Rust Belt Femme: A Conversation with Raechel Anne Jolie

Interview Conducted by Brianna Di Monda

Raechel Anne Jolie grew up in northeast Ohio with her mom before receiving her PhD from the University of Minnesota and going on to publish her memoir, Rust Belt Femme. The book was a winner of the Independent Publisher Book Award in LGBTQ Nonfiction and an NPR Favorite Book of 2020. Her story covers her experience growing up in poverty with her single mother after her father is hit by a car. She navigates permanently altered relationships with her parents, grandparents, friend, and boyfriends, and finally finds a home in queer pop culture and the local punk scene. Jolie kindly agreed to an interview about her memoir, and together we discussed witchcraft, male care, code-switching, and common perceptions of so-called “white trash.”

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Brianna Di Monda: You wrote your memoir after getting your PhD from the University of Minnesota. Why the pivot? What drew you to writing a memoir after working in academia for so long? Had you written personal essays or creative nonfiction—or just journaled—before?

Raechel Anne Jolie: Why the pivot: One reason is that many people with PhDs were pushed out of academia in any sustainable way. I had short-term contract positions and never landed that secure, full-time position, which is increasingly rare in academia. So part of it was not having a stable job. Although I continued to adjunct, part of the deal in academia is that everything you write is academic research. It dawned on me that I wasn’t getting paid to research in the way that, in theory, professors have a salary and research is part of that. So I thought, “Why am I wasting time?”

I was a creative writer since I was a kid. This actually didn’t make it in the book, but I used to have a notebook that I would write stories in. My creative nonfiction really developed through LiveJournal and online blogging. I realized that I enjoyed writing about myself by bringing in theory. When I decided not to keep doing academic writing that I don’t enjoy, I just let myself start writing this book instead.

BD: Did you have journals and old writing that you pulled from and compiled into the book?

RAJ: I had tons of journals. My mom, as you read, moved around a lot, so I think my personal journals probably exist in a storage facility somewhere or a friend’s basement, but I didn’t have a ton of access to those. I do have photographic memories of some of those journal pages, so I definitely drew on very concrete memories of pages. But as I write at the beginning of the book, the memoir is my version of my memory.

BD: That’s an incredible testament to your memory. I also read in your interview with Hippocampus that you cast a spell to get your book accepted by Belt Publishing. And I noticed aspects of witchcraft in your memoir. You say the lightning bugs on Tinkers Creek were your “first foray into witchcraft” (when you were five) and that they were “sacrificed in rituals some nights.” I was wondering: What was your practice as a kid? When did you develop it? If I may ask, what is your practice now? And how has witchcraft shaped your writing?

RAJ: I definitely wouldn’t have identified it as witchcraft as a small child. That was a retrospective label. But so much of my early relationship to magic was my relationship to nature. And that’s something I’ve been able to make the connection to much more clearly in my adult life, especially when I actually learned the elements of Paganism. I lived with the seasons in these material, worshipful ways. So much of that was just being a rural kid who felt spirits in trees and pretended mixing bowls were cauldrons.

My mom was also a horror buff, so I grew up on scary movies and had witches and magic and fantasy in my life. And then being lucky enough to be a teenager in the 90s, witchiness blended with dark lipstick and combat boots, like in The Craft. So 90s pop culture allowed me to have elements of witchcraft even though I didn’t identify as a witch. It was only much later in my life—my late 20s, early 30s—that I really opened up more to spirituality.

After getting involved with activism work, I didn’t think I had a need for spirituality, because the activism I was involved in was very secular. But then I felt pulled to spirituality, partly because I was half-developing a yoga practice and I was like, “Well, I really like the spiritual elements of this, but it’s not my culture, so I should look into my ancestral roots.” And there was Paganism. And it felt super intuitive. 

My practice now is everything from honoring moon cycles and setting intentions to casting very specific spells. (The spell I set to get my book published by Belt had a jar of honey with mantras written on a piece of paper inside and a particular crystal on top.) I also continue to be in tune with nature and celebrate certain Pagan holidays. Or I light a particular candle before I start writing. I don’t do that on normal workdays. Bringing that intention helps with the magic and writing.

BD: Absolutely. I ask because I’ve similarly gotten into witchcraft and am realizing how this attunement with nature I had as a kid and this interest in astrology and candles and stones has been a throughline in my life. My mom kept this stone collection I had as a kid and I found them recently and recognized them as stones used in witchcraft.

