May 2005

Elizabeth Kiem


An Interview with Ariel Gore

Ariel Gore is the original Hip Mama. As a pregnant teen she picked the hard route and became a single mother, delivering her daughter Maia alone and penniless in Italy. That was at the end of a vagabond journey around the globe, which included a long stay in Communist China (this was the 80’s, mind you).

Six months after her daughter’s birth, Gore returned to the land of the free and family values to find motherhood under siege. As a senior project while at Mills College she started the publication Hip Mama and quickly established herself as a spokesperson for single mothers, alternative families, and sane child rearing techniques. She is the author of The Hip Mama Survival Guide, The Mother Trip, Whatever, Mom and a memoir, Atlas of the Human Heart. She’s also the mother of a teenager.

In March, Gore wound up an east coast promotional tour for the anthology The Essential Hip Mama, a collection of writings from the highly acclaimed zine that now claims 5,000 subscribers. In a switch from her bread-and-butter, Gore has also just finished a novel with the irresistible Python-esque title The Death and Resurrection Show (HarperCollins, 2006). We caught up with her as she was driving home from a three hour trip to pick up a boxer terrier/Chihuahua puppy, along a mountainous Oregon highway that played hell with the cell-phone connection.

I was wondering when you would break into a new genre.

Well, yeah. We’ll see how it goes. I wrote it. It’s about a (unintelligible) traveling freak show.

Wait a minute. That’s either the “Catholic scene” or “traffic fiend” traveling freak show.

Catholic -- like the pope. You know, Saints manifesting the stigmata and levitating (unintelligible) nuns and Saint Paula the bearded lady.

And it’s got levitating dry-cleaning nuns?

Drag Queen.

And who are the bearded ladies?

There was a Catholic saint, who grew a beard so her suitors would stop harassing her. She was a 14th century Spanish Saint. But in the “Freak Show” she’s a modern girl.

Sounds like it should have come out a month ago.

I know, missed the boat. But I did I write it a month ago. And I haven’t really talked about it so I don’t really have the sound bites prepared.

You may not need them for a Death and Resurrection Show. Do they change lives and perform miracles?

Maybe. Maybe. Such things may come to pass as the plot unfolds.

What inspired you?

I was raised by an excommunicated Catholic priest so the Catholic mythology is lots of fun for me and somewhat familiar. So I took a trip to Italy when Maia, my daughter, was in camp there so I had all this time to write. That’s where I wrote the bulk of the novel. Everybody is so into saints there and it’s so deeply Catholic -- that this book, well there was no hope of writing anything else.

Does Italy’s Catholicism strike you as religious? Or just freaky and medieval?

The Catholics there aren’t super religious. But all the trucks have big pictures of Padre Pio on them to protect them when they’re traveling. So it’s almost more decorative and a little superstitious than people yelling about abortion and stuff.

Sounds like good material for a novel, or did you find something spiritual personally?

I’m spiritually oriented without being religiously oriented, so that’s sort of thematically what the book is about. Faith versus a literalist, Biblical understanding.

Is there a correlation between being a Mother Goddess (or a Hip Mama), and being interested in the Catholic faith?

That’s the part of Catholicism I like, the whole Mary cult. There’s a big grotto in Portland, and you walk in and, sure, it’s a really patriarchal religion but there’s a huge graffiti, or fresco, across the ceiling of the church that says “Behold Thy Mother” and it’s really interesting. More interesting to me than other branches of Christianity because of the worship of Mary -- and all the saints. I mean they’re really worshiping one God but then they’ve got 10,000 saints you can worship too! They’re such pagans it’s not even funny. And this whole picking a new Pope -- it’s so pagan it’s unbelievable.

Are you into the ritual?

I love it. I’m sitting in front of my television going "why am I not at the Vatican?" All those people that were in the square, you know they looked so devout. But I think half of those people are just like me, swept up in the old-schoolness of it all. They’re all on birth control, at least.

Tell me about your reading?

I read everything that comes out by Murakami. I read a lot of random religious things. I find weird books by saints or old Greeks. I love the (unintelligible).

Was that Assyrian histories?

Eleusinian Mysteries -- one of the original death and resurrection shows.

Do you mean Alistair Crowley's version, the 20th century southern California version, or the real deal?

The real deal, of course.

This is the cult of Demeter right?

Yes, Ma'am.

What a juicy myth for mamas!

And one that those of us with gnarly joint-custody arrangements can really relate to.

Does this stuff intrigue you on an occult level or is it more like the predecessor of all blasphemous "how-to" manuals?

Hmmm. Good question. I was raised by an excommunicated Catholic Priest, so there is that. And I was raised in a very new-agey subculture in California, so there is that. I have always had a basic interest in theology, but I guess my interest was really stirred by a political question. I didn't understand why all of this death and resurrection business had such a hold on people. I didn't understand a lot of the standard Christian sayings like "Jesus died for your sins." And I'm usually okay on intelligence. And I'm open to metaphor. I was fascinated that so many people seemed to understand what this meant; that it meant something to them while I couldn't make heads or tails of it. So it started with a political curiosity, but at some point I had to admit that it had a hold on me, too. Not the standard Jesus-freaky stuff -- I still can't relate to that -- but the mythology. The fact that you can bleed without dying. The fact that you can die to the bullshit world and the bullshit part of yourself and just sort of dust yourself off and say, "All right. What's my love strategy?" And the fact that you can be forced to share custody of your kid with a dad in the underworld and not go completely insane.

