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Portland Writer Lizzy Acker

Portland Writer Lizzy Acker

Photo by Mercy McNab
Photo by Mercy McNab

Fearlessly unapologetic, Lizzy Acker sits across from me for a couple of cocktails at Church, and recounts a series of events that have shaped her life. First, her honest and very public comments about racism in our fair city when she was twenty-three: “Acknowledging that racism exists does not equal being racist. People here get especially sensitive about it.” She still stands by her comments and refuses to be ashamed of herself, under any circumstances. “When you start calling everyone a racist, you shut down the conversation, and what we need in this country is fucking conversation,” she asserts.

Lizzy spent time in Africa, where she was on the outside looking in—a time about which she read last month at Mortified, a sold-out event where people told stories about their uncomfortable childhood experiences. Lizzy shared her journals from when she was a teenager living in Johannesburg, feeling completely out of place emotionally and physically: “It’s very interesting to try and write about it, because it’s all about race and it’s also about my experience with race being a sixteen and seventeen-year-old white girl from Corvallis, Oregon. People say Portland is white. When you’re sixteen and move to a place with no context or anything, you’re so adaptable… I mean, I became a white person, which is totally strange, because before I went there I would have never identified myself as white. If someone said to me, ‘Tell me three things about yourself’ I would say, ‘I’m a girl; I’m from Oregon; I like soccer.’ When I was there, I was defined by my race, which is obviously the experience that a lot of black people have in this country.” She didn’t have the Internet to vent-out her fears and frustrations, so she began writing.

Acker’s writing has remained consistently personal and bold, as well as hilarious. In her first book Monster Party, she reveals human folly through describing the many painful relationships of her main character (also named Lizzy). A borderline-inappropriate relationship with a teacher who would drive her around and get beers with her, who would sour after offering to pay her to clean his house. Writing about the people in your life that you care about can prove to be extremely difficult. “That story was about me, and how fucking dumb I was at that time, not understanding adult relationships or adults, being so self absorbed. So I wrote him this long note telling him that this was fictionalized, and does not reflect about how I feel about [him]. I never heard from him again, and that makes me very sad.”

In the title story, “Monster Party,” a promising trip to Central Oregon, to share a birthday with her best guy friend, turns out to be profoundly disappointing after she reveals to him that he’s been cheated on. Again, writing about people she cares for is especially tough when the subject matter is so hard to face: “It’s really hard to navigate being a human being sometimes” says Lizzy. This is particularly challenging for a writer when it comes to taboo subjects like infidelity, where your morality may be heavily judged by other people.

It’s stories like these which make Lizzy so good at what she does, placing the reader into such situations both physically and emotionally. She learned this skill from professor Bob Gluck while studying creative writing at San Francisco State: “I think that what changed in my writing in grad school is that I really want to create the circumstances, and then not tell people what to feel, but put them in the situation and let them feel however they’re going to feel.” Sometimes, the circumstances are so traumatic and cringe-worthy that you have to feel like she knowingly put herself through it, but for what reason? Lizzy immediately recognizes why: “You cannot create art in a vacuum, and that’s what the problem is with the art world, and so much poetry and stuff. Don’t write poetry about making poetry. Don’t make art about making art. Have experiences and make art about what it means to be a human being, because that’s the whole point of it.” Almost like having a second set of eyes on her own experience, the whole thing can be pretty terrifying, but it’s human connection, flawed or not, which adds meaning to the chaos.

Half-Life is Lizzy’s new zine released by Gorilla Press where she poses the question: “Is it possible to love more than one person? (And not in the San Francisco poly-amorous way). Is it possible to completely forget about someone like the relationship never existed, or do you just manage it internally?” Lizzy was inspired to name her book after the Junot Diaz quote, “The half-life of love is forever,” which she holds as an ultimate truth: “How do I contain feelings for one person and feelings for another person that are similar and completely different at the same time?” she wonders, and then admits how utterly destructive it can be. Although she earned her MFA, she does not seek to write only for people who have MFAs. She writes regularly for her blog The Tusk, and is the social media rep for Powell’s Books. “Before you can get people to hear what you’re saying, you have to get them to listen to you.” Last year, she wrote a powerful piece about abortion for The Rumpus which received more attention than most blogs get in an entire year. Again unafraid to address tough issues, Lizzy welcomed the criticism it came with: “When you talk about abortion because you had consensual sex with a person that you liked, and they were actually engaged to somebody else. You can’t really say ‘I’m the victim here.’” Many women would quickly sweep that under their bed; Lizzy shared it with the world.

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This boldness has also come into play in her professional life, and it’s part of the reason why she has moved back to Portland from San Francisco. She was given the opportunity of starting up a pop-culture blog for the PBS station there, and was constantly stifled by stodgy bosses who wanted to ‘capture the millennials’, without even slightly offending any of their backers. The dream job turned into a constant battle, which she fought nobly, but lost. We welcome Lizzy back to Portland with open arms; we need more purveyors of truth in this town. »

– Scott McHale