By Leslie Lindsay
A timely and gorgeous exploration of home, culture, community, immigration, and so much more in this memoir of art, gender, work, and survival.
~WRITER’S INTERVIEWING WRITERS~
Always with a Book| Memoir Monday
Leslie Lindsay & Anne Elizabeth Moore in Conversation
Anne Elizabeth Moore has written several critically acclaimed nonfiction books, including the Lambda Literary Award–nominated Body Horror: Capitalism, Fear, Misogyny, Jokes, which was a Chicago Public Library Best Book of 2017, and Sweet Little Cunt, which won an Eisner Award. Most recently, she is the author of the memoir Gentrifier, out now from Catapult. She lives in Hobart, New York, with her cat, Captain America.
ABOUT GENTRIFIER: A Memoir:
I admit to falling in love with this book based on the eye-catching cover, the title alone, and of course, the fact that it is about a writer in a house. I mean, it hits on so many of my passions. But the love for this book isn’t just superficial. I truly loved the story. GENTRIFIER: A Memoir by Anne Elizabeth Moore (Catapult, October 19 2021) is about a queer woman writer who is ‘gifted’ a house. The catch: you must live in Detroit for two years.
And one might wonder: what’s wrong with Detroit? Growing up in St. Louis, I had a friend move away to the suburbs of Detroit. It wasn’t a big deal. But it was the *suburbs.* And the qualifier: ‘when I was growing up,’ [read: a long time ago]. It’s true, at it’s height, Detroit, like St. Louis, even, was once a very hoppin’ cool place. Factories were pumping out cars. It was lively and a vital to our economy. And then…what happened? I’m not exactly sure. Jobs were moved overseas because labor was cheaper. Company housing was boarded. Factories shuttered. Schools became derelict. The population grew more illiterate. It became less diversified. Then the housing crisis of 2008 and more recently, the coronavirus pandemic.
GENTRIFIER isn’t *just* about that. It’s about one writer woman’s connection to the house, the community, her work, and also briefly, her autoimmune disease and her cats.
It is written in a spry, darkly humorous investigation, recollecting conversations and tidbits of her time at the Detroit house. GENTRIFIER is a quick read, but it’sone of those books you might fly through initially, but hang on to it, because you’ll want to go back and savor. The book is divided into sections: The House, The Neighborhood, The City, The Work…and so forth, and each section is anchored by a Virginia Woolf quote,which I quite enjoyed, having not really committed any of them to memory, other than the one about a woman who wants to write must have a room of her own.
Sections are short and snappy and do not flow in a chronological manner but sort of spiral and circle back. I personally really like this style, it helps me see the bigger picture and piece together themes and motifs, but that’s just the kind of reader/writer I tend to be.
Things do end with a bit of a twist and that became a bit of the investigative piece I am alluding to, but also, maybe the investigation was more personal and rooted in art.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Anne Elizabeth Moore to the author interview series:
Anne, I loved this book. I always like to start with the inspiration. What was haunting you when you set out to write? What questions—about yourself or the situation—were you hoping to answer? Did you find them?
Anne Elizabeth Moore:
Thanks Leslie! Haunting is a good way of thinking about it. When I first moved into the house, there was definitely a presence there. In the book I give that presence the voice of Virginia Woolf herself, posing a range of questions about art and life from her essay “A Room of One’s Own” to guide each chapter. But in reality, that presence was the former owner of my house. What happened to her? How can such a thing happen to people? What does that say about art and life that Virginia Woolf never imagined needing to incorporate into the woman writer’s milieu? And what does it mean that a much-celebrated gift to me, a white woman, was the site of unacceptable violence perpetrated on a Black woman?
Gentrifier ends up being a story about the American housing crisis. It’s true that I could have written this like a ghost story, wherein I would let the presence of the former owner linger but remain ephemeral.
Instead, as you say, I presented it as a mystery, an investigation. Because the former owner of my house is still alive. Reparations are still possible. The housing crisis, too, is solvable.
I was struck by a conversation you had with one of your neighbors about community. And to paraphrase from GENTRIFIER, it was defined as, ‘community is who shows up.’ I love that. Can you expand, please?
