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In honor of Women's History Month, we had the pleasure of interviewing Judith Arcana as part of our discussion and exploration on the evolving topic of Feminism.

Judith Arcana writes poems, stories, essays and books; some of them are about her experience in the pre-Roe underground feminist abortion clinic in Chicago. Some appear in journals and anthologies, on paper and online; one story is a zine, Keesha and Joanie and JANE, and one's a prize-winning chapbook, Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture. Her poetry collection What if your mother features motherhood themes, notably abortion, adoption, and IVF. Visit Judith's website for her writing, more info and links: http://www.juditharcana.com.



Interview by Jen Scholten & Ophelia Darkly of Ghostland Haunts




J & O:

It's challenging to keep up with language as it's so rapidly evolving in our culture. That said, can you give us your definition of the term feminism? What do you feel like the correlations are between feminism's past and present?


JA:

Well, certainly the word pretty much means the same thing it ever did, but that's irrelevant to what it means in the socio-political context of the culture at large. The concept of feminism, whatever it might mean to any individual person that you would stand in the street with a microphone and ask, was heavily negative for a very, very long time and just recently has had a resurgence of positive response in the culture at large. Even women who don't consider themselves political persons can definitely identify with feeling affronted in various ways and/or frightened at the same time, of our current cultural situation. This also includes people who are not women, but those who identify with femaleness or femininity for any set of reasons and descriptions. I agree with what you were saying about the changing of the terms throughout history. There's also a global component as well as the North American influence, which tends to have a lot of overlap. In terms of the North American piece, "feminism" wasn't the word mostly used for women's movements until the middle of the 20th century at the earliest. Women who were politically active were identified by what they were doing. For example, the suffragists; they were all about voting. In the latter part of the 19th century, in the United States, there was the startling notion of women being identified as actual citizens and as fully vested as men were in the constitution and the declaration of independence. That was a big part of what was going down. Right now, I think that the term is having this sort of "born again" experience, if we can say that about a word, and I think it's a good thing. I think it's politically useful for everybody, but certainly for people who identify as female.


"It's really a tough, forceful, cultural wave that is happening."

J & O:

Do you think that links up with the Me Too Movement at all?


JA:

Unquestionably. Certainly, the Me Too Movement is one of the contemporary manifestations of this resurgence that we're talking about. It's really a tough, forceful, cultural wave that is happening.


J & O:

How has the Me Too Movement impacted your life?



JA:

It certainly makes me happy, let's put it that way. It affects all of us and it affects those of us who are happy about the outpouring of storytelling as well as those who are not. Everybody is getting hit by the fact that this has begun.


It's not like we didn't know that these stories were out there. Everybody knows this. I mean everybody female knows this, from the littlest girls in whatever way they might articulate it. Everybody knows that if you don't pay attention when you're walking alone at night, you are in danger. Even if you do pay attention, you're likely to be in danger. Even the guys that you work with can talk in the most ignorant and offensive ways, and that's even before we talk about them touching our bodies. We all know this, we've always known this. And anytime a woman, girl or female identifying person of any kind would dare to speak of it people might say "oh, come on, you're too sensitive. " or "did that really happen?" or "that's just the way it is and you have to be able to deal with it." I think that this outpouring is clearly sparked by the level of badness, ugliness, terribleness of all kinds at present. This outpouring is just a really good thing, even in the presence of people who don't like it or afraid of it.


I mean, I can still remember stuff from when I was a teenager. I'm 76 years old and those memories are with me because of the strength of the impact of being assaulted in one way or another for being a girl. The strength of it. The idea that someone would put his hand on my breast, even a person I don't know. It still happens. It happens all the time.


J & O:

Yes - to the point where some women are still asking themselves 'should I be mad about this?" or "should I have said something about this?" What do you do?


JA:

Well, do you pitch a fit in the moment, on the train, walking downtown, in your office? This is one of my wonderful fantasies. How far are you willing to go? What are you willing to risk if you're willing to say "get your hands off of me" really loud - which is of course, one of the greatest things we can do - if we feel we can do those things.


J & O:

Recently, I was groped by a man on the street that I gave my money to only moments before. There's so many different things that go through your head when you're processing something like that. The fact that we're asked to just get over it is absurd. Unfortunately, even in my own processing, my default is to think that it's not that big of a deal. Why do we process these things this way?


JA:

That's a classic example of a situation where there are several different kinds of power dynamics happening at the same time. You or anyone in the position you were in, has a sense of responsibility to people in poverty, to people who are homeless and begging on the street. But at the same time those people also have the responsibility to behave appropriately, decently, as everybody else does. And so it's a clash. That particular example is a major league clash.


J & O

Oftentimes there are these gray areas and other power dynamics at play that don't get brought up and I think a lot of people don't understand how complex these situations are for women.



JA:

When the person who has been objectified and treated badly has to consider if she is a thoughtful person in these kinds of situations then something isn't right here. It's about discussing those layers and elements, because it's never just a one sided issue. This topic reminds me of Louis CK's situation.


