A Conversation with Meghan Daum

by Susan Lerner

Meghan Daum’s opinion column in the Los Angeles Times has run for more than a decade, but my first encounter with her work was “My Misspent Youth,” a piece the New Yorker ran in 1999 that became the titular essay for her first collection. Daum also penned the memoir Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House and a novel, The Quality of Life Report. The anthology she edited, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, became a New York Times bestseller. Her most recent collection of essays, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, won the 2015 PEN Center USA Award for creative nonfiction.

In 2015 Daum received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 2016 she received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She is an adjunct associate professor in the MFA Writing Program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and is currently the Bedell Distinguished Visiting Professor in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Her work has appeared in some of the country’s most esteemed publications, and last year she began a column called Egos for the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

Daum’s essays center on the theme of what constitutes authentic living. The pieces in The Unspeakable explore the tension that arises when society’s expectations of how we should live and feel differ from our true experiences and feelings.

Daum, a recent writer-in-residence in the Butler University MFA program, sat down with Booth to discuss identity politics, cultural appropriation, and the wisdom of wearing tiny sombreros to tequila parties.

Susan Lerner: In “The Joni Mitchell Problem,” one of the essays from The Unspeakable, you contrasted “letting it all hang out” with “putting yourself out there.” You wrote that “putting yourself out there” doesn’t foist a confession on the audience as much as let it in on a secret that is turned into a story. A lot of people are writing confessional essays from the “the personal is the political” stance. Can you speak to this?

Meghan Daum: Sometimes the personal isn’t the political. Sometimes the personal is just personal. I really like the idea of making a distinction between confessing and confiding. I can’t take credit for this—Emily Fox Gordon, a wonderful essayist, talks about this. I’ve borrowed this idea from her. Confessing puts the onus on the reader. I think when you write something unbaked, kind of spewing, that’s releasing a torrent of ideas, revealing stuff about yourself in an unthoughtful, unchecked way, even if there’s something sort of prurient and entertaining about it, it’s not really good writing and it’s not a good literary experience. Because what you’re asking the reader to do is forgive you. To confess is to ask for forgiveness. That’s not the job of the reader. I really think you get your confessing out of the way in the first couple of drafts, and then hopefully by the time you have something that’s finished or publishable it’s going to be an intimacy that’s conveyed through confiding. You want your reader to feel you’re offering her something. You don’t want the reader to feel a great burden is placed upon her.

SL: How do you get from confessing to confiding?

MD: You present the reader with something you’ve thought all the way through. Like: I had this experience. I’m going to tell you the details in a way that’s personal, but I’m going to present this to you as a set of ideas and in a narrative that I’m controlling. You want to give them a finished product rather than a stream of consciousness. It’s really the difference between having something that’s raw and that’s cooked.

SL: Lionel Shriver contributed to your anthology, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed. Earlier this year at the Brisbane Writers Festival in Australia, she argued against the concept of cultural appropriation while wearing a sombrero, which was said to be a nod to an incident at Bowdoin College at which non-Mexican students were disciplined for wearing tiny sombreros at a tequila party. In the Guardian, Yassmin Abdel-Magied slammed Shriver for normalizing the ideas behind colonialism. In the New Republic, Phoebe Maltz Bovy wrote a nuanced piece that conceded that Shriver had valid points. What are your thoughts on cultural appropriation?

MD: Well, I do think that Lionel Shriver has some valid points. We’re in a really intense moment right now where cultural and racial and identity tensions are running very high in lots of different ways on campuses and elsewhere. I think that in some cases—and not all—there has been an over-correction. I do think this notion that a fiction writer, especially, cannot write in the persona of a character that is not exactly the same as she is, is absurd, and I think that’s what Lionel was getting at. The substance of her talk I agree with. I think it’s pretty unassailable. The fact that she’s wearing a sombrero, that’s Lionel. She’s a provocateur. It would not have been something I would have done, and I do think the sombrero and some of the rhetoric she employed eclipsed the core meaning of the speech. It’s no secret that I am very much of the belief that identity politics—and people tend to have different ideas about what that term actually means—has limited uses. It does have some uses, absolutely, good uses. But they’re not as extensive as some people think. Human beings are complex, which means speech can be complex and therefore easily messed up and misconstrued. But free speech is paramount.

SL: It is complex. You’re talking about identity politics, and there was this piece in the New York Times by . . .

MD: Mark Lilla.

SL: Yeah. I see his points. But it seems to me that marginalized people have never felt heard, so how do we remedy that if we put identity politics at a lower tier?

