In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we check in with illustrator, author, and performer Ayun Halliday.
Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of The East Village Inky zine, a freelance illustrator and the author of seven books, including No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late and the graphic novel, Peanut. She wrote and performed in over 500 short plays and several full-length solo performances as a member of the Neo-Futurists and has a bottomless appetite for creating theater with teenagers. She will be performing in the world premiere of her play, Fawnbook in New York City this fall. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Greg Kotis and their son, Milo. Her daughter, India Kotis, just headed off to college in Chicago, and will turn 20 in less than 2 years.
When you were in your 20s…
What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?
In my early 20s, I thought I’d be doing a lot of theater, but despite a degree in it from Northwestern University, I wasn’t quite sure how. Shortly my 25th birthday, I was cast in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, the NeoFuturist’s long-running, late-night attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes. Being an ensemble member gave me plenty of opportunities to write and perform, as well as a professional identity that I took with me into my 30s.
In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?
My expectations were forged in opposition to society’s expectations. In my teens, I learned – to my surprise – that I was a bit of a misfit, at least at the preppy school I’d attended since 2nd grade. Generally speaking, it led me to developed a distaste – some would call it a chip on my shoulder – for anything society deemed popular.
What was your first job like?
My very first paycheck job was extraordinarily undefined. I had just turned 16. It was at Ralf’s Deli in Indianapolis. I think I was a hostess – I didn’t get an apron or a paper hat – but I also had to clean all the gunk out of the sink traps, which created a phobia I have to this day. A meat slicer in his 20s named Yuri thought I was cute and called me at home, which freaked me out. I knew my mom would not be down with that. I didn’t know that a hostess or whatever the hell I was wouldn’t be allowed to take two weeks off to go on a long planned family vacation, three months after she started work. That was the end of that. What a ding dong I was. I have since made it a policy to try to really train people in what they’re helping me do… I was at such loose, loose ends!
Sad to say, my 20s were full of jobs like this – impermanent, poorly conceived, a bit . I wrote about them in my third book, Job Hopper.
I guess the defining job of my 20s was waiting tables at Dave’s Italian Kitchen, just because the place itself had such an identity. I was proud to be considered worthy of slinging spaghetti there. It was definitely the best waitressing job I ever had, and I had a lot of those in my 20s.
What was your first apartment like?
Wonderful! I shared half a house in Evanston, Illinois, with two guys from the theater department. It had a big front porch, a backyard, a big kitchen for all my hippie cooking experiments, and my giant bedroom had a king size bed left behind by the previous tenant.
Did you experience any big life changes?
Yes. I traveled to Europe, Africa, and Asia on a shoestring budget. I went to massage school. I moved to New York City nine months before turning 30. I got engaged to my friend and fellow NeoFuturist, Greg Kotis —married him just a few months into my 30s.
In what ways did your friendships change?
Mostly they deepened. Many of us who’d been together at college remained in Chicago, and joining the NeoFuturists provided me with significant links to several other ragtag theater crews, notably Theater Oobleck, Cardiff Giant, and the Curious Theater Branch. We would go to each other’s’ shows and parties. I kept in touch with many of those who moved by writing letters – I just unearthed 100s of the ones I received in reply in shoeboxes under my bed. It’s a true time capsule. I encourage those of you in your 20s to print out some of your favorite emails and text conversations. Is it possible to print out texts? Clearly, I’m not in my 20s anymore.
What did you learn through your romantic relationships?
I came out of my 20s with the understanding that my pattern of skipping out on relationships that weren’t officially over, to revel in a new love, was not the way to go. From the inside, it was quite easy to view myself as a victim of circumstance, gripped in the jaws of a desire I was powerless to deny… From the outside, it’s pretty tawdry…petty, not sweeping.
How do you feel society viewed you?
I doubt it was much interested in me. I was not a threat, just kind of an oddball. If society stopped to consider me, it probably thought, “She should lose ten pounds, cut her hair, wear makeup, shave her legs…” Actually my boyfriend’s agent told me that when I was 23, kindly adding, “But I don’t think you want to do that just so we can send you out for young mommy roles.” That was the death knell for my commercial career.
How do you feel you changed emotionally?
Gosh, did I? I gained experience, but I think the emotional make up remains the same. Keep reading, maybe it doesn’t. I’ve got no perspective here…
How did you change intellectually?
I had to stay abreast of the news to pull my weight with the NeoFuturists. George H.W. Bush was president, and there was a real sense that women might lose their right to safe, legal abortions. I wrote a lot of plays about that. I listened to NPR and read the Utne Reader, read the newspaper every day.
I was much better informed in my 20s than I am now – then I was only responsible for myself (and the world). Now I have a family and the Internet blowing big holes in my attention span.
I also lived in fear that I might be called upon to do improv, and I would be too ill informed to act intelligently upon an audience member’s suggestion. Actually, that happened to me just last winter. My audience member’s suggestion was “Bernie Madoff” and internally, I was like…hmmm…uh…oh yeah, that guy who screwed people out of their investments…I think he maybe went to prison…hmm…he was in the news a lot but the financial industry is so boring to me. Needless to say, hilarity did not ensue.
