I’ve admired Litsa Dremousis for some time now—for her strength, her stamina, and her unflagging support of marginalized writers. Imagine my surprise when, after I started asking her questions, I learned that she is cheerful, funny, and sweet. It’s not that I believed she was all activism and no play, a dour creature who couldn’t laugh at puns or tell jokes…or, well, perhaps some part of me did believe that. I should have known better.
Litsa’s most recent essay, on menopause, appeared earlier this month in the Washington Post. She has also written for the Rumpus, Publishers Weekly, Slate, and Esquire, among many others, and has conducted interviews for the Believer. Her novella-essay, Altitude Sickness, is available in e-form from Instant Future (Future Tense Press).
Although the “hate” part of this interview always comes first, Litsa’s enthusiasm for books she likes was much more compelling. And there was simply no way of avoiding politics or, for that matter, #MeToo.
What kinds of books do you hate?
I hate books by authors who look the other way and I hate books by Pretendians.
Authors who look the other way are those who enable abusive persons in our industry. We discuss abusive persons and we work to stop them, as we should. But we also need to discuss those who know that these men—and some women and non-binary persons—are abusive but contort themselves to dodge this truth.
Their motives seem varied. Some are awful persons themselves. Some don’t give a damn. Some are ridiculous humans who think that their silence magically won’t cause vulnerable persons in our industry to get hurt. And, obviously, those who look the other way for their own financial gain can fall down a well, as far as I’m concerned.
Please note that I’m in no way discussing writers who are cornered or coerced, i.e. those preyed upon. I’m talking about established, ostensibly grown adults who are, for any of the reasons above, A-okay with abuse. Now that I know who some of them are, I’m not reading their books anymore. Life is finite and the clock is always ticking, louder and louder. Why devote our limited time to those who enable harm?
Before anyone can retort with the hackneyed, “What about Hemingway and those guys?” question, well, this should be obvious, but those men wrote in a different time. It’s axiomatic that norms were different seventy years ago. But if you’re writing today, it’s not a lot to ask that you not enable sexual harm; be racist, ableist, homophobic, or xenophobic; or target anyone in any marginalized group. Hell, don’t target anyone, unless they’re a fascist or something akin to that. Those who abuse political power to slaughter or starve? By all means, target them. That furthers a greater moral good.
I don’t think targeting even fascists is a good idea, but I’m not going to criticize when I’m not doing any real-world activism, as you are.
When I say “target,” I mean I’m fine with turning them away from restaurants and such.
Oh, okay, same here. I mainly object to doxxing. Even when it’s someone like Lou Dobbs.
I don’t want to dox anyone. All of us have individuals we love, those we like, those we tolerate, and those we can’t stand. If you’re functioning properly, your life’s mission shouldn’t be to destroy someone. Yet we see authors whose mission seems to be just that, and we see those around them who are completely fine with it, like, “High five, my abusive friend!” No. Enough.
I’m on board with that.
Another preemptive reply: Absolutely no one is advocating for puritanism or sainthood. All of us are flawed. Each of us will make plenty of mistakes. Just don’t deliberately harm others in any real way. If your driving force is to abuse others, or if you’re the person standing there thinking it’s not a big deal, I’m done with your books.
As for Pretendians, I always knew they were a problem in the publishing industry. In the last year, I’ve learned from Native friends and/or colleagues just how prevalent they are. Essentially, a Pretendian is someone who is predominantly white—often 31/32 white, for instance—but purports to be Native. They appropriate culture and norms that aren’t theirs, and then distill it all into a book as if they’re Chief Joseph’s reincarnated, cooler brother. They’re frauds. They steal from a culture and a race that has already had so much stolen from them.
My Native friends have explained to me that Pretendians invariably claim to be Cherokee, Navajo, Pueblo, Apache—any of the tribes white people have heard of. As my Diné/Ihanktonwan friend and colleague put it, “If someone says they’re Kaw, they’re probably telling the truth. No one ever pretends to be Kaw.”
Any specific examples of authors or books you hate?
Well, I’m done with Franzen. It’s clear he knew that David Foster Wallace was extremely abusive. For me, Mary Karr’s story is the defining one. Karr has said no one should stop reading books on her account, but it wasn’t just Wallace repeatedly assaulting her. It was authors like Franzen, who maintained their friendships with DFW, who allowed the behavior to continue.
Again, life is too short. I can read another brilliant author who understands it’s not a lot to ask that women or any targeted group go through life free from abuse. It’s a really low bar to clear.
For my other two: books by Ward Churchill or Joseph Boyden, for starters. I wasn’t reading them anyway, so it’s easy enough to disregard them. There’s an ostensibly Native author who’d approached me online and she’s always been kind, so I won’t name her, but I also won’t read her work. As a Standing Rock Sioux friend/colleague pointed out, “Someone can be kind and still be a Pretendian.” And that’s the story of the kind woman. She’s not really Native. While I had read some of her work, I won’t be reading any more in the future.
Do you think these hates have changed how you read?
The reality is, I can’t know each time I buy or check out a book if the author is a reasonably decent human. I avoid those I know for certain are abusive or abuse enablers, but for the rest, it’s a roll of the dice.