You say your mom got sober “seemingly overnight” after your dad was hit by a car. That she did it because, quite simply, she “knew she had to raise [you].” It seems like your mom put a lot into raising you as a single parent, even if you also acknowledge that she wasn’t always perfect. I’m wondering: How did her strength (or maybe even her mistakes) influence your understanding of womanhood or motherhood?

RAJ: In so many ways. I’m not a mother, and this is actually shifted from the book, but although I still very much identify as femme, I have less identification with the word “woman.” I added “they” to my pronouns. (I’m feeling grateful for young people for their more expansive categories.) So I’ll respond to the question with both not being a mom and not identifying with capital “W” “Womanhood.”  That said, I think my mother helped me understand femininity in a way that was much more expansive and obviously defied any sort of traditional, normative stereotype that women are docile or weak. I got the opposite example of that. 

I will also say, and I kind of hesitate because my sweet, dear mom still hasn’t read the book. I say this with all the love in the world, but she sacrificed a lot for me. Almost her whole self. And I do think that was not healthy for her. I got a lot of love. What I didn’t get was examples of how to set boundaries. I expected a lot from relationships as a demonstration of love. I expected selflessness, which isn’t fair. I am grateful that I was loved so fully and she gave so much to me, but I feel regret for her because it was a sacrificial kind of love.

BD: Yeah, in putting so much care into making sure you were okay and you got the attention you needed after the accident, it almost went too far for her sake. I understand that. In contrast to my last question, you call the “men who took care of things” during the first four years of your life the “heroes.” You acknowledge, “I’m not supposed to say this, but this was what I needed and this was what I lost.” Why do you say you’re not supposed to say this? What framework are you confronting by acknowledging the need for men (or maybe masculinity)—in addition to women (or femininity)—to support you?

RAJ: The reason I’m not supposed to say it is because I’m a feminist studies professor and a queer person. It’s the recognition of the role that men played in my life, as well as my attraction to butch and men-identified people. My attraction to a particular kind of masculinity. I love this question and it’s a hard question. I am looking forward to the day when masculinity and femininity can express themselves, regardless of what you were assigned at birth. But I also think we can find value in what we would traditionally assign as masculine energy and feminine energy, even if those categories are still problematic regardless of somebody’s “sex.”Given my upbringing, I’m okay with the fact that I would like a partner who knows cars because I don’t know cars. That’s a traditionally masculine thing that, to me, is not problematic because we’re not all good at everything. That’s not to say that a masculine person needs to like cars, or that they can’t cook, or whatever. I’m not trying to put people into boxes. But I do think there’s a version of caretaking that appeals to me in ways that some people would say is problematic, but that’s just how my femme shows. I’m curious what you think about that. What comes up for you with that sort of theme?

BD: I think it balances your narrative of not wanting your partner to be selflessly devoted to you—that doesn’t mean you don’t want care. You lost your dad. And that made you realize how much his support meant something. And there is a lack when he’s not there. For you to say you don’t need these men in your life is to say, maybe, that nothing changed when your dad left, which wouldn’t be true and wouldn’t be honoring his memory.

RAJ: That’s beautiful. That’s true though. And I believe that patriarchy harms men just as much as it does all the other genders. Because men aren’t allowed to be vulnerable and emotional. But that doesn’t mean that we have to throw what we consider masculine under the bus. I think there are some beautiful traits in masculinity. Butch women are such a beautiful example of a community that’s demonstrated how chivalry and toughness can be gentle and loving.

BD: I think this also segues well into the next question I have, which asks about this tension between male care and toxic masculinity in your book. There’s a devastating moment where Jack (your boyfriend at the time) meets your abuser and says he wants to kill him. The two of you cry together and you realize you’d been wanting that feeling: “that a man made [you] feel like he wanted to protect [you].” You say you unpack this want in “therapy, in journals, with tarot decks.” You say you come to terms with this want. Why is it okay to want male care? And what did you learn in unpacking? With all these questions about masculinity, I ask because I feel like it’s such a common dynamic people seek in their relationships without ever confronting what it means.

