Saturday, 7 February 2009

with arms outstretched - debi withers

Debi Withers

Debi is somebody that I’d heard spoken about for years – this crazy queer activist in Cardiff who makes things happen! It was only at Ladyfest Leeds that we had the opportunity to meet and talk together for the first time; Debi walked up to me, thrust a zine on feminist activism into my hands and proceeded to captivate me with every word she spoke. It was a remarkable and amazing first impression to make!

Soon after we were writing letters to each other quite regularly, sharing zines and music and thoughts. Debi’s letters weren’t your average letter – they were infused with a truth, honesty and passion that I hadn’t read for a long time. Debi’s letters energized me, and made me ever more intrigued by her and her voice.

Debi has fingers in a multitude of activist pies in the UK, and I could have asked her 101 further questions within this interview as I find her endlessly inspiring, and I’m always enthusiastic to read and hear what she has to say, as she is one of the most unique people I have in my life.

This interview took place on various trains in November 2007.

Hey Debi, how are you? What have you been up to today?
Hi Melanie, I’m doing good. I’m sitting on a train on the way to Swansea, people are speaking welsh around me, which is good to hear. My hands are all covered in grease from my attempt at fixing a puncture this morning – which I did do – but I didn’t put the wheel back right so I’ve got my legs to carry me today, not my wheels…

You recently spoke to me about your life dreams, saying that ‘I want everything’.
What strategies do you use that enable you to grasp the impetus to act and take control of your own life in the here and now, in order to work towards that ‘everything’?

Phew, that’s a difficult question, and somewhat an impossible thing to want. It’s quite greedy really… but thinking about strategies that enable me to grasp the impetus to act… it’s more like an action than a strategy. I know what it feels like to be in bed and not feel capable of acting, of not participating in ways that I’d like to, of not being able to take control in the here-and-now. But after I was activated into activism through participating in the diy feminist/queer network I feel that action just breeds more action – and sometimes, perhaps most times, too much action! Which leads me nicely onto your next question… which I don’t think I do very effectively.

How do personally manage to balance out passion, enthusiasm and mania against burnout and exhaustion?
I don’t think I've reached a point in my life where I do have a balance between my passion and activity which doesn’t result in burnout or overkill. I am working on it, taking note of the warning signs, making sure I have enough fruit and veg, take echinacia if I feel slightly ill, lie on the floor if I feel that my brain and body are taking on a life independent of what is actually healthy, resting when I need rest, sleeping, and also having the courage to want to heal oneself. I think one of the bravest things in the world is to say ‘I am going to heal myself, look after myself’, because more often than not this entails examining damaging things that have happened to you in the past as well as looking at negative patterns in the present. I have a commitment to myself to heal, to have a positive mental attitude about my body’s physical and mental disorders, which manifests itself in eczema. And I so want to be healthily active, a physical body, but I have to also not get frustrated when I cannot achieve this goal. But at the moment I feel good in here (my body I mean) and I am working on becoming more balanced. But it is a work in progress!

You appear to be one of those amazing people who gains a lot from the natural environment in which you are, and have spoken to me in the past about the observations of the coast, and the forest and their impacts on your life and your peace of mind.
Do you think that the natural environment in which you work/operate/are active can impact upon your state of mind, and thus recharge you and inspire you?

I think definitely. It’s so nice to be in the open air, with plants and trees and so forth. Yesterday I was in Sheffield and we walked to a part where there was this wonderful expansive landscape and the clouds tailed off like mysterious kingdoms coloured pink. It felt like such a blessing to be there and it definitely levelled me out. Being inside of landscapes or forests or whatever enable me to forget, or at least not place exclusive significance upon the cultural world which sets up divisions and oppositions that are harmful. I take comfort at looking at the branches with their infinite, forking, fractal arms and it impresses upon the complexity of everything. It’s so important to displace the human mind sometimes and embrace more intuitive understandings of the world that can be found in nature.
Another way to look at it is I think people are influenced tremendously by the type of spaces they move within. I don’t believe people are in control of their minds, and so much of what can be cognated, experienced, imagined is more often than not influenced by the dynamics of the type of space you are in. For example, most people can only think in terms of capitalism (and all that it entails – certain forms of hierarchical relationships , producer/consumer) because capitalist spaces predominate our cities enforcing a colonialisation of the imagination of peoples minds. So when you experience a space where those expectations and relationships are reordered at the base and you unwittingly pass through them and are forced to engage actively this actually fucks up the dynamics of those spaces and creates opportunities for individual and collective change.

