Published on October 16th, 2013 | by Meg Lemke0
Dare to be Heinie! AYUN HALLIDAY Talks to MUTHA
I started reading the zine in my early twenties, when I was dreaming and dreaming of moving to NYC. Halliday’s memoir The Big Rumpus lodged in my imagination and aspirations—I wanted that bohemian-mama life someday. She captures being hugely preggers in the city streets, going from birthing centers to the NICU (and home again with a three-thumbed wonder-baby), from one child to two in a tiny apartment—raising curious, happy, traveling kids, wearing a sling on the subway, nursing in concrete parks, culinary experiments and the urban social theater, and how she managed to never lose her creative self in it all.
She somehow wrote and published seven (SEVEN!) books since becoming a mother and maintaining the primary care of her offspring, including The Zinester’s Guide to NYC, No Touch Monkey: And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late, and most recently her debut young-adult graphic novel, Peanut.
So: I eventually got here (well, to Brooklyn), and I got pregnant—and as I re-read Ayun with the reality of it upon me, her inspiration was fresh, newly terrifying, and still hilarious (she actually gets listeria like they say you will! and she writes labor pains pretty precisely—as painful). Now my daughter Lola declares “I do it my own-self” just like Inky did. Have I subtly coached her to follow this literary role—or is it toddler destiny? I’m such a gushing fan of Ayun’s; when I ran into her on the F-train platform recently I got so excited that I think she suspected I’d been following her. Well, I have, and I recommend you all start to, too. My huge thanks to Ayun for agreeing to talk to MUTHA. — Yours, Meg Lemke
MUTHA: The East Village Inky zine started when your daughter Inky turned one. Now she is 16 and Milo is 13. What made you start EVI?
AYUN HALLIDAY: This is a question I get asked a lot. The short answer is that after a decade of childless low budget theater, I was desperate for another ongoing, identity-forging creative project.
MUTHA: What has it mean to you?
AYUN HALLIDAY: It has definitely shaped and cemented my identity as a friendly outsider, someone who’s rarely been considered punk enough for the folks who review zines for maximumrocknroll, and has never been mainstream enough to swim in conventional waters. It has netted me a superlative bunch of readers and friends. It’s documented the minutiae of early motherhood and my children’s childhood, as well as certain other life events–the ascendancy of Greg’s musical, Urinetown, various travels, and New York City locales of personal significance. Oh, and it played a large part in me getting a contract to write my first book, The Big Rumpus.
MUTHA: You write about both your kids being unplanned—but then so deeply loved. What’s the best part of being a mama? (Also how did you manage not to have ten kids at that rate of slippage?)
AYUN HALLIDAY: I’ve led a pretty lucky life, knock knock. (Or knocked up squared, as the case may be). For me, the timing of those unplanned pregnancies was fortunate, as several others within our circle had had children, and it seemed unimaginable that we’d ever find ourselves in the sort of financially responsible position you’re supposed to be in when starting a family. (We’re also not too hot in the organization department)
What I find best is evolving. I’ve always enjoyed the physical proximity. I currently get a lot out of introducing India (that’s Inky’s real name) to movies I love, and I get a lot out of studying history with Milo, and hanging with his and my homeschool friends, both teen and adult. I also like the sense of being connected to a larger community. There are strangers with whom I have very little in common on paper, but we share a bond as parents… it colors the way I read certain stories or view certain historical events. It’s enriched my life, even as it sucks every last drop of energy.
MUTHA: What drives you crazy? What do you worry about?
AYUN HALLIDAY: So much drives me crazy. The small stuff in particular can summon Bitchmother.
Sometimes I see my own bad tendencies playing out in the kids and it makes me unreasonably irritated… with them.
I both do and don’t worry about the garden variety stuff: grades, happiness, navigating the subway, losing expensive electronic equipment… actually that last comes under small stuff. The lost electronics drive me nuts, as do the lost Metrocards, the lost thermoses…
I don’t worry about paying for college, because the numbers seem so inconceivable as to be unreal. I’m allowing myself to be a bit of the grasshopper there, in hope that Greg will take on the role of ant.
