Arts & Culture

The Big Jewcy: Nona Willis Aronowitz – Writing, Editing, And Carrying On The Family Tradition (Of Being Brilliant)

The daughter of a noted author and feminist has made a name for herself in a very short amount of time. Read More

By / June 8, 2011
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In well under thirty years on this planet, Nona Willis Aronowitz has amassed a portfolio that would leave anybody impressed.

The associate editor of GOOD magazine has written for The Nation, The New York Observer, The Village Voice, and was the co-author of the book Girldrive: Criss-crossing America, Redefining Feminism, with the late Emma Bee Bernstein.

Last month saw the publication of Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, the collection of Nona’s late mother’s music writing from her time pop music writer for the New Yorker in the 60s and 70s. Nona edited the anthology–a fine argument for labeling Ellen Willis as the finest rock music writer of the 20th century–further proving that Nona Willis Aronowitz is one of the most important minds of her generation to pay attention to.

It must run in the family.

To start this off, I’d like to say that I think the best thing I’ve ever read in a bio is something from yours. That would be: “She wrote her undergraduate honors thesis on 1970s pornographic movies and their influence on and reflection of the sexual revolution and feminism—and got Wesleyan to pay for every single porn movie she watched.” I feel like there’s a good question there, but I’m failing to come up with it. So I’m just going to ask, how many porno films from the 70s did you have to watch for your thesis?

Ha! I must have watched about 2 dozen 70s porn films. That doesn’t seem like a lot, until you realize the difference between porn nowadays and porn from that era. They were real hour-and-a-half-long films! With plots, and production value, and everything. There were actual characters and themes to analyze.

So you were living in Chicago? As a person born and bred in New York, how hard was the adjustment?

It wasn’t all that hard because it was the exact right time for me to live somewhere else. I moved after the high of driving across the country for my first book, Girldrive, where my friend Emma Bee Bernstein and I asked young women around the US what they think about feminism. The whole impetus of the project was to get out of our comfort zones, and to take advantage of the fact that we were 22 and had time to experiment and figure out what we wanted to do. It just seemed hypocritical to come right back to New York.

And let’s be real: Chicago was so much more liveable. Emma convinced me to move there with her because we would be able to work part time and still finish the book. In New York, things are so expensive that you run yourself into the ground trying to keep up with the bills. I’m happy to be back in New York City now because of what’s going on with me work-wise, but Chicago was a slower pace.

The anthology of your mother’s music writing, which you edited, recently came out.  How long of a work in progress had it been to put the actual book out, and what was your first reaction when you finally got a physical copy of the book?

This project goes back at least three years, but actually the idea really came about when my mother first passed away. She was eulogized in dozens of pubs and blogs, and more than a handful mentioned her pioneering music criticism. I knew she personally wouldn’t have wanted to be best known for her work on rock music (she went on to feminism, politics, etc.). But the fact is, those writings resonated with people.

It was pretty incredible to see it in book form, after I’d been staring at hundreds of double-spaced, typewritten pages. It’s a cover that really seems to celebrate the music and my mother’s writing, rather than relegating it to a passe time and place.

It’s sort of difficult to ask a question like this since you have a very obvious attachment to the material in Out of the Vinyl Depths…, but since the book came out a month ago, I’m seeing more and more discussion that your mom was one of, if not the best music writer of the last 50 or so years. How do you feel about that? Shocked, happy, or are people just figuring out what you knew all along?

I’m very happy that’s happening because it was really the point of the book. Some people chalk it up to sexism, but I don’t really think it was that. Believe me, if my mother had wanted to be known as a lifelong, iconic rock critic, she would have made it happen. But she didn’t want that. She was a generalist, a cultural critic in the broadest sense, and a lot of people don’t “get” that. It’s a lot easier if you can ascribe one label to some one, like “feminist writer” or “activist” or “music writer.” Her career had many layers.

Do you have a specific piece in the book that you like the most?

I think I connect most to her writing on Janis [Joplin], mainly because how she describes her seems to lie on a continuum with other performers I have loved in the past—from Madonna, to Kathleen Hanna, to Courtney Love, to even Lady Gaga. And I always equate the way she describes Janis’s relationship to rock music as one of the lone women in a male-dominated industry to female rappers and how they interpret their art. I try to compare a lot of what she says about rock music to hip hop, since that was the music I came of age with. (It doesn’t always work, though.)

Two years later, what sort of impact do you see your own book, Girl Drive… as having?

It’s taught me not to be so knee-jerk about my opinions and try to extricate the difference between politicians’ rhetoric and real people’s stories. If I’d never gone on the trip, I could imagine myself working for a very wonky publication, only writing about and paying attention to people like me. As a journalist, it’s really made me want to investigate communities, in people’s own spaces. As a feminist, it’s made me want to have more face-to-face conversations with conservative women rather than smirking about them in the safety of my livingroom. And of course it’s compelled me to do more traveling.

What are you working on next?

I just got a job as an associate editor at GOOD magazine, which is going through a lot of exciting changes lately. I’m going to hunker down on that for the next chunk of my life, but I also have a few ideas for political books up my sleeve!