Published on September 18th, 2013 | by Michelle Tea0
The Hippest Mama: MUTHA Interviews ARIEL GORE
It’s a damn truth that MUTHA wouldn’t be on the internet and I wouldn’t be sitting here at my computer with a fertilized embryo floating around my Viagra-enhanced Uterus if it wasn’t for Ariel Gore. As a single mom attending Mills College in the 90s, Gore began the zine Hip Mama as her Senior project, and the initial 500 copies were gobbled straight up. She went on to establish Hip Mama as a print magazine which created such a fantastic splash MTV dragged her into a debate with Newt Gingrich about the needs and rights of single mothers, poor mothers and just plain mothers. While stewarding her alt-mom media empire, she also managed to put out more than half a dozen books and anthologies which are absolute staples to any bookshelf. If you are even thinking of being a mother you should grab The Hip Mama’s Survival Guide, which blew my mind when I read it at 27 by suggesting that I – me! – could have a baby! Even though I was a single person and queer and rather on the broke side. Of course it took me fifteen years to get around to trying it (and in my case this is really for the best), but the liberating text spoke so frankly about being broke and being a mom and being a feminist that it truly lodged the germ of a desire and the permission to become a mom in my brain, to gestate for a decade and a half.
Gore’s memoir Atlas of the Human Heart is one of my all-time favorite memoirs, to the extent that there is this one scene, where young Gore is alone in Tibet witnessing a particularly grisly death ritual, which haunts my psyche regularly. It is a beautiful book about the deadening affects of sexual violence and one teen girl’s nearly miraculous will to shock herself back to life. In Gore’s case she ran away – to China – and winds up homeless and pregnant with a charismatic European crusty punk, giving birth strapped down to an Italian hospital bed in one of the least Ina May-esque birth stories I have ever read.
And then there’s Gore’s writing instruction book, the only instruction book I ever work from while teaching writing or prescribe to sick writers in need of a shot of reality and inspiration. How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead covers everything from how to write a killer sentence to the sorts of zany things writers do to promote their books once they’re out in the world. It is truly a book that can take a writer from initial story inspiration to eventual book tour, covering I do believe every problem and scenario, with first-hand advice from a host of working writers (myself included).
Seventeen years after giving birth to her daughter, Gore had a son. She is in the process of preparing Hip Mama for a re-launch into the online world next year Her latest book, The End of Eve is a dark comedy about death, queer divorce, and green chile apple pie has been described as “Terms of Endearment” meets “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” I was so psyched that she found the time to chat with MUTHA. – Michelle Tea
MUTHA: I read The Hip Mama Survival Guide when I was in my 20s and it really did the trick of making pregnancy accessible. There is this feeling that if you don’t have the money to raise a kid it’s irresponsible to do so, and irresponsibility = bad mothering, so the logical outcome of this whole idea is that being broke is child abuse and only rich people are allowed to reproduce. I feel like part of your life’s work has been taking this on. Do you want to speak to it?
ARIEL GORE: When I had my first kid, Maia, I’d been traveling around the world and been hanging out with people raising kids in all kinds of conditions — and, you know, the kids in mud huts making their own toys out of broken bicycles weren’t any less happy or less healthy than the kids in penthouses with three nannies. When I got back to California with infant-Maia, I walked into the culture you’re talking about. There were articles in national magazines about how it took a million dollars to raise a kid and anyone on welfare or food stamps or working a normal-person job was seen as irresponsible if we were breeding. I rejected that. I reject that. I mean, obviously if you’re living in abject poverty with no access to social services and you’re going to have to sell your kid into exploitation, you’ve got to have another plan, but kids grow up in common poverty all over the world, and they do perfectly well. It’s insulting to suggest that working class people shouldn’t be allowed to have families. Kids don’t need new clothes and new toys. They just need food and shelter and hand-me-downs and someone to kick it with who thinks they’re cool.
MUTHA: You’ve been at the forefront of mothering issues for so long now, can you speak to some of the major changes, both good and evil, that you’ve seen?
ARIEL GORE: Well, the consumerism thing has just gotten worse and worse. I cannot believe all the products they try to sell you now as must-haves. I was shopping for a baby monitor a couple of years ago because my mom was dying and she couldn’t get out of bed and she had a too-big house. In the old days baby monitors were these cheap walky-talky things. Now I could have spent a thousand bucks. As far as I’m concerned, if you can’t hear your kid, you need a smaller house.