I don’t worry about drugs. India has a medical condition that precludes experimentation, and Milo, who can be quite a rebel with regard to other things, is outspoken in his opposition. I often find myself defending medical marijuana to him. When he was little, I bought this book called It’s Just a Plant—mostly as a favor to a very supportive independent bookseller who had a connection to the author. I intended to give it to a friend as a gag baby shower gift. Then I got to thinking, maybe that’s not the kind of gag that would be appreciated. In the meantime, my children appropriated the book… and Milo has been indignant about its contents ever since. I think he regards bringing that home as one of my worst missteps ever… along with taking him up a rickety bell tower in Croatia, sending his sister to a middle school that didn’t pan out the way we’d hoped…
Then there’s the worst-thing-that-could-possibly-happen worries, the everything-could-change-in-a-second worries… I don’t impose limits based on these sorts of what-ifs, but privately, I can’t tear my eyes away when I see them unfolding in the newspaper, or on Facebook. I’m also drawn to these sorts of catastrophes in literature and at the movies—what could be more dramatic, more deeply emotional?
MUTHA: You decided to homeschool Milo. How is that going? Is it what you expected?
AYUN HALLIDAY: It’s going great, primarily thanks to a bunch of kids he befriended about a month in. (I can actually pinpoint the date–it was his first rehearsal for an all-homeschooled production of Oliver, in which he played Mr. Bumble and one of Fagin’s boys.) Without them, and their parents, I think the experience would be much less rich.
I guess I thought it would be us sitting around at a tidy little desk, with color-coded folders and dedicated chunks of time each day. I thought we’d both be speaking Spanish. (As the more dedicated pupil, I can now say “My crab drinks beer and eats rice with tomato.”) I thought we’d go to the library and pick out books on certain subjects. It’s winding up to be much more freeform and experiential.
For me, the greatest outcome is that he is so happy—it changes the way he interacts with the world. His membrane is much more permeable now.
Inky, meanwhile, is in her junior year at LaGuardia, the Fame school. Her workload is very, very heavy, and can seem more so when compared to her brother’s. But, this dichotomy has kept me from becoming a homeschooling zealot. There are many ways to skin a cat. What’s right for one child and parent is not necessarily right for all.
MUTHA: One of the most amazing things about EVI is we’ve watched your kids grow up.
AYUN HALLIDAY: Ha ha, just like For Better or Worse.
MUTHA: While you look the same or better (it’s CRAZY).
AYUN HALLIDAY: You’re too kind, not to mention a liar.
MUTHA: Tell us more about them. Do they surprise you at all? When I read now about Inky, she gives me hope about my future teenage-girl.
AYUN HALLIDAY: Sure, they surprise me all the time.
I think we were all surprised when Milo—who re: his sisters audition for La Guardia, remarked, “Tell you one thing, I’m not gonna be a frickin’ actor. I may be a chef.”—did a 180 and started identifying as a theater kid.
I’m pleasantly surprised by Inky’s against-the-grain sense of style, by her taste in entertainment… even though I see how peer-wise, this can make for a harder row to hoe in the short term.
I was surprised and dismayed that Milo hated to write, and am relieved to see it becoming less of an obstacle. (Would this be a place for his proud mother to plug his blog, The Graphic Novelologist? If you or your children are moved to comment, I’d be much obliged. Takes a village.)
I’m surprised when history repeats itself.
I’m surprised by all the stuff that they know and I don’t. (I assure you it wasn’t me who taught the boy about dinosaurs. I had no idea he was even interested.)
MUTHA: What do Inky and Milo think of EVI and The Big Rumpus, etc.? Especially now that they are tween/teens? I’m just starting to write more publicly about my small daughter. Will she be mad at me later, is what I’m asking?
AYUN HALLIDAY: You’d do better to consult a Magic Eight Ball.