Spirituality (astrology, nature, peacefulness, ‘love’) appears to be a big part of your life; (and you have described yourself as hippy-ish in this respect)
How important to you is this in your day-to-day life and all that you hope to do, be, and achieve?

Mmmm, spirituality, yes, very important to me in my day to day life and in terms of healing as well, which I talked about earlier…

In terms of my understanding of my own spirituality, it kinda came by came by surprise when I was researching the final chapter of my PhD thesis on Kate Bush. I think, in retrospect, that the witchy messages in Kate Bush were affecting me, but I just didn’t know what they were to name. and then I started reading books around goddess related spirituality and realised a lot of the things I thought, felt, and knew instinctively were reflected in these practices. I still don’t have an official name for what I do, but I think that is an interesting root. I've also been influenced in spiritual practices by taking psychedelics which has opened up a lot of new relationships to nature.

I guess its about feeling that there are forces out there which are stronger than you, and that ‘this world is not a conclusion’, as Emily Dickinson says. Still I’m very intellectual, which can get in the way of me really tapping into it completely – and having faith is so important to life – to basically getting out of bed in the morning, and it is something common to all people – that we believe in what we do, and that faith propels us into action. That is when the most amazing things happen. When people believe in what they are doing, it makes us having faith.

You play in the band, Drunk Granny, and with this band are part of the feminist/queer/DIY band network in the UK.
What is the history of Drunk Granny, and how important is the DIY (and lo-fi) ethic of music making to you?

Ooh, the history of Drunk Granny. Well, previous to the band I had been writing songs on my own for years. They were ok, a few gems but really it needed drums, and someone to positively collaborate with. A few years ago I basically begged Sam to start to learn the drums. We’d been friends for ages (we come from the same place in the south of England) – because I had found it hard to find someone to play with I was very sensitive, I still am! And it’s hard to play music with people, it’s about being vulnerable and letting down your guard. As a freaky queer girl it was hard to find other people who weren’t freequed out by me! But Sam is equally as weird and when she got up to a standard where she was confident, I took a bunch of my songs to her and we wrote some new ones too like ‘Flag’ and ‘Wonderful Train’ which are on our first ep. The rest, as they say, is history…
In terms of diy, it’s very important to me, since those networks provide a space for people who have something to say who may not be able to hack playing shows night after night, and try to be ‘professional’. Diy keeps it fun and real. Also, the music scene freaks me out, I’m not very good at schmoozing in the way that you have to do if you want to get anywhere, I’m too socially retarded.

Alongside Drunk Granny you have also recorded other music projects – how important to you is musical expression as a form of unique creativity, self-expression, release?
What other ‘roles’ does music making hold for you? (fun?)

Music is important to me as a unique form of expression but it is also a site of acute anxiety – the work I am doing outside of Drunk Granny is so sporadic at the moment. I used to do a lot more than I do now, but I hope I will get back into it. It comes in fits and starts, and as a lot of the recording I do is improvised – I am fascinated by improvised artistic practices in general – I can record a load of music in one night, like an album or something! And then not do anything for two months.
I was very pleased with ‘Songs to die to’ which I released with a zine. I thought the use of voice was really good, and as I go on in life, I am more and more pleased with the way I sing, and I can record my voice. But music, particularly playing in a loud punk band is a tremendous source of release, transformation, and expurgation. When that process works for me, it is the best feeling in the world! And yes it’s fun too!

Do you see links between your cultural production, and social/political activism?
I do see links between my cultural production and political activism and in a way see playing in a band as completely part of that, it’s like sometimes I want to stand on stage and say ‘we are activists’ (referring to Sam and I) because that desire for change, I hope, filters through with the noise we make – even if those messages have perhaps a limited impact outside of a subcultural context.
Other forms of cultural production such as popular education the links are more explicitly there – i.e. getting people to think about the freedom of movement, immigration, etc. through games and what have you. I did that this year and it was such a fun way of not necessarily educating people in a traditional sense, but activating critical faculties in creative and surprising ways. I am very influenced by the Trapese Collective in this aspect ( and I am trying to bring such strategies into more foreboding contexts like the university classroom where learning explorations are tempered by the promise that knowledge will be examined, disciplined.

You are involved with the F.A.G collective in Cardiff. Why was FAG Club set up?
What have its past achievements been & what are your future goals for it?

