Bookforum talks with Carrie Brownstein

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir BY Carrie Brownstein. Riverhead Books. Hardcover, 256 pages. $27.

From the opening pages of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, it’s clear that Carrie Brownstein, best known as a guitarist and singer in the seminal band Sleater-Kinney, and now as an actor and the cowriter and star of Portlandia, is a writer first. Covering her childhood in the Seattle suburbs, her time in the 1990s Olympia, Washington music scene, and her years recording and touring with Sleater-Kinney, the book sets itself apart from the general run of music memoirs: Well turned, subtle, and clear-eyed, it’s a striking literary accomplishment. I was curious above all about what she read and which writers she felt an affinity for—when we met earlier this month, she mentioned Portland poet Matthew Dickman, and was “devouring” Joy Williams's The Visiting Privilege—and I spent a tantalizing few minutes grilling her about it in a Manhattan hotel room.

I wanted to ask you about books, essentially. Did you have a sense of a lineage for the memoir?

I don’t read a lot of music memoirs. I’ve read a lot of music biographies, you know, books about Sam Cooke, about Bessie Smith, or Ma Rainey, or Nina Simone. But in terms of memoir, I read Jill Ker Conway’s Road from Coorain, Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, and James Baldwin. And Katharine Hepburn wrote an amazing memoir just called Me, which is such a great title. So, lineage, I definitely was not thinking about it as I was writing. All I knew was that it wasn't going to be a comedic memoir, you know the way that certain humor writers will couch their experiences within almost, like, the set-up of a joke? I knew that there were going to be funny parts, but entertainment was not the point of the book. I wanted it to feel literary, and I wanted it to feel like a book that people could read whether they liked the band—or had heard of the band—or not. I wanted it to stand on its own. Patti Smith’s Just Kids is a great example: Her writing has always seemed to transcend her music. It exists in the same world, but it also can be divorced from it and you can just read her books and think, Who is this fascinating writer?

You describe the scene in the 1990s, in Olympia. Were people reading, say, Kathy Acker and those kinds of people?

Back then? Oh yeah, yeah. Chris Kraus, Kathy Acker . . .

You seem very aware in the book of this kind of negotiation of the self, and of being a participant-observer. Like when you describe yourself as a "one-girl Greek chorus.” There's this combination of catharsis and detachment. Do you see your writing as part of that tradition of first-person writing that experiments with the self as a performance?

A little bit. I mean, Miranda July is a friend of mine, and I like the way that she plays with that. She posits herself as a narrator and as a protagonist in her own narrative, but then calls into question whether she should be there or not. She kind of undermines, or at least messes with our perception of, the protagonist. There is a lot in my book about personhood and persona and about a sense of belonging, and whether you sort of deserve to be at the forefront. Always calling into question the right to really be at the center of your own narrative. Having to really carve that space out, and then sort of resenting the fact that you had to carve that space out. And so it is a book that is in dialogue with itself. As a performer who's been in dialogue with myself, I think the book kind of charts that same territory where it fluctuates between some criticism and then some certainty about things. But then it sort of acknowledges its own uncertainty. There is this tradition of being in dialogue with oneself as a performer and as a performance. You know, that deconstruction of self and then kind of building a body in front of everyone is something I guess I've always been toying with.

And writing the book felt like another form of that, in a way? `

In a way. I think it's easy to judge that uncertainty and that dialogue from the outside, and be like, Well, just who are you? You need to figure it out before you get out there. And to judge the process, even though to witness the process is often really fascinating. When we witness people failing, or trying, those moments are often beautiful and artistic. I think with the book I wanted to allow a certain forgiveness for that, to just kind of sit within that discomfort and vulnerability and then write the narrative from there. Like, Here is a place that was uncomfortable for a very long time, and I will explore that and the ways that each moment of discomfort became a stepping-stone for actually alleviating all of the uncertainty. I mean, that kind of is what the story of the book is about.

