Persephone Pioneers: Inga Muscio

Inga Muscio might be best known for her efforts at urging women to reclaim a word that has carried extreme reactions and power with it for so long: Cunt. A writer, feminist, and anti-racist speaker, Inga’s work has permeated most feminist bookshelves with titles like Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil: My Life and Times in a Racist Imperialist Society, and most recently, Rose: Love in Violent Times, her newest call for action against the violence that informs our everyday lives while still finding a space for love to exist. A known agitator and believer in the power and history of words, Inga’s works have taken on deep-rooted and heavy issues such as sexism, rape, white privilege, racism, and colonialism, as well as the incessant urging for people to break down the boundaries between themselves and their bodies, in a no-nonsense and accessible manner. A radical babe we are happy to have here at a nice, cuntlovin’ day; Persephone folks, please welcome Inga Muscio.

Persephone Magazine: How did you get involved in writing? Was it something you always wanted or were drawn to? What does the power of writing represent to you?

Inga Muscio: I think the writing thing started for me when I was a toddler and my older brother would come home from the library with a stack of books. I wanted books too and so was very eager to learn how to write my name and get a library card. I started reading at a very young age and the desire to write just organically branched off of that. I wrote my first short story when I was 8 or so. The power of writing has represented different things to me throughout my life. When I was a kid and teenager, I appreciated how I could say WHATEVER I wanted to say. When I was in my 20s, my younger brother died in a car wreck, and writing was one of the things that helped me through the brunt of my grief.

After that, I started publishing my writing and that opened up a whole other world of communing with people. It’s gone on from there, developing into a deeply complex relationship– not unlike relationships with close family members. Writing and I don’t always (or even usually) enjoy a cakewalk together, but it’s nonetheless all about love.

PM: You are most widely known for your manifesto, Cunt: A Declaration Of Independence, a book that encouraged taking one’s own cuntiness into one’s hand, wherever you found yourself on the gender spectrum. Talk a bit about why the word “cunt” has so much power and why you feel like it’s important to claim it.

IM: Cunt is a very old word. Or at least, derivatives of cunt are very old. In Ireland, India, China, Africa and many other places, derivatives of cunt generally had to do with some kind of female/sexual power. Before I ever wrote Cunt, I became fascinated with the power of the word. At this point in history, cunt has a very strong negative power. And so, isn’t it profoundly compelling that when we remove our present-day value judgments, we’re facing a power that’s been around for thousands of years? This never ceases to amaze me.

I don’t feel it’s important to claim the word, per se, so much as it is to claim the power that’s survived in the word for such a gloriously long time. Bitch, ass, hag and whore are also old words with similar powers, but nothing compares to cunt.

Inga with writers Daisy Hernandez, Shawna Kenney, and Michelle Tea. Image copyright of Atomic Books Blog

PM: What have your reader’s reactions been to Cunt? You have mentioned that you received more grief for your follow up work, Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil: My Life and Times in a Racist, Imperialist Society a look at systematic racism and how deep white supremacy really runs. What are the differences between readers’ reactions on both? What are the different discussions you think they are causing people to have?

IM: By and large, the response to Cunt has been an absolute endless delight. I get the funniest emails from people. A sixteen-year-old boy snooped in his older sister’s room and came across Cunt on her bookshelf. Thinking it would be something dirty, he read it in secret, and it changed his life. I sent him and his sister some Cunt stickers, laughing my ass off all the way to the mailbox. I’ve heard countless stories from bookstore employees who’ve had such a good time with Cunt and their store’s PA system. Then there’s the road trip Cunt readers. These are folks who read Cunt out loud to each other all the way across the country. Cunt gets swapped and passed on from person to person. Once, in San Antonio, Texas, a group of high school girls had written notes throughout a copy of Cunt, each girl using a different colored pen, and they each signed the back page. It was around 15 or 20 girls who’d marked this Cunt all up. I borrowed it for the night and read all their comments. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.

