Blue-Eyed Cunt: Inga Muscio and Writing Autobiography Left of the Genre
Inga Muscio has been called many things. “Überfeminist,” one moniker used by the press, reveals the discomfort she creates with her use of autobiography. The label is effective, though, because its use implies a fear of the outspoken female and, for this very reason, it tells the truth: Muscio is outspoken.
In her first book, Cunt: A Declaration of Independence (Seal Press 1989), Muscio invites readers into her head while she rips open the socialized sexism at the core of her world view. The wit and genuineness of her narrative creates intimacy—readers come to terms with the reality of oppressive social mores while Muscio enacts the confrontation. She’s like the big sister who stood in front of you while you dressed down the bully. This ability to invite shared space is a step away from the autobiography in its bestseller form, which often asserts a heroism that relies on transference. Theme is often imbedded in a reader response that includes envy of and admiration for a protagonist. A reader suspends personal experience in exchange for that of the author. Fed through Muscio’s point of view, the autobiographical voice encourages readers to trade in the heroic gaze for the possibility of personal experience.
Muscio’s inability to stick to literary rules has left many reviewers stymied by her voice. They appear not only insecure about her subject matter, but seem irritated by the failure to place her work within the confines of genre (or hierarchy). Her most recent book, Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil: My Life and Times in a Racist, Imperialist Society (Seal Press 2005), is such a thorn. Muscio tackles the learned response of white privilege by confronting the manufactured American historical memory that she was socialized to replicate. Her presence on the page reveals a wildly innovative writer and a skilled thinker. Muscio’s work has attracted a dedicated and growing audience. Once Cunt hit bookstores in 1998, readers launched Muscio into the lecture and reading circuit with bullet train speed—a journey that has lasted from the 2002 release of an updated and expanded second edition of Cunt (Seal Press), to the present with Blue-Eyed Devil. Muscio is again writing while on tour, and, as evident in the following recent interview, may not be the hero of her busy life, but she is clearly its architect.
TL: I was first introduced to your work in the 1990s in The Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly. When did you first start writing? Give me all the bio things you probably hate to answer.
IM: I started writing when I was a kid. Words fascinated me endlessly. Reading was (and remains) as much a part of my life as writing. The Random House Dictionary was often present at the family dinner table and I consulted it on my own in just general, daily life. I guess I decided to seriously become a writer not long after my younger brother was killed in a car accident. Writing was my deepest, quietest place, and when my brother died, I needed that shit bad. It was the only thing I trusted. My love could be snuffed, but no one could take writing away from me.
My brother died during my first year at The Evergreen State College [in Washington State]. Since I was pretty much unable to function on any social level and had ample opportunities to write, I spent the next few years learning every aspect of writing that I could think of. One of the things I really got into during this time was the interview. I was so filled with grief and got so fucking sick of living with my grief that I became obsessed with getting people to tell me their stories. So, when I graduated from Evergreen and moved to back to Seattle, it was just natural for me to find a newspaper that would publish my interviews. I worked for The Stranger for over a year before one of the editors, Christine Wenc, convinced me to write essays and articles. At that point, I’d mostly enjoyed writing fiction, poetry and, of course, interviews. Writing non-fiction was a form of punishment to me. I associated it with school assignments. Odd as this may sound, it never occurred to me that non-fiction had personal creative merits. I mean, so many writers wrote nonfiction, I understood it contained creative merits, just not for me. It took me weeks to slog through non-fiction books. If reading one was a chore, writing one was perfectly unthinkable. I think maybe I never really wrote a long bio before because writing is, literally, my life. I don’t have an impressive education, I haven’t won awards, I forget where I have been published in the past and I am still, to this day, kind of scared of nonfiction books. It seems like bios are always about accomplishments. My main accomplishment is that I figured out how to turn grief and other traumas into writing good books that people enjoy reading. It is also a big accomplishment to be alive, and writing is single-handedly responsible for keeping me that way.
TL: When I read Cunt, I remembered some of its contents from your columns in The Stranger. Were the columns intended as excerpts from the book, or did the book emerge from the columns?
