TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. There's a new comedy series co-created by my guest, Jill Soloway. She's best-known for her Amazon comedy series "Transparent," about a family of three adult children and their two parents. At the beginning of the first season, the father, who's in his mid-70s, comes out as trans and soon starts transitioning to female. Like "Transparent," Soloway's new series has storylines about gender identity and sexuality.
It's from the point of view of a married, feminist independent filmmaker who can't quite explain her attraction to a macho, swaggering, self-absorbed artist, named Dick, who's dismissive of her and of her work. She begins to write letters to the artist to try to express and analyze her feelings.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LOVE DICK")
KATHRYN HAHN: (As Chris) Dear Dick, every letter is a love letter.
GROSS: She doesn't initially send the letters, but they become her art piece. The filmmaker, Chris, is played by Kathryn Hahn. The artist, Dick, is played by Kevin Bacon. The series is called "I Love Dick." It's set at a small art institute founded by Dick in Marfa, Texas. Chris is there with her husband, Sylvere, a cultural critic who's at the institute on a fellowship. The series was inspired by a book of the same name written by filmmaker and writer Chris Kraus.
The title of the series isn't the only double entendre. Here's the first meeting between Chris and Dick.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LOVE DICK")
HAHN: (As Chris) Hi, I'm Chris Kraus.
KEVIN BACON: (As Dick) Well, hello, Chris Kraus.
HAHN: (As Chris) Dick, right?
BACON: (As Dick) That's me.
HAHN: (As Chris) I've heard a lot about, you, Dick - love that you just go by Dick because usually someone would, you know, if one is born a Richard, they would Rich, Rick, Richie, Ricky. There's so many...
BACON: (As Dick) Just Dick.
HAHN: (As Chris) Is it possible that I saw you on a horse yesterday?
BACON: (As Dick) Yeah, I have a ranch just outside of town.
HAHN: (As Chris) Oh, how big? I'm curious.
BACON: (As Dick) You want to know how big my ranch is? No more polite to ask a rancher the size of his acreage than to ask a lady her age.
HAHN: (As Chris) Duly noted. I'm just - for the record, I'm on a dividing line - I'm straddling 40-ish.
BACON: (As Dick) Straddling?
GROSS: (Laughter) OK, that's a clip from the first episode of "I Love Dick." Jill Soloway, welcome to FRESH AIR. So the Kevin Bacon character, Dick, is just the kind of man who the Chris character theoretically would reject because he's self-centered, he's macho, he condescends to her, he's dismissive of women artists. And so especially in the beginning, he has this, like, super macho walk and super macho gaze. So why did you cast Kevin Bacon?
And I'm wondering if you came of age with any of his movies, any of his early films?
JILL SOLOWAY: Strangely, I didn't. So I think I never saw "Footloose." I watched it after we shot the (laughter) - we shot the show. And I was like, oh, those hips, those hips, that walk, it's all the same. It's all from "Footloose." But for whatever reason, I think I just missed that. I think I'm a little older. But I think a big thing for me in casting - and besides the fact that it was this very receptive thing, which is, like, I sort of do this on "Transparent," too. I don't overthink it.
It's very much like, who is this person? And then the person comes into my consciousness, and it's kind of done. And the second that Kevin came into my consciousness, besides the fact that he's an amazing actor and a sex symbol, I really felt like the way that Kevin Bacon is a symbol for something, the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, really relates to who Dick is.
GROSS: In what sense?
SOLOWAY: Well, dick is this word, like bacon is a word. And bacon means something other than a person, as does dick. And in this town, you know, we stole a little bit from the life of Donald Judd. We took the character of Dick in the book and then we took Donald Judd, who's kind of the patriarch of Marfa, an amazing artist.
GROSS: A famous artist, yeah.
SOLOWAY: A famous artist who really built the town and whose ideas about art and the land are almost a mythology for this town. And the way that Donald Judd has this kind of fame in Marfa is sort of similar to the way that Kevin Bacon has this following, the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and what he means to people. And that's what we wanted Dick to be.
GROSS: So the series is set in the art world and the world of cultural theories. So it's the world of, like, semiotics, aesthetic theory and all the language that goes along with that. And you treat it, I think, in a very comic way. So here's another scene from the first episode. Chris and her husband Sylvere have invited Dick, the head of this art institute, out to dinner to try to make a good impression on him. They're talking about Sylvere's work writing on aesthetics in the Holocaust.
