Interview by Adi Berardini
The book Fred: An Unbecoming Woman by Annie Krabbenschmidt came into my life when I truly needed to read it. It didn’t take long before I began underlining passages of the book with a bright blue pen as if it was the guidebook for the slightly nerdy queer. I had never read a book that I could relate to on so many levels—I felt like the book put my experience of queerness into such relatable passages. I suddenly felt less alone while looking back at my coming-of-age story.
Fred: An Unbecoming Woman highlights what it feels like to “fail” womanhood with perfectionist tendencies and made me both laugh out loud and tear up at moments. Krabbenschmidt traces the lineage of their journey coming out often using 2000s pop culture references, including Booksmart, Twilight, and Mean Girls. Fred highlights the importance of moving through fear and anxiety to arrive at self-love and acceptance.
Originally from the California Bay Area and a Duke University graduate, Annie Krabbenschmidt is a writer and artist currently based in Los Angeles. A natural storyteller, they have done stand-up comedy, improv, written op-eds, and hosted the podcast, “Love is a Softball Field.” The following is an interview with Krabbenschmidt about autotheory, humour and pop culture in writing, and how their debut book came to be.
There were many parts of your coming out experience that you detailed that I could relate to, which felt healing. From how you cherished your close friendships growing up to being unable to come out at first because of the anxiety. Can you speak more about how autotheory lends itself well to sharing these experiences? Can you explain your process of writing Fred?
I remember distinctly taking a journalism class when I was [17 or 18] and thinking that I was missing journalism. I was writing a long time ago before the book came into existence. I [thought that] maybe I’m missing journalism because I know that one of the beauties of journalism is talking about what’s going on and saying something that matters to people and it’s relevant. That relevancy was something I was trying to work into my writing.
I had these two teachers who were like, “Well, we don’t think first-person narratives should exist anymore. It’s over. Hunter S. Thompson already did it.” And I felt so frustrated listening to that. I think that it’s so silly to say something is over first of all, but I also feel like autotheory is like the genre of the underrepresented because who’s going to talk about us except ourselves? I am a little bit bitter that that was the take they took, [thinking that] no one wants to read it anymore. I think we’re just experiencing this kind of revolution of reading these stories.
I’m thinking of writers like Nikole Hannah-Jones, who wrote about choosing a school for her daughter in New York and seeing how segregation would impact her personally, which is hugely important because she’s an upper-middle-class to upper-class Black woman, so these choices are so multilayered for her. It’s one of those things where all the writers I looked up to were doing autotheory, whether they called it that or not. I think we need to place a lot of value on writing that comes from that position and not overlook it.
I’m a big fan of autotheory as a lens to kind of like unearth stories that we need to hear.
If you think about it, we’ve been doing autotheory for the heteronormative and mainstream, whatever you want to call it. Like from the position of power, the white straight man, whoever that person is, whoever that biography is, we’ve kind of been doing that autotheory for a long time. We just haven’t been calling it that. We’ve just been letting it be philosophy, letting it be theory, or letting it be the Declaration of Independence. These have been autotheory without being called that because that’s just what they were.
I’m a big fan of autotheory as a lens to kind of like unearth stories that we need to hear. Carmen Maria Machado is a big influence and as a writer, I look up to her a lot. Her whole thesis in her book In the Dream House is about unearthing the archives. I think that being able to embrace autotheory and not having it be some code word for frivolous or unimportant, I wanted to embrace a personal narrative. I think it’s maybe clear throughout the book, but I have done plenty of academic work and school and research and I’ve read academic texts and enjoyed them. But then I was like, do they apply to me? For this first, big project I am working on I thought let’s write what I know. And I know myself or I will by the time this book is done.
I think autotheory is a way to lend credibility to people who are trying to grapple with their position, especially if they’re in an oppressed position. I think it’s an important avenue for people to—I’m not sure if this is the right word—but claw their way out from under this position. Not because they’re inherently low value, but because they’re being pressed upon. So, I think that it’s a beautiful way to give those identities more attention is to let people speak for themselves. For many reasons, the process of writing Fred [was] a lot of fear.
