Hannah Gadsby and Rox­ane Gay

talk com­edy, as­sault and body sham­ing

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents -

In June, the Aus­tralian co­me­dian Hannah Gadsby’s standup show Nanette was re­leased on Net­flix. This sup­posed swan­song of a set had pre­vi­ously stunned au­di­ences from Melbourne to Ed­in­burgh, with its dev­as­tat­ing twists on who and what jokes are for, and how suf­fer­ing and trauma are turned into ma­te­rial. What be­gins as an ap­par­ently main­stream rou­tine segues into a story about some­thing trou­bling that hap­pened to Gadsby as a young woman, told first one way – and then, bru­tally, an­other; it’s at once a de­con­struc­tion of the art form (her work has been billed as “anti-com­edy”), and a cri­tique of her au­di­ence – an­gry, smart, rad­i­cal.

Nanette’s sec­ond life turned Gadsby from a work­ing comic into a global star, lauded for her can­dour and in­sight by ev­ery­one from Ellen Page to Mon­ica Lewin­sky. Her fa­ther, she says, has al­ways col­lected any­thing writ­ten about her, but his task is be­com­ing more and more de­mand­ing. “With this whole Nanette busi­ness, he started go­ing, ‘God, the ar­ti­cles are get­ting a bit long now. There was one in the New York Times – three pages. I’m not made of toner.’”

The writer and critic Rox­ane Gay, whose col­lec­tion of es­says Bad Fem­i­nist and mem­oir Hunger were crit­i­cally praised best­sellers, cover­ing ev­ery­thing from her past as a com­pet­i­tive Scrabble player to overeat­ing, and her ex­pe­ri­ences of rape, tweeted Gadsby when her set first screened: “Nanette is sim­ply re­mark­able. You moved me and have re­ally made me think about hu­mor, the self, self dep­re­ca­tion and the uses of anger. Thank you so much. It’s just bril­liant.”

They met for the first time a few weeks ago, at a cul­tural event in Los An­ge­les, where Gadsby has been liv­ing. Gay has just moved to the city per­ma­nently, af­ter a few years of shut­tling back and forth be­tween LA and In­di­ana, where she was, un­til re­cently, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of English at Pur­due Univer­sity. They sit down wn to talk at Gay’s new house, which is so box-fresh you can still smell the paint. In the back­ground, a large arge TV is play­ing a crime drama on mute. Gadsby, a fan of Gay’s work, ar­rives brim­ming with sar­cas­tic, as­tic, silly wise­cracks. “Per­son­ally, I get so much h out of your writ­ing,” she tells her, “be­cause I need d your per­spec­tive. Other­wise, I’d be a racist prick.” k.”

And so the con­ver­sa­tion be­gins.

Re­becca Nicholson

Rox­ane Gay Where are you liv­ing?

Hannah Gadsby Sil­ver Lake [in Los An­ge­les]. es]. I can’t be­lieve that this is a city where they y tell all our sto­ries, and they can ig­nore peo­ple liv­ing ing in tents ev­ery­where.

RG No­body ever talks about it. No­body stops ops and tries to do any­thing. It’s weird, it’s up­set­ting, and it does not give me a lot of faith in hu­man­ity.

HG How many bed­rooms do you have here? ? [Laughs.]

RG I know. I guess I do have some ex­tra space. ce. I’m ab­so­lutely part of the prob­lem. HG I’ve been home­less.

RG How long?

HG For a long time I said six months, and then I look back on it, and it was quite a num­ber of years where I was not sup­ported – couch­surf­ing, and then I lived in a tent out­side Byron Bay. I would hitch­hike into town.

RG Were you still do­ing com­edy at that time?

HG Hadn’t even started. I started when I was 27. It took a long time. I was at the end of this dirt track, at the back of a farm, il­le­gally camp­ing. That was for about four months. And then they had this huge storm and it flat­tened my tent. It was grim as fuck.

RG Were you ever scared that it was al­ways go­ing to be your life?

HG I was so sad. I look back on that time and now I un­der­stand, I was just get­ting through it. Ev­ery day was a strug­gle. I was so iso­lated. And there’s so much shame around it. I’m a sto­ry­teller, and I’ve never told that story. I mean, I’m not shar­ing a se­cret, but you know what I mean?

RG How old were you? HG I was mid- to late-20s. It was a real rough patch, from 24 to 27.

