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Malleable memories and transcending time: An interview with Joanna Howard

Author Joanna Howard talks about her new memoir, “Rerun Era.”

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How many versions of my life are there?
Did other people see what I saw?
What really happened around me?

In a mesmerizing way, author Joanna Howard’s vivid new memoir, Rerun Era, nudges us to ask ourselves these questions — and reconcile what we think we know about time and our own experiences.

Narrated by Howard’s five-year-old self, Rerun Era paints a striking portrait of her childhood in rural Oklahoma. At the cornerstone of it all is trauma — as well as a connection to television that reveals more than pop culture taste. It serves as the foundation of time and memory.

While Rerun Era is a welcome return to a time of boxy television sets, VHS tapes, and radio dials, the story is relatable beyond generations and regions. It is the story of so many of our childhoods, spent seeking solace and stability in screens and laugh tracks.

When you started to write Rerun Era, did you think that remembering things in this fashion — attaching memories to, or grounding yourself in, pop culture — was universal or kind of unusual?

Howard: It felt universal for my generation, particularly. For a lot of people who grew up in the 80s and early 90s — it was the rise of the MTV generation. I did think there would be a lot of people who shared a kind of collective memory of what they watched. And it does seem to be the case. Since the book has come out, I’ve been hearing that from a lot of people. Even if we didn’t watch the same thing, it’s triggered people’s memories of what they watched when they were a kid.

Given how thoroughly media has changed in the past few decades — whether that’s speed, or the amount of media, or consumption habits — do you think it’s possible for late Millennials and Gen Z to experience the same type of solace and relationship to pop culture that you did?

Howard: I worry that they won’t. You know you’re getting old when you start worrying about how the youth consume culture, or whether they read or what they watch (laughs). I do think it’s hard now to watch anything we don’t feel we have complete control over. Like how we watch it, when we watch it, for what duration we watch it.

For me as a child, I knew it was time to go to dinner when one episode of M*A*S*H started, and I knew that dinner was over when another one started. That way in which television sort of cordoned off time? I just don’t think kids now can ever have that, because of streaming and downloadable platforms and binge watching.

It’s dramatically changed, that relationship with time. People can still escape into shows; it’s just a different kind of escape.

The memories that you wrote about seemed most vivid when they mimicked TV. For example, you wrote about going to an event called Frontier Days, where people were obviously dressed up and playing characters. In those types of scenes, everything seemed a bit more vibrant. Why do you think those memories were so vivid? The ones that — I don’t want to say they necessarily emulated TV, but they were obviously more character driven and almost played out like an episode of TV.

Howard: I do think if you grow up watching a lot of television, it really shapes the visual part of your memory. Like if I am reconstructing an experience in my mind or telling a story to someone out loud, I’m often sort of picturing it in my head like it’s a film or a television show, because I’ve done so much viewing as a kid. I still do this.

But that visual component is also super important to me in terms of seizing upon memories. I tend to be a person who, if I see an object, it triggers my memory much more than if I smell something or hear something, for example.

Do you think you were predisposed to having that kind of visual inclination, or was it shaped by TV? Or maybe both?

Howard: I definitely think it was shaped by TV. Movies, especially. Rerun Era focuses on television because it was in that moment right before we got a VCR. But when the VCR was introduced into my life, suddenly the longer form of stories was available . . . and I was just an obsessive watcher. I could do ten films in a row, no problem. I was really prepared for binge watching before it was a thing.

It’s all totally affected the way that I think. In my other writing, when I’ve done other types of fiction, people always say that image is the thing that unifies the style of my work. I’ve clearly been influenced by that visual culture.

In Rerun Era, television is really as much of a character as any of your family members, if not more so. At some points, it’s a caretaker. A reliable, comforting presence in your life. A window to somewhere outside of a small rural town. 

Did it seem that way when you were younger, that TV was almost kind of personified? Or is it just now, in retrospect?

Howard: I really like the phrase “caregiver” that you’re using there. I was totally aware of the fact that my parents were cordoning me into this space to watch television, as their way of dealing with having a kid when they didn’t have time to deal with having a kid. The TV did absolutely feel like a babysitter.

I see it a lot with my friends who have kids now. They’re resisting putting the iPad or whatever in front of the kid, but there’s this way in which time opens up for adults when their kid goes into that zone. Even though you know it’s not a great idea, there’s something so seductive about the silence the parents get from it (laughs). That concept of “television as babysitter” or “VCR as babysitter” was my parents’ lifeline in many ways, and I was very aware of it.

