By Abby Swegarden
Ani DiFranco has always craved intimacy. This may come as a surprise to many fans of the folk icon, because we know her as a fiercely independent singer, songwriter, activist, poet, and now author. Ani has always defied any sort of categorization, though, and she forever reminds us in 1995’s “Not a Pretty Girl” that she is, in fact, “32 flavors and then some.”
In her delicious new twist, we are gifted a sprawling, 300 page look at her life up until the age of 30, complete with photographs, anecdotes, and vulnerability. If Ani’s search for intimacy produced a prolific life’s work of records and poems, it comes as no surprise that “No Walls and the Recurring Dream” is the same in its search for truth and meaning: she managed to whittle away at a “step by step journey on a path” from her kitchen table, trusting what she deeply felt, and the result is a memoir full of crisp diction and tremendous power.
High Plains Reader: Could you talk a little bit about some of the differences between writing songs and writing a memoir?
Ani DiFranco: Books are so epic. Just the scale of it felt very different; it’s like twenty records in one. Songs are sort of an event, and it’s sort of about positioning myself in the universe and in my skin in a moment and allowing something to come through. I often feel like there’s sort of hours of trance involved, and then I wake up and there it is. It happens. A book felt like whittling - it’s hard to point to any moment and say something happened there. It’s more of a step by step journey on a path.
HPR: Has writing “No Walls and the Recurring Dream” changed you in any way?
AF: I think so. The change is only incorporating itself. I think the writing that I’ve done in the songs and now the book is my way of pushing on the world, on the membrane of the world and my relationships, and this book being so fricking literal and exposing in a deeper way, not just me but my near and dear, was a really heightened challenge of vulnerability. And including others in that was very scary. [...] I was very afraid of offending or hurting people I love by creating this kind of art, but luckily so far what has happened is that it’s brought me closer, and that feels like the best of all.
HPR: In a recent interview, you mentioned the subjectivity of memoir, and that you were “struck” by how “highly suspect” your own account seemed to be at times. Can you elaborate on that?
AF: You can’t tell a story without a spin, without standing somewhere and wearing something while you’re telling it. Showing myself in my best or worst moments and the people I love in their best or worst moments...I could depict somebody in any light. There’s so much power in telling stories and creating truths through them. I was very acutely aware of that; I was trying to find a reasonable balance point. Showing myself as the fallible human that’s just doing her best, which is really the core truth of us all.
HPR: What is a memoir that you can’t live without?
AF: I’ve been talking a lot about this book that I read called “Life’s Work” by a fella named Dr. Willy Parker. Dr. Parker’s book was the one that really aided me in my writing and came at a crucial time - I guess specifically writing about my abortions. I’ve had two abortions. When I look back at my early attempts at talking about my abortions in song or poem, I can feel the distance that I’ve come since those early attempts. In a song like “The Lost Woman Song”, a song I wrote when I was 19, I see a lot of other people’s framing and baggage coming through me. Even in my late forties, I sit down to write this book and I’m gonna try to talk about it in more detail than I ever have. And Dr. Parker’s book was - I’m just so grateful that his voice came at this crucial moment when I’m writing long form about these experiences because he helped me to shed the vestiges of the shaming and blaming of the patriarchal religious frame that I didn’t even know I still carried and was still operating through. [Dr. Parker] grew up in the church, poor, black, in Mississippi, I believe...deep south, underprivileged kid, but brilliant, recognized by his family and community as just a f*cking brilliant kid. The universe conspires, and he graduates from med school, becomes a doctor and goes into gynecology. He refuses to perform abortions because of his religion and his faith. But through his journey of being a doctor and listening to his patients, he has a revelation, and now his life’s work is performing abortions in the deep south for incredibly underserved women. [He’s] risking everything to serve and empower and protect women from a society that is still trying to decimate them. And to watch his journey unfold, and coming from a very religious background, how he speaks about the morality of his work - it just was so chest and heart and mind and spirit opening for me. I feel very grateful for him at this crucial moment for helping me to get all the way to how I really feel.
And interesting to me too, another book that I cite and riff on a lot is a book called “The Alphabet and the Goddess,” which is not a memoir, but I think has incredibly potent ideas about patriarchy in it - ideas that deeply resonated with me. That book was like a turning point for me as well, and I just find it fascinating that it was written by a man. My feminist awakening revolved around interactions with men and their perceptions, which for me was beautiful, and hopeful. These boxes that we’re in and these divisions that were encouraged to entrench further and further are really meaningless. We have the power to feel each other and understand each other across any of these social divisions. I feel so uplifted by the idea that we can cross the social barriers and really deeply feel each other and understand each other.
HPR: I’m a teacher. After your incredible career, and also the way that you’ve used your voice the written word throughout your life to help so many of us, what advice would you give my 9th graders about developing and using their voices?
AF: First of all, I have so much respect for the teachers of the world and what you do. Bless you. I would say...stay free in your thinking. Stay connected to your own voice. There is a turning point. We are born so wonderfully alien. We come into this world with so much truth inside of us, and it gets chipped away at by the society around us. And for some of us whose truths are further afield from the dominant narrative, it’s so hard to hold on to what you know in the face of what you’re told. When I was on the book tour, there was Q & A at all the events and there were a lot of young people coming and asking me that same sort of advice - teenagers and even young girls, so that was the only thing I could think to say: believe in what you feel. Believe in that, even when you’re being contradicted by everything around you, what you deeply feel is probably true.
IF YOU GO:
Ani DiFranco with special guest Diane Patterson
Sunday, June 9, 7-10 p.m.
Fargo Theatre, 314 N Broadway, Fargo
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