RG There’s some­thing about that age. I was not home­less, but my 20s were al­most the rough­est years. Al­most as bad as my teens. Just try­ing to fig­ure out, what do I do, where do I be­long? And also, I was com­pletely in­sane.

HG So you al­ways knew you wanted to be a writer?

RG Al­ways. From four years old, I knew. Which is good, but also bad, es­pe­cially with im­mi­grant par­ents, who are just like, what? No. You’re go­ing to be a lawyer, doc­tor or engi­neer, which is the Haitian tri­fecta of ca­reers. It was hard. They sup­ported my writ­ing, al­ways, but they didn’t un­der­stand that it’s what I wanted to do full­time. They were be­ing re­al­is­tic and I was be­ing a dreamer, and so I ac­tu­ally un­der­stand where they were com­ing from. But I al­ways just be­lieved I could make a go of it.

HG Ig­no­rance is re­ally a boon for that. [Looks at the TV.] There’s a bloody woman in the trunk!

RG [Laughs] I’m al­ways watch­ing crime pro­ce­du­rals. →

HG I find them very com­fort­ing, for some rea­son.

RG Me, too. Law & Or­der: SVU.

HG Ooh, my fave. Shouldn’t be.

RG I feel a lot of guilt about it. What am I get­ting out of this dis­play of trauma?

HG I ac­tu­ally think it’s ac­knowl­edg­ment of that kind of trauma.

RG And there is, once in a while, jus­tice. It’s very sat­is­fy­ing.

HG And great face-act­ing.

RG Al­most as good as in the Fast And The Fu­ri­ous fran­chise. They have great face-act­ing. Great drive-face. One day I just want to make a com­pi­la­tion of all their driv­ing faces.

HG I’ve only seen 7. Just for clar­i­fi­ca­tion, not all seven. Just 7.

RG You have so many to catch up on.

HG I heckle films. I’m the worst per­son to see films with. I heck­led A Star Is Born. One line in it keeps com­ing back to me. He said [husky voice]: “You’re a song­writer.” [Laughs.] And she goes: “No, I’m not. My nose is too big.” That’s bad writ­ing! Ob­vi­ously they’ve mixed it up. “I can’t be a star , my nose is too big.” The ugli­est peo­ple in the world are song­writ­ers!

He just keeps pop­ping up in her per­sonal space. She’s sleep­ing at home in her bed­room, and she wakes up, and there he is. She’s like, what are you do­ing here? “Your dad let me in.” She’s hav­ing a nap. In her bed­room! ‘Can I touch your nose? No. Can I touch your nose? No. Oh, I’m touch­ing it.’

RG Wow. [Laughs.] You’ve ru­ined the movie for me. Thank you.

HG A lot of it is just them in pro­file. Cos the nose is very im­por­tant. He touches it. For me, it’s like that op­ti­cal il­lu­sion: is it a vase, or two faces?

I used to be a cinema pro­jec­tion­ist, when I was at uni. Or col­lege, here. Land of the lingo. I said “trunk” ear­lier.

RG In­stead of “boot”? Wow, you’re com­ing along, step by step. Are you go­ing to be mov­ing here per­ma­nently?

HG I’m be­twixt and be­tween. I did a month in Lon­don in Fe­bru­ary, then I was go­ing to do five weeks in New York, and that blew out to nearly five months. There was a bit of a gas leak in the apart­ment. I kept go­ing, “I’m so tired, I need to rest.” I was send­ing peo­ple a cof­fin emoji. I’d say, “I slept like I was in a coma!” I kept ring­ing my man­ager say­ing, “I’m re­ally tired, it doesn’t feel right.” She said, “Course you are, this show’s a lot. It’s tak­ing it out of you.” It was, and I knew that. I was up to 17 hours a day sleep­ing. I could have died.

RG That’s so dan­ger­ous. Did they fix it?

HG Yeah. And here I am. I had a rough time of it, to be hon­est. [Nanette] is hard enough, as an emo­tional thing. But in Lon­don I got bron­chi­tis. In Ed­in­burgh, I had a wis­dom tooth im­pacted. The day af­ter I had it out, I got a thing called dry socket, and that was four weeks of hell. But I feel bet­ter now. I’m a bit more chip­per. Talk­ing about trauma is ex­haust­ing. RG It is, and I think that’s one thing peo­ple don’t re­alise.

