My Interview with Susie Bright, Sex-Positive Feminist
Susie Bright, sex-positive feminist, writer, revolutionary, and my first tongue-kiss with a woman recently released her memoir Big Sex Little Death.
Her book’s epigraph is courtesy of Norman Mailer: “At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the whiffs I get from the ink of [women writers] are fey, old-hat, Quaintsy, Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn.”
Susie and I talked over matzo ball soup about being fey, old-hat, Quaintsy, Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, and bright and stillborn, although we didn’t know what half of those terms meant. But we talked about this stuff anyway while we knitted tampon cozies and discussed what our g-spots mean to us.[Everything in brackets is my editorial adjustments post-interview.] [Like this: I interviewed Susie in March, and since then, I’ve been trying to put sex, power, and feminism into a sense-making machine. I came up with all sorts of stuff, including a second part to this interview called “I Need You to Want Me,” a fictional interview tentatively titled “Brief Conversations with Hideous Feminists,” and non-celibacy vows. I want to thank Susie for taking the time to help me, and by extension you, understand the messy intermingling of writing/life/sex. There is a lot of wisdom here, and I hope it reaches you in the same way it reached me. Look forward to Part II, if I ever get the ovaries to publish it.]
Part I: In Defense of Memoirs
Elissa Bassist: In the first sentence of your preface, you ask a rhetorical question; I want to ask it now, non-rhetorically: “How does a woman, an American woman born in mid-century, write a memoir? The chutzpah and the femmechismo needed to undertake the project go against the apron. I was raised with ‘Don’t think you’re so big.’ Yet to be a writer at all, you have to inflict your ego on a page and stake your reputation. To be a poet, the effect should be transcendent, and disarming.” How does a cocky woman write such a ballsy memoir?
Susie Bright: I always wrote autobiographically. But when you get to be a certain age and you’ve had some adventures or had some influence or have been a part of social change and saw the earth move—when you see consciousness open and you experience a tectonic shift in social awareness—you want to write about it. If you’re mindful of the legacy and revolutions you witness, if you think that legacy or those revolutions are important—and why wouldn’t I unless I had amnesia?—you want to write to them down. I wanted to write them down. The passing of a generation, the death of my parents, the maturity of my child, the loss of many loved ones before their time—those things add up to a kind of perspective that I didn’t have as a younger person. I had the practical luck of being a published author not too long after my parents died, and I thought how funny—great timing. Some have asked me if I felt like only now [after my parents’ death] that I can let the real dirt out of the bag. Of course there is a freeing aspect, although I meet people all the time who feel like it doesn’t matter how many people die, they can never write.
I’ve also had a lot of influences—there have always people I’ve looked to who made me say, I wanna do that some day. I read the biography of Emma Goldman and thought Yes! I’m going to do that some day.
Bassist: [This is how I feel about Susie Bright, especially right now.]
Bright: And I remember Judy Grahn, a famous feminist writer in the 70s, who edited a collection of women’s adventure stories called True to Life Adventure Stories. I remember reading that book several times—those women made things happen. They had massive Jack London-esque—or rather—Jackie London-esque lives.
Bassist: Sorry to interrupt, but “Jackie London” reminds me of Shakespeare’s sister in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own; I love it, go on.
Bright: [Grahn’s collection of women’s adventure stories] weren’t suggested diets or whiney complaints about how you didn’t get the right shoes for high school prom or VH1-behind-the-scenes redemption stories—all of which I wanted to avoid [in writing my memoir]. And I certainly wanted to avoid those snore-a-thons that truly famous women have published that make us put down the book and say, “Well, I’d love to know what Hilary Clinton and Madeline Albright and Dick Chaney’s daughter really have to say, but I’ll never find out reading this book.”
Bassist: —best-selling books that say nothing, that reveal no great truth—books that are made for money or promotion rather than to unburden the writer or enlighten the readers.
