Suzy X is the frontwoman for kick ass Brooklyn-based punk rock witchcore band, Shady Hawkins (they recently released a cassette on Sister Polygon/Dischord Records). She’s also a fellow Rookie, illustrator, zine maker, blogger, Bitch Media contributor, team member at POC Zine Project and Girls Rock Camp volunteer! I find Suzy and her work super inspiring!
What was your first introduction to punk rock and how has it helped shape your life?
SUZY X: I think it all started with Nirvana. My dad bought a copy of Nevermind when I was 10, and I listened to it much more than he did. He’s more of a classic rock aficionado anyway. I listened to that CD religiously, as well as mixtapes I made of radio pop punk like Green Day and Blink 182. By the time I was 12, my stepdad intervened and informed me that other punk bands existed. “You think you’re punk rock?” He said, “Listen to this.” He put on The Sex Pistols. He shared many other CDs with me– Fugazi, X-Ray Spex, The Pixies, Morrissey. Now he’s sold almost all of his CDs and is a totally uptight conservative, but the music he shared had such an impact on me.
At a Pussy Riot benefit last year your band Shady Hawkins performed a feminist reappropriation of the Black Flag song, “My War.” I love that song! Why did you choose to do it? Can you tell us about how you made it your own?
SX: I had been thinking of doing a feminist reappropriation of that song for ages, I mean way before I started my band. I’ve been a Black Flag fan since I was 13, and I think it’s because I’m a woman that I identify with a lot of Black Flag songs. I can relate to feeling defective, feeling alienated, and feeling just plain angry! I always felt like I’ve been at war with myself, with my body, with the rest of the world. Shady Hawkins took up “My War” as a musical challenge at first, but because of the way we shifted its context, it’s been a hit at shows. People have come up to us after our sets to share how much more relevant the song was to them when a woman sang it.
I should add that I’m simultaneously critical of some of their work. But they still have some sentimental value to me, and also, Kira Roessler is one of my favorite bassists.
Any tips for playing live and dealing with nerves?
SX: Um, learn some jokes in advance so you’re not stammering incoherently to the audience while you’re on stage. Drink some tea. Make sure you eat a big meal a couple hours prior to the show. Hang out with people who make you feel at ease.
How does performing with your band make you feel?
SX: Sassy. I put on a really bitchy, unimpressed persona when I’m on stage, because I resent the idea that I have to be really bubbly and happy and animated– as some people have suggested I should be– because it makes me think of working in the service industry and owing every patron a forced smile with their order. I want my audience to deal with my anger, my discomfort and my insecurity. That’s what my music’s about.
Who’s a performer that really inspires you? What is it about them that you love?
SX: You know who’s great? This band BIG MOUTH, from Baltimore. I saw them live this summer at Ladyfest Philly, and they played with this pure, unadulterated rage. But it was like, an artful kind of fury. Their guitarist and bassist seemed to be dueling each other, it was so epic. And their lead singer, Angela, reminds me of the mysterious redhead girl from Peanuts but like, grown up and fucking ready to throw down in a pit full of creepy Charlie Browns.
Haha okay, so that was a bizarre comparison. But I think they’re great live and I’d love to see what they do next.
Recently you spoke on a panel discussing safer spaces at shows. Things that were discussed included: What is a safer space? How can we create inclusive spaces that promote a culture of respect and accountability? etc. For those of us that couldn’t attend, please fill us in on what you felt were some of the key parts of the conversation.
SX: There are lots of DIY spaces that bill themselves as “safer spaces,” in that they say they won’t tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia. The goal is to create spaces in which we don’t have to deal with these things. It’s a great goal, but I’m a little skeptical of the notion that a space full of people can be purely “safe” or “neutralized.” I say this as someone who’s been a part of Safer Spaces coalitions at parties, shows and even political occupations. I think it’s better to approach these efforts not as an abstract, passive transformation of a space, but to actively prepare people in DIY communities (and beyond) with how to prevent and respond to instances of aggression at shows, mediate and/or deescalate them. You can read more about the Safer Spaces panel discussion here.
I know you’ve spoken at and organised many female-centric events. What draws you to creating/speaking at these events and why do you feel they are necessary?
SX: I’ve spent too much time framing my feminist politics around my relationships to men, how awful they are, how I can change them. Like many feminists do, I neglected other women in my politics, and now I’m working on relating to them better. Being in spaces more focused on women (and LGBT/queer people!) reminds me that feminism is not just about autonomy for women, but about building affinities that make us stronger and more able to make the former a possibility.
How did you first become involved in feminist activism?
SX: My interest in feminism began at 13. After doing a history project on the American Suffragists, I checked out more contemporary feminist books from the library and joined a feminist community on Live Journal. I wrote the occasional feminist article in my high school newspaper– mostly about sex education and censorship, which was a huge deal where I lived in the South. I wanted to go to college in a place that had an active feminist scene. I chose New York, and from there I took part in many different feminist projects, including Take Back The Night and other anti-rape activism.
Previously you’ve said that you stand opposed to all forms of policing and intimidation, whether it’s sexual, racial, along class lines, etc. You mentioned in a recent interview with Luna Luna mag that you’ve experienced harassment on multiple levels; can you share an instance of this with us and how you dealt with it?
