David Sedaris Is Nosy About Your Names for Penis and Vagina

In just the past five years, author David Sedaris has released two essay collections, an anthology, and his lifetime of diaries. “There’s no point in me doing anything if I can’t write about it,” Sedaris states in his latest collection, Happy Go Lucky. “I mean, I do do things I don’t commit to paper: I use the bathroom, I have sex. But I try to be quick about it.”

The New York Times rejoiced at the new collection (“it contains some festive Sedaris occasions for all those who celebrate”); Gawker published a crotchety takedown of the author as “glib.” Reliably, Sedaris brings his signature mix to the fore: recounting the absurdities of family dynamics, wielding sharp-eyed social observation and skewering norms, deconstructing the way we deploy language. He threads in plenty of pun-y ideas: he’d open a chain of airport barbershops called O’Hair; he’d pioneer a sex toy, the Chilldo, for people who want to put refrigerated bottles up their butts (which, as a hospital nurse confirmed, is a frequent occurrence, so there’d be a market); he’d start a line of simple pine coffins, doubling as blanket chests or coffee tables, called A-Tisket, A-Casket.

Earlier this week, we spoke with Sedaris by phone to discuss the etiquette of getting books signed, the etiquette of diverting from your mother tongue, and etiquette in the aftermath of death in the family.

Let’s start with the opening quote you selected: “Ban everything. Purify everything. Moral cleanse everything. Anything that was bad or is bad, destroy it. Especially in the forest, where you live your life as a tree, wielding an axe.” —Sigmond C. Monster

…why did you chose this particular prelude?

Oh, I was looking online. It was some article about—gosh, I wish I could remember what the article was about… it was in the Washington Post… about somebody being canceled or something. I was reading the comments, and the only name I could get was that name, which, obviously, is not real. What I liked about it is: I don’t know how it makes sense, but it makes sense. Someone told me that’s part of a line from the Bible, about living your life as a tree in the forest. I’ve never read the Bible. To me, it says: if you’re gonna spend your life criticizing other people and trying to take them down for this or that, it’s gonna come and get you in the end.

Ah OK—I was Googling Sigmond C. Monster, and I had some weird results, including a horrifying-looking ’70s kids show Sigmund and the Monster. Anyways, throughout the essays, you mention that you’re learning several languages—German, Japanese, Swedish, Romanian—and given your relationship to learning a language and deconstructing it, is something that you will continue to explore? Or if you feel like you got it out of the way with French?

My friends in Paris, when they see I’m studying Japanese, they’re like, Really?! You know your French needs so much work, right? But if I could do it all over again—I mean, if I couldn’t be a writer—I would love to be a linguist. It’s just fascinating to me how different languages are put together and, you know, what their curses are. Like, Catholic countries go straight to the mother, if you’re gonna insult somebody. But other cultures don’t! They’re not that into, you know, tearing you apart because of your mom.

And I don’t think it’s anything I’ve ever written about, but the Swedish government said, Look, every household has a different word for a little girl’s vagina. So we’ve got to come up with the standard word for this. And they did the same for a little boy’s penis. I was talking about that onstage in London. And I said, You know, when I sign your book, I’d love to know what you called a girl’s vagina in your house growing up. And every person had a different… not every person but, like, so many people had a different word, that was just a family word. I remember a neighbor of ours, growing up, said to her daughter: Suzie, get your hands away from your Suzie. I never heard anybody else call it a Suzie. It made sense, what the Swedish government was doing.

Do you remember what the words were in your house?

It was peepee for a penis, and for a vagina… I think we just called it a cunt. [laughs]

[laughs] You mentioned being onstage—how is reprising the performance element post-pandemic?

Well, I have my first event for the book tonight [May 31]. I’ve just trying to think what I’m going to wear. When I go on a lecture tour it’s a different thing, because you’re in the theater and the lights go down and it’s a show, so I feel like I need to dress for the occasion. A book tour is more casual, because the lights don’t go down. If you showed up in some outfit, you feel kind of like it’s too early in the daytime for that.

Right—there are appropriate hours for wearing Rei Kawakubo. So, you’re tackling a fresh wave of performances?

I went to 74 cities on my fall tour, up until December, and just got off a spring tour of 42 cities.

Wow.

I recovered from COVID 10 days ago—it was perfect timing, because I didn’t miss any shows. It just felt like a cold. So I’m ready to go on book tour.

I love that, in “Themes and Variations,” you talk about being in an audience when you were young, and being scarred by this author/memoirist who was really dismissive when you went to get your book signed. It seemingly imprinted itself on you as something that you, in turn, would never do. First of all, I was so curious about who that was.

