An unconventional interview with Nikki Darling.
Who are you and where did you come from?
I am Nicole Felicia Darling. I was born at an alternative birthing center along the American River in 1980. My mother is a Neo Mexicano, meaning our ancestors are the first round of Europeans that came and made what is considered modern day Mexicans, ie. not indigenous. The land my family is from was purchased in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and they became American citizens by default and have spent the past two hundred odd years battling disenfranchisement, alcoholism, poverty and racism. Which is beyond shitty and terrible yet very endemic of the American experience for many people. My mother’s family is brilliant, creative, spiritual, resourceful, hilarious, easy going, forgiving, open hearted and above all, healing. My mother moved here in 1968 to study Ikebana floral design at Pasadena City College, and to be with my dad. My father is a third generation Angelino and knows the name of every architect of literally every major work in the city. He is a one man Los Angeles dictionary. He loves LA and above all, my father’s family instilled a very deep knowing pride of having come from Los Angeles. It’s my home city and we have a long history here. I own it in my heart. My grandpa went to High School on the street I live on now in Highland Park. I feel connected to this place.
I want to get to know you better. What should I ask? What should I bring you? Do you like cake?
There is something you’ve done before. Again. You’ve done it more than once. Again. What is it?
I’m going to combine these questions into one answer. Give my heart away and trust completely. I can’t not love and I can’t not see the best in people. I absolutely have the utmost respect for survivors, the folks that sit with the full weight of consciousness and continue to get up each morning and keep going and creating. The person who said ignorance is bliss is right. Not knowing and therefore not bearing the weight of human corruption and failure is a blissful way to spend your life. And that’s chosen. That’s a choice. However, then, it brings into question what is the meaning of consciousness? Because I would argue that consciousness and therefore true connection to an inner or outer higher power, demands that we be fully conscious and aware and work from that place, ultimately to improve our human plight. So I’m often troubled by happiness, or confused by it because on some level it’s an indicator that for a moment, you are choosing to ignore how fucked up everything is and be happy. For instance, today I am very happy, I had a nice weekend and I’m a little high on that, but I understand myself enough to know that I will slowly twist my mind into a pretzel until I get back to where I’m most comfortable, which is insecurity and anxiety. Which also doesn’t bother me as much as one would expect because that seems to be where I create from, a place of resolved sadness. That’s when I’m the most hopeful for creation, when I’ve let go of the idea that something good is coming to fruition. Inherently and perhaps this is because I’m a Gemini, I operate on continuous low levels of depression and pessimism. That being said, because I am a Gemini, I am also very social which is hilarious because I have crippling social anxiety and am really much better in one on one situations. Also I’m terrible with names and being out makes my pits sweat so hard that usually I have no idea what I’m saying to people when I’m having conversations. Also I’m stoned a lot. Which I have to be in order to leave the house sometimes and go to these things-readings, openings, parties.
On occasion I eat cake. My favorite sweet tooth snax are cherry slurpees, gummie bears and fro yo. I mostly stick with tacos and French fries though. Both within walking distance of my office, where I am prisoner most days of the week.
I’m also not so into being brought things as being taken someplace. Let’s go for a nature walk high, let’s eat a pot brownie and go to Disneyland on a drizzly day and wear a Mickey Pancho. Let’s look at old National Geographic’s in a beautiful library tower or spend the weekend in a Spanish Palm Desert get away. Let’s get stoned and go to an old bookstore then lie in the park and look at pictures. Let’s thrift. Let’s dance, let’s go roller-skating, mini golfing. I value experience over materiality. Although I do collect a variety of things. Mostly old books, animal tchotkies and CDs. I like when people cook for me. So maybe make me dinner and bring me that.
The words resemble you. In what way?
