The Rumpus Interview with Lily Burana
Lily Burana is the founding editor of Taste Of Latex, the author of stripper memoir Strip City and Western novel Try. Lily’s latest book, I Love a Man in Uniform, just released, is a memoir of her new and somewhat unexpected status as Army Wife in a time of war. Lily is also the founder of the world’s only burlesque school for Army wives, Operation Bombshell.
The Rumpus: There is a sense that becoming a military wife was a step into a foreign culture and you mention reading up on the available literature on the topic to prepare yourself; when you were writing the book did you have a particular reader in mind, were you consciously writing it for other military wives or for whom?
Lily Burana: It certainly was a step into a foreign culture for me! Given how alienated much of America is from the military nowadays, I understand that it is, in fact, a foreign culture to many. People always asked me tons of questions about being a military wife, and I welcome that curiosity. In some ways, I treated the writing of this book like the writing of a travel guide—Here’s what it’s like in This Strange, Exotic Place. I very much wanted to give total access to my life as a new Army wife, and take people through every step of the entry—from meeting my (future) husband and finding out he wasn’t necessarily anything like what I’d imagined an Army officer would be, to how you assimilate into the Army bureaucracy after your wedding, to the aches and pains of deployment, moving, and even post-traumatic stress disorder, which doesn’t visit every military household, but sure made itself a place in mine! So, I definitely had an investment in reaching out to civilians who are curious about what it’s like to be a modern military wife.
Additionally, I wanted to reach military girlfriends/fiancees/wives who would be interested in a book that goes beyond the readily available “How-To” books. There’s so much more to being a military wife than the mechanics of moving, deployment, reintegration (that’s what they call it when he comes home after deployment), and meeting and working with other soldiers, wives, and their families. There’s a whole emotional world that has largely gone unexplored in literature. That was what interested me most. Granted, it’s different for every military wife—there’s so much variety and so many different ways your life as a wife can go—that there was no way anyone could write “THE” military wife memoir, but there were certain things I wanted to express that I hadn’t yet seen expressed in any of the existing books that are more “how to” than “what it feels like.”
Rumpus: In your blog you mentioned the recent spate of fake memoir scandals making things difficult for memoir writers like yourself. Was establishing your bona fides in this book complicated by the necessary confidentiality of military affairs?
Lily Burana: You know, not really! That’s largely because if something is truly confidential, as in classified, even *I* don’t know it. As far as OPSEC and PERSEC (Operations Security and Personal Security), there wasn’t anything included in the book that violated Operations Security. It was okay to write about my husband’s deployments because they were in the past, so no one was left vulnerable and writing about it didn’t compromise anything. I do take certain precautions around personal security that I will leave out of the interview because it’s, um, you know, a security issue! Suffice it to say, what I write about is easy enough to verify—my husband really was deployed, and came home, and we really did live at West Point. When push comes to shove, it is VERY hard to sustain a lie about a military career because those claims can be verified, or disproved, with a minimum of effort.
There is, however, the not-small matter of writing about other military people and their business. I was careful to disguise people who appear in the book. One woman’s husband had an affair—or at least telling evidence of one at the time—and women I know keep coming up to me going, “Oh my god, it’s so-and-so, isn’t it?” And I’m proud to say they’re always wrong. That’s a gray area I’m happy to let be. And if you really need proof about my life, I’ve got it, right down to my therapist’s phone number and my DEERS card (military dependent’s ID).
Because my husband has 20 years experience as a military intelligence officer, he possesses a wealth of information that I will simply never have access to. It’s kind of like being married to one of the Men In Black, except the uniform is camouflage instead of a slick black suit and big shades. He doesn’t have a memory-erasing Neuralizer, though. If he did, there are a couple bad outfits that I would have had him erase from my memory.
Rumpus: In I Love a Man in Uniform you say; “Nowadays, you can’t watch a movie, TV show or video without some reference to stripping.” Do you think that stripping has entered the mainstream and lost its shock-factor? If so what has allowed this to happen and is it for the better or worse?
Lily Burana: It has edged closer to the mainstream as a titillating visual effect, but by no means is it a non-controversial business. There’s more visibility now than ever because of music videos, the Internet, and even pole dancing classes taught to housewives, but there’s only marginally more acceptance. I don’t think anyone, particularly a woman working as a stripper, should be naive about this. As a pop culture hook, we’re all “stripping? been there, done that.” But in day-to-day life, it can still carry a hefty social tariff and present a real professional liability down the line if you move into a more conservative career like teaching or white-collar corporate.
Rumpus: It seems like dozens of stripping memoirs sprung up in the wake of ‘Strip City’, is there any angle you would like to see in books about stripping that has not yet been approached?
Lily Burana: I’d like to see one by a woman of color. What’s up with all the whiteness?!
Rumpus: Your description of the strip club visit in Uniform is a little sad and you leave the club “thoroughly depressed.” Would it be accurate to say that you are somewhat disillusioned with the industry and the “Starry-eyed cultural critics (who) insist that in a strip club, the dancer has all the power”?