Oh, I’ll tell you. It was Sandra Bernhard.

Oh, OK!

Yeah, this was back when she was super popular. It was her first book, called Without You, I’m Nothing. So she was going on tour for that. For me, a hardcover book was a lot of money and, you know, you just want to be seen for a second. I just remember she was talking to her publicist when I got up there. I mean, that is the worst.

I’ll be on tour, and if I’m talking to my publicist—she’ll have a question or something—and I’ll notice the person who’s in front of me, the disappointment on their face, like, Really? Are you going to talk to her the whole time? I always say, Oh, this my publicist, Katharine, we’re just talking about such and such, and then I’ll turn all my attention to the person.

That said, there are gonna be people who are going to say, Will you sign this book… [waits three beats]… You signed it three years ago. And they think it’s so funny. I think that’s really rude, to ask somebody to sign a book they’ve already signed.

I’ve never heard of that before!

It happens so often. Happens to every author I know. I don’t know what it’s about. Or people will say: sign this copy of White Fragility.

Oh God. [uncomfortable laughter]

Please don’t laugh, because I’ll lose respect for you. Like, they think it’s the funniest thing.

That’s so cringe-y. Do you just, like, frisbee it across the room?

You don’t say this, but you want to say: All your life, if people told you you’re funny, the answer is NO. It’s like, Why did you think that would be original? I say, Oh, gosh, you know, it just feels really disrespectful to me to do that. If the author ever saw that I’d written my name in her book, I’d be really embarrassed. I won’t do it. Then people will say, This all I have. And then you want to say, Well, like, look behind you. Bookstore right there behind you. But I mean, I would feel bad if a regular person came up, and if they felt I was rude to them, or I didn’t give them my attention.

You’ve discussed using a live audience’s reaction to determine whether your humor lands… it’s such a “professional comedian”-sounding exercise, this built-in element of performativity. How does interfacing with an audience solidify things for you? Would you ever doubt an audience reaction as an unreliable barometer for what’s funny?

I find people are a super reliable barometer. I really do. There’s something that I wrote after I turned the book in, and I’ve been reading to date. The audience laughs, and their laugh is, I cannot believe I’m laughing at something so horrible. Fuck you for making me laugh. But, you know, they’re still laughing at it! If they just sat there with their arms crossed, then it wouldn’t have made it to the book. But there are different kinds of laughs. After a while, you can distinguish them; you can tell which what. I like a nice variety. And groans always help.

I did a reading when the last diary book came out. The event was in New York during the pandemic; people had to wear masks, and it was a ticketed event, so only a certain number were allowed, like 100 people. And I read out loud from the diary, and nobody laughed at anything. Then later, when I’m signing books, people said, Oh, my face hurts from laughing. I said, I mean, sorry, but I’m right here. I didn’t hear laughs at all. Sometimes a theater of 2,300 people on a Friday or Saturday night, they’ll laugh really hard, but part of it is: they came out to laugh, goddamnit. They’re gonna let you know whether it’s funny or not.

So it’s a real lesson in humility to go on a book tour, where you don’t necessarily get the reaction. You’ve got a crummy mic, a bad sound system, you’ve got people who are standing in a hot room. It’s one thing if you’re sitting down in a comfortable theater, but if you’re standing in a really hot room, you wouldn’t want to listen to someone read for an hour and a half. And I would never read for an hour and a half on a book tour, but I mean, you just have to be nimble, and you have to take it day by day, and you have to be able to shift gears, saying, OK, this room, this many people this age—here’s what I’ll go with.

Do you yourself attend readings, or comedy shows, or other kinds of performance these days? Are you still taking notes when you’re an audience member?

Yes, I’ll always learn a lot. I remember going to something in New York ages ago where the Q&A started and the author took 20 minutes to answer the first question. And then he said, next question, and of course nobody had more, because 20 minutes is too long.

Whenever I myself feel I did a bad Q&A, I know it’s my fault for not being in the proper mood. If somebody asked an obnoxious or stupid question, you just plug your shtick. I mean, I’m not a comedian. I never wanted to be a comedian. I don’t know how to be a comedian. I’m not a comedian. But that said, I will have, like, at least 10 minutes of shtick, just stuff that works.

Are there other formats that challenge you?

I’m writing these essays for CBS Sunday Morning; they can only be two minutes long, and they’re really hard. It’s a good writing assignment. You can talk about whatever you want, but you want to have an ending, and you can’t use certain language. So I wrote one that I tried out on my lecture tour that I just finished: it was talking about choices. I just don’t understand people giving their children choices. Like when you’re on the airplane and the flight attendant comes with the drink cart, and the person says to the kid: she’s got orange juice, and apple juice, and cranberry juice—you know what a cranberry is, Grandma Judy put them in the stockings at Christmas… I’m thinking Why did you even tell the kid there was more than one drink on the cart? Just say: Look, she’s got orange juice. Neat. Do you want it or not? Like, that’s it.