Security and blame-mom culture is extremely hard on parents, too. We’ve got this constant message that the world’s not safe. And this constant message that everything is the parent’s responsibility. Kids don’t play outside anymore. Instead they play violent video games. You’ve got your neighbors armed to the teeth. You have fast-food marketers working overtime to sell your kids poison and then obesity is somehow the parent’s fault. This just isn’t a human-friendly culture. And having kids is all about being pro-human! So there’s this disconnect.
The antidote to all that is in social justice culture, which is getting more and more inclusive if I may speak generally. Pick up the book Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind edited by China Martens and Victoria Law. Whether you have kids of your own or not, that’s a book full of concrete ways to make the world more human-friendly.
MUTHA: You’ve managed to produce a bunch of books while raising a kid. How did you figure that out, what worked for you?
ARIEL GORE: If you’re going to be an artist and a mom you have to get over the need for financial security. You have to have a basic faith there. You have to have some bread-and-butter work that you do, of course, but you have to be willing to live very simply so that there’s time to kind of loaf around and dream and work your ass off on creative projects that may or may not pay that much.
MUTHA: You had another kid! What was that decision process like for you? And how was your birth different from your first?
ARIEL GORE: I always meant to have a second kid, and Maia was just about to start her junior year in high school so I figure now was the time! I’d be pregnant her junior year and have the baby home her senior year and they would have that time together. So my girlfriend at the time and I asked a friend to donor-up and I was super-lucky and got knocked up quickly — I think we tried 5 cycles or something — and there we had it. Baby boy. Of course Maia graduated from high school a year early and ended up moving out to go to college a couple of days before he was born.
I had only been a teen mom before, so I must admit that I thought most pregnant women were really whiny. But being pregnant at 37 was whine-worthy! My god, I needed sleep and food and yoga.
MUTHA: What is the piece of parenting advice you find yourself giving out most frequently?
ARIEL GORE: Advice? Don’t worry about it.
There’s no one-way-is-right. You bring your personality to your family and that’s enough. You feed your kids and you protect them from abuse and then from there you wing it.
MUTHA: Is Portland a great place to raise kids?
ARIEL GORE: It is. Portland felt more family-friendly than the Bay Area when I moved there in 2000. But I don’t live there anymore. I left there for Santa Fe a few years ago to take care of my mom. Now that my mom passed, we’re moving back to the Bay. But things are slow-going because I’ve got more of a clan. It’s the problem of the modern family — have to move kids, exes, currents — but it’s happening. Be there by spring.
MUTHA: What is the most challenging conversation you had to have with your daughter?
ARIEL GORE: Maia’s had to deal with a lot of death in her life and that’s been the hardest. She lost her dad and both my parents and my grandmother, who she was very close with, in what felt like a very short period of time as she was coming of age. She hadn’t seen her father in many years, but it was rough.
As the mom in such a now-small family it does inspire you to remember to buckle your seat belt and sober up and try to stay alive.
MUTHA: Are there beliefs you had that you learned through trial and error didn’t work?
ARIEL GORE: I think in part because I came to parenting young I didn’t start with hard-and-fast beliefs. It’s funny because I’ve had girlfriends over the years, none of whom had kids of their own, and they sure had beliefs about parenting! I have never gotten such adamant parenting advice from anyone who wasn’t trying to date me. A word to anyone trying to date a single mom: Shut up and help.
MUTHA: Have you gotten into any fights with right-wing Republicans lately?
ARIEL GORE: No. Family diversity is so much more visible now. I’m sure there are still plenty of bigots out there, but they don’t come at me with quite the same venom as they used to. Plus I don’t leave the house as much as I used to.
MUTHA: When you began Hip Mama in college did you have an inkling you were setting out on something that would be your life’s work?
ARIEL GORE: Not when I started it, but when the magazine got going I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. And when I gave it up a few years ago I missed the work terribly. I’m super excited to be back at the helm, feeling like I have my real work back.
MUTHA: Have you traveled a bunch with your kids? Any tips about that?
ARIEL GORE: Yes. I’ve traveled a lot with both kids. I travel for work, book tours and whatnot, but also just for fun and adventure. It’s really what I spend my money on when there is any — books and travel — so maybe we never had a new car or a television or fancy toys, but when there was money there were always books and trips to Italy or Thailand or Mexico.
