Sonja Ahlers: of Bunnies and Bandwives
Sonja Ahlers is obsessed with tragic white women of her youth. Marilyn Monroe, Princess Di, and the sad, endless blondes suffering horrible fates at the hands of author—the brilliant! And inspired!—V. C. Andrews. Not, however Courtney Love. Ahler’s latest book, The Selves, is out now from Drawn & Quarterly. It’s a graphic novel, but not a comic: silly, clever, and deeply pretty collaged images, quotations, and found, reworked, or entirely original poetry. Ahlers combines them into an imagined pop culture where women have real, but still feminine, power. In fact, The Selves explores what femininity is, and what it is wrongly thought to be. And it shows us, in a language embedded in our very gender identity, a quiet and charming place where women have an elusive but palpable power. (We’re doing an event together Thursday night at Quimby’s—come by if you can.)
Your work can be considered graphic novels but not comics. Can you describe what you do, and how you do it?
I work as a filter system: I write things down all the time and I collect images. I have a complex filing system. Over time it all comes together like a massive puzzle. Fatal Distraction is like a deconstruction of the comic panel. Each page is its own panel. The narrative is nontraditional. When I was young I copied Peanuts characters. I drew all the time. I taught myself calligraphy at a young age. I was extra encouraged because my art got me attention. I remember groups of kids standing around watching me draw. I’m telling you this because a lot of people think I can’t draw and have no right being lumped in with comics. I see the ridiculousness in that it’s almost insulting to cartoon artists because that is what they do—they draw and they tell stories and it’s a gift. I’m not linear. I’m trying to create another language that is a visual language and one that speaks to the emotional intelligence of the reader. There are a lot of subliminal messages in the work. I’m into ideas and concepts. I have my own set of rules and philosophies but there is no way I’m going to smack someone over the head with didacticism. I like to present my ideas in a subtle, gentle way, leaving a wide berth for interpretation. My work is highly organic and intuitive and this is what I consider to be feminine.
How did you end up working with D&Q on this project?
This is an amazing thing. I moved to Montreal in 1991. It was there that I was introduced to the autobiographical comics Drawn & Quarterly were publishing, notably Julie Doucet’s Dirty Plotte. These pre-dated reality TV. I felt a comfort in knowing about someone else’s life. I started making art again. It’s kind of a miracle that 18 years later that my work is being published by D&Q. Again, this isn’t luck. This is unflailing perserverance. Because D&Q started an imprint called Petits Livres, it opened up space for them to publish the work of artists whose work wasn’t comics. Peggy Burns contacted me via email. I get tons of requests for books and I sell them direct to the buyer. Her email said, “Where can I get a copy of Fatal Distraction?” when I saw she was coming from D&Q I had a little freak out. I tried not to hold my breath. I was in Mexico at the time heading back to Toronto. I was pretty much on the next train to Montreal (D&Q headquarters). I knew this book needed to happen quickly. I don’t often take the bull by the horns like that. I’m fairly gentle in my approach especially now but sometimes there is that voice inside that says: GO THERE. And you trust that. It’s intuition.
Who are your feminist heroes?
My friends, Camille Claudel, Marilyn Monroe (a very complex person), Frida Kahlo. PJ Harvey, Lynda Barry, Amy Sedaris/Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball.
What about your Canadian heroes? And your literary heroes?
Literary/Canadian: Alice Munro. Canadian: Shary Boyle, all my friends.
Who is your worst enemy?
I don’t want enemies. I try to keep it good blood and not bad blood. I guess I consider Courtney Love an “enemy.” Talk about betrayal! I could go on about her for great lengths.
Probably my worst enemy is one of my childhood friends. At age nine, we drew comics together. We each had our own comic. We choreographed a dance sequence to the SCTV theme song. We made up a million things. We were born three days apart. We got caught shoplifting. It was a group of us. One girl was stealing a big-ticket item: black jeans. I was just taking little things, like scented erasers in the shape of a cloud. The store security let me go not knowing I had a Duran Duran magazine wrapped up in my sweater (my big-ticket item). She ratted me out. I felt totally betrayed. I was a good kid. I went to church with my grandpa every Sunday and catechism every Wednesday. I had a paper route. I did well in school. This was a bad time. A weird phase. My grades were slipping. I’ve been an excellent student for the first part of the year. I had an excellent teacher that year, Mr. Moore. He really pushed me. However, my obsession with Duran Duran was obviously out of control. I learned my lesson after that. I’m sure I took down all my posters that day. It was a wake-up call.
