Turning Up the Volume: Lindy West at Literati
On March 23, the upper level of Literati Bookstore was standing-room only. People were sardined into corners, craning their necks to get better views, balancing on tiptoes. They were eager. Lindy West -- journalist, comic, and internet personality -- was about to read from her bestselling memoir, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman. As she approached the podium, the at-capacity room erupted in applause.
Shrill chronicles West's journey from painfully shy child to (over-)exposed public figure, and the trials, tribulations, and triumphs it took to get there. It's also a hilarious, poignantly honest expose of self-discovery. But most of all, it's a bildungsroman for an age dominated by internet culture, social media, and the rampant sexism that infiltrates both.
West began her career writing for The Stranger, Seattle's alternative press, where she became a viral sensation for her barbed wit and acerbic criticism of pop culture. Soon, though, those unapologetically candid columns made her a target of the monolithic, anonymous ire of the internet, which descended on her en masse. They attacked her relentlessly, threatened her life, her family; they harassed her for being herself, for being outspoken -- for being visible.
But West only got louder, drowning out the incessant, white-noise cacophony of her trolls by becoming a role model for those who exist outside "the norm."
In Shrill, West writes that her "transformation from a terror-stricken mouse-person to an unflappable human vuvuzela" still surprises her; she's unsure just how it happened, but it did happen. It happened out of necessity, perhaps. It happened because, as Literati emcee Mairead Small Staid said before introducing West, "We have always needed writers like Lindy West, and we need them now as much as ever: now, after all, is when we are living, which is to say: fighting, working, insisting."
Literati was the second stop on her book tour, promoting the paperback release of Shrill. True to form, West began with a frank, funny anecdote, explaining that there was a new introduction for the release -- which she wrote, she said solemnly, a week after the 2016 election. "On this tour, I was like, 'I'll read everyone the new intro -- and then I did it once, at the first stop, and it just ruined everything," she said, laughing. "It was too gloomy. So, I'm not going to do that anymore. I'm just going to read the funny parts."
West read aloud a few of her most-requested stories, one on the scarcity of "fat female role models available in [her] youth," and another outlining "how to stop being shy in 18 easy steps." ("It's … a commentary," she qualified, "on the idea of self-help -- that you can take specific steps invented by someone who doesn't know you and magically transform into a different person.") Often, she would interject herself, providing more side-splitting detail, sending the audience into fits of even louder laughter.
But for every well-timed joke and sardonic one-liner, West made a point to rally solidarity and support for the millions of Americans facing uncertainty and fear -- and this is where she truly shined, brilliantly and with absolute clarity. Addressing the current political climate, West mused that "you can't reverse progress; you can't actually make women forget what it feels like to have careers; … you can't force millions of gay and trans people back into the closet."
That's a statement that's deceptively discerning, deceptively transcendent.
What separates Lindy West -- and what has garnered her millions of fans across the globe -- is the fact that she doesn't presume to know all the answers; she doesn't even presume to know exactly how she became the person she is today. But she does know what's it's like to wade through hell, through troves of trolls and insults and fear mongering, and come out strong -- and utterly herself.
Lauren Crawford writes and lives in Ann Arbor, and is an assistant editor of Midwestern Gothic.