Photography by Brittany Greeson, c/o Christin Lee
Christin Lee is a Detroit based writer and the founder of Room Project, a creative space for women and non-binary writers and artists to work individually and collaboratively.
What is the importance of having a specific space for women + non-binary writers/artists in Detroit? Does the necessity of a space like the Room Project reflect ways in which women and non-binary people are marginalized spatially?
I wish I knew more. I’m not an expert on this stuff and I would feel disingenuous if I dove head-first into the systematized subordination of women and nonbinary people without emphasizing the conversation, and the cruel, egregious history, of the ways in which people of color have been marginalized spatially in Detroit. It feels a little bit like reviewing a book and only discussing the adjectives. My head is very much in the work of what it means to have a lively and healthy intersectional organization in Detroit right now, so I’m finding I have to shift gears a bit to answer this question. But it’s a good question.
There is no monolithic category of woman, or uniformity of needs. Even with the spelling we often rely on at Room—womxn—to denote the nonbinary, trans and gender nonconforming people who make up our community, it doesn’t really do the job. I can empathize with others, but I can’t speak for them. I have to stick with what I know. Broadly, my orientation to spaces in Detroit is idiosyncratic and came from a self-centered need. I am easily distracted at coffee shops and the library branch nearest to my house isn’t open for many of the hours I prefer to work. The other reasons take more time to explain. I can speak to the importance of having a space for women + non-binary writers/artists in a few different ways:
- the lived experience of being a woman in the world, abridged
- the slow recognition of structural impediments—i.e. it’s hard to not do laundry
- a thing bigger than yourself
1. Men, for better or worse, have been fundamental to my understanding of writing and literature. I have had male mentors that were respectful and incredibly kind to me, and the intentional exclusion of cisgender men at Room Project is not a judgement on the sex as a whole. It is simply a closed door, and an experiment with what can happen on the other side when we are given space and time. It feels redundant to name the things we leave on the other side of the door given the work feminists over the last 60+ years (of many traditions) have done to crystalize in language, metrics and legislature the nature of inequality between the sexes—#metoo included. But maybe I need to be more explicit. Consciously or unconsciously, the trajectory of a life is fundamentally altered when a girl first understands that most of the men with whom she comes into contact have the ability to rape and impregnate her. And then of course by adulthood, 1 in 5 women have experienced rape or such an attempt. Spaces that feel less permeable to men allow a finely tuned instinct for self-preservation in my brain to rest, and it’s just a hell of a lot easier to think and be creative. And that’s coming from a white cis-woman. Our transgender community experiences harassment and violence at astonishing rates—1 in 2 people have experienced sexual assault. Black women are four times as likely as white women to report harassment in the workplace. All Black spaces, all femme spaces: I think we’re just asking for a little air? Then there’s the smaller stuff; data about the stress that results from emotional labor, what happens when women try to warn each other about sexual predators, the long-term damage of a mentor/boss/superior’s harassment in a creative environment. It’s nice to leave that stuff on the other side of the door too. But if any man is skeptical about how the public scrutiny of a body can impede one’s natural curiosity and engagement with the world, I recommend they wear a latex bodysuit for a month in public and see just how much energy and time is siphoned off their routine working hours.
2. When I lived in Los Angeles I briefly worked from home, and so did my partner. We were both trying to write in a makeshift office in our living room, he screenplays and I short stories. I tell this story to new Room Project members all the time, but he would roll out of bed in his pajamas, make coffee and sit down to work unfazed. I marveled at this every morning as I made our breakfast, cleaned the house, futzed, read the news, did the laundry, and sat down two hours later at my computer. I could finally work undistracted but I had done little to help calm my nerves and feelings of inadequacy by the time I opened my word doc and tried to pick up where I had left off the day before. I felt panic, and the only way I could deal with that stress was to tell myself I was lazy and there was something wrong with me. Frustrated, I found a very small office cloistered within another woman’s office space in Echo Park. I drove to my office every morning, closed the door behind me, and sat down to read and write. At first I did nothing but read, but eventually, I began to hear sentences in my head with a clarity and power that was totally new to me. Once those four walls around me contained nothing but my interests, ideas and ambitions, I could take my work seriously. When I began talking about this with many of my friends at the time, most of whom were women, over and over I heard the same thing. Yes, me too, I need to leave home to write. Okay then, I thought. Maybe I’m not just lazy? Maybe there’s more to this?
