Ungendering Anger: A Conversation by Lilly Dancyger & Shelly Oria

Two new #MeToo anthologies on anger, sexual violence, and truth-telling.


Lilly Dancyger (l) photo by O’Malley Studios, Shelly Oria (r) photo by T Kira Madden.

Most people remember where they were when they heard Dr. Christine Blasey Ford utter these words about the moment she was sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh: “Indelible in the hippocampus, is the laughter.” We remember the deliberate precision and scientific certainty of Ford’s account, the all too universal trauma, expressed in a controlled, publicly palpable container. While some took this statement as a respectable expression of fact, many also felt the enormous fissure of rage, trauma, and pain underneath it—a chilling reminder that women are only afforded so many options to express the complex spectrum of truths we experience. 

This fall, two new anthologies grab back with truth-charged writing by trans women, women of color, queer women, and more. Indelible in the Hippocampus (McSweeney’s), edited by Shelly Oria, includes a stylistic range of cross-genre narratives that dismantle the expectations of silence around gender based violence. The cathartically titled Burn It Down (Seal Press), edited by Lilly Dancyger, bring us twenty-two absorbing essays that rigorously explore the nuances of gendered anger. 

Dancyger and Oria have long impacted the literary community with the soul-supporting work they’ve done as writers, editors, coaches, and event hosts. To have them at the helm of these collections is yet another gift—the depths of their contributions come across in the sharp, sophisticated candor of each book. BOMB was lucky enough to have them both in conversation discussing what it was like to edit anthologies that are the first of their kind, using the internet to facilitate real world action, and reflecting on the nonlinear complexity of social revolution. 

—Raluca Albu

Shelly Oria Lilly, I’m so happy Burn It Down exists. Reading it has opened my eyes to the role women’s anger can play in transforming our world. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say: your book has made me realize that ungendering anger is a necessary step toward gender equality. Claiming and reappropriating women’s anger is a necessary step toward that ungendering. As long as women don’t get to be angry—publicly angry, and have their public anger respected, even revered, rather than declared shrill or hysterical—then how do we expect them to be elected President? Be paid the same as men? Have agency over their own bodies? These things all inherently require anger, or the threat of its possibility.

This was a long-winded way of saying: Thank you. How did the book come about?

Lilly Dancyger That’s such a good way of putting it—we will never be seen as full, equal human beings if we’re not allowed to express anger. Anger is a natural and necessary response to boundaries being crossed, which is probably why our patriarchal society doesn’t know what to do with women’s anger—we’re not expected to have boundaries, let alone to firmly and loudly defend them. That’s so much of where I see a strong connection between these two projects—the #MeToo movement felt like a collective enough from so many women reaching a breaking point with how much we’re supposed to let our boundaries get disregarded for the pleasure, or entertainment, or power tripping of men. Reclaiming our own physical, mental, and emotional space is a radical act when we’re so largely expected to give it up. 

Burn It Down came about when Seal Press approached me about it. I’d recently contributed to the new edition of another anthology of theirs, Without A Net, edited by Michelle Tea, and had a great experience working with them, so when they needed an editor for this project they asked if I’d be interested. Of course I said yes but also was like, “how did they know?” It felt like they’d been reading my journals. (I suspect they read my Twitter … ) 

One of the biggest challenges was trying to cover the broad range of such a huge topic in just twenty-two pieces. I wanted to represent as many facets of women’s anger as I could—from turning it inward to using it as fuel to rage tears to sadness; from women of as many different backgrounds as possible. I am curious to hear what your process was like for putting Indelible together. What were your biggest priorities and challenges in what you wanted to cover?

SO It’s incredible, isn’t it, how hard it is to make a book do everything you want it to do in just twenty-two or twenty-three pieces. I wanted to show different aspects of women’s #MeToo experiences and different elements of the movement itself, to represent a big range of voices and backgrounds, to feature multiple genres. I hope we did much of that with Indelible, but I also feel like we’d have needed about a dozen books to do it all. Which is what I’m hoping is happening, to be honest—I hope you and I are both part of something much bigger than either of our books, that in a few years there will be countless books representing this shift in our collective understanding of gender dynamics and their consequences. 

