Newsmaker: Lindy West

The author talks about structures of oppression and life after Twitter

November 1, 2019

Lindy West (Photo: Jenny Jimenez)
Lindy West Photo: Jenny Jimenez

Essayist and New York Times contributor Lindy West, who writes about feminism and pop culture, moved into television this year with the premiere of Shrill on Hulu. Inspired by her memoir of the same name, the series—which follows a young, plus-sized journalist—has been renewed for a second season. Meanwhile, West’s second book, The Witches Are Coming (Hachette Book Group, November), unleashes her lacerating wit on misogyny, patriarchy, and racism.

American Libraries spoke with West about the book, body politics, and social media.

Where does the title of your new book come from?

The Witches Are Coming grew out of this phenomenon where people try to deflect accountability by claiming that any accusation of wrongdoing is a witch hunt and not real. It’s an obvious rhetorical maneuver to avoid looking at reality. I wrote a column in The New York Times where I said “You know what? Fine. This is a witch hunt. But we’re the witches, and we’re hunting you.”

I formulated this book around that concept—telling the truth as a kind of witchcraft. This is America’s defining sickness: We want to overwrite our own past and pretend that all of the painful, violent, evil things either weren’t a big deal, or they’re over and don’t affect us anymore. I started to think about all the ways we indoctrinate ourselves into these lies and just how damaging that is for us as a society. We have to start living in the truth, whether it’s about the legacy of racism or sexual predation or climate change.

In the current political climate, where do you find hope?

I think about how many good people there are on earth. I just think about all the smart, good people that I know personally, and then I replicate that over the population of the world. Yes, there are bad actors doing bad things, but we’re here too, you know?

It’s easy to get discouraged and feel like change is impossible. But when I was in my early 20s, you could smoke in bars. Everyone smoked in every bar, and it was totally normal. Now if I saw someone smoking inside a building, I would be like, “This makes no sense.” And all it took was a regulation. People griped about it, and now no one even thinks about it.

We could do that globally in terms of climate change, and people would gripe for a minute, and then they would be fine. The only reason we don’t is that people are making money. We can’t all die just so that a couple people can make an extra billion dollars, you guys. We gotta not do that.

You were very active on Twitter before quitting it in 2017. Why did you leave, and how is your life different now? Have the online troll attacks lessened?

Twitter is not a public square. It’s a private company, and it can make choices about how its platform is used, and it has opted to allow Nazis to recruit and harass. That’s why I left. I was tacitly endorsing this company’s choices by being there. I felt dirty. I have so much time back now. My brain feels cleaner. I don’t feel anxious all the time. People still find ways to hate me, but I’m not as accessible. I get maybe one mean email a month, because it takes so many extra steps to contact me now.

What’s your relationship with libraries like?

I have such a fond attachment to them. Not just emotionally, but as keepers of knowledge and places that facilitate the sharing of stories. Storytelling is an engine of humanization, and humanization is a thing we need right now. On top of that, libraries enable research and help us figure out what we’re getting right and getting wrong. All of that funnels through librarians, people who know how to manage and access information and filter information critically. That’s such an important skill right now and one that’s not just being lost, but deliberately suppressed.

Which moment from the first season of Shrill have you gotten the most feedback about?

The scene where the main character goes to a pool party, and there are around 100 fat women in their swimsuits, dancing and having a good time. Normally, if you’re a fat person at the pool, you feel like you need to apologize or hide. When we shot it, the crew was in tears. I hear from people who were extras there that they all stayed in touch and are friends and have their own pool parties now.

There’s so much pressure to have the right kind of body, and it’s so expensive and demoralizing and exhausting, and it never relents for your whole life. To present the idea that you can step out of that for a day and you don’t have to fix yourself—you’re not a broken thing, you’re a person who deserves joy and pleasure and to be seen and to be a full participant in public life—is really huge for people. If I can pass some kernel of that along, then my life is fulfilled.


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