J & O:

What are your thoughts on that situation?


JA:

I think that (and I mean this requires having a lot of information) but in the case of Louis CK, similar to Weinstein, the people who they're afflicting with their personal needs, desires or just general creepiness are generally people who either work for them or are in some way overtly structurally subordinate to them. Women in those situations are forced to say to ourselves, if I walk out, then I'll never get any more money here" or "if I walk out, then I won't get this job" or "if I walk out, I won't get cast” in that show ….. etc. One of the first things I thought about when I first heard that Louis CK was part of the boys team was: This man has two girl children. This man has two little girls. If I were their mother I would have to see to it that he is never alone with those children. Never, never, never - until we're all over a hundred years old. Because there is no excuse. There are reasons, certainly, but there are not excuses.



"One of the very best ways that we can strengthen ourselves is to continue communicating with one another."

J & O:

How do you think that as women we can stop from freezing up in those situations and then feeling the residual discouragement afterwards?


How can women move beyond this collective despair?





JA:

My sense of things in general is that one of the very best ways that we can strengthen ourselves, even toughen ourselves for when the moment comes, is to continue communicating with one another. One of the best things we can do is talk with other women on a regular basis. Not just specifically when something has happened. It's important to build into our life circumstances in which, at least once a month, if not more often, a small group of women gets together and talks about these very things so that it's a presence in our consciousnesses on a consistent basis. It's important to build a resilience, strength and a capacity to respond in ways that we won't be embarrassed by or ashamed of after events like these happen. We need to be in consistent, deliberate communication with others.


I can say out of personal experience, after an enormous amount of learning about how women deal with misogyny, that talking about these topics in small groups with participants whom are either women or at least female identified is powerful work. I think that keeps it right in the front of our consciousness. The astonishing outpouring of emotion and rage that caused the first, big, post-Trump election, Women's March was amazing. It was born of shock, rage and fear. In order to sustain the desire for action, and to go further, which I think is part of what you're concerned about (as we all should be) we need to continue having these conversations with one another. And every group that gathers will come up with a different way to contribute to the conversation. It's also crucial that we do not ask ourselves to take care of everything right away or to think it's hopeless. And I say that although I've never been a particularly hopeful person.


J & O:

Interesting, because you've done so much work in such a very clear direction.


JA:

Yes, it is interesting. You're not the first person to point that out to me. But I don't do it because I'm hopeful, although two things made me study hope.


One was my relationship with the late Grace Paley, because Grace was 'Our Lady of Hope', she was the Queen of all hopefulness, but even Grace, in the last decade or so of her life when I said: "So are you feeling particularly hopeful?" (and this was years back, she died in 2007), we would laugh and she would say: "Well sometimes it's harder than other times to keep it going". But it was natural to her; that was her character. I remember her son, Danny Paley, telling me when I was working on the biography something like: "I remember my mother telling me that by the time I grew up, there wouldn't be any more war." When I call her 'Our Lady of Hope', that's what I'm talking about. So, what I'm saying here is that, knowing Grace, being fond of her, l was learning from her, she was the generation ahead of mine and I pay a lot of attention to the people who've come before me. So, I tried it.


The other thing that made me think: "maybe I should try to get some hope going here", is I had cancer and cancer is so terrifying immediately. I don't have a whole lot of respect for the medical industry, but there are practitioners, lucky for all of us, who are wonderful. I refer to them as 'the goddesses' and I am grateful for that. That caused me to think: "okay, maybe I should try to get some hope in gear here." It was hard for me because it doesn't come naturally. If you choose to stay alive, even if the way you see the world is pretty grim — it contains so much badness — then you have to say to yourself: "okay, what am I going to do?" Given what I know to be true and the fact that, at this point anyway, I'm deciding to stay alive, I have to find some really good stuff to do and good ways to be so that I can feel all right about being alive. It's not about hope, it's about saying: "okay, I'm still deciding to be here, so what do I do?" And well, I'll write stuff, I'll perform it, I'll try to get it published, and so on. Everybody has a list.


J & O:

So, we saw that you had lost your teaching job at the high school and you were considered dangerous, if even radical. I don't know if you find that admirable, but we do. Could you tell us more about that?


