When Ariel Gore was 16, she decided her environment offered nothing in the way of excitement and everything in the way of soul-crushing boredom.
So she did what we all end up doing — saved her money from a menial job and took off for China.
Yes, indeedy, Ariel Gore: Generic person incarnate.
I love Ariel. There’s only subjectivity here. I came across Ariel and her zine Hip Mama sometime in the 90s. Neither of us can remember how or when we became friends. We were both raised in California hippie culture, and so many byproducts of our upbringing (Free Will, eating trail mix, being around naked people on any given sunny day event) went unspoken between us.
Hip Mama was equally as riveting, featuring articles always, always from the heart. “The Perfect Candidate: Melissa Tannen Searches for the Perfect Parents for her Unborn Kid,” predated the movie Juno by a decade. There were rollicking “Adventures at the Sperm Bank” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Pregnancy,” peppered throughout with insightful, authentic celebrity doings like “On the Road with Kristin Hersh: Mama Musician’s Tour Diary.” Brilliant columnists visited the pages of Hip Mama regularly and “Anonymous was a Mother; A Porn Writer on Motherhood — Her Most Taboo Subject,” always stood out.
My very favorite part was the calendar inside the front cover. This simple monthly grid was a guaranteed laugh riot. For example:
*Buy three pounds of rocket espresso and try to do a month’s worth of work in 24 hours.
*Get email that says, “Dear breeder loser, I can’t believe you do a breeder loser zine, breeder loser.”
*9 a.m. family court, 11 a.m. class, 2:15 p.m. build treehouse.
*Kids to various fathers for visits.
The calendar showcased Ariel’s dry wit. Timewarpishly, each calendar encapsulated the past thirty days in the quarterly magazine.
One day, I came to notice that no matter what else was going on in her life, on every single Tuesday the entry either was or included, “Cancel therapy.” I looked through all my back issues, and sure enough. Every single Tuesday for years and years: “Cancel therapy.” Whether she was home, on the road or across the country, her commitment to canceling therapy was devout.
After noticing this consistency, I asked her, “Ariel, why do you cancel therapy every week?”
Can’t remember her exact words, but it was more or less, “Oh, so I can be in therapy without actually having to go. I went once, but this works better.”
I laughed for 20 minutes before I could even get to the real question, the one burning wormholes in my brain: “And how does the receptionist respond when you call week in and week out, to cancel therapy?”
She raised her eyebrows at me, like I am maybe a bit slower than she’d realized, and matter of factly says, “The receptionist goes, ‘Okay, Ariel, we’ll see you next week.’”
The profound geniusness in this little anecdote is more of less how Ariel operates. Whenever she doesn’t like the way something goes, she simply changes her interaction with it.
Therapy wasn’t her thing, though she knew it was beneficial or it wouldn’t exist. So she created this whole reality around going to therapy without actually having to interact with a therapist.
A few years ago, she passed Hip Mama off to a collective in Portland, Oregon. While this Ariel Gore-less Hip Mama certainly held its own, her spirit was gone and to people who knew the difference, it felt kinda hollow without her. Recently though, the collective faced some serious setbacks and Ariel ended up sitting at the helm once again.
It’s all about digital media now. And digital media is fine and well, but digital media isn’t really Ariel Gore’s thing. She knows it’s beneficial or it wouldn’t exist. Hipmamamagazine.com will be a huge success at some point, but I can almost guaran-double-goddamn-tee you Ariel will set it up to have a huge reader-generated aspect to it. Ariel’s passion for the magazine is in print. Ariel Gore likes print. “Print Lives!” is her new motto/awesome hoodie for sale.
So, a print Hip Mama it shall be.
Support the “Print Lives” kickstarter campaign here.
It was a great joy to interview Ariel about writing and Hip Mama’s past and future. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Why did you go to China when you were 16? How old were you when you came home?
Ariel Gore: Neither my family nor my high school nor my suburban wasteland world supported my spiritual growth. I wanted adventure! I wanted to become a writer! I wanted to become a Communist maybe! So I thought, stay here and continue this psychic death or run away! The choice felt easy. So I ran away. I’d been studying Chinese since I was a kid and I’d picked up a book about a teenage boy who ran away to China and I was probably pretty high and I said, that’s what I’m going to do!
