Twice a year I am prone to treating myself to magazine subscriptions. Firstly at the end of the financial year where I buy up on anything tax deductible in a completely unnecessary panic. I also do this at Christmas time, where I have a terrible habit of buying a treat for myself for every present I buy for family or friends. This Christmas McSweeney's were running a promotion for their magazine The Believer where new subscribers would receive this gorgeous little book featuring a lengthy conversation between Judy Blume and Lena Dunham. Of course I completely fell for it and though an edited version of the interview appears in the January 2014 issue of the magazine, the full version is such a joy, it was worth the subscription on its own.
Judy Blume is an author known for tackling big issues (racism, feminism and bullying to name a few) through her novels for young adults. Lena Dunham is best known as the creator and star of the HBO series Girls and it turns out, is a massive fan of Blume’s. In the book the two have an open and frank discussion about their craft, expectations, feminism and the gap between the two generations they represent (Blume is 76, Dunham is 27). The book is published as a straight interview, a transcription of the two women’s discussion with just a brief introduction by Dunham. Often in magazines I find this approach lazy – interviews do not always transcribe well on to the page and without a decent edit and some narrative from the interviewer, it can be difficult and, let’s be honest, boring to read. But here it allows the reader to connect with the two women in a way that makes you feel like you’re watching from a corner of the room, and that feels like a real privilege.
There are some incredibly heart warming moments between the Blume and Dunham which feel a lot like a granddaughter talking to a grandmother and realising that despite the years between them, they’re actually very similar. For example, as someone completely obsessed with food, I found this exchange particularly lovely:
JB: I used to be a cookie/cupcake-a-holic, but I don’t do it anymore. I went cold turkey.
LD: Really? Do you feel better since you stopped?
There are also some moments that are beautifully awkward, it feels exactly like a familial conversation, such as a brief diversion to talk about the MTV Video Music Awards. When Blume tells Dunham that she meant to watch them this year, but forgot:
LD: They were a real shit show.
JB: I heard.
It’s evident that Dunham learnt a lot from Blume’s writing. Both writers are unafraid of confrontation and of bringing discussion of issues relating to women and young people into the light. It’s a kind of active feminism that I admire: I don’t often think of being a feminist until I see something like Girls or read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret and think ‘yes! Yes that’s it!’ Here is a moment where Dunham expresses this idea much more eloquently to Blume:
“Summer Sisters was actually … a huge influence on Girls, because it was the first thing I ever consumed that looked at the way female friendship can be glorious and can be complicated and a worse betrayal than something romantic.”
Dunham’s praise is well balanced by a very graceful Blume throughout. It is so wonderful to see that a woman who has sold 82 million books being honest about her confidence starting out:
“I didn’t know I was really a writer until I read a review of Margaret in the New York Times, then I thought, Oh my god, maybe I can really do this.”
But the main thing I took away from Judy Blume and Lena Dunham In Conversation was how a love of reading, the act of reading, and encouraging girls to read, can be the ultimate act of feminism. Dunham introduces the idea beautifully on the opening page:
“Little girls love to read. They especially love to read books that feel like secrets, adult secrets, or perhaps their own secrets being quietly recited back to them. … When we, as young women, are given the space to read, the act becomes a happy, private corner we can return to for the rest of our lives”.
Blume speaks of having little encouragement to be creative as a young girl, which continued throughout her early life:
“Although I was still a suburban woman living in New Jersey with a husband who had ‘50s expectations for me, and two little children. But I had this secret life where I was writing.”
This is contrasted to Dunham’s childhood where creativity played an important role and was given opportunity to develop. But something the two women have in common is reading. Blume tells Dunham:
“My parents gave me the gift of letting me know that reading is a good thing. My mother was afraid of everything, but she was never afraid that I was reading, or about what I was reading.”
What is wonderful about this conversation is that these two opposing backgrounds, two very different generations, two very different writers, are brought together by a love of reading and a love of writing. That they both became who they are by reading as a child, and that both actively work – though in different mediums and in very different ways – to spread a love of words and writing in their work.
Recently through work I had a chance to visit a nursing home. It was a really confronting experience for me: the last time I had been in a similar institution was to visit my very sick grandmother before she passed away. She had been sick for a long time and I knew she wasn’t going to be around much longer. I went with my Mum to visit her and we sat, drank tea and ate biscuits. Grandma couldn’t really talk, but she was lucid. Mum said we had caught her on a good day and that I was lucky. Because of this, I chose this to be the last time that I saw her. I wanted to retain that good memory. She was such a strong woman that I wanted to remember her as such: I didn’t want the last vision I had of her to be one of the reality of her illnesses.
In episode nine, season three of Lena Dunham’s series Girls, the main character Hannah goes to visit her sick grandmother in hospital. This episode aired the same day that I had made this visit for work and, frankly, left me a mess. I wanted a way of being comforted by my Grandma and the best way I knew how was to turn to food. My grandmother was an incredible gardener and grew a flourishing kitchen garden before Stephanie Alexander, Jamie Oliver or anyone else started waxing lyrical about the idea. I remember the very first time I ever saw rhubarb was in my grandparents’ garden as my Grandpa cut off a bunch of the wacky looking stems that looked like dark pink celery.
My Grandma taught me many things: about keeping a family together, about strength through illness, about kindness, and about food. So in honour of my Grandma, and of the relationship between Judy Blume and Lena Dunham, I made a rhubarb and apple crumble. Crumbles were made almost weekly in our house as a child, and the act of mixing the flour and butter together to make a sandy texture seems like an extension of myself. It’s one of those recipes I make whenever I’m homesick, suffering from the winter blues, or just need to feel a bit better about my day. The version I make is very close to this one by Maggie Beer, though I omit the butter and verjuice from the fruit, adding a splash of water to the pot as it simmers. Served here with yoghurt, or if I’m feeling indulgent a splash of cream or a glug of custard, this is my way of being reminded of my Grandma and of her love and wisdom.