Anger Is the Engine: A Conversation with Lilly Dancyger


Five years ago, before Trump became president, best-selling author Gillian Flynn told Glamour: “You see men blow up all the time, and it’s not a big deal. But if a woman does it, either she’s crazy or she’s shrill. It’s like, you know what? She may just be angry.”

How is it that in 2019 women still have to defend their anger, or justify it?

Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger, edited by Lilly Dancyger, is an anthology that provides eye-opening and diverse accounts of an emotion that is so often miscomprehended or even worse, extinguished by outside forces. Anger is power. Anger is necessary. Anger is a way for women to make themselves heard, again and again and again. Anger is a way to force people to really listen.

I admire so much about Lilly: her commitment to editing, to teaching, to writing, to dismantling the patriarchy—not to mention her brilliant and honest opinions. We edited anthologies at the same time, so it was incredibly satisfying to finally discuss the finished product: a project I followed from the very beginning. It was a pleasure to interview Lilly to find out how she edited such a vital collection, and what surprised her along the way.


The Rumpus: In the introduction to Burn It Down, you write: “This anthology is an invitation. It is twenty-two writers saying to you what I said to them: ‘It’s okay, get angry.’ Come rage with us.” Do you feel like we’ve finally reached a point where women’s anger isn’t always misunderstood?

Lilly Dancyger: I think we’ve started to make some progress, but there’s still a very long way to go. We’re moving toward a larger understanding that women are full, complex, multidimensional human beings who have every right to set boundaries and to get angry. Most people now would probably agree with that statement, but too many will also balk when they see a woman actually expressing anger. Even more so if that woman is not white, straight, thin, and conventionally attractive.

And even when I say “most people,” I’m not even sure that’s true—most people I interact with, most people in socially progressive circles, most people in New York City, most people on leftist and literary Twitter… but there are still a lot of people out there with pretty fucked-up, retrograde ideas about gender and feminism. The only time I ever interact with people who still think women should always be sweet and pleasant and accommodating, should “submit” to their husbands or whatever, is when I have a tweet perform well and the trolls come out. Recently I made the mistake of tweeting something about politics and it had enough reach that I got some comments about how I’m “just an angry feminist” and it took me a second to realize these people thought they were insulting me. Like, hell yes I’m an angry feminist; aren’t you?

Rumpus: I’d love to hear about your own experiences with anger, both as a child and an adult. How has anger evolved for you over the years? Do you see it as fuel for your creativity?

Dancyger: I think the biggest change in my own relationship with anger is that it used to be something that would consume me, and now it’s just something that exists inside of me, alongside sadness, joy, love, and all of the other emotions that make me human. I used to be angry all the time, in a way that was overwhelming. I think that’s more likely to happen when we feel like we shouldn’t be angry, when we’re fighting against it, getting angry at ourselves for being angry—focusing too much on the anger itself, so concerned with getting rid of it that we don’t stop to look at where it might be coming from. When we fight against anger, it only gains more power. But if you embrace your anger, give it space to breathe, it loses some of that overwhelming force. And yes, now that it’s not so overwhelming, I definitely see my anger as fuel—creatively and politically.

Rumpus: You work as an editor for Narratively, Catapult, and Barrelhouse—and you’re a talented writer! How is editing an anthology different than the other work that you do?

Dancyger: You know, when I first took this project on, several people warned me that editing an anthology is a lot of work. I figured, eh, whatever, I can handle it, I’m used to multitasking and being overworked at all times… but it turns out it really is a lot of work! It’s very different from editing one-off essays for publication, where you’re focused on making that single essay the best it can be (and contending somewhat with the publication’s style). With an anthology, you want each individual piece to be excellent and to be true to its writer’s vision, but you’re also creating this larger work, looking at the bigger picture of the whole book. In some ways, it’s closer to the work I’ve done writing my own manuscript than it is to my other editing work—in that you’re always working in the micro and macro simultaneously, zoomed in to polish each section of each essay, but always thinking about how it will all come together. Except that unlike when you’re writing a book, you’re working with other people’s words and ideas! So, you’re building something out of other people’s material. It’s a little mind-bending, but also so fun and exhilarating when it all starts to fall into place.