If I’d come from more money, I probably just would have done some exchange program or something. If I’d had less money I would have just taken the train up to San Francisco. But I didn’t come from a lot of money and I DID have a goodly amount of pocket money from a job I’d been working, so I bought a plane ticket and created my own education and took off.
I spent a lot of time in Asia — in Hong Kong and China and Tibet and Nepal and India. Then I went to Europe and that was less inspiring. I had been this adventuresome punk-ass girl who lived her life as a choose-your-own-adventure and always had an escape plan, but in Europe I fell into a very traditional normative-domestic-violence straight alcohol-fueled homeless relationship. To make a long story short, I got pregnant and had my daughter, Maia, in Italy, and her little face so new and naive to the violence of the world inspired me to reclaim my brain and get the hell out of THAT cliché and so I headed home to California and back to college. I was almost 20 when I got back. And Maia was a few months old.
So then I was a teen mom on welfare and I was in college but in my small-town neighborhood I was surrounded by conservative and fairly violent nuclear family households — and that’s when I discovered feminist zine culture — and it was zine culture that gave me an artistic community and a community in which I could be myself and not see my little family as some unfolding tragedy but as the delicate and radical adventure it was and is.
I know you’re prolly sick of it, but tell me the story of how you started Hip Mama.
I started Hip Mama almost 20 years ago as my senior project at Mills College in Oakland, California. I’d been a teen mom, single mom, welfare mom through college. There were a lot of parenting magazines around at the time full of articles about how to choose the right sippy cup. There were feminist magazines, but many of them avoided parenting issues for their own righteous reasons. I wanted a media for me and my friends — for urban parents, radical parents, feminists and college kids and queers who weren’t afraid of people outside their own generation. Newt Gingrich and the “Family Values Campaign” dominated the nightly news. So, yes, I needed a media for me and my friends.
What was your customer base in the beginning? How did it grow?
When I started Hip Mama, I figured the readers would look a lot like me and my friends at that time: Young, urban, poor. But a funny thing happens when you tell the truth about your life — you don’t necessarily attract other people with the same life but rather you attract other people who want to tell the truth about their own lives. So very quickly Hip Mama wasn’t about being a certain age or class or being a part of a certain family structure. It was about rejecting the standard American blueprint for family life we’d been handed — a blueprint of forced assimilation, hidden violence, and one-size-fits-all education — all the things that make families toxic and unbearable. And about a desire to explore the alternatives. What might child rearing look like without all the layers of shame and shaming we’ve been trained to call normal family life?
So all of that and NOW. We have a great new team working on relaunching the magazine with expanded food, arts, political analysis, and lifestyle coverage.
Print does take a lot of money to get started, so I’m relying on community support with this Kickstarter campaign. I love the irony and energy of saving print by gathering a bunch of people together using Facebook and other social media to pitch in online with a model of fundraising that can really only exist in a digital world. The $15,000 fundraising goal for Hip Mama represents the absolute minimum we need to relaunch. If we can raise twice that, we’ll have a real level of security moving forward.[Inga here. Hip Mama reached its minimum goal in record time. It’s still a good idea to contribute if you can.]
Let’s talk for a sec about your debate with Newt Gingrich.
Haha. What do you want to know? MTV recruited me to be the first real welfare mom to confront Newt Gingrich. This was in 1995 and way before they had the nerve to do a Teen Mom reality show or anything like that. People were talking about taking away single mother’s kids and putting them in orphanages — the cultural logic was that no parents were better than a single parent. And Newt Gingrich was a big part of that rhetoric. So he was flying high with his Family Values campaign. I was happy to try and confront him. I mean, he was WRONG and surely I could go and tell him so and he’d have this transformative moment when he looked in my eyes and see that I was a good mother and all the other young moms out there needed support — not judgment.
So I flew out to DC and they got the cameras rolling and I said my little bit — tried to stand up for teen moms and poor moms and urban moms — but I guess it really didn’t occur to me beforehand that, a) I am a writer because I don’t like to talk and, b) he was THE SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE, meaning he was really experienced in debate and furthermore didn’t care that he was wrong and didn’t care if the things he said destroyed the lives of women and poor people and he wasn’t at all afraid to raise his voice and bang on the table about his fantasy of “teenage welfare mothers on crack in the inner city!!”
I think I said a few things during the debate, but mostly I was rendered speechless by his arrogance. So, from a debate perspective I kind of got steamrolled. But it was all right. I got to stay in a nice hotel and Farai Chideya lent me some good lipstick and someone back in Oakland took care of my daughter.