IM: It happened like this: I quit working for The Stranger because I thought they sucked ass. In a fit of rage one day, I fired off this email telling them explicitly why and how they sucked ass. I was not very familiar with how email worked and I was in the habit of hitting the “command + s” keys to save my work. So, I fired off this scathing email and then I was going to think about whether or not I should really send this out to every employee. I hit “command + s” to save it, but “command + s” meant, uhm, send, and not save. That was an email signed, sealed, and delivered whether I liked it or not. In a daze, I walked home and took out hard copies of every article I had ever written and laid them all out on my kitchen floor. On the top of almost every page the word “cunt” stared at me. You see, this one time, I left out the “o” in “count.” I’d gotten in the habit of writing “word cunt” instead of “word count.” I didn’t realize the mistake until my editor asked me about it. I thought it was so hilarious that I started omitting my name and writing “word cunt” on all the hard copies I turned in each week. So, to sum up, I just quit the paper in a totally ungraceful way, I was pissed and sitting on my kitchen floor looking at all these articles with the word “cunt” on them, and I saw the book quite clearly. All the articles you mention were skeleton chapters. The bones of Cunt were sitting on my kitchen floor and I saw that my new job was to add a bunch of meat.
TL: When you began adding the “meat,” did you find that your writing process differed between writing journalism and creative writing? Tell me about the differences and/or similarities between your approaches to these forms.
IM: Well, like I mentioned a bit in the bio, writing fiction and nonfiction are entirely different processes. Writing on the computer is totally different than writing by hand, which is completely different from writing on a manual typewriter. Writing in my journal and writing book parts are completely different activities to me—as different as baking cookies and snowboarding. Journalism and nonfiction book writing are somewhat related, but neither have anything remotely in common with writing down my dreams or a poem.
I’ve talked to a lot of writers about their process and, thus far, I haven’t met anyone who makes the distinctions I make and vice versa. In a very small way, every author I know writes an outline before they write a book—if not an outline, then at least a table of contents. It is physically impossible for me to do this. First comes a title, and then I figure out what the book is by writing it. As I write, a table of contents starts to unfold. Outlines never happen. I could maybe now write an outline for Cunt, but it will be years before I could write one for Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil. I think this is what happens when you really get into something. It’s like fractals and the mathematical impossibility of measuring a coastline. To me, a scientist is a scientist, but dang, a nuclear research physicist and a geographic biologist sure as fuck would take me to task on that statement. For that matter, an ancient Egyptian geographic biologist and a South Central Los Angeles geographic biologist could spend their entire lives listing the different processes involved in their respective fields. So, I am probably doing a shitty job of answering this question, but in order to tell you exactly how these processes differ, I’m compelled to describe the borderline o.c.d. distinctions that I make in my head. I’m not against doing that or anything, but it seems like it would be like listing intricate neuroses that would only be understood by other writers who have similar processes.
TL: Try this one: you reveal in Blue-Eyed Devil that many of its themes and ideas came from writing Cunt. First, tell me about what it was like to have one work pushing through while another was on your fingertips. How did you satisfy the urge to write Blue-Eyed Devil—or did you—in order to finish Cunt? You toured extensively on Cunt; how soon after its publication did you start work on Blue-Eyed Devil?
IM: You ask good questions, girl. Okay, let me think. There’s a chapter in Cunt called “Acrimony of Cunts.” It’s about some of the ways women learn to hate on each other. So much of this learned acrimony is rooted in white supremacist racism, and white supremacist racism is such a huge, huge thing that I had a difficult time just sticking to the relatively small point of this chapter. At the time I was writing this chapter, I recognized what I can only describe as a huge spirit that had been with me all of my life. At the time, I saw that it had the power to completely sweep me away from finishing Cunt. So I made a deal with this spirit and I promised I would serve it if it would allow me to finish what I had begun. You know that song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia?" It was one of my uplifting theme songs while I was working on Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil because after I had made the deal with the spirit while writing that chapter in Cunt, that spirit left me. This occurred during only that one chapter, not the whole book. Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil was always there in my life. It is the specter of white supremacist racism that influences pretty much every aspect of the culture I grew up in. The act of writing Cunt—and specifically that one chapter—led me to a place in my head where I was able to describe this specter in a way that was eventually discernable. After I made the deal with that spirit, it did not visit me again until I was planning the book tour for Cunt—almost a year after Cunt came out. So, I was touring and reading and thinking. Then I started doing a shitload of research and writing before I ever really started working on Blue-Eyed Devil in earnest. It was almost seven years before I finished writing it.