MD: I think there’s a difference between not wanting this thing we’re calling identity politics to be the engine of every discussion and just saying something glib like “Down with identity politics!” People have the identities that they have. And people express what they express and write what they write. But the danger of identity politics is when people use them to make rules about who’s allowed to talk about what, when people start saying, “You are different from me, and therefore you cannot understand anything about me, you don’t know where I’m coming from, and we cannot co-exist in the same space.” Now, many people I know and respect deeply would tell me I’m off base on this. But part of the problem is that nobody can really agree on what identity politics means and how it manifests. We’re having a situation in classrooms right now where language is sometimes over-policed, and students are leading with a level of sensitivity that is very well intended but often not helpful. At its worst, it can completely overwhelm any sort of intellectual discourse. It can allow emotions to overwhelm people’s ability to think critically and independently. Because, look, it’s possible to do two things at once. It’s possible to be sensitive to people’s experiences, to acknowledge histories of oppression and systems of oppression, and also to say, “Hey, we’re all here. Let’s have a free conversation and not have to be constantly checking ourselves and looking over our shoulders as to what we’re saying.” Otherwise, you can’t get anywhere.

SL: I’m going to riff on the whole unfortunate sombrero wardrobe choice, which made me think of the Halloween controversy at Yale. Its Intercultural Affairs Committee sent out a note asking that students be thoughtful about culturally themed costumes. When the associate head of Yale’s Silliman College criticized this letter, minority students criticized her, and she ended up resigning her post as lecturer. What are your thoughts on this?

MD: I’m not a person of color, so I would not presume . . . I understand that people feel a certain way about that. All I can say . . . The fact that I’m parsing my words so carefully is just so indicative of the delicacy here. I guess I would say that it doesn’t speak well for our society that students from marginalized groups can feel so undermined and unseen and disrespected in general that something like a Halloween costume—a costume that is maybe tone deaf but not malicious in intent—can be so harmful. I’m not denying their experience. I’m just sorry we’re living in that kind of world.

SL: I’m playing devil’s advocate here. If you were Native American and someone showed up in the cliché feather-on-the headband costume, that might be . . . Or, for instance, I’m Jewish. If someone showed up dressed as an old shtetl rabbi, I don’t know how I’d feel about that.

MD: I guess maybe the question is, is there a difference between students having a conversation among themselves about how they feel about something like Halloween costumes, and having the university instituting a policy that you cannot wear these costumes? It goes back to this whole in loco parentis question: How much authority should a university exert, and to what degree should students use the college experience as a way of figuring out what bothers them and what doesn’t, and how to talk about it with other people, and how to navigate it?

SL: Maybe if we were people of color on a college campus we would dread Halloween. Or if we were Native American and saw all these Native American costumes, we would not feel as though we had a voice until the university assisted by saying, “Hey, let’s look at this and be respectful of one another.”

MD: That could be. In that case, I would love to read something by a Native American talking about how he or she dreads Halloween every year. Maybe this is a common experience. I haven’t read it. I would like to read that piece and hear that perspective. Didn’t they conduct surveys that found that most Native Americans are fine with keeping the Washington Redskins’ nickname?

SL: My sense is that very few people are aware these polls were flawed, and I think it’s important more people know this.

MD: Really? Interesting. I’ll read up on that.

SL: I’m going to move on to something else. You reviewed Didion’s Blue Nights for the Los Angeles Review of Books. You wrote that the book was less a story than a series of effects, and you wondered why Didion wasn’t being called out for her “relentless opacity.” As someone who writes in the tradition of Didion, can you talk about what it was like to write and publish that review?

MD: It was good. That was a really interesting project that the L.A. Review of Books did because they had five different people review that book. They ran the reviews on consecutive days. I think I was fourth out of five. I wasn’t the only one to say, “I can’t believe she even wrote it.” It was an incredibly difficult thing for her to do. I think she basically says in the book, about three-quarters of the way through, “I’m done with it. I’m stopping. I can’t write this anymore.” She kind of gives up, and that’s kind of the effect of the book. She sort of turns that surrender into a literary gesture. I liked writing that piece. It wasn’t just about the book but about her whole body of work. The degree to which my work has been compared to hers—that is something that happens to any woman writer of a certain kind of nonfiction. The comparison I made is that women singer-songwriters are compared to Joni Mitchell just because her sound is so infectious, and as musicians are developing their craft it gets into their ears. It’s also true of Didion. She was so revelatory, the way she put sentences together—often opaque, but in her early work not as much—and the sort of sound that she had. A lot of us internalized it as we were growing up and reading and figuring out how to write. She’s at the end of her career now. I applaud her for even getting that book out into the world. There was a biography of her I reviewed for the Atlantic, and I wrote a lot about her work in that, too. And I’ve interviewed her. I’ve met her.