Rumpus: Can you talk about how anger plays a role in your own writing? I’m thinking about your memoir and your column on fallen women at Catapult, plus the incredible essay on the aftermath of your cousin’s murder that was just published by Longreads.

Dancyger: Anger is definitely central to my writing. With my memoir, Negative Space (which is forthcoming from the Santa Fe Writers Project in 2021!), I thought I was writing about grief. The book is about my father, who was an artist, and a heroin addict, and who died when I was twelve years old. And it was only in the process of writing about my childhood, and my loss, that I discovered that underneath all of the grief was a whole lot of anger! I was angry at both of my parents for not getting clean sooner; I was angry at my father for not taking good enough care of himself to stay alive, and angry at him for dying; and I was angry at my mother for not stepping up to the challenge of raising a grieving, angry teenager on her own. It was like I was digging into what I thought was rock, but I dug deep enough that I found hot lava. I had to write through the anger, and figure out what it meant for me, before I could finish telling the story.

That’s something I learned in the process of editing Burn It Down—how often anger is hidden under other emotions that it might feel “safer” to express. In my case it was grief, but it can also be sadness, fear, guilt…

Rumpus: What was the most surprising discovery you made as you put this collection together?

Dancyger: I don’t think there was really anything that came as a huge surprise, but my ideas about all the different forms that anger can take were deepened and expanded. I knew that anger sometimes hides inside of other emotions but reading the different essays about anger masquerading as guilt, or depression, or coming out as rage tears, or illness, or superseding fear, gave me a new appreciation for how powerful anger is. It really doesn’t go away when we ignore it—but it can turn into so many different things. Over and over again in these essays the idea kept coming back that there’s no way to successfully ignore anger, or shove it down; the only way to free yourself of it, or to harness it, is if you let yourself feel it. I think that’s why it’s so maddening when our anger is dismissed or misconstrued as insanity, or “hormones.” Dismissing it doesn’t make it go away, it just pressures us to try to swallow it, and then it comes out later in surprising, often harmful ways.

Rumpus: I keep returning to this quote from Nina St. Pierre’s “A Girl, Dancing:”

Girls are carrying too much. We are spilling over, top-heavy and destabilized, but praised for our maturity and adaptability if we take it, denigrated if we do not. Trained not to rage, we work in code, our bodies the medium. We eat anger and quietly metabolize it to keep you comfortable.

This idea of self-sacrificing and of holding things in in order to keep the peace is something that has been perpetuated over and over again. How do we stop spilling over? How do we stop eating anger?

Dancyger: It’s definitely easier said than done—there’s so much conditioning, so much social expectation to undo before we can stand firmly and say when we’ve had enough. But I think that’s what’s starting to happen, with the Me Too movement, with growing awareness of the unsustainable expectations of silence and accommodation that our culture puts on women. Part of it is an internal awareness and conviction that we need to develop on an individual level—the ability to even notice when we’re doing it, when we’re eating anger and smiling through things we know are not okay. Being aware of it is the first step, and then building the collective courage to speak up. Which is part of what I want this anthology to be: encouragement and strength in the form of solidarity. But a lot of the work is also external and cultural, making space for women to expand.

Rumpus: In Reema Zaman’s “My Name and My Voice,” she writes: “When I’ve felt—when I feel—anger, it is spurred by witnessing and experiencing injustice.” Whereas her husband at the time got angry over things related to his ego. I can’t help but think of a universal anger many women feel that we see reflected in important moments like the Me Too movement. Is anger necessary for social action?

Dancyger: I think so, absolutely. Social action is demanding, draining work. It’s so much easier to go about your life, accepting the world the way it is, shrugging off problems that aren’t directly impacting you right at that moment. To stand up and demand change, and face the ridicule and resistance that you’re bound to face for making waves, and to persist through setback after setback, to keep your eye on the goal when it feels impossible—that takes serious strength and grit and determination. You have to really want to make that change you’re fighting for. And to care that much, you have to be angry about the status quo; you have to find it absolutely intolerable. Anger is the engine that makes you keep fighting when it would be so much easier to give up.

