Democracy, Ow: A Q&A with Discordia authors Laurie Penny and Molly Crabapple
Laurie Penny is an English journalist whose work on protest movements, sex, and desire has been at the forefront of feminist writing of the last few years. Molly Crabapple is a New York artist whose Victorian-inspired work includes Shell Game, a crowd-sourced series of ornate paintings of the 2011 financial-world metdowns and revolutions. This summer, these two kickass women travelled to Greece together, and their gorgeous new e-book, Discordia, is the result. The graphic novel–meets–travelogue pairs Penny's gritty, witty reportage with Crabapple's pen-and-ink drawings for an on-the-ground portrait of a nation adrift in both crisis and possibility. It's out now on Vintage Digital, and Emily McAvan chatted with the authors about meaning, mythologizing, and why Hunter S. Thompson owes a debt to his lady-journo forebears.
How did this book come about?
Molly Crabapple: Laurie and I became close during Occupy Wall Street. We had wanted to create something together, and when I decided to go to Greece to make some art, Laurie asked to go with me.
Laurie Penny: I was so happy that Molly said yes! I feel like together we made something pretty unique that's a fusion of our two creative worlds.
Why Greece and not Madrid, Tahrir, London?
MC: Greece is the birthplace of democracy. It's also the place in Europe where austerity is coming to bear hardest. Anarchists have their own neighborhood. Violent Nazi gangs are being elected into parliament. Greece is where Europe is deciding what it wants to be. History is happening there. We wanted to record it.
You two spent a week in Greece together, but then worked separately on the art and words. Was there much communication back-and-forth, or did you leave each other to just get on with it?
MC: We worked together to figure out important points that had to be made. While I was in Athens, I kept a running list of images that knocked me flat—a printing press in the occupied newspaper Eleftherotopia, or a little girl at an antiracist festival. Laurie suggested other images, and I worked from her iPhone snaps of the antifascist demonstration in Nikea. We helped and inspired each other's work, while also creating our own with a lot of autonomy.
LP: It was a really interesting way to work. As a journalist I'm very much used to solo projects, so this was a learning experience. Molly had very definite ideas about what she wanted to draw after our discussions, and I was able to shape some of the scenes of the book around the images. It was a useful way to structure the project.
Journalist Paul Mason's introduction situates your collaboration in dialogue with Hunter S. Thompson's collaborations with illustrator Ralph Steadman. Thompson inspired a generation or two of macho gonzo journalists; how do you feel about the comparison? Is gonzo different when it's done by women?
MC: Women are trained to see the outside world as a big scary rape trap. Because of this, gonzo-style adventures take a bit more toughness for a woman than a man. I love Steadman's work to the bottom of my cruel, ink- splattered artist's heart. I drew much inspiration from him, technically and spiritually. While Thompson, like Hemingway, is one of those writers whose work has spawned a thousand jackasses, when he is good his writing is so darkly funny, his soul so daring, that he is Wild Danger and Freedom. He is No Fucks Given. How can one not aspire to that?
LP: What some people don't realize is that the first people to really do gonzo journalism in its truest sense—going deep into a story, using your body to tell it and allowing yourself to be changed and challenged by it—were women at the turn of the 20th century, long before Hunter Thompson ever picked up a bottle of Wild Turkey. There was Nelly Bly, who got herself institutionalized at age 21 to report from inside the New York mental-asylum system, and Djuna Barnes, who had herself force-fed in order to write about what the experience was like for suffragettes fighting for the vote in Britain. Christopher Hitchens totally ripped off that idea for his famous piece on waterboarding, by the way.
My favourite bits of the book were actually the conversations between you two. For instance, the one where Laurie says "People don't want women with swagger." Is this book a response to that sentiment?
LP: The sad thing about today's world for women artists and writers is that people are going to be vicious and try to tear you down whatever you do. But that's also a little bit liberating, once you realize that no matter how good and small and quiet you try to make yourself, no matter how much you shy away and try to stick to your permitted boundaries as a woman, people are going to hate on you anyway. So you may as well just go for it.
"Molly Crabapple is her name, though it isn't the name her mother gave her" is a fabulous line. Is there an element of conscious self-mythologization in Discordia?
LP: Oh, of course there is. I rather enjoyed having someone to mythologize in a way I would never dare to write about myself—it's one reason I'm so keen to work with Molly again, because I admire her so much and I'm not afraid to let that admiration show through in my writing. I think it's important for women writers and artists not to shy away from doing big, proud, ambitious things and talking them up.
What can the American left learn from Athens? What can feminists learn?
MC: One of the most enlightening moments of our trip was in Exarchia with Georgia Sagri, an anarchist organizer, and our fixer, the journalist Yiannis Baboulious. They both spoke about how the group who had gained the most from the Syntagma Square protests was the ultra-racist Golden Dawn. This was because while leftist groups in-fought and argued theory, the Golden Dawn provided practical street-level services—food, medicine. They also did PR stunts like walking old ladies to ATMs. The bane of the left, and of feminism, is attacking each other over ideological and linguistic lapses. This doesn't expand our base. It's not real organizing. It's fighting friends rather than enemies.
But while I'm complaining about this, I will also give shout-outs to amazing American feminist projects like Women With a Vision in which [participants] risk their necks providing practical, non-condescending, community-based services.
Any plans for further collaborations?
MC: Oh yes. For now they are secret.
LP: But exciting. Very exciting. Oh yes.
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