I’ve always tried to walk the line between trying to second guess and respect their privacy and not muzzling myself just because I gave birth. A lot of things went unsaid in my own childhood.
It’s a shared life. I’m free to talk about it. They’re free to talk about it. Hopefully we consider the effect on the other person or persons, choose what to share…
There have been times when India—who for a long time was the more extroverted of the two—seemed a bit put out by my spin on something that concerned us both. Simultaneously, she seemed to enjoy her status as someone who was written about.
She’s an avid reader, and an avid, enormously talented writer… if she wants to treat me to some of my own medicine, I can’t complain. She wrote about her experience for Babble a few years back. Got paid for it too. When she said, “There’s nothing I know that Mama won’t write about” I cringed a little, because there’s so much I did–and do–choose to leave out.
These days, she seems to really dig the zine. Is it the new comic format? Maturing sensibilities? I don’t know, but I’m glad that this is her response.
Milo has only recently betrayed an interest in the zine. For a while he seemed to be on a mission for things he could claim were “insulting”—usually he would find what he was looking for in a verbatim word bubble. Now, the zine has fans among his homeschool friends, and that has made him view the project in a very positive light.
MUTHA: “Advice to Fathers” seems to be falling off. What’s up with that? Tell Greg he is missed.
AYUN HALLIDAY: He’ll be glad to hear it. It’s mostly a matter of deadlines. Like, I can’t be waiting around forever for him to get me his copy. Also, that advice of his takes forever to illustrate, and he is as demanding as the most demanding editor. Draw me as an ancient Greek hero! Draw me as a caveman! And don’t draw me bad! Draw me good!
But I will be sure to reserve a couple of pages for him in Issue 54, with your compliments.
MUTHA: Tell us about Peanut. What was your inspiration, process, and how has the response been to the book?
AYUN HALLIDAY: I’m a graphic-novel enthusiast, and I knew I wanted to write something for young teens. I can’t remember precisely how I came up with the idea for a story about a girl who fakes a peanut allergy, though I do remember where I was when the first sentence came into focus, after which I was free to write the book.
I wrote it during India’s first three months of middle school. I would escort her to the East Village, then hang out in the basement of this cafe for about six hours, working away. Saved on subway fare.
The response has been good. Apparently it plays well with people who are fans of Raina Telgemeier’s work. I spent a week on Random House’s Random Buzzers site, and that was nervewracking because I knew there would be at least one kid who’d say, “I have a serious peanut allergy and it’s not a joke” and at least fifty kids who’d say, “I’d never lie to make people like me. If people don’t like me for who I am, that’s their problem!’
Anyway, I’m halfway through another one–not a full on graphic novel, but an illustrated novel for teens. Homeschooling is slowing me down, but I’m not ready to declare defeat just yet!
MUTHA: Why didn’t you illustrate Peanut—what was that relationship like, with the cartoonist Paul Hoppe?
AYUN HALLIDAY: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, with regard to technical specifications. I figured it would take too long. And mathematically, I was willing to accept the conventional wisdom that two fanbases can translate to increased book sales.
Ironically, it took more than two years for Paul Hoppe to illustrate it, presumably because giant crowd scenes and rows and rows of lockers don’t just draw themselves. And he had to take other jobs to eat.
It’s our joint creation, even though our collaboration was minimal. I wrote it, rewrote it, rewrote it some more, and then after he passed an audition of several panels, he illustrated it. I would bump into him at various comic festivals, and I’d be like, “oh, uh… ha ha… Paul, how’s that baby of ours coming along?” I didn’t know if it was kosher for me to ask to see his progress, and didn’t want to breach etiquette if it wasn’t. I know, how Midwestern of me. And he has these flawless European manners. So we just sort of cooled our heels until the galleys came out.
MUTHA: What are your favorite zines right now? And books, comics, music, theater?
AYUN HALLIDAY: There are so many! In the interest of time, I will force myself to be terse.
