There’s an essay in Samantha Irby’s new book, “Wow, No Thank You,” that I just couldn’t shake. In “Are You Familiar With My Work?” Irby takes the reader on this hilarious twisty-turny ride of an introvert recently moved to a small Michigan city who is trying to meet new friends among folks she’s not quite sure she even wants to be bothered with. While trick-or-treating, she finally finds a potential pal in a woman named Emily and asks her out to lunch for sushi, which, as Irby tells us, is totally out of character. Wanting to impress, Irby offers to pay. But when the server disappears with her credit card, Irby’s anxiety about whether it has been declined goes from 0 to 100, causing the already paranoid author to spiral out. To avoid ruining the delicious climax, all I will say is that it hilariously goes downhill from there.
After reading those 15 pages, I cackled myself to sleep at the absurdity of it all, only to wake up the next morning still laughing hysterically. But that’s the power of Irby’s words. She has such a sharp eye, a sarcastic tongue and a fierce pen that the 40-year-old can turn the most mundane moments (like waiting on her bill) or the grossest moments (like her “gerbil-sized” menstrual blood clots) or her love for a song (like Sarah McLachlan’s “Elsewhere”) and not only make it resonate but sit with you for hours, even days after you’ve finished digesting it.
HuffPost recently chatted with Irby about her new collection of essays, surviving the coronavirus pandemic, and the tricky balance of writing about her Blackness, her body and her bowels.
So tell me: What are you saying “wow, no thank you” to?
Definitely “no thank you” to a lot of these hot takes flying around on social media. Everyone has an opinion about going outside, staying outside. I have all of the corona-related and political-related words muted on Twitter. I’m very wary of the opinions of uneducated people on specific topics, which is why I don’t talk about politics because I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. No one wants to hear my thoughts about it and I don’t want to hear yours.
Did you see those tweets about starting a business with your stimulus check? “Rise and Grind” Twitter and “Roc Nation Brunch” Twitter are the absolute worst.
The worst. That’s why I’m over these proclamations from regular people. Like [maybe the government will] give me $2,000 a month in stimulus and a perfect credit score, but until then, shut up. I don’t need your advice on my finances. Show me yours first.
So how are you maintaining while holed up at home indefinitely?
While folks are crying about having to be in the house for a week, I am truly thriving. As an introvert, I have prepared for this. [Laughs] No one knocks on the fucking door, which when we moved into this house, neighbors would just stop by, or somebody’s kid was always coming over, or they kicked a ball in the yard. I’m anxious and paranoid in general, so it can be a lot. But now, I don’t even step outside to get the mail ― it’s great. I look outside from the inside. Plus, there’s a new season of “Ozark”? I am OK.
“Detached Parenting” is another one of my favorite chapters in your new book. You are clear that you have a hands-off approach to your wife’s two children. As a matter of fact, you don’t even want them to know that much about you.
I don’t. [Laughs]
So naturally, after reading it during the lockdown, I became very concerned for you and them. [Laughs]
They are at their dad’s this week, so it’s been incredible. [Laughs] Now because they are teenagers, I don’t mind their presence as much because they don’t give a fuck about me. I guess if I’m watching the “big TV” in the family room, they might ask to sit with me, where I would tell them to get out of here. But we have reached the golden age of where they would rather be anywhere than next to me ― doing TikTok, Minecraft, building a bomb, who knows? It’s like we’re all home and a ghost will float past you to get a bag of Oreos and leave without making a noise.
As a Black woman, how do you navigate your relationship with these two children, who happen to be white?
It’s interesting when I think about it. The oldest is 14. He and I could go for the same job and he would get it, even though he’s a minor. But because he’s a blond white man he would get it, despite me having 20 years in customer service. So the job I have taken on is to remind them there is no excuse for them to turn out mediocre. There are too many people invested in their lives, including myself, whether I want to admit or not. But truly the world is theirs. They are white, blond, maybe they have blue eyes, but I don’t look at them very closely, so I don’t know.
What am I going to do? Stare at them all day? You would be like, “Bitch, that’s weird.”
No, you’re right, I would. So let’s talk about the writing process. Did you know what topics or experiences you were going to cover in “Wow, No Thank You” ahead of time?
Topic-wise, the last couple of books and my blog, I talked about my dead mom and my dead dad, so approaching this one, we’re mostly done with all this old shit. No more. In terms of process, with my last book, “We Are Never Meeting in Real Life,” I had a full outline of what I thought I wanted to write about, and I stuck to it pretty closely. But with this book [pitching to the publisher], I was like, “So basically, I’m gonna write something in the future that hasn’t happened yet, but it’s basically gonna be the same thing I’ve been doing for you, so do you want to buy it? [Laughs]
So the outline was less detailed ― like I knew I was going to be 40, but I didn’t know I was going to be moving or working on [the Hulu series] “Shrill” or that “Are You Familiar With My Work?” was even going to happen because I hadn’t met Emily yet. So it was this big leap of faith to go on this journey and end up with this.