JA:

That was part of my education, let's put it that way. It was very early for me, in 1970. The firing was in March and then the three of us, two of whom were tenured teachers (the first lesson I learned was that having tenure doesn't mean that they can't fire you), looked up the law. We discovered that in the state of Illinois, if a tenured teacher is fired by the school board, that person has the right to a public hearing. So we demanded a public hearing. Our assumption was (little did we know), that it would be a few hours in an office or auditorium. Well, it turned out (this was totally formative in my life), that it was months long, several nights a week in the auditoriums of the various township schools. Hundreds of people came every time. A lot of students, a lot of people from the community, a lot of parents, and the school board sat there in a row at a long table. They had a lawyer and they all wore suits, even the one woman on the school board. And then we also had a lawyer — who we paid with a great big bag of weed because now we had no salaries. I actually took my pension and lived on that for much of that year because I couldn't get a job it; it was in the papers, it was on TV, and everybody knew we were "dangerous radicals” — poison. You will not be surprised to hear that one of the other teachers, my pal John, got a job pretty quickly. I'm not saying it was necessarily gender, but seems suspicious. So that went on, through May, June, July, August, and into the beginning of September. Then the public hearing, which turned into this huge amazing trial, was over and the school board took a month to deal with whatever they were doing, which certainly didn't change their minds. The law was that they would decide if they had been right to fire us or not. That was when I hit the road. I had no job. I was separated from my husband. My whole life had just been exploded that year, which was 1970. It was a big year for me.


"And in those days, the young people were ferocious in political action. "

J & O:

Was that the defining moment where you said: "I need to do something for women and it's got to be in a bigger way"?


JA:

I never said that to myself. What happened was, I had been changing, which is of course why they came to view me as 'radical'. I certainly wasn't, I was really politically ignorant, but I was learning very quickly, a lot from my students, because that's the way it works when you're a teacher; you learn from your students. I mean, you do help them learn also, but, big time, you learn from your students. And in those days, the young people were ferocious in political action. It was fabulous, everything they were doing. So, that summer I thought I was pregnant. I had this incredibly late period, it seemed like a million years late. This is part of my 'Judith Arcana Origin Myth', except it's true. So, I thought I was pregnant and I thought: "Okay, obviously this is not a good time to make a person. That person would not have a good life. Got to figure this out". So I called a guy that I had gone to high school with who was in medical school and thought maybe he could do it. But he was too new, or maybe he didn't want to, I don't know, but he was quite wonderful. He immediately said: "I'll find out what I can and I'll get back to you". He called me the next day and said: "Everybody here says call this number and ask for Jane". Now when he said 'everybody here', he meant the University of Illinois Medical School: the doctors, the teachers, the students, they knew about the abortion service. So, I called and I left my message and she called me back. She said: "Hello, this is Jane, (which is the name of one of my stories and hopefully my story collection if I can get it published), and we talked for a long time. She was very cool. We had a lot of fun on the phone. One of the things she said to me was: "Have you had a pregnancy test?" I said: "No." And she said: "Well, you should probably have one." And she gave me the number of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, which had a pregnancy testing service as well as the abortion service.


J & O:

Were pregnancy tests not readily available at that time?


JA:

Definitely not. The stuff that's in pharmacies now didn't exist yet. You had to bring in a urine sample and do the whole thing. It didn't occur to me. It wasn't that I didn't want to, it just wasn't in my consciousness. Anyway, so I called her back when I got my period, which was, I don't know, five weeks late (it felt like a million years), called her back and said: "I got my period. No problem. Thank you so much." And again we talked for this really long time, which she certainly did not have to do. And then later, once I had become a Jane, I knew very well, because I took a lot of those messages myself and made a lot of calls, that you don't talk to people for that long. But she and I, we just hit it off. And at the end of the conversation, she said to me: "You know, we're going to be taking new people in in the fall, and I think you might be interested." And I said: "Yeah, maybe I would". When the trial was over, I hit the road, and when I came back, she calls me and says: "There's an orientation for potential new Janes and here's where it is". And it was so convenient, that was another thing. It was right down the street from where I lived, in a little church at the corner of Fullerton and Geneva in Chicago. I visited that church a few years back when I went to Chicago on a research trip and saw that they are still a political church. They're doing a lot of good work about immigration. They're pretty amazing.

J & O:

Why did the abortion service regularly move from house to house?


JA:

Well, first of all, it's important to think about the service as morphing through a few years. It was roughly a four year time that the group actually existed as a group. And in the beginning, what the women did was find people who were willing to do abortions in the city or the suburbs. And when women called, they’d give them the name and number of the people they had made contact with who could/would do it. If we heard anything bad about them, of course, we stopped giving out their names. But that was what it was; a referral service, that's how it began. And then, 'counseling', the word we used, was 'added'. And what that meant was...let's say you're pregnant, you need an abortion, you call the number, and Jane calls you back and says: "I'm going to give your name and number to one of our counselors. She will call you and make an appointment to talk with you about how this whole process works. We will get back to you as soon as we can". And she would ask you questions like: "How far along do you think you are?" and things about your health, your age, and so on and so forth. Let's say it was me that got assigned to you. I would call you up and we would make an appointment. You would come to my place and we would talk. I would be explaining to you, depending on how far along you were, what the procedure would be and how the whole thing would work. So there was the referral time, then there was the counseling time. As time went on, we pretty much realized that there were some guys who were really good, and in particular, one guy who was really, really good and we liked him and he liked us. So we cut a deal with him. He was the one who, ultimately, taught us how to do it ourselves.

J & O:

Wow, what a story! Do you have any resources for women that you would recommend?


