Feminism has been a major part of the cultural conversation the past few months, especially with abortion rights, women’s healthcare, and rape culture making headlines.
Alida Nugent’s second book, You Don’t Have to Like Me: Essays on Growing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding Feminism, takes on a multitude of topics, including being multicultural and finding one’s identity, the messiness and realness of sex and sexuality, and discovering how feminism applied to her life. The book is alternately serious and laugh-out-loud funny, and people of all ages will see themselves in her writing. She dares to “go there” about womanhood, sex, friendship, identity, and family; sometimes in cringe-inducing, but always honest, ways.
The day of our interview, Nugent showed up with her signature strong lipstick, friendly forthright, and quickness to laugh. In this interview, Nugent shares more about her inspirations for the book and various essays in it, thoughts on feminism and writing, and more. In addition to being a novelist, she runs the blog The Frenemy, and has been a contributor to the Huffington Post and xojane, among others.
The Rumpus: I loved this. Obviously, it’s about feminism and coming into your own as a feminist. What made you decide to choose that topic? Did it have to do with everything going on in the world right now, or something else?
Alida Nugent: Oh, thank you! I’m so glad. It was probably right after I finished my first book [Don’t Worry, It Gets Worse] that I knew I wanted my next book to be about feminism. While writing the first book, I was a lot younger and growing into myself. As I was writing it, I started kind of learning more about feminism and coming to a lot of the conclusions I came to in the book, focusing more on body image, and unpacking a lot of that stuff. But I wasn’t ready to talk about it in the first book. So I knew when I was writing a new proposal, that that’s what I wanted to tackle.
Rumpus: What are your favorite feminist books or icons?
Nugent: Well, I love Roxane Gay, of course. She’s incredible. I also love Janet Mock’s book Redefining Realness, and I recommend it to everyone. I think it’s important to speak your truth and talk about what your female experience is like; Bad Feminist and Redefining Realness, to me, are about those kind of things.
I think there’s a pressure for women to reveal themselves in a very specific way. For example, when I wrote my first book, I talked a little about body image issues, but not my own eating disorder, because I wasn’t ready to talk about it. There was so much pressure because if you’re going to talk about yourself, you have to tell everything, in the way that we want to hear it—you have to be the “good” feminist, you have to have the “good” abortion, you have to have the “good” sexual assault—these stories that are assigned to women in a very specific way. I think women talking about imperfections or talking about things in a different way, or not revealing everything, is way more important. Women don’t want to be forced to talk about anything.
I think the idea of being perfect is so “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” because if you say everything, then it’s not right and people say they don’t believe you, but if you don’t want to talk about it, then….
Nugent: Confessional, there’s a great word. (Laughs) Whereas men who are confessional are honest, moving, daring.
Rumpus: One of the lines in an essay in your book was “When people find a home, it sticks with them.” I loved this, because I’m Jewish and Italian, and I often get “What are you?” So I really loved that line and essay. How has your identity shaped you as a writer, as a woman, etc? I know you talk about identity and trying to find yourself through both sides of your family.
Nugent: We’re obsessed with labeling people by the way they look, whether it’s race or sexuality or gender. As a society, we feel the need to place people into the boxes we want to put them in, and if you fit outside those boxes, people are get concerned about it. I grew up with a lot of, “Well, if I don’t look this way, then how could I be that?” And I felt that a lot. So I think declaring who you are—and your identity doesn’t have to be only one label or one word, it can be many words—once you start assigning those to yourself and embracing them, is where you start to grow as a person. It took me a long time and it’s something I struggled with, because especially in feminist spaces, I don’t want to take away words from anyone else who should be able to speak. Like if you think about white feminism, I don’t want to take anyone’s voice away, because I do acknowledge the certain privileges I have, so I still struggle with whether I’m saying exactly what I want to say, and how I’m going to say it. I’m getting more comfortable with it and learning that this is who I am, and I will figure out the rest. It’s up to me to figure out how to fit myself in to every place I want to be in.
I think it’s important to feel uncomfortable when you’re learning a lot about something, to realize that you can be part of the problem, too. I think as a female, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not just about being a woman, it’s about being a BLANK woman, and it’s about how we fit all of those people into the story, and I know that makes people uncomfortable, but that’s good—it’s important to feel that way. Because then you’ll start listening to other people.
Rumpus: Right. Especially as a writer, it’s so easy to stick to one storyline, or one thing—but the things you read influence the things you write. As a writer, you constantly have to push through being uncomfortable. If you’re too comfortable, that’s a problem.
Nugent: Exactly—and you also have to shift. When I first started writing the book, the big focus in the media was on rape culture. But as I kept writing, the media started to focus on other issues, like police brutality, trans people being murdered—there’s a lot of stuff happening, and we have to adjust ourselves and open ourselves to all of those issues and make sure we’re talking about them, even if they don’t apply to us.
