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Susie Bright, writer, teacher, performer, and activist, is the author of more than a dozen books and editor of over twenty. She has written for dozens of mainstream and independent magazines and hosts the popular Audible podcast “In Bed With Susie Bright.” Bright taught the first university course on pornography and is a pioneer of sex-positive feminism and women’s erotic publishing. She in the co-founder and editor of the first erotic magazine created by women, On Our Backs, which remains a milestone in feminist literature and women’s erotica today. Bright, also known as “Susie Sexpert,” has been hailed by The New York Times as “The Avatar of American Erotica.” Bright’s continued influence in the development of social movements in the United States are well-known amongst artists, writers, critics, organizers, politicians, pop-icons, and anyone else with their finger on the pulse of the changing social and political landscape in the United States and abroad.
Susie Bright’s new memoir, Big Sex Little Death(Seal Press), takes readers on a powerful journey from Bright’s beginnings as a young high school activist working with the legendary underground newspaper, The Red Tide, to her life as a teacher, renowned sex educator, and parent. I met with Bright in the East Village on the first leg of her book tour to talk about the writing process and the state of feminism and queer politics past and present.
So how are you?
I’m just getting that first hit off of hearing what people think [of the book] because it’s so new. One of my exes said, “My neighbor bought it!” and I was like, “Uh oh… a complete stranger? Wonderful.”
Was writing a memoir a terrifying thing for you? When I was at CalArts I often heard folks in the writing program saying how scary writing a memoir seemed.
That’s where I did my very first “How to Read A Dirty Movie” seminar. Later on it became this big freaking deal, and I did it in huge theaters all over the United States and Europe. It started when a bunch of avant garde film students at CalArts in the 80s came to see my lover, who did a slideshow called “How to Read a Dirty Picture,” which for me was really instrumental in learning how to look at pictures with a queer eye and a historical eye. Later on we were hanging out with the students, who were all showing each other [all these] weird sexual ephemera that we had on tape, and [they were] talking about it. These kinds of conversations are so great because no one was talking about underground sex movies. By underground–I mean both porn and also anything that wasn’t in the mainstream theater. There had never been any mainstream journalism or scholarly work on the subject, nothing! And it’s all because of my visit to CalArts– that inspired me! I wish I knew what happened to those people. There were a couple of them that were so brilliant.
I remember hearing from my peers there, especially from fiction writers, that writing a memoir is so difficult and they can’t understand how an autobiographical writer does it. And then on top of it, to write about sex just seems terrifying. You talked in your introduction about the best-selling women’s memoir out there right now, which all seem to be about dieting or movie star tell-all books, while memoirs by men tend more to be about “some guy climbing a mountain with his bare teeth.”
Yeah, I almost wish I hadn’t taken a peek [at the bestseller list]. It was like, uch! I’ve been writing autobiographically for so long, one of the issues was how not to repeat something for older faithful readers who are going be like, “Hey, I already bought the last twenty books, I don’t need to re-read [this].” Plus it would have been kind of boring for me. And on the other hand, I am not as household a name as Madonna. I can’t just assume that everyone knows my past. I tried to talk about the part of me that very few people would know, my family of origin, my life before On Our Backs, or the notoriety, or how the lesbian feminist movement brought me [to where I am].
In the beginning of your book you write, “There’s never any misunderstanding about broken skin.” And then you describe an exercise you did with students in which they had to draw pictures of “offensive” sexuality and they produced pictures where everything was raw and open, and it was like if there was an orifice to be penetrated, it was penetrated violently. And then in the end of the book, that final image of the finger going through the bubble without the bubble popping, was just such a beautiful bookend!
It really clicked it shut for me in the most simple and subtle way. Having just come from a chapter in the book where there was a lot of talk about Andrea Dworkin, it was such a great metaphor for reinterpreting the act of penetration. In that way, your story seemed to be a memoir of integration rather than one of enduring violence.
Well, that’s very touching to me. It’s not contrived. I had the same click thing that you had. I was looking at pictures of those first few days in Santa Cruz and there are these cute pictures of her [Aretha, Bright’s daughter] with her giant bubble thing and she was so excited.
I still enjoy bubbles.
I do too!
So is that how you knew you were done? Because the book doesn’t start right in the beginning of the story, we’re starting in the middle.
This is kind of writerly boring shit, but I’ve been trained to make your point in one thousand words or less, two thousand words or less, five hundred words or less, and I never had to fill 400 pages and then come out the other side. The thing that appealed to me was writing one of the scariest, most confrontational pieces first. The part about the Detroit stabbing [Editor’s Note: In a chapter titled “Commie Camp,” Bright recounts the stabbing of one of her International Socialist Party comrades]. I’ve never written anything like that before… and I knew it would be challenging to write because just like in a dramatic sex scene you need to watch from the inside, get really close and observational with your little camera. I [went back to] this bloodiest, most violent story again because I wanted to see how the parts had me chilled to the bone. It was sort of fun, exhilarating, and scary to start with a dramatic piece. And then I started filling out the Red Tide era. And then I wanted to talk about my parents. I procrastinated about On Our Backs for the longest time!
Um, I was cranky…(laughs) Well, not all of it was crankiness. Part of it was the love I had for my Red Tide comrades and the respect I had for my parents. I was bursting with that. And I couldn’t repeat myself, I had to bring something new. And lots of these people are still around today so the pain factor was up there. Although as I started going through it, I realized how many people died. That certainly gives perspective to all this.