But I don’t think I was worried about it, and my parents weren’t terribly worried about it either. Parents nowadays are obviously much more concerned with what screens are going to do to us in the future. My parents were not super worried (laughs).

I wonder how much of modern parents’ worry about screen time is because they themselves were babysat by screens. Which leads me to another thing I found really interesting about Rerun Era . . .I feel like, generally, people refer to latchkey kids or kids raised by TVs in a really negative light.

Howard: Oh, yes.

But you don’t do that. It’s very nostalgic. It’s very warm. TV is not, by any means, the enemy in your book.

Howard: Definitely not. If I have any kind of ethical core, it’s been partially formed by these clichés in these shows where the person does the right thing (laughs). Those shows sort of formed that tapestry for me.

But I also think it’s sad, the degree to which a parent now feels responsible for every aspect of their child’s life. I understand that comes out of seeing a lot of kids end up in very bad situations, or children who were susceptible to adults that were harmed or with bad caregivers.

For me and my friends, there wasn’t a lot of oversight into what we were doing (laughs). We were allowed to kind of run amok. My parents were working, and they didn’t have the time. And I’m kind of grateful for that. It meant I had a lot of freedom as a kid and as a teenager, and when I went to college, I didn’t freak out about the sudden freedoms you have when you become an adult.

I see it a lot with my students now, because I teach those Gen Z students, their parents have overseen just about every aspect of their lives and have been exactly what we think of as model parents. But it becomes so much harder for their kids to imagine their own independence in the world.

It seems like there are a lot of those types of experiences in Rerun Era that, while they’re still relatable, would be entirely foreign to later Millennials and Gen Z. Like one of the things from the book that I remember well were those uncertainties of who sang this song, who acted in that movie? That’s not an experience people can have now. Either passionately believing in a wrong answer for years, or not knowing what actor that was in that one thing. We have instant answers now.

It’s so interesting to think about how foreign the book could be to people who really aren’t that much younger.

Howard: That moment where the Internet made access to all answers possible, there was just no going back. There used to be a certain kind of charm that a person who collected trivia held in the world. If you were the guy who knew all of the records, and could identify who did that song — that person could even carve out a career from that. People would pilgrimage to try to get answers. You’d have these intense interpersonal exchanges where people would debate whether or not someone was in this particular Hitchcock film. Now you’re at a dinner party, someone asks “Who was in that?” and you Google it, and the conversation’s done (laughs).

Now, anyone can be an expert in, like, 20 minutes. There’s less of a need for people to collect up facts and learn now. Like I remember, we would play Trivial Pursuit, and whoever won was revered! (Laughs.) How amazing that this one person could answer all these questions in all these different categories? Sports, entertainment, history . . . 

Oh, they were so worldly!

Howard: (Laughs.) It was amazing.

I feel like that instant access probably has something to do with why we’ve become so argumentative online. You can sit behind a screen and quickly Google things. Even if it’s something you didn’t know five seconds ago, you get so entrenched in it because you can find the answers to back up your opinions as fast as you need to.

Howard: Absolutely. And we also feel justified to call someone out for not knowing things because they should have Googled it before they posted whatever they posted. That’s a tough demand. And if you’re at all hot tempered, those things don’t go well together. (Laughs.)

To switch gears, you cover a great deal of trauma in the book. So much so that it seems as though more time lapses than the year you actually cover. How did you hone in on this specific period of your life?

Howard: You know, it just happened so quickly. I had been talking with a friend of mine, a poet from Arkansas, C.D. Wright. . . . she had been trying to get me to write about my family for a really long time. There are a lot of these parts of the world that are perceived to be backwards, and she thought that there weren’t enough stories from people who come from these parts of the world and have had a very vibrant relationship to culture and art. We didn’t necessarily grow up cut off from left-wing thinking or things like that. I set out to do this book because she was very much like, we need these voices in the world. And this book just immediately took off.

Originally, I hadn’t set out to do the voice how it is. I’ve never written anything with a child’s voice before. Once the voice was in place, it just started to write itself. The whole year came on in a tide; I’ve never had an experience like that with another book.

Did you uncover a lot of things you had forgotten about?