SL: In a podcast hosted by Anna David called You’ve Got Issues, you remarked negatively about women’s groups that are architected to help women overcome implicit sexism in the workplace. Women writers on Facebook have formed groups called binders for this purpose. I’ve noticed that you are in one of the binders.

MD: I probably am.

SL: I assume you’re not very active, but I want to ask you what your take is on the binders.

MD: It’s hard to say because it got so big! First it was a tiny binder and then it exploded.

SL: And now there’s a million sub-binders.

MD: Yeah, a million. I think I have kind of a strange experience as a woman. I’m interested in the idea of psychological androgyny. For whatever reason, I am not somebody who generally sees the world or my life primarily through the lens of my gender. I understand that I might be an outlier in that way, and I understand that’s maybe not a typical experience, but I don’t feel a great connection to that sort of group. But then again I don’t like any groups. I never want to be in any club. I’m sort of allergic to groups. And trends. I don’t like groups or trends. The direction that feminism sometimes can go in this moment in time I find frustrating. I say that as a feminist.

SL: What is . . .

MD: There is this kind of generic “You go, girl,” “I’m a badass” attitude, and all it takes to be a badass apparently is getting up every morning and getting dressed and facing down the patriarchy. It just seems a little bit too easy. It kind of goes back to this identity politics thing. I would like to see a world in which people interact more on the substance and less on than the baggage they have decided to acquire. That is an oversimplified way of summing up a multi-dimensional phenomenon, but I’ll leave it there for now.

SL: Is it clinging to a sense of victimhood, you’re getting at?

MD: There is that element. And the thing is, obviously people deal with trauma in their own ways. I would never say that you should downplay or deny or not deal with things that have happened to you. Never. But sometimes there is a sense of leading with the trauma, and that approach doesn’t resonate with me, personally. And I am interested in the way that feminism has been, I think, sort of watered down by this obsession with how difficult it is to be a woman and how undermined we are at every turn. And how men are either mansplaining or manspreading or being terrible oppressors left and right. I don’t think that’s happening all the time. I just don’t. I think it’s sometimes happening, but there are many more moving pieces than that. Life is more complicated than that.

SL: I feel like there’s a great comeback question here, and it’s not coming to me.

MD: There would be many, many people who would argue with me when I talk about this kind of thing. But I also think there would be many people who agree with me. It’s hard to talk about this stuff right now.

SL: True. Okay, let’s go back. What are your thoughts about Yale students’ requests that campus buildings named for slave owners be renamed?

MD: I am not an administrator at Yale. I do not have a position on that.

SL: Okay. I just keep picturing a student of color walking into one of those buildings named for an owner of slaves.

MD: Right. The question is, how far does this go?

SL: So do you do nothing . . .

MD: Or do you do a little bit, or do you do everything? I’m not the one to answer these questions.

SL: Okay, one more question about this. In your column about racial unrest at Yale and Mizzou, you wrote, “Can we find a way to make intellectual spaces and safe spaces one and the same?” At the height of the conflict at Mizzou, students created a safe space and, along with a teacher, physically barred a journalist from entering the area. What are your feelings about this?

MD: Well, that’s not fair. You can’t do that. Why are they afraid to have the journalist? They should want the journalist to go in and talk to them and find out what’s going on.

SL: Well, one would think that. I have read that minority students have historically felt betrayed by the media. Not given a fair shake in having their voices heard, and that their stories have been slanted. So what they wanted was to not have to deal with journalists in their safe space at the height of the tension.

MD: Sorry, no, I don’t buy that. I found it ironic that the teacher who helped block the journalist was a communications professor or media professor or something like that. If you have an issue and you’re having a protest, you can’t just selectively choose what media’s going to come in. That’s what Donald Trump is doing right now. This is the same playbook. No. This is freedom of the press. This is freedom of speech. If you can’t handle having your story reported then you can’t complain about anything. I will not give any slack on that one.

SL: In a Live Talks Los Angeles podcast you made in 2014, you interviewed Francine Prose and asked her if she believed writing can be taught. As a student in the MFA program here at Butler, I was kind of crushed to hear her emphatically say no, as I was when I read Jo Ann Beard and Vivian Gornick say the same thing. As someone who has an MFA and teaches in an MFA program, how do you see your role as teacher and how would you answer the same question?