RAJ: It’s obviously a privilege, first of all, to go to therapy. But I think everybody, regardless of class or race or anything else, is in their heads about themselves navel-gazing. It’s just that the memoirists put that on display. And I think it’s important to bring awareness and attention to our choices in relationships—and that doesn’t have to just be in romantic relationships. As much as, for example, Instagram pop psychology is problematic sometimes, I’m glad that it’s a space for people to talk about trauma and feelings. It’s good for us to be mindful in relationships because we are all bringing a lot of shit to them. In a world of sexual violence and emotional abuse, and just all of these horrible relationship dynamics that exist, for me to say that I like being loved by masculine energy feels not bad.

BD: I think that all makes sense. I think you’re making this clear distinction between toxic masculinity and male care. And where you find a home is in acknowledging the importance of male care and not ignoring a kind of masculine care that anyone can emit.

Then, when your first boyfriend breaks up with you and cries in the car, you say you’re “grateful to know the tenderness that existed in this sixteen-year-old boy. That the root of these boys is not toxic masculinity, but rather a limited number of places where they can be free—to feel, to be vulnerable, to say this hurts and I’m sorry.” This is a big theme in the book: redeeming people who have inflicted pain (you sympathize with his tears even as he breaks up with you). You seem profoundly capable of recognizing the multiplicity in people and forgiving them for their worst deeds. Would you say that’s accurate? Is this book, in a way, a redemption story for your exes and your family, your mom, and maybe even yourself?

RAJ: That’s such a sweet question. I do think I am extremely forgiving, sometimes to a fault. I think that has been the case my whole life. I’ve never had a revenge streak. My forgiveness or compassion, with an understanding of the other person’s pain or the root cause of the situation, is intentional. First of all as a prison abolitionist, for example, but also as a person who identifies as an anarchist and a radical. The definition of radical is “the root” of something. So looking at the root cause of harm, to me, reveals that the people who cause harm are victims almost all the time of another situation themselves. That articulation comes through an explicitly intentional political lens.

To bring witchy stuff back into it, I actually have a friend who is a beautiful astrologer and tarot reader who says that people with a lot of Pisces in their chart have this particular trait of being extremely compassionate and nonjudgmental and understanding and forgiving. And I have a lot of Pisces in my chart. I think that’s also part of it. It never crossed my mind to not write about people compassionately. That just felt intuitive. I don’t know that I realized it, but of course I wanted to say that there are reasons for everybody’s choices. I hope that I gave that context.

BD: I loved your description of grieving after your first break up, of playing Fiona Apple on repeat, journaling, crying in your room. You acknowledge a self-awareness in these actions: You relished your “ability to understand what Fiona [was] singing . . . dreaming of how many more loves [you] will have and how terrible and perfect it will be to lose them too.” I loved this description because I think a lot of people share this melodramatic experience growing up. Do you think these actions—mourning over a lost love with delicious self-indulgence—are part of the teenage initiation into adulthood? Why was this important to include in your memoir?

RAJ: I recently went through a breakup with the person who, in my book, I refer to as my present tense partner. We separated after eight years. So a very long, difficult, grown-up breakup, much more shattering than this teenage one. But I thought about that line about how I loved pain. And I really love that less as an adult. The stakes are a lot higher in a separation that happens when you’re in your 30s. 

Sharing your life with somebody is huge, and there is something beautiful in that. Thankfully the separation was mutual. I mean, it was devastating, but not ugly in any way. To answer the question: I guess it’s a teenage thing, but I don’t know. I’ve had really earth-shattering breakups in my 20s as well. And then the most recent one. And of course, the “’I’ll never find anybody again” feeling when you’re 15 is hilarious. But there’s something in me that wants to answer this question by saying it’s the same. It is a teenage thing, but it’s also an adult thing. But yeah, I do think like a first breakup is a life experience that pushes you further into adulthood.

BD: Yeah, it’s a coming of age moment, but maybe we never get over it. I guess what sounded so unique to teenagehood was how you specifically talked about how you relished your ability to understand heartbreak. Maybe there’s like an ego to heartbreak as a teenager.

In the memoir, you say “white trash” is the term we use in the U.S. for “failed” white people, and that our common understanding is “white trash” tends to vote red. You complicate this narrative by showing that queer people can be supported in this community and that there are left-leaning people in the Rust Belt. Was giving a voice to this side of whiteness intentional when you set out to write the memoir?