That’s possibly why we both struggled with this aspect of the work, and felt a potentially exaggerated sense of mission (at least I know I did)— because there just aren’t enough books out there yet representing these aspects of women’s experiences, this new and still-shifting perspective. When you think of the realities of book publishing, of course this makes all the sense; we’re at the two-year mark now of #MeToo—of the current and global incarnation of the hashtag, that is—which coincidentally is also the average amount of time it takes to publish a book.

Indelible Cover Final 01 Rgb 1

LD Yes, definitely. The fact that there wasn’t enough out there yet that explored this was part of what made the project so exciting for me. It definitely also added to the pressure of feeling like I had to cover everything, which, of course, is impossible. But I hope you’re right, and that this wave is just getting started. 

Something that stuck out to me in the foreword for Indelible is where you mention that in the conception of this book, you felt that “giving physical form to a revolution that lived predominantly on the Internet would be a meaningful act.” I would love to hear more about that. What’s the significance of making these stories physically, literally, tangible?

SO It may not be—I suppose as a thinking person in 2019, that’s a possibility I have to accept, or at least reckon with. But as a thinking person in 2019 I also say: I live and lead—as in try my best to shape—the reality I want. And for me, that’s a world in which people still read physical books.

Here’s another answer to this question: the Internet is immense and powerful, so immense and so powerful that these adjectives sound ridiculous, in light of its actual immensity and power. Yet, at its best, the Internet is still an infrastructure for action, never action itself. From prompts for canvassing and voting and calling representatives to boycotts to even the type of organizing that happened in Egypt in 2010 and changed our understanding of how the online space can be utilized: it’s all still preparatory in essence. It’s what happens after, in the physical world, that makes the actual difference. Which isn’t to say that real change can materialize nowadays without that prep, only that we’d do well not to be so infatuated with our new virtual toys that we lose sight of their limitations.

LD Right—that question of how to turn over into that next phase is so important, and definitely feels connected to making it larger than Internet discourse. The big question hanging in the air around #MeToo is definitely, “Now what?” Now that the membrane of silence has been pierced, and this collective outpouring has made it clear just how disgustingly common these kinds of abuses are—where do we go from here? Quito Ziegler and Karissa Chen deal with this question in Indelible—by asking the external “what’s next for the movement” question as well as the internal question of whether airing these things out loud is “how we begin to heal.” What do you think about that, after immersing yourself in this conversation?

SO The conversation that started two years ago is the foundation of the #MeToo movement in its current incarnation; we need to build on that foundation so we can strive toward legal, institutional, political, and social change. But we can’t do any of that if the foundation is shaky, and these types of foundations inherently always are because they try to replace another foundation, one that’s been there for a long, long time. As women we all cope with so much bullshit, and we form various mechanisms and tools just to get through life—a life in which strangers comment on your ass in the street, a life in which you worry for your physical safety much of the time, etc., etc. I don’t think any revolution can—or should, for that matter—disappear these coping mechanisms. That means that we might share our stories and listen to others and still catch ourselves the next day tolerating or normalizing some dude’s behavior.

Continuing to tell our stories (and continuing to listen and listen better, and encouraging as many voices to join this space) will never not be radical. It will never cease to be necessary—or not for a long, long time. The “what now” question we’re all asking, while important, sounds to my ear like it’s ignoring this fact. Reckoning must be an ongoing, persisting cultural state of mind for real transformation to occur.

I’m wondering about your title, in this context. Did you land on it early on or more recently? And is it meant to convey, in your mind, that our only hope is undoing all existing structures and “starting over”?

Dancyger Burn It Down 1

LD I wanted a title that evoked the feeling of anger so intense it makes you feel unstoppable. When I first started thinking about titles, I thought about images and phrases that come to mind for me when I’m really, really angry, and “burn it down” was the first one that popped into my head. The editor at Seal and I bounced around a few ideas after that but ended up coming back to Burn It Down—I just loved the forcefulness of it. 