It must be hard to recount those memories.
I want to reiterate that I think I’ve come out of this as a much more confident and assertive artist. There are many years when I was just gaining the confidence to move forward and write. I read something at a reading night, and someone said, “Would you like to write a book?” And within that one moment of asking, my answer was, “Yes.” It was such an easy way for me to decide that this was something that I want to do. And I think that it’s too bad that I needed to have that question asked of me. But I’ve always been a storyteller, or I don’t know if [I was] specifically a writer in terms of a pen to paper writer, but I’ve always been sharing at family, doing annoying poems that little kids do at gatherings, and I’ve been trying to make the table laugh. I just didn’t know that I was allowed to call myself a writer.
It was moving to me since I’ve never really seen that anxiety depicted around coming out explained in such thorough detail. I felt that I can relate to this, especially coming into my identity a bit later. I was drawn in by how you detailed queer loneliness and sexual repression, especially since these are not often included in the broader narrative of queerness. Can you expand more on why you unpacked these themes in Fred?
I’ve always been plagued by that. I mean, even now 19 was relatively early compared to many of my peers that come out even later than that. For me, I [thought that] if I’m coming out like I’ve seen it on TV, I should be 15. And I should be done when I come out of the closet. But it was so much more of a long journey of confusion, clarity, and shame. I mean, shame was there the whole time, but it was not clear cut until I wrote in the book, like the exact moment I went to college, and I was like, “Oh, duh, of course.” Maybe it was in the back of my head, but it was never clear. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was that I’ve never read about someone really untying every single fibre of their being and being like, “where did the gay part get in here?”
All of those things that I was grappling with held me back in terms of declaring myself. I felt lonely and I was confused because I had kissed boys and not been attracted or had [feared] physical intimacy with women. I had never seen it before. It was a matter of wanting to make sure this experience was documented, just so that other people can know that shame can be a huge part of coming out and not everyone can come out. I would probably say it’s more rare than people think to come out confident and declaring oneself. I had just never seen it so meticulously turned around and examined in such a way. So, I [thought that] this is a good story just because I’ve never read it.
And people are always kind of coming out, whether it’s for the first time as queer or another time as non-binary or any other way that you might be exploring your identities. It was about six months before finding out that I was going to be writing a book that I owned my identity as a writer and this realization that I was very intimidated by women and sexual activity. I don’t know how else to explain it, except that it’s possible that I’m on this demisexual spectrum. I’m more of an intimate person, a romantic and intimate non-physical person. I’m not interested in one-night stands. And I think more people would [think] you add another sexual identity to yourself and you’re like, “God, there’s just so much to explain,” but I think that’s an actual all-encompassing theme, is explaining yourself. That was a part of my preoccupation was I feel like I need to explain myself over again.
I think I’ve arrived at I am both things, I’m no longer sexually repressed, but I can acknowledge that I was repressed and scared of exhibiting sexuality and exhibiting desires specifically. I think that word is the one really scared me. It was desire and imposing your desires, announcing your desires, and telling people that you have desires—all of that scared me. Now I can acknowledge that I am able to have desires and I can support my own desires.
You incorporate humour in your writing so seamlessly. Can you speak more about your thoughts on humour and writing, especially when discussing more serious and difficult-to-talk-about topics?
I’m going to start by really reversing this question just because I think as opposed to incorporating humor and serious writing, I had to start by trying to incorporate seriousness in humour writing. At one time was a wannabe comic. I started my whole writing dream wanting to be a TV writer. Tina Fey was my big idol and I wanted to do that. I kind of planned on doing that throughout college and was trying to set myself up to go write at a TV show like 30 Rock or SNL or something like that. I started off being quite dedicated to just humour.
And when I was in high school, I used humour as a shield and to keep people at an arm’s length, which is very commonly understood at this point. I think I punched down a lot more and for one thing, I was much more sheltered as a 17-year-old than I am now. I don’t think I was ever mean with that humour, but I was keeping the attention away from me. I was making self-deprecating jokes about myself. I think I used to use humour to avoid honesty, And I think one of the things I’m most proud of in the book is that humour comes around in the most honest moments, like genuine things that I did that I cannot believe. It’s embarrassing, but to not include it so that I could be taken more seriously would feel too serious.