3. We all need something to believe in. I was inspired by Women’s Center for Creative work in Los Angeles, and their fantastic open-source how-to-do-it manual, A Feminist Organizations Handbook, made this project seem feasible. Still, the first six months were mostly me asking earnest questions to new members about what they needed, knowing that I had very little to offer. The specific needs were wide-ranging, but the core request was wanting to meet other people who were doing creative work. A year later, women, nonbinary and trans individuals are meeting each other at Room, they are writing TV pilots together, they are forming poetry groups, they are teaching each other, they are passing along job opportunities, they are taking workshops together, and they are forming a network of resources and support. This is happening many times over in our city and in most states. We are a node in a larger framework of change that is happening all over the country, and if nothing else, it speaks to the agility and incredible organizational instinct of womxn in challenging times.
Do you see the work that Room Project is doing as political in nature? Why?
I shouldn’t have to write much more than, “grab em by the pussy,” you know? The election was a galvanizing force in my spiritual and intellectual trajectory. On Nov. 8, 2016, convinced of a certain future, I toasted with my best friends as we celebrated before an election party: “To never hearing that man’s voice again.” Indeed. A year and a half later, when I had to create a proposal for Room Project, I wrote, “We live in a vicious political moment. The language of the day is stupid, mean and myopic because we live in the fog of a voice that is stupid, mean and megalomaniacal. It’s difficult to create work in a culture so permeated, and we seek to build a micro-culture that contradicts and pushes back against this influence.” The idea is not just to incubate us from a pervasive rhetorical malice, but to actively work against it by doubling down on our stories, our strengths, and what we know to be true. And the stronger we are, the easier it is to say no, absolutely not.
Grace Lee Boggs writes in The Next American Revolution, “I have learned over the years that when you become a radical usually decides your politics.” Maybe I don’t fit the definition of a radical, but when the exit polls made it clear that white women had a significant role in putting Trump in office, there was for many people a call to serious introspection and reckoning. And arguably we needed that wake-up call, as painful as it was to confront our failings as neighbors, as citizens and as feminists. Some core willingness to fight for true and fair equality for everyone had atrophied. Or that’s how I see it in my less cynical moments. Look, I’m a writer who still feels sturdy in their ideological pessimism about the ability of art to shape culture and politics. But that’s why I’m not the one who is doing all the programming at Room. Cherise Morris, one of our Room Project fellows, produced, wrote and read in a healing-ritual performance called Visions of the Evolution: In Search of a New Humanity, and watching that undid me because suddenly I was enveloped in her unwavering conviction that another future was possible. Franny Choi teaching a poetry class about speculative imagination; Franchesca Lamarre meeting every week to talk with her peers about books in dialectical relationship to each other; Lia Greenwell writing about violence, trauma and healing–this has nothing to do with me and everything to do with larger currents of political change. The synthesis of vision and vulnerability I see week in and week out at Room Project is a distillation of that slow change that Boggs writes about in the same book. “Their choices become a new beginning in the continuing evolution of human beings toward becoming more creative, conscious, self-critical, and politically and socially responsible.” Idealist? Sure. But I don’t see another way.
Your webpage states that Room Project is unique in that, “we ask our members to engage with each other around their artistic practices as a point of membership.” Do you think this can be important from both an artistic and community-building perspective? How?
Yeah, this is the heart of the project summed up. I have spent most of my life around creative people with a lot of artistic ambition who were working collectively. I saw the way that funny people make each other funnier, clever people challenge and sharpen each other’s ideas, and good writers can make each other into great writers. The friction that comes from a little freedom, encouragement, affinity, inspiration, competition—it creates heat. The egos have to get turned down by necessity, and possibilities reveal themselves in ways that can surprise everyone. You see it hit a boiling point in specific places at specific times in history. Womxn who studied art history saw dozens of black and white photos framing up the golden men of this or that school of thought, elbow to elbow in fine, rumpled suits. Well, it will be nice to look back on pictures from this time in Detroit and see women of color in their own huddles, representing movements that sparked conflict, passions and ultimately moved many conversations forward.