You write so well about this tension between display and invisibility when starting out, the feeling of being invisible. I wonder about the process of putting that on the page. Now that you are so much more visible, how did you navigate that? Especially for someone well known, there's a tendency to be defensive.

I definitely tried to write without vanity and without a sense of self-consciousness. I mean, self-consciousness from the craft perspective, yes: I wanted the sentences to be good, I wanted the structure to be good. But what you're talking about, the juxtaposition between invisibility and display. Invisibility is so strange, because there's sort of the self-exile, that version of invisibility. And then there's feeling invisible because other people don't see you, don't recognize you, and I don't mean that from a fame perspective, just, you know, that you're sort of ignored by society in any number of ways. And so that journey towards visibility, it's precarious, because there's also wounds and dangers that come from visibility. And I thought about that a lot when I was writing and tried to, I guess, not place a value on either, you know, just to kind of be in that liminal space between the two. I think people want to be seen, people want to be understood, but they want to be in charge, be the protagonist in their own unveiling.

Do you feel more seen now, in that way, or less so?

From this book, I don't know yet. It's not out yet . . . we'll see. You know, people have described it as raw. . .

Oh. I wouldn't say that at all.

I don't think so, either. It doesn't feel raw. Like, to me that almost sounds like it's a journal or something.

This is why I asked you about first-person writing by women, because I feel like this always happens. It’s “confessional,” “raw,” it's “secreted,” not written . . . You know?

Yeah, raw? I was like, It's not raw. It's a very crafted work. There's nothing in there that was like, “Well, I threw up, I metaphorically, figuratively, threw up on the page, no editing, just, you know, pulled from the pages of my teenage diary.” No! So, I don't feel more visible. I just want other people to feel more understood, and I want to feel more understood. Visibility and understanding I think are different, I mean, just ’cause we see something doesn’t mean we understand it. I don't feel too exposed though. Because there's craft behind it. It's not like I released a sex tape or some pictures leaked of me. This is a very deliberate piece of writing. And there are things that aren't in there, and I felt like, these are the parts of my story that I wanted to tell. For me it feels like a stepping-off point. Almost like the close of a chapter.

Who do you read now? Who interests you in terms of other writers?

I love the Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between the World and Me and Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts.

Oh, that’s funny, I wanted to ask you about The Argonauts.

Such an amazing book. What I liked about it was the form, you know? It starts out very theoretical, like it's just this ontological exploration, very polemical, and you can feel that it’s kind of brittle up top, and dense. And like, as she is changing—this is why it’s like a poem—it starts to just open, the narrative, it’s like you can feel the air in the pages, and the whole story starts to loosen, and she’s kind of loosening from this place of just being, you know, in her head. I thought it was so beautiful, that exploration, because, like a poem, you could see the form being affected by her story. I loved all the references in the margins. It was one of those books where I thought, “Everyone should read this book.” It’s just combining everything that I love about writing, you know, so smart. I'm glad I didn't read that book earlier, while I was writing. I just would’ve been like, “I have to stop and start over because this is like the ultimate . . . ”

You thought about doing academic work at one point, right? Graduate work?

Yeah, but I'm kind of a populist, I guess. I like the ways that critical thinking can permeate pop culture. That intersection to me is always really exciting.

Maggie Nelson kind of moves there too, in that in-between space.

Yeah, and, I think, Ta-Nehisi Coates. It's topical and relevant, but written with the passion of a real person, you know? Not with the exacting distance, or detachment, of an academic. I think that makes it very accessible even though what they're explaining is complicated. If my book could even touch on any of those complexities, I would be excited.

Will you write more books?

The common thread, I think, in all my work has been the writing. Even in the early years of Sleater-Kinney. I talk about this a bit in the book. I have always felt slightly outside of the music that I've made. It's like, I'm observing myself as if from the outside: Oh, there I am playing—what is that about? You know, it's just this over-analytical perspective. So, the writing of the music, the writing of Portlandia—the common thread is trying to make sense of it and form a connection with other people. So yeah, writing is where I'll continue going. I really like it. I mean, I hate it. But I like it.