Mia Kirshner Declares: "I Live Here"

Mia Kirshner has been an internationally recognized actor since her teens, when she starred in two major films in the early nineties, Denys Arcand's "Love and Human Remains," and Atom Egoyan's "Exotica." Since then she's appeared in a variety of films including "The Crow: City of Angels" and "The Black Dahlia," and on television in "24" and "The L Word," on which she currently stars as Jenny Schecter.

For the past seven years, Kirshner has been working on "I Live Here," a book project just published by Pantheon. The multimedia book was developed from trips to Ingushetia, the Burmese-Thai border, Ciudad Juarez and Malawi, but rather than a travelogue, "I Live Here" is a portrait of individuals living in difficult situations. The immediacy of the book comes the many voices that are related through the work of many talented collaborators including the designers Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons, best known for Adbusters magazine, and graphic novelists Joe Sacco ("Safe Area Gorazde"), Phoebe Gloeckner ("The Diary of a Teenage Girl") and Kamel Khelif.

CBR News spoke with Kirshner about the project.

CBR: What was your intention with "I Live Here?"

Mia Kirshner: Initially, to make a book that my friends would read and would be interested in reading, grasping at the direction that we're going in, that we're all going in, and how we're all linked to these issues. And to come up with some sort of visual language in which to emotionally engage my friends and my community. That's why it took seven years.

Why did you decide to incorporate comics into the narratives?

I guess really it's because I love comics. And these are really my favorite comic book artists. In the case of Joe [Sacco], his book on Gorazde was really extremely influential and the reason why I really wanted to put comics in the book. Joe really is a groundbreaking artist in terms of the way he makes very dense political issues accessible to a mainstream audience. And Phoebe [Gloeckner] because she writes about raw sexuality and the rawness of being a teenager in a beautiful way, so I thought that would be perfect for Juarez. And Kamel Khelif, who's not well known in the United States, is an Algerian artist who lives in Marseilles. He wrote a lot about Algerian exiles living in Marseilles and I felt like he perhaps could capture this world of isolation that this vibrant young girls, these poor young sex workers who live in brothels and are completely marginalized for so many reasons, I felt like he could capture the inner life of one of these girls.

Could I just say one more thing about Joe? Joe was the first one who said yes to the project. Before my partners became involved. Joe found me my literary agent, his literary agent, and ultimately she was responsible for finding Pantheon. Joe volunteered about seven months of his time. It was pretty amazing what Joe did. And also Joe was patient with me during he first trip and he never looked down on the project, never questioned the vision, never got angry at why it was taking so long. He was just incredibly supportive and nurturing. I just wanted to say he's amazing.

Why did you chose to write about four places and not one?

I don't know why it ended up being four, actually, but it was always four. Maybe it's a number I like? I really wanted to do a book that went to far corners of the world that seem really unconnected to one another to try to find the connections.

Was the idea from the beginning to have this mosaic of comics and prose, fiction and nonfiction?

The visual language became much, much more sophisticated once Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons became involved, but that was the original idea for the book. With the exception of the creative nonfiction. That came much later.

At what stage in the process did your journals become such a focus in the book?

At the very, very, very end. I never wanted to. I never wanted my name on the front of the book. I felt like no one's name should be there. It was only after I met with Pantheon and I was talking about my experiences collecting the material. Dan Frank was really quite blunt, he said this is crazy that you're not writing for this, because you're the one that went out and collected the material and you've seen everything. You represent most people who don't know about this stuff. So he basically said you have to submit a writing sample and then we'll decide if we're going to publish it. So no pressure at all. [laughs]

It was a weird decision because I'm a deeply, deeply private person. But at the same time I absolutely realized that if I was going to write for this I had to explain the very personal reasons why and just try to be as brave as all of the other people who wrote for it.

The journal pieces really illustrate your journey in putting "I Live Here" together, but got into your own emotions and your family history and were very personal. Was it difficult to write?