TL: The publisher comment for Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil reads, “. . . it's Muscio's turn and she's taking it in order to hip the masses to the truth about the American history they think they know.” Although clearly not as hip, I would describe your prose style as stylistically adventurous while the tone is conversational and intimate. Tell me about your prose style—in other words, what informs your narrative voice?
IM: You know that poem “Desiderata” [by Max Ehrmann]. There’s the lines that say, “You are a child of the universe / no less than the trees and the stars; / you have a right to be here / And whether or not it is clear to you, / no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.” My mom had this poem hanging in our kitchen and I read it the whole time I was growing up. It meant that I’m like a cell on the face of the earth and so is everyone else. I could be either a beneficial cell in some way or I could be a pathogenic cell. But, either way, I am just this one cell. Obviously, I didn’t want to be a pathogen, so I figured out a way that I could be beneficial. Of course, this is a total value judgment because there are millions of people in the world who would undoubtedly view my writing as quintessentially part of the problem. But, since I have a right to be here no less than the trees and the stars, like any aphid or ladybug, I do what instinctively feels best to me. I think that I—no more or less than any one else taking space on the planet—have a place in the natural order of things. This is a huge preface to the answer of your question, but this is the fundamental perspective that informs my narrative voice. If I think what I think and write about it, then it must matter in some way or else I would never feel compelled to think what I think and write about it. This applies to every vocation, passion, and thought pattern in existence. Some are beneficial cells, some are pathogenic cells, and in my very, very limited scope of the universe, value judgments and all, I strive for the former.
TL: Yet, the literary hip of your prose style, as the publisher comment above suggests, provides a tremendous amount of authority for many readers. How do you feel about the hipster currency of your prose style and its influence on authorial credibility? Some might say it is the central device that establishes the authority of the narrative. Do you agree? Why or why not?
IM: If people identify with my words in certain ways then that is because, in the natural order of things, my thoughts resonate deeply with thoughts that many other folks have flitting around their consciousness. I think my words resonate deeply in many people’s hearts (whether negatively or positively) because they come from deep in my own heart.
My credibility lies in that authenticity and, I suppose, that translates into meaning; I have credibility with folks who are responsive to the authenticity of words, songs, and films that come from someone’s heart.
TL: Tell me about your choice to frame the subject matter of Cunt and Blue-Eyed Devil as autobiography. How would you explain your use of the hero or protagonist? Do you feel you cast yourself as the hero of the narrative? What do you feel separates your use of autobiography from the scripted forms found on many bestseller lists?
IM: I have tried to have heroes, but it always involves building someone up into a completely unrealistic identity that no human being could ever fulfill. Inga-as-hero just cracks me up. I mean, I smoke cigarettes and I cuss a lot. I am an asshole in so many ways it would be difficult to even narrow it down to a top ten list. That being said, I place myself as the hero insomuch as I believe everyone has the right to take up space on the planet, and since I seem to be a writer taking up space on the planet, then naturally (though I know this is inherently redundant), this is the medium through which I enact my right to take up space on the planet. Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil was thus named because it struck me as a humorous and possibly dubious homage to Malcolm X. His writing had a deep effect on me when I was young, and I turned to his thoughts many times in my life. It just seemed fitting to go off of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. That’s how I came to the actual word “autobiography” and the title. The book itself, however, is about how deeply white supremacist racism resonates in my life, in the lives of everyone, regardless of a person’s race. The only way I knew (and still know) to communicate this is through my own experience. It seemed oxymoronic to write about such a huge and deeply intimate reality with a purported, constructed objectivity. I have never been able to wrap my mind around the concept that personal and political can be eviscerated from one another.
TL: In The Dartmouth Review, contributor Andrew Grossman attacks the literary credibility of Cunt by criticizing what he calls your “lone academic credential” as an “undergraduate.” He reassures readers that the students of Dartmouth “are applying” his brand of “rigorous intellectual standard” when scrutinizing the work from what he calls “the phallus brigade”—his term for literature from a “feminist movement” that “without questions of justice and equality to occupy it, finds itself at loose ends.” Although Grossman’s view of “justice and inequality” for women is embarrassingly dull for one paying such steep tuition, I’d like you to respond to the academic credibility argument. Certainly Grossman fails to exemplify the evolved academic, but your work is controversial due to both theme and your use of autobiography: you’ve used personal narrative to take on socialized patriarchy in Cunt and socialized white privilege in Blue-Eyed Devil—gasp! There are writers battling with this type of elitist thinking that might like to know how do you deal with such jaded and vindictive reviews? And, on the other hand, how does it feel to create a work that has such an impact on readers?