And then the conversation shifts to Chris's work and the film that she submitted to the Venice Film Festival, the independent film. They're eating at a restaurant called The Rope and Loin. And Sylvere, Chris's husband, speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "I LOVE DICK")
GRIFFIN DUNNE: (As Sylvere) It's when you try to assign an aesthetic to the Holocaust. I mean, does trauma even need an aesthetic?
BACON: (As Dick) Why would trauma need an aesthetic?
DUNNE: (As Sylvere) Exactly. That's what I'm here - I'm here trying to find it, you know? And for that, I'm going to need total immersion. What I'm preoccupied with is how the materiality of death transfers to the living like an airborne contamination, if you will.
HAHN: (As Chris) So I slept with a mortician.
BACON: (As Dick) You slept with a mortician?
DUNNE: (As Sylvere) She's kidding.
HAHN: (As Chris) He likes a cold bed.
BACON: (As Dick) Excuse me?
DUNNE: (As Sylvere) All right, easy on the red, babe.
BACON: (As Dick) So what do you do when he's not [expletive] morticians?
HAHN: (As Chris) (Laughter) I recently made a film that was invited to screen at Venice. But I guess for very complicated reasons, that's not going to happen.
BACON: (As Dick) Why? What kind of complication?
HAHN: (As Chris) Just encountered some very greedy musicians.
BACON: (As Dick) You didn't pay for the music.
DUNNE: (As Sylvere) Well, they were asking for an outrageous amount.
HAHN: (As Chris) Yes.
DUNNE: (As Sylvere) Who would do that to indie filmmakers? I mean, it's just so grotesquely unfair.
BACON: (As Dick) What's unfair? It's unfair that you don't get to use somebody else's work for free? I mean, an astonishingly beautiful piece of music can make an astonishingly beautiful scene. An astonishingly beautiful scene can separate a mediocre film from a masterpiece. And I'm assuming that's what you're going for, the masterpiece, big prize. What's it about, your film?
HAHN: (As Chris) It's about a couple - or I would say the woman in the couple, actually. I guess she kind of represents all women and society's, you know, crushing expectations.
BACON: (As Dick) Sounds horrible. It sounds like you're crushed by something.
GROSS: So that's a scene from "I Love Dick." And my guest, Jill Soloway, is the creator of the series. So let me start with the beginning of that conversation. Do issues like does trauma need anesthetic and language about the materiality of death transferring to the living, does that kind of, like, cultural, aesthetic, you know, semiotic kind of language mean anything to you?
SOLOWAY: No. I mean, when he says does trauma need an anesthetic and Sylvere says, exactly...
SOLOWAY: ...I mean, that's funny to me 'cause I don't even know what that means, does trauma need an anesthetic. I mean, I laugh at that joke because it's 100 percent nonsense to me. I'm not an academic at all, so we're just kind of, you know, splashing around in these words.
GROSS: I want to ask you about casting Kathryn Hahn as the main character, Chris. She plays the rabbi in "Transparent." You obviously like working with her a lot. I like seeing her a lot in your shows. Why is she so great for you to work with?
SOLOWAY: Well, so Kathryn Hahn lives in my neighborhood in Silver Lake in Los Angeles. She's a mom in my same community. Before I even cast her in "Afternoon Delight," I would see her at the farmer's market and think, oh, my God, I've seen that actress before. She's so cool.
GROSS: Let me interrupt and "Afternoon Delight" is a movie that you made before making "Transparent."
SOLOWAY: Right. And actually, I think when she has that monologue, when Chris has that monologue about a movie having been the most important thing in the world, the biggest thing in the world and then suddenly it's tiny, I think for me, that's really about what it felt like for us to make "Afternoon Delight."
GROSS: Can I stop you again and explain what you're saying there? In your new series, the character, Chris, is talking about the movie that she made. And she said, well, you know, when you're making a movie, it's, like, the biggest thing in your life. It's everything. It's all you see. And then you put it out there in the world, and it's so small 'cause it's just taking its place among, like, so many other films. And it's - this huge thing becomes tiny.
SOLOWAY: Yeah. It's like this thing that takes up your whole life, your whole body, your whole mind. It's all your dreams. And then suddenly - I remember actually when I had this feeling about "Afternoon Delight." I think I remember waking up in the middle of the night going - well, wait a second. When it's finished, it's going to be compared to every other movie that's ever been made ever and every other movie that's ever going to be made (laughter). It's going to be just one little tiny tile on iTunes, one little tiny click. It's not going to be this thing that's this feeling of my entire insides and this whole soul shape. It's just going to be a little square that people can choose. And that's a really awful feeling (laughter).
