Kathleen Hanna: Writing as a Way of Saying 'I See You'

Kathleen Hanna
(photo: Jason Frank Rothenberg)

Kathleen Hanna first made her mark fronting the Olympia, Wash.-based punk band Bikini Kill in the 1990s. She was also a force behind the feminist-punk Riot Grrrl movement and went on to front the band Le Tigre and pursue other projects. Hanna lives in Los Angeles with her husband, musician Adam Horovitz, and their son. Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk (Ecco, $19.99, reviewed in this issue) is her first book.

Rebel Girl has an incredibly authentic voice. How did you go about writing it? Did you just bang it out on a laptop, or did you record it and take it from there?

I tried the recording thing and it totally did not work for me. So, yeah, it was pretty much just butt-in-chair the whole way. I just sat down and would start writing. And I was super lucky: I didn't have that problem that people talk about of, like, the blank page.

It was the opposite?

Yeah. It was the opposite. The really bad thing was, I am not a writer by trade, and so I started writing it in... TextEdit, or Pages? And I thought the book was only 300 pages--[my editors] were like, "It should be around 300 pages, and then we'll edit it"--so I wrote what I thought was 300 pages. But when we put it into a Word doc, it was 600 pages.

Oh my god.

So I keep calling it Riot Grrrl Hobbit. I was like, "Oh no! I wrote Riot Grrrl Hobbit! What do I do?"

What did you do?

So my friend Ada Calhoun, who is an amazing writer--she wrote the book Also a Poet--

I reviewed it, actually.

Oh wow! She's a really good friend. She interviewed me for something 20 years ago: I was doing this art show that I put on, and she came to interview me. Usually there has to be some sort of professional thing where you don't hang out in real life, you just do the interview and then it's over. But I was really taken with her. And I was like, "Hey, do you want to be on my softball team?" I felt like I was asking her out on some weird date. And she was like, "I love softball!"

Softball is important.

It is! We still have a softball team. So, yeah, she started playing softball, and we've been friends ever since. And originally we were going to write the book together, many, many years ago, but I realized I wasn't ready. And then she's in New York and I'm in L.A., and so I just wrote it myself. But when I had the problem of, "Uh-oh: this is 600 pages," I called Ada. I paid her--it wasn't just, like, "Do this as a friend," because it was a lot of work. She came out and hung out with me for two weeks at my house, and we had the best time. It would have been a nightmare doing it by myself. She read it and was just like, "Oh, here's where we're cutting, here's where we're cutting." And I totally trusted her. She's like, "Do we need to talk about every single cut?" And I was like, "Uh, that's a waste of time. Why don't you just cut it?"

Did you favor cutting from the end or the beginning? Or was it kind of just dribs and drabs here and there, and eventually you had 300 pages?

It was all throughout. I don't know if you've seen that show The Queen's Gambit, where the woman plays chess?


She has this thing where she lies in bed and she looks at the ceiling and she sees chess moves. And Ada was like that. She would sit on the couch and look at the ceiling, and I could see her just moving chapters.

In Rebel Girl, you're constantly reading, whether it's Kathy Acker or Andrea Dworkin. What are you reading now, and is there something you're reading that might surprise people?

I don't know if it would be that surprising. My friend James Spooner and his literary partner, Chris Terry, edited this book Black Punk Now that I'm loving. It's tons of different writers and musicians who are writing about their experiences in the punk scene. I was really inspired by Viv Albertine's Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, and then her book after that, which was even better. [Editor's note: The book is To Throw Away Unopened.] I guess the surprising memoir that I read that really influenced me but has nothing to do with my memoir at all is Alan Cumming's memoir. [Editor's note: The book is Not My Father's Son.]

If you were going to write another book, what do you imagine it would be about?

Actually, I've thought about it, and I definitely think one part would be me writing about me now, on tour and playing shows. I'm in a new band, and I'm writing an album with them, and I've never written about making music while I'm making music, and performing while I'm performing. So I thought it would be really interesting to keep a diary about that. I'm a morning pages person, so I just write whatever: "I dreamt about this," or, you know, "Here's some stuff I have to do." I don't write at the end of the day, like, "Here's what happened yesterday." So, yeah. I would love to write about what my life is like now, and then see what the other story would be. I'm really interested in, what would be the contrasting story? Would it be going back to things that I left out of the first book?

Well, if you wrote another book, I would definitely read it.

I'm so happy I wrote [Rebel Girl], but it was really the worst possible thing. [Laughs]

You found it really difficult?

Yeah, I did. I remembered a lot of stuff that I didn't really want to remember, and I think I went back to some really painful things. One of the things was the '90s just in general.... I got to this point where not talking about how desperately unhappy I was for most of the '90s was making me feel really invisible. The story about me in the '90s was that I was in this band and everybody loved us and we changed everything, and how great blah blah blah, and I wore cute dresses onstage, and... you know what I mean? The thing that I was hearing back about myself from young people was, "Oh, I wish I was born in the '90s." I was like, "Oh, no you don't." Every night was a struggle. And it's really hard to do 12 jobs. You're driving the van. You're booking the shows. You're dealing with the promoter. You're dealing with getting paid. It was just too much. And then, on top of it, the feminist thing, so that we would show up places, and typically the guys who ran the space would treat us horribly. And they would just have all these stereotypes of, like, they would think we hate them, so they would immediately be really mean and rude to us.... But I did write [Rebel Girl] in mind of younger musicians, because I know they're still grappling with some of the same things. To be, like, "I see you." --Nell Beram

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