MUTHA: How does your older kid feel about the new baby?
ARIEL GORE: They’re super cute together. It’s funny because when I had Maia, everyone assumed I was the nanny. Now when Maia and Max are out together, people often assume that Maia is his mom and I’m the grandma.
Maybe I just had Max because Maia didn’t do me proud and become a teen mother! I mean, I should be a grandma by now.
MUTHA: You backed out of Hip Mama for a moment. How come?
ARIEL GORE: After I had Max, my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer and I was going to be her caregiver, too, so ironically that’s when I had to give up Hip Mama. Because I was overwhelmed with caregiving work. But I just did a high Kickstarter campaign and got Hip Mama back for relaunch in 2014. You can get a subscription to the new Hip Mama at hipmamazine.com.
ARIEL GORE: I adore teaching.
I think it’s still the hardest thing to write the way we talk. I learned so much from your writing and from the writing culture we came of age in in the Bay Area about the importance of an authentic voice. Nobody wants to hear you try to sound like an English gentleman. They want to hear you. I think a lot of young writers still see writing as an elitist profession, so the instinct is to try and use big words instead of telling our own real stories.
I had a student at the Institute of American Indian Art who said she interviewed you and your advice was not to get into a relationship until you’re where you want to be in your writing career. I don’t know if it’s try that you said that, but I think it’s excellent advice.
Don’t get married!
MUTHA: You are so many people’s mom hero, who are yours?
ARIEL GORE: I appreciate the mothers I’ve known who’ve been able to be themselves through it all. To make art and revolution and do good work and refuse to see that as conflicting with parenting. You can be a caregiver without getting swallowed by the caregiving. And that’s the task. When I was pregnant with Maia when I was a teenager I read all of Maya Angelou’s memoirs, and that’s the teen-mom-writer who inspired me and that’s where Maia gets her name.
MUTHA: What do you think is the biggest political threat to moms today?
ARIEL GORE: Well, it all comes down to greed, doesn’t it? Empire and environmental negligence and racist wars and wages that are so hard to raise families on come down to greedy colonist assholes.
Motherhood is about generosity and the idea that you can work your butt off for something other than yourself and there’s intrinsic reward in that.
MUTHA: What are you reading right now?
ARIEL GORE: I’m reading some slave narratives. Getting reading to teach a memoir class. People always point to St. Augustine as being the father of memoir, but if he is I think he was sort of an absent father. The American memoir is descendent more from slave narratives than from Christian confessions.
MUTHA: What parenting books helped you?
ARIEL GORE: Parenting books didn’t help me that much. What helped and helped me think about family and raising kids in a big-picture kind of a way was reading memoirs. You see what makes an impact. Emotional and physical abuse and self-centered neglect make huge impacts. Bringing in jerks for step parents makes an impact. Kids aren’t always as resilient as Americans like to claim they are.
Travel and food and honesty and love even when it has to work hard all day make an impact.
Whether you potty train your kid at 2 or 3 doesn’t seem to make an impact. Whether or not you get the latest diapering system or the $300 stroller doesn’t make an impact. No one ever writes about those things in their memoir. Getting impatient with your kid sometimes doesn’t make an impact. Most of the little things we get neurotic about day to day as parents don’t really have long-term consequences for our kids.
Reading Diane DiPrima helped, too. Poetry is the best self-help.
MUTHA: How do you pick your next project?
ARIEL GORE: I think a lot of my work has been about chronically life-cycle stuff in real time. So my projects are always very much based in whatever’s going on in my world. The opportunity to get Hip Mama back just kind of appeared and I was like — YES! — the time was right.
MUTHA: What are you obsessed with right now?
ARIEL GORE: How to move back to the Bay Area without any more money than I had when I left.
MUTHA: Is there anything you’re going to consciously do differently with your new baby?
ARIEL GORE: The new baby is 6 now and he has another parent so I only have him half time. That’s different because I was really a full-time single mom with Maia. Other than that I find that I am just more chill. I was under a lot of pressure as a teen mom to do everything right and be a perfect mother because everyone I met said I would fail. I had a lot to prove. Now I don’t really have anything to prove. I find that kids are very much themselves and, you know, you feed them and you protect them from abuse and you remember to tell them when it occurs to you that they are great and the rest is more about their astrological charts than anything you do or don’t do.
MUTHA: What’s your sign?
ARIEL GORE: Cancer. The mama.