We were working one day, and sometimes we'd just started improvising. And that was something that Kathryn and I started improvising together. I think a little bit of my growth over the past few years involved watching some of my comedic heroes - people like Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen or Adam Sandler, Zach Galifianakis - and really saying, OK, how are they doing what they are doing? - because it's so loose and it's so casual. Yet it's so funny. And then at some point, you realize - oh, they're just working with their friends. And they're playing, and they're recording it.
And so that's what I started doing by just sort of hiring people who really tickled me, who I really wanted to hang out with, who really delighted me. And, you know, I'll give Kathryn a note and then the way she interprets it is something that's making me laugh behind the monitor. And then we're in a conversation; we're playing. We're trying to delight one another - I am with my directing, and she is with her performance. So it's just the funnest thing in the world that you could ever think of.
GROSS: My guest is Jill Soloway, the co-creator of the new Amazon series "I Love Dick." Soloway is also the creator of the Emmy Award-winning series "Transparent." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF OF MONTREAL SONG, "GRONLANDIC EDIT")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jill Soloway, the co-creator of the new Amazon series "I Love Dick." Like Soloway's other show, "Transparent," this new one is a comedy about gender and sexuality.
When you were growing up, who were some of the characters in movies, in TV or in books that represented a kind of femininity that you didn't identify with? You know, like (laughter) - like, main characters who you felt like - gee, I'm not like that, and I don't think...
GROSS: ...I could be like that.
SOLOWAY: Yeah. I mean, I felt a feeling growing up, a constant feeling of - I can't believe this is supposed to be me upon watching all the television that I love. So I was really into beauty pageants, but they're totally humiliating. I loved watching them, but I think for the reason of like, oh, my God - this is what grown-up women become, are beauty pageant contestants. And then I think watching "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island" and the kind of stuff that I was raised on really just frightened me about the expectations of women. I mean, I think I also watched "Mary Tyler Moore" and "Phyllis" and "Rhoda" and watched those great shows with my mom. So I had an example of women who weren't all about how well they fulfilled a man's imagination. But those shows just did not exist.
In fact, all the way up through watching "Sex And The City," I would feel incredibly upset by what I thought was an expectation of me, which was, you should really love cute shoes. And you should - you know, because you're a woman, you're going to go crazy for a particular dress. And, you know, these are some of my own evolutions. I remember when we spoke a couple of years ago about "Transparent," we were talking about clothes. And I think since we last spoke, I've become more queer and more gender-nonconforming and basically gotten rid of everything that one would consider femme-presenting in my life. And that's been a very - a matching process with the process of discovering the female gaze and sort of letting go of some of these patriarchal ideas of what women should be.
GROSS: Actually, we have a clip that we've prepared from your earlier FRESH AIR interview, which speaks exactly to what you're saying here (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah. So this is from October 30, 2014, when we were talking about "Transparent." And we were talking about just being so uncomfortable with clothing choices...
GROSS: ...And what a woman is expected to look like. So let's go back to 2014. This is my interview with Jill Soloway from then.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
SOLOWAY: Today I would say I'm dressed sort of like a boy. And on other days, I look pretty feminine and will put on makeup and get my hair done and look pretty ladylike. And I think I've always had that struggle my whole life of feeling a little bit more gender neutral, feeling more comfortable as a creative person when I'm dressed like a boy - when I'm dressed more masculine.
So if I'm doing comedy, if I'm writing, if I'm working, I like to wear jeans and a T-shirt and no makeup and feel kind of masculine because it makes me really focus on what I'm doing. It puts the work first, which is odd to even say that and even realize that little codes and cues - like, I don't need to be looked at. I don't need to be appreciated. I don't need to be pretty - allow me to be more creative. I mean, just that sentence is totally fascinating. And I'm only realizing it right now.
But then when I have to be photographed or I have to be seen or I have to be, you know, Jill Soloway the showrunner or go on stage, get my picture taken, I really, really, really (laughter) don't like the way I look. I mean, I have to put on - I have to get my hair and my makeup done, or I look, when I'm photographed, like somebody I don't want to look like, which is this really weird struggle. So I, you know - as a woman, as a feminist, I constantly struggle with, how femme do I want to look? How pretty do I need to be?
And I remember, you know, a few years ago, before my parent came out, actually, like, crying before an HBO Emmy party because I was wearing clothes that I hated but I felt like I had to wear to dress up. So whatever it is - Spanx, pantyhose, bra, you know, like, all that stuff that means lady-dressed-up. If I'm not in the right mood, it can make me just start sobbing. I know a lot of women who feel that way - like, that they feel like they're putting on drag when they're getting, quote, unquote, "dressed up."
