Lindy West sharpens comic edge to slice through taboo

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      Lindy West is a funny woman. Let’s not fight about it—I’m looking at you, Twitter! But as the Seattle-based writer has cut a path for herself as an outspoken columnist at Jezebel, the Guardian, and GQ, publishing witty, loudmouthed, and incisive opinions on topics like feminism, fat acceptance, and, most famously, whether it’s okay to make rape jokes (spoiler: usually not), she has been forced to give up the “funny” part of her self-image. As she recounts in her first book, a collection of personal essays entitled Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, her “identity as a funny person—the most important thing in my life—didn’t survive” her politicization.

      But, as West tells the Straight over the phone from one of her book-tour stops in San Francisco, Shrill is a vindication of her comic being. “There was definitely a part of me, when I was getting ready to write this book, that really wanted to just nail it. Just make it really undeniably funny… I wanted to make something that can’t be argued with.” But to call Shrill simply funny would do it a disservice; it’s also a bold, revealing memoir that goes waist-deep into hard-to-talk-about and often taboo topics like body shame, periods, abortion, and death. “It’s a pretty dark book in a lot of ways,” West confirms. “And humour has always been my personal coping mechanism. So there wasn’t really a way around it. If I’m going to go that dark, I have to pack it with jokes, because otherwise I can’t deal.”

      West found her writing voice (which, in Shrill, she likens to a “human vuvuzela”) at Seattle’s alt-weekly the Stranger under editor Dan Savage—imagine a bizarro-world Georgia Straight where high-level snark is mandatory and the editor is an internationally syndicated sex-advice columnist, and you’ve got the picture. “The Stranger was never afraid to be really aggressively satirical,” West explains. “Dan really shaped that sensibility, too. I credit the culture Dan created for a lot of my development as a writer.” It was at the Stranger that West wrote the scathing, hilarious takedown of Sex and the City 2 that won her widespread recognition (though she distances herself from it a little now, saying, “There are a lot of jokes in there that I wouldn’t make today. When I wrote that, I was still on the tail end of wanting to be edgy”).

      The paper was also the setting for the online battle that people jokingly refer to as the “Lindy West Origin Story”. It goes like this: in 2009, Dan Savage took on the “obesity epidemic” as a personal cause in his columns, and West—after privately informing him, to no avail, that he was making her feel like shit—“came out” as fat on the Stranger’s website and took him to task for what she saw as his bigoted opinions. West devotes a full chapter in Shrill to this, the moment she found her footing as a political writer. In it, she manages to thoroughly tear down Savage, while still being respectful. But it’s an old war, and when West told him the episode would be in the book, he took it with grace. “It wasn’t like I thought we were going to reignite our feud or anything,” she says. “It’s just an awkward thing to navigate.”

      It’s impossible to talk about West’s work without talking about trolls. After the Stranger, as she moved to national platforms like Jezebel and her voice on the Internet became louder, trolls flocked to her like zombies on The Walking Dead to a human who has accidentally sneezed. In her book, West likens her daily battle against them to her little-girl fantasy-novel dream of slaying evil with a broadsword—“I do fight monsters,” she says. But despite the carnage, West has learned that what she gets out of baring her soul online—the possibility of offering other women encouragement and solace—is worth the risk of verbal abuse from egg avatars. “I don’t care what some horrible, random person on Twitter thinks about me. They can certainly be frustrating and alarming, but I don’t care about their opinions,” she says. Yet, in writing Shrill, the absence of those nagging, threatening voices made space for her to really be honest. “It made it easier to write about things that I find difficult to talk about, because it’s easy to say those things to yourself, alone in your house. And I hope that that sort of candour made it a better book. I feel like I certainly reached farther than I normally do. I definitely gave more of myself than I normally do.”

      Now that Shrill—a book six years in the making—has been published, the future is wide-open for West. “First, I’m going to go on vacation,” she enthuses, “because my husband and I got married almost a year ago and we haven’t gone on a honeymoon.” But, tellingly, she’s eager to get back to work. “I really enjoyed working on this book, and now that I know how to do it and it’s not quite as scary, I’m excited to write another one,” she says. “I mean, I might try to write fiction—there’s another idea. Well… don’t hold me to that.”

      I won’t. But there are monsters to battle, and someone’s gotta write about them.

      Lindy West discusses Shrill at a sold-out event at the Fox Cabaret on Wednesday (June 8).