JA:

Some websites: ladypjustice.com and womensmediacenter.com, for even more resources, you can visit the 'Jane' page on my website: juditharcana.com. There is a brand new essential book called Handbook For A Post-Roe America by Robin Marty. Marty's book is literally filled with resources such as A. N. S. I. R. H. Many of them are mostly about information. Some of them are about how to get the pills. Until recently, that was very difficult in this country. Now that this country has gotten so negative, ironically, it's a bit easier because the outfits that were selling the pills were only doing it in places where it was very, very difficult for women to get abortions.


More than 90% of the counties in this country do not have abortion healthcare services. That's a lot. Here in Oregon, which is considered 'paradise' abortion wise, if you don't live in Ashland, Eugene, Bend, or Portland, you're out of luck, and you know, Oregon is not a tiny state. This ain't Rhode Island. So you have to travel across the state. There's N. I. R. H. - National Institute of Reproductive Health. And there are local clinics here and there that offer good stuff. Our local northwest abortion fund is also very valuable. You can find them on abortionfunds.org along with other geographies.



J & O:

One last question: If you had like a moment with the president, what would you say, do, or ask?

JA: (laughing) I don't think there'd be any point in talking to this president. This president is absolutely impervious. He is of no value as an actual human, so I wouldn't spend my time. There are people to talk to, but he ain't one of them.




Connect with Judith:


Judith Arcana Bio

Judith Arcana Jane



Updated: Apr 28, 2019


In honor of Women's History Month, we had the pleasure of interviewing Reba Sparrow as part of our discussion and exploration on the evolving topic of Feminism.



Reba Sparrow is the Executive Producer and story coach for The Mystery Box Show, a voice over artist, actor, model and holistic health coach. 


Interview by Jen Scholten and Ophelia Darkly of Ghostland Haunts




J & O: We are going to start off the interview by drawing a card from a tarot deck we have that embraces a lot of feminine energy.


How very interview appropriate; intriguing!


In the picture, the girl is underground. I think the underground is really interesting, because we can think about it like planting a new seed, rebirth, and death. To have this person that looks very alive underneath the ground is interesting to me. I've always wondered too, as we seem to be building up as a society, what would happen if we built underground; below.

RS: I just toured the Shanghai Tunnels for the first time last week and it's really fascinating. It's a reminder that there are things other than what we can see, what's in front of us, that are going on. There was a whole world down there; people's lives and deaths and things that we never knew were going on.

J & O: I've been getting a similar feeling from watching this new series on Netflix called One Strange Rock. It's a show similar to Cosmos, but it's a more narcissistic version because it's primarily focused on Earth. There are different astronauts giving their insight from being able to observe the planet in ways most people will never be able to. I've always found it fascinating to look at the inner workings of the world that we live in. It makes you feel really small. And sometimes I think we need that, especially when there's so much stimulation going on in the world around us.


Let's also read the poem: Postfeminism by Brenda Shaughnessy.


Read: Postfeminism by Brenda Shaughnessy

RS: Some powerful imagery there.

J & O: Yes, I was reading an interview with her and I found it really interesting that she was talking about what women go through when they have to report rape and how dehumanizing it is. After something like that happens, a lot of women just want to take a shower and forget about it. And it's so hard to even get rape kits processed. Usually women don't end up reporting. I wonder if our culture created this mentality, or if it was always there and is only just now beginning to change.

RS: It's like they're saying, "Hey, claim your power, claim your power! But, we're not going to make it easy for you to claim your power! Why aren't you claiming your power? But also, we don't believe you!" We're not set up in an environment that encourages that. There seems to be a lot more talk than action. There's a lot of fear, certainly for women, but also for men. I think it's a mess; the world is a mess right now.


"Speak from your scars..."

J & O: Do you feel that providing a platform for people to tell their stories through The Mystery Box Show is something that is helping to heal that issue, or at least, exposes it?

RS: I think that we really try to provide a platform for people to express the experiences they share on stage in a way that folks can relate to. For instance, if someone says: "I experienced healing through BDSM", someone who doesn't know anything about that topic might say, "What are you talking about? How could you heal from being beaten?" We have these preconceived notions about things and having someone tell a personal narrative helps people relate to each other. It helps create empathy and more understanding.

J & O: Do you feel like the coaching you do with performers is a necessary part of the production of the show?

RS: Yeah, it's huge. The coaching is two fold, to help the story be stage ready; to make sure that there's a beginning, a middle, an end, and stakes so that an audience will stay with you. But also, many folks walk away from the coaching session saying that it was very cathartic or that it felt like therapy. Not that we're trying to do that, but it really does help bring out the emotions of what they're actually trying to convey. I believe that in our society, we are not set up to talk about our feelings, especially women. We're told that we're being drama queens or melodramatic if we have feelings at all. With The Mystery Box Show, we first provide a safe space, one on one, and then we'll bring in a production assistant to hear the stories. It then builds to a rehearsal where five more people get to hear this story, to where people finally feel safe and comfortable enough to share it in front of 400 people.

