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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH JILLIAN LAUREN AUTHOR OF Some Girls: My Life In A Harem

TPB: First of all, Some Girls is a very powerful memoir, and I enjoyed reading it. When I first came across it, I was struck with the understated poetry of the title. Can you talk a little about how you decided on Some Girls as a title and what the title means in relationship to your individual experiences in the harem?

JL: SOME GIRLS is one of my favorite albums of all time. The refrain “some girls” kept coming popping up rhythmically in my sentences as I was writing, probably because the song altered my cellular structure at some point in my teenage years. I chose it as the title because the song is so raw and politically incorrect, and I believe the book is of the same tradition. I also chose it for the obvious, literal connection.

TPB: I was only familiar with your short stories before I read this book. Did you explore any of your experiences from Some Girls in your shorter work or did the memoir come out all in one piece?

JL: I never dealt with this particular material before I wrote the memoir. I actually avoided it for a long time.

TPB: To piggy-back on the last question, Some Girls is set primarily in your late teens. How has time and the writing of your story shaped the experience for you?

JL: The real lessons for me were learned as I looked back and reflected. I was able to discover a different level of compassion for both myself and for the other people who shared my story. I looked at pictures of myself from that time and I said, “What was so wrong with me? Why did I hate myself so much?” I was beautiful. I was hopeful. I was brave. I was adorable. I can see it now clear as day, but I couldn’t see it then. The story is about struggling to love yourself and learning to forgive yourself.

TPB: In the prologue and all throughout the narrative, there’s this reference to 1001 Nights and the power of the story to save a person’s life. How has writing, not just of this memoir, but in general too, been a positive force in your life?

JL: It was in Brunei that I started writing with some kind of discipline. That’s the only lasting gift I walked away with, other than the story itself, of course. Writing has been tremendously empowering for me. I’ve learned that whatever is going on and however out of control I may feel about it, I always have the power to put my own frame around it with words.

TPB: I was struck by a line in chapter seven in which you write: “I couldn’t summon a tear for anyone I was leaving behind, not even Sean. That, I imagined, was freedom.” To what extent has your definition of freedom changed, and how has your experience in the harem and since helped to shape that definition?

JL: My definitions of a lot of things have changed since I was 18! My definition of freedom, for one thing. My definition of love, for another. Then, freedom was not caring about anything enough that it could cause me pain. Now, freedom is knowing that there will be pain and that Ill live through it. But things like the definition of something as essential as freedom change from one minute to the next for me. In an hour I might have a different answer for you. My experience in the harem certainly shaped my perspective on freedom, but so has my experience as a mother or my experience as a student.

TPB: Another section that really made an impression on me occurs in Chapter 10. When you walk into the party room in Borneo you mention always liking rooms before the party has started. Then you extend that liking to include theaters: “Even more magical are theaters during the day, before the doors open, before the show begins, when the house lights are on and you can see the rafters and the scuffs on the floor. I love the feeling that anything could happen. After the party, when anything already has happened, there’s usually the inevitable fact to face that anything wasn’t all you’d hoped it would be.” It’s a great moment, one I think readers can really relate to. I know I did. Of course it has a sort of romantic, fairy tale feel to it. Do you still have moments of anticipation like this or has experience tapered this romanticism in you?

JL: I’m still a ridiculous romantic. I read somewhere that there are two kinds of writers: romantics and satirists. I’m definitely the former.

TPB: Many of the women in the harem were in constant competition with each other, and through the process of that competition became obsessed about their weight. You write: “This is the Faustian bargain for many women who make their bodies their livelihood. Your body will be worshipped by others but hated by you.” Of course we see women who are not making their bodies their livelihood suffering from the same conundrum. What are your thoughts about the extent to which women will hate their bodies to garner the attention of men?

JL: I don’t think there needs to be a man in the picture to inspire self-hatred and body image issues in women. I think its an epidemic in this culture and it’s one that’s carefully nurtured by the beauty industry to the tune of about one hundred and sixty billion dollars a year. Part of the reason I wrote this book was to be honest about my struggle with this kind of self-hatred and to invite woman into a dialogue about it.

TPB: In Chapter 13 you write, “Any set of circumstances can become the normal shape of your days if you let it.” Is it difficult to live a more tempered life after having experienced such extremes?

JL: I constantly strive for balance in the life I lead now. Sometimes I’m more successful than others. I’m a wife and a mother now, and I have a career where I’m valued for my mind, and that is ultimately so much more rewarding than being valued mostly for my body, even if I don’t get to wear the exciting shoes I once did. I think what I miss about the experience is how fearless I was. But I was extremely lucky that my recklessness didn’t get me into deeper trouble. I don’t have the luxury of being unaware of consequences anymore. I’ve lived with too many of them. I have way too much to lose now to be careless. And I wouldn’t trade it, but I think most of us look back with some nostalgia on the freedom of being young.

TPB: A very compelling moment in the memoir occurs when you are remembering your Bat Mitzvah experience. You mention that you believed God was “. . . in the scroll somehow, in the gaps between the words.” You go on to elaborate about your beliefs at the time a bit. I found it especially compelling that you talked to God during the day, but not at night before bed: “When faced with my nightmares, I had to think quickly and start negotiating with the monsters instead. But those kinds of negotiations/deals struck, promises made/dissolve with the sunrise. Most people I know who are agnostic tend to find God just before bed, because their fear leads them to ask for help.” But you had the opposite experience, which I think may speak to your sense of independence and your survivalist instincts. What are your thoughts and beliefs on God these days?

JL: I think its funny that it’s harder for me to talk about God than it is to talk about some of the more salacious aspects of the memoir. Maybe that’ll be the next book. But I’ll just say that I have a strong spiritual life now and I believe in prayer and in living in a way that’s of service to others.

TPB: There are constant references in the book to Patti Smith, as in “What would Patti Smith do in this situation?” Do you still ask yourself that question, or do you have a different person whom you consult in your imagination these days when youre faced with a difficult decision?

JL: I’m still wild about Patti Smith but I think that heroes are more prominent for teenagers. It’s not that I don’t have heroes now, I just don’t consult with them quite as often.

TPB: In the memoir, you go through a certain progression: dancer to escort to harem girl. What are you feelings about decriminalizing prostitution in the U.S.?

JL: I am all for decriminalizing prostitution. There are a lot of reasons I feel that way, but the bottom line is that prostitution carries terrible and unnecessary risks and that decriminalization will make women safer.

TPB: Any tips on becoming the Queen of the Harem?

JL: Don’t. It ain’t all its cracked up to be.

TPB: Your next book is a work of fiction entitled: Pretty. Can you tell us a little about it?

JL: Pretty centers around Bebe Baker, who is a self-described ex-everything: ex-Christian, ex-stripper, ex-drug addict, ex-pretty girl. A year after surviving a horrific car accident that killed her boyfriend, she serves out a self-imposed sentence at a halfway house, while attempting to complete her last two weeks of vocational-rehab cosmetology school. Pretty is about trying to find faith in a world of rampant diagnoses, over-medication, compulsive eating, and acrylic nails.

Contributor:  Dennis Fulgoni, B.A., M.F.A.

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