// By Andrea Uptmor //
Two weeks ago, in a dimly lit backroom of Boneshaker Books, Sabrina Chap began to sneeze. “I’m severely allergic to cats,” she explained as she set up the projector for her talk on Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction, the all-star collection of essays, stories, comics, and photographs she edited. The Boneshaker cat, asleep on a nearby chair, barely lifted his head in apology.
Enter Minnesota Nice: a polite bicycle-helmeted man who had come to see Chap’s reading hopped on his bike, rode home, fetched a Claritin, and returned just before she started her talk. Applause erupted in the tiny room.
“You saved my life,” said a grateful Chap, before swallowing the pill and cracking open her book to read.
Live Through This, now in its second edition with the Minneapolis-based publisher Seven Stories, is Chap’s baby. Its contributors list is startlingly impressive: comedian Margaret Cho, musician Amanda Palmer, visual artist Swoon, and former porn star Annie Sprinkle are just a few of the women who wrote essays or submitted visual art for the collection, which aims to illuminate what Chap calls the “bizarre entanglement of destructive and creative forces” that often plagues women artists.
The idea for the book came several years ago, when Sarah Kane, a playwright who Chap had long admired, committed suicide. “Throughout the years, I have found myself mysteriously drawn to women as brilliant and daring as Sarah Kane,” Chap writes in her introduction. “Unfortunately, most of them were also self-destructive. It got to the point where it became logical: if a woman was fiercely intelligent, outspoken and passionate, I’d look towards her arms for the scars. They were almost always there.”
This realization propelled Chap forward on a years-long crusade to recruit well-known female artists and writers who would be willing to share their struggles to balance the destructive impulses that often arose from (and fueled) the creative process. Her criteria for contributors were straightforward: they had to be established creative artists, and they must have struggled with self-destructive tendencies in their own lives (eating disorders, cutting, rage).
At Boneshaker Books, allergy-ridden Chap—who was in the middle of an exhausting Midwestern tour, promoting both the book and her second album—seemed to draw her energy from the work of the book’s contributors. Wearing a fanny pack and flip flops, with ear buds casually tossed around her neck like a scarf, she moved between reading excerpts of the essays from the book and offering critical readings of the visual artwork (about a Nan Goldin self-portrait taken in a bathroom, Chap said, “There’s something ominous going on here. Is she about to hurt herself, or is she going to just take a picture?”).
What’s remarkable about the book is that it could not have existed without Chap at the helm.
Collaboration is the key to her work, on and off the page (her second album is touted as “a ridiculous explosion of politics, horns and wit featuring over twenty-five musicians in a variety of styles”), but as she moved through her talk, it became clear that what’s remarkable about the book is that it could not have existed without Chap at the helm. Her dedication to the lives of others, her patience and wit and drive to make something beautiful out of suffering, is the quiet engine at the center of the whole project. At the close of the reading, her voice trembled as she read a poem by Nicole Blackman: “When I knew what I had to do / I took all my notebooks, all my manuscripts / and ate them page by page / so I could take my words with me.”
It is clear that for Chap, the most satisfying part of the project isn’t the chance to collaborate with such well-known artists, or the rave reviews, or the Lambda Literary Award nomination. It’s the reactions she gets when she does smaller readings like this one: “Women come up to me and they tell me, ‘You saved my life.’”
Want to learn more? Check out www.sabrinachap.com to order the book, her CDs, or watch some of her YouTube videos.
All rights reserved to Andrea Uptmor.