J & O: How do you navigate dealing with such emotional topics, especially because these stories are all true?

RS: I'm very careful not to have a finished story look like therapy on stage. There's a saying: "Speak from your scars, not from your wounds", so if something is very fresh in someone's mind and they really haven't healed from it, we'll put that on hold and wait until they've done healing themselves. We never want the audience to feel like they have to take care of someone that they're watching on stage. It's a collaborative; I always have the audience's best interest in mind in addition to the storyteller's. I love featuring the stories where you go in expecting one thing from a person and by the end of their story you realize, oh, they're different than what I thought, they're just like me, I'm multifaceted too. I love the concept in performance of sharing an experience, exchanging energy live, and then that's it, you don't get to see that again.

J & O: That relates to one of my questions: Why do you choose live performance/theatre over video/podcasts?

RS: I love the energy exchange, mostly in the connection of being on stage. Maybe it's because I'm a performer and a producer; I understand what's going on backstage and on stage. I have a lot of gratitude for that. I like the audience to know that they're being seen. This is a collective; there's a conversation going on. That's why I choose to do it live.

J & O: What is it like to cultivate a sex positive community, when this is still a new concept for a lot of people? What are the rewarding parts of having this type of community in your life and how has it affected you?

RS: You know, what's interesting is that we never set out with an intention to create a sex positive community. In fact, I didn't even use that term 'sex positive' for the longest time (another label). I just want to produce the show that represents me and my partner Eric's aesthetics. I grew up in a military family, and I know that has a conservative and often negative association with it, but we were stationed in Germany, which is a very sex positive place to be. But also, on the military base, a person was a person was a person was a person and it was a melting pot of people. They all worked together and all our families hung out together. It didn't matter what your sexual orientation was or what color your skin was. And then, moving to the deep south after that where it's very racist and homophobic, I was so confused, like what universe is this? So my constitution is just people are people are people. There was no "Let's build a sex positive community", it was just "Let's build a community" and let's talk about sex while we're at it because that doesn't get talked about often. Alos, those seem to be the most interesting stories to me and Eric.

J & O: Why do you do what you do? Why this, of all things that you could be doing?


"It means providing space for women to shine, and then, giving a little extra"

RS: I'm a performer and producer at heart; to combine that with something that I feel has a lot of meaning is important to me. And it's the normalization, the being whoever you want to be without conforming to the box that we're often put in.

J & O: What other projects are you working on right now?



RS:

Well for one, we have a side project called The Mystery Box Social Dinner Party and we tied that with "Box Social", a fund raiser from the early 1800's through the early 1900's. It usually happened at the town square and the women would make picnic lunches and put them in nondescript boxes or baskets so you wouldn't know who it was from. Then the men in the town would bid on the lunches and get to have lunch with the woman who made it. I've always thought that was the most amazing thing and I love hosting dinner parties.


The Mystery Box Social Dinner Party is open to the public and happens about a week after every show (the next one taking place on May 4th). We invite two past storytellers to dinner in our living room. We show those two stories and then we talk to the storyteller about it and their experience. It sparks really amazing conversation. People are making friends, they're hooking up, which is not the intention, but that's happening. That's been a huge part of our community building on a smaller scale. Speaking of community, at the show, all of our VIP guests are invited to the backstage after party in the green room, which we call "continuing the conversation".


Secondly, there is a podcast called Risk and some of our stories are featured on it. They tour once a year and this fall they'll be at Revolution Hall. We'll be doing our Mystery Box Show in conjunction with them.


Lastly, we've put together a book proposal to transcribe some of the stories and put them into an anthology.

J & O: Going back to the theme, what does the word feminism mean to you and how does that relate to your work?

RS: I'll tell you what I used to think feminism meant. When I was a kid I thought it meant extreme hatred for men. And I was like, "No, I'm not a feminist. We're all equals." Which for me meant having the mentality that we're all just people. And now, I think it means providing space for women to shine, and then, giving a little extra. And you know, I'm the boss of this show and my partner is male. For four of the seven years I would hear, "Oh, you're that girl who helps Eric with his show." And if people would reach out to us, they would reach out to Eric. I had to work really hard to be visible even though I was running everything. And people were like, "Oh, there's a man on stage, it's his show." And women did it too. We're not equal partners in the eyes of many people.

J & O: How do you feel the term feminism has evolved to include non-binary and trans individuals?

RS: I think there's a lot of push-back; a lot of people fight this evolution. I don't agree with that push-back. I'm not a trans person, so I can't speak to that experience, but I think that feminism is an energy and if you embody that energy, you have every right to say that you're a feminist, be a feminist, and to say that you are female.

J & O: What advice would you give to women who are struggling to create or express themselves considering the current political climate?