It’s not exactly that I think burning everything down and starting over is our only hope (though, that may well be true), but more a reminder that we have that power if we need or want it. We don’t have to sit here and stew quietly, and absorb trespass after trespass, abuse after abuse. We can rise up and burn this motherfucker to the ground, whenever we’re all ready to do it together. 

I really love what you said about how sharing these stories, expressing our anger, will never not be radical—that this is an ongoing process. We may not all wake up one day and say, “Okay, today is the day,” and burn it down all at once—this is a slow burn, starting at the edges, and it’s well underway. I’m going to try to remember that, and have patience, and enjoy the embers I can already see. 

SO #slowburn is definitely going to trend once your book launches. (You heard it in BOMB first!)

Okay, here’s my own take on anger: it’s the most deceitful emotion. Anger often lurks under sadness (especially under women’s sadness, since we’re socialized to swallow and hide our rage, as several of the essays in Burn It Down touch on in different ways) but just as often, it’s the other way around: sadness hiding under anger. I’ve been working as a life and creativity coach for over a decade now, and this is something I’ve noticed through that work: at times, anger feels less vulnerable than raw pain. I’d love to hear your take on this. Has your perspective morphed in the process of working on the book?

LD Definitely, that was one of the most interesting things that really became clear while editing all of these essays—how often anger disguises itself as different emotions. Sadness is a big one, but also guilt, fear, self-loathing. Women will contort their emotions into so many uncomfortable shapes to try to push anger down because we know we’re not supposed to express it—but when you just shove something down it doesn’t actually go away, it transforms into something else, always finding a way to come out. And you’re right that it goes the other way, too. Sometimes anger feels like the easiest emotion to access in the moment, the easiest to unleash as a way to deflect when there are other emotions you’re not ready to feel the full strength of. I’ve definitely experienced that a lot in my own life. 

But I think those are different kinds of anger—there are surface flashes that can be quick and cathartic, always within reach and easier to deploy than real self-reflection and surrendering to big emotions. Then there’s also that big, deep anger that is not so easy to access, not so simple to express. That’s the one, I think, that often disguises itself as sadness or guilt or resentment in order to find its way to the surface.

I think that big, deep anger is what we’re tapping into now, and I think it’s powerful as hell. 

SO I love this distinction. It makes me think of the smaller angers, all the ones deemed illegitimate one way or another by men over the years of civilization, and wonder if maybe often they were merely manifestations, symptoms of that much deeper, bigger anger we weren’t allowed to have, let alone voice. I’m thinking here of the essays by Leslie Jamison, Lisa Marie Basile, and Samantha Reidel, though arguably every single piece in Burn It Down touches on this point. 

That’s one obvious meeting point between our projects: I’m thinking now of every woman whose physical boundaries were violated, whose safety was violated, whose body was violated, and who didn’t feel free to rage. Where did her anger go?

LD That’s definitely a crucial connection, and I absolutely think that the fact that women are conditioned from a young age to just accept the disregard of their physical boundaries, that they’ll be objectified every time they leave the house, that they’ll be threatened and groped and worse throughout their lives but “it’s not a big deal so don’t bother saying anything.” That’s exactly how we’re trained to keep our anger inside. If you feel that flash of anger the first, second, tenth time, your boundaries or your body are violated but you know there’s nothing you can do about it, you learn to swallow the anger. It’s a kind of numbing. If you know your anger won’t be heard, you train yourself to not feel it. You have to tell yourself you’re not even angry, you weren’t even harmed, it’s “not that bad,” in order to keep going. And once you convince yourself of that, it can be hard to break back out of that shell. So yes—naming the offenses against you and reclaiming access to your anger definitely go hand in hand, I think. 

I think that’s also part of why it’s powerful that both of these books are not just one person speaking out, but a collective silence-breaking. I could probably write a whole book about my own anger, but I really loved that Burn It Down was such a collective project, bringing so many voices together. It made it feel more like a spell—our voices combined are so much louder than any one would have been individually. And of course that’s so much of what’s been so powerful (and also so upsetting and overwhelming), about #MeToo—that there are so many voices at once. How did the collaborative/collective aspect of the anthology come into play for you?