MD: I’m not an academic. That’s not my world. I come from the journalism world. My approach when I teach is, I say, “I’m your editor. You guys are the writers. You’re going to treat me like your editor and vice versa, and I’m going to help you figure out what kind of writer you are, what kind of stuff you’re interested in, how you want to shape whatever is in front of you so you can reach the kind of audience you want. We’ll work as a team.” That’s what I can bring to the table. Whether or not that counts as teaching them to write? I think it’s teaching them how to make the most out of the material that they have and the sensibility that they have, and then figure out how they want to do it. To that extent I would say it can be taught. Can you actually be taught to have talent? Obviously not. That’s in any discipline. Can math be taught? Not to me!

SL: So you’re saying the craft elements . . .

MD: Yeah, the craft elements, and training your brain to see the world in such a way that you’re thinking about how you’re going to respond to it. That’s because that’s my particular background and my particular sensibility. Somebody else would have a different approach. Francine Prose and Vivian Gornick and Jo Ann Beard . . . why would they say that?” 

SL: It’s really crushing. [Laughs.]

SL: Okay. So, in “Haterade,” a piece you wrote for the Believer in 2012, you wrote that the Internet has facilitated a degeneration of the state of social discourse. Here we are, less than a month after the election. Facebook friends who voted differently are unfriending each other. Many in the “I’m With Her” camp say that anyone who voted for Trump is by definition a racist. In February, in your column about [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg and [Antonin] Scalia’s friendship, you wrote, “Tolerance has become something of a lost art. Instead we dig in our heels and declare sides.” What are your feelings about the way those of us not in favor of our current president-elect speak about those who voted for Trump?

MD: It takes two to tango, right? We don’t like it when they say all sorts of terrible things about [Barack] Obama and liberals, and I can’t imagine they like it when we reduce every discussion to calling them racist or misogynist. Ultimately, I think that racism and sexism and various other -isms and phobias played a role in the election, but at the end of the day it’s just not that simple. There was a huge constellation of factors in play. Historians will spend the next hundred years trying to figure it out.

SL: It’s a complicated thing.

MD: It’s interesting because Obama ran a campaign that was about transcending race. And he got a lot of people to vote for him based on that. He was the anti-identity-politics candidate. And that whole movement was so exciting to people, I think, because the idea was that we were “post-racial” now. But that was naïve, of course, and under his administration racial tensions escalated. I think he has handled himself so magnificently, throughout not only his administration but also the last three weeks. I know people on the other side who seem to think he somehow engendered these racial tensions. I don’t really see how. But the fact is that Hillary ran a campaign that was using identity politics. She thought that leading with the pussy-grabbing meme was the way to go, and, frankly, so did everybody else, including me. When I watched that second debate and Trump was following her around and hovering over her, my reaction was, “Yes, we got him! This will not be tolerated! He’s finished!” I know people who were very triggered by that and very upset, and I get it. But there was part of me that thought it would be amazing if he would try to physically attack her right on stage. Because the Secret Service was right there. She’d be totally safe. And it would be fantastic [because it would mean the end of his candidacy]. But we were just so wrong. They [Trump supporters] actually didn’t care about that. He probably would have gotten even more votes if he’d physically attacked her. That’s how clueless we were about the way he was being perceived. One of my best friends is a Christian conservative. She voted for Trump. We couldn’t agree less on the issues, but we deeply love each other. A few days after the election, I talked to her on the phone for four hours. And she said, “You know, I listen to an audiotape like that, and it’s so lame. I can’t take this seriously. It’s just so dumb.”

SL: The . . .

MD: The Access Hollywood tape.

SL: Oh. She didn’t think that was a big deal?

MD: No, she didn’t.

SL: And she can’t be the only one who . . .

MD: Were there people who didn’t like Hillary because she’s a woman? Yes. But they also don’t like her because she’s Hillary. People profoundly don’t like the Clintons. I love them, personally, and I really like her. But I get it. This is an establishment candidate. I think that if there had been a woman out there telling those Trump voters what they wanted to hear, a lot of them would have voted for her. I wrote a column recently saying that the first black president could only have been like Obama. He’s perfect. He’s so many things at once. He’s not even totally black. And the female analogue to that is the first woman president has to be not even totally a woman. You’d basically have to be a cyborg. There’s no woman who can check all the required boxes and be all of the required things. Then a number of people wrote to me and said, “No, Condoleezza Rice could.”

SL: Oh, my god!

MD: Yeah. I get that a lot from readers, actually. Conservative voters tell me they love Condoleezza Rice. But she’s not married, and she doesn’t have a family—I think that would knock her out of contention right away. But it’s very interesting to me that a lot of Republicans think Rice is fantastic and are able to deal with a black woman, at least that particular black woman, no problem. So it’s not just about race and gender. It’s about personality, it’s about appearance, it’s about your platform—it’s about so many things. And that takes us back to the ways that identity politics can be limiting. You’re having a conversation and it’s going, “As a person of color, I think this . . .” or “As a woman, I think this . . .” Enough already! You want to talk about intersectionality? Well, how about “We’re all many things”? We’re all oppressed in certain ways, and we’re all privileged in certain ways. That’s why I hope we can get to a moment where we’re not obsessing over Halloween costumes because there are so many bigger fish to fry.