GROSS: OK. So that's Jill Soloway recorded in October of 2014. During - I think it was - the first season of "Transparent." And now she has a new Amazon series called "I Love Dick."
So Jill, do you still put on those clothes that you really don't like because you think you have to when you appear before the camera at award ceremonies or other occasions like that? Or have you given up even trying to dress like the kind of woman that you don't feel comfortable dressing like?
SOLOWAY: Yeah. I mean, it's so amazing to hear that because now I'm able to listen to that and recognize that, you know, what I was talking about was gender dysphoria or gender fugue or something that's very common for people who identify as nonbinary. I don't have that problem anymore because I don't dress that way anymore.
So I've evolved a lot, I think, since we spoke last. And yeah, I basically only wear men's clothes now. And I wear minimal makeup, and my hair is really short. I think it took a few years after my parent came out to really say to myself - hey, you might also have gender stuff going on. And yeah, I'm so much more comfortable now in my public presentation of myself. I never - I never dress femme at all. I can't remember if I was out. I don't even know if I had come out. I'm - I identify as queer now and nonbinary. And so I am probably a different person in relationship to how I look...
GROSS: You certainly didn't identify...
SOLOWAY: ...Than I was last time we talked.
GROSS: You didn't identify as queer in our interview. I don't know what was going on, you know, in your personal life. But that didn't come out in the interview. And you didn't identify as nonbinary. When you refer to your father coming out, you're referring to your father coming out as trans. And her being trans was the inspiration for your series "Transparent," which is about a parent who comes out as trans late in life, as your parent did. So in what ways did that kind of open the door for you to kind of challenge some of your assumptions about yourself and also challenge you to change in ways that you wanted to change?
SOLOWAY: Yeah, it's funny. You know, you kind of get confronted with these questions. You know, a lot of it is, I think, success - where you go, OK, I have success. I have a TV show. I won an award. I have everything people - you know, I have everything I thought I wanted. Why am I still not happy? And then you start to look into these little things, you know. And for me it was, I hate it when somebody comes over to do my makeup. And I hate dressing up. Why am I doing it? I'm going to stop doing it.
And for me, having met so many nonbinary people, met so many genderqueer people and realizing that another way you can move through the world is to be neither male nor female, has been so inspiring. And a lot of women do relate to it, you know. For example, like, once I start to see myself as nonbinary, if a host at a restaurant says, right this way, ladies, I just, like - I start to get really angry 'cause I'm like, I'm dressed like a man. What is making him say lady? Like, what - where is the lady that he sees when he's bringing me to this table?
And a lot of women get mad actually, whether or not they identify as nonbinary. A lot of women - a lot of people get mad when they say ladies or girls or these things that group women into this category. So...
GROSS: So do you say anything to the person who's saying, right this way, ladies?
SOLOWAY: I don't (laughter).
GROSS: Or do you just get angry to yourself?
SOLOWAY: I was thinking about writing up a card. I mean, I think the problem I came to is I realize, like, these are people trying to do their job. And I don't want to have - to me, it almost became this class problem, where I don't want to be really lecturing somebody who is doing a job where I'm sort of telling them, you know, they're doing their job wrong. I haven't quite figured out how to do it. Should we practice? Do you want to say - right this way, ladies - and I'll practice?
GROSS: Sure. OK.
GROSS: (As host) Right this way, ladies.
SOLOWAY: (As customer) Excuse me. I'm sorry. I don't - I don't want to bother you. But I don't identify as female. So if you could say folks or friends...
GROSS: (As host) I don't understand what you're talking about when you say you don't identify as female. I mean, you're a woman, right? You're a woman wearing man - so...
I'm role-playing here.
SOLOWAY: (Laughter) Yes, I appreciate that.
GROSS: (As host) I don't even know what you're talking about, Lady.
SOLOWAY: (As customer) Thank you, fine host. There are some people who identify as female, and there are some people who identify as male, and there are some people who identify as neither or both. It's called non-binary. I am one of those people. And so when you use the word lady to refer to me, it feels like you're speaking to somebody else.
GROSS: (As host) OK.
SOLOWAY: (Laughter) And the guy's like - then spits in my food. He goes into the kitchen and says in that - in their food.
