The writer and Illuminati Girl Gang founder tells us how she came to write – and why refusing to be the muse for another person's story is the most essential thing a girl can do
As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day.
Rounding off State of Literature week, we welcome Gabby Bess and her all-girl takeover. The writer and poet behind Illuminati Girl Gang is dedicated to challenging preconceptions about female expression in art: she told us about her heroines, as well as curated a selection of female-penned lit that refuses to bow down.
Growing up, I didn’t read novels by women. It’s not that I didn’t want to. It’s almost like I didn’t think that I needed to or, I guess, I didn’t know that I needed to. I was perfectly happy in a world contained by men. I adopted the posture of the brooding male as my own. I was Salinger, I was Kerouac, I was any male protagonist in a novel that one of my boyfriends recommended. I didn’t know that there was a specific female sadness so I was content with relating to a generalized one. And in a way, reading these novels was less of a way to relate and more of a way to learn how to be the type of girl that these male novelists liked. One of my first ambitions wasn’t to be a writer – it was to be a writer’s muse.
My first relationship in college was with a guy who read far too much of the beats. Well actually, all throughout dating him he could never even get through On The Road. On his recommendation, I went out and bought the book and finished it before he ever did. He was more in love with the ethos of the beats: feeling dissatisfied and against everything. Feeling like he was the only person who could ‘see through the bullshit.’ Feeling sensitive, yet masculine. Looking un-showered. I was a freshman and he was two years older. He was very tall and I was away from my parents for the first time so the age difference felt staggering.
I remember standing in his closet and pouring over his books which were piled up in boxes. I didn't recognize any of the books by title and only vaguely knew of some of the authors by name. In that moment, the specific feeling of having so much to learn from him and all these great men was overwhelming. That image of me – thumbing wide-eyed through Bukowski, wearing one of his oversized t-shirts – was what he dreamed his college experience to be. He told me this as he stood there watching me. And there I was, happy to be wish fulfillment. Reading his books was like practice. I was learning to be the type of girl that all the sad, young, literary men dreamed of.
“Reading his books was like practice. I was learning to be the type of girl that all the sad, young, literary men dreamed of.” – Gabby Bess
Of course, that relationship turned out to be horrible and toxic as I grew bored of the beats and lost reverence for his world view. As was another of the same kind. Then, out of a combination of loneliness and sadness and boredom, I got a blog. I started writing about my daily life and these experiences I had with men online and soon I learned that that was a thing. There were girls – like Emily Gould, who now has a novel out – who were just writing about being alive as young woman. Suddenly I realized how essential that was. It was like therapy. And reading what other girls were writing online was like coming home.
“Read Kathy Acker. Read Audre Lorde. Read Bell Hooks. Listen to Nicki Minaj. Watch Lana Del Rey Videos. Watch The Anna Nicole Show. Revisit Britney Spears if you are not already doing so often and religiously.” – Gabby Bess
I spent most of my life thinking that the best I could do was inspire someone else, some man, to write a great poem or novel. Now I know that it is so, so important for women to write their own stories. It is equally important to read stories by women and to make sure those stories are visible. Because to so many young girls, like myself just a few years ago, they don’t exist. Read Chris Kraus. Read Mary Maclane. Read Eileen Myles. Read Kate Durbin. Read Marie Calloway. Read Megan Boyle. Read Mira Gonzalez. Read Emily Gould. Read Joan Didion. Read Ann Beattie. Read Alice Munro. Read Joy Williams. Read Lorrie Moore. Read Miranda July. Read Shelia Heti. Read Roxane Gay. Read Melissa Broder. Read Kathy Acker. Read Audre Lorde. Read Bell Hooks. Listen to Nicki Minaj. Watch Lana Del Rey Videos. Watch The Anna Nicole Show. Revisit Britney Spears if you are not already doing so often and religiously. You don’t need me to explain why these women are urgent and essential, just know that you need them.