P / P Writer to Writer Series: A Short Chat with Noah Berlatsky

By: Jordannah Elizabeth

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What can one really say about Noah Berlatsky? His success is somewhat hard to define, but whether you attempt to encapsulate his catalog of journalism work that has been featured in publications like The Atlantic, Playboy.com and the Los Angeles Review of Books or if you just get mad at some of his asserted personal cultural pathology, he must be respected for his long form, thought provoking articles. He sparks controversy through his idealism and works with top publications because of his tightly researched and inquisitive writing style. How can you be idealistic and tightly researched at the same time?…read Noah’s work. He can share a million facts and figures but still find a way to pose questions that may stem from his general curiosity and observation. His writing is unique because he doesn’t hide behind general journalism rhetoric or diplomacy. He just kind of says what he wants.

Noah’s going to write the “Outtroduction” for my first book, “Don’t Lose Track Vol 1: Articles, Essays and Q&As by Jordannah Elizabeth”…but I asked him to do this interview before I knew the book was going to exist.

Noah is the author of “Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948” and is the editor of the Hooded Utilitarian.

We had a go about childhood, addressing transgender issues in journalism and why he, a white man, is always writing about race and feminism… I also asked him what it would be like if he became a Black lady. Ha.

What was the first book that blew your mind?

Wow, that’s a tough one. Um…I remember adoring the Wind in the Willows when I was in 3rd grade or thereabouts. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books scared the bejeesus out of me when I first read them; the thing with no face looking out from someone else’s eyes; the hypnotized goats — absolutely terrifying. I read Richard Wright’s Black Boy in I think 4th grade or so without really having any idea what I was getting into; I remember that being a very intense experience.

Was writing always something you knew you’d do or did you have to go through a couple of seasons in your career before you became a freelancer?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in 3rd grade or so I think? Before I became a critic/journalist/freelancer I tried and failed to be a poet, then tried and failed at writing zines and comics and such…so I always knew I wanted to be a writer of some sort, but it took me a while to find a niche where someone would pay me.

In past interviews, it seems like you had a bit of an awkward coming of age. Do you think talented writers have to over some sort of personality or social awkwardness to become great?

I don’t know that I’d say I had a super awkward time growing up, all things considered. I was shy in some ways, and didn’t date at all..but really overall I had a happy childhood, I think. So—I guess I hope that talented writers don’t have to overcome childhood difficulties, or I’m in trouble!

Did college help you become a strong writer?

I think to some degree. I wrote a lot for class in college and I definitely got helpful feedback from many teachers in creative writing courses and elsewhere. At the same time, I feel like I went into college already with a lot of tools—and a lot of my style, such as it is, I think developed afterwards. So, I feel like picking up writing skills is a lifelong process, maybe, and college was part of that, but I wouldn’t say necessarily the definitive or most important part.

Why do you write about race and feminist issues when you are a white man?

I guess I write about them because I think they’re important no matter who you are. Race is just so central to how the United States functions and has defined itself; I don’t know how you can understand yourself as an American if you don’t think about race. And similarly I think feminist analyses has a ton to say about sex and sexuality and power to people of every gender.

How do you find a place of empathy and understanding? Where do you find the confidence to even tackle these issues?

I don’t know that I exactly see the issue as one of empathy… I try to write honestly and with respect. That’s the case really whatever issues I’m writing about (though whether I succeed is another question.) I don’t know that it takes more confidence (or presumption) to write about one topic rather than another. Putting yourself out there is always both appealing and unnerving, I think.

If you had the opportunity to be a Black woman for a year if not a lifetime would you take it?

Huh. I guess I have a couple of reactions to that. I am certainly interested in learning, and experiencing other people’s perspectives; that’s part of the appeal of talking to other folks, and to reading for that matter. You read Their Eyes Were Watching God, and get to be Janie, for a little bit, at least to some extent. So, in that sense, being another race or another gender is something I have had the opportunity to do; that’s kind of one of the amazing/beautiful things about art.

In the sense of somehow actually mystically being transformed into a Black woman…I’m not really sure how that would work. In our society, gender and race are really constitutive of identity in profound ways. Like, if I suddenly changed into a Black woman, I wouldn’t have a Black woman’s past history of stigma, of community—a white man changing into a Black woman would be a different experience from being a Black woman, I think.

Beyond that—I’m really quite cis; I suspect I’d experience pretty severe dysphoria if my gender were switched. So…I guess I feel like if I were to be changed into a Black woman in a way that mattered, I’d have to stop being myself, at which point it wouldn’t really be me anymore, which makes it hard to feel like the exercise would be worthwhile or meaningful.

Do you see yourself as a bit of a savior of advocate for poor people, women and people of color?

I hope I don’t. I think the white savior narrative is pernicious, and I wouldn’t want to perpetuate that. I wrote recently about this a little bit (http://www.playboy.com/articles/why-this-cis-heterosexual-white-guy-wrote-about-laverne-cox). The short version is that I don’t see myself as saving people or helping people so much as I see myself as trying to be accountable to different communities — hopefully including poor people, and women, and people of color.

What’s with the love of comic books and how do you balance your writing about strong super hero women with your other culture writing?

Hah…I don’t exactly love comic books. Some comic books are bad and some are good; it’s a mixed bag, as with any aesthetic medium. I write about comics in part just out of happenstance; I’ve been reading comics for a long time, so there’s a background of knowledge and interest there, which can generate pitches and essays. It also so happens at the moment that mainstream outlets are more interested in comics writing (and especially superhero writing) than in some other things.

I don’t see it so much as balancing writing about superhero women with the rest of my work—more like I have a number of things I’m interested in writing about. Superheroes and feminism are two of those things, and they sometimes intersect.

What do you think about all the time?

I think about writing and pieces I’m working on fairly constantly; I often map out essays in my head before I write them, so that’s where a lot of my gray cells are at any given moment. And there’s a certain amount of space devoted to figuring out how to get the child where he needs to go when. I’ve been thinking recently more than I’d like about how firm the dog’s poop is or isn’t, and whether I need to take steps to deal with that.

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