F.A.G club was set up because there was no shambolic, grassroots, queer nite in Cardiff – so we had to do one! The initial idea came from me and Joan (of Truly Kaput) but she has since, sadly, left the collective and I personally find that hard. Last year we did loads of nites and I think the successful thing was building, and contributing to the queer community as well as putting on loadsa cool bands and stuff!
The ‘never grow up weekend’ was really fun, and so nice to have folks come from all over to enjoy it. It was really fun to do something diy, queer and feminist that wasn’t a Ladyfest too. I think its really important to invent new frameworks for our fun + politix – even an act of naming/theming can change so much.
For the future… I don’t know how much longer I can put nites on as I feel not so much like partying at the moment, but I think everyone will continue and I hope we can put on another ‘never grow up weekend’ next year, and maybe get some funding so that we can pay people properly, which is always a problem.

How & why are the queer community, and queer collectives of individuals, important to you?
I ask this, in part, because just about wherever I go, or whoever I meet (in such communities and collectives) if we start talking and working backwards there seems to be a common link to you among the line. You have touched so many peoples lives, and been in contact with so many. And I guess I’m wondering whether this is by choice or design; reaching out, or a by-product of events you have been involved with, or a combination of the two.
How important to you is communication and connection with other queers? (I guess linked in to this is why you write songs/make zines/attend queer events etc. too)

The queer community is immensely important to me – I had a very lonely, alienated youth up until about 22 and I think I am the type of person who needs community, who needs to feel like they belong somewhere. It always astonishes me how small the queer world is, and I think that it is both weird and nice in equal measures that it is so. But community is important to me generally, and I want my communities to be as diverse as possible so I don’t exist in any ghetto (i.e. academic / queer). But home is where the homo is, ultimately.

You have worked with the Feminist Archive South (FAS) in Bristol. Could you explain what work you do for this, and why you think it is important to archive feminist histories in this particular way?
How important do you think it is to record, document, and archive current feminist activity?

OK well I haven’t done that much work with the FAS – yet! In fact I’ve only visited a couple of times but am in good contact with the manager there. But in the future – i.e. next year – we are working together to digitize the record collection they have which is amazing! They’ve got loads of lesbian folk music from the 1970s, as well as German dykepunk bands – the flying lesbians – and lots of goddess choral music. Once digitalised they can be shared more easily, and obviously a lot of these records are now discontinued.
The reason behind it is to have them at the Feminist Activism Forum (FAF)’s conference next year, as well as – hopefully – sound posts with oral histories from the feminist archives (they have two amazing booklets of transcribed histories), and songs from Greenham Common.
Other than that I have dreams of working in the archive, doing research, teaching academic and community courses based on the archive material. But this is just a dream right now.

Thinking about feminist histories, to what degree in the work that you do, do you think that it is important to reflect on and relate to the knowledges, successes and failures of previous generations of feminist activists?
I ask this, as I know that you are on contact with feminists from many generations and backgrounds, (specifically, but not exclusively people such as Gail Chester / those at FASouth / those involved in Ladyfests & other ‘cultural feminisms’ in the UK etc.) and I was wondering how important these contacts are to you, contextually, and personally?

I think it is very important to document what we are doing right now and find a way of circulating our actions/activities so that the message does not get compromised. But that is pretty hard! I know steps have been made to do that with things like the Ladyfest Art project you were part of, so I think we’re doing ok. I also think it is important that we create new forms of feminist activity that draw upon the skills and knowledges of the community in the UK. I think this history is in the process of being constructed and we need to make stronger moves…

You have been instrumental in the setting up of the Feminist Activist Forum (since the initial trigger for this was based upon research and questionnaires you personally did) – Have you found it beneficial to hear, relate to, and reclaim histories of feminisms, and wide ranging feminist experiences, actions & activities, in view to approaching current experiences, struggles and needs?
One of the aims of FAF was to have an intergenerational feminism, to learn from history and not make the same mistakes again and again. In reality this has proved difficult on a collective scale – we still see the political divisions over the question of what feminism is about, and feminists still seem to dichotomise themselves into pro- and anti- sex camps, for example. What I would like to see is more sensible dialogue over these issues, find points of alliance, as well as respect and honesty between people. There is also a lot of resistance to queer, which is seen as this academic, postmodern thing created to destroy women and turn them into men. Which is sad, and refers to an interpretation of Butler’s theory of performativity which I don’t agree with (although I do find it fascinating). But this makes me so sad because my embodied experiences are so queer, and by external society’s standards I do not fit comfortably into the categories o f ‘woman’. But this has nothing to do with the clothes I wear but more to do with the material physiology, i.e. I am hairy, androgynous in my body. All this stuff is so complicated, and I think people who shake their angry stick at queer perhaps forget that it is out of immense pain and risk that people ally themselves with that kind of politic.
On a more individual level I have at least been more successful in making friends with feminists involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement etc, but again there is a lot of suspicion. But I don’t think these two divisions are necessarily age based; alternative points of views can be held by anyone. The important thing I suppose is to commit to organising stuff when you feel that things are omitted, not just blame a bunch of individuals for not addressing your perspective. We are such limited beings who cannot possibly do everything, hence why we work in collectives.

