bill berry, jr.:
Janet Mason, it is such a pleasure to be able to chat with you. I hope you enjoy this process because I suspect I will…big time!
So, to get your creative juices flowing, your work in aaduna has an intriguing intensity, subtle edginess, and a provocative premise. Since a lot of folks feel that writers borrow liberally from their own lives, how “intense and provocative” is your daily existence and do you see any aspects of your personal sensibilities in your realization of characters once you have completed a piece?
First off, thanks bill for your compliments about my work in aaduna. I feel honored that you described it as having an “intriguing intensity,” “subtle edginess,” and a “provocative premise.” The inspiration for my novel She And He, which “The Mother” came from, reflects several sources. I review books for The Huffington Post and the radio syndicate “This Way Out” based in Los Angeles, and three of the books I reviewed that influenced me were on transgender topics. The other major influence was reading the Bible pretty much for the first time which gave me a fresh take on it.
I wanted to write something fun and upbeat based on this landscape — and come to think of it, I did put a fair amount of myself into it. I am tall and because of my height and angularity, I am frequently called “Sir.” And though I identify as female, I have always identified with male and female interests. When I was a child, I had an imaginary friend who was a boy my age who lived in my mind. I actually didn’t think of this until now, but this must have influenced my thinking of having a line of intersex characters that are born in “The Mother” and the intersexed twins Tamar and Yeshua. Tamar, the narrator of the story, indentifies primarily as female but is born intersexed. And her brother, Yeshua (Hebrew for Jesus) identifies as male but was born intersexed.
I think my life is pretty normal — normal for me! I spent a lot of time alone writing and I also garden (this summer I planted and harvested a lot of pumpkins and carnival squash). My partner, who I live in an old farmhouse with, is retired from the postal system, and is a fabulous cook. I take long walks everyday and do yoga and a Buddhist meditation practice almost daily, so my day to day is pretty tame but it suits me.
It is interesting that reading the Bible for the first time had an influence on you, so it begs the question, why did you start to read the Bible versus some other major religious tract?
Furthermore, in an age where most folks are trying to sort through transgender, transsexual, Bi- and other aspects of basic humanity characteristics, define what you mean by “intersexed.” And without pandering or venturing toward becoming disrespectful, how did you feel when you were called “Sir” when you identified as a female, and when did you start to feel comfortable with your sexual gender related sensibilities? Pushing it one step further into the realm of fiction, what has been the public reaction to “The Mother” especially Tamar and Yeshua?
On a different note, what is your partner’s favorite dish that you salivate and repeatedly ask for, and are you moving toward becoming a Buddhist?
I read the Bible (the Hebrew Bible and most of the New Testament) after joining a Unitarian church. I was raised secular and always felt that not having a working knowledge of the Bible was a lack in my literary knowledge — plus I had arrived in a point in time when I had an open-minded group of people to discuss it with. (It’s true that there are other religious tracts I could have read — but no plans to read them at the present moment.) When I wrote She and He — which “The Mother” is excerpted from, the intersex characters just came to me. I use intersex as it is defined. The infant is born with both sets of genitalia (male and female). This condition is rare but more common than you would think. The person used to be called a hermaphrodite. The old (and oppressive way) of dealing with it, was that the parent would choose the gender of the child at birth and have surgery done in infancy. This, of course, would create all kinds of havoc on the child later (especially in puberty) when the child might have a different gender preference. The new way of dealing with it is to let the child decide at some point. There was a chapter on this in Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, one of the books I reviewed before I started the novel. There are a few strong women in the Bible but actually not many so that factored into my telling of the story with intersex characters also. My development of characters just organically developed as I wrote. I’m the kind of writer who lets the muse lead me along.
I’m a lay minister at the Unitarian church I joined in Philadelphia and I have done a few pieces there from She and He — but not “The Mother” (not yet). I turned one section into a skit which was acted by two professional actors who come to the church. The response was overwhelming positive. I haven’t tried it out on a conventional religious audience. I imagine the response wouldn’t be so positive especially since the character of The Mother is based on the Virgin Mary and all the goddesses before her. But the world is changing!
Reading the Bible definitely turned me into more of a Buddhist. I’m pretty nonviolent — so I needed to “recover” from my reading of the Bible by doing yoga and listening to Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chödrön on YouTube. There are a number of other Buddhists at this Unitarian church I joined which helps. I like the diversity there — which includes learning about different religious practices and backgrounds. I’m not a “card-carrying” Buddhist, meaning I haven’t joined any other groups. But I am not a group person. I like my solitude — no I mean I need —my alone time, of reading and writing and listening to the voices in my head.