SO Um, I would like to read that whole book about your own anger, please. Do you think you might write it, or did Burn It Down get that energy out of you for now? It’s a funny thing, you know (and by “funny” I guess I mean disturbing) that only many months into working on Indelible, when people kept asking me—after learning that my own #MeToo fiction started the whole project—if I’m also working on my own collection or novel on the topic, that I realized how often I actually wrote what one can call “MeToo stories.” Our obsessions are our obsessions, I suppose, and our pains and demons and passions find their way to the page, whether those are aligned with the zeitgeist or not.

LD I was in the same boat as you, where I didn’t really realize until Burn It Down was well underway that I was already writing about anger. It turns out that anger is a really present thread in the memoir I’ve been working on for the last ten years. I thought I was writing about grief, but like we were saying with anger being so slippery and sometimes hiding inside or underneath other emotions, it turned out there was a whole lot of anger there too, and I had to unearth it and then find somewhere to put it in the process of writing. 

But we were talking about the collaborative aspects of these projects …

SO Right. Well, it’s one big collaboration, editing an anthology, isn’t it? For me, that was perhaps my favorite aspect of the work. Since after my first book came out, I’ve been exploring the idea of artistic and writerly collaboration in about a dozen different ways—I could talk about that alone for hours. In short, I wrote a collaborative digital novella with Alice Sola Kim (CLEAN, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s) and at the same time started writing a linked story collection with Nelly Reifler, and these two projects made me think about how common it is for visual artists—for so many different types of artists, really—to collaborate, and how rare it is for writers, even though it’s so much fun! It yields work, by definition, that neither writer would have birthed on her own, which to me is such a thrilling notion. There are so many different models you can create, infinite ways to do it. Each collaborative project I’m at work on (six at the moment) employs “collaboration” in a different way. 

To our point, Indelible started about a year into this fixation in my life, so naturally that’s how I conceptualized it: a new collaboration! I didn’t even know back then just how true that was. I mean, as an anthology editor, you’re sort of smack in the middle of Collaboration Junction: working with the publisher, with more than twenty writers, with the publicist. I’m an opinionated person. I often (too often?) think I know best, and yet finding common artistic ground, which naturally involves compromise, gives me an actual high. 

If you had to pick one thing (one thing, Lilly!) about Burn It Down and the process of working on it that gave you a high, what would it be? 

LD Oh, that’s tough! One thing that I didn’t expect was how comforted and fortified I would feel by these essays while working on them. I knew it would be fun and exciting and rewarding to bring this fire out into the world, but I wasn’t expecting the pieces in this book to be such a lifeline for me along the way. Immersing myself in these brilliant women’s anger during the last year—during the Supreme Court confirmation hearing that you got your title from, and every other soul-crushing, infuriating event we’ve been bombarded with—felt like a safe place to return to. It was like I had this secret well of strength I could dip into, reading these essays over and over again and remembering that I wasn’t the only one feeling angry, scared, overwhelmed—that there are so many of us, and we’re all building up our strength. It was less of an adrenaline rush type of high and more of a soft, soothing, taking the edge off high.

Lilly Dancyger is a contributing editor, writing instructor, and columnist at Catapult, and assistant editor at Barrelhouse Books. She’s the editor of Burn It Down, an anthology of essays on women’s anger forthcoming from Seal Press, and she runs the Memoir Monday newsletter and reading series. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, The Rumpus, Longreads, The Guardian, Off Assignment, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @lillydancyger

Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), which earned nominations for a Lambda Literary Award and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, among other honors. In 2016 she coauthored a digital novella, CLEAN, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s, which received two Lovie Awards from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Oria is the editor of Indelible in the Hippocampus, an anthology of #MeToo fiction, nonfiction, and poetry (McSweeney’s, Sep 2019). Her fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and elsewhere; has been translated to other languages; and has won a number of awards. Oria lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she has a private practice as a life and creativity coach. Her website is www.shellyoria.com

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