03 November 2009

Interview: Max Airborne

As one of the founding collective members of FaT GiRL, the zine for fat dykes and the women who want them, which came out of the Bay Area's queer SM punk scene in the mid-90s, Max Airborne's influence on a generation of fat people, including me, is beyond my ability to articulate. She's also a musician, a mover, shaker, artist, thinker and pickler. None of these descriptors come close to explaining what it's like to spend time with her, but hopefully this little interview will give you a clue. There's a tribe of us for whom Max is a keystone, I can't imagine my life without her.

You seem so at home in your freakhood, you never seem to care what the straight world thinks, you really "make your own kind of music and sing your own special song," as Mama Cass would say. Is this true? If so, how do you do it?

Thank you for the fabulous theme song!

I often forget what the straight world thinks, because I've built up a life that's so far outside of it. I'm so deeply immersed in a community of queer, fat and freaky people. A lot of my art and activism has been about building a culture in which we are the norm, rather than bothering to try and make space for ourselves in the straight world. It's an alternative society in which we can start healing from the pain, fear and oppression of growing up not fitting into the mould. It’s a world where we can learn to value and love ourselves as we are, we can blossom and thrive. It’s partly made possible by living in a metropolis that's a hub for queers, fat activists, and a variety of other freaky people, but I feel like it isn’t bound by location – it has members all over the world.

Over time I have come to appreciate that this kind of separatist approach has different sides. It can give us the space to blossom in ways we never could otherwise. And in some ways it makes us more vulnerable when we do have to be in the straight world – we're not prepared, we've forgotten how to repress ourselves in order to stay safe. Also, we’ve ceased to benefit from the good parts of cross-cultural exchange, like staying open to folks who are different from us and seeing the ways in which we are all human, with hearts and pains that maybe aren’t so different after all. There's a balance that needs to happen – ultimately I feel like society really needs a diversity that includes us, so while I'd like us to nurture ourselves in our alternative society, I still hope that we will somehow share our freakiness with the larger culture. I don't want us to close our hearts to people who are different from us. I think real, lasting, liberating change is made by people with open hearts. Working consciously to love ourselves puts us in a position to model that love to others.

And following on from that question, who influences and supports you?

My heroes are explorers who keep asking questions, who are doing their own inner work and trying to integrate it with their activism. My heroes are the artists whose lives are their medium. I am supported every day by many people, both in my life and in the world, who don’t stop trying to walk their talk. I have a wonderful family who keeps loving me through the hard stuff.

What were FaT GiRL's greatest achievements?

A dozen years later, people still write to me to say that FaT GiRL saved their lives. I have literally received hundreds of these messages, and every time it makes me cry. Saving a life is a tall order! We really helped somebody! And these are people who are making amazing contributions to life, to art and activism. Is it possible to be both proud and humbled? That's kind of how it feels to me. FaT GiRL became so much bigger than us, and its reverberations were/are magnificent for such a small thing!

FaT GiRL spread the word among a certain generation of freaky fatties that we can have an alternative society where we are valued, we can have community, sexuality, joy, and full lives as fat queers – without dieting or assimilation or apology. I think we had some influence on fat awareness and acceptance in the larger queer culture, and possibly elsewhere too, but that's hard to measure. FaT GiRL was unique, but it was also part of a movement that included the lives and work of Nomy Lamm, Marilyn Wann, Charlotte Cooper (that's you!), Allyson Mitchell and so many others.

What does fat activism feel like?

That's a hard question!

Lately I've been doing the kind of fat activism where I am the only fat person among thin people who've never heard of fat activism. It can be really draining! It's in the context of a social justice organisation I'm really committed to, and the people want to be fat allies, and are more open to it than most, so I press on, but sometimes I really need a break!

There's also a kind of fat activism that takes place amongst fat people, in the process of connecting and becoming allies, and then maintaining the relationships. Sometimes fat people are really scared of other fat people – they look at you and see what they don't want to be: FAT. Sometimes a fat person who's been a proud fat activist for years will get scared about getting older and more disabled, and their fears get pinned on being fat, so the fat activism gets chucked out the window. People will trade fatness (via surgery and other extreme measures) for horrible, painful health problems. It's really challenging to know how to keep being good to ourselves and each other through that stuff. It's painful for the whole fat activist community, really.

I feel like the struggles we have as a community call upon us to do our own internal fat activism. We need to be deeply aware of all our beliefs and fears. We need to let it all come out and look at it, and decide what parts of ourselves we want to nurture and what parts we don't. It's got to be a conscious effort. If I'm harbouring fears and rejections of parts of myself, and not letting myself see or admit them, those are going to come out later in my behaviour. I must not hide from myself. This is part of fat activism for me – full acceptance of my body and my experience, and making very conscious decisions about how I want to treat myself. It's a constant process, and not easy. But without it I'd be dead, pure and simple. It's the constant questioning of both the external world and the internal world that has kept me from jumping ship on life. Society lies to us, and the internal critic – the bit of society that lives within us – lies to us too. We need to question all the external and internal messages we hear, open our hearts and decide for ourselves what is true.

Could you say a bit about your journey into meditation?

Several years ago I noticed myself getting increasingly bitter about life. I was miserable – hating just about everything and everyone. I was truly scared about who I was becoming. I felt like I had become dead – totally shut down to life. It was clear to me that I needed to do something to change the direction of my life. I ended up at a local meditation centre taking a class that involved cultivating qualities like generosity and gratitude. Definitely an antidote to bitterness! I went every week to that class and cried and cried as I started uncovering my heart. The class was only six weeks long, but it really helped me begin to redirect my approach to life. After that I started going to a weekly queer meditation group, and going on occasional day- or week-long silent meditation retreats.