I think I started off being too funny. And then I was like, you know what? I have a lot of feelings and I need people to know this, so then I got serious. And then now I’m kind of blending it in a way that I feel more comfortable with. I think the actual question for me is how challenging it was to incorporate super serious moments in the book. The challenge of writing about self-harm later as not a climax, but it kind of is. For me, it felt like the emotional climax of the book was revealing that I had hurt myself on purpose and acknowledging there’s shame around that. There’s societal shame around that and I had never talked about it even before writing.
I just wanted to touch and not [fear] the things that were the most serious because my biggest fear was that people read this book thinking it was a comedy book. And then being like, “Oh my God, I didn’t expect this.” The reverse is what drove me, like how I can brave being very vulnerable in writing as opposed to hiding behind humour. I think it’s a question of balancing that.
An aspect that stands out in the book is the varying formats including graphs and illustrations, which helped capture my attention as a reader. I also enjoy how you used pop culture to make the book accessible. Can you speak more about how you use pop culture (like Twilight and Booksmart) to tie in your personal experiences?
Like I mentioned, I’m in-between the non-academic world and I’m very much into pop culture. And I also kind of fancy myself an intellectual, even though that is loaded. But I’m glad that I just decided to put that essay on Twilight in because I feel like there’s this meta experience going on, where I want to prove to you that I’m smart, but I’m talking about Twilight.
The joke of that chapter is how much I was lost trying to be intelligent or trying to understand things without really understanding theory or philosophy very well. But a scholar named Jack Halberstam writes about how important it is to understand pop culture. And I couldn’t agree more with that because it is an immediate reflection of what’s going on in our lives. Why wouldn’t it be an artifact that we talk about? I can think about every time I’ve heard someone make a gay joke in a show and how that impacted me. Of course, I need to dissect these things as we’re moving forward.
And I believe in the power of symbolism and symbology, not as in Dan Brown, but the power of words and how they can affect people. And I think that something I wanted to explain to people as soon as I came out was “Hey, these jokes, weren’t that funny to me. And here’s why my self-loathing is more severe than your need to crack this joke. Let’s talk about this so we can all be a little more sensitive.” And I think I wanted to tackle all the ways that we get the subliminal messaging through pop culture, because pop culture is the thing that we see all the time. It impacts me and everyone [engaging in it].
Jack Halberstam is the one who can articulate this better, but it’s the subconscious mirror, as opposed to [how] the university attempts to really theorize, pop culture is the more instant, subconscious, immediate response to what’s going on in our lives. I think it’s super important and that ties into my desire to include drawings. Once I had the authority to write a book, which is arguably self-permitted, I was like why wouldn’t I include the drawings? And some people would say, well, [you will be] taken less seriously as a “writer.” But at the same time, I don’t know if I want to be taken seriously as a writer. I won’t be taken seriously as an artist perhaps. And as someone who has things to say, a huge part of me is that I like doodles, and cartoons, and visuals, and I was always a math person. Having graphs made sense to me. And having the musical theater interlude for me, I had to draw a theater scene and acknowledge the fact that a huge part of my sharing experiences was about singing and trying to enjoy all the different ways that we express ourselves.
I think in that same way that pop culture gets overlooked or undermined, a population of writers and scholars doesn’t love the idea of not taking your own books seriously and adding these cartoons in. But for me, trying to undermine the seriousness and preciousness of the writing and the book was a huge, important thing that I’ve only recently been able to embrace. I’ll be silly, and you might think that I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I am processing things more than you think I am. I don’t announce it as a theory book, but I do think there’s some theory in it and it’s also accessible. I hope more art gets made that incorporates multi-media because I think we’re all better off for it.
Make sure to check out the book Fred: An Unbecoming Woman by Annie Krabbenschmidt, available on June 3rd, 2022.