She and I reconnected in our early 20s. Strangely. I bumped into her at a party in Montreal. We became roommates. This was a major mistake. She did, however, introduce me to the autobiographical comics of the early ‘90s and encouraged me to do my own comics. I did not. Rebelliously I started making my own version of comics: free-form poetry, drawings and collage work. Totally intuitive. She deeply inspired me with her comic that she was making at the time. She is an amazing storyteller and drawer. Her comics were the most beautiful and poetic I’ve ever seen. We had another falling out—there were threats made and extortion . . . I’m not kidding. I never get involved in stuff like this. I’m usually very careful about who I interact with and the less drama the better. No drama. But I was so young and I made a bad choice. I got out immediately. She and I are karmically linked. Whatever that means. We re-connected AGAIN a few years later and organized an art show, and made up a fake art society called the “The Group of Seven Eleven.” I thought it was hilarious.
Describe your ideal work environment.
Zero distractions. I mean none. Not even a pet in my zone. Honestly, when I’m “in the zone” any noise or sound out of my control spooks me like nobody’s business. This is just lately. It will change. I’ve been moving around a lot for years and the last three years it’s been full-on gypsy and it’s wearing a bit thin even though it’s fun and freeing. Sort of. I’m doing the best I can. Basically I’m a homebody and I need lots of space.
No computer. Perfect daylight. Airy. High ceilings. Maybe somewhere in rural California. Surrounded by nature. Listening to music or enjoying the silence or making my own music.
In what way is your work gendered? How do you feel about that? What sorts of conversations about feminism, gender, and sex have arisen from your work?
I’d say there has been more feminist conversation about The Selves than any of my other work, even though all my work is super feminine. Maybe I’m more aware of this conversation because I’m on the computer all the time. I think I fully embraced feminism this time around. Ever since I got out of my last relationship it was like a bucket of ice water was dumped on my head. Everything looked different.
I’m tired of the masculine expression. I like it when men make feminine work. I know a lot of women making masculine art and that is also tiresome because it is just the same tiresome work. I want to see feminine art. I made up a song with the lyric: He likes her art/when it looks like his art. I think a lot of women feel forced to make masculine work so that it will be looked at. It’s interesting that I’ve gravitated to the three most undervalued and denigrated art forms: poetry, collage and craft.
I got into making zines because I wanted to connect with other people. Beyond that, it was an incredible outlet for me. I worked through so much of my shit in my early work. It spilled out of me uncontrollably. I’ve been working on it for so long now that I have gained control over the material. I’ve learned a lot. The Selves is very tight compared to early work and because of this, people are able to get a handle on it. It was hard to get behind my work before. Mostly because I had no idea what I was doing. It was difficult to describe my early work to others. I think largely because it was so random and it speaks that emotional intelligence that I described earlier. It operates on many levels.
Where do the fierce bunnies fit into the more literary work?
The bunnies are my craft item. They are absolutely separate from my literary work. It’s like a different self makes them. I started making them in the mid ‘90s. My grandpa had just died. He had a full life. He died of old age. I spent a lot of time with him when I was a kid. He was a positive influence. I spent a lot of time with both grandfathers growing up. I consider them to be more parental figures than my parents. It took me a long time to realize that I started making the bunnies after I had an abortion. And my grandfather died that same week. I had to speak at his funeral in all black and punk rock/raver hair. We were Roman Catholic. So you can imagine the guilt going on. During that time I stayed inside a lot and made things. I had this amazing writing system and I’d make objects and images out of anything I could get my hands on. It was a crazy time of productivity. I remember sitting down on my bed with a pink sweater. I started hacking it up and the bunny literally materialized out of nowhere. I do believe this was directly linked to the abortion. The rabbit represents fertility after all. Reproduction. This animal has been a huge symbol for my demographic for well over a decade. A creature that lives in total fear.
I still make the bunnies. Their evolution has been fascinating. They support my art making practice which includes writing/bookmaking and installation work. They also ground me. I’m into repetition.
And how does the music fit in?
I listen to a lot of ridiculous stuff. I like to make my own “speshul mixez” which I play over and over again. I’ll hear something at the grocery store and hunt it down . . . weird obscure hits. I like to sing along. Ya. I sing a lot while I’m working. It’s pretty funny to overhear. I like rock, psych and otherwise. A lot of masculine music . . . rock. That must be why I want to see more feminine work. I need to balance it out. Ultimately the goal is BALANCE. I just feel that the teeter totter is tipped too far in the male realm. I guess over the past year there has been a lot of PJ Harvey revisiting, Li’l Wayne junk, early Roxy Music and Buckingham Nicks. I’m very picky.
