Some years back, I interviewed Ayun Halliday (of East Village Inky and The Big Rumpus and No Touch Monkey fame) for Clamor. I can't remember what title this interview had when it was in the magazine.
Ayun Halliday is the author of the recently released book The Big Rumpus. She is also the writer and illustrator of the quarterly zine The East Village Inky and the mother of two in the under-five crowd. I adore her work. When I start reading The East Village Inky, I cannot put it down, even if I’ve already read the issue twice, even if I must work in the morning and I really need to get some sleep. I’m sucked into the amusing and real stories of life with four-year-old daughter Inky (yes, yes, the Inky named in the title of the zine), toddler son Milo, and husband Greg. Despite the fact that I have not even one child and no husband (and live in the Midwest), I can relate to Ayun’s life. She makes it all seem so universal. Her illustrations are as grand as her writing. Fatter than stick figures and with more detail, they’re not so elaborate that I curse my lack of artistic ability and wallow in low self-esteem. Ah, I am a content gal when I am immersed in Ayun’s work. However, I’ve had a few questions, so I was quite pleased when I had the chance to conduct an e-mail interview with this multi talented woman.
When you’re asked, “What do you do?” how do you answer?
“I’m a writer,” I say, over my shoulder, as I race towards a child who’s in danger of plummeting Kramer vs. Kramer-style from the top of the jungle gym.
What’s the origin of your name?
The short answer is “It’s Welsh.” Thank god I rarely encounter citizens of Wales, as the short answer also happens to be untrue. It’s the phonetic spelling of the Indiana pronunciation of the plain Jane name I was given at birth - so it rhymes with neither Pashtun nor Ryan, as telemarketers frequently assume. As a teenager growing up in Indiana at the height of the preppy craze, I was desperate to seem exotic - so I happily adopted the idiosyncratic nickname/spelling that was foisted on me by a couple of fellow camp counselors. It seems typical of me that my name is a bit unwieldy, embarrassing, willfully unusual and self-inflicted.
My first encounter with The East Village Inky was issue #9. For latecomers like me, could you summarize your original vision and how the zine has evolved?
I go into this in depth in the prologue of my book The Big Rumpus. Basically I started it because in 1998, because I was suffering a not uncommon affliction of many creatively inclined stay-at-home mothers. I felt diminished, like the party was going on without me. My background is in theatre and it was difficult and then impossible to soldier on in that underfunded collaborative art. After a decade of working with the NeoFuturists, creating work that was very self-reflexive, often with humorous intent, it was easy to redirect the voice I’d cultivated onstage into a handwritten zine that could be banged out during Baby Inky’s naps. The first one was so raw that none of the margins synched up and we had to bind it with rubber bands so that pages could be pulled to the left or the right in order for the reader to see all of the text. The first issues make a lot of hay out of our shitty 340 square foot apartment in the East Village. We moved to Brooklyn in issue 5 (but I didn’t change the name, because I hoped that the old saw would hold true, you can take Inky out of the East Village but...) and Milo was born in issue 9. The drawing and the margins have improved over time. People who have been reading since the early days have watched Inky learn to speak, switch from diapers to the toilet, grow hair, go to nursery school and become a big sister. One of my favorite things is the continuum of the core group - Jambo, our doll humping cat, our friend Little MoMo (now the toast of Broadway!) and Abby, Inky’s best friend from the Tompkins Square playground.
In The East Village Inky #11, you write “…the existential certainty that if I stopped [publishing the zine], I’d lose the last shreds of my identity as a creative adult in the tedious vortex of two small children’s needs provides quite an impetus, that’s how I manage to publish like clockwork!” Why did you decide to focus on your kids and your domestic life in a project undertaken to retain your identity as a creative adult?
When Inky was one, Greg was working constantly at his day job and we had no money or faith in babysitters. Inky was my 24-hour sidekick, which meant I was limited in where I could go. Just getting me to a movie was a major undertaking (thoroughly reported on in the zine, of course.) Although I aspire not to be one of those parents whose only contribution to the conversation is cute anecdotes regarding the offspring, there wasn’t much else going on in my life besides my unending involvement with my child. I think most people find it a profound life changing experience to assume absolute responsibility for the well being of a child - it’s not something I examine explicitly in the zine, but that’s the motor that keeps me cranking out stories about Milo shitting in the bathtub and how I manage to carry both kids and 3 huge bags of laundry down 3 flights and around the corner to the coin-op.