GROSS: My guest is Jill Soloway, co-creator of the new Amazon comedy series "I Love Dick." After a break, we'll talk about her relationship with Eileen Myles, the poet who was the inspiration for the Cherry Jones character in "Transparent." Also Maureen Corrigan will review the new novel by Rakesh Satyal, who won the Lambda Literary Award for gay debut fiction for his book "Blue Boy." And Kevin Whitehead will review a new reissue of a 1973 session by South African composer and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TERRY SLINGBAUM'S "WATER GAMES-RAVEL RE-IMAGINED")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with writer and director Jill Soloway. Soloway has a new comedy series on Amazon called "I Love Dick," starring Kathryn Hahn, Kevin Bacon and Griffin Dunne. It's about a feminist independent filmmaker who's trying to understand her obsession with a macho, narcissistic artist named Dick. Jill Soloway is best known for the Emmy Award-winning series "Transparent," which she created about a family of three adult children and their two parents. At the beginning of the first season, the father, who is in his mid-70s, comes out as trans and starts transitioning to female. The series is based in part on Soloway's own experiences with a parent who came out as a trans woman. Solway has come out as genderqueer since we last spoke in 2014.
I think when we spoke in 2014 - were you still married then?
SOLOWAY: I think I was.
GROSS: So if you don't mind my asking, did the marriage break up because you realized that you were now identifying as nonbinary?
SOLOWAY: The nonbinary thing came later. First, I was just identifying as queer. And, you know, the marriage ended for various reasons. We're still very close, but I think I realized at the tender age of 50 that I had a life yet to live that I didn't even realize was mine. And yeah, I dated women and started to find myself in a queer community and around lesbians. And I think my evolution became not just about being queer and not just about being a lesbian, but really being willing to look at my own gender. And identifying as genderqueer felt even more like I was getting to something that felt true.
GROSS: So once you started identifying differently, you had a relationship with a queer poet named Eileen Myles. And what's kind of fascinating about this is that she is the basis of a character who is a queer poet in your series "Transparent," and she's portrayed in "Transparent" by the actress Cherry Jones. So I'm wondering, was the character created before you met Eileen Myles? Had you, like, read her work and based the character on her, or - like, which came first?
SOLOWAY: Yeah. It was - it's one of those things that actually has made making "I Love Dick" really exciting because I'm in a similar situation with Chris, where real life and creativity get conflated. I'm like, well, did I write this relationship into the show? What did happen first? It's kind of hard for me to remember.
But there was a sort of six-week period where we were in the writers' room creating a character for Ali to fall in love with. And one of the other writers, whose name is also Ali, said oh, this person should be like Eileen Myles. And then I looked at my calendar and realized that I had an event coming up in San Francisco with Michelle Tea and Eileen Myles where we were going to be talking about who we write for. It was this idea of who's that voice in your head? Who's listening when you write?
And at the same time, I think, was when Sarah Gubbins told me to get "I Love Dick." And I opened "I Love Dick," and the introduction was by Eileen Myles. And I really, really loved what she was saying. And then I met Eileen, and it was all just kind of happening at once. And that relationship for me, besides just being a beautiful, amazing experience of loving and being loved, I think I really - in some ways, Eileen was my Dick. You know, I - I wanted to be seen by her. I wanted to be read by her. I wanted to be admired by someone that I admired so much.
GROSS: I guess that happened.
GROSS: So you and Eileen Myles broke up after a while. How did that affect your ability to keep her as a character in "Transparent"? You know what I mean? Did things change in terms of writing the character, or were you still kind of close enough as friends that you could just kind of keep that going?
SOLOWAY: Yeah, we keep it going. I mean, that is one of the hard things about making a show about your life. I remember, actually, Eileen came to visit the set of "Transparent." And she and I had already broken up, but she came to visit on the day that Ali was breaking up - or not that Ali was breaking up with Leslie but the day that Leslie really realized that things weren't great between them. And so we were sitting...
GROSS: And Leslie's the character based on...
SOLOWAY: Yeah. (Laughter) Yeah.
GROSS: ...On Eileen Myles. Yeah.
SOLOWAY: It's awkward. But luckily, Eileen really writes - she writes about people in her life. All of her poems are about real people. And so she actually understands the feeling of - of having to say look, this isn't me. This is my character. And I think that was one of the easiest parts of our relationship, is being able to accept each other's art about each other. I think that was something that's very natural. I think she really enjoyed having - meeting Cherry Jones, who was playing Leslie.