"It's about surrounding yourself with the people who are supportive and encouraging"

RS: I think it's really important to surround yourself with vibrant, amazing role models who are creating. And I think it's important to get something in motion, even if it's not perfect and even if it's not the exact message you want to convey. As women, I think we are taught that you need to be perfect, because you're comparing yourself to everyone else and people are judging you. I admire people who are doing things I'm afraid to do. If more people do that, it's not just benefiting them, it's benefiting everybody around them. For me, that's the point: to be a community and share and connect.



J & O: Do you feel like fear has ever stopped you from moving on something?

RS: Yes.

J & O: So what kept you moving with those projects then?

RS: Positive feedback from people. It's about surrounding yourself with the people who are supportive and encouraging and also knowing that if you move forward with something and it doesn't work, it's not the end of the world. So what? Do it again. Do something else. Change it. I often don't do things out of fear that I will be spread too thin and I will be exhausted; it's an energy thing for me.

J & O: When is your next show?

RS: April 20th is our Seven Year Anniversary show.

J & O: Awesome, we can't wait to go!



Connect with Reba:


The Mystery Box Show

Tickets to The Mystery Box Show

Support The Mystery Box Show on Patreon

Facebook Page

Instagram Page

Updated: Apr 28, 2019

In honor of Women's History Month, we had the pleasure of interviewing Susan DeFreitas as part of our discussion and exploration on the evolving topic of Feminism.


Susan DeFreitas has never been able to choose between fantasy and reality, so she lives and writes in both. A first-generation American of Caribbean descent, she is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West; her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has been featured in the Writer’s Chronicle, the Huffington Post, the Utne Reader, Story Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, High Desert Journal, and many other journals and anthologies. In 2017, The Oregonian named her “One of 25 Oregon Authors Every Oregonian Must Read.”



Interview by Jen Scholten and Ophelia Darkly of Ghostland Haunts



J&O: We would like to start off our conversation with a poem by Adrienne Rich.

We'd like to hear your thoughts and how you feel it relates to your life and your work.


Read: Adrienne Rich - Planetarium


SD:

Part of why Adrienne Rich has been a touchstone and a light for me is because she is a top shelf literary poet. She is as good as anybody gets. Even when she's being very personal, her work is always very political, feminist and antiwar. There has been this degree to which it is implied that when writing in this country you don't get into political stuff. That it's not an appropriate subject for real art. That the only true legitimate subject for literary writing is the personal. I have absolutely rejected that for most of my life.


J&O:

In your blog you talked about armchair activists and how there needs to be action and a sense of urgency right now. What do you feel like the roles of women writers are currently, considering the political climate?


SD:

When I talked about the armchair activist, I'm really talking about myself because it seems like no matter what I'm doing, I never feel like it's enough. That was true even before Trump got elected. Since then, I’ve engaged with this intense feeling of never doing enough, or being enough. I've come to the point this far into the regime that I have begun to interrogate that in myself because doesn't that sound a lot like the same thing that they're always trying to sell to us? We're not enough? It can really just lead you to the point where you don't see the impact that you're making. You don't do what there actually is for you to do that's within your region; where you might be most effective.


Many women, smarter than I, have had wonderful things to say about this. Ariel Gore is one of those lights that I have turned to. Her talk about fascism fatigue and how we get through it is inspiring. She talks about how we should give ourselves breaks and come back to the work. How we lift each other up and then are galvanized.


I think part of what I've given myself permission to do in 2019 is to get off of half of the email lists I have subscribed to that are sending me alerts every single morning about what I should be doing. What I've done instead is zeroed in on what I think and where I can be most effective. I could spread myself thin, or I could go deep. And I've decided, at least this year, the best thing I have to offer is to go deep.



"We're strongest when we strike out in the area of our vision of the world we would want to live in"

J&O:

How are you planning on "going deep" in your work this year?


SD:

I'm doing that by editing an anthology of short fiction inspired by the work of Ursula K. Le Guin. Ursula is certainly one of the strongest voices against fascism and the destruction of the earth that we have ever had. In my work with this project, Dispatches from Anarres, I hope to both further her place in the canon. She made it clear to us before she left that the eraser that a woman faces as a writer while she's alive is preparation for what will happen after she's dead. To me this is an opportunity to help keep that erasure from happening while carrying on her work; a work that is so much of an act of resistance. I’m also working on my own book - which is really a love song to those people working on the ground to reverse climate change.


That's where I'm putting my energy this year.




J&O

Any of us who are trying to do something powerful in the environment that we're in, find it somewhat natural to feel that despair and even at times let it rule our lives. This distracts us from digging deep and really focusing on conserving our energy in order to work toward the things that are important.


SD:

We're weakest when we're always reacting, when we're always defending ourselves, when we're always staving off some disaster. We're strongest when we strike out in the area of our vision of the world we would want to live in - in actually creating what it is we want to see as the alternative.


J&O:

It's important to realize that there's not one way of being active with all of this. It's not always going to be the same path for everyone, and there is something kind of beautiful about that. Artists are often under-recognized as a huge part of the political activism sphere. Each medium of art can affect and even alter people in different ways, which is so necessary. Art has always been an important part of revolution.