Howard: I sat down with my brother, who’s ten years older than me, and that helped. He was just a more fully formed thinker than me as a five-year-old. At five, I was prone to have gotten pieces confused or imagined things and my brother was very clear about things.

I found out that I had conflated some things and people. In a few instances, I allowed a bit of that fictional technique to rearrange some things.

People often write memoirs, even of their young childhood, with a great deal of certainty about details. In Rerun Era, that wasn’t really the case; you were upfront about the shifting or unsure part of your memories. Was that hard?

Howard: I definitely think it was helpful for me, that feeling of having articulated that. I didn’t go into the project thinking that’s what I was doing, because I didn’t think about my mind that way.

I think about the phrase “gaslight” a lot. We didn’t use that in the way we do now. We didn’t talk about it. My parents would often have a very different memory of something that took place than me or my brother did, and they would try to force that version on us. Because of that environment, where my memories have been challenged, I have always felt a bit vulnerable about what’s real and what’s not. It’s made me feel, at times, that I’ve needed to protect my own way of seeing things — even if it’s wrong. It can feel like your identity is being challenged.

What would you say to anyone who is struggling with that sense of being unsure of the details of what’s happened in their own life — particularly when it comes to traumatic events?

Howard: Well, I think it’s just really important to be gentle in the way that you deal with those things. I went into this book blaming my parents for a lot of things. My memory would sometimes shape things to re-emphasize that narrative of blame, or of the absentee parent. The process of writing the book really softened my view of my family, to know that we all had different ideas of what was actually going on.

Truth is really great when we’re talking about climate change, but when you’re dealing with your personal memories, that’s when we need to be gentle and a bit more lax. Those things can take time to figure out.

Rerun Era

by Joanna Howard
(McSweeney’s)

Rerun Era is available for purchase at the McSweeney’s Store and Amazon.

Books

Book Review: Crossfire – A Litany For Survival

Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you

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Stacey Ann Chinn

LGBTQ poet and spoken-word artist Staceyann Chin is a powerhouse of an artist. (Exhibits A, B, and C: Her mesmerizing Def Poetry Jam performance of If Only Out of Vanity.” Her essay “Paradise of Lies,” published in the New York Times. And her hit play “MotherStruck,” set to soon work its way through the festival circuit as a series. Need we say more?) Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you. She is a rare talent that can captivate you in an instant — both by the political gravity of the subjects she so fearlessly and intelligently dissects and her sharp, mesmerizing, and sometimes hysterical turns of phrase. Her “snap-elastic words” can leave anyone who’s ever written for a living marveling (and wishing they had come up with them first).

This same fire is seen throughout Crossfire: A Litany for Survival, Chin’s first full-length collection of poems. Weaving adeptly between verses about the intersection of love, sex, race, gender, feminism, trauma, sexuality, queerness, motherhood, oppression, and so much more, Crossfire is a foot-on-the-gas-pedal kind of eye-opening, from start to finish.

In “Tsunami Rising,” she writes of the “weeping white women” who stood behind Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement only once a rich white actress co-opted it — a heartbreaking address dripping with explanation and patience we don’t deserve, and a tired, frustrated anger that we do.

“We are unable to process our pain with you,” she writes, “Because we are exhausted from centuries/of holding you and your children.”

In “Zuri-Siale Samanaya” — named for her daughter, with whom she often records “Living Room Protests” — Chin reflects beautifully on raising a child who is both following in her activist footsteps but coming into her own as an individual:

I can hardly wait
to hear your voice
I expect us to rumble
to create generational bruises that will have to be survived

In “Raise the Roof,” Chin’s worries that this power will not be enough to carry her daughter safely through a world intent on silencing the voices of Black women are heartbreaking.

Every day I have to drown my fears
for my child/born Black and a girl in a country
in which her safety does not matter
to anyone with power

Among the book’s other standout gems are a reflection on 9/11 titled “September in New York” and a hilarious and incisive retort to the misogynist who harassed her on Twitter (aptly titled “Tweet This Motherfucker”). But really, there is no plateau in Chin’s collection of poems. Each page of Crossfire: A Litany For Survival is fire, soul, and just damn good writing.

When artists like Chin bare their souls to put the revolution to paper, it’s up to us to truly listen.

Crossfire

by Staceyann Chin
(Haymarket Books)

Crossfire: A Litany For Survival will be published as a paperback original on October 1, 2019 by Haymarket Books.

