There is no summing up Sam—no writerly preface, no small-talk tidbits, no rundown of vital stats that can suffice. She is irreducible, like a prime number, or a quark. Mention a recent story about her that she didn't much like, and she'll snort. "I told my friend Robbie I wished that thing had been called 'Fat Nigga Tells Jokes.'"
So you're going to want to watch yourself.
Samantha Irby, the 33-year-old author of the very popular blog Bitches Gotta Eat, cocurator of the live-lit show Guts & Glory, scathing observer of whatever she wants, Chicago's very own "inner id" (according to one weirdly worded review), has written a book—a collection of essays. Released by Curbside Splendor, Meaty is generating a large amount of what publicists call "buzz," landing some coveted real estate on the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers shelf and pulling a handsome number of preorders on Amazon when it became available earlier this month—all in spite of the more or less totally inane on-the-record comment by her publisher that Irby is "not really a writer."
"This is a person who generates 5,000 words of diamond-sharp text every week," says the writer and performer Ian Belknap, a good friend of Irby's. "She has created this strange, very individuated form of fame. It's all rooted in her towering talent and her rabid work ethic. For me it would be exhausting to work at the pace that she does, but for her it's just an accelerated pace of thought and expression. It seems to not be taxing to her the way that it would be to a lesser mortal."
Irby is not actually an id, or a stunted adolescent. That perception comes from the pop-culture confusion of persona with person, Belknap says, and "the insistent insinuation of writer into subject. Because Sam adopts the form of 'sassy black chick,' that's how she's seen. . . . We have a lot of presuppositions about what sassy is, and about what black is, and what chick-ness is. She has an eagerness to defile that, even as she leverages it for her own purposes. There's a great power in that kind of subversion, but you have to be attentive."
Plenty of writers try to "occupy the same space" as Irby, says Keith Ecker, her Guts & Glory cocurator. "Sam's writing is clearly differentiated because of its sharpness of wit and insight, its colorful use of language, and its unrelenting critique of everything that deserves to be knocked down a few pegs."
Topics of Irby's that get all the press: eating, farting, masturbation, the grim details of hetero sex, etc. She's got a frank and sort of nihilistically cheerful patter about shitting that belies the harsh reality of her own Crohn's disease. She writes some—not much—about a seriously difficult childhood and does so in such spare, unadorned language that it leaves the reader a little flayed.
But really she's writing about the big stuff: race, gender, sexuality, loneliness, and the onslaught of information we consume and purvey that isn't true at all. Irby's stuff is funny, Belknap says, "because it does what I think comedy is meant to do, which is drill down to the bedrock beneath us and get at what we don't even know is lurking down there. Her use of humor is tactical. It's sort of like the Trojan Horse that permits the soldiers to come in and kill you." She talks about all the things we say in order not to say the things we think we shouldn't say but desperately want to say but can't because we're gagging on all the cultural junk food we've shoved into our mouths.
In an e-mail, Irby writes, "i think that without humor those of us who loathe ourselves would be dead. not 'dead' but DEAD, walking blindly into traffic DEAD. self-loathing is only funny if you're good enough to spin gold out of horse shit. people like my shit because they can relate: everyone is stupid and horrible and fucking shit up all the time, and it's a relief when someone is shameless enough to admit it. we are all the goddamned worst."
Irby, who lives in Rogers Park, has worked the front desk at a local animal hospital for 11 years, a job that both gives her health insurance—a necessity given her illness—and, she says, a degree of stability and consistency that has allowed her to write. Without the job—and a boss she loves—she says neither the blog nor the book would exist. Born and raised at the edges of Evanston, the third daughter of three, Irby lost both her parents before she was 20 years old. She writes about them, and about her hometown, with a simplicity and clarity that veers from the tender to the terrifying.
Bitches Gotta Eat went online, and quickly viral, in 2009. Two years before, Irby says, "I started this blog on MySpace to impress this dude. That's why I write it today, to get laid. Well, really I do it because a lot of people love it, and it makes a lot of woman happy. I write this for women. I can be like, 'Oh, I hope Prince Charming's gonna read this,' but I write this shit for bitches.
"This girl comes up to me the other night," she continues, "this young, adorable white girl—that's like my meal ticket, white girls love me—and she's like, 'You say all the things I can't say.' Which is always interesting to me, because I looked at her, and she's thin, and beautiful, and she's with this dude who was hot—and I was like, 'You think about eating cheese all the time? And you sit in front of the TV grooming the cat?' But you never know what someone is going through. You never know.
"And thankfully there are people out there who, like, sometimes tell the truth. And when people talk to me, I'm like, 'Man, there are a lot of people who are, like, eating hamburgers in their giant panties.'
"And they're like, 'Yes. Yes. Thank you for saying that.'"
Irby's writing has a powerfully intimacy, a direct connection between her and her readers. On the page, she's more an essayist than a storyteller per se, with the essayist's intellectual habits—exploring ideas, contradicting herself, poking thoughts to see if they burst, and then reveling in the mess. The character of "Sam" is an almost palpable person sitting across the table from you, saying whatever the fuck comes into her mind. This is no airy tiptoe through the prim traditional essay. This writing is in your face—but more than that, really, it's under your skin.
Irby's story—and the stories she tells—aren't what's popularly called "trauma porn," the stock-in-trade of talk shows, a good bit of spoken word, and not a few memoirs—the melodramatic sturm und drang, eye-catchingly garish and extreme. This is the real shit that hurts, and that matters, and that eats away at a body, deep down. But she dispenses with niceties, dispatching her history as if she's cutting off its head.