SD:

I believe that every problem we have right now is a problem of culture. It's not a problem of technology. It's not a problem of intelligence. It's not a problem of what tools we have. It's the stories that we tell ourselves. So do I have a shot at being the one to change the story about manifest destiny or the fall from grace or any of these toxic stories that our culture is built on? As an individual - maybe not. But I believe as a whole, we can. It's time for those old stories to die. You can feel it in books like Lidia Yuknavich's The Book of Joan or in Leni Zuma's Red Clocks and Margaret Atwood's work. You can feel this work of culture change actually being done in real time. It's exciting to be part of.


J&O:

We've noticed that fairy tales come up a lot in your work. Tell us what you think about modern fairy tales, what their roles are and who is writing them?


SD:

I see more people working in the fairytale form than I have certainly ever seen before. Aimee Bender, Kate Bernheimer, Carmen Maria Machado are a few I would point out. These women that I'm talking about are doing something quite interesting and subversive. I see a lot of women, writing and riffing on fairy tales in short story form. We are seeing these stories gaining prominence in the literary world and many of them appear with clever, intelligent and often feminist tags. Credit should be given to Angela Carter who was a part of what kept that lineage alive in a time when it wasn't so hip or widespread. I also believe it’s true that some of these stories really have yet to filter into the mainstream, because even though fairy tales are sort of at the center of the literary world, it's probably still a bit at the fringe for the mainstream.


J&O:

Can you tell us about what you're working on at the moment, or is it a secret?


SD:

I'm actually working on two books right now. One is the sequel to my first novel, Hot Season. Hot Season is about young activists coming of age at a school that's known for its radical politics. It's sequel is about a young man who has been traveling the western United States on a bicycle while participating in the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) gig. He has landed at an urban farm community in this neighborhood in Prescott, AZ. The story is about an entire community coming together to support two young people in having a child, who were not ready for it and weren't planning on it. It's also a comedy and a very sincere satire about sustainable, intentional communities and the ecological ideal.


J&O:

You’ve spent time within alternative communities throughout your life. If you were to develop your own alternative community, what would that look like for you?


SD:

I've helped to create that community everywhere I've ever gone. That is true as well of all of the other kids who grew up in my co-op. We're very community minded people. Rather than being attracted to starting something new, like the co-ops we grew up in, we are more the sort of people who very much plug in and build a community around ourselves with friends and family. We have a big focus on sharing food and helping out in any way possible. I guess I'm not necessarily interested in creating something set apart from the rest of the world in that way. In fact, what our parents had was more of an extension of an old fashioned, even Amish sort of ideal, then it really was like a freewheeling, free love commune sort of thing.


I've been a part of so many different communities in my life. There's the one I grew up in. There was the one that I had in college. Another in the performing arts community. Later on, I was part of an urban farming community. In Portland, I became a part of the community of writers and benefited from the degree to which it's community supports each other. It's just amazing and inspiring, and continues to inspire me. I can't say that I prefer any one of these communities over the other. They're all really dear to me and they're all part of whatever it is I'm weaving next. It's really about the people who are being drawn into my life and the resonance that exists between us and what we create together.


J&O:

In your blog you mention your involvement with the circus. What kind of experiences do you want to highlight from that time in your life? Running away with the circus sounds incredible!


SD:

I spent a long time in my late twenties and early thirties not talking about this period of my life. This is mostly because the only image people had in their mind was the American circus style, like big top, big business. Now people are a little more cognizant of this grassroots circus community, which I have always been a huge fan of. I was once on the road, with this Vaudeville influenced iteration of underground circus (Living Folklore Medicine Show) and I was intrigued to find that there were circus tribes from all over the country just spontaneously rising up around the same time. We saw them coming out of Asheville, NC., Eugene, OR., and even in places where you wouldn't necessarily expect, like Kansas City. It was interesting to me as a young writer and artist, traveling around and seeing these eclectic groups.


There was a punk group that traveled with the anarchist lending library whose main performance was fire. There was another called The Living Tarot, from Asheville that was exactly what it sounds like. They did live readings with people embodying different archetypes of the tarot, and each performance was different.


The way that this experience crystallized in my life was that after I came back from being on the road with about thirteen people, by the next year it had kind of dwindled down. Half of the group had become a band. Some members of that band ended up starting what is now known as the Faerieworlds Music & Arts Festival, which is one of the bigger alternative west coast festivals.


The artistry influenced my aesthetic forever. But, what I really got out of that time on the road more than the aesthetic, was a kind of pressure cooker for learning how to deal with other people and myself. I feel like I got a PhD in relationships pretty early on in my life because you really learn to work out your issues with others when you live thirteen people on a school bus. Later on in my life, in my mid-to-late twenties, I became a director of a nonprofit organization called Tsunami on the Square, a rather odd title for a really fun festival. That was the point where I became the ring leader at the center of all of these different performing groups.


J&O:

And so what was that festival?