When I was a young lesbian-feminist, I didn’t like being called “Sir.” I usually spoke my mind. But now past fifty, I really don’t care what I am called. Recently, after using the men’s bathroom at a rather mainstream supermarket (the women’s room was occupied), I thought well that’s what male privilege is all about. And I said a little “thank you” to the universe.
One of my favorite dishes that I ask for is baked chicken. And I especially like it when my partner uses the rosemary that we grew in the backyard. Now it’s squash season — I grew carnival squash and butternut, oh and pumpkins too. Barbara’s made some really bumping pumpkin pancakes. Mmmmm.
As a seasonal gardener (though I will admit that this past season, dahlias, sunflowers, and an assortment of wildflowers inhabited the garden plot instead of vegetables though the annual tradition of fresh herbs, including rosemary, thyme, cilantro, parsley, basil etc. continued,) I can resonant with your penchant for fresh items from the garden. And while we can talk food forever, I want to go back to your sense of having “solitude.” Is that characteristic a natural evolution with age (and possibly wisdom) or have you always found refuge in your inner thoughts and feelings. Past that, how does Barbara cope with your need to have private, alone time? And moving slightly from that juncture of relationship, how do you see feminism today versus what it was for you when you were younger?
Oh, I love growing herbs — especially dill. I’ve always needed and valued time alone. But it’s true that as I get older, I have a deeper understanding of how necessary solitude is. After my mother died, I found an index card with her handwriting on it with a quote about solitude — how an artist has to come to terms with his or her aloneness. It’s really necessary. I’m the first in my family to graduate from college, and I come from a long line of repressed artists who spent their days in the mills or factory assembly lines something I write about in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012). My mother was certainly a feminist (ahead of her time) so I’m second generation. When I look at mainstream culture, it seems like feminism has gotten lost in the shuffle. There are a lot of lessons from the past that still apply. But last fall, I was taking some classes at Temple University and I saw some young women on campus with feminist slogans on their T-shirts that were heartening. I find the thing with gender that is going on to be very interesting. As Gloria Steinem said on her recent book tour, gender is artificial; it’s made up. The move to non-binary (neither male nor female) by some young people is particularly interesting. It’s the last frontier.
My partner, Barbara, has her own interests (drumming, guitar playing, songwriting) so she has her need for solitude too. She just passed by and told me that (I knew that, of course). To quote her, we both have our need for solitude and it makes our relationship stronger. I think it’s important for artists — maybe everyone — to have a partner and friends who “get” you. I’m one of the lucky ones.
True relationships are precious and unfortunately, for far too many of us, that realization occurs much later in life. I guess that is one of the things that the saying “the older you get, the wiser…” is referring to. So, at this stage of your life in 2016, have you noticed that creatively you are starting to move, to shift, to align in a different direction then where you have been? And how does your current creative life enhance your overall spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical well-being versus when you were younger 10, 20 years ago? Oh, let Barbara know that drum circles continue to grow in my neck of the woods; my wife used to play guitar and perform, and our son grew up playing guitar and writing songs of the punk and raucously loud (i.e. screaming lyrics) musical genre.
Interesting you should ask about creative shifts in my work. I’ve written all my life — like Gertrude Stein I started writing seriously, several hours every day, at the age of twenty-nine. But I feel that I have been doing my best and most interesting and complex work for the past four years. I think it’s partly stage of life and the fact that I have been putting my work first so it naturally gets stronger. But it’s also that I have been consciously healthy. Almost every morning I practice yoga and then do a Buddhist chanting meditation (the same one that Tina Turner does on YouTube). This creates space for the muse to come and keeps my body flexible so that I can sit for long hours and write. I also take long walks almost every day which invites ideas to come into my head. I feel great! I was laid off of a stressful job four years ago. I was pretty fried at the time and I remember thinking that this could go two ways: I could continue to get worse and go downhill or I could turn things around and get myself back. Barbara is much healthier, too, since she retired from the postal system several years ago. (She was pushed out, actually, but it was a good move for her.) Someone was commenting about how happy we both seem and she attributed it to the fact that we have non-conventional work situations. I do some freelancing, consulting, and adjunct teaching. I’m working all the time actually –writers tend to do that — but it is manageable.
Of course, it also could be that I feel so healthy because I have devoted myself to my writing! (I’ll tell Barbara about the drum circles and your son’s punk lyrics. There’s nothing better than self-expression!)
I think you hit on the key as to what are clear options when one is “prompted” or forced to re-think career and life purpose. One of the things that I enjoyed about your story in aaduna was its complexity; my need to re-read it and fully digest the implications of the story. Besides writing, are you pursuing any other creative endeavors let’s say in the performing and/or visual arts? And if not, if given the opportunity, what area would you most likely pursue? And since I like connections, way back in the day, I worked full-time for the postal service (at the Church Street Station that was destroyed in 9/11 and where I watched the World Trade Center go up during lunch breaks) while finishing my senior year in college (full-time) and being married! So, there is a hint at the work pressures and unnecessary stress Barbara probably had to deal with.