Bright: [Right.] I’ve always been influenced by great memoirs or by women who drew on their lives to write fiction or other media. As I explain in the introduction to Big Sex Little Death, I did some marketing research to see what the bestsellers in women’s memoir are today. I wasn’t ready for it. I just thought I was dumb and didn’t know some really great books on the market that I’d been overlooking because I’d had my hands filled with erotic fiction. I’m just out of touch, I thought. Then I researched, and I found out, no, I’m not out of touch.
Bassist: They’re not there.
Bright: They’re not there. It’s weird [that great memoirs by women are] not around because transgressive frank sexual fiction from women is some of the best writing I’ve found [Susie has edited the Best American Erotica anthology every year since 1993]. I wanted to address the sexuality of my life as an integral part of my life, as a narrative, a moving part of the story that was not “kiss-and-tell” and that was not [at this point in the interview Susie mimics a sexy, smoldering, orgasm-faking voice] And now [breathless] on page 200, the thing you’ve been waiting for…my GIANT PUDENDA, as Erica Jong would say. I saw [Erica] this morning and because she was famously criticized by austere London publications who referred to her protagonist in Fear of Flying as a “mammoth pudenda,” I’m always saying to her, It’s The Giant Pudenda Show with Erica and Susie! [game-show music imitation].
Bassist: I picked up O, The Oprah Magazine when I was in an airport last summer, and I flipped to a section called something like “The Reader’s Bill of Rights: Things You Don’t Have to Read” [exact title not remembered and/or banished from memory]. One of the “Rights” said, “You don’t have to read a memoir written by someone under 35,” regarding the trend of young women writing memoirs. Are memoirs written by anyone under 35 less valid? If so, shit.
Bright: You could be 10 or you could be 20—a memoir can be about one day, and if you do it well, who is to mess with you? I have been writing creative nonfiction all along about small moments in passing, and I think it’s perfectly legitimate.
Bassist: Have you read Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters? Johnson was Jack Kerouac’s lover, but more important, she was/is a writer. In the introduction to the 1999 edition of Minor Characters, Ann Douglas writes, “In 1951, the poet Sylvia Plath, then eighteen, recorded in her journal her ‘consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors, and soldiers, barroom regulars—to be part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording…to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night’—precisely the experiences On the Road would celebrate six years later. Plath knows, however, that she can do none of this, because ‘I am a girl, a female, always in danger of assault.’” Plath couldn’t go on the road, and she could not have the same adventures men had. This isn’t a question; I just want you to say something reassuring.
Bright: You have the crazy adventures that come with bleeding every month from puberty to menopause. Also, when everything fell apart with On Our Backs [the first women-run erotica magazine and the first magazine to feature lesbian erotica for a lesbian audience in the United States], I met a guy at the laundromat and we decided to move to the south of France on a fucking whim with no more than French 2 in my high school background—that was wild.
Bassist: That’s wild! But you’re wild. [I am editing this from my bathrobe on a Friday night; I am not wild. Also, my male friend says this about menstruation: “If I had to bleed out my insides because the POTENTIAL FOR HUMAN LIFE was being SCRAPED OFF the walls of one of my internal organs. . . . My god. We get kicked in the balls (which are hardly internal), and we have to make a joke in every single movie EVER MADE to raise awareness about HOW MUCH THAT HURTS. No, no, fuck that. You win.”]
Bright: I’ve been able to live another life. It’s always been an issue I’ve had with my daughter—who is a bit more intuitively a homebody than me. I lived like a vagabond, and I imagined that there’s something amazing if you just turn the corner.
Bassist: I took a yoga class the other day, and the teacher spoke about why we do the work we do in our day jobs, hobbies, relationships, etc. She said it’s important to give everything away, lose it all, relinquish what you have and who you are, because only then do you have the space to be filled again. The notion of why write clicked into place: we tell our secrets and write about our most intimate experiences because we feel we must give away what we want to receive from the world. For example, I don’t have a lot of sex/love, but I write about a lot of sex/love, and I realized that’s because I’d like to have a lot of sex/love. Now you’re going to tell me sex and love aren’t the same, and I will tell you, “No, I guess they are not. But they’re both something I wish I had a lot more of.”
Bright: [Laughs at me.]
