Olivia Laing’s new book explores the body as a site for political activism
'The Lonely City' author's new book, ‘Everybody’, traces the roots of intersectional identity politics.
I first met Olivia Laing doing an interview. I’d been sent an advance copy of The Lonely City. The book floored me. I arrived at the interview with my copy, torn bits of paper marking too many pages to talk about. We became friends, connected through our work, our words, our lives.
Since then, Laing has published the novel Crudo, a work of radical experiment imaging herself as Kathy Acker in the real-life crushing anxiety of the early Trump years. Now comes Everybody, her first work of non-fiction since the international runaway success of The Lonely City. It’s about the body: identity; gender; sexuality; violence; racism; incarceration; liberation. Everybody is a vital book that digs out the roots of everything that is urgent right now.
Laing uses the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich as her loose guide, a student of Freud’s who was author of the book The Sexual Revolution in the 1930s, before believing he could harness sexual energy in boxes called Orgone Accumulators, beloved by figures like William Burroughs. There’s a photo of Kurt Cobain sat in an Orgone Accumulator. Kate Bush’s song Cloudbusting is about Reich. He died in prison in 1957, aged 60.
You may well have never heard of Reich, but it’s likely your life and your body has been affected by Reich’s work. He was a complex figure, whose work Laing actively chooses to explore even if she doesn’t agree with all of his actions. This is what we started talking about: accepting imperfections in difficult people.
It’s an early spring evening, we’re sat outside, and we are discussing the book.
OLIVIA LAING: I think the thing about imperfection is, it’s a massive relief for people to encounter the concept again that people might have a huge amount to offer in their ideas while also being imperfect. We’re in a moment where people have to be perfect, and if they make a mistake all of their ideas are disregarded. Reich is one of them. Andrea Dworkin is one of them [Dworkin was a radical feminist who rejected the sex binary, yet whose work has somehow been claimed by transphobes as being biologically essentialist. In her book, Laing, shows that Dworkin was a trans ally].
I wanted to show these people in the round, how their political context and their histories all interacted to create them. We’re all being affected by personal trauma, like Reich, who grew up in a very abusive household, and we’re also being affected by the cultural and political times washing over us. You can’t be perfect in those conditions, but you can be somebody who contributes to the grand transhistorical transtemporal project of liberation, right?
CHARLIE PORTER: There’s this sense that victories on this path to liberation – equal rights, queer rights – are now threatened.
The book came out of a moment of despair. I started writing it when Trump was coming to power, Brexit had happened, the refugee crisis was going on. I was asking myself, why have all the liberation movements of the 20th century failed? How come everybody involved in them felt like they had failed, and yet they remain to us these shining examples of courage?
It became apparent to me that liberation isn’t something that’s secured forever. What a crazy thing to hope. It’s an ongoing battle, and you don’t need to be the individual that wins it, and if you think that, you’re going to give way to despair very quickly. All you need to do is play your part in it.
It’s very strange to have been writing a book about the 90s and the Criminal Justice Bill that came in when I was very involved in 90s environmental protest, and now we’re in this renaissance of protest, with Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, and a new bill is passing through parliament right now, the Police Crime and Sentencing Bill, that is again drastically curtailing our right to protest. That’s what I mean by a step forward, a step back, it’s ongoing. We really need to stop that bill from passing, and people have to be really canny and inventive about the ways in which they resist the state, resist white supremacy, resist capitalism and resist environmental despoliation.
Giving themselves the strength and ability to continue.
To know that it’s not all one individual’s responsibility. I think that’s why I burnt out as an activist in the 90s, I thought, ‘I need to stop climate change, now I have failed to stop climate change, I’m having a breakdown and do not know what to do for a while’. You can’t do it on your own. Going back decade after decade into the 20th century, you see that many of these battles are unchanged. The battle for abortion, the battle to end racism, the battle to end incarceration, they go on and on. People just have to do their bit.
Tell me about the body.
The body is two things. The body is this prison we find ourselves in, where we no longer are an individual. We’re a representative of the kind of body that we live inside, that are subject to the repressions and exclusions that have nothing to do with us as an individual. This is the core of what a liberation movement is, it’s saying I don’t want to be treated like that, because of physical attributes that are inescapable.
But at the same time, the body is the site of our pleasures, the site of our ecstasies, the site of our connection with others, and this is what Reich said, the body is a repository of personal trauma, the body is the repository of political trauma, and at the same time the body is our agent of change in the world. The body is how we speak back to the state, the body is how we change the state.
Tell me about difficulty.
I feel like I compulsively choose difficulty. I write difficult books about difficult subjects, and when I’ve finished, I want to do it in a new difficult way. I felt at the end of The Lonely City that I’d made a way of writing books that was quite easy: I wander around, I’m a bit sad and then I talk about dead people. I didn’t want to write that book again.
Your methods of writing, your choices in writing have been deeply inspiring to me. Would you encourage writers who are just starting out to choose difficult-ness?
I’m in conversation quite a lot with people who are starting out writing, and the thing that I say is, don’t let anyone else sway you, or tell you how to write a book, or tell you what the commercial book is at this moment, because the commercial book of this moment will be a copy of something that someone original did earlier, so write the thing that you want to write and then fight for it.
I think that’s really important. It’s so easy to feel pressured into making something. And I feel that’s happened to me so many times, where I feel pressured to make the thing you’ve already made. But if you’re an artist, you die if you make again the thing you’ve already made. You have to make the thing that is frightening and the thing that takes you somewhere you haven’t been before that is terrifying to you.
The phenomenal success of this new book to me is how I felt when I was reading the book. I didn’t realise it was happening, but it was this increasing pressure that, when you get to the chapters on prisons, on confinement, I felt utterly trapped. And then towards the end there is suddenly this release.
That was something essential. I wanted people to go through this journey that went down into confinement. I wanted people to enter that cell and really think about what incarceration means, both because our bodies can be prisons but also because our rebellious, deviant bodies are put into prisons. Ongoingly.
But then I come back out of that and think about what freedom feels like. I wanted the book to end with the reader feeling that open space and thinking, how can I make this space exist, how can I make this space something that other people should encounter too.
Everybody by Olivia Laing is published by Picador and available now.