What about the “random religious” stuff you’re reading? Are you an Elaine Pagels fan? Dan Brown? Thomas Merton? Read anything by John Paul?

Elaine Pagels and Thomas Merton, yes. Dan Brown and John Paul, not so much. Mama Lola is an excellent book on Vodoun. Love me some Caroline Casey. I'm not a great or fast reader, so I actually can't read boring shit. I mean I can't. But I'll take any saint story you have, or Orisha story .

Is this in preparation for the novel, or was the theological/mythological always of interest?

I used to read almost exclusively just feminist texts, stories as well as scholarly. I still love the stories, it's the scholarly and how-to stuff that I've had enough of for now in my life. Feminism gave me my life and my freedom in so many ways, and that set of philosophies has become so much of who I am and how I look at politics and personal choices and life in general. It's not like I know everything, but there comes a point where reading feminist text is like reading about, say, being from California. It's who I am. I don't have a deep curiosity about it right now. An eclectic faith and the religious left is who I am, too, but I have a deeper curiosity about that now, because I don't understand it fully. I can say that my faith and maternal feminism have dictated my personal choices equally and always, but the faith part is more mysterious to me. Maybe because I went to a women's college where you get to talk about the patriarchy day and night but not about the strange mythologies that we design our lives after.

It’s sort of a paradox to be a strong advocate of allowing motherhood to be a natural phenomenon, one that doesn’t preclude other identities and yet be as subsumed in the subject as you are. There must come a point when you get tired of the debate.

I’m not tired of the subject but I’m sort of out of the debate because I know I’m right. I don’t really want to argue about it. There’s definitely a Hip Mama community that loves the magazine and the book and the web site and wants to jump in and share their experiences. I used to get really into the political debates that people would draw me into, whether the Republican thing, or the religious thing, or just other mothers who say “you stay home and I work” or “you work and I stay home.”

And you can’t win that one can you?

You win after a while, because first everybody who was married gets divorced and everyone who was single gets married and everyone who had a job gets fired and everyone who was saying you had to stay home had to get a job, and you know, you win over time because circumstances change and they just get off their high horses after a while. There’s nothing like having a kid to just start to humble you. There still is a lot of fighting to be done, but you can fight better when you’re in your 20’s and there are a lot of rad mamas who are in their 20’s who are fighting. If they weren’t doing it, I would make myself do it, but I feel like I can do a different kind of work that’s just as helpful.

And you’re still engaged.

Oh yeah. But I just don’t wanna get maced anymore. You can only take getting hit by a baton so many times. There are enough bodies on the front line.

What were you doing when you were at the height of your activism?

Street protests, debates. It was the kind of fighting that I think I was better at when I wasn’t sure that I was right. You’re at conflict debating with yourself and coming up with reasons why it's okay to be single and why its okay to raise your kids this way and then once you’re really comfortable, its just hard to get really fired up at these idiotic politicians. You just want to be like "why don’t you get an IQ and then come talk to me."

How about Portland? When did you move there and will you stay forever?

We were in Oakland but had to leave the Bay Area after the dot-com disaster made rents untenable. I had been to Portland on book tour and it seemed like there were a lot of mamas there… my readings were always packed. So, here we are. We were just going to try it for a year or so but kids when they get older are not so portable. They get friends and school stuff happening. Once middle school was underway I realized I should probably be in the same place.

Do you feel sometimes being in Portland that being a single mom, and being an alternative single mom, and being an activist alternative single mom at that, that you are no longer in the minority?

Actually, coming out of the San Francisco Bay Area, Portland felt pretty conservative to me. But people coming from anywhere else are like “Oh my God I can't believe it.” But definitely there are a lot more nuclear families than we were used to. A lot more white people. Outside the city limits, more than 5 or 10 miles, there’s a lot of evangelical business going on. But what are you going to do?

You’re going to watch your step when you go out to buy a new dog. How about wanderlust?

Totally. I actually just bought a new house last year, so I’m not feeling super mobile. But I don’t use the word forever with cities.

You’re comfortable with the decisions you’ve made and you’ve created a situation where you are safe and secure within the decisions you’ve made. Are there issues that you feel put your lifestyle, or your daughter’s in jeopardy?

Sure. Being super-public about my maternal life has made life pretty tricky for my daughter at times. She has paid a price for being my kid, no doubt. What I'm more comfortable with is just feeling like -- it is what it is. I've always thought deeply about the things I've done, and tried to make choices I'd be proud of, and tried to honor my own desires as well as my kid's, and in hind sight I fucked some things up. But -- maybe it's part of being the mother of a teenager -- I can see that this is her life story and I have to let go. Things have happened in her life that I would have done anything to prevent. But I didn't know or I made the wrong call or whatever. You're going to make the wrong call sometimes. What are you going to do?