favorite artists were always writing like they were someone else, folk singers who could become different characters in different songs. It was easier to find my voice as a singer and as a writer because we had built these characters. It’s just a different way to express yourself.
Why a wolf?
Z Wolf: It feels like a douchey answer. I’ve always loved wolves and I’ve always felt like that’s my spirit animal or whatever. Wolves are going extinct because people have hunted them to extinction and that depresses me to no end, so like I feel like Z Wolf is one of the last ones. We needed one more. I feel kind of dorky about it, but nothing gets me as emotional or fired up as animal rights. I try with futility to raise money for them, like with [my former band] Town Monster’s albums, but it got no response. No one seems to give much of a shit. We’ve been vegetarian for a year now. It’s really altering, just living in a different way. I used to eat meat two times a day and now when I cook chicken at work it sickens me. I have no real desire to eat them anymore.
How have you grown vocally, Krista, through Damn the Witch Siren?
Bobbi Kitten: When I was a kid I used to sing all the time. But I had a real high squeaky voice, and I remember auditioning for things and I got this part and my friend Mary was a really great singer, too, and I remember all the kids were telling me Mary should have got the part, that I had such a weird voice. I became terrified of singing. I had the weirdest voice. It feels like a totally different life from now because all I ever get now are compliments on my voice, just talking too. It’s so weird because as a kid I was afraid to talk to people. … In high school I would speak really soft; I was still terrified of it. I always wanted to sing, though. I love being on stage. … I think my voice was a lot different before I met Nathan. It feels like a whole life away. … When I met Nathan, all the rules went out the window. I felt inspired. That’s when I found my true singing voice, was when I met Nathan and we started making music together.
Z Wolf: Her voice is like honey but sharp; it will cut you. She’s very diverse. I wanted to work with her immediately. I knew she had tons of potential. She’s very charismatic. I try to encourage her and push her to do more, be like a cartoon character almost. I always want her to be as ridiculous as possible. I think she holds back a lot still and I want her to let go completely. I have that reservation too. When I was in Town Monster we were playing out so heavily and I felt like a more confident singer and keyboard player and now I’ve been doing more production, so my production has got better but I’m dying to start playing piano more because I don’t want to lose that. I just want to be in a project that I love and I love our band.
What’s your musical origin story, Nathan?
Z Wolf: I was in band in fourth through eighth grade and I really had no interest in it. It was a time killer. I liked messing around on the trombone or whatever but it didn’t click with me. … When I was 15 I went and got MIDI Notation software for $45 at CompUSA. I had already been writing lyrics in my sad little goth boy notebooks, but I took that software home and within an hour I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is what I want to do.’ Everything I made for years was horrendous. … I started making music by punching in notes on a computer. Eventually my mom let me trade in my trombone for a four track tape recorder and an acoustic guitar. I started singing and it was just raspy muttering. I just never stopped. I don’t think I’m truly talented. I think I just work really hard.
What does your work schedule look like? How often do you rehearse?
Bobbi Kitten: All the time.
Z Wolf: Yeah, we’re pretty obsessed.
Bobbi Kitten: Sometimes we’ll take a week off where we don’t rehearse, but when we’re not rehearsing we’re writing or we’re working on video or something. It’s always very consistent. Having a set rehearsal schedule doesn’t work for us because it takes away from the creative process. We already have the discipline and sometimes you just don’t feel like doing certain things. You kind of have to go with your creative impulse as far as what to work on each day.
Z Wolf: I felt like I was in the worst dry spell of my life in 2011. I’ve been pretty prolific. I’ve written hundreds of songs, but that was the biggest period of time where I didn’t write a lot of stuff. I don’t really know why but I don’t look at it as much of a rut now because during that time period I got a lot better at production. And, really, we had met at that time and I think I just needed some time to fall in love. At the time I was stressed out about it. … Then I made a solo album in, like, a week. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever done but for various reasons I do like it. It’s dark and depressing. That was the end of my dry spell. I kind of had to force myself to make that. At the time I was not impressed with it at all but having some time away from it I like how it’s me and I like how different it was for me. It’s all crazy vocal effects and Auto-Tune, which I think everyone in the world hates except me, but I think that album feels like this weird subterranean world unto itself and, in that, mission accomplished.
How would you describe how Nathan uses Auto-Tune?
Bobbi Kitten: It’s very textural. He paints this line that’s light pink and then he puts all this darkness around it but it just becomes a part of the light pink. He keeps the darkness light.
What equipment do you use?
Z Wolf: My favorite part about being an electronic artist is that it’s so malleable. This keyboard doesn’t make sound on its own and those two devices there don’t make sounds on their own. But then you plug them into the computer and they do whatever you want them to do. We’re doing all sorts of crazy silly shit up there. We’re using a keyboard to play all the keyboard sounds but we’re using the faders and knobs and sometimes we’re turning drums on or off or we’re setting effects. She triggers a lot of vocal effects on stage, she triggers different clips, like a bass line or drums. We put different samples on this thing and can play with them in so many ways. It’s total madness.
Bobbi Kitten: The past year I feel like I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘What are these machines? Play a real instrument.”
Z Wolf: I used to see this guy whose truck I saw all the time and I just wanted to ram him with my car because he had a bumper sticker that said “Drum Machines Have No Soul” and it was like, drumkits don’t have a soul either! The drummer has the soul.
Bobbi Kitten: Being a singer songwriter doesn’t get me excited. With Ableton [the brand of the musical tech they use], there are all of these new sounds that people haven’t really used before that we can manipulate and that really inspires me.
What are your goals musically?
Bobbi Kitten: We have a lot of plans for our live show. Right now we have synced music videos that go along with our live performance but we will also have midi-controlled lights in the near future. We don’t want to give away too much of what else we plan to do but definitely a lot of cool technical shit that will embrace a lot of new technology.
If you could invite three artists, living or dead, to dinner, who would they be?
Damn the Witch Siren:
1) Marilyn Monroe
3) Tom Waits
1) Edie Sedgwick. She was extremely witty but she was also a character. She was someone else when she went out and I want to see that in execution. I always wondered what it would be like to be really witty and clever and in it. She seems like one of the most interesting people.
2) Patty Griffin. She’s a folk singer songwriter. I admire her and she was one of the first singer songwriters that moved me to tears. She writes in other people’s bodies. She’s an 80-year-old woman one day and a man the next day.
3) Marilyn Monroe. Everyone has an opinion about who she was as a woman, but I feel like they don’t understand how dynamic of a human being she was. I understand her want to be validated for her art. And falling in love with brilliant men. I feel like she was just a soulful, thoughtful person.
For the record, my answers would change every day.
1) J.K. Rowling. I would just love to talk to her about her books. And just cry on her shoulder. “Why would your fiction hurt me that badly?”
2) Jesus. I think he gets a bad rap nowadays. I’ve done a lot of studying of spirituality and I think he had it right. It’s impressive how much I agree with the things he strictly said. Even if the rest of the Bible is bullshit, Jesus had his head on straight.
3) John Lennon. For similar reasons. I know so much about the guy already I don’t know how much I could glean from having dinner with him, but I really honor him and he’s a big hero of mine. He was so compassionate and he wanted to do good in this world. Also, he was terribly flawed. But he meant well and he really did take strides in his life to become a better person and I’m all about that. I was a shitty teenager and I’ve been a selfish person through a lot my life, everyone is, and I think it’s important to take a step back and look at who you are and try to be better.