“Queer is like the fourth rebrand in my lifetime and I just need a resting place, you know, because it’s gonna change again, but why do we need to be rebranded every five minutes? I just hate the word queer.”

When I was young, we didn’t get to choose things. I was 14, and my parents didn’t ask me whether or not I wanted a job. They said, Guess what, you start work tomorrow. It was a volunteer job. I was given a choice: I could choose between a regular hospital and a psychiatric hospital. So I volunteered at a psychiatric hospital. And on my first day of work, I saw a completely naked 80-year-old woman. After I read the essay on tour, I would say, you know, if you’re gay, you were born gay—I don’t have any doubt of that whatsoever. However, if you have a son, and you want to kind of steer him in that general direction, you might make sure that the first vagina he sees is on an 80-year-old woman that has 17 white hairs on it. Then, of course, I got a big sack of mail from my publisher the other day: “I was at your ageist, sexist reading in Berkeley, California, and let me do a twist on it. I’m gay, I was born that way. But the first penis I saw was on a shriveled old 80-year-old-man. Maybe I don’t want to be gay anymore.” And I’m like, OK, like, even if you turn that around, it doesn’t offend me. I mean, we’re fooling ourselves. Nobody, when you’re over 50, wants to see you naked. Except maybe a 90-year-old. You know, I mean, just accept that. That’s just the kind of shtick that kind of developed. And so now, I would never read that without that letter at the end, because that’s the biggest laugh right there.

It’s a compound laugh. But the conversation around the spectrum of sexuality and identity, don’t you find it in any way interesting? There’s this tendency to use identity as too fragile to make a joke about it, but I do think that there is also this ability to maybe revise preconceived notions, which is progress.

So I meet a lot of genderqueer kids at my book signings, and as a population, I like them. I often think that if you were a smart, young person, you would naturally just be genderqueer. I mean, I can see how it’s intellectually interesting to a young person. A lot of the kids that I meet are, like, Drama Club kids. When I was in drama club in high school, you would work backstage, or you’d make costumes or something like that. But now, I think if you don’t get a speaking part, you become genderqueer. They’re just kids who need a little bit more attention than most people.

If you were a teenager, wouldn’t that just be your dream that everybody has to change their language to talk to you? This one kid came out as genderqueer while I was signing the book—kind of like the guy who gets on his knees to do a marriage proposal in public, and you want to say to the woman, whatever you do, don’t marry anybody who does that—and I said, What are you telling your mom? And he said, sometimes, I feel more feminine than masculine. And vice versa. I said, everybody feels that way… but why do you have to talk about it? And then I thought, well, that’s like my dad saying to me, Why do you have to talk about being gay?

Queer is like the fourth rebrand in my lifetime and I just need a resting place, you know, because it’s gonna change again, but why do we need to be rebranded every five minutes? I just hate the word queer.

As someone based in France, how do you feel about the word—another one I hate—expat?

To me, it’s such a… It’s not a “geographically uprooted” term, it’s a typology of person who’s, like, insufferable. You know who an expat is, and you definitely do not want to hang out with them under any circumstances.

So true. I mean, expat also sound like you left the United States because you were angry at it. Like all these people who say, you know, If Trump gets reelected, I’m moving to Europe. And it’s like, how—how are you going to move there? They have no idea how hard it is to move. I mean, I have my papers, and I can live and work in England for the rest of my life, but no one just handed them to me.

That sounds like what you called, in “To Serbia with Love,” “American privilege.” That assumption everything can be instantly reconfigured to create comfortable circumstances for yourself.

I mean, no one is more guilty of that than me. Because I want to move to Germany, but I just want them to give me a passport. Whenever I’m in Germany, on a tour—with the ambassador, the attaché or something like that—and I say, Look, I just want a passport and I don’t want to, you know, stand in line or do anything else for it. I’ll be happy to pay my taxes and all that stuff. But yeah, if you could just give it to me. Americans and British people think it’s so easy to emigrate. They think everybody just does what my little plan is for Germany.

“I think it’s all of our greatest fear that we’re going to die, and no one’s going to care.”

Brits who live in Paris feel scandalized that they now have to do all this paperwork to be able to stay in France, post-Brexit. To them, it’s just their right to be here. But I have a friend who’s Colombian, who’s struggled to stay in Europe, and she was snickering, like, Yeah, welcome to my world, bitches. This idea that you deserve to stay where you want to be is a kind of privilege.