SL: We’ve become so much more divided now.

MD: Yeah! And this is not the time for it. Getting back to your question, what’s upset me is not only the people who voted for Trump versus the other people, but within the liberals, now we’re fighting each other. You’re not outraged in the right way. You’re not outraged enough. You’re not accusing every Trump voter of being a racist; well then, you don’t get it. You have internalized misogyny. Hey, don’t tell me what I’ve internalized! [Laughs.] Believe me, I can hate myself in all sorts of ways! It doesn’t have to be gender specific!

SL: So, I want to ask a follow-up about cultural appropriation. Some people think that white men, for instance, shouldn’t write about, let’s say, Nigerian women. That they shouldn’t write across culture or race, because then the people they’re writing about can’t write their own stories. It’s harder for them to get recognized, harder for them to get published, all these barriers they have to overcome. And meanwhile people who are more privileged, like us, who don’t have to face those things, can more easily write those stories and profit from them.

MD: In all likelihood a non-Nigerian person is not going to do as good, or at least the same, kind of job as a Nigerian person in writing the story of a Nigerian person. Still, everyone should write the story they want to write. Like I’ve said, I think the idea that you can only write your own story is incredibly limiting. We’re talking about fiction, right? We’re talking about novels. We’re not talking about assuming a fake identity and writing a memoir.

SL: I think that argument premises that the playing field is even.

MD: I think it’s more even than it’s ever been. If you’re talking about this particular moment, there’s a huge appetite for all sorts of voices.

SL: For global stories.

MD: Yeah. If a Nigerian author writes an amazing book and for some reason the publisher buys a mediocre book by a white author writing about a Nigerian person, that’s inexcusable. And I’d be surprised to see that happen at this particular moment, unless it was some incredibly famous, guaranteed bestselling white author. Now, has it happened in the past? Yes, but publishing is becoming more inclusive. Maybe not fast enough, but it’s getting there. However, the idea of making rules for what an artist can do creatively is hugely worrisome. Everyone has his or her own unique story. To say that an artist who uses her imagination and writes beyond her own experience is committing “cultural appropriation” is to basically say that any given person’s story is nothing more than some set of monolithic ideas about racial or gender or cultural identity. That’s insulting.

SL: There’s an argument that maybe there’s only so much room in the marketplace for this kind of story. So if I write a fiction story about a Nigerian woman, then the Nigerian woman’s story might have less chance of being published.

MD: You should ask a publisher, actually. An editor would be better to talk to about that.

SL: My sense is that it’s almost like affirmative action. That all this has happened in the past, so even though the playing field is more even than it has ever been, that we should make more room for these stories, because none of these stories have seen the light of day.

MD: But I think that there’s a difference between the publishing community being aware of the variety of stories out there and making an effort to include more people, and issuing some kind of decree that artists should only tell their own stories. That’s just completely antithetical to art. That doesn’t mean you’re going to do a good job writing the story about the Nigerian person if you’re a white American who’s never been to Nigeria. But to make a rule that you can’t do it? . . . It’s kind of like the Halloween costume thing. Should you go as an American Indian for Halloween? That’s between you and your moral compass. But, guess what? The ACLU says it’s okay to go for Halloween as a Klansman! . . . You can’t just legislate this stuff. If you start deciding en masse what’s okay and what’s not okay in terms of speech or creative expression, it takes the onus off individuals to have some kind of sense of compassion and some authority over their own moral system.

SL: In an interview that just came out in Slate, Zadie Smith took issue with the concept of cultural appropriation. She said something like, “It offends me that people think I would be so vulnerable and crumble if somebody wrote my story.”

MD: I totally agree. We’re all allowed to fail as artists. You can’t deny a person the opportunity to do a really bad job at something. You can’t deny them the opportunity to be offensive and mess up, to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. Because that’s the name of the game. Fail with all your heart.

Susan Lerner is a student in Butler’s MFA in Creative Writing program. She reads for Booth which also published her interview with Jonathan Franzen. Her essay “Only A Memory” was a finalist for the Crab Orchard Review 2016 Rafael Torch Literary Nonfiction Award. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, The Believer Logger, The Rumpus, Front Porch Journal, Atticus Review, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. Susan lives in Indianapolis with her husband, three teenagers, and Mischief, the family’s dog.