They resemble me in many ways. I was actually talking with my friend the very talented and brilliant poet/artist Jibade Khalil Huffman about this. My brain works in images, text and sound. Simultaneously. Some might call this a film. But i don’t think they have to be mutually exclusive. Anyway, we both find narrative in images and the possibility of meaning. Exact meaning doesn’t matter so much as the chance that meaning can be derived from visual codes, nostalgia or projection. His work is really great, you’re having all these responses that are purely singular because he doesn’t instruct you on how to read them. Anyway, I’ve always related best or found meaning most, when there was a sort of deluge of information. My therapist says I have impulse control issues, I am also bi-polar and just, I feel most alive within extremes. It’s fucked up but that’s how it is. I’m very theatrical and appreciate a big production. I’m not into subtly. I’m into the abject, the embarrassing, I’m into making people feel culpable, whether that’s stripping and reading a horrible poem about cutting my wrists or structuring an essay so you feel like you’re reading my journal. I want to confront readers with the thing they turn their heads from or cluck their tongues at. Namely emotionality and desperate yearning. I’m very into Sontag’s essay on Syberberg’s film Hitler which you can see a portion of here:
Mostly because Sontag addresses Sybeberg’s excess, his long windedness and his throwing in everything plus the kitchen sink. It is Syberberg’s way of acknowledging the multitudes upon multitudes of ways in which things can be seen, determined, understood and theorized. There is no simple concise way to solve or understand an emotional and historical wound, it must only be worked through and then re felt, in the re feeling we are able to heal, in the taking apart and reconstructing narrative, we are able as Camus so famously said, see the truth within the lie. And so Syberberg tried just that, to re animate the insanity of Hitler—whether he was successful or not is up for debate. And of course it could be argued within this effort was his greatest achievement, proving that history can only be felt as meaningful if it is felt as narrative. If a reader or audience can imagine a world onto which they will hopefully never come to terms with, then perhaps the deluge is necessary. This is Sontag asserts, a great and mighty defense of fictions role in history.
On a purely structural level I’m into slashing apart structure as it represents a prescribed way of doing things that doesn’t take into account the long historical journey it’s taken in keeping the so called ‘undesirables’ out. Language is stacked and loaded, from pronouns to academic guidelines to translation and what is deemed worth preserving and studying. I’m not a fan of prescribed structures, even though I work within one.
Historically I have always hated school, done horribly, was held back in second grade, put in special ed and basically shamed my entire life and made to feel dumb. Looking at math is like looking at ancient Arabic to me. I just don’t understand it. Same with musical instruments and science. I love both of these things so much, but actually understanding the mechanics of how they work is like understanding the mysteries of the cosmos. I just cannot formulate meaning from them, not from resistance, just from it never having come naturally. Which I now understand is fine, I have other talents, but it was beat into my head from teachers and other people in positions of power, that this was the only way to measure success or value. So in that way I always felt poorly about myself. And nothing felt worse than truly loving a teacher, I have loved so many of my teachers, and then not being able to perform to the standard they expected. I did so, so poorly in school and I imagine it was difficult for them as well, because as I child I tried very hard to make myself likable.
It doubly sucked because I’m not dumb. I’m actually very smart so that was even more frustrating because I understood on some level that what was happening to me in school was bullshit. The failure was never only mine. It was a system locked in a singular established language. I’m not a fan of blaming other people or things for my failures but in this case I think it’s fair to say the system played a part. After all I am in a PhD program where I feel my intelligence is greatly valued and acknowledged. And holy fuck it rules, but even this is a result of me smartly cheating and playing the system until I finally got here. A program in which I only devote time to things I’m good at.
Life has made me smart. School made me diligent. School also made me a con artist out of necessity, which while operating in this patriarchal capitalist system is not a bad skill to have, but it’s also worth imagining what I might have become if instead school had worked to configure a new way to approach my intelligence. So I have a lot of anger and defensiveness tied to structures of power. As well I’ve always been emotional, intense and over the top and I’ve tried every which way to change but it seems default, so at a certain point I had to say fuck it and embrace myself. Also I’m just an old punk so I like fucking with things.
What is the relationship between love and shame?
Ugh, to me they seem so intertwined it’s impossible to think of one without the other. I went to this awesome lecture with my friend Samantha Cohen, who went to CalArts with me and is an incredible writer and we share a lot of the same academic and theoretical interests. Anyway, the lecture was on Objectum Sexuals, people who fall in love with inanimate objects. To some people in the audience it was sort of funny, seeing these weirdos, outsiders, on screen, who were in love with an amusement park ride or fence. They were audibly chuckling as the Objectum Sexuals described their feelings toward these objects, presumably they were laughing because these objects did not have the capacity to love back. The so-called visual absurdity of a small woman clinging seductively to a bridge, not withstanding. I however felt complete and utter identification with the individuals on screen because I understood their love was real. I too often fall in love with people who do not return my affections. The person presenting the lecture then showed a clip from the film Adaptation in which Nicholas Cage tells his character’s twin brother, you aren’t what loves you, but whom you love. And I completely believe that. Mostly because I believe our choices are the single most powerful tool we possess and so whom I choose to love is a powerful and important decision for me. My friends are often like, why don’t you try to like that guy? Or what about that guy, he likes you! Go after him! They get puzzled and frustrated because I swim in and out of depression over people who don’t share my feelings. But I own these feelings and I can’t shirk them and I certainly cannot just like someone because they are attracted to me. Which is flattering, but not what gets my emotional juices flowing. In fact I am usually not interested in men who are interested me. Unless their interest is hard won on my end. Which is it’s own problem. But there it is. Some might question whether love can truly exist if it’s one sided, but if I would drop everything to hold a man I love, who needed holding, even if he doesn’t love me. Then for me, that’s as real as love can get. Whether or not I’ve impaled myself on his cock or he sees his babies in my eyeballs. Because if I’ve fallen in love with you it’s because I see something in you that is glowing and honest and I want to warm myself on that fire as well as keep it burning. Protect it. Protect you.