In terms of FAF, I think this important work has just begun, and I hope that the conference or FAFestival will bring all those things together in a public, accessible, fun, educational format. I have certainly gained a lot from reading old autonomous feminist media and learning from the personal histories of second wave feminists documented by the feminist archives. I found these compulsive reading that really challenge the popular media and academia’s representations of feminism. I think that we are in this process, and I hope that people will participate in it…

One thing that you do for me time and time again Debi is share (ideas, links, resources, or merely the insides of your head) with me, and allow me to learn from you. You have (knowingly or not) taught me so much over the time I have known you; from specific pointers towards texts/theories etc, to less direct teachings around confidence and abilities.
How important to you (whether you are actively aware that you are consciously providing such confidence and inspiration or not) is supporting others through communication and talking, skill sharing, education, teaching & network-building?

I definitely think my role within this network is as a connector, to hook people in and get them involved, and I’m very happy that this provides confidence and inspiration to people, and to you in particular! As I mentioned in the previous question, finding fun ways to activate peoples’ critical faculties, and create educational strategies which take them by surprise, is something I’m very keen on doing. I hope that it will continue to be an integral part of my life’s work. I was very excited to read bell hooks’ book ‘Teaching Community’ and also want to get to grips with Paula Friere’s work too…

This may sound like a totally negative question, but somebody once asked it of me and my cultural productivity/action/activism, and it turned out to be a really important question for me to answer, so I’ll ask it to you in return…
Why Bother?

Why bother? I suppose doing activism is, for me, about being connected to groups of people, networks, and communities that are outside of myself but also related to myself. Because it is better to be connected than being hideously depressed in my room, because I have privilege and don’t want to just rest on my laurels, because I am optimistic that we can change the world around us and have a positive impact. Nothing is inevitable.

If I were to say the following words to you quick-fire, how would you respond to each in reflection of your life and all the projects you are involved with?

I can’t deny that I am from a very privileged background and have, materially, been given every opportunity to have an education, and have had space to think and so forth. I guess the activism I do, and the areas I focuses on are reflective of that privilege. My parents are working class people who did well under Thatcher’s initiatives, so it’s not like working class culture is alien to me, I am just one step removed from it, but I know my parents insecurity and determination arose from having a working class background. I do feel a bit hypocritical talking about class given the way I have not yet had to struggle, but it is not like I can’t see class because I can, and how fucked up and unfair it is that people don’t have access to opportunities because of financial limitations and have precious hours of their day colonised by the capitalist working week.

This is an area I have done most work myself on, I think this was a reaction to me being freaked out by how insidious racism is, the way racist ideas float around in your unconscious and you only become aware of them when they become a conscious thought like – hang on a minute, why do I think that black guy is going to mug me – and then I catch my racist thought and feel weird/stupid. I think in the wake of 9/11 racist imagery, and us/them discourses were circulating a lot and that was when I became most aware of the racism in my mind. And I do think racism is more pervasive than other types of thinking, although I’m sure that sexism and homophobia produce equally negative and stereotypical ideas/reactions in the minds of people, but I’ve deconstructed those systems so much that I am no longer a victim to them. Part of the reason I’ve done so much anti-racism activism is to cleanse my mind from the psychic virus which is white supremacy . To do this I’ve needed to be in multicultural spaces and make friends with people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. I’m always trying to be aware of who I gravitate towards and why, even if that does sound super cynical, this was my way of surviving within this society. With the deep desire not to be racist.

When I was younger I don’t think I was particularly fun – having fun was an enormous pressure, and as I got older to have fun without drugs etc was a real issue. It still can be for me as I continue to negotiate various forms of addiction in my life. I’ve been lucky enough to be close to, to love, and be loved by people who have a really healthy sense of fun.
I think things are better if they are fun and funny, if you can learn something while you’re laughing then you’re winning.

I have a love hate relationship with academia. Let’s face it: it’s bullshit – a privileged space where people can rest on their laurels and think they are making a positive contribution to the world when really they’re just trying to create a name for themselves.
The whole examining system is bullshit as well. it’s not about how clever you are, but how imaginative you are, how well you write, etc. it’s about showing how well you can defer your authority (to other people’s opinions. And the fact that I have to pay 250 pounds on admin to resubmit my thesis because it was too experimental just goes to show that you need cash as well.) Doctorates for sale anyone?
But I do like learning, but I hope I never get sucked in to academia thinking that writing the odd article is a substitute for action.

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