Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Brief Interview with Writer Lesly Arfin

A young Lesley Arfin (some time in the 90's)

In the 1990’s, before the internet was a thing, first and second generation Riot Grrrls read reviews of zines written by other Riot Grrrls who lived on the other side of the country (or sometimes even in England or Canada), and would sent their $1.25 + 2 stamps price to order these zines, and 9 times out of 10, this (losing) business transaction led to a penpal relationship.  It was amazing.  A lot of the RG rhetoric at the time waxed poetic on the concept of a “girl army”, and while these penpal relationships may not have been a tool of some militant action towards gender equality, it was a very wonderful and amazing network that could not have existed without Riot Grrrl.  I still remember how exciting it was to get the mail everyday (I did a zine with a fairly large readership, called Sweetheart, from around 1993-1997), just how special it felt to have my dad hand me all these wildly decorated envelopes from around the country.  I don’t romanticize my youth much, because it was too rocky to idealize, even through the powerful, distorting lens of nostalgia.  But when I think of all that Riot Grrrl mail, goddamn do I miss those tacky 1990’s and that rocky youth.

Anyway, that is how Long Island NY Lesley Arfin and Playa del Rey CA Robin Crane came to know each other, as penpals connected through zines.  Of course, the friendship faded eventually (they all did, but that was okay – it was sort of part of the whole thing).  

Cut to the mid-2000’s and me perusing one of husband’s issues of Vice Magazine.  I love/hate Vice Mag, but the hate part of that equation is much stronger – I hate their whole Terry Richardson/Richard Kern girl-humiliation aesthetic, all the photos of barely legal models doing private things like pooing or putting on panty hose, purposely humiliating imagery like that, which runs absolutely rampant in that mag.  The thing that I happen to love about Vice, though (or the old Vice anyway, with the original staff), is that the art and writing contributed by the female staff is as disgusting as that of the men.  There’s no expectation for the womens’ work to display any more humanity or tenderness than that of their male counterparts – a gender equality gross out. 

Anyway, I excitedly noticed that Lesley wrote a column for Vice, “Dear Diary.”  Then, in 2007, this column was put into book form, also called Dear Diary, and is a totally fun read, especially for people in our age group.  Since the publication of that book, she's been a contributor and editor of some blogs (see for a complete picture of her creative career), a staff writer for seasons 1 and 2 of the HBO show Girls, contributed to several blogs, and currently, a writer for season 3 of the MTV show Awkward.

Lesley and I got back in touch recently when I came across an old photo of her  that I wanted her to see.  She agreed to be interviewed, so I emailed her some questions, and voila.  One thing I learned though is that it is a little flat to interview through email -- in the future, and/or if I were more tech-savvy, I think an ideal method of interviewing would be through Instant-Messaging, so, live and learn, but I find Lesley important to the current (counter)cultural landscape and am glad she submitted to being email interviewed, and here it is (I'm calling myself SR for "Sweetheart Redux" and her answers are indicated by "LA", her initials, natch):

SR: There was a ton of controversy surrounding your racial comments (about black people) when you and the other writers of Girls were being questioned about the lack or black actors or even extras in a show that takes place in the racially diverse NYC.  Can you explain your philosophy about the dialectic of race?  In one interview, you said that you loved the power of the word “nigger” and you couched this comment in a discussion of how powerful words are in general, but obviously you knew you were making a controversial statement when you said that.  I feel it was a deliberate decision of yours to answer that way, but can you explain your aim with such a response?  What was your goal with stirring up all this controversy, instead of taking steps to prove that you are not racist in all these debates that came your way?  And in retrospect, are you glad with how you handled things?

LA:  [no response]

SR:  Tell me about the show you’re writing for, season 3 of Awkward.

LA:  It's a teen show about an awesomely awkward girl that airs on MTV. If you want to know more you can search it through Wikipedia.  

(editor's note:  so I wikipedia'ed it.  Here is the paragraph about the show's plot:  "The series is based around social outcast Jenna Hamilton who, after receiving a "carefrontation" letter, has a legitimate accident, though it appears as if she tried to commit suicide. By making changes and embracing her misfortune, she becomes well-known to her peers through her blog. After losing her virginity to the popular Matty McKibben, Jenna continues a secret relationship with him due to his embarrassment of her. Jenna later begins to develop a relationship with Matty's best friend, Jake Rosati. Jenna ends her relationship with Matty to be with Jake, and both eventually agree to not tell Jake about it. Jake falls in love with Jenna oblivious to her lingering feelings toward Matty and his best friend's feeling towards his girlfriend. Towards the end of the second season resident mean girl and Jenna's nemesis, Sadie, exposes the relationship to Jake who then breaks up with Jenna. Matty goes to Jenna's house to comfort her and they end up kissing. Jake, realizing he had made a mistake breaking up with Jenna, also goes to her house and witnesses the kiss. What then follows is a public fist fight between Matty and Jake later at school and their eventual make up and a decision to force Jenna to choose between them.")

SR:  In your book Dear Diary, you often speak directly to your family (your dad, in particular, as I recall) – did the publication of the book, or the fact of your parents reading it, change your family dynamic at all, and if so, what’s it like now? 

LA:  I don't know how, if at all, my book changed my family dynamic. My parents have and always will be incredibly supportive of me and my endeavors.  

SR:   Is it hard to maintain sobriety?  How important is it to your life?

LA:  It is hard and it is the most important thing in my life. 

SR:  Favorite:  movie/book/actor/director/actress/food

LA:  Movie: Poltergeist
       Book: The Secret History
       Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio
       Director: Nicole Holofcener
       Actress: Cate Blanchett
       Food: Bread 

SR:  Do you have celebrity crush and if so, who?  And why!

LA:  Leonardo DiCaprio because he is so hunky and talented and I love him in every movie he's ever made.  

SR:  Do you still identify as a feminist, and if so, explain your particular take on feminism?

LA:  Yes I'm a feminist. My particular take on it is less talk more rock.  

SR:  If you could be anything in the world including something magical like a wizard from Gryffendor house, what would it be? 

LA:  That's so broad! I guess I'd be a magical Bodega cat.  

SR:  Who is your hero?

LA:  Joan Rivers/I don't really have one. 

SR:  Does your Judaism have any bearing on your life or identity? 

LA:  Yes of course. I am Jewish. I can't imagine being any other way and wouldn't want to be.  

the end.

Lesley in a parallel universe as a bodega cat

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