I think you meet a lot of people in your 20s, who’ve gone to different colleges, and have this whole other set of references than you do. I began to get a feel for what they were teaching over at Oberlin, the University of Chicago, etc.
I was a voracious reader, then, as now. Lately I’ve taken to rereading some of the books I loved in my 20s to see how they hold up. Grapes of Wrath and Ship of Fools definitely do. Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, not so much…
In what ways do you feel your identity changed?
My ongoing work with the NeoFuturists let me claim to be a professional, without the need to behave like one. Since we almost always played ourselves, people who recognized me in the subway, felt comfortable coming up and starting conversations, a recognition I enjoyed for the most part. I liked feeling accessible, and sought after. My 20s definitely gave birth to my voice, even though my first book didn’t appear ’til I was in my 30s.
I also got a lot less guarded. I was shy when I was little, and didn’t know much beyond the conventional expectations. I would rather hold my pee for hours than have someone see me walk into the bathroom, because then they might know that I – gasp!- actually used the bathroom. Menstruation was kind of a horrorshow of embarrassment.
Interestingly, I was pretty uninhibited when it came to romance, but I think that was because I was so down to be loved and cherished. I still didn’t want those guys knowing I peed! Even when we lived together! I think a combination of massage school, the NeoFuturists, and global travel on a shoestring are to thank for that… I realized there’s little profit in being uptight, particularly when the people who gave you these hang ups in the first place aren’t part of your daily life anymore.
How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?
You can’t travel the way I did without expanding your worldview. Obviously, I was very familiar with the Save the Children, Concert for Bangladesh, South Asian, and Southeast Asian countries before leaving home, but traveling, I met many happy, multigenerational families, living in the equivalent of an American garage. Really. They’d roll the door down at night, then roll it up again in the morning, their lives exposed to the street for most of the day. I was impressed by the way the entire family would coalesce around the baby. The baby was always king. The furniture might consist of a couple of plastic stools and a plastic bag of mangoes hanging on a nail, but there would be this giant, blown up photo of the baby hanging in a place of honor. And the baby was invariably so well behaved!
My college sweetheart was the youngest of eleven children – he always said that his feet never touched the floor. Those babies were like that – so adored that their feet never touched the floor.
I saw that people were able to live and be very happy without a lot of stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly materialistic in the designer handbag / pristine interior decoration sense, but I do have a lot of things…souvenirs, books, little indicators of personality. Traveling, I saw a model in which personalities could exist free of stuff.
And it’s definitely an experience to travel around a place like Rwanda a year before civil war or some other catastrophe befalls it. It makes you appreciate what you have, and also come to the sobering realization that knowing your complaints are comparatively petty does not necessarily mean you’ll stop making them. I’d be scribbling in my journal about how someone hurt my feelings… meanwhile, back in Rwanda, neighbors are slicing each other to ribbons with machetes.
This is probably how I arrived at my conviction that very few people would have actually stuck their necks out for Anne Frank, the way the heroic Miep Geis did when she was barely out of her 20s. All children get a pass from me, if they say they would save Anne Frank. Most adults do not. I think most adults are like me…horrified when they read the news, quick to express that horror over social media or cocktails, but just as quick to post a photo of our dinner or our vacation. We’re most of us in a position that makes it very unlikely to disrupt our lives, to take the risk that might save someone else. But I think, even if we were to strip away those responsibilities to job and family, we’d still find a reason to steer clear.
It gives me respect for what others go through, and respect for the people who do move mountains to help strangers. It also makes me a bit impatient with certain American anarchist acquaintances’ knee-jerk “Fuck America” rhetoric. A lot of us, myself included, are guilty of inaction. Send money or give time. I guess I better send some money somewhere tonight.
What was the most embarrassing moment?
So many to choose from! Most of them wound up in my first four books. Fortunately there is a difference between “embarrassing” and “shameful”.
What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?
Hmm…there was no one crushing one, more a number of small lumps in the throat, mostly having to do with being passed over for some part or another, prior to the NeoFuturists. That probably contributed to me not pursuing auditions very vigorously…thought it could also be a temperamental thing. Either way, I wound up making a lot of opportunities for myself, a thing I continue to do, though these days I like to include others.
Who was your biggest influence and why?
The late performance artist Spalding Gray. Something he said in an interview in Tricycle magazine really resonated with me, that the reason he started performing his autobiographical monologues was because he got “sick of waiting for the big infernal machine to make up its mind” about him. It’s become a personal motto.
Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?
I did have the distinction of answering the phone at an alternative newspaper in Chicago when some random person called to report that Kurt Cobain had died…I ran into Editiorial to break the news to the music editor and the rest of the staff. That was my big scoop. That said, that event defined others’ decades much more than my own.
(Let it also be said that I, a 20-something receptionist, put the great Art Spiegelman on hold for like, 5 minutes, while I finished my salad, or whatever the hell it was I was doing. I fell all over myself when I finally got back on the horn and he told me his name. The arrogance of youth!)
Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
Of course! See all of the above! But to quote Don Marquis’ alley cat, Mehitabel, “Wot the hell, Archie, toujours gai!”