SD:

It's a performing and cultural arts festival. During the day, it was largely family-friendly cultural art. We had everything from drumming to folklorico dancing to big puppet theater. Our night show was definitely edgier and would have more cutting edge art forms.


Our headliner for the evening was always Flam Chen, which is this extraordinary pyrotechnic fire group based in Tucson, AZ. I encourage everyone to look up their videos online. You will never see anything that looks like this group of people. There were acrobatics suspended from giant helium balloons and so much more. They lead a big procession every year, called the All Souls Procession for the Day of the Dead in early November.


It is one of the most outrageous things that happens in the United States. It's a huge community parade with people celebrating their ancestors. It was quite a thing to have them every year up in Prescott, AZ, which is definitely a town with leftist, activist fringe, but really at its heart is a very conservative Republican community. For me, it was a great pleasure as a young woman to be the person who brought this madness downtown every year and offered all of that for free.


J&O:

Can you share some of your dreamiest memories of the Southwest, about how living in that environment and your experiences impacted you and your work?


SD:

The inherent dreaminess of this part of the world is partly in the climate. It's so hot and dry during the day that it feels like the heat of an oven, yet it cools off quite well at night. In that climate, if you don't have air conditioning, or if you're as young and poor as I was and you don't want to pay for it - you siesta. You kind of half-sleep during the day. Half-sleeping in the heat is a very good way to dream of very strange things.


The magic of this place is in the way the town sort of lights up after the sun goes down. How everybody comes out in the street. There's a synchronicity and a feeling of potential, like the night might take you anywhere (because you're very well rested at nine o'clock). If the moon was anywhere near full, it was bright as day.


It's not just human beings who come out after the sun goes down there. There is this sense of being part of a slippery community of other consciousnesses. You can describe it as a sort of liminal zone. Even though what I'm describing is a very particular season in a particular place, I think that's probably the best way to touch what I'm talking about. It has to do with the land and it has to do with native life ways. There's a spirit here that has always attracted me.


J&O: What does the word feminism mean to you?


"We reinforce and sharpen each other the more we get together and talk about these issues"

SD:

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. I certainly think of it that way, but I also think of it as a skill set. That skill set, is the ability to recognize the often very subtle forms of oppression that women and female identifying people face on a daily basis. I feel like feminism is also recognizing the work of the women who have come before you; the brilliant women who have done the work of waking up to what is very hard to see. Waking up to what many forces do not want you to see, all the way from the microaggressions, to the systemic forms of oppression, to the leaders in power even now that want us to sweep it under the carpet. Feminism is a skill set. It is a set of tools in our toolbox. We reinforce and sharpen each other the more we get together and talk about these issues; develop words, develop terms, validate and see each other.









J&O:

At this moment, who do you think are the most important women writers or artists to be paying attention to?


SD:

I'll give you five names. These are the women whose creative work, and in some cases social media presence, have kept me afloat. They have allowed me to fight the fascism fatigue, to keep the tools in my feminist toolbox sharp and have even given me the ability to laugh and feel supported.


Rebecca Solomon is just the steely eyed destroyer of bullshit. She just sees and writes so clearly on very charged topics. I wouldn't say her work is removed, but you have the sense from the way that she writes, that no one - no matter how idiotic or cruel, has ever gotten her hot under the collar. She has a coolness in her take down that I admire. It gives me strength.


Lidia Yuknavitch at the other end of the spectrum, gets hot under the collar all the time. She just says what so many of us feel, and with such a fierce love and clarity that makes you feel like it's gonna be okay. She's part mama bear, part outrageous visionary.


Clarice Lispector pulls from a long lineage of artists and philosophers. That, which I mentioned before, is part of this toolbox of feminism that I consider really important. She's carrying on the names, work and the concepts that our foremothers hammered out in the conversations moving forward.


Renee Denfeld is a writer whose work just absolutely enlarges the possible space for empathy in this world. I feel like nobody's work has opened me the way that hers has. I'm speaking specifically to her book, The Enchanted, which deals with people who are on death row. Also her latest novel, The Child Finder, which deals with horrendous abduction and abuse.


Ariel Gore always has such a clear eye on the insidious ways that patriarchy tries to keep us blind to what it's doing. She also has a sense of humor about it. There's such a sense of allowing space for the unknown in her work. For spirituality, for synchronicity to happen, and for the world to respond to our feminist, witchy prayers and magic. I find great comfort in that. There is a sense of being seen and being reminded of the sacred, magical nature of the universe - even in the company of the crap that we face every day.


"Your vision matters. It matters a lot"

J&O:

If you were able to share a few sentences of encouragement, what would those be?


SD:

Remember that even in the face of overwhelming odds, your vision matters. It matters a lot. So whatever you need to do to get to the point where you can share it and share it boldly, do that. You owe it to yourself and you owe it to the rest of us to share that vision, and to fully manifest it in the world.

















Connect with Susan:


Susan DeFreitas

Hot Season

Dispatches from Anarres Anthology Submissions