You Don’t Get There From Here by Carrie McNinch
Shards of Glass in Your Eye by Kari Tervo
anything by Robyn Jordan
anything by Ben Snakepit
I’m on a deep Steinbeck kick right now. Cannery Row is my new fave.
Lynda Barry is a perennial fave.
And ever since India left the Cambridge School Shakespeare edition of Romeo and Juliet in the bathroom, I’ve been sitting there, digging into various scenes, marveling at how much more I get out of them now than I did when I was a 20-year-old acting major at Northwestern. I used to want to play Juliet. Now I want to play the Nurse. Anyone who wants to cast me should contact me directly. Seriously.
I love me some Amanda Palmer, some Gogol Bordello. But I will listen to just about anything. I put that iPod on random play and enjoy whatever comes up, imagining it to be the soundtrack to my life. A few issues back I did an all music issue of the East Village Inky. If you want to feel deeply uncool… be me, and put out an all music ish.
Anyone who’s in New York City should get their ayuss to the People’s Improv Theater where Greg’s new show, Give the People What The Want will be running from October 10 to Nov 1 – four performances only!
You didn’t ask about television, but I’m here to tell you that Louie is phenomenal—the humor, his willingness to bare so much, the casting… all of it!
MUTHA: I see you as part of a Hip Mama movement, and some of the best years of Seal Press; voices that were so inspiring for me when I was in my 20s and looking ahead in my life, and particularly now that I’m in my 30s with a young child. Who have been your mama icons?
AYUN HALLIDAY: I’m not sure how many mama icons I have had, but I do remember that I felt affirmed reading Fruitful by Anne Roiphe, The Mother Trip by Ariel Gore, and The Bluejay’s Dance by Louise Erdrich. It was wonderful that the first two acknowledged how physically exhausting it is to have a baby… the sleep deprivation, the feeling that you’re on a treadmill, the lugging…
I had little tolerance for Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions when I was pregnant in 1997, but I really liked it on a second read through after I had a kid.
And I would like to give a holler to my friend Muffy Bolding, who has a blog airing whatever’s on her mind in an irresistibly unrepentant, foul-mouthed way. Not only is she extremely funny, she’s unequivocating in her support of mothers, children, young women, maligned celebrity women, families living in poverty, and anyone who’s marginalized on a regular basis. It’s my fantasy that she would move to NYC so we could get together for coffee on a regular basis.
MUTHA: You moved from the East Village to Brooklyn; are you staying put?
AYUN HALLIDAY: No, we’ll be on the move again soon, I expect. 14 years with four people and a cat sharing one closet is perhaps more than is advisable. Sadly, both Greg and I hate looking for real estate, and India is soon to fly the coop, having spent all but her first 3 years sharing a room barely larger than the bunk bed it contains with her younger brother.
MUTHA: You had amazing birth stories. What advice would you give to a pregnant mama-to-be?
AYUN HALLIDAY: Don’t look for negatives to define the experience. If you hate everything about it except for one thing, let that one thing be what carries you forward.
MUTHA: What about advice to mama-artists/writers/actresses (or those wanting to be mamas)?
AYUN HALLIDAY: You’re not alone, keep on truckin’, remind yourself that you’re grateful for what you have and have faith that it gets easier.
MUTHA: Do you see yourself as political—as a feminist?
AYUN HALLIDAY: Jesus… yes! What the hell kind of question is that? I AM A FEMINIST!!!!!! A monogamous, married, humanist feminist who’s had hairy pits on and off, who wants everyone to have affordable healthcare and access to the arts and a decent education regardless of what color they are or whether or not they eat animals! It drives me wild when people try to dodge feminism like it’s some sort of compromising label.
MUTHA: Anything else? Anything at all?
AYUN HALLIDAY: Only that it’s deeply helpful to me if people subscribe to the zine, for themselves and for their friends. Costs less than a movie, and results in actual mail in your mailbox. Dare to be heinie!