I’ve always read and supported other women authors, so reading more women seems like a solution (except I’m already doing it). Also, I’m a lifelong intersectional feminist, but women aren’t plaster saints. There are plenty of female or non-binary authors who are deliberately, repeatedly malicious. So, just reading women or non-binary authors isn’t a viable way to avoid abusive authors and abuse-enabling authors.
On Pretendians, as a white person—full-blooded Greek American, Athenian on my dad’s side and Maniati (Spartan) on my mom’s side, but still white—I’ve learned to check with my Native friends and/or colleagues when in doubt. For instance, the reason I believed the Pretendian who approached me online is because I had no way of knowing otherwise. I don’t go through life doubting everyone’s racial make-up. But Pretendians adopt a performative approach to a culture that’s not theirs, distort it, and sell it to primarily white audiences. For the love of god, stop.
Agreed. Has it altered anything about your writing?
No, I write what I write. None of the above is applicable to my work.
What books can you recommend?
Oh! So many! This is the fun part! I’d much rather discuss books I love.
Obama: An Oral History by Brian Abrams. Everyone is focused on Bob Woodward’s Fear, and I understand that. I’ll definitely read it soon. But I think it’s valuable to study what goes right, as well. And I’d argue that, for the most part, the Obama presidency went well. With the exception of the man himself—really looking forward to his book and to Michelle Obama’s!—the entire inner crew is interviewed at length. The book has received great reviews and if we weren’t living in chaos, it would receive more attention, as well. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Also, it had enough gossip to remind you that flesh and blood humans are responsible for so much. As we know, the results can be glorious or—as we’re seeing now—absurdly dangerous. But I do find it invigorating reading about what worked and why.
I just re-read The Joy Luck Club for the first time since the 1990s. There’s a reason it’s a classic. And I think it resonates even more deeply with all of us who have one or more immigrant parents. I reread it because I’m fortunate enough to be on a panel with Amy Tan in May. She is, of course, the keynote speaker, and if she asks me to refill her water glass, I’ll totally do it and make her a sandwich, as well.
The Woman Who Married a Bear is an extraordinary poetry collection by Tiffany Midge. I was re-reading one of the poems while I was waiting to get my hair cut. My stylist is a longtime friend and inveterate reader, too, and asked what I was reading and I showed it to her and then she read it, too. And she also loved it. Midge, with whom I’ve been lucky enough to become friends, makes it look easy. The strings never show. Blood-soaked ache and yet all this joy streams through. She has an anthology of humor coming out in the spring and I’m completely psyched. She’s the kind of writer whose poetry can make you sit quietly thinking for an hour, then you get an email from her and spit water on your keyboard you’re laughing so hard.
I also loved Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick by Maya Dusenbery. I’ve been disabled by Myalgic Encephalomyelitis since 1991. I was 24 when I first became ill and I was in a wheelchair the first four months, as I would be again a decade later. Initially, of course, most doctors dismissed it. Now we know it’s disabling, degenerative, and potentially fatal. Whoops! So, yeah, Dusenbery’s work resonates for a number of reasons.
David Sedaris’s Calypso was given to me by one of my best friends when I was extremely ill a few months ago and I think all of us agree Sedaris is singular, right? In the best and most maniacal way, reading him always feels like going home.
Do you keep books or give them away?
I keep most of my books, but I do sell some. About twice a year I’ll go through my bookshelves, choose books I know I won’t read a second time, and sell or donate them. I’m extremely protective of my books, regardless of their monetary worth. They’re books: they’re everything.
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room?
I haven’t thrown a book across the room, but I will annotate the margins if I think a passage is ridiculous.
I think I wrote “WHAT THE SHIT” in my copy of Sean Penn’s book. What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
I just started Ida: A Sword Among Lions, the biography of Ida B. Wells by Paula J. Giddings. It’s almost 800 pages long and I’m only on page 75, but so far, I’m wholly enamored. Most of it has to do with the fact it’s an 800-page biography of Ida B. Wells, but Giddings is a fine writer and—in the best way—meticulously details the life of one of our most important and influential Americans. I’m endlessly fascinated by Wells because she faced opposition on all sides, and she still worked to expose and help end lynching. And she developed much of the economic boycott strategy applied successfully in the Civil Rights Movement decades later. Only she did it first, as a woman, and took it all the way to England, successfully convincing the British not to buy cotton milled and sold by Southern landowners who were routinely lynching Blacks.
Her grandson is a professor at Harvard and he recently gave interviews with the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. I’m paraphrasing, but he said, “People always say, ‘Ida was fearless!’ And she was, but what’s most likely is that sometimes she was afraid, but she did it anyway.” In the least cheesy way, all of us can learn from that.
Heck yes. That’s the meaning of courage: fearful but determined.
After that, I’ve got Some Trick: Thirteen Stories by Helen DeWitt cued up. Like most writers, I get genuinely excited by thinking about the next book on my list, as well as the one I’m reading. It’s like eating two dinners! “After I’m done with this steak salad, I’ll eat lasagna! Yippee!”