Rumpus: I love your lipstick—is that the shade you talk about in the book?
Nugent: (Laughing) It’s not, it’s a new shade from NARS, called Cruella.
Rumpus: It’s perfectly matte.
Nugent: I love it! I love matte lipstick, but I used to not get into it, but now…
Rumpus: That was one of the most interesting essays to me, because I didn’t wear makeup until grad school and even now, rarely wear lipstick, and when I do, it’s something very natural, so your essay about unnatural colors and embracing makeup was great.
Nugent: I think it’s important—I struggled a lot about liking typically feminine things, probably more before I became a feminist than after, and I think stuff that we do to our bodies that we do for our own pleasure, whether it’s lipstick or hair color, or earrings, we should embrace that and find the things we want to showcase ourselves with, and not worry so much about whether the world is going to find it attractive.
Rumpus: You do talk about a lot of personal things in the book, like a pregnancy scare—what have the reactions been of family or friends? How does that affect you as a writer? Do you share beforehand, or do you give it to them later?
Nugent: It’s hard. I think some people knew a lot of the stuff in those essays beforehand, some people didn’t, and some people still don’t know. There are some people that I haven’t had those conversations with. I always write in the mindset like I’m saying it to someone who’s been there, and I know there are so many people who’ve been in those situations. It’s so much easier revealing yourself to someone who knows you already. I’m sure I’ll have some of those conversations after the book is out.
Rumpus: I think there’s always that struggle to censor yourself as a writer. How do you overcome it?
Nugent: I think because there’s no one talking back at me when I’m writing, and I think sometimes for people, in your own life, they take your experiences personally, and they’re like, what did I do, could I have stopped it, etc. So when I’m talking to no one and sorting out my own thoughts, and no one is echoing anything back to me, it makes it easier.
Rumpus: What was your favorite chapter to write?
Nugent: My favorite chapter to write was probably the diet chapter. The diet chapter and the sex chapter were just fun for me. I could be a little silly, and I didn’t have to dissect my emotions. They contained a lot of stuff that I’d thought about for a long time, so it was easy.
Rumpus: I seriously laughed out loud at those, because girls get these sanitized versions of what to expect about these things, and it’s not real life.
Nugent: Yes! People don’t really talk about these things, even with my girlfriends! I wanted to explore the middle part. Feminism to me also includes if a guy doesn’t want to have sex, or a guy’s a virgin, I think a lot of men are of the mindset that if they don’t get a date out of an interactions, or a party without having sex, they’re a failure of some sort, and it’s like, no, you’re not, it’s just a thing people think. I wanted to talk about that, too.
Nugent: I think that a lot of times, I’m even hesitant to talk about this, because we need to talk about these female issues and they should be at the forefront, but there’s a benefit to men from feminism, too—they’re not allowed to cry, or straight men can’t wear lipstick—there are such gendered roles, and feminism is about that not having to be the case. So it’s important for them, too.
Rumpus: Do you have any advice for writers, especially female writers?
Nugent: Oh yeah! I think the advice I would give is that you don’t have to be liked to be smart or to offer something. Worry about likeability last. Say what you have to say, figure out the best way to say it, and don’t worry about who’s not going to like you because of it. The whole likeability thing slowed me down for a long time. People aren’t going to like you for some reason. Getting rid of that and not apologizing is important, because then you can start writing about a lot of things.
Men can be the anti-hero, like in Breaking Bad—for women, I think that space is a lot harder to take up. Like the show Unreal on Lifetime—these women are very unlikable, but there are things in them you can identify with.
Having unlikable aspects doesn’t make you uninteresting, or mean that there aren’t parts of you that are likable. There are “unlikeable” characteristics that are positive—being assertive, going after what you want, or being persistent – these things are good, but they can be seen as really bad. Every time I’ve called a bitch, it was because I got something I wanted, or said how I felt. These things aren’t always celebrated.
Rumpus: I think there’s something intimidating about a woman who knows what she wants, and goes and gets it.
Nugent: Yes, exactly. There’s a Meryl Streep quote that goes something like, “you have no idea what you’ll get until you quietly and assertively ask for it.” It’s a useful skill to have, asking for what you want.
Rumpus: What do you see next for yourself?
Nugent: I’m not thinking as far ahead as I was when the first book came out, but I’m interested in going into fiction. I went to school for it, and have done a lot of fiction writing. I sort of fell into essay and nonfiction, so I want to think about fiction next, because I loved it so much.
Rumpus: Do you have advice for young women about feminism?
Nugent: Young women should take a lot of everything with a grain of salt. You’re smart; come to your own conclusion on things, and don’t be afraid to take your own stance on issue. Don’t let feminism put things in your mouth. Come up with your own thoughts and feelings.
Author photograph © Virginia Ahern.