Photo: Lisa Predko
When Samantha Irby and I arrange to meet, the 33-year-old author suggests an afternoon rendezvous because, as she explains, “I am your grandmother.” Of course, it’s tough to imagine a grandmother starting a blog called Bitches Gotta Eat, which covers topics such as “successful mating strategies for winners” and “the desperate slut’s comprehensive guide to SPORTZ,” but Irby insists she isn’t one for 4 a.m. bars and wild nights. “I try to give the nitty-gritty, the dirty, and I think women appreciate that,” she says. “Young white women love it, and I need them to because black people don’t pay for shit.”
The Rogers Park writer has built an online cult following by talking candidly about her sex and dating life, her personal demons, and the intersection of the two—in one infamous post she recalls wearing a diaper to a speed-dating event when her Crohn’s disease was acting up. That readership also turns up every month for her live literary series, Guts & Glory, at Powell’s Bookstore in Lake View, where Irby translates her blogging style—candid, all-caps confessionals—into magnetic, provocative performances.
Irby has the rare ability to divulge her personal problems to an expansive, invisible Internet audience and still dazzle a crowded room of literati. Her seamless shifts between the two worlds have attracted adoring, fiercely loyal fans. They have also led to a book deal; Meaty (Curbside Splendor, $15.95), Irby’s first book of personal essays, comes out this month.
“She’s the kind of writer you want to meet after reading her,” says her friend Claire Zulkey, a fellow Chicago writer who started inviting Irby to Funny Ha-Ha, her respected literary and comedy show, in 2010. “Her storytelling is so amazing, but she [also] mines this horrifying personal stuff.”
I meet Irby on a calm, quiet day in Bughouse Square, a small park just south of the Newberry Library. It’s an appropriate spot, a landmark where activists and writers in Chicago’s rowdy past stood atop soapboxes and fostered an outspoken DIY literary culture far removed from academia. Despite the 90-degree weather, Irby is dressed all in black. (She’s come from Bramer Animal Hospital where she works at the front desk.) While the Evanston-born writer pens delightfully abrasive prose, she is warm and friendly as we chat. Often, the only sound in the park is her own rolling laughter.
In some ways, Irby is a direct descendant of the Bughouse Square raconteurs. She first started writing at Evanston Township High School, and she spent a year at Northern Illinois University. But when both of her parents died within a six-month period—her mother of multiple sclerosis and her father, homeless and alcoholic, from exposure—Irby dropped out of college. “That was when my life was falling apart,” she says.
Irby writes about her mother’s death in “My Mother, My Daughter,” the centerpiece of Meaty and a far cry from its more raucous catalog of bad dates and “Massive Wet Asses.” In the essay, Irby heartbreakingly recounts how at nine she began looking after her mother, whose illness left her unable to care for her daughter. Irby has never even reread the essay; writing it was difficult enough.
But that doesn’t mean she shies away from tough subject matter. “I wrote a piece [that listed] all of my physical flaws because this dude I was dating got me in the worst way,” she says. “I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m just going to stand in front of a mirror and go through all my weird scars, scratches, and gross stuff.’ ”
The “gross stuff” is certainly Irby’s wheelhouse, and by splattering it on the page, she has connected with an audience in ways that most first-time authors never dream of. Irby has received e-mails, tweets, and comments from readers who relate to her stories, and she hopes to turn those readers into a community of confident women. Or, as she puts it, a “black woman army.”
“Someone sent me [a note] on Tumblr that said, ‘I’m 18, and my body is repulsive to me,’ ” says Irby. “The first thing I said was, ‘I need to get rich so I can start an It Gets Better for girls.’ It’s one of my goals to let young women know it’s OK—however you look is totally fucking fine.”
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MEATY: AN EXCERPT
“I’ve always been comfortable with moms. Every sleepover, when I was the first to fall asleep at 7:30 p.m. in the guest room while all the other kids stayed up until midnight giggling in the basement, I would be awake at dawn and in the kitchen, watching the mom brew coffee and pour my orange juice. . . . Even now moms totally fucking love me. I’m like a spoonful of Jif with a multivitamin sprinkled on top. If I meet your mom, even for a second, she’s going to fall head over heels in love with me. I’m not even sure how it happens. Our eyes lock over a box of wine or a pot of decaf afternoon coffee; we smile shyly, toying with the hems of our Talbot’s lightweight knit cardigans; then, finally an embrace: gentle, mindful of our creaky hips and aching knees, shrouded in the heady ambrosia created by the Tiger Balm applied liberally to our painful joints and muscles, quick to account for our raging hormonal heat.”
(Curbside Splendor, $15.95)