Briallen Hopper grew up in Tacoma, attended Tacoma Community College and the University of Puget Sound, got a PhD in American literature from Princeton, and dropped out of divinity school at Yale. She is now an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at Queens College, CUNY, as well as an associate editor at the UK-based independent press And Other Stories and the co-editor of the online literary magazine Killing the Buddha. Her writing has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, New York Magazine/The Cut, The Paris Review, The New Republic, The New Inquiry, Avidly, Longreads, HuffPost, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. Her first book, Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions, came out this year from Bloomsbury. She lives in Elmhurst, Queens.
Spencer George: I’d like to start with the concept of leaning, which you cover in your essay “Lean On.” There’s a popular notion in society that depending on other people makes you weak, and I love that you challenge this. The line that struck me most was “I like to believe that leaning is love,” and this idea of redefining love and community felt to me to be the crux of the book and a thread that weaves itself through all the other essays. I’m wondering about the impact that your community played on you in developing this book. Did you set out with the intention of writing a whole book around this theme, or did the book emerge naturally out of your writing?
Briallen Hopper: I knew I wanted to write a book about love and friendship, but it wasn’t until I was deep into writing “Lean On” that I realized the essay was turning into a kind of manifesto about dependence that connected the various parts of the book.
Leaning is a classic way to think about romantic love. That’s where I start the essay, with an iconic Gordon Parks photograph that has been hanging in my bedroom for over a decade, of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward leaning against each other on a lamp-lit bed. But leaning can also be a model for the other forms of intimacy and caregiving that I write about, like friendships and sibling relationships, and all the other ways people are mutually supported by each other.
I relied heavily on my community in writing this book—for conversation, for encouragement, for editing, for co-writing, for food, for money, for love, for hope. The epically long Acknowledgments give some idea of all the ways I leaned.
SG: I also love your description of interconnectivity in “Lean On”: “I believe we are all obviously a part of one another, elements of one ecosystem, members of one body, all of us at the mercy of capitalism, weather, genes, and fate. Independence, to me, is nothing but a dangerous delusion.” This idea of humanity seems to inspire a lot of empathy, both for others and for ourselves. Was this a view you’ve always held, or something that grew out of experience and/or growing older?
BH: People who knew me in my childhood and adolescence are often surprised I grew up to write about friendship. In some ways I was a solitary fighter growing up, defining and defending myself against the conservative evangelical community I was raised in, which had very limited ideas about what women and girls could do. I write about that time in “Dear Octopus,” the essay about my fraught relationship with my brother, who is more politically and religiously conservative than I am. For a long time I was very wary of community, for good reason. It wasn’t until my twenties and thirties that I started to trust community more and see it as a source of strength and joy. I love leaning on and belonging to others, but I also understand why some people feel like certain kinds of dependence and connection are a risk they can’t afford to take.
SG: What does empathy look like to you?
BH: I care deeply about people, but I’m not naturally empathetic. It’s much easier for me to project my own feelings onto others than to do the work of learning what they are feeling, which might be quite different than what I would feel. Writing is one way I try to cultivate a deeper awareness of others as who they are, not just as who I imagine them to be. I worked especially hard at this in my essays about my brother and my friends Cathy and Ash– relationships that have required me to admit and transcend my limits, and to continue to do so, sometimes painfully. Of course it’s impossible to fully do this, but it’s worth trying, and I think I’m slowly getting better at it. To me, empathy means revision and trying again.
Of course, because people and relationships aren’t static, the work of figuring out who people are and what they’re feeling never ends. Even in my oldest friendships, I sometimes feel like I’ve been suddenly pushed into the deep end. Moving to a new state has turned many friendships into long-distance ones, and so now we have to figure out new forms for love and connection. It’s not easy.
SG: I know we’re both based in New York City, which I’ve found to be a really tough place to find community and connection in. New York is, after all, kind of the poster city for the “self-made.” What has your experience been like living in a city like New York and holding these beliefs about independence and self-reliance?
BH: I moved to New York last summer, and in some ways it helped that I arrived right after having two major abdominal surgeries. I could only walk a few blocks at a time, and I couldn’t take public transportation, so I got to know my immediate neighborhood really well. The people at the pharmacy were always kind when I staggered in to buy painkillers and Depends. The bar on the next block became my local right away. I never had a “Cheers” bar before I moved to New York, but I do now! For months I was too sick to eat anything but noodles, but noodles are a specialty of my neighborhood, and on bad health days I would lie alone in my dark apartment and sip soup from Seamless. People bringing you soup when you’re sick can feel like love, even if they’re being paid to do it. It was lonely and isolating, but it also felt like the neighborhood and my city was nursing me back to health.
