22 April 2009

Interview: Kelli Dunham

She may seem like your typical Quiet One At The Back, but Kelli Dunham should not be underestimated. Describing herself as "A dorky chubby boi dyke stand-up comic, writer, general storyteller and stealth rabble rouser," she is also a nurse, author, and ex-nun who wowed her adopted New York City earlier this year with the debut performance of Pudding Day, the powerful account of life and death with Heather MacAllister, the celebrated fat activist.

Read and learn, my friends.

Fat people and humour seem to go together, but it's often an uneasy alliance, there's a fine line between self-deprecation, stereotyping, and being offensive. What do you think? What does fat liberation humour look like?

One of the most difficult things in my early years of stand-up comedy was hearing other women comics talking incessantly, ceaselessly about how much they hated their bodies. As if this was a huge funny, revolutionary thought: a woman who is dissatisfied with her thighs, whoever heard of such a thing?

I think, because it's not a very original premise, that happens more at the open mic level and less as you climb the comedy ladder. It' s true that Phyllis Diller could make a career out of it, but she was also one of the first woman stand ups and it may well have been what she needed to do to break in.

So for me, talking about how much you hate your body is NOT revolutionary. There is nothing funny about it, because it's so expected. Instead, some comics who had done really astounding work have talked about how much they love their bodies: Mo'nique (who even uses the word “fat” as a self identifier) and Wanda Sykes are two examples that come immediately to mind.

Then there is the whole fat person as foil, the physical comedy of the stumbling, breaking things down fat person as disaster character. Chris Farley's (American sketch comic that died in '97 of drug overdose) Chippendale character from Saturday Night Live is the best example I can think of. The whole premise is that Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze are having a dance off as a competition for a Chippendale's dancer. And Farley doesn't get the job. There's no twist, nothing unexpected. In Farley's biography, Chris Rock (one of his co-stars at SNL at the time) wrote "[The sketch] was just fucking mean […] a more mentally together Chris Farley wouldn't have done it, but Chris wanted so much to be liked […] that was a weird moment in Chris' life. As funny as that sketch was, and as many accolades as he got for it, it's one of the things that killed him. It is really is. Something happened right then."

I loved your medical self-advocacy workshop at NOLOSE. Could you say a little bit about what medical self-advocacy is, and share some tips that fatties might find useful?

Nearly everything about our current medical system is set up to disempower the patient. Hospitals, clinics, have a completely different culture. These cultural differences can keep even the most self-confident patient off balance, which contributes to health care providers having a huge amount of unearned power.
Medical self-advocacy is about going into that culture and understanding it, being able to function in that culture and get what you need from it. And calling the culture on its bullshit when needed, but in a way that actually gets results.

I think the number one tip for fatties trying to get good medical care is: don't go it alone. Never go to the emergency room alone. Never go to the hospital alone. If you are going on a first visit with a new provider, don't go alone. This is important for lots of folks not just fat folk. If you are seen as gender variant, or have a heavily modified body, or have scars you'd rather not discuss, anyone who encounters difficulty in the way there body is seen (and usually pathologised) by providers should take someone with them when they get medical care. Develop a “queer body” buddy system. You will get better care if you take someone with you. You'll have a witness, someone to help you speak up, and even hold your hand if need be.

I know that Heather was your queen, I would love it if you could share a story about you and her, but not if this is too upsetting to contemplate. I guess I want to keep her memory and awesomeness alive, also celebrate your relationship, and honour your grief process. That's a tall order!

I love to talk about Heather!

One of my favourite stories happened right after Heather started on hospice.

The hospice nurses made everything easier, but I think we confused them a little bit. On the afternoon they were coming to do intake, there had been a rare Portland snow and it was very wet. It was the kind of sticky white stuff that makes perfect snowballs.

Heather was outside smoking, I was attempting to shovel the sidewalk in front of our house with a broom. When I walked past our car, I scooped up a handful of snow.
Heather said “ I know you aren't about to start a snowball fight, boi.”
I countered with a question. “Um, am I?”