America makes Brazilians get visas to visit the United States. So Brazil said, You know what? You need visas to come here. It’s a huge pain to go down to the embassy and do all that stuff. And then it makes you realize like, Oh, this is what we make them go through. And it transcends race, you know? It really does. If you’re an American, it’s something that comes with being born here. The fact that your embassy is going to be open and that you don’t have to bribe people to get what you need.

To return to what you said about Germany—why is Germany of interest to you, as a future destination?

I’m fascinated by the language. It’s mathematical to me, and I like the sound of it. And as I get older, I really like places where people follow the rules. You know, Japan, they do that too. I was sitting somewhere yesterday, and I was just watching people ride their bikes the wrong way down the avenue. It wasn’t affecting me any, but I was thinking like, You’re really not supposed to be doing that. If it was 20 years ago, I wouldn’t even notice—it just comes with being an old man.

But if you’re in a place that where everyone is a rule-follower, wouldn’t that dry out your resources for absurdist anecdotes? Even if lifestyle-wise it’s calming, rule followers are a bit dull, no?

No, it’s just a different kind of interesting, I think. My books used to do really well there. And I’ll be practicing my German all month, because I have a show in Vienna on the 27th, so I can, you know, say a few things on stage and talk to people. It’s such a good opportunity to practice. People are nice, because they know your German is pathetic, and so they’re just really sweet about it. One thing I realized was, whenever I’d meet a Japanese person, I always wanted to speak Japanese to practice. And if I was outside Japan, and I started speaking Japanese, it’s like: the mood changes immediately. I realized they were insulted. They act like I think that their English isn’t good enough. And you know, it’s the same thing in Paris whenever someone starts speaking to me in English. Then I’m like, fuck you.

For sure—I get very prickly about that.

Because I always want to say You know, I don’t believe I made a mistake? And so now, with Japanese people, I say, Would you mind terribly? Can I practice my Japanese with you? I know it’s bad. But just—would you mind? And then they’re lovely. In Paris, if someone said, Can I practice with you? I’d say Definitely, like, let’s go. And it would be completely different. But when they just do it, and your French isn’t that bad, even if you might make a little mistake here and there, it would really just ruin my afternoon. Then, you know, you want to say like, Oh my god, were you under the mistaken impression that your English is better than my French? Because your English sucks. But then you don’t want to get into it. I hate confrontations with people.

It just makes me want to flee, like, I don’t want to deal with your unwelcome linguistic encroachment. But it’s a nice gesture to ask, as opposed to just saying garbled nonsense at someone.

About language: I really liked, in “A Better Place,” how you address the grating way people speak about death, relying on empty euphemistic phrases. “My father did not pass. Neither did he depart. He died” gets at how the language around death is either emotionally flattening or ludicrously florid. I was wondering if you’ve found a more fitting way to broach this topic?

I’ve always written sympathy cards when people had a parent who died, but my friend Akhil Sharma is the one who sent me that Saul Bellow quote I use at the end of that essay: how losing a parent is like driving into a plate glass window. And I thought that was so perfect, because it’s just saying Wow, that’s a big thing that just happened to you. That’s all it’s saying. It’s not saying Oh, you’re gonna miss him terribly, or I know how much you loved her. I thought, Well, that’s a really good way. It’s almost nondenominational, in that it doesn’t have anything to do with your love for that person. People get really freaked out when somebody dies and you don’t really care. You might say, Wait a minute, you spent like four pages telling us what a dick your father is… What do you mean, you’re grieving? Somebody can be a dick and that doesn’t mean that you’re not moved, in some way. I think it’s all of our greatest fear that we’re going to die, and no one’s going to care.

My father’s funeral was at a Greek Orthodox Church, and then there was a burial in New York State, and then 40 days after that a service took place in Raleigh, North Carolina. And so it was three times I had to listen to this bullshit. And I’ve just felt so glad that I was a writer, and had a way to deal with it, and could laugh at it.

https://www.thedailybeast.com/david-sedaris-is-nosy-about-your-names-for-penis-and-vagina?source=articles&via=rss David Sedaris Is Nosy About Your Names for Penis and Vagina

Hung

Inter Reviewed is an automatic aggregator of the all world’s media. In each content, the hyperlink to the primary source is specified. All trademarks belong to their rightful owners, all materials to their authors. If you are the owner of the content and do not want us to publish your materials, please contact us by email – admin@interreviewed.com. The content will be deleted within 24 hours.

Related Articles

Back to top button