How should a teenager be? This was the question I found myself asking as I read Inappropriation, the intense, crackling, hilarious debut novel by Lexi Freiman, which centers around Ziggy, a teenage girl from the posh suburbs of Sydney who attends an elite private girls' school, where she feels decidedly out of place. In part, this is due to the fact that high school is a particularly challenging time for many; it can be hard to find a place to fit in, or find people around whom you can be yourself (whoever that is). But then also, Ziggy doesn't really feel quite at home anywhere—certainly not with her family, full of real characters, like her Holocaust-surviving grandmother, Twinkles; a father who enigmatically disappears to go swimming with his friends in Thailand; and a biological essentialist mother whose femininity is palpable, and who hosts group therapy sessions in the family home. More than that, though, Ziggy doesn't feel at home in her own body, which is taking its sweet time figuring out if it wants to go through puberty, nor does she feel at ease with her radical feminist schoolmate friends, whose misreading of the seminal feminist text, A Cyborg Manifesto, leads to a whole host of confusing conversations about what it means to be transhuman and a woman of color.
Freiman's satirical look at identity politics, the perversions of technology, and what it means to be a teenage girl feels like a genuine thrill to read; it's a book that will alternately make you gasp with laughter and with secondary embarrassment. It also made me think about the many ways in which the sheer amount of new language used now to define others and ourselves can create chaos within the lives of young people who are preternaturally capable of using the right words to describe other people but still don't know how to describe themselves. Below, I speak with Freiman about her inspiration for the narrative, the difficulties of making jokes about fraught topics, and why Australia and America are so similar.
What was your original inspiration for writing this and what was the process like for you? I know this is your debut, but your voice is so assured as you venture into really dark, complicated territory, so... how did you get so good?
I don't know how to answer that kind of question, but I'll tell you the process. I started out wanting to write a book that was a sort of reverse kind of date rape revenge story... I don't know if that's gonna give a lot away, but anyway, I started with that as an idea. So I was sort of interested in this kind of new feminism that was emerging—this is a few years ago, so it predates #MeToo. [But] there was a lot of stuff in the media about catcalling and the male gaze, so I was interested in that and finding a way to reverse the male gaze, and sort of turn it on a man, how that would work.
There was also a backdrop of the late years of Obama's presidency, and identity politics was in full bloom, and I suppose because I started the book when Obama was the president, it kind of felt okay to write a satire on identity politics, when the president was obviously very much in support of that ideology, and so was art and culture. So it really felt like it would be an okay thing to do—not that I'm too worried about what is okay or not okay, because I think that's a problem when it comes to art and being an artist.
But then, of course, I continued to write the book over a couple of years, and in the meantime, Trump became the president, and, obviously, that changes the game. Because now you're writing a satire on identity politics when you have people who are terrified for their lives, and you have a government that is very much against that ideology. So, it was a concern that I had, but I still felt that it should be okay and that it's important to be able to interrogate some of the ideology on the left, especially because the left controls culture. And what interests me about a project like this is it's not so much a satire on any marginalized groups, it's a satire on an ideological apparatus that is as flawed as any endeavors of human intellect. That's just the nature of it. So, I thought it was the right territory and that there should be no rules about this.
I think it's probably more important for something like this to come out now, since our current time probably wouldn't exist in this manifestation unless we had already experienced what we've already gone through. And then also, it feels so relevant now because younger and younger people are getting really involved in the political discourse, often out of necessity. And they are incredibly outspoken and have so much access to so much information, and that's great, but sometimes they don't actually have the tools to process all that information, it seems, like their language is ahead of their emotions. And, of course, your novel centers around teens and, in particular, Ziggy; why were the lives of teenage girls such a rich environment for exploration?
I have my answer to that, and also I want to address what you said earlier about teenagers metabolizing information and mangling it. I think I wrote this character because I wanted someone who was very confused, which is generally the teenage experience. A combination of confused but thinking you know [everything], and then being confused again, and clinging to obviously different identities and searching for belonging. I think that's obviously very strong enough when we're teenagers. And a teenager also has more of a license to get it wrong. Like, writing a satire and identity politics in the perspective of a 29-year-old person who's been to a liberal arts college is going to be a very different kind of a book.