IM: That Andrew Grossman was such a coward. He showed up at all of my events and pretended to be interested. Soon after he wrote that stuff about me, Sister Spit had a show at Dartmouth. Sini Anderson and Michelle Tea made him the thematic butt of their jokes for the night and called him “Andrew Little Gross Man.” Your question kind of reminds me of how pissed off Sister Spit was at Andrew Little Gross Man. I know his words annoyed you for your own reasons, but I still feel kind of loved and cherished that he inspires such rancor in you. So, thanks for that. My initial response to Andrew Little Gross Man’s review, or whatever it’s called, has served as a frame of reference for pretty much all kinds of academically couched ill will. It’s cowardly. I’m like, “Meet me on neutral territory and let’s go toe to toe Little Gross Man. We’ll both bring a camera and sound crew and meet in a parking lot. I’ll debate your tired ass into profound unconsciousness.” I mean, what’s up with slinking around my events, asking me questions and taking notes, and then turning around and writing this scathing shit in the safe confines of a dorm room?
TL: Your response to elitism, in general, is bring it.
IM: I say, “Bring it on you cowardly little bitch. Face me with your thoughts. I’ll tear you up into bite sized rhetorical pieces.” I’ll go toe to toe with any of these fucking cowards. I’m not well-educated. It’s no surprise to me. I hated school until I got to Evergreen—where I could design my own classes. I have no qualms with that judgment. It means nothing to me. Why? Because I am a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars, I have a right to be here. The Little Gross Men and Women are pathologically invested in the idea that only certain kinds of (white) people have the right to take up space on the planet, but my mom fucked any chance of that belief infiltrating my life when she hung that poem up in our kitchen. I get emails all the time from people who have never in their lives even considered reading a serious book, and tore through one of mine in a week. I get emails from folks with learning disabilities thanking me for inspiring them to read an entire book from cover to cover. No Ivy League education can hold a candle to that kind of shit. I am educated on my terms, and there is no honor that outshines an email from a 16 year old boy who stole Cunt from his sister’s room, expecting to find some smut, and instead finds that he looks at the entire world in a completely different way. And then, on top of that, taking time out of his life to email me and thank me. This disconnect has followed me around since I first got published. The “authorities” at The Stranger could not understand why I was so popular with readers. They edged me out little by little, pooh-poohing the things I wrote about, shunning the space I took up in their paper, and meanwhile, readers never faltered in enjoying my writing. I’ve learned to stick with my readers.
TL: It sounds like the writing life has had an incredible impact on you, Inga. How liberating is it to historicize your experience through your work as a nonfiction writer?
IM: I’ve been writing since I was old enough to hold a pencil, so it is difficult to pinpoint changes. I’ve evolved as a writer, certainly, and my relationship with writing is, as ever, in flux. The writers, musicians, and artists that move me and educate me and inspire me to reach epiphanies are always those who come from a very personal and intimate place. That my writing might serve someone in this same way is humbling as fuckall, and, at the same time, also my ultimate intention. It’s not so much that I find historicizing myself liberating, which I do, I do, but it’s more like in order for me to keep living on this planet and taking up space, I am compelled to speak my little tiny (beneficially cellular) truth that exists on an incomprehensible continuum of little tiny truths. Writing is how I cope and function, and it is not nearly as unhealthy or counterproductive as many such mechanisms. I feel humbled and blessed that me and writing found each other when I was so young. I would have been a junkie, sociopath, or suicidal if writing didn’t take hold of me when it did. I guess the writing life is always changing me, but mostly it keeps me present and accounted for. This is also why I laugh at the cowardly Little Gross Mans in the world. I know words very well. I don’t know a lot of things, but give me a noun, a verb, and an adjective and, together, we’ll fuck some shit up.
You can find out more about Inga Muscio at http://www.ingalagringa.com.