Why was marriage (as opposed to committing, cohabiting, and/or co-parenting) important to you?
No, no, no, it wasn’t like that! I met Greg when he auditioned for the NeoFuturists and after a whirlwind courtship of four years (including much cohabitation), we traveled to Romania to perform in a theatre festival there. After the festival, he took off to backpack around Europe, while I returned to Chicago to open a solo performance and apart for the first time, independently of each other, we decided that we wanted to get hitched. He bought a ten-dollar ring in Paris and I met him at O’Hare with a sign that said, “Marry me, Greggy K”. It was just one of those organic things. In high school, I fantasized that I would be the dashing exotic actress cohabitating with some hot, devoted man while the rest of my friends were boring old married. Go figure! Certainly, I liked the idea of a wedding as a grand celebration, which it was. Incidentally, I didn’t get married because it seemed a prerequisite for having children. Each time that Greg has learned of his impending fatherhood, his response has been “Oh no, oh god, our lives are ruined.” I keep waiting for the Early Pregnancy Test commercial that will reflect my experience, instead of a thrilled, tender, awestruck, honey-I’m-so-proud-of-you moment. Anyhoo, Greg has warmed to the idea, which is why I stick with him. For me, marriage does seem like the long haul. It gives me license to have days or weeks of anti-romance and garden-variety irritation, without feeling like that it’s time to throw the whole relationship out with the bath water.
What aspect of parenting has been most surprising to you?
The physical demands it places on your body. I know I’ll miss it when they grow out of the basket-of-puppies phase, but it’s grueling. The nursing and pawing and scrambling and tugging. The days when the baby just will not let you put him down and how difficult that makes it to hold a pen or even boil a pot of water. Inky insists on stroking my right arm (that’s my eating arm) when we’re sitting at the dinner table - it drives me insane.
What do you hope your kids will say about you when they are adults?
“I love my mother. She’s so cool.” I hope they’ll call me of their own accord and want to spend time in my company.
What is your worst parental nightmare?
That my children will die before me. That’s in The Big Rumpus too. That one eclipses everything else, drinking-and-driving, drug addiction, conservative politics.
Do you see yourself as an activist, and if so, how?
Yes. I’m trying to make motherhood the M in feminism. Typing that out, I see that there are two Ms in feminism. The tools of my activism are a talent with words and a hopefully palatable self-mockery. I’m all for packing social action with humor.
Do you feel like a grownup? If you do, when did you make the transition from kid to adult?
I don’t feel like a grownup. Often I marvel that it’s my decision, my responsibility, my mess to clean up. Sometimes I pass a grey haired, wrinkled arthritic woman on the street and wonder how she feels. Some of my current opinions strike me as nuanced and evolved, but I bet they’ll appear pretty half baked when I look back from the vantage point of 50 or 70. Perhaps that’s the definition of a true grown up: someone to whom experience has bestowed wisdom and the ability to discern the complexities of most situations, who uses these powers for good! I admire ‘young adult writers’ for not condescending to the concerns and passions of teenagers. Too often I fail at this inclusive, understanding spirit - it’s tempting to lord it over Inky that I’m the boss and I know best and I can anticipate the consequences of her using the blender without assistance. Out of exasperation, I calcify into Bitchmother! The trick is to remember that she’s only four years old. If I take a breath to keep my irritation and fatigue in check, I can remember what mattered to me when I was four.
Here are a few grown-up things I haven’t been able to swing -
• Driving a car in Manhattan
• Buying real estate
• Dressing in clothes that are flattering, unstained, wrinkle-free and appropriate
You don’t seem to write much about being out and about socializing with adults other than your husband and without the kids. Do you feel isolated within your nuclear family?