So, yeah, I could go on. Cunt is a gift that keeps on giving. I hear these kinds of happy– but too, also extremely painful– stories from folks pretty much every day of my life.

The flip-side here is people want me to be the Cunt Woman. There is this expectation that I spend all of my time thinking about Cunt and everything I wrote about in Cunt. I am evidently supposed to be waving the white feminist flag from roof tops, and I think I disappoint a lot of Cunt readers when I start talking about racism, imperialism, and the violence for which we are all culpable. In Cunt, the reader is mostly The Good Guy. But in Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil and also in Rose, I am asking readers– all people, regardless of race, genders, sexuality, age, etc.– to look at our own negative shit, and see ways in which we might in fact be The Bad Guy. Cunt inspires people to come together, to face painful things, to bond and laugh. Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil inspires many people– especially people who have never really thought a lot about white supremacist racism– to feel defensive, guilty, overwhelmed and ashamed. Rather than move through this and recognize these feelings as part of a process towards healing, there’s an inclination to shut down and isolate. Many people from white families, living in white-dominated communities, literally have no one to discuss this really intense book with. So it’s hard for folks. But Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil came out in 2005 and a lot has changed since then. White supremacist racism has a “political” organization in the Tea Party. It has news channels, a religion. It has new laws, deeming poor, usually black or transgendered prostitutes “sex offenders.” White supremacist racism is much more difficult to ignore now than it was just a few short years ago, so I am very excited that Seven Stories is publishing a new edition of Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil. Perhaps now, more people will be willing to move through those bad feelings, and come out the other side.

PM: What are the things you have learned since Cunt and Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil?

IM: It’s difficult to enumerate what I’ve learned. I’m always learning and always in flux of some kind or another. If I look back on my life for the past 10 years or so, I can tell you I’ve learned a lot about traveling. I’m really good at finding great food almost wherever I go. And packing a suitcase became a total breeze once I figured out that almost every town has an awesome thrift store to fix wardrobe problems. I found out I enjoy public speaking, even though I am a very private person. I’ve learned how much joy Cunt stickers can bring. I was afraid men would not like Cunt, and was delighted to learn not to underestimate or deeply generalize people. Writing Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil encouraged me to not fear facing ugliness. Really, though, my books are inseparable from my life, so telling you what I’ve learned would be, well, a book.

PM: You have also written on the inherent privilege factor that exists within the feminist movement. Do you feel like it predominantly still worships at the altar of this one type of experience, this one type of physical representation? How do we move away from that and into something that’s more inclusive, something that represents a vast majority of needs?

IM: Shit I wish I could dodge this question somehow because I haven’t learned a way to answer it without pissing people off. “Worships at the altar.” That’s a good one.

Okay well, here goes.

When there is a dominant society going on, folks who are members of that dominant society absorb the lesson throughout life that they are the indisputable greatest, the pinnacle of god’s creation, the apex of all that has gone on before that brings us to this lofty and innately dominant position. Folks who do not enjoy dominant member status have a completely different (and often polar opposite) experience. Everyone absorbs this consciousness throughout life– even those members of the dominant society who find much of their society to be repugnant, oppressive and/or criminal. Whether you cash in on this dominance or suffer from it, you are deeply affected by the entrenched historic power dynamic and indoctrination. It is easier for, let’s say, feminists of color, to see how this all plays out, and has played out for the past couple hundred years. It is not easy for white feminists to see this, because we have a role as oppressors, and continue to be unwilling to see ourselves in this role.