Anne Elizabeth Moore:
So many people love that quote! I’ve been marveling at how well it lands right now. After almost two years of no one being able to show up for anything? I’ve had conversations in art, writing, and publishing communities, where folks think about it in terms of event attendance; in disability communities where people think about it in terms of who can be relied upon in medical emergencies; and among folks raising young kids in the home, where the question is entirely about who will be there to make dinner during the traditional caregiver’s late-running Zoom meeting. My suspicion is that during this pandemic folks have been really thinking hard about what they need, both to survive and to be happy, and they are starting to figure out how to make changes. Obviously quitting a job and retiring early is one potential outcome of such considerations, and that is happening on a mass scale right now. But my friends are also going through a wave of divorces, separations, and breakups. One said to me, not in reference to my book, that the partner they are leaving “just didn’t show up” for them.
Community is built on relationships, and you know in your gut when folks are mentally, emotionally, and physically present to you—it just feels different when they are not really “there”.
Gentrifier celebrates the people who do show up, no matter what is going on in their lives, who are there to meet and even predict your needs, who will jump in during emergencies, who will bring dinner by even when you have already eaten.
These people are not always, or maybe ever, who you think they are going to be. Your community may not look like you in any identifiable way, or have much in common with you at all, because relationships are not in fact built on racial or religious or sexual or even linguistic grounds, although demographic factors can of course strengthen or destroy community bonds.
I think years of marketing and social media have confused the issue of what community looks like, maybe given us a sense that community might be Instagram followers or other people who own Buicks or everyone you work with at Taco Bell. But it’s really just the people who show up in your life to watch—and help—you thrive.
“A heartfelt, funny, thought-provoking meditation on the multifaceted fallacy of the American Dream.”
—Booklist (starred review)
Just this past week, a conversation from a non-white person went like this, “What do you like about being white?”
Um…well. And I could have a more eloquent response but, it comes down to this: culture and race is about community. This person mentioned feeling very connected to his culture, his race. I don’t feel connected to the white culture. I don’t have a ‘white community.’
I thought more about this. Maybe, at the turn of the 20th century, I would have been more tied to my Irish immigrant ancestors or my German-Catholic church. Or maybe if I were Jewish I might feel connected to the cultural and religious food traditions, my Synagogue. If I hailed from an Italian family, maybe there’d be something else I gravitated toward: A Roman Catholic church versus the German one or I may have chosen to live in an exclusively Italian neighborhood, getting my food from Italian grocers or speaking only Italian at home. You get the idea. I might have identified more with my…whiteness. Because it’s really more about culture, not color. What more might you add to that?
Anne Elizabeth Moore:
This is a complicated question, because I don’t believe that communities are built exclusively or even mostly on race or on shared cultural values. I believe that they are built on care. So while I have plenty of people in my life who are white, I would not be comfortable participating in a community that was primarily devoted to the needs or interests of white folks, which is to say, a white community. I just already have too many people I love that I would have to leave behind. And of course the notion of fostering a white community, particularly one that was deliberately established, gets uncomfortably close to white power movements and white supremacist organizations. Even searching online for resources will pretty quickly land you in neo-Nazi territory, where it becomes clear that white positivity is the face of the project to eradicate Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks from the Earth. So thinking about ways to honor or even engage in white culture get tricky fast, because far more often than not, they end with the destruction of non-white cultures.
So taking the question purely at face value, I posed it to a few friends who are not white at a party the other night and they very quickly generated a list of things they would probably enjoy most about being white were that an option: Being able to go to a doctor about a health problem without automatically being told they have diabetes; Not having men repeatedly ask where they are from, really; Being able to talk to white friends about racist things they said; Being able to get tattoos without being told they’re going to look bad. These are all super helpful for me to think about as someone who would like to see my friends thrive and be comfortable in more and more spaces in the world.
My personal favorite thing about being white is the lack of surveillance. I can generally wander around the world—really, wherever I want!—and no one will bat an eye or shoot me dead. I’m also, now, a middle-aged woman, which means that I’m no longer surveilled as an object of sexual interest either. Practically invisible! Really looking forward to perpetrating a big crime spree.
However the question does point to something deeper, which is the degree to which whiteness relies on indefinability to retain power.