HG And other peo­ple tend to give their trauma back to you.

RG That’s the hard part. I hear so much, be­cause I write about sex­ual vi­o­lence, and fat­ness...

HG “I was raped, can we have a selfie?”

RG That is ac­tu­ally some­thing that hap­pens. It’s hard to bal­ance the two. Peo­ple are like, you’re so lucky, which, I am: re­ally lucky. I love what I do. I wouldn’t trade this for any­thing. But there is an emo­tional cost. Es­pe­cially af­ter Hunger came out, and Not That Bad [an an­thol­ogy about rape cul­ture], it’s just a one-two punch. I toured both of them this year, and peo­ple have the most hor­rific sto­ries.

HG Writ­ing about trauma, I go deeper into the trauma. Be­cause when you’re speak­ing it, it’s less – but I see it all. I think vis­ually. So ev­ery night on stage, it would be…

RG …right there with you.

HG But it would be kind of edited. That story I tell about be­ing beaten up at the bus stop, I worked out that I had two ver­sions of that. When I first told the story, I had the ver­sion that I knew – how it hap­pened – and then the ver­sion that I would tell peo­ple that I even­tu­ally told on stage. And it was eas­ier for other peo­ple to hear, but it wasn’t easy for me to tell, be­cause I knew I’d sold the story short.

Then I saw a guy do a set on TV so sim­i­lar to my set, ex­cept his twist was, it’s hard be­ing a man. He’s a nice guy, but come on. I re­mem­ber be­ing quite an­gry about that, be­cause it was a phase where my ca­reer was plateau­ing a bit. I didn’t nec­es­sar­ily want his op­por­tu­ni­ties, but he was get­ting them, and I wasn’t even be­ing of­fered them. I’m like, that’s my story. Not that he stole it, but I found it par­tic­u­larly galling be­cause I thought, I can’t tell that story prop­erly. And then I set my­self the task. Can I tell that story, in full, and make it funny? I worked out very quickly that I could not. There’s just no way to make that funny.

RG A lot of the time peo­ple ask me, es­pe­cially with Hunger, how could you write it out? Did you re­trau­ma­tise your­self? But first of all, it’s been 30 years. Which is not to say I’m over it, but I’m as over it as I’m go­ing to be. There’s a rea­son I didn’t write this book 20 years ago. Back then, it was too fresh. Now it’s just a very sig­nif­i­cant part of my his­tory.

As I was writ­ing it, I recog­nised that I was writ­ing the only ver­sion I could write, which is not the whole truth, be­cause I think the whole truth is just too hor­ri­fy­ing to put into peo­ple’s heads. But it had been long enough that I had the nec­es­sary sep­a­ra­tion to be able to do it, and to have the nec­es­sary dis­tance. Writ­ing about rape wasn’t the hardest part about writ­ing Hunger, at all. It was writ­ing about fat­ness, and think­ing about my body in this world, and the kind of is­sues that peo­ple throw in your way.

HG Be­cause peo­ple don’t look at you go­ing [puts on a sym­pa­thetic face], “You’ve been raped.” I mean, they do now, for me. [Laughs.]

R RG [Laughs.] Now they know.

H HG But I feel seen with hos­til­ity be­cause of what I look like.

RG Not a day goes by where some­one doesn’t stare at me. And now, I have to ask, what are they star­ing at? Are they star­ing at my height? Well, maybe. Are they star­ing at my weight? Ab­so­lutely. Or do they recog­nise me? Or all of the above? I feel so para­noid. The other day I was on a flight, and the guy next to me took a pic­ture of me, to text to friends, to laugh at me.

HG Oh my God.

RG It was hor­ri­ble. And I tweeted about it, and a bunch of peo­ple were like, you don’t know that h he’s do­ing that. Maybe he’s a fan. I know my fans. This guy was not a fan. He was a su­per-rich white guy and I was just like, trust my lived ex­pe­ri­ence. They’re also so an­gry that you’re not fol­low­ing the rules of hav­ing a body, and of be­ing a woman. Are y you a woman, or are you a man? →

Por­traits by Barry J Holmes

Rox­ane Gay y Best­selling au­thor and critic ic

The h Guardian d Week­end kd | 08 De­cem­ber b 2018 37 I’m nail­ing the funny. I’ve got to curb the earnest­ness a bit. But, light and shade

We’re twins. We look just alike We’re ba­si­cally the same per­son

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