Rumpus: Audre Lorde gave a powerful speech on anger and racism in 1981. She said:

It is not the anger of other women that will destroy us but our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment.

Can you talk about anger and privilege and where we’re at with that in 2019? What has changed, and what has stayed the same?

Dancyger: That speech is so important and so timely, even though it’s almost forty years old now, that I included it in my What to Read When list. We definitely have a long way to go in terms of exactly which women are “allowed” to express anger. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I follow the Democratic primary. I’m a big Elizabeth Warren fan, and one of the things I love about her is how passionate she is—and the fact that she’s a woman who is publicly seen as “passionate,” which is how men who are righteously angry are usually described, while their female counterparts get “shrill” or “bitchy.” But as I revel in her righteous anger and the fact that it’s mostly seen as such—that her campaign feels like a great step forward for the public perception of women’s anger—I also know that the reactions would not be the same if it were Kamala Harris speaking the way Warren sometimes does when she’s fired up. Harris has an extra layer to contend with, of not just misogyny and not just racism, but the caustic double bind of racism and misogyny together—they combine to make something even more oppressive than the sum of its parts.

Rumpus: Rebecca Solnit wrote a great piece for The New Republic in 2018 on several books recently published about women and anger. She says:

I have often been struck by how some of the people who have the most grounds for anger seem to have abandoned it, perhaps because it could devour them. These are the falsely accused prisoners, farmworker organizers, indigenous rebels, black leaders, who are closer to the sage than to the samurai in our story, and powerful when it comes to getting things done and moving toward their goals.

Is this something that you’ve noticed as you worked on this anthology?

Dancyger: Anger is exhausting. That’s the thing. It takes a lot out of a person to burn with rage, especially when it’s a righteous anger at an injustice that isn’t going away overnight. When you live with the kind of constant, deep anger that sets in when you first learn how fucked up the world is and then never goes away, you have to let yourself set it down and take a break once in a while. Otherwise it will drain you of all of your resources. This was the context in which the concept of “self care” was first introduced, and though the phrase has since been co-opted to sell sheet masks and manicures, being gentle with yourself during battles that will last your lifetime is still the context in which self care really means something. Letting yourself express anger when you’ve been wronged is important, tapping into anger to keep fighting for social change is important, but so is giving yourself permission to stop and take a breath once in a while, to go out and live your life and experience joy, even when the anger is still there, too.

Rumpus: While reading your book, I was reminded of one of my favorite novels, The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, a short and blistering book about a woman whose husband leaves her. In a piece for the New Yorker published in 2013, James Wood wrote: “The literary excitement of The Days of Abandonment lies in the picture it gives of a mind in emergency, at the very limits of coherence and decency, a mind that has become a battlefield between reason and insanity, survival and explosion.” So often anger is associated with being unreasonable. But anger is more than reasonable in many situations. When is anger justified?

Dancyger: Writing someone’s anger off as irrationality is the best way to avoid having to address whatever it is that’s making them angry, and that’s exactly how women have been denied their anger for so long. Telling us we’re being irrational, emotional, too sensitive, hormonal, crazy, etc. etc. etc. is exactly how society has conditioned women to contain our anger. We know that if we express it, we’re less likely to be taken seriously, even when we have every reason in the world to be furiously angry. I don’t have the answers for how to get over that roadblock and reach a place where a woman can be angry and still be heard, but that’s exactly the crux of our current challenge. I think the most important thing we have to do is refuse to be talked out of our own anger, refuse to let that doubt in when we know we’re right to be angry and someone tries to tell us we aren’t.


Photograph of Lilly Dancyger by O’Malley Studios.

Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and the editor of the critically acclaimed anthology What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, published by Simon & Schuster. Currently, she is an MFA student at NYU, where she is the recipient of the Stein Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Tin House, Gulf Coast, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and other publications. She teaches creative writing at NYU, The Sackett Street Writers' Workshop, Catapult, and Stanford Continuing Studies and is the founder of the Red Ink reading series. More from this author →