Compounding this is the earlier indoctrination about being the indisputable greatest, etc. It does not come easy to members of the dominant society to step back and say, “Hay, maybe you are actually quite fucking brilliant and if I shut up for a minute and set my bloated sense of self aside, I can learn some really awesome shit!” No. We don’t do that. We seek to “include” non-dominant members of society into “our” circle. And so feminists of color are all, “Well your entire thought structure is deeply impaired by your total denial of white supremacist racism, so why on earth would we want to be included in your delusion?” The only way I see to move away from this dynamic is, like I say, to bear witness to our indoctrination and see how it has shaped us. In this case, it means for white feminists to put in the years to re-educate ourselves and hold ourselves accountable and to be gentle with ourselves and others. It’s okay if you do stupid, ignorant racist shit when you are LOOKING at what you’re doing and saying, “Ahh, yes. Yet another exciting chance for me to undo what was done.” There’s no point in “hiding” our racism or being ashamed of it. It’s not our fucking fault we were born into this society. It is our fault when we identify with and continue to perpetuate the total bullshit of it, though.

Inga is tres badass. Image courtesy of Femonster at Feminism Is The Shit

PM: What do you think writers and artists need to survive artistically? What has worked for you? What keeps you getting up every day and giving it your best?

IM: I think a lot of writers and artists need more structure than I do, but I can’t speak on what other folks might need to survive, other than a safe place to work, food, water and good sleep. Everyone needs that though.

I’m all for small positive actions every day. Feeding the birds, laughing with the kids, baking beautiful cakes, cooking, cleaning the floors, tending to the garden, holding the door for people at the library, finding the freshest kale on earth, thanking the bus driver, talking to friends on the telephone or in person, having meaningful work, noticing all the birds and flowers in my neighborhood, viewing art, listening to music, watching movies and never teevee, doing yoga and going for runs. I don’t think I get up everyday and give it my best, at least not as far as actually writing goes. I might fret about how to write something, but I know it will come to me in time. Often I am writing when I am nowhere near my computer, and recognizing this freed me of that voice inside my head that said, “You should be writing. What kind of ‘writer’ are you? You’re a dumbass.” Or whatever that negative voice inside us says, right? Once I realized that I am writing all the time, I no longer had any self-judgment. Sometimes it takes me two months to figure out how to write one paragraph and then another year before I know where that paragraph actually goes. So I keep things in the moment as much as possible. And I trust that things will come in their time. Meanwhile, I do a lot of small positive actions.

PM: Sometimes in social justice movements, it seems like everything can just get so heavy and it can either weigh down one’s spirit, or we can get caught up in just being so serious. What keeps you going when you are working through serious issues like your mother’s rape or your experiences with self-harm? How do you maintain optimism or a sense of humor?

IM: I learned that a sense of humor is an imperative survival skill for me when I was a kid. I got out of trouble constantly by making adults laugh. My family was always big on laughing and jokes, so I grew up around a lot of hilarious people. My Grammy had this razor sharp wit where you wouldn’t realize the joke until two days later. Now that she’s passed from this world, I have many opportunities to entertain her spirit, who is just as mirthful and opinionated as she was when she walked this earth. Always a laugh when Grammy’s spirit puts in her two cents. There was also a lot of physical humor in my family and everyone loved watching Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges. Physical humor is great for breaking tension, as are kind-hearted practical jokes. I also have a very dark, brooding sense of humor sometimes and I think that comes into play when I am dealing with emotional pain or trauma. This is not for the feint-hearted.

And then there’s the universe or whatever, who has a brutally keen sense of humor. The universe is always playing jokes on us in deeply intimate ways. You know? All those things that happen in the moment and they’re so freaky and fleeting we often don’t stop to notice them.  Like what are the chances of running into someone wearing a T-shirt that says “Fuck Off, Asshole,” the split second after you got off the phone with your boss and thought, “Fuckin’ what an asshole.” These kinds of jokes happen constantly in my life and they never fail to crack me up. I think it’s one of those things where the more you notice that the universe is alive and totally laughing with (or at) you, the more jokes the universe presents you with. Universe jokes help keep things in perspective too.

PM: If there is just one thing you want people to take away from your work and your own experience, what would it be?

IM: The force is with you.

PM: What other amazing things from you can we look forward to?

IM: I’m re-doing Autobiography of A Blue Eyed Devil right now and am pretty excited about that. I hope it will be amazing.

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