You know, once you cross this boundary and - as an artist and say, I'm making stuff about people I know. And the people that I know who I'm making stuff about are also making stuff about me, I mean, that's - that to me is really what allowed me to make "Dick." And so the idea about a - you know, a juicy soap opera about a community of artists who are all making art about each other and themselves and then meanwhile trying to achieve intimacy and relationship within that - that very much spoke to the process of making "Transparent."
GROSS: Is Bruce Gilbert your ex-husband?
SOLOWAY: Yes, he is.
GROSS: Because he's the, like, music supervisor for the new series...
SOLOWAY: I know.
GROSS: ...So you're still working with him even though you're not married anymore.
SOLOWAY: Yes. We're actually here in New York together. We're a family - collaborators, compatriots. And yeah, Bruce is the music supervisor on both "Transparent" and "I Love Dick." And, you know, we're really close friends, and we're raising children together. And we have such an intuitive sense of working on the music together where I get to just have faith in him, and he tunes in. You know, the music on "I Love Dick" and in particular the work of this one singer-songwriter named Lhasa de Sela - her music is all over the show.
She passed away a few years ago at the age of 36 from cancer, but she came to the show through - in this almost spiritual way where Bruce heard her music and knew that she was the right voice. And that's what Bruce and I have by having been in a relationship and being a family together is we don't overthink the music. I let him just channel the sound of the show. And it's such a joy and such a dream to be able to work together.
GROSS: So you had mentioned that one of the shows that you used to watch during your formative years was "The Love Boat," which is, you know, a kind of fantasy cruise series from, what, the '70s and early '80s? I'm trying to remember.
GROSS: Yeah. So the final episode of the latest season of "Transparent" actually ends on a cruise where the whole family, in spite of all their bickering and dysfunction, go on a cruise together. Is there any connection?
SOLOWAY: Well, yeah the episode is titled "Exciting And New."
GROSS: Oh, God, it didn't (laughter). It didn't register on me...
SOLOWAY: Which is, like, some of the words form "The Love Boat" theme song...
GROSS: That's from the theme song. Yeah.
SOLOWAY: Yeah. My sister and I wrote that episode together. And of course, we are the ones who on - I don't know if it was Friday night or Saturday night - we stayed in worshipping at the altar of "Love Boat." And, yeah, it's I think a classic American family vacation episode. And we actually went on the cruise. And we really wanted to go on the cruise. And Judith Light sang the song on the cruise.
So if you were a passenger on that cruise that week, you would have been approached by one of us offering you a $50 gift card to come to the Spinnaker Lounge to watch Judith Light sing. So that was very much just, like, a complete dream come true.
GROSS: So one episode from "Transparent" is inspired by "The Love Boat." And just about every episode of "I Love Dick" has an excerpt or a reference to a woman experimental filmmaker, like Chantal Akerman or Maya Deren. So those are, like, on such opposite ends of the kind of culture spectrum - you know, like, hard to grasp experimental film - and "The Love Boat," which is among the most, like, mainstream of mainstream TV shows.
SOLOWAY: Yeah, well, interestingly, this is what Dick Hebdige is responsible for. He invented the field of cultural criticism. He was one of the first people to say something to the effect of, you know, The Beatles are - we can do art theory and talk about pop and talk about culture and talk about popularity within art theory and within cultural criticism. So yeah, the field of cultural criticism, I think, is a way of joining things like Chantal Akerman and "The Love Boat," looking for similarities.
GROSS: What similarities do you see between...
GROSS: I dare you (laughter).
SOLOWAY: Well, actually, besides mentioning people like Chantal Akerman and Maya Deren, we also employed the use of certain film clips from other female filmmakers. And there's one filmmaker named Cauleen Smith, and we use a piece of her film in episode five. I think it's called "A History Of Weird Girls," and we use it to introduce Paula's story.
And one of the reasons I love that so much is she talks about that she would have to create her own films because she didn't see herself on television. And I think that's really that - I think that was the feeling of growing up worshipping at the altar of TV, is you want to figure out how to get in there, how to get on the other side of the glass and be the thing projecting out that everybody's looking at. And when I think about "I Love Dick" and the intensity of the feminist message and the fact that, you know, thanks to the way that Amazon distributes, it's going to be in 230 countries - it's so feminist. It's so radical. It's also soapy and delicious.
And for me to have had these kinds of, you know, dreams as a kid about being part of a movement or watching my mom be part of trying to get the ERA passed and thinking about the ways in which we all yearn so much to change the world - and to realize that by having kind of gnawed my way into the television to be able to present this kind of stuff, it's like - it's such a dream come true.