Her work walks a tensile line between rage and tenderness, beauty and raw, palpable pain. She proves the truth of the old saw about what make things funny (comedy = tragedy + time), and if you want to skim the surface of what she says, OK—but eventually she'll take you to the depths not of her experience, but of your own.
People are fond of saying that Irby will say anything. She won't. She'll just say what she wants.
"I'm a little bit of a control freak when it comes to my image," she says. "I put a lot out there, especially stuff I think can be useful. You gotta keep some shit to yourself.
"I am probably the most unhappy person you will ever meet. I am incredibly unhappy. Not in a way that makes me less of a joy to be around. People love being around me, I make people feel good, I'm good at listening, I'm good at saying shit to make you feel better, to make you laugh. People fucking talk to me because I'll talk to you. If you've got shit you wanna hear, I'll tell you. But I don't talk about being just a miserable person.
"I think there has to be a deep well of superdarkness that I don't get into. I don't even know if I've tapped into all of the things that make me so sad. But it also isn't the kind of thing that I want tossed around publicly."
Irby takes on the human as a physical creature, a physical location, a mammal, a fact. Her work collides in particular with the culturally constructed female body, that ethereal, aphysical, Photoshopped fantasy free of the need to eat, have sex, or take a shit. She comes at the body from all angles, attacking the topic again and again, as if she is beating her whole body against that ridiculous imaginary form.
It casts the reader's awareness back into her own body and her own life, her own predicament of physicality. About being a white guy and reading this viscerally female-variety voice, Belknap says, "By the very nature of the meat suit in which I am imprisoned"—Irby occasionally calls the body a meat suit—"versus the sort of meat suit in which she is, there's that distinction. But it's that old thing where the particular rendered with enough force and skill becomes the universal. Because I don't have any experience at all of Crohn's disease or menstruation or bra shopping, but I am trapped in a meat suit, and there are certain indignities I have to suffer, so if I can set aside the bra-shopping-ness of it, I can get to the actual meaning of the experience, and there's something for me."
Irby is similarly frank, and particular, about race, a fact that, oddly, goes unremarked all the time, though not by her. "I am keenly aware of my blackness," she says. "I am trying to talk about blackness all the time. I don't ever want people to be like, 'I didn't even notice you were black.' Why do people love to say that shit? That robs me of my fucking humanity, if you take my blackness away. It really is important to me that people never forget that I'm black, that I come from black people. Don't let this valley-girl voice fool you.
"A lot of white people are like, 'I don't even see color,' and I'm like, 'Well, you should. I need you to.' That says more about their biases than anything, because that means they think they couldn't relate to someone 'like me.' People are like, 'Wow, you really crystalized this for me,' and I'm like, 'Yeah, I know. Shocking, that someone with nappy hair would have this same set of feelings as you.'"
Ecker writes in an e-mail about one of his favorite Irby stories: "One time, my fiance (who is black), Sam and I went to brunch at a local restaurant. Like most brunch places in my neck of the woods, it's a place frequented mainly by white people. We were seated at a table, and as I was looking over the menu, Sam looks up and says, 'I see they seated us in the slave corner.' I look behind me and there's a painting of a bunch of doo-ragged black people working in a field. I pretty much lost my shit."
Irby says, "It's not like white people are foreign creatures to me. I also know when they're off on some bullshit, and I know to never really relax. The dominant society is white supremacist as shit, and if I have this bully pulpit, whatever little tiny pulpit it is, for me that's a coup, that I have so many white people reading me. I mean, you're, like, regularly checking for this black woman's thing. White people walking around with this book in their bags—that brings me joy. Not because I need the validation, because I don't give a fuck—but that's why this is amazing. We still are a racist-ass society. Black people reading white writing, that's normal, everything's white, so we gotta read it. But a white man bought my book last night, and I'm like, 'That's right. That's what I like to see.'"
What happens after the book?
"People don't understand me when I say, you know, nothing," Irby says, and laughs.
Belknap says, "She's putting this book into the world and saying, 'This is what I had to say at this moment, in exactly the way I felt compelled to. Love it or don't.' And people get weirded out by that lack of need. We're so conditioned to the artist being this fucking sinkhole, but her work is never about that. It's about this sort of ferocious fidelity to her authentic impulse to speak. There is this urgency to her writing, a sort of 'I must speak this.'"
But Irby knows for whom she speaks, to whom she speaks, and she knows that—like every other new/hot/young artist, especially those whose presence is accessed online—this too must also pass. "I mean, blogs are weird, and they're almost obsolete already, right?" she says. "Eventually things are going to move, and I just don't have the desire to keep up with everything that everyone does. There's only so long that I can keep asking people to meet me where I am. If [media] has evolved past this in like two years, maybe I'll evolve with it, but if I don't want to do it, I'm not going to do it, and I'll shut it down. Everybody's attention span is so fleeting, and you don't want to get to the point where you're desperately trying to stay relevant, chasing whatever is new.
"If people keep reading Bitches Gotta Eat, then I'll keep writing it. But I can't be 50 and writing this shit. I mean, that's crazy. I don't know what the shelf life is. I'm just gonna ride the wave, and when it hits the shore—I'm gonna be at my job, doing what I've been doing, kicking it with who I've been kicking it all along."