Not that much time has passed. But enough to have some hindsight?
I look in the paper and see how feminism is discussed in either this really elitist dilettante sectarian way, or now the Christian fanatics are into it. I can’t help but think about the time when radical feminists started making allegiances with Evangelicals and the damage done because of that. It destroyed a certain kind of generational passing of the torch and the openness of the movement. [It destroyed the agreement] that we’re not going to capitalize on each other. We’re not going to be like, “I’m sorry, I have money from the democratic party. This tiny, little, minute piece of the ribbon and I’m going to hold on to it and not share because I’m terrified, and I’m just barely holding on to my slip.” That’s what’s really going on. It’s happened to every movement—like the Black civil rights movement. Everybody’s discussed this and feels, “Ugh, we’re so predictable. We’ve seen it in history a million times before. Why are we doing it again?” It’s maddening.
You have my daughter’s generation who are like, “Well I don’t know if I would say I’m a feminist.”
“Oh really? Well I’ll just let you grow up a little bit, then you’ll find out.”
I was just listening to your podcast where you interviewed Erica Jong and she was saying she used to believe we were 50% there, but now she realizes we have 100% of the way to go.
Oh yeah! And imagine me, I thought all this stuff happened when I was coming of age and it was like, “OK! Brand new dawn! Kick ass! This is just the beginning!” I had no idea it was a bright shiny light that then faced this unbelievable backlash. Plus, internal dissention over sexuality tore me apart. It was hard to face all that. People ask me if it’s still happening today and I’m like, “Yeah, like yesterday, like this morning…”
Like right now.
Like right now.
When I was teaching I noticed that even amongst young, energetic undergrads the question still came up in class about whether or not we need feminism. And I’m like, really? It was just shocking to me.
Well it’s interesting, I go running with a group of women and a new younger woman just joined. She’s a grad student and she told me she just became aware that she’s a feminist this past year. She’d thought, “Well yeah, I guess my mom needed that, and it’s all done, and I’m doing really well in my studies and la la la.” And then the professor, who got [this younger woman] some big thing like a grant or money, that does big things for [her] and helps make [her] career happen, and suddenly [the professor] wants to sleep with her. And she’s supposed to understand that that was in the cards and she’s like, “what?” And she’s 29 and she’s just having these “a-ha” moments.
That’s very telling.
In some ways I think upper middle class girls might have a sense of being protected and then having a big surprise. Working class young women intuitively understand all of the barriers right off the bat.
Are we going backward? When I hear things like that it’s hard not to buy into the notion of progress as this linear progression of events and we can go backward or forward…
No, I don’t believe in that. There’s a famous Roland Barthes quote where he talks about this doll that’s just this round shape and you push it down and it comes back up and you push it down and it comes back up, and this kind of surrender and collapse and going backward… Socially radical movements that happened centuries ago were bitching and moaning about the same stuff we were.
How do you think all those anarchist feminists felt during the Bolshevik Revolution and they were like, “we love everybody.” Talk about a backward step. How about the people in Egypt—there’s a sexual revolution going on there. All the women who are so outspoken and so out there, they put everything on the line. Everything.
I get weary and bored. I’m so fucking bored by mainstream popular culture and in a way that’s one of the frustrations. I used to just live for music, what was on the radio, and now you have to go out of your way to find your music and to find your films and your stories. They’re never going to be on The View and they’re never going to be on Oprah and you’re never going to see them on American Idol. No, they’re not going to be there.
Yeah, but even within the gay community we now have popular gay icons.
You know, we were just talking about that with someone the other day, so often a gay icon is about gay men. I was saying Liz Taylor was such a bulldagger icon. I don’t know a butch woman of a certain age who’s not just devastated. She meant so much as one of the great femmes of all time.
And in a culture saturated with pop icons, even gay ones, it’s harder to find smaller grassroots efforts.
This reminds me so much of the Sister Spit tour. All of these women, none of whom at the time were any big deal. I mean Michelle Tea’s name was a little bit known, but this whole, “let’s get in a van and go on a road tour!” and I’m like, “Yeah I’ll go!” and you see it, and you’re like, “these people are awesome! and so inspiring.” I live for those kinds of moments. It’s a tremendous sacrifice on their part. Maybe someone will say that about my tour. I mean it’s just me, so there’s no six people eating one thing of Top Ramen…(laughs)
There are so few communities like that who seem so fearless and radical. There was one point in your book where you were talking about this group of young feminists in high school and you describe them as so “game” for anything and to explore and see, “where their clits would take them.”
A lot of what is a hot topic [concerning] gay issues in the culture is really gay culture for straight people. I mean, the core of the issues themselves are legitimate: bullying, AIDS, gay bashing, gay marriage for that matter, or the military. They’re not illegitimate, it’s just that the way the circus spectacle [works], there’s no real cultural avant garde. What if we’re not just like, “Save me!”
So, what are you going to next?
I’ll be spending the day with Audible. I got to read my whole book out loud. We made an audio book and that was a real treat. Just sit there and read it front to back, holy shit, that was really something. I loved it.
Did you have to practice?
I’ve done a lot of audio books, so I was looking forward to this one. I just couldn’t do any of the accents.