White folks are given to believe that there is no specific need for community, that the entire world is established for and about their desires, no segmentation necessary (except for by “others,” another vague category into which folks of color, people with disabilities, women and nonbinary people, immigrants, or anyone else is apt to fall, depending on what is being defended against). White supremacy only works if you can’t define—or locate—whiteness. Which is to say, it works when it is always already there, so pervasive that we couldn’t live without it, like air, like water, beyond definition and therefore beyond reproach. Nell Irvin Painter’s History of White People is probably my favorite book that starts to pin down not just a history of white people, as a racial construct, but whiteness, as a cultural construct. She reminds us that, although science no longer believes racial distinctions to be meaningful or even valid, that whiteness is an ongoing cultural project that equates cleanliness, colorlessness, and purity with a certain category of people to escalate their sense of entitlement.
Because I love houses and homes so much, GENTRIFIER really spoke to me. Houses are one small piece of community. But it’s also about the people who may have lived in the house before you. There’s a poignant piece in the book in which a 6-year old neighbor girl is shocked that you lived elsewhere before moving into the house. You mention something about another vacant house… when the family left, what they were like, what came after, the history of empty lots, the scars. I love that because I do the same. Why do you think people find this so alluring?
Anne Elizabeth Moore:
You know, there are so many decaying and decrepit structures in Detroit—some empty, but some still occupied—that entire urban spelunking tour companies exist to guide folks through them so they can marvel at the ruins up close. Of course we know that the factories were all abandoned out of corporate greed, when the auto manufacturers decided to move production overseas to cash in on cheaper labor. And the houses are all empty because a quarter of the city’s housing stock was foreclosed in the last two decades—a statistic that doesn’t even include the pending wave of evictions that will come now that the CDC’s eviction moratorium has been lifted. This was another act of greed, although in this case the benefactor was Wayne County. Both forced evacuations are also acts of extreme violence that continue to reverberate throughout culture, and people love violence. I mean, Squid Games is not the most popular show in the history of Netflix because HoYeong Jung is a household name. (Although she should be. She was amazing!)
I could probably ask questions all day—and I know—these are kind of hard. You talk about ‘holes’ later in the book, falling into a depression related to your autoimmune disease, a roofing hole, and while this metaphor of holes and depression is trite, it’s palpable. Let’s turn this into a structure question. Would you say this ‘hitting bottom’ moment helped create the structure of your narrative? The build-up and tear-down, the moving on?
Anne Elizabeth Moore:
For sure the book needed a structure, and because the narrative jumps through about 50 years, all relayed in present-tense vignettes, that structure could not rely on the unfolding of linear time. So I needed to mimic a traditional narrative arc by including some kind of emotional reckoning at the start of the third act. Since this book tells the story of my relationship with this house, that emotional reckoning was going to have to be about the depression that occurred when I realized that relationship needed to end, that in innumerable ways I could not tolerate the city itself any longer. Also I think holes are funny.
But because this is a mystery story, I needed that chapter to seem so all-consuming that the reader would not be aware that something deeper and larger and more dangerous was coming. If you notice, the “hitting bottom” you point to in this chapter is false, a false bottom. It gets worse. Structurally, I didn’t want the conclusion of the book to rest on my feelings about this house, but on the history of municipal violence against Black women that the house comes to represent.
Anne, this was so thought-provoking and stirring. Thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Or, perhaps something you’d like to ask me?
Anne Elizabeth Moore:
Ha ha ha no, but I think most folks at this point ask about my cat, Captain America. She’s fine! She wishes I were not on book tour though.
For more information, to connect with Anne Elizabeth Moore, or to purchase a copy of GENTRIFIER: A Memoir, visit:
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- This title may also be available through other online sellers.
A PERFECT PAIRING:
Browse all books featured on Always with a Book since 2018 on Bookshop.org
Browse all books featured on Always with a Book in October 2021 HERE.
November titles all are about home and mothers and memoir with featured #MemoirMonday titles from Michelle Orange (PURE FLAME), Violaine Husimann’s THE BOOK OF MOTHER (fiction), but also GENTRIFIER (Anne Elizabeth Moore), Deborah Levy’s REAL ESTATE and Naomi Kupitsky’s highly anticipated novel, THE FAMILY.
To Browse all books/authors featured in NOVEMBER 2021, click HERE.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE was born in Winner, South Dakota. She has written several critically acclaimed nonfiction books, including the Lambda Literary Award–nominated Body Horror: Capitalism, Fear, Misogyny, Jokes, which was a Chicago Public Library Best Book of 2017, and Sweet Little Cunt, which won an Eisner Award. Most recently, she is the author of the memoir Gentrifier, out now from Catapult. She lives in Hobart, New York, with her cat, Captain America.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, an audiobook narrated by Leslie from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.