We had the good fortune of connecting with Susan Rukeyser and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Susan, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
In 2017, I risked everything to move across country to live alone in the desert. I suppose, in the aftermath, I felt brave. A year later, then-President Trump tweeted that comedian Samantha Bee should be fired for her “horrible” language because she called his daughter Ivanka a “feckless cunt.” For me, this was a moment that changed everything. I could not take it – that man, claiming the moral high ground? I was about to turn 50, a radicalizing event for any woman, if she will allow it. I had never in my life had so little to lose. I decided to publish a book in response to this hypocrisy. I did not really know how to do that but figured I would learn. I created an imprint and posted a submissions call for lean, furious, feminist responses to this moment and also our lifetimes in a white patriarchy. My Inbox became a collective scream. I collected the poetry and prose of 35 wildly talented writers and called it Feckless Cunt: A Feminist Anthology. I knew I took a risk, using a bad word – the WORST word – in the title. It is a word that, quite understandably, upsets many people. I had to stand firm in my intention to reclaim that sexist slur with a book that stood up to intersectional feminist scrutiny, that made something beautiful out of ugliness. Four years later, its provocative title still attracts new readers. As my partner Mia Torres as and I toured the country, promoting that book, we joined a larger, evolving conversation that we wanted to continue when we got home to Joshua Tree. We created the monthly Desert Split Open Mic, now in its fourth year! We call it “Joshua Tree’s “feminist, queer, and otherwise radical” spoken word open mic. Theoretically, we risk public exposure to those who disagree with our mission. But we have had a wonderful experience. Somehow, each month, it becomes its own community. Each reader is held in fierce kindness, close listening. Open mics are inherently risky, for the vulnerable reader and the host, who never knows what might be said next. But that’s part of the fun. Taking risks is necessary to progress, personal and political. Writers exercising their right to free speech but be willing to risk everything – criticism, shame – to say aloud the words we need to hear.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
In my writer’s bio, I used to say: “I write because I can’t stop. Believe it, I’ve tried.” And it was true. For 10 years, I did not to write. I associated it with heartbreak and failure. I let criticism break my confidence. I wrote about it in an essay, “Believe It, She’s Tried”: http://booksbywomen.org/believe-it-shes-tried-by-susan-rukeyser/. One day, finally, I started writing again and could not stop. I scribbled down the plotlines whispered in my ear by characters who’d come into clear focus in my mind, over time. They insisted that I get around to writing their stories. With the publication of my debut novel, Not On Fire, Only Dying (Twisted Road Publications, 2015), my writing life finally gained some momentum. My fiction, creative nonfiction, and multimedia works appear is numerous places, most recently: X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Okay Donkey Magazine, Santa Ana River Review, Cholla Needles, and adapted for the Simultaneous Times podcast. My flash prose is collected in Whatever Feels Like Home (above/ground press, 2021) and Swap/Meet (Space Cowboy Books, 2018). I became determined to help my fellow writers, especially those who might doubt they have something to say, something worth hearing. In addition to our monthly Desert Split Open Mic, I occasionally interview local and visiting authors, with a focus on writers of feminist prose. And we occasionally plan special readings, like this June’s, when we will celebrate Pride month with the words of queer writers. I am also currently querying publishers about my newly completed novel, The Worst Kind of Girl. Find me at www.susanrukeyser.com or here and there on social media.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
We would have an early breakfast at Country Kitchen – I recommend the vegan breakfast burrito – or pick up vegan hand pies from Boo’s Organic Oven. Afterwards, we’d grab a nitro cold brew from Joshua Tree Coffee Company and head into Joshua Tree National Park. Depending on abilities, we’d either take a quick nature loop or a longer hike where we could really stretch our legs and appreciate the energy of this special place. Afterwards, we’d head back into town to hit up the local shops, especially Space Cowboy Books and Soul Connection. We’d swing by art galleries La Matadora and JTAG, and the Beatnik Lounge, where there might also be music or a reading or talk. If it was the 1st Sunday of the month, we’d go to the Cholla Needles open reading at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center. If it was the 3rd Sunday, we’d go to the Desert Split Open Mic! In any case, we would drive out to the Joshua Tree Lake RV & Campground, where the Desert Split Open Mic is held. A beautiful, serene oasis (with ducks!) in the desert, the views go on for days. It is where the Joshua Tree Music Festival is held and, everywhere you look, there is evidence of our creative, resourceful community. And we would be sure not to miss Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Museum. But by now we must be starving, so hopefully we have picked up take-out from Roadrunner Grab & Go or The Dez. Or maybe we sat down to eat at the Natural Sisters Cafe, where once, years ago, I ate their vegan egg-salad sandwich and decided to make this place my home.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
None of this would be possible without my partner Mia.
All images by Mia Torres