I was thinking furiously because I couldn't figure out if it was an awesome idea or a horrible one.

I lobbed a test snowball in her general direction.
She responded by grabbing two huge handfuls of snow and putting them down the neck of my thermal, and when I tried to run away she pelted me with more snow, hastily grabbed from the roof of our car.
I ran across the street and threw snowballs at her from behind the safety of a neighbour's SUV.
Just then, the hospice nurse drove up. We both adopted a very innocent demeanour. I might have even whistled. The hospice nurse said "Are you all...were you...I mean...was this? Are you guys having a snowball fight?" Heather sniffed. "A person's got a little stage four ovarian cancer and all of sudden she's not supposed to be having snowball fights? What's it gonna do, kill me?" The hospice nurse, nodded and said "That is a very, very good point." We all went inside and I took a moment to go downstairs and collect myself, but Heather and I couldn't look at each other for the rest of the visit, because we would break into giggles.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on the touring version of Pudding Day which is my one-boi show about living with Heather; her life and death. I am pitching it as "part stand up comedy, part sit down comedy, with love and body fluids in the cracks in between." I was worried about how it would play, dealing with pretty serious topics such as illness, death and assisted suicide in a sometimes humorous manner, but I had an amazing staged reading of it last month and I have gained a lot of confidence in the power of the story. People are, apparently, ready to have these conversations.

I am also working on three different non-fiction book proposals, including Grief Sucks which I am putting together as an irreverent guide to bereavement. So much schmaltzy stuff is written about death and dying. I wanted to do a helping book that wasn't condescending and smug.

And on the more fun side, I am course performing stand-up comedy all over and also working on a series of animation shorts called Queerhouse Rock, which are queer parodies of the Schoolhouse Rock series. The first short, called “Transitions!” (set to the tune of “Interjections!”) should be online within the next six weeks.

Oh yes, and I'm working on the Butch Voices conferences. I'm helping to put together a couple of fundraisers including a performance/dance party/fashion show and another that is going to be an all queer burlesque show. For that, I'm hoping to put together a group of dorky butch and gender queer folks to do synchronized library book dropping.

Who's your favourite fat butch?

Hmmm, I don't know if I have a favourite fat butch. I think, collectively, all of Heather's lovers and ex-lovers (pretty much if there was a freaky fat butch around she had hooked up with them) that I meet as I tour; they hug me and say "thanks for taking care of our girl." It's rather humbling. And beautiful.

And who's your favourite nun, fat or otherwise?

Well, Kathy Najimy's character in Sister Act comes to mind, and the Sister Maria, Julie Andrew's character in the Sound of Music. Sigh. I want her to be a real nun, and for us to live in the convent together. And her to sing to me sometimes. But I think perhaps you meant real nuns. Oh by far my favourite was Sister Sylvia, who was the superior at the Bronx house when I left the convent. She took my face in her hands and said "we just aren't ready for you yet, Sister Mercy."

What else would you like to say?

Thanks Charlotte, only that I saw the Invasion of the Chubsters dance video on YouTube and it made me cry in happiness.

Website: www.kellidunham.com
Blog: http://kellidunham.livejournal.com
YouTube: www.youtube.com/user/kellidunham
Pudding Day: http://puddingday.wordpress.com

Photo credit Kina Williams


Anonymous said...

Another great interview! Charlotte, you know the most amazing and cool people! I wish I could see Pudding Day in person!I'm currently watching Kelli's totally hilarious comedy routines on You Tube. I need to look up Kelli's schedule and see if she's coming to Michigan at all.

Thanks for introducing another wonderful Rad Fatty!

Btw, totally hope to see you in Washington DC -- I saw that you're thinking of coming. I'll be there!

Charlotte Cooper said...

@macskat: alright!

wonderful woman said...

I love the Rad Fatties feature. This is a rad fatty blog supreme. Wonderful stuff - and a great interview.

Susan said...

What a great interview! You asked really intelligent, thoughtful, interesting questions that I was really looking forward to seeing how Kelli would answer. (Thankfully, I didn't have to wait longer than the split second it took me to get to the next line!)