SX: I am a petite, queer Latina woman. I often get people, both men and women, harassing me when I’m out with my partner. Women especially love to talk shit when they’ve got their arms around their nasty boyfriends. When I’m alone, the most common thing I get is men yelling specific things about my “exotic” looks, following me or stopping me on the street trying to figure out where I’m from. Hardly anyone ever talks about these specific kinds of experiences, and feminists often treat people like me as an afterthought. I used to be much more aggressively responsive to these forms of harassment, but oftentimes that’s exactly what a street harasser wants. So unless they get in my personal space, I just ignore their existence and walk on by like it never happened. I don’t owe any of these people an explanation or a “teachable moment.” I personally feel much more secure that way.
You’ve spent five summers working at Girls Rock Camp helping mentor/counsel young girls; what are some important things you’ve learnt yourself from your work there?
SX: As a band coach I’ve learned that people have different learning styles as well as teaching styles. I find it’s best to jump right into the music and pay careful attention to what everyone responds to, and where they fall behind. I never walk in with a lesson plan or anything structured like that; I let the campers decide. One of the best things that rock camp has taught me is how to foster more collaborative and intuitive learning environments.
When did you first start drawing comics? What were they like? What was your main influence?
SX: My first comics were all Sailor Moon wannabes. Eventually, maybe around 7th grade, I started drawing cartoons about my friends and punk girls who I wanted to look like.
For you comic series Riot Grrrl Problems, do you draw from your own experiences?
SX: Sometimes. I’ve never been a rich white girl, but I’ve definitely drawn from my own experiences. Like Katie, I’ve dismissed hip-hop as too misogynist to handle, while ignoring misogyny of my own favorite bands. I’ve also had a total identity crisis after being asked to dance by a girl. And I also get too distracted by Tumblr to get better at playing guitar.
Over the years I’ve spoken to women of colour that were involved in the Riot Grrrl community in the 90s and we’ve chatted about feelings of lack of inclusion despite people talking about race; have you experienced this? What are your thoughts?
SX: I can only speak to my experience in the United States, but feel like punk and feminist communities are not at all immune to the priorities and preferences of mainstream white American culture. I’ve both been used as a token spokesperson for women of color; and then lambasted by white people who said I wasn’t brown enough, or qualified enough to call them out on their racism. It’d be funny if it didn’t happen over and over in every group I’ve joined and subsequently left. I do experience the world as a light-skinned Mestiza, which gives me an advantage. I think white folks feel more comfortable around me than my darker counterparts; because of my light skin, I think I’m viewed more as a novelty than a threat in white-dominated spaces.
But at the end of the day, white folks would rather hear inspiring anti-racist manifestos from other white folks than they would from a person of color. So, much like my feelings on feminism focusing on men too much, I feel my time is better spent working on my relationships with POC and issues that affect us. That said, the term POC is more indicative of shared solidarity than a shared experience. Even conscious white people must know that just because we’re not white, it doesn’t mean we’re all the same. I have my own blind spots that I need to work on. I can’t speak to the struggles of black women or Native women, for example. So when somebody approaches me about my opinions on those issues, I tend to redirect them to someone who knows better. It’s important we build those networks and support each other’s work, too.
You’re involved with the People of Color Zine Project. For those who aren’t aware of it, what’s it all about? Why was it important to you to be a part of it?
SX: Most of my zines are specifically about race and ethnicity, and I initially found it difficult to get any exposure for my work outside my Tumblr followers. POC Zine Project, run by Daniela Capistrano, is a kind of networking and archiving initiative for zinesters of color like myself. Attending the POCZP readings and events helped me make friends with other zinesters of color and exposed me to their work, which has been an invaluable experience.
You’ve been working on a compilation zine of your 8th grade diaries; what’s the experience been like for you going back over your collection of thoughts, feelings and experiences from that time in your life?
SX: It’s fun. I take myself way less seriously these days, which is why I’m comfortable with sharing my old diary with complete strangers. But I forgot how tough it was growing up. Reading my journals has given me a new perspective on the past. Things make a lot more sense now, like fights I had with friends or why some people rubbed me the wrong way. At face value, some of these things seem so petty– like, “Oh, my boyfriend hates that I have other guy friends! Oh my friends called me a slut because some guy likes me!” But really, my ex was abusive, and my so-called friends just needed a scapegoat for their insecurities. To be honest reading this stuff brings up old feelings of resentment, but then again… I’m really happy with who I am now, I can’t even bother to deal with what happened 10 years ago. So I laugh at it instead.
How has living in New York influenced your work?
SX: It’s terrible! I have to work so much to survive that everything I do is rushed. I sometimes dream of moving back to Florida where everything is boring and slow. But then again, I don’t think I’d be as inspired. So I stay here and endure the chaos of city life.
And lastly, what are some things you’re passionate about right now?
SX: I’ve taken a long break from organizing, so I’ve been more of a spectator, reading lots of articles and essays. But lately I’ve been really focused on the question of labor and identity– not just in literal terms of employment and workers’ rights– but how work can define someone’s identity, and what kinds of labor are deemed as legitimate or respectable. I’m talking about internships, domestic work, sex work, work that’s often relegated to those who aren’t cisgender men. It’s been driving me up the wall how little the mainstream feminist movement engages with the actual subject of labor. I’m also thinking a lot about how much more attention we should be giving to mass incarceration, which is a HUGE problem here in the US, and conceptualizing more adequate, alternative methods of justice.
*All photos courtesy of Suzy’s fb. Illustrations by Suzy. Image 1 art by me.