Well, you know there’s a lot that happens in my life that doesn’t make it into the zine. There’s a zone of privacy. We’ve got lots of friends - many of whom don’t have children. Mostly people come over to our house for dinner. I look forward to the day that I can get out and partake of the cultural banquet that is New York more freely than I can now. At the present moment, it’s complicated by Milo’s attachment to his mommy (What a baby, huh?) and the disparity between the two children’s ages. I scour Time Out New York looking for fun things one can do with children and frequently see things that Inky and I both would love - sketching at the Met, foreign film festivals for kids at NYU, going out for a fancy tea - but it would be more stress than its worth trying to include a toddler in those activities. As an only child, I romanticize how jolly it would be to have a big tribe, but I’m beginning to think that perhaps two children might be enough. Fortunately, it seems like Milo is inclined to enjoy the same sort of pursuits as Inky - drawing, playing with the dollhouse and puppetry. Going out and doing fun things with them will be the trade-off for losing all of that snuggly baby fat. (Theirs, not mine. My baby fat seems like it’s on for the long haul.)
What are your views on home schooling and unschooling? Will your kids attend public school?
Many people that know me assumed that I would homeschool, but I don’t have the patience for it. Inky attends nursery school and loves it (as do I). Her teachers are infinitely patient and consistent and they seem like they get a lot more sleep than I do. Perhaps if I lived in a rural area where there was only one choice of school and that school was abysmal I would consider the huge commitment of homeschooling. Unschooling I would consider if I had a child who had attended school for several years and was miserable. I do feel there’s something to be said for putting one’s children in a community in which perhaps not everyone will like them and they will have to find a way to resolve these differences and/or function as an individual in a group despite adversity. Also, for all we know, Inky might find herself really turned on by science or math, two subjects she would never encounter if Ms. Ayun was ringing the old school bell. I think the kids will attend public school. Private school in NYC costs something like $14,000 a year for KINDERGARTEN! It’s crazy here. The competition to get in a ‘good’ public school is like auditioning for the lead role in the high school musical, fraught with emotional turmoil, unfairness and resentment. It’s a mindscrew and right now, I’ve got my fingers crossed, hoping that the public school of my choice which is not in my district will have room for Inky provided that she tests into the gifted program which I think she will since she’s one of those kids who’s loved school from the moment she was introduced to the concept. Plan B is to not freak out if she doesn’t get into that school. We’ll send her to the public school across the street whose reputation ranges from ‘great’ to ‘used to be great’ to ‘pretty okay’ to ‘wonderfully diverse’ with all the inherent innuendo and ideals that signifies. What a headache.
In addition to The East Village Inky, I know that you have written plays for and been a member of the Neo-Futurists performance troupe, and I’ve read your articles in Hip Mama and on the Hip Mama website. Is The Big Rumpus your first book?
Yes. I’ve had essays published in several anthologies (Breeder, The Unsavvy Traveler, A Woman Alone, (all Seal Press, 2002)) I’m also the parenting columnist for BUST.
What’s The Big Rumpus all about?
It expands on our daily existence as depicted in The East Village Inky. There are more references to my own childhood and it’s more overtly political about the need to support mothers and children within the community. Inky’s difficult scary birth and Milo’s lickety split water birth are both given their due. I mouth off about breastfeeding and the need to be open with children about sexuality and other ‘adult’ concerns. It’s loaded with the lice, spilled juice, babyshit, and misguided holiday traditions discerning readers of The East Village Inky regard as the hallmark of quality. It ends with a love letter to Milo, who also appears on the cover which ought to please those who were concerned he’d get a complex when I didn’t change the title of the zine to The East Village Inky and Milo.
Why should folks buy copies of The Big Rumpus for themselves and for every possible gift-giving occasion?
If enough of them do, I’ll be a famous author and then I’ll be able to send my kids to private school and the New York Times will pay out the nose for my wry cultural commentary and other famous people will invite me to their swanky parties where I will stuff myself on catered food and complimentary cocktails! Mostly, I hope that other parents will recognize their own experience and that people who don’t have and may not want kids of their own will go out of their way to integrate mothers and children into the community at large. Then there’s the side of me that hopes that somehow the book will fall into the hands of women who are raising their children according to the standards of Parents magazine and all of those authoritative spirit-crushing childrearing manuals. Upon reading The Big Rumpus, they’ll scrap their Barney videos, their bottle feeding schedules and their Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh themed nurseries and cross over to the dark side, where my breastfeedin’, co-sleepin’, rumpled sisters and I await them with open arms.