Lily Burana: Wow—that was just a spectacularly crappy night at the club. I think anyone with a beating heart would have come out of there feeling down in the dumps. That said, I’m still a big believer in the “art of the dance,” so to speak. I think stripping well is a genuine talent—not one that I possessed, I freely admit as a clod-hoppin’ fool—and there are some wonderful dancers out there who deserve full credit for their ability to entertain, enchant, and amaze. And I will never think differently about that. It hasn’t changed from the first time I ever saw a real strip club floor show in Las Vegas when I was nineteen, sitting slack-jawed at the bar with my “I’m Underage” bracelet around my wrist. A good stripper is a delight to behold.
I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly entranced by the business or social dynamics of stripping, like, ‘WOW, it’s so amazing and healthy for everyone and, by golly, nothing ever goes wrong! It’s just fun, fun, fun in a sparkly dress!’ I started in the sex industry in the days before it was even remotely “cool” (arguable status, even today) so I was never “illusioned” enough to become disillusioned. I think I’m now more candid about what’s good, what’s bearable, and what sucks.
Rumpus: What is your best stripping memory?
Lily Burana: Oh, there’s some real competition here! At the moment, I’m missing Alaska, so I’ll say the current best memory is the night I saw a stripper in the dressing room at The Great Alaskan Bush Company (I’m not making this up. Great club in Anchorage!). She had this HUGE black bruise on her thigh, so I asked her, carefully, what it was, and she was all, “Oh, I was shooting some nudes in this big stream that was full of salmon and one of them kept bumping into me!” It turns out that in late July, silver salmon, which are very aggressive, are milling around in streams and things, waiting for the perfect temperature to begin their spawn. They’re very feisty fish, and they can grow to over 20 pounds, so with one of them all hopped up and agitated swimming at you repeatedly, you can end up with a bruise the size of a softball.
For some reason, I cherish the memory of this girl nonchalantly telling this story of being so invested in taking nature pictures that she tolerated getting roughed up by a bored salmon. I don’t think that happens to accountants.
Rumpus: In Try you write about ‘Buckle Bunnies’ and in I Love a Man in Uniform there is mention of ‘tag chasers.’ Is there an equivalent in the stripping world?
Lily Burana: Yep. They’re called “customers.” Haha. Sorry, couldn’t resist! I know, I’m terrible.
Rumpus: In Uniform you describe tour buses pulling over to point at the cadets at West Point “as if they were set dressing, and corral them into posing for pictures”, this reminded me of certain points in Try where the rodeo cowboys were impelled to put on something of a show for the tourists looking for the ‘West.’ I got the impression that there was a kind of romantic idea about both the cowboys and cadets, quite different to reality; did you notice any similarity between the West and West Point in this respect?
Lily Burana: Sure! We simply love our Mythical Manly Men—cowboys, soldiers, firemen, policemen (wait, is this starting to sound like I’m describing The Village People?). I’m always, always interested in the truth behind a myth—even a mythic identity, and separating out the threads of truth and fiction that sustain that myth. A myth can’t survive without its element of truth, but there’s always so much that stays out of view most of the time, and I like teasing that out. I’ll never get tired of it—it feels like the ultimate detective work.
We respect, more than anything else, men who work very hard, however, I think we lose sight of how hard these Manly Men really do work—usually tirelessly, often thanklessly. That doesn’t mean they’re not proud of what they do, or that they’d trade it away for something easier, but I’m interested in those unguarded moments when they’re not fulfilling the image requirement of their uniform—be it camouflage or chaps—and showing something else. Something more authentic to how they feel as an individual, in a particular moment, or series of moments. When they break out of the role.
Rumpus: In one chapter of I Love a Man in Uniform you describe relationships between women and the women in uniform that they love, are you optimistic for advances in the acceptance of same sex relationships within the military?
Lily Burana: I am optimistic. The military is a huge organization that is conservative on many levels, and therefore moves slowly and cautiously, however, that doesn’t mean that change is out of the question. It’s simply a matter of pacing, timing, and governmental support. In the past decade, we’ve seen such tremendous movement in our culture toward acceptance of same-sex relationships, I feel that the military simply will not be able to ignore it as an issue. One of the things that surprised me most as an Army wife was seeing how many otherwise “conservative” soldiers have a very progressive, tolerant view of their fellow soldiers who are non-heterosexual and struggling to make their way through their career within the constraints of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Rumpus: Is Operation Bombshell still going strong? How does one get you to teach a burlesque class on base?
Lily Burana: Op Bombshell is very much alive and well! I just received a generous donation from a Secret Hollywood Source, and Pin-up Girl Clothing in Los Angeles is hosting a big burlesque benefit with Diablo Cody as a special guest in Los Angeles on May 15th. I teach at the wives’ request, so it’s really no more complicated than a wife emailing me with her interest in setting up a class and the two of us figuring out when and where to host the group. I don’t do a background check or anything—if you tell me you and a group of friends are all waiting at home for your deployed husbands, I believe you!
Rumpus: What are you writing next? And do you intend to return to writing fiction?
Lily Burana: I’m doing the silliest thing possible–I’m writing a screenplay. Fiction, of a sort. I’m calling the project “COMING SOON (to a slush pile near you!)”