GROSS: So I guess I'm a little confused because it sounds like with a feminist mother fighting for the ERA and a sister who came out early as a lesbian that you would be - you know, feel like you had a right as a woman to be empowered. You grew up in an empowering atmosphere, right?
SOLOWAY: I mean, well, I think I was very empowered. When I look back at - when I think, like, OK, well, what was happening for me between the ages of 16 and 50, where I was happily and successfully dating men and identifying as straight? Let's say, you know, 16 and 48. You know, I think I was, like, very classically attractive in a way where, you know, I was pretty skinny, and I had huge breasts.
And I think I got a lot of unwanted and wanted attention from men. I think I had a lot of incoming, as Donald Trump would say about press. I had a lot of incoming. I had a lot of just energy going towards what I looked like.
GROSS: Well, you actually had breast reduction surgery, didn't you?
GROSS: Was that because you were getting the kind of unwanted attention?
SOLOWAY: No, I think at that point it was part of this moment - like, everything was happening at the same time for me. My parent came out. I was becoming a director. And I was becoming more comfortable with my own voice. And, you know, I think at that point, it was just like, it's really hard for me to do my work and also think about how to dress so that I'm comfortable. Like, I was physically uncomfortable working so hard as a director and just, like, wanting to get home in the middle of the day and, like, take a bath (laughter) and, like, just float because I was carrying around these huge breasts.
So I do think that actually having that body that really kind of drew a lot of attention, you know, I just sort of lived within that - I lived within that framework. And I was responding to what it felt like to be admired by men. And thus, I was successful in patriarchy, you know? I had access to rooms and to people that, you know, I had access to because of the way I looked. And so I sort of went there.
GROSS: When did you have the procedure?
SOLOWAY: Somewhere around - well, it was after I made "Afternoon Delight" and right before we went to Sundance. So somewhere - shortly after that phone call, actually. It's one of those weird connections I've made in my brain that I really remember very quickly after my parent coming out having the thought of like, OK, I can finally do this. I don't know why I had those connected.
But I think there was some part of me that admired queer people who were - who would get surgery to feel more at home in their bodies. And so my conception of myself as queer really allowed me to think about surgery to get my body more in line with how I felt. And I didn't have that shame of, oh, I'm being really egotistical or this is a narcissistic beauty process.
GROSS: Jill Soloway, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.
SOLOWAY: Thank you so much, Terry Gross. Can I come a third time in a couple years?
GROSS: Yeah (laughter).
SOLOWAY: OK, good. I'll be like, I remember when I was identifying as genderqueer?
GROSS: I will play back tape from that.
SOLOWAY: OK, good.
GROSS: Jill Soloway is the co-creator of the new series "I Love Dick." The entire first season will be released on Amazon Friday. Season 4 of Soloway's series "Transparent" is currently wrapping and will be on Amazon later this year. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel by Rakesh Satyal, whose first book won the Lambda Literary Award for gay debut fiction. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S, "CONTRADANZA")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In 2010, writer Rakesh Satyal won the Lambda Literary Award for gay debut fiction for his novel "Blue Boy." His new novel is called "No One Can Pronounce My Name," which our book critic Maureen Corrigan says is a misleading title. Here's her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Rakesh Satyal's new novel checks off a lot of boxes. But its charm lies in the fact that it wears all of its various identities so lightly. This is an immigration story, a coming out story and something of an old-school feminist story about a timid woman learning to roar. Yet, there's nothing preachy or predictable about Satyal's novel. Rather, the most cumbersome thing about it is its title, which I've delayed saying for as long as possible. It's called "No One Can Pronounce My Name," which sounds aggrieved, when instead, this is a novel that invites readers to be amused.
Satyal wants us all to laugh together about the comedy of errors that often typifies everyday life. "No One Can Pronounce My Name" is set in an Indian-American community in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Ranjana is a middle-aged wife and mother whose son has just departed for college - Princeton, no less. Ranjana's husband is an out-of-shape academic, who sports what she thinks of as the common Indian male physique - second trimester with a possible sale into the third.
For years, Ranjana has lived a secret life. She writes erotic supernatural fiction, modeled on the work of Anne Rice. Ranjana first read "Interview With The Vampire" when she and her husband emigrated to America. We're told it was her way of trying to permeate the wall that separated her Indian life from the omnipresent glitz of American pop culture. Now though with her son off at college, Ranjana's days are too solitary in her empty house, so she takes a job as a receptionist in an Indian proctologist's office.