I try to keep a schedule that gives me space to sit in silence for 45 minutes almost every day, just trying to be fully present in the moment with myself. It’s a vital component of being fully alive for me. It’s easier for me to go through my daily life and see what state of mind I’m in at a given moment, and make better choices about how I want to act or what I want to say. It’s easier for me to handle the bumps in the road of life. It increases my ability to have compassion for myself and others in the face of shame, bitterness, anger, and all the other hard stuff.

My main practice happens at East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, the city where I live. I have a very special love for EBMC because their whole mission is rooted in aligning the forces of mindfulness practice and social justice. I'm very active there, not just meditating, but also organising and other work that helps keep the centre going. It's a great opportunity to bring my meditation practice into the other work I feel passionate about, and it's such incredible teaching for me to be doing active work with folks who have been doing meditation for decades. They really bring it with them into the work, and inspire me to pay attention and bring patience and compassion into all aspects of life.

You seem to be someone who's often at the centre of things, others have noted how great you are at creating community, yet you are so laid back, sometimes even quite shy it seems. I often think all the activity is because you're really good at asking questions, but what do you think is going on?

I think there actually might be a genetic component, which sounds a little ridiculous, but my sister and parents also tend to be at the hub of things, too.

One thing that comes to mind is that I’m very enthusiastic when it comes to starting projects that feel important to me, and when I’m in that state, I tend to get very focused and driven, so I initially work really hard to get a project together, and in a way it becomes part of my identity. It’s a mixed blessing, because after a while I just can’t sustain that amount of energy output, and it gets harder to keep following through. It’s true that I’m a bit shy – a lot of being so public and social produces a certain amount of anxiety for me and at some point I need to withdraw and recover a bit, which is also more difficult when a project becomes part of your identity. It's challenging, and something I'm working on.

Please tell me about your household's pickling projects.

A few years ago I started developing an interest in making my own sauerkraut. I’m interested in learning something about the culture of my ancestors. As a European-American whose grandparents and great grandparents came to America and assimilated into the generic privileged construct of Whiteness, I was raised with absolutely no clue about my ethnic heritage, even though, for example, my dad was the first generation on his dad’s side (from Friesland) to be born in America. One of the aspects of culture that’s easiest to access is food. I love pickled foods, and they’re common among several of my ancestral cultures, hence the interest in sauerkraut.

My housemates were sceptical when I first broached the subject, and they begged me not to do it in the house because they imagined rotting cabbage would stink up the place. I thought maybe I’d set it up in the garage, but that seemed like a pain, so my drive was thwarted.

Then I got my hands on a book about pickling called Wild Fermentation, which happened to be written by a freaky queer guy named Sandor Katz, and even included a discussion of gender pronoun choices. My interest was renewed, and so I started pushing the issue again with my housemates. Around that time my housemates and I went to a party where someone happened to have brought their very own homemade sauerkraut. It tasted incredibly good, and we spent quite a long time grilling the maker with questions about it. Satisfied that it would not make our kitchen smell like a port-a-potty, my housemates gave me the go-ahead. That was over a year ago now, and pickling has become a constant activity in our kitchen. We’ve pickled cabbage, garlic, carrots, celery, ginger, squash, cucumbers, peaches, green beans, beets, radishes, onions, lemons, limes, turnips, cauliflower, peppers, and probably a dozen other things I’m forgetting. And of course pickling is common to many cultures around the world, so while it is a delicious and fun way to eat what my ancestors ate, it’s also become a geekiness unto itself to discover what different cultures do with pickling. And my girlfriend, who is a total dynamo in the kitchen, is at least as into pickling as I am, perhaps even more so. I call her 'Kraut Papa.'

What else would you like to say?

Well, I’d really like to take this opportunity to say how much I appreciate you, Charlotte. I am hugely grateful for you, how alive you are, how you strive to be awake and honest, asking hard questions, generating lots of fun and laughter and freedom along the way. You help me remember who I want to be in this life. (Charlotte: blub! I love you Maxie!)

Max's Comics
FaT GiRL back issues for sale
East Bay Meditation Center


susanstinson said...

Beautiful. So beautiful. I feel so lucky to get to read this exchange.

Frowner said...

OMG, I still have my old back issues of FatGrrl! Those were so important to me and I've often wondered what all the folks from the collective are doing now. Seriously, I read those all so many times, I can practically quote from them. I remember being so amazed that people who were fat like me could actually dare to speak their experience. Reading those was really intense--really touched off a lot of fear, resentment, "it's okay for them because they're in SF", envy...and allowed me to work through those feelings! Thanksthanksthanks for doing this piece!

Charlotte Cooper said...

Frowner, FG was and is vital to me. Like you I was far away from its mmotherlode in San Francisco but I was still able to be a part of it thanks to the then nascent internet and zine scene. Knowing that such communities could exist was very powerful for me,it still moves me and informs what I do today.

knittingwoman said...

eat interview. I love Sandor Katz's book wild fermentation. I keep getting it out of the library over and over again.

Devra said...

I'm with Susan on this. Such a good exchange, so much heart!

LottieP said...

Wow. She sounds great. Love the look of those pickles too.