That’s the excitement of writing, that discovery, that new plot twist you didn’t see coming in your life and then turning it into something on the page.
Completely. That’s why putting this book together resembles none of the chapters I pitched in the outline or even early drafts of chapters. They are like two different books. But I will say they gave me the freedom, and let’s not fucking sugarcoat it, because I sold a lot of books before. So I was like, I know what to do to get people to buy books, so here’s my plan, just give me some time.
Like your other books, you talk about your bodily functions, your smells and your clots. It’s gross yet refreshing. But when describing some of that, you can be incredibly hard on yourself.
I wish I could change that or maybe I need to go to therapy, but I don’t know if you can even think better self-image, you know? I will always believe the failings or the things that are not great will shine brighter than the good things. I think that some people think it’s an act, like I am just joking, but I truly do see myself as a collection of bad habits that I can’t stop. I’m resigned to being flawed, and not that anyone should be perfect, but other than a lobotomy, like here are my flaws.
Do you ever worry you might crumble under the weight of all that self-depreciation?
I do often wonder how sustainable it is to memorialize all of these bad thoughts. These books don’t go away, they’re permanent. But then I’m like, well, if someone else can relate or connect, then it’s fine, it’s useful. And I still feel like we’re in on the joke together. I know myself well enough to know when it gets to a point of crossing that very thin line. It’s funny because we’ll say, “You’re so open. Is there anything you don’t share?” Uh, yeah, the real shit that makes me feel bad. I don’t want to put anything in a book I can’t shout out into the street.
Yet, by being you and being open, especially about your vagina and hysterectomy, it gives us Black girls space to be hairy and regular and not all baby-powdered down there. And the pooping in the street. It’s got to be freeing.
It is. Growing up, we were taught that our pussies were not allowed to smell. I’ll never forget the first time someone explained to me that our vaginas were self-cleaning ovens and you could just wash it with normal soap. Meanwhile, my mom was making me pat Shower to Shower down there at 8 years old. Like what should it smell like when nothing was developed down there?
But we get stuck in the mentality. Covering, lying. I had been performing my work early on in my writing career and when you’re reading something to people, it’s like you can lie about who you are and be honest later. But then Crohn’s [disease] happened, and nothing makes you want to write more about the hilarious and disgusting things happening to your body than that. It would be a disservice to not be honest about it.
Before, when I had to shit, there were so many times I would make excuses for it, and now I’m like, “Look. I am gonna shit six times tonight, so don’t pause the movie, we will all be fine.” And I don’t think I am the first person to write about my bowels, but I found a lane I am carving out for myself. People who reject that, it says more about them than it does about me.
Oftentimes when you are interviewed, it’s by white journalists who don’t ask you about race. I think it creates this complete misconception that you’re one of those Blacks. [Laughs] It’s gotta get under your skin a bit to see those critiques of you.
Of course it does. It bugs me when people say, well, only white people read your books. My first allegiance is to whoever will part with their $16 for these books. I will discourage no one from reading them. But yeah, I’m from Evanston, the suburbs [of Chicago], but I am also not going to sing that sad song of the rejected Oreo either. We’ve heard that one before. But I am always a Black person. Everything I do is what a Black person is doing. My face is on the book. It’s black. I am not hiding it from anyone. My hair is natural. [Laughs]
So instead of focusing the camera on me to ask “Am I Black enough?” we need to turn it back on the person who is asking the questions. Oftentimes when we talk about what is Black, it’s steeped in stereotypes, which I am able to check them all off. [Laughs] I grew up poor, with horrible parents, and a little bit of crack in our house ― it was the ’80s. But I also want to be like give me a little bit of credit too, like my work is not centered on whiteness. It’s centered on me, who is once again Black.
I recognize that everything I do is impacted by my Blackness, especially as a big Black lady struggling in the medical world with my health issues. When writing, the first things on the list are a combination of being a woman and Black, with being fat a close second. This is the lens I see my world through. But also, I am also not Mikki Kendall [author of “Hood Feminism”], who I love. I don’t know shit about feminism and politics like she does, so I can’t write about that. But what I do know about is taking a shit as a Black woman with an autoimmune deficiency. And there are always going to be times when I can’t win with people, but all I can do is keep being myself and writing what I know.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.