I make my own music, too. I had a band for all of the ‘90s. Kiki Bridges. That was my outlet. I didn’t care if we had any success. We recorded an album that was never released. I refused to play it for anyone. I just needed as a memento. I dissolved the band shortly thereafter. I sold my guitar. I regret that. I almost chased the man who bought it down the street. I stood in the window and watched him take it away. It was a turning point. I gave away my power in that moment. I met a musician not long after that and we stayed together for 7 years. It got to the point where I could barely sing in front of him without going out tune. I was so self-conscious. I could feel him cringe. I’m another one of those “extremely sensitive people” with ESP. When we broke up, I was like a shadow of my former self. I gave up a lot in order to make the relationship work. I think a lot of women do this. When I started to put my foot down and speak up, everything fell to shit. I had to move away to get over it and start again. Miraculously, I started playing the guitar again. I hadn’t touched an instrument in 7 years. I have a music project right now with a friend, Body Double. I wrote a song about not being able to sing in front of my ex-boyfriend. “I knew it was a bad sign/when I couldn’t sing in front of you/I could feel you cringe/and then I sang out of tune” . . . I like to play with words like “sign” and “sing.” But that is more of a written-down thing.
So Body Double has been working on some new material. We had a session today. There was a lot of arguing. Our theme song is: feminist/bandwife/emo/jokeband/psych rock/white rap/pink floyd/deep purple/back in black.
That pretty much sums it up. Bandwife can apply to anyone. It worked with “joke band.” Hopefully we’ll get over our “joke band” because this isn’t a joke band. I think we feel vulnerable which saddens me because we’re kind of tough but of course not at all. You know how that goes.
I made a big deal about: I DO NOT WANT TO SOUND INDIE ROCK. Which is ridiculous because that is all we are. I took a toilet paper roll and wrote “indie” in white glue and then covered it in gold glitter. I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘90s indie rock. There’s this kind of phrasing that I don’t like. My old boyfriend pointed it out once and it stuck. It’s like people had so much to say back then and were trying to cram their words into these songs and they come out wooden and unnatural.
It seems like your career has emerged organically over the last chunk of years to suit your interests, personality, and ability. How much of this comes back to doing what you love despite the naysayers, how much is luck, and how much is sheer hustle?
Blood, sweat, tears, blessing, curse, joke. This career has happened organically. I made it all up. I’m used to things being difficult so I made this trip difficult. I resisted so much. I went against the grain. I didn’t follow the flow. If I had, my life would be completely different (obviously). I know I missed out on a thousand opportunities. I never sold out. Not once. And I had that opportunity. I’ve been very protective of myself and my art. I’ve hid out and stayed put. I did this because I couldn’t handle the pressure and the attention. You have to be so strong and solid to handle it. “Success at an early age exacts a high psychic toll.” I don’t know who said that but I found it in conjunction with a huge gallery show with this young art star who has haunted me over the years. I kept that quote. My career has been a slow burn. Although I have missed opportunities, they never stopped presenting themselves. I can’t believe my good fortune sometimes but anyone who knows me knows my struggle. There has been no model for me to follow and if there had been, I wouldn’t follow it. I’m rebellious by nature. After Temper, Temper came out 1998, I was working at my friend’s store. These people were my family and I needed that comfort and stability but at the same time I knew I was wasting my talent/wasting away. I grew depressed. I was in a difficult relationship with an artist. I went through a period of not being able to get out of bed. I’d work four days and spend the next three days in bed. It was the strangest time. During one of those bouts the phone rang. It was my old penpal friend who I found via Sassy magazine. His zine Drew was zine of the month. It was the first time I saw real art and a design sense in a zine. It was kind of a psychic conversation. He somehow knew I was in bed in the middle of the day. He told me to make another book. I was lying in bed kind of hanging off it like, say, Jan Brady talking on the phone like a lazy teenager sorta upside down. I saw that the baseboard on my heater read: “Pioneer.” It hit me then. There were a lot of messages that I received during that time that kept me going. I didn’t feel a lot of support for my work. There was no Etsy. I wasn’t emailing incessantly at that point. I wanted to pack it in. I felt a lot of pressure from my grandfather about my career. I felt like a loser slacker but somehow I worked through it. You just have to reach a point where you don’t care anymore what anyone thinks. You can’t listen to anybody so you have to find that voice in yourself. I still lose it all the time. I still struggle to hear that voice. It fades away often. My life is radically different from that time period.
As for hustle, it can get hard because I am intrinsically shy and humble. I basically come from peasant stock. I am sensitive to the point of ESP. This combination can sometimes be lethal. It is good for making work but it makes it near impossible to sell yourself and shove your face into the faces of others. I’m not a careerist nor a climber either. It’s easy to sell other people’s stuff but to sell your own stuff is almost impossible for people like me. I wasn’t born with the entitlement that most successful artists have innately. It frustrates me because those are the dorks making the stupid art. Of course it isn’t fair. I don’t think I have luck. I know hard work. My father had me doing manual labor when I was four years old. That was my schooling. I wasn’t born with horseshoes shoved up my ass.
What’s your connection to what is now being called “the Riot Grrrl movement”?
