by Leni Leanne Phillips
Author Lyz Lenz’s marriage ended after the 2016 presidential election. Lenz voted for Hillary Clinton, and her husband voted for Donald Trump, and although this wasn’t the reason for the divorce, it was a catalyst after years of signs that Lenz and her husband were different people.
Lenz’s first book, God Land, is part investigative journalism and part memoir. A resident of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Lenz writes about Middle America and how it is changing, particularly with respect to faith and church. At the same time, the book tells the story of Lenz’s life after divorce and her own journey as a feminist and a woman of faith.
Prior to publishing her first book, Lenz established herself as a journalist and a prolific essayist, exploring and shining a light on larger truths within the context of her own life. For example, in her essay “I’m A Great Cook. Now That I’m Divorced, I’m Never Cooking for a Man Again,” published in Glamour magazine, Lenz writes about her empowering decision to stop cooking. In an essay for The Rumpus, “Why Writing Matters in the Age of Despair,” Lenz writes about being made smaller during her marriage as some of her favorite things begin to disappear.
Lenz’s work has been published in The New York Times, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and many others. Links to Lenz’s essays can be found on her website at lyzlenz.com.
I recently spoke with Lyz Lenz over e-mail about feminism, faith, and food.
The Coachella Review: You were raised in a conservative, evangelical home. How did you become a feminist?
Lyz Lenz: Here is the thing about raising young women to believe that they can access God on their own—they do it. They do it and they learn quickly—they are the authority on their own lives. That’s what was so unsettling about Martin Luther, was that he said humans can access God without a priest. That’s what’s so unsettling about true Protestantism. No matter how many men get in the way and pat women on the head and try to tell them what to think about the Bible, the truth is you raise women to read a book, they are going to read it and come away with powerful truths that unsettle the patriarchy. I became a feminist because I was raised in a household that taught me to think for myself, that praised independent thinking and encouraged me to read and access knowledge on my own. It backfired, but for the best.
TCR: You open your book God Land by thanking the “community of women” who helped you buy the time you needed to write your book. This made me think about the way women have worked together in community throughout time. Do you have any thoughts on the way this translates to women in leadership positions? Does this make women particularly qualified for leadership?
LL: We live in a culture that pits women against each other for limited resources. We love stories of women fighting—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez versus Nancy Pelosi. It’s a mindset of scarcity that comes from the truth that it is hard for women to get ahead, even in 2019. Even now. Especially in the church and government, where positions of power are still dominated by men. But I don’t think competition is the answer. It’s not a matter of who rises and falls that determines my success, but a matter of the wave pushing forward. I wish so many women hadn’t had to have helped me write this book. I wish there was better childcare, I wish I had better support from the person who was my partner at the time. And I am truly grateful that they did. But I do also think the community of supportive women is also relied on by men in power, to absolve them of any responsibility.
More specifically to your question, though, the community of women doesn’t make women more qualified for leadership or less. Women are qualified merely because they are human. We form these supportive communities because what else can we do when no one else wants to help?
TCR: In God Land, you write that when you voiced concerns to church leadership, you were fed “breadcrumbs”—you call it “death by a thousand maybes.” How do you get past those kinds of silencing techniques?
LL: You leave. You say, I don’t have time for this. You walk away. You go to the people who will listen and engage. Those techniques only work when you cede power to those authorities. Take your authority back. Walk away from them.
TCR: You are so outspoken. You recently called Alyssa Milano out on Twitter when she suggested a sex strike to support women’s reproductive rights. You asked, “Who are you having sex with that you need a strike to make them pro-choice?” Were you always outspoken? How did you find your voice and learn to be so fearless about saying what’s on your mind?
LL: I’ve always been a loudmouth in a loudmouth family. We are a people of shouters, fighters, slamming doors, reading books, writing letters. So in that way, it’s who I am. But in my family, I’m the quieter one. I’m usually shouted down and out.
But I remember in college, the first story I wrote was about fraternities and sororities on campus. The paper came out every Friday. And I remember walking into the cafeteria that Friday morning, seeing what felt like everyone in the cafeteria holding the paper and reading my story. One fraternity member was so mad he was standing on a chair shouting about it. And I remember walking into that room, and seeing people talking about something I wrote and feeling like, for the first time, that my words mattered. That they had an effect. It was a powerful feeling. And for a person who had been shouted down her whole life, I felt listened to.
Finding your voice is a process, but a necessary one.
But also, for the record, I think Alyssa Milano’s sex strike is dumb. Sex is a powerful force for creativity and joy and women have not been allowed to enjoy it enough.
TCR: You recount a conversation in God Land—you ask a man, basically, “Why Trump?” And you expect his response to be about values and tradition, but instead he says that the Democrats shouldn’t have picked “that woman,” Hillary Clinton. You write that “it’s about power.” And we hear time and again that women have enough power, that we’re just being whiny at this point, that we march because we’re bored or for attention. Why this idea that women already have enough power and should be satisfied with what they have?