This job, along with her participation in what turns out to be a vicious writer's group, are Ranjana's tentative ways of trying to enter a wider world. The other main character here, also a middle-aged Indian immigrant, is even more adrift. Harit lives with his mother, who's deranged by grief for his older sister, the victim of a stupid, deadly accident. To comfort his mother, whose eyesight is conveniently dimmed by cataracts, Harit dresses up every night in his dead sister's saris and pretends to be her. In ways Harit dare not name even silently to himself, this dress up game has become consoling to him, too.
Clothes also become the conduit for leading Harit out of his isolation. He lands a job in the men's accessories department, called men's furnishings, at the quaint Harriman's Department Store. There, an older gay man named Teddy takes Harit under his wing and introduces him to the cheering ritual of happy hour at T.G.I. Friday's in a nearby mall. But not everyone at Harriman's is so welcoming. Here's Satyal's description of the daily dynamics in the employee break room.
(Reading) By 8:30, the 15 or so sales people of the morning shift would gather and loiter with their coffees, bagels, stinky fast food breakfasts and gossip. It wasn't that they were mean to Harit but except for a smile in passing or an odd question about his ethnicity - in India, do you drink eight glasses of tea a day instead of water? - they rarely engaged him directly in conversation. Both Ranjana and Harit pine for some kind of deep connection to other human beings.
But they're clueless as to how to make that happen. Their shared situation may sound glum but because "No One Can Pronounce My Name" is essentially and delightfully a comic novel, the intertwined plots here are buoyant, rather than blue. It says something about both the reach of Satyal's story and his wry skill as a storyteller that while I was reading, I kept thinking of Barbara Pym, who wrote mostly about the lives of tweedy English spinsters with similar warmth and humor.
"No One Can Pronounce My Name" explores the politics of sexual identity as well as the immigrant and first-generation American experience. But unfashionable as it may sound, the novel's greater achievement lies in the compassionate, comic way it explores the universal human experience of loneliness.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "No One Can Pronounce My Name," by Rakesh Satyal. After we take a short break, Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new release of a 1973 session by South African composer and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE JAZZ JOUSTERS FEATURING SMOKEDBEAT'S "LAMENTO")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim was known early in his career as Dollar Brand. He left South Africa in 1962 for Europe, where Duke Ellington heard and recorded him. Abdullah Ibrahim has recorded dozens of albums since on four continents with all kinds of lineups. His 1973 Toronto solo session has just been reissued. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM COMPOSITION)
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Abdullah Ibrahim, 1973, from the newly reissued "Ancient Africa." Abdullah has been playing his rollicking brand of piano for so long, we may take him for granted. You can hear why Duke Ellington liked him. Duke also knew about percussive rhythm piano and personalizing traditional materials. In fact, Ellington had been young Adolph Brand's first jazz hero when he was growing up in Cape Town. Later, he'd portray a particular love of Duke's ballads. This is from Ibrahim's "The Aloe And The Wild Rose."
(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "THE ALOE AND THE WILD ROSE")
WHITEHEAD: Abdullah Ibrahim is best known for playing in a more bustling, repetitive mode, where diverse influences flow together - the hymns and gospel music his grandmother taught him, the circular diddies of South African kwela and marabi pop and, further afield, the open-ended, rolling momentum of West African percussion choirs. One early album was vaguely but accurately titled "African Piano."
(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "THE ALOE AND THE WILD ROSE")
WHITEHEAD: Abdullah Ibrahim's rippling sound coincided with a major trend in 1970s music, minimalism, with its own rolling rhythms and circular patterns reminding us that sometimes certain ideas are just in the air. When Abdullah got a-rumblin' (ph), his piano was like a force of nature. It seemed to play itself, an illusion that takes hard work.
(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "THE ALOE AND THE WILD ROSE")
WHITEHEAD: At times, Abdullah Ibrahim seems to put his left hand into a trance, freeing up his right to oppose that ground beat, as if two pianos shared one keyboard. That's when the drum choir cross-rhythms get moving.
(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM COMPOSITION)
WHITEHEAD: Abdullah Ibrahim's music, like Duke Ellington's, resists tidy categorization. But it never feels stitched together. Those diverse strains reveal facets of his autobiography. For all the traditional elements he stuffs in there, as a pianist, he's a one-man movement.
(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM COMPOSITION)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONE Audio and is the author of "Why Jazz?". He reviewed "Ancient Africa," the new reissue of the 1973 solo session by pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Rhiannon Giddens. Her new album, "Freedom Highway," includes her original songs based on slave narratives. Giddens also co-founded the group the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I'm Terry Gross.
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