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Books

Book Review: The Disaster Artist – My Life Inside the Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made

I cannot recommend The Disaster Artist highly enough. It might be one of the best reads I’ve had in a very long time.

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In 2003, the world of filmmaking was shaken to its very foundations. Bursting onto the scene and blinding the city of Los Angeles and Hollywood like a renegade supernova, was a film that went by the insipid title of The Room.

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside the Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made is a book all about the making of that film. For those who haven’t seen The Room, the basic synopsis boils down to a ‘love triangle’ plot, between a banker, Johnny, his fiancée, Lisa, and the best friend, Mark. There’s romance, betrayal, drama and finally tragedy. Seems simple enough, right? Wrong.

The final instalment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy might’ve won all eleven Academy Awards that year, but it was The Room that still managed to be the talk of the town (and eventually, the world) amongst many filmgoers.

Don’t be mistaken, The Room wasn’t a sleeper hit or master class in filmmaking. In fact, it was the complete opposite. A train wreck so disastrous that it’s still being watched, studied and talked about, to this day. “So bad it’s good” and “The Citizen Kane of bad films” are quotes often thrown around whenever The Room is muttered.

What makes The Room so bad? Well, to put it bluntly, everything. From the acting to the directing, to the sets and continuity, is a consistency of abysmal filmmaking. Yet despite its terribleness, there remains a kind of loveable charm. Most of this charm seems to stem from the man who helmed the project, the weirdly fascinating and enigmatic, Tommy Wiseau. Wiseau was responsible for acting as the lead character, Johnny, writing, directing and producing The Room (Orson Welles, eat your heart out).

Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s book, The Disaster Artist, doesn’t start at the premier of The Room in Los Angeles, 2003. It starts instead a year earlier, with a lunch between Greg and Tommy, a lunch so bizarre and off-the-wall, that it almost reads like sketch comedy. It’s a day before official production is about to begin on The Room, and Tommy with genius-gusto, decides to offer Greg one of the lead roles in his film, as Mark, Johnny’s (Tommy’s character and fictionalized version of himself) best friend. A plan so flawless, until Greg reminds Tommy that the role is already cast.

In the next chapter, we are taken back to 1998 in San Francisco with Jean Shelton and her acting class, where Greg relates his early origins into acting and his dreams of “making it”. It’s here that he meets the one-and-only, Tommy Wiseau, for the very first time. They’d later on become acquainted with one-another, after Tommy steals the show by giving one of the most ludicrous renditions of the famous ‘Stella’ scene from A Streetcar Named Desire ever witnessed.

“Most bad performances are met with silence. This was something else. There were murmurs. There were giggles. Everyone in that basement studio knew they had just witnessed one of the most beautifully, chaotically wrong performances they would ever see.”


 – The Disaster Artist

What follows throughout the book is parallel storytelling, or intersecting storylines. One side focusing on the making of The Room, and the haphazard tyrannical way in which Tommy went about acting, directing and interacting with the cast and crew. The other, on the growing friendship and relationship between a young, Greg Sestero and not-so-young, Tommy Wiseau, both bonding on their dream and love for acting (and in particular, James Dean). Each storyline is as equally entertaining, funny and at times touching as one another.

The Disaster Artist is a book that doesn’t quite feel like it’s written from someone with journalistic prose looking-in on The Room, or the life of Tommy Wiseau. Instead, it’s a book written by someone who lived and breathed these experiences and moments. The final result is a raw and believable account, with a striking amount of humility and sincerity. The praise in this regard goes solely to Greg Sestero; he is quite possibly the best—and only—person capable of telling this story. His perspective is paramount to understanding the making of The Room, and Wiseau.

In terms of the content itself, there are many reasons why fans—or even those unfamiliar with The Room—might want to pick this up. For years, people have been baffled about almost every aspect of this film and the mysterious man behind it. From, “How did Tommy manage to get $6 million to fund this film?” to something as simple as “Just where in the hell is Tommy actually from?”

You don’t have to be familiar with the film itself, or even know a great deal about the players such as Tommy Wiseau to find this book enjoyable. After all, driving the engines is a timeless story, full of great characters and great moments.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It might be one of the best reads I’ve had in a very long time.

The Disaster Artist

by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell
(Simon & Schuster)

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