Bassist: I love how you explain the relationship between loss and sex in your book: “Every loss uncovers an edge about why we persevere in spite of the empty space. Sex—its quixotic vitality, not its banal marketability—is one of those things that make you feel like I’m not done yet.” Everything about sex makes me feel like I’m not done yet. Sex makes me worry. Writing about sex makes me worry. Write your obsessions, some say. I’m obsessed with worrying I’m a woman who writes too much about men. Why am I not writing about the economy or science or climbing this mountain—and, more important, is that okay? I’m struggling between being okay that I’m not climbing a mountain and being I’m okay with writing about my “interior landscape” and feeling like that’s just as valid—writing about relationships is just as valid as writing about going up a mountain, which feels almost exactly the same, metaphorically.
Bright: What did you think John Updike was writing about all those years?
Bassist: His lack of a menstrual cycle?
Bright: Relationships. Anyone working as a writing teacher sees an eager, young writer and sees the way they’re going to impart the intensity of their first draft; it is almost always like this: I was really, really, really scared. And then I was very, very, very upset. And then it was like so so so intense you wouldn’t believe it…!! Young men and young women do this. As a teacher, your role is to say, “I believe you, but I need you to do this without using a single adjective or adverb and certainly not ‘very’ or ‘really’ and never ‘intense.’”
Bassist: [So very and really and totally true.]
Bright: [I tell my students] You need to turn on your little camera and tell me everything that happened; you be a little tape recorder and tell me what people said, just the way they said it, and how they tucked their hair behind their ear, how their coat fell on the sidewalk. And then let’s see if I can feel the things that you remember so vividly. When you talk about women being criticized for writing a relationship or utilizing an emotional point of view, you’re right, it’s absurd [the criticism]. Every man who’s covering anything where an intimate relationship enters the scene does it too though, and so it’s about who does it well and do you transcend the cliché?
I think in some of the service writing we do for popular periodicals, we see women’s writing with predictable conclusions designed to sell you a product. For example, a magazine has an advertiser who’s selling hot tubs and they need a kinky story about sex in a hot tub, but you can’t tell them anything bad that happened in the hot tub because the advertiser will pull the ad. This actually happened to me—I had a hilarious hot tub story where there was a little tiny thing that went wrong—but it was not an indictment of hot tubs, I swear. [Laughing] I’ve had stories killed because Hanes Pantyhose didn’t like it. Instead of blaming it on women’s writing, why not just say it’s advertising and commercial motivations that readers don’t even know about that go behind some of the stupidest things you read?
Bassist: I am comfortable blaming advertising.
Bright: Think of all the times you have read a book—let’s leave the magazines aside for a minute—and you feel like you can hear the fight going on between the editor and the writer. The editor says No one’s going to read that! You need to add this part or it will never sell. The writer cries, Oh! Oh, why, why, no, please and then gives in. It’s often ugly. The author may or may not be correct or her experience may not have been as riveting as she had hoped, but who would know with the kind of debate she was facing, a debate that wasn’t over the credibility, integrity, and the vitality of her writing, but rather some deep counter notion of what’s going to sell on Tuesday for 99 cents. No one really knows what’s going to be a hit because the last thing that was a hit was a surprise. It’s always the surprises where everyone is says Oh my god, that’s so incredible–why didn’t I think of that first?
Bassist: I have a teacher who said anyone who gets in the canon did something that wasn’t in the canon.
Bright: There you go. See? I wish I had said that.
Bassist: It takes courage to find out what you’ve found out. Writing is often a political act. I recently saw Susan Rosenberg speak in New York. Her memoir, An American Radical, is about being a political prisoner in her own country. I thanked her at the end of her reading—I thanked her for reminding me to fight. She spent 16 years in prison because she believed guerilla movements were just, that the U.S. government was responsible for a lot of violence, that 400 years of racism needed a revolution, and that achieving power demands putting people in motion. She said things like: “The more they fear you, the more they respect you,” and wondered aloud, “How do you change yourself without losing yourself?” Big Sex Little Death is also a book about fighting; at one point you wonder, “Why had people formulated revolution so long ago, yet nothing, nothing had changed?” Why do women still make 75 cents to the man’s dollar? Why are so few women writing for late-night television? How do we save Planned Parenthood? What do we have to do to get everyone to believe that broken bones and bruises do not define rape? What can you tell people who want change? What can you tell me? How do we do what we can with what we have?
