Writing Out Loud with Periel Aschenbrand
New York City, New York
I met Periel Aschenbrand at one of her book signings in New York City. She read passages from The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own and had me laughing at her humorous, real life stories. Her book not only entertains but attempts to break down stereotypes or taboos while discussing issues such as sexuality and religion. Periel is also politically conscious as the founder of BODY AS BILLBOARD, a T-shirt company, that aims to have the messages women wear across their chests actually say something meaningful.
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
PA: I don't know if I ever "realized" I wanted to be a writer. When I was in college, I started writing and I enjoyed it. So I kept doing it.
CCB: What is it that you enjoy about writing? Is it that you can express yourself uncensored and share your ideas with others?
PA: I enjoy the solitude, the creating something out of nothing. I enjoy creating and recounting and knowing (hoping) that I can reach someone somewhere, make them laugh, make them THINK. And of course, that no one is bossing me around.
CCB: Why work in this field?
PA: I'm not really qualified to do much else!
CCB: What is your Masters in? Have you been able to use that in your career?
PA: My Masters is in Creative Writing. Specifically, Poetry. But while I was in graduate school, I managed to take a whole slew of courses with Monique Wittig, and so I always joke that my Masters is actually more in Wittigian Theory rather than Creative Writing.
CCB: What is a typical day on the job as a writer?
PA: Wake up. Espresso. Cigarette. If all goes well, bathroom. And then email. And more email. Because of BODY AS BILLBOARD, I don't really think my "life as a writer" is exactly typical-- I spend a ton of time working on BAB projects.
CCB: Please give a brief overview of your career so far.
PA: My writing "career" started when I got signed with my agent who then tried to sell my first book (a book of essays) which never sold (thank god). During this period, I was living in a dump of an apartment in Los Angeles trying to write screenplays (which never happened). While my agent was trying to sell my first book, I started (and finished) a second book, which is The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own. I was extraordinarily lucky to have found (or, actually, my agent found) Ken Siman, my editor, who purchased the manuscript and worked tirelessly with me on it. The tee shirt business blew up for me totally accidentally and that helped bring attention to the book as the two are quite connected. Both deal with words, just placed on different mediums.
CCB: Have you had any mentors in your career?
PA: Monique Wittig, James Baldwin, Larry Kramer, Barbara Kruger, bell hooks, and the list goes on. In short, yes. Many.
CCB: Can you talk about what the mentoring process means to you having been mentored and also trying to help others?
PA: I don't think you can TRY to be a mentor. At least for me, this has been a much more organic process. You find someone, somehow, who speaks to you--who reaches you on some level--someone you admire. And you try to be like them. For me, these have been people who I consider to be warriors of sorts. . . Monique Wittig, James Baldwin, Larry Kramer. People who have triumphed in the face of diversity.
CCB: How did you learn about writing?
PA: I was a Communication major in college and had an amazing professor named Dr. David Williams who taught a course called Literature as Communication. I started writing "stream of consciousness" type bits for that class. I was reading a lot of Bukowski at the time (actually, I think I read every book he ever wrote) and was very influenced by that. Then I switched over to poetry for a while but that medium never really felt that natural for me.
CCB: What makes a quality writer?
PA: I don't think I can answer that question. It's like asking what makes a good painter.
CCB: Did you know before you began writing your book that you would talk about your life? What allows you to speak so openly about your self; is that just your personality?
PA: My book is definitely a reflection of my personality but I never "planned" on writing a particular kind of book.
CCB: How do your friends and family feel about being portrayed in the book?
PA: Some have handled it better than others though most people have been very gracious with allowing me to smear their names.
CCB: Do you find that it is easier to get your message out with humor and clever plays on words? (In your writing as well as your clothing)
PA: Yes. Again, none of this is contrived. I don't labor over writing or spend months trying to figure things out. It's much more organic than that and I hardly edit myself at all which I'm sure doesn't come as a big surprise to anyone who is familiar with my work.
CCB: How do you come up with the ideas for your T-shirts? Do you think about an issue that you’d like to talk about and then brainstorm?
CCB: Where do you see your clothing company going from here?
CCB: Are you trying to get your t-shirts into Target stores?
PA: I'd be happy to have my shirts disseminated on that wide of a level.
CCB: What have you learned in having a clothing line?
PA: Because I never set out to have a clothing line and never really knew anything about the industry, I have learned a ton.
CCB: Do you wish you had known things you know now when you started?
PA: Probably not. If I knew some of the things I know now, I probably never would have started making shirts. It's an enormous task.
CCB: Where does your political activism stem from?
PA: I grew up in the city and was exposed to the gritty side of life from a very early age and realized that it was really due to chance that I was so fortunate and it seemed to me that it was my responsibility to do what I could to try and make things better.
CCB: (The following quote is from Periel’s book.)
“Because I think identifying solely with religion, rather than with the culture or traditions of religion, draws people apart, highlights their differences instead of bringing them together.” (p. 39)
I agree with the sentiment expressed above and think you do a great job in bringing issues to light so we can discuss them. Apart from talking what do you think is necessary to help bring us together especially in such an age of separation?
PA: James Baldwin once said that we are "smashing taboos without being liberated from them" and I think that sums it up very well. For example, people watch shows like Will & Grace and Ellen and think they're really funny but meanwhile, gay people are still totally oppressed.
CCB: If you could get one message across to young people today what would it be?
PA: That they should pay attention to the fact that their bodies are being used to do advertising for corporations that have spent millions of dollars figuring out how to get them to wear their clothes. That every decision they make actually supports something and that they should figure out what they are supporting and that they should know that if they want to find out what the fuck is going on in this world, they need to do independent research.
CCB: Do some people misunderstand you because of the shirts you make or your writing? Seeing you as a feminist with the negative stereotypes associated with it?
PA: I think where I stand is pretty clear.
CCB: Have any advice for people interested in becoming a writer?
PA: I think anyone can be a writer. We are brainwashed in school that there is a very particular way to write and if you don't write that way then you're not a "good" writer. Anyone who can speak fluently can write.
CCB: How did it feel the first time you read in front of an audience?
PA: Like I was going to throw up.
CCB: What was the process like of getting your book published?
PA: Long and arduous.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
PA: Staying organized and on top of everything.
CCB: What has been the coolest thing about the job so far?
PA: Letters I get from young women and former students telling me that my class or my shirts or my book has impacted them in a positive way and inspired them to get involved themselves.
CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about your job? What surprised you the most?
PA: I don't think I realized how much it entails to publish a book or make T-shirts. . . I thought, you write the book, you make the shirts and that's the end of it. But actually, that's just the first step. There are, like, nine million other things that you need to do so that everything can actually happen.
CCB: Is there anything you aspire towards career-wise?
PA: I'd feel very fortunate if I could continue to do what I'm doing.
CCB: What do you having come up? You are working on The Knockout Project to combat violence against women. You just released your book, is there another book in progress?
PA: I'm working on The Knockout Project and will work on another book soon. I have a reading/performance at the Virgin Megastore in NYC at Union Square on Sept. 22 so I'm getting ready for that and if all goes well; I'll launch a new line of shirts soon.
CCB: Will the new book follow a similar format to your current book as far as it being a collection of your observations on life?
PA: Too early to say.
Visit Periel's web site: http://www.perielaschenbrand.com