LL: Telling people to be happy with what they have is a misogynistic silencing technique. Be happy. Sit still. Be grateful for the tiny crumbs you have. Don’t ask for more. And who is anyone to tell you what you can or cannot ask for? How dare they. Ask for everything. Ask for so much. Ask not just for yourself but for others.
The thing is, you can be a strong woman and still not have power. Or you can be a strong woman and have power, but lots of other women don’t. Women of color, people who are queer, immigrant women, poor women. Our quest for power has to be about more than ourselves. Also, I mean, just simple statistics show women are still underpaid and underrepresented.
TCR: You write about nostalgia in God Land, that it can either be a “toxic force that erases all history and nuance” or a “call to become better versions of ourselves.” Can you talk a little about that, about remembering the past in a healthy way and using it to improve the future?
LL: I think nostalgia can give us hope for who we ought to be. The people we wished we were, the America we wished had happened. Nostalgia also forces us to revisit the past and we need to if we are going to move forward. There has not ever been in a time in American history where we had a couple good presidents in a row. Most of our presidents have been horrible, horrible men. Slave owners. Genocide perpetuators. Nazi ignorers. But the hope of a good America, a better America, should keep driving us to make better decisions. To revisit the past, to vow not to make those mistakes again. It’s not about Making America Great Again, but making America What We Should Have Been and Ought to Be.
TCR: In your essay “Finding A Creation Myth of One’s Own,” you write about traveling out into the desert to get away from light pollution and to experience the awe of the stars in a truly dark sky. You also mention this trip in God Land. You were going through a divorce when you made that trip, but would you say you were experiencing a crisis of faith too?
LL: I am always experiencing a crisis of faith. I think, honestly, faith should always be in some sort of crisis. It should always be propelling us forward. We should always be examining it, questioning it, seeing if its center still holds. Faith is an essential part of who I am, I keep coming back to it, because I keep coming back to myself.
TCR: You are liberal, you are funny, educated, intelligent, and irreverent, and you are also a woman of faith, which I think goes against a stereotype some people have that being a Christian means being conservative, somber, even gullible. Do you think that these stereotypes about Christians have played a part in churches dying out? And can that be turned around?
LL: Honestly, I am not one of a kind. I’m just loud and I force people to listen to me. But truly, there are so many women out there like us. Letting go of the old stereotypes means listening to the voices of all the women who have been doing and saying good, funny, important, faith-filled words for centuries. I hope my work, if anything, points to all of these other women. So yes, let those old stereotypes go and let’s listen to all the people out there saying what needs to be said.
TCR: You wrote an essay called, “I’m A Great Cook. Now That I’m Divorced, I’m Never Cooking for a Man Again.” After you stopped cooking, did you have any residual feelings that you had to work through about women’s traditional roles as cooks, about it being considered “womanly” to be a good cook and to enjoy cooking?
LL: It’s important to decide whose feelings you are feeling. Are they yours or are they the emotional labor others have foisted on you? Look, it’s not just about not cooking anymore, it’s about refusing to carry the burden others put on you for food and care and the labor—physical and emotional—that surrounds it. I’m too damn tired, and too busy to handle other people’s feelings about what I should or should not be doing. That’s for them to sort out on their own. In the meantime, my kids are happy and well-fed. And my life is easier.
TCR: You write a lot about food in God Land, and at one point, you write: “The food of the church is one of its most powerful languages.” What is it, do you think, that is so powerful about food or about sharing food?
LL: Food is an essential part of how community is created. And food says important things about who we are as a region and who we think we are. The food of the Midwest is hearty, thick, hot, cheesy, full of calories for long winters and hard work. Food also creates individual identity as well. We are what we eat in so many ways. I love food and love its complexity and history and I love the way people use it to say things they don’t know how to say.
TCR: Going into the 2020 elections, what do you think people who do not live in the Midwest need to know or understand?
LL: America is a big country, but we are not really that different. It cracks me up when people call Iowa Trump country. Like, Trump supporters don’t live in LA and drive a Prius too? Nah. Anyone who divides America up into “those who voted for him” and “those who didn’t” is fooling themselves about America and who we really are.
TCR: Your second book, Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women, comes out in spring 2020. What can you tell us about Belabored? What inspired your subtitle, a play on Mary Wollstonecraft’s famous manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman?
LL: I think of Belabored as my manifesto for the uterus. It’s a book about reproductive rights and aims to shatter the mythology and medicine that we use to control women’s bodies.
Leni Leanne Phillips is a writer based in San Luis Obispo, California. She is pursuing her MFA at the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. Leanne is currently at work on her first collection of short stories and a memoir in essays based on her experiences growing up in California. You can find her at lenileanne.com.