It also helped that I live and work in a part of Queens where “New York” can seem very far away. Brooklyn takes forever to get to, and Manhattan is a shimmering skyline on the horizon that looks like a mirage. Many of my students at Queens College refer to Manhattan as “the City,” as if we are not in the City, and in a way we’re not. In my neighborhood and at my job I feel somewhat distant from the kinds of stratospheric ambition and extreme wealth and power that can be so destabilizing in other parts of the city. And I see every day in my students’ lives and in the immigrant worlds around us how essential interdependence is for survival.
SG: Do you think that we’ve reached a point of no return for instilling empathy into the way we see each other? Or do you believe it’s still possible for people to shift their views about how we connect with and rely on one another?
BH: Children are dying in concentration camps in this country right now—they are deathly ill and shivering on concrete as I type this—and I’m living my life almost as usual! This is the American horror story, from genocide and slavery to imperial war and Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow…. All these atrocities are possible because so many people like me just keep going to bars and eating noodles as if nothing is going on! But there have always also been people who have tried to stop the worst from happening, even while and when it was happening to them, and I want to be more like those people and change my life—because it is urgent. For me I think that means doing more to support immigrants in my city who are living under threat.
SG: Your description of “found family” in the essay “Dear Octopus” was incredibly poignant and beautiful for me. You write that a found family “can know and love you for who you are—not for who you once were, or who you never were.” My experience of family has been pretty unconventional, and it feels really meaningful to see this kind of experience reflected in writing. So thank you for that. You touched also on your complicated relationship with your own family, and I’m wondering if you envision a future where the bonds of “found families” are considered just as important—if not more so—than blood relations?
BH: In some ways that future has already happened. Every year in my Writing about Family class I teach “Paris Is Burning,” a complicated and classic movie made in the 1980s about drag ball culture and the all-importance of found family when families of origin are not in the picture. Out of necessity, queer people and others shut out of blood and law families have created other forms and vocabularies for love. I don’t know if the laws will ever recognize these alternative family forms, but they can’t prevent them from existing, or from being as important as any others.
SG: I feel that many of us who write have found a type of family in reading, or at least have felt that we are a little less alone in the world. Are there any authors who influenced you in writing this book, or who particularly shaped your own life?
BH: I write about a lot of these authors in the book! I enthusiastically recommend Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. I was also happy to learn that a few people read An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott after my essay about spinsters came out. It’s got a wonderful picture of a women’s utopia—a bunch of queerish women hanging out together making art and eating sardines. And I love Melville.
SG: You touched on concepts of memory and dystopia in both “Remembering How It Felt to Burn” and “Coming Home to the Best Years of Our Lives.” A lot of news articles over the past few years have compared our world to popular dystopian novels, with war and destruction looming in the distance, all our best experiences already behind us. Do you think there’s room for nostalgia in the world today? How do you think can we cultivate meaning in a world that oftentimes feels meaningless?
BH: That is a vast existential question! I think it’s fair to say that my essays about 1940s films like Now, Voyager and The Best Years of Our Lives are nostalgic to an extreme degree. Reverently, besottedly nostalgic. But what does it mean to be nostalgic for the decade of the Holocaust and Hiroshima? A decade of horrors that broke the world, and yet the world still went on? People back then coped, in part, by being nostalgic for earlier times. During the Holocaust, Hollywood was making sweet and sad musicals about turn-of-the-century St. Louis, or wry melodramas about Paris just a few years earlier, before the Germans marched in wearing gray.
Something that has changed since the 1940s is now we know about global warming. But people then were haunted by apocalypse, too. They thought they might be the last generation because of nuclear war. We are all always trying to make meaning out of whatever we can salvage from the mess.
Like every generation, I feel like we need nostalgia and music and love and every other form of equipment for living that will get us through, even while knowing that nostalgia is a dubious way to relate to the past. These days I’m also relying on simple carbohydrates and ceiling fans.
SG: So many of these essays were also about the experience of being a woman in the world, and the transition from girlhood to adulthood. If you could go back and give your girlhood self any advice, what would you say?
BH: Life isn’t linear, and neither are careers. And you’ll never regret the time you spend with friends!
SG: If you were to create a soundtrack for the book, what three songs would you put on it?
BH: A few of my friends actually did collaborate to create a Hard to Love soundtrack, with several songs for each essay! It included of the songs I write about in the book, like “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers, the Cheers theme song “Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” the version of “Bread and Roses” from the movie Pride, and “Black Coffee,” which was recorded by Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney, and others.
I clearly can’t limit it to three, so I’ll just say you definitely won’t regret listening to “Live Here with You” by Dusty Springfield, “I Don’t Want It” by Etta James, “You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes, “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy” by Marvin and Tammi, “Nobody’s Heart Belongs to Me” by Barbara Cook, “Middle Cyclone” by Neko Case, “Oh Had I a Golden Thread” by Pete Seeger, and “People Get Ready” by Aretha Franklin.