At the moment, we are listening to a lot of people talking about radical new ideologies and ways we might conceive of ourselves as gender non-binary or whatever it is, and all of that is great and important, but then the voices that get shut down are the voices of the potentially elder wise people in communities. [But] they misgender people, they get the language wrong, so they're kind of silenced a lot. And I think the book is definitely interested in that... [A]nother reason why I chose teenagers, and that experience of being in high school, is because it's so much about trying to be included, and in your desire to be included and to belong, you end up naturally excluding others. It's difficult not to do that. And so those were a lot of the ideas that I wanted to explore. And again, it's not like there's any answer... there's no conclusion, there's no idea that oneness is the answer and therefore everyone should just stop complaining. It's much more complicated than that.
Yeah, it can feel intractably complicated, this desire to feel like a singular collective whole, because that's the only way to defeat a messed-up system, butting up against the fact that many people who want unity don't need to think about the ways in which differences matter, or why we don't have unity already.
It's an impossible game that you know that you play with identity politics where someone is always going to feel excluded and someone is always going to feel underrepresented. And, yes, the book is interested in kind of teasing out some of those situations. And also, at its core, there's a question there about what is a woman. And that feels like a question that we're grappling with in society at this moment, as well. And I think the book is definitely trying to kind of open that conversation up a little bit again.
One of the great things about being a teenager is you almost have this mandate to explore, and you're finally getting freedom. But that's also one of the most terrifying things. You're so hyperconscious of yourself that it can be hard to see outside of that self. And it leads to a lot of uncomfortable situations, wherein you do or say something that seemed like a good idea in your head but is actually not a good idea. Ziggy does that a lot.
I think there's just a natural impulsivity that comes with being younger, but there's also a real strong need to be liked and accepted. Like how teenagers literally jump off bridges to impress one another. The frontal lobes are not fully developed, so it's a different experience with fear and consequence. Writing Ziggy, often, I would come across something in the media, some kind of outrageous story about something to do with identity politics or someone being called out or something, and I would imagine her grappling with those ideas and sort of saying the unsayable thing. And then you reread it, and you're like, Oh my god I can't. That can't be published. I had a lot of, Is this joke going too far or is this joke necessary? And that was a big part of writing the book, thinking about humor and the role of humor and what it's doing in terms of bringing us together, plus bringing us together into an experience which can be unifying or causing us pain or deflecting the feelings of someone else.
And I think all of those things are fighting for primacy in my mind almost with every single joke, and I don't know if it would have been that way 10 years ago. But right now, I know a lot of writers are very nervous about saying the wrong thing in their book, which has created an interesting atmosphere. And so I feel like there was something exhilarating about doing that, but also it wasn't just a totally irreverent experience. It was also very calculated in some bits. And I also am aware that there are definitely going to be moments where I probably went too far. And I think that's okay. Whether people think it's okay or not, we'll see. But I think it's important in satire to push the boundaries. And, I guess, face the consequences.
Did the moments you went too far include when some characters called Nicole Kidman a sociopath?
It was very funny! I also loved that calling Heath Ledger a sociopath would have been going too far. Nicole Kidman, sure. Russell Crowe, obviously. But not Heath. Which, I wanted to ask you about Australia. For Americans, I think, we just have a vision of beaches and a vague idea of the outback, but in the book, it feels like a slightly surreal, sometimes more extreme, definitely smaller version of the America we know today. You grew up in Australia, so obviously it was a natural place to set this novel, but what do you think Americans reading it will take away about the country?
I think Australia is incredibly similar to the U.S. And I think probably the kinds of the way that Australia has depicted itself in movies and stuff is a small slice of what we think America wants to see or would be most interested in. Which, you know, makes sense. We fetishize our difference, which is quite narrow and dumb, and we sort of sold that back as a product to the U.S. market. But the reality is that the two countries are incredibly similar culturally and historically, [except] we didn't have a civil rights movement. And we had versions of slavery, but it's not like in the U.S. But with the immigration [situation right now, there are] incredible parallels.
But I set it there because it's my experience. I know it best, and so it makes it easier to write a story that moves in to sort of hyperreal territory, even though you start from what feels real. It's funny when I talk to Americans, they always mention the things that seem surreal to them, but, you know, are really the way it is in Australia, in terms of life, like the flora and fauna. So I had some awareness of that, and knowing that it would create a familiar story, that was already slightly askew for American readers, appealed to me because I knew the book was going to go in directions that were, you know, just a few degrees off from reality. I don't know how Australians are going to feel about all of that, but we’ll see.
I do think the two countries are really similar, and have become more and more similar. Obviously, the internet has kind of done that, and a lot of American culture has been exported to Australia. When I was growing up, it was a lot less, but now, it's totally saturated.
Inappropriation is available for purchase here.
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