I believe I was introduced to Riot Grrrl via Sassy magazine. The details are hazy. All I remember is sending some money folded up in a sheet of loose leaf to K Records in Olympia for a Huggy Bear Her Jazz/Shaved Pussy Poetry 10’ album and a Riot Grrrl zine. I remember perusing them and listening to the record. I thought it was all cool stuff but I was on my own trip. I was checking out other things . . . and I was very into electronic music at the time. My friends and I were throwing parties . . . dance parties/happenings. We were trying to push an art movement through dance parties. I was building installations . . . these obviously became better known as raves. We made up our own thing. I was really into dancing. It’s one of my favorite things. After the “rave movement” got gross, I backed out of that and got back into punk music and was listening to a lot of super obscure emo music at that time. I loved it. I started playing music as well and my zine material grew and grew. I had an amazing network of penpals.
I was aware of Riot Grrrl but I wasn’t a part of it. I’d go down to Olympia for Yo-Yo-A-Go-Go which was a really fun music festival. However, any time I went to a music festival, I always felt out of it and not a part of it. Ladyfest in 1999, was a whole other monster. I saw things there that I wish I hadn’t seen. A lot of money passing hands, women screaming at each other in the street. It was kind of a Gong Show behind the scenes. I’m critical and I do have a gift of seeing things for as they are. And back then I was very negative. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It was an incredible movement but there was a lot of horrible shit going on which may have been part of its demise. The music of that time changed my life. Sleater-Kinney for one. I really liked Calamity Jane. Lots of boy bands with female members, which is a good balance. Unwound.
I wasn’t aligning myself with the feminist movement at that time. Not consciously. My work has always been overtly feminine. I realize I go through phases in my life where I’ll only hang out with boys or only girls. Of course I’m a humanist but in the last few years I’ve gone way in the other direction, almost militant feminism. I think it’s because of my relationship with a musician and listening to too much rock music (Led Zep, Uriah Heap etc). I had to temper that. Sometimes I think I’m too feminine and I need to balance it out which I why I’ve been in the Yukon. It makes women stronger, toughens them up. It certainly feeds a pioneer spirit.
A couple of years ago I rented that Riot Grrrl documentary Don’t Need You: The History Of Riot Grrrl (2006). At that time, I hadn’t thought about Riot Grrrl in awhile. I know a lot of people felt embarrassed by it when the media swooped in and attempted to frame it. I’ll never forget the day my dad asked me, “Are you a Riot Grrrl?” was like: what the FUCK??? I guess he heard it on the CBC. He’s very smart. He was kind of mocking me when he said it.
I think a lot of people were embarrassed of the movement. Like, living through the lifespan of the words “zine” and “grunge” was just horrible. I hated being called a “zine queen” and a “zinester.” I hated being labeled, especially because I was on my own trip, making it up as I went along. That didn’t seem fair to me. It was hard for me to align myself with things that I still felt alienated by. I never felt a part of the Riot Grrrl movement. Mind you, I lived on Vancouver Island and was isolated. I exchanged a few penpal-type letters with Kathleen Hanna around the time she was starting Julie Ruin. She wrote in one of the letters that her band broke up. I could feel the sadness. She really liked my book Temper, Temper. That kept me going. I received a lot of flack around that book.
I feel a lot of sadness around Riot Grrrl. That it was SO short-lived. Of course looking back we only see the good parts and that’s all that matters. It was like watching a beautiful firecracker going up full force and dissipating into nothingness . . . however, here we are 18 years later embracing it. I can’t believe how long this sh*t takes to come around again. I shake my head. When I watched that documentary, I cried. Maybe I even wept. It was like five steps forward, ten steps back. I think the Spice Girls really fucked stuff up. The mass public wanted the Spice Girls. That was sad and embarrassing. I was disgusted by them at the time. And then Sex And The City came along and sealed the deal. Not only was it every nail in the coffin, it was like cryogenically sealing the whole movement for us. But fortunately it was preserved somehow because here we are romanticizing it and maybe this time it will stick a bit longer. I can only pray.
How relevant do you think feminism is today?
As usual a lot of women are denouncing their feminism and replacing it with the word “humanism.” That’s fine. Courtney Love (don’t get me started) recently referred to herself a “femmenist.” I’m not entirely sure what she meant by that but I know she was denouncing whatever the f**k she thinks feminism is. I still can’t get over how embroiled people get over the word. That’s enough for me to say the word on repeat every chance I get. Is this the fourth wave? What wave is this? A hello wave or a goodbye wave? It better be relevant. All I want is all women to be expressing themselves. I read this Lady Gaga quote the other day . . . she says she’s not doing it for money, for fame, for this for that for the other—for her it is about IDENTITY. My theory is that everyone is a snowflake and no two are the same, so technically every single individual should be completely unique and expressing their identity. Wouldn’t we all be happier? Wouldn’t it be nice if it was as easy as that?