There’s that sick consolation that writers trade in times of despair, “well, now you’ll have something to write about.” I never liked that much—writing is no great reward either—but there’s a parallel here. Given the density and magnitude of strife in the city, you don’t have to look very far to find rich transmutations of that. I can’t help but think that the struggle will be commensurate with significant output. The films of the New American Wave were a direct reaction to the Vietnam War; the soul of minimalism was forged in the solemn aftermath of WWII. Artists are always biting off the incomprehensible, just enough to build up a tolerance to the poison. I see Room Project artists and writers metabolizing racism, sexism, gross economic inequality and violence with the same resourcefulness that artists of other eras have done in the past. Our Arab American writers are grappling with decades of abject horror in the Middle East. Our poets are taking on the intergenerational trauma of slavery and Jim Crow. Our artists are trying to bend their minds around actionable ideas on climate change that rouse us from ignorance and hopelessness. Fine art, dance, design, performance, spoken word poetry and writing all have a distinct energy around them and dear g-d really, really hope leadership in our city recognizes that and takes decisive steps to fund it generously. I think Room will only play a very small part in all this, but witnessing it and offering some support and documentation is a big privilege for me. There are so many dots to connect. Community is everything.
What do you believe is the role of artist spaces within a democracy? What civic functions do they perform?
Mmmm…agitation and disruption probably. To be five to ten years ahead of everyone else? Or at least the really good artists are. The rest of us are just holding on to each other, trying to make fine things of little utility, and hoping to feel less afraid?
But this is what our member handbook says: Room Project believes that one of the most important things we can do is be witnesses for each other. I can try to see you clearly, and you can try to see me clearly. That was the impetus for the monthly meetings. I thought if we could just gather and know each other as artists, by our curiosities and talents, the world would tilt just a little bit in our favor. That belief permeates the space too. When you sit down at your desk, you are just yourself, and that is enough. You are free. That’s all I want out of this whole endeavor: for you to find a radical comfort in the idea that you can come just as you are.
Has public space been designed in such a way that is male-normative?
I am not at all qualified to answer this question, but another cool thing about Room Project is that I’m surrounded by people who are much smarter than me. Irene Brisson is a PhD in architecture at UofM and recommends a few things. Read about–
How the age old office temperature question which just relates to the fact that “optimization” has been done for male bodies from cars to astronaut suits to heating recommendations.
How city planning affects women’s safety and navigation.
And a bonus cool art project: https://housefullofblackwomen.com/about
What are other important ways in which spaces can become more inclusive to women and non-binary artists?
Personal space: I have seen the impact of men holding other men accountable for sexist, racist or homophoic/transphobic behavior, and I find it to be quite heartening.
Professional space: Math? Is half of your staff female, non-binary or transgender? Is three quarters of your audience or clientele people of color? Do you work with a racial equity consultant? Most likely not. Okay, so how can you figure out a way to tolerate the small discomfort of reaching out to someone you don’t know, aren’t easily familiar with, can’t assume you’ll want to talk about the same music or TV shows? That’s a good start. Those people who are talking about equity, equality and diversity all the time and annoy you? Take a deep breath. Think about how much you have in common with them. Don’t give yourself an out (we just want to hire the “best” candidate/ this is just who comes to x/ there aren’t that many ____ in the field). We all live together in Detroit, we love it, sometimes it makes us feel insane, Belle Isle makes us feel peaceful, dancing makes us feel alive, we all think Motor City Wine is a really, really great bar. We all have to make one decisive move beyond what we’re comfortable with, that we already think we’re doing well. The internet has a lot of info about equitable hiring, reasons not to assume pronouns, and what giving a damn can look like. People who want to make the effort will make the effort, I don’t doubt it. I don’t really know the answer here. It’s not about spaces so much. It’s about mutual respect and looking out for each other. If that’s not important to you, I don’t know what to tell you other than, cool. I’ll be at Room Project.