RAJ: It was definitely intentional. I started writing the memoir the summer before Trump got elected, so that discourse about Trump voters was already in the media. Something that’s important for me to clarify is that the intention wasn’t to say that not all white people are bad. I still identify as an activist. I’m certainly thinking about how to make the world better. I hope my writing gives people this “aha” moment—especially well-intentioned liberals who should talk to “white trash” Trump voters—to not be so snobby about people who are marginalized by the things that I claim to care about. 

My goal was really to illuminate the commonality of oppression. I’m certainly not saying that poor white folks and poor people of color, or people of color in general, are the same, but just that the economically disenfranchised includes people of all races. And there can be space for solidarity, whether that’s for white folks, queer people, people of color, or whatever the case may be. There is room for that. And I want to tell those stories because I think we would have a much more robust movement against repression if more people realized how much we all have in common.

BD: You’ve said in an interview with Autostraddle that you code switch no matter where you are. At what point did this begin, and why? Was it only once you went to college, or did you find yourself code-switching between the Cleveland subculture with Ben (another ex-boyfriend) and home even in your teens?

RAJ: I love that specific question at the end because the answer is yes. Code-switching is something that I’ve really done my whole life. I’ve always been in punk and activist spaces, and then also have very normie friends So there’s a lot of managing what I would or wouldn’t say in certain spaces. I think I’m over the fact that in normie spaces I’m often the only person with tattoos or not married with children (which brings in the queerness aspect). 

I don’t really talk to my super radical friends about the pop culture I consume. It’s very low stakes, but code-switching is something I very much have existed between my normie and queer friends. And then the class thing. At this point, it feels pretty easy because I’ve been navigating it so much. I think I’m not ever in super-rich spaces, but I behave a little differently in family space. I think I’m a little more self-conscious about how I look, especially around my partner’s parents. I’m suddenly embarrassed by my cheap acrylic nails and tattoos, but not enough to do anything about it. 

BD: It doesn’t mean you’re changing who you are, but you are aware of how you look and come across.

RAJ: Yeah. And code-switching is definitely a term that’s been most utilized by people of color who have to navigate much more high-stakes environments than I ever have. Whether it’s code-switching or microaggressions, there’s extra mental energy and labor that people have to do when they’re not taken as “normal” in particular spaces. I don’t want to complain about it too much because I feel like I have it pretty easy, but it is something that exists in my life.

BD: Ok, my final question: You talk about media you consumed before you went on to realize you were queer. You citeBroken Hearts Club, Jeffrey, Kissing Jessica Stein, and But I’m a Cheerleader as some of the movies you watched with your mom growing upDo you have any other recommendations for young queers today discovering their identity, that maybe weren’t around when you were growing up in the 90s, or that you happened to discover later in life?

RAJ: I love this question because I love pop culture. There’s one movie I always gush about when I have the opportunity. It’s called Appropriate Behavior. Desiree Akhavan is the writer and director. She’s an Iranian-American bisexual woman who made this beautiful indie movie about a queer woman in New York City. You see her through one long relationship and a couple of shorter relationships, and it’s just so evident that a queer person made the movie. It’s like, this person knows what it’s like to go to the dive lesbian bar after pride, and not the big tourist gay bar or whatever. She’s just so in the know. I love that movie and I think it’s not super well known because it’s an indie movie. 

Another is To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! – Julie Newmar. It’s one of the best gay movies of all time, and I think underappreciated by younger generations. It’s technically about drag queens, but they would really be read today as trans women.

I also want to say that growing up, the AIDS crisis was still, I mean, a crisis. One of my best friends in college was diagnosed with HIV at the time and it felt like a death sentence. He’s alive and thriving today, thankfully. It was pretty pressing, but I certainly didn’t grow up in the gay mens’ community in New York, where, for example, there were funerals every week. That was not my culture. But so much of queer culture today owes so much to that period of time. There’s a documentary called United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. It’s some of the most important queer histories out there. It offers a lot for us to think about, especially with COVID, and how we take care of each other in a health crisis. It’s about movement building and love and sex and desire in our politics. So that’s my elder queer homework.

About the Interviewer and Interviewee:

Raechel Anne Jolie (she/they) is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Rust Belt Femme, which was the winner of the Independent Publisher Book Award in LGBTQ Nonfiction, an NPR Favorite Book of 2020, and a runner-up for the Heartland Bookseller’s Award.

Brianna Di Monda (she/her) is a contributing editor for Cleveland Review of Books. Her fiction and criticism have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Chicago Review of Books, and Worms Magazine.