Bassist: Believe in ourselves?
Bright: No. No. You look at your material conditions and get Marxist about it. It’s not some ephemeral what if theory—it’s asking Where are you right now? Where do you live? Who do you see everyday? Who is in your neighborhood and in your workplace and in your family. Who do you interact with and what do you deal with? What’s a vulnerable soft spot in that whole mix that also appeals to you that you’re ready to tangle with or subvert or form a response to as a writer? What is your fight?
You never walk into some random restaurant and walk up to the cook and say, So, we have a good idea what’s going on around here, and we need to organize and we’ve got a whole plan for you. Instead, take a fearless inventory [of your own life] and listen to the other people around you and be inspired by other women who are doing what you want to see more of out there—it’ll be inevitable to think to yourself, Do we have the talent and a few hot ideas and just a little bit of extra time where we can publish something online or make a few copies at the Xerox shop? How many of these revolutions have happened because of the Xerox store? Let it out. Try something. What might happen?
Bassist: Let’s say I’ve Xeroxed my revolution; how do I get people to read it?
Bright: [Follow these instructions] Open your address book that includes everybody you’ve ever known in your whole life. Send them a letter that’s going to bring tears to their eyes and make them howl with laughter—they absolutely have to see it; they have to read it; they have to send you a dime; they have to be part of it.
Look at what’s happening in the subways everyday here [in New York]—those amazing musicians who are busking—I’m a [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted] next to them. Why don’t I go down there and read chapters out of my book and see if I have the nerve to deal with the public? Take the Hyde Park Speakers’ approach and get your freaking crate and speak truth and power.
Bassist: In your early career as a journalist in school, you had renegade ideas about writing news, making news, and then writing about the news you made: “The merry headlines of The Forty-Niner celebrated sports team wins and a new candy machine at the campus bookshop. Everyone on the editorial staff was serious about being a journalist, but their idea of big-time news was covering a fire. My take was that you started your own fire and people covered you. Then you wrote a blistering editorial!” You remind me of that which is easy to forget. When I publish something online, it’s off the main page by the end the next business day. So I think: is it over? Is my revolution over for the week?
Bright: It’s not over. You show it to all your friends. A ripple effect begins. If what you write has something that catches people’s eye and is something they want to talk about or it’s something they have been thinking about but couldn’t articulate, you’re off and running. You have to remember I was doing these kind of things when my name meant nothing to anybody. There will be people at the reading tonight who knew me as “Sue B. Last Name Unknown; byline: none,” because you weren’t allowed to take credit for anything you wrote when I started writing. I’ve found that you can get people to pay attention to you when you don’t have your name on things and when you’re not the least bit legendary just by paying attention to what’s going on around you and stealing moments.
Bassist: Speaking of moments, do you remember our first kiss? [We had just met at Literary Death Match, a reading series in San Francisco where I was the co-host and she was the literary merit judge. At the beginning of each Literary Death Match, I ask the judges a question onstage to get to know them better. My question to Susie Bright: “I am a feminist. You are a sex-positive feminist. How do I become one of those?” She answered by tongue-kissing me onstage in front of 500 people, including her partner and daughter.] That was the highlight of my career.
Bright: It was very impulsive on my part.
Bassist: You started a ripple effect, like what we’re talking about now, because then I made out with Brian Boitano and Lemony Snicket. You were the best out of all of them.
Bright: You said that to Brian Boitano backstage! I heard you! You’ve said that to both of us now, you better know…
Bassist: You were the only one who kissed me with tongue! The boys were prudes.
Bright: I remember thinking, Her lips are so soft—and we’re onstage, so I have to show off.
Bassist: So, was I your best kiss ever?
Bright: You were definitely my best new kiss. I’m not going to diss my familiar kisses, because they’re special, and I don’t want you getting me in trouble.
Buy Big Sex Little Death and explore your own sex-positive feminism.