This is a touchy subject, but how did you lose the website?
You know, I never trademarked the name “Hip Mama” because I was an anarchist and I honestly believed that anyone involved in the project was in it for the love of the community. It never occurred to me that other people would say they started the project, or presume to speak for me or Hip Mama in general.
I started the hipmama.com website in 1997 with the now-defunt Big Tent Media Labs. One of the moderators on the discussion boards we created offered to help a few years later and she did a lot of work with the website, but I guess she also had her own agenda. It was part of the reason I left the print magazine — being frustrated by being ignored by the hipmama.com producers.
Then last year, a couple of days after my mom died, I went over to that website and there were all these press quotes about my work that had been rewritten to say they were about that site producer’s work and it blew my mind. I fired off a couple of emails and the website isn’t like that anymore. It has some good content. But you have to dig around really deep on that site to find the history of Hip Mama. But luckily URLs just aren’t as important now as they were even a few years ago. Most online life happens in social media spheres. Lucky Peach and some other great independent print magazines operate with very little web presence. So I feel re-emboldened to make my zine and do my project and I’m not really bothered by the rouge nature of that website. Click to hipmamazine.com for information about the print zine.
When and why did you decide the print magazine was too much for you? How did it go without you? How did you get it back?
I edited and published the zine for 15 years and then I had a new baby and my mom had cancer and needed a lot of care, so I passed it along to a group of dedicated mamas in Portland.
They did a beautiful job with it — thriving in an era that saw the death of so many print publications — but that good run ended in October 2012 when a major health crisis in the collective tipped the balance. One plan was for Hip Mama to go completely digital. That’s when I piped up. I thought, no. No way. If I have anything to say about it, print’s not dead. The online and digital incarnations of Hip Mama had their utility, but for me Hip Mama is a beautiful, homemade thing made of recycled paper that you can hold in your hands and never have to recharge.
So I said to those mamas, “I would like to return as editor and publisher of Hip Mama.” And they were a consensus-based collective so it took a few days as these things do, but one by one the mamas said, yes, that would be wonderful. And so it was.
Let’s talk a little bit about writing in general. Why did you want to write? How does it go for you?
I always knew I wanted to make my career in writing and print media. I got my degrees in journalism rather than creative writing because a part of me thought it would be more practical, and for me that’s turned out to be somewhat true. My writing usually falls somewhere between what the world calls journalism and what the world calls creative writing. Now a lot of school have MFA programs in creative nonfiction, but that wasn’t really happening when I was in school in the ’90s.
Not that you have to go to school to be a writer. But back then I had a little kid, and being a student mama was a way to make a life of the mind work for me.
Anyway, alongside Hip Mama I started doing a lot of freelance writing. Hip Mama gave me a sort of base or platform and I did a lot of writing about parenting and politics. I didn’t make any money on Hip Mama, but I made a little money writing and being an editor helped my writing so it was all the same ball of wax.
When I was in my late 20s, I got into book writing as my preferred format. Long-winded. I wrote The Hip Mama Survival Guide and The Mother Trip. Starhawk the California witch writer had told me way back when that nonfiction “how to” books were easier to sell than novels so I went that way. I found I liked writing advice-type stuff and rolled with that.
My bratty good advice voice moved from parenting and I wrote a book that was great fun for me to write called How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead. In there I talk a lot more about the ways I and other writers make careers out of words with a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
Alongside this more journalistic or “how to” narrative writing, I’ve always done a lot of storytelling. My first memoir, Atlas of the Human Heart, covers the years you were asking about — Asia and Europe and having my daughter young. I wrote a novel called The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show — that’s about a Catholic-themed traveling freak show and was published by HarperOne.
In the more feminist vein, I wrote Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness. You might like that book. It’s really a hybrid of all the kinds of writing I’ve been experimenting with. Journalism and memoir and reporting and philosophizing.
My latest project, The End of Eve, chronicles the last couple of years of my crazy mom’s life. It’s been called “Terms of Endearment meets Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” And that’s being published by the wonderful Hawthorne Books of Portland in 2014. That about sums things up. Some people look at my résumé and say, “Hmm, that’s an eclectic mix of things.” But for me it doesn’t feel so eclectic. It’s all about real life. Freedom and loneliness. How we take care of each other without losing ourselves in caregiving. How we do lose ourselves sometimes. Then start again.