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.
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.
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?
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.
How are you planning on "going deep" in your work this year?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Can you tell us about what you're working on at the moment, or is it a secret?
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
And so what was that festival?
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.
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?
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?
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.
At this moment, who do you think are the most important women writers or artists to be paying attention to?
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.