And there is a certain level of shame in that, the sacrifice of love without return. I often tie myself to suffering, and I think this might actually have a lot to do with my being historically Catholic. That saint like urge toward martyrdom that will never be returned or honored. The simple act of giving up a part of yourself for another human being simply because you feel so deeply about preserving their happiness and well-being. I also believe in Elizabeth Taylor and her open-heart ethos. She was a modern day saint. The flip side is that by embracing shame you liberate yourself to act without fear. That’s for me, the match that lights the candle.
What did your mother teach you? What did you teach yourself?
This is literally an endless answer. The short version is: Everything, nothing.
I’m too close to my mother to emotionally contain this within a quantifiable space, so I will make a list: I would also like to qualify this answer by saying my mother didn’t necessarily tell me these things with words, these are impressions I gleaned from her as I grew. In fact, she might disagree with a lot of this list.
- Don’t trust men.
- Own your own home.
- Make your own money.
- Babies come first. Women come second. Men come last. Animals have souls as powerful as ours. The earth is the center. Art is liberating. Self-expression before everything.
- Say no.
- Curse if you need to.
- Never say sorry unless you’re certain you’re wrong.
- To thine own self be true.
- At the end of the day we are, everyone, alone.
- Self doubt
- A vindictive spirit that I’ve had to beat myself against a hundred boulders to try and shake loose.
My mother is a complex intelligent talented woman of integrity and humor. She is totally rad. She also had the best style of anyone on earth when I was growing up. So she taught me to dress and how to have an eye and accumulate a personal aesthetic. Both of my parents are into ‘things’ ceramics, furniture, old books, cars.
What I taught myself:
- To listen
- To hold my tongue
- To self preserve
- To walk away
- To say fuck it
- To go for it
- To tune out the critics.
- To be a critic.
- To think critically within my limitations.
Why love? Why hate? Why write? Why live?
Love because love is all and everything. Never hate. I don’t believe in hate. I believe in trying to understand why.
Write because I literally know no other way to express myself as clearly as I do with words.
If you mean vida, because to be alive is to participate in the great production called life. Give yourself a good part. If you mean, live, because I was trained as an actor from the age of six until nineteen and I gotta be me, a big o’l dorky musical theatre girl.
What does it mean to be honest?
To be vulnerable. To be strong. To be fearless. To be brave. Like, don’t come to me if you think someone is being shameless or slutty. I am the wrong person. I actively dislike conversations in which ‘women’s liberation’ is had through criticizing other women. I’m not interested in “how not to be.” I everyday apply to be the patron saint of Shameless Sluts. So maybe be reductive with someone else. If someone told me to wear white to a Labor Day party I’d wear the most brilliantly white dress I could find then actively dribble coca cola on myself only when that someone was looking.
There is a conspiracy. What are they conspiring?
Huh. I’m not a conspiracy theorist. Do we need conspiracy theories? The fucked up shit in the universe is pretty see through and apparent. And actually, we have real actual theory to contend and parse out all of that, new theory being cooked up and written every day! And it’s glorious! Long Live Theory! Long Live Philosophy!
Orgasms, dicks, vaginas, fingers, mouths, buttholes, stomachs, legs, feet, hands, eye contact, hugs, holding. I want to feel the most feel. Can someone rub my shoulders? I’d like to get a postcard with tits on it. That would be exciting.
Nikki Darling is a student in the Creative Writing/Literature PhD program at USC. Her poetry and experimental essays center around subjectivity, persona, and post-structualist methods of deconstructing literary form and meaning. She is finishing her first novel, Fade Into You, a memoir of mixed race identity in the San Gabriel Valley during the 1990’s. Her criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Art Book Review, Tomorrow Magazine and Public Books, among others. Her essay “Appropriate For Destruction” was included in Best Music Writing 2010.