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Lorrie Sprecher’s fiction stars women whose lives are propelled by a passion for activist culture and an almost painful compassion for the disenfranchised of the world. For Amanda, the protagonist of new novel Pissing in a River (The Feminist Press), a love of punk rock and distaste for U.S. foreign policy drives her to take shelter in England. There, she finds her way toward friendship and romance while forming a band, keeping tabs on her lifelong obsessive-compulsive disorder, and dealing with fallout from the rape of her partner, Melissa.
Amanda is funny and, when it comes to standing up for her beliefs, not afraid to be intense—qualities shared by her author. Sprecher took the time to talk via email about her new book, the next two she has planned (one a sequel), and her thoughts on being an American at a time when advances in gay rights coexist with dramatic steps backward in reproductive rights and national policy.
It’s clear that certain of your protagonist Amanda’s experiences mirror your own life story—being an activist with ACT UP, forming a punk band, and so on. What influenced you in deciding to turn this material into fiction instead of memoir?
I don’t really have any interest in writing memoirs because what interests me most about writing are my characters. All of my writing starts with the characters. Then I use things from my own life in order to put my characters into a story that ultimately ends up in the form of a novel. I feel I can be much more honest in fiction because I am not constrained by facts. What is true for me is the spirit behind the story.
I will say, however, that everything I write is possible. My fiction is very accurate and I do a great deal of research to make sure everything makes sense in terms of time, place, events and descriptions. Everything could have happened exactly as I wrote it, and I can’t swear that it didn’t or that it did.
One thread running through the book that caught my eye is the connection between mental illness and its political context: that feelings of depression and guilt might have a lot to do with the state you’re living under, for instance, or that certain obsessive-compulsive thought patterns might interfere with your life but might also give you the sense that you really do have the power and the responsibility to make change in the world. Does that seem like a correct reading? Any further thoughts on that connection?
Mental illness is very political because of who gets to define what normality is and because psychology and psychiatry are often used as tools for repression. In fact, psychologists helped create, implement and defend America’s torture program. I write more about that in my next novel.
When someone is in unnecessary pain because of a mental condition and is unable to function well, this, to me, is mental illness. But the context in which our brain chemistry exists and in which mental illness exists is important. In my experience, psychiatry is about offering individual solutions to what might also be collective problems. If my character is clinically depressed within the context of America bombing Afghanistan, should she only seek an individual solution or should she also engage in direct action to change the situation? And I’m not saying that will erase true mental illness, but I think, in many cases, it could be very healthy.
Amanda mentions at one point that the idea of a political punk lesbian seems like a contradiction to many people. Can you talk about the barriers you’ve seen between those communities or identities?
I’m not sure why being a punk and a lesbian-feminist seems odd to some people. I think punk is perceived as a very aggressive, male thing, and that isn’t the whole story. First of all, the music is so uplifting, political and angry, I don’t know why all feminists don’t listen to it. Women in our culture have so much to be angry about, so why aren’t we embracing our anger more?
I remember in the seventies when lesbians started putting out overtly lesbian music—so-called “women’s music”—and I just couldn’t relate to it at all. The idea of going to the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, pardon me for the sacrilege, was my idea of hell on earth. Camping and women’s music, oh, my God. And the whole woman-born-woman, discriminating against transgender women thing—well, of course I boycott it. I didn’t sign up to become the genitalia police. People told me that at Michigan, I wouldn’t be allowed to listen to any music with men’s voices in it. Is that true? I guess I’d have to secretly listen to the Clash through headphones.
One remarkable thing about Amanda is that, despite her sort of picaresque trajectory through life, she has an incredibly strong sense of who she is. She already has this fully formed lesbian identity as a teenager, and, especially, she retains her punk-rock outlook and ideals all the way into middle adulthood—the 40-year-old punk woman is not a character we see too often, I think. Can you talk about the ways in which punk culture has and hasn’t changed around her (or has changed since the time period the book covers)?
I really felt the climate change around 1984, the year the Clash broke up, when more mainstream people started getting involved in punk. It wasn’t the cozy, leftist environment it had always been for me. There were these aggressive men who didn’t seem to know what punk meant, trampling people in mosh pits.
But punk has also remained the same for lots of people who stay true to its original sentiments and politics. I love watching punk in other countries where the scene is still fairly new. It is a very liberating and exuberant thing.
The book ends in the middle of the Bush years, which is part of the reason Amanda’s horrified by the thought of having to move back to the U.S. Do you feel like there’s been meaningful cultural change since then in America, of a kind that might cause her to cling a little less tightly to her expat status?
No. I don’t think anything would make her do that because she has found the place that feels like home to her. There might be cultural changes that would make her feel less embarrassed to be an American, but those haven’t happened yet.
Even though electing Obama twice was, for me, a huge thing, and for once I didn’t feel personally humiliated by the president every time he opened his mouth, nothing much in the so-called War on Terror changed, except to get worse. Gay people can get married and that’s fabulous, but what about the rest of us? What if I don’t want to marry someone with better health insurance than mine?
To touch on a tangential detail I found really fascinating: like Amanda, you’ve written songs for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). I didn’t know much about this organization—can you talk a bit about how you came to be involved with them, and what they’re doing through music? (I explored the current music page of their website a bit; it’s striking stuff!)
I was terribly upset by what I was reading about Afghanistan after the Taliban took over. It was the most repressive regime ever for women, and I felt like I’d go crazy if I didn’t do something about it. I went on the Internet and started searching for ways to get involved and found RAWA’s website. I wrote to them immediately and, through them, connected with other people in my community who wanted to help.
We started a local group to raise awareness of the situation in Afghanistan and raise money for RAWA’s programs. I noticed RAWA sold cassettes of revolutionary songs, so I started writing songs for them. One of my songs was actually played at a RAWA function in Pakistan to celebrate International Women’s Day in 1999. It used to be on RAWA’s website. They are really, really lovely women, and I deeply admire them.
What’s next for you? Any new projects in the works?
I am finishing a novel now about rape and the War on Terror. I live in Syracuse near the park where the rape Alice Sebold describes in Lucky occurred. I never go down there without my dog.
When that is finished, I will start work on a novel that will take place in the West Bank in Palestine. I recently went there to do some research and plan to go back for a lengthy stay. The characters from Pissing in a River are going to end up there for a while due to Melissa’s medical work. And of course the narrator is Jewish, with family in Israel, so there will be tons of conflict.
You might say that I have a preoccupation with the occupation. Oh, is that a good title? A Preoccupation with the Occupation? I’ll have to work on that. What happens to punk lesbians when they end up in the heart of the West Bank? I have no idea. I never know what’s going to happen when I write a novel, so I will be just as surprised as anybody else.