Barbara and I have been together for a long time — more than 30 years — but also are newlyweds. So it’s a nice mixture. I’m very familiar with the pressures of the post office (it’s run like the military as I’m sure you know) and I have a lot of respect for anyone who survived it! It’s very intense that you saw the Trade Center being built and the same station was destroyed in 9/11.
So much of my creative life goes into writing. I review books also which keeps my finger on the pulse of what is out there and remind me how we are all stronger through telling our stories.
I also dabble in photography. I guess you could say it’s an interest or a hobby. I’m working with an old friend on her father’s archive of photographs (he was a Russian immigrant photographer and architect who photographed New York in the 1930s). I have a background in fine art photography and my friend and I recently took some photography classes at Temple University in Philly, plus we’ve been going to photography conferences in New York. The image part of my brain was “woken up.” Partly, as a result, I’ve been working on a new novel with a working title of “Looking At Pictures” which takes place in the mid 1920s (and takes place in New York and includes the Harlem Renaissance, Mexico, and parts of Europe). I’ve been having a ball with it!
I also love jazz and take photographs of the Jazz Vespers series (and other places, too) at the Unitarian church that I joined. Sometimes I put the photographs on my author blog. Philly has a rich jazz tradition. Barbara knows lots of the performers from her days at the post office — we live and she worked in the Northwest section of Philadelphia where a lot of musicians and artists of all types live. Everything is connected.
You were right on when you said that unplanned change often makes you re-evaluate everything. With Barbara and I the unplanned changes were also strokes of luck! As my yoga teacher says, the key is to embrace the change, rather than resist it. It’s going to happen anyway. You might as well make the best of it!
I applaud the 30 years you and Barbara have been together and offer belated congratulations on you two being able to manifest your relationship in a very public, legal, yet personal way. While I am tempted to have you walk through the “adventures” of your relationship over three decades, that is a story that is yours to tell either as a novel or non-fiction…hint, hint, hint!!! I value and try to celebrate daily my marriage (2010) to Lisa Brennan and may not be able to match my parents’ fifty plus years but the effort still is worth the journey. And I am grateful that my first attempt while not long lasting after seven years did produce a cherished and ongoing life-long friendship. More so, there is the recognition of being “uncle” to her two daughters born well after we parted, which provides me with the opportunity to have two other great people in my life to complement my family of three daughters, a son, a granddaughter and two fiancés whose status will change later this year! Anyway…
I like your venture into photography since that has been a passion of mine for years and I have routinely channeled that energy into mounting public exhibitions, as well as using the scope of aaduna’s galleries. So, when you are ready, let us see your body of work.
I suspect we are nearing closure to our conversation. And it is hard letting you go. So, if there is anything else that you want to share or advice you wish to offer our readership, this is your stage to do so. As for me, thank you for all that you have shared. The stage is now completely yours as it has been during this entire process. Thank you Janet.
Congratulations on your marriage in 2010 with Lisa. I also commend you with being life-long friends with your first wife. Relationships are hard and we all do the best we can. Some months ago we were at the wedding of a performer from South Africa and her partner whose family came from Israel. It was a very diverse crowd — in every way possible! The woman rabbi (who was flown in from California), talked about how we need to cherish our loved one. It was more profound than that — and I remember that I was really moved but I forget most of what she said. The couple had been together for decades — as have many recently married couples that we know. It’s very different getting married after you’ve worked out your issues. The young people will have their own journey.
Thank you for your invitation regarding my photography in the future. That’s another interest we share. I loved getting to know you — though I think that there’s much more there — about your work, your life, how you came to aaduna, and the important role you play in bringing artists together. I appreciate it. Thank you for having me.
♦ ♦ ♦
When aaduna started, I did an interview process titled “E-Viewpoints” with contributors. The purpose was to construct a wider audience for aaduna writers and artists while providing our readership with a better understanding and glimpse of the individuals who penned the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction and created the diverse array of visual arts. For a variety of unplanned reasons, I took a hiatus from that initiative. But now, I am back with “Conversations.” The plan is to chat with current and previous contributors and delve into aspects of their background that you may find intriguing and uplifting. I hope you become a regular follower of this series of “Conversations” and continue to enjoy the work of the individual that I have a chat with. The intent is not to be “in your face” but enable you to savor the nuances, expectations, and challenges that aaduna contributors face as people, just like you and me. I think you will find “Conversations” interesting, maybe provocative, and enlightening. I hope so.