Look, I've always written. It wasn't the writing itself that I had a problem with. Once the writing started, I felt like I had asked so much of the subjects to reveal so many secret parts of themselves that I had to write about my grandmother's son and my own sexual assault and all of that stuff. I felt like perhaps it would explain what drew me to this.

In addition to the journals, you wrote a short story and you also co-wrote Khelif's comic. How did you end up choosing to do that?

That was a really unusual way of putting a comic together. You're a comic book person, but nobody's really interested really interested in the story. I think it's a really great story. The questions that were formed for the comic were asked by a sex worker. I went to a sex worker in Vancouver's lower east side and got her to come up with questions for the sex worker on the Thai Burmese border. All those words are the sex workers, not my own. So Mike [Simons] and I sat in a room together and once we had the transcript we sort of broke down what the story would be. I then took back the breakdown and I wrote basically ten pages of the outline for Kamel, which was then translated into French. And then I got the material back and Kamel's comic was originally without words, which was when we all decided to add words in. It was a group effort.

Why did you feel the story needed words?

Because she can speak for herself. The artwork is so beautiful. I really would love to have a show one day of just that art, but these things that she said were just phenomenal. Very rarely do we get to hear what a sex worker who lives in a brothel thinks. And the fact that they're really bold arresting thoughts.

Phoebe Gloeckner's comic was fascinating because it feels like her work in a lot of ways but it doesn't look anything like her previous work.

She had started out doing something totally different, and then -- I believe two years or a year-and-a-half or so into the project -- she changed course completely and decided to do something totally different, which is this. It took a very, very, very, very, very long time for her to finish that work. Many years. It will be opened up into a book. As I hope Joe's will, actually. I'm not sure any comics exist about what's going on Juarez and nothing exists about what's going on in Chechnya as far as comics.

Why did you end up choosing these four specific places, Ingushetia, the Burmese-Thai border, Ciudad Juarez and Malawi?

I was just looking for places that, at the time when I chose them, were off the map as far as mainstream media coverage. Each one spoke to me on a much more personal level. For example, sexual violence against women in Burma and an unspoken genocide within Burma. In Chechnya, a population of people who, post-9/11, these civilians who had nothing to do with the war but because they were Muslims, perhaps, many people in the international community were branding them as terrorists. Do you remember when that word was being thrown around? Almost like confetti? I just felt like these people were living in complete isolation. Juarez, just because it's crazy that the Mexican government hasn't done anything to stop the violence and murders against women. And Malawi because so much has been said about HIV and AIDS but we're not closer to a solution, so our goal with that chapter was to figure out an unusual way of telling that story.

Knowing something about the situation in Chechnya and Juarez, I could roughly pinpoint when you had been there, but what really stuck with me when reading "I Live Here" was how little many aspects of life have changed.

Well, Grozny is being rebuilt a little, but the violence is still spreading. Yeah. I don't know. The thing that I think is important to realize which is sort of a non sequitur is that I think it's extremely important not feel sorry for these people who are living in these situations. That's what they taught me. And yes in many cases they're worse off and much more needs to be done but I think at the same time to be able to learn from these people is crucial.

That certainly come across, and it seemed that avoiding using the word "victim" throughout was intentional?

Yeah, I won't use that word. I think it's disempowering. If there are other words you can find, that would be great. I think the words "charity project" and "victim," well, if you have any substitutes...

So much of what we read about these areas is journalism about conflict or change, but what you're documenting here is a new status quo that's disturbing and quite jarring, but it really gives a sense of the individuals.

I think so. Again, my goal is the universality of all of us and why these stories affect us. And hopefully as we continue this series of books we'll begin to get better at putting this message across.

Has Pantheon said yes to making additional volumes?

I hope so. But as far as I'm concerned, we didn't have a publishing deal until four years into it; something like that. My attitude is, I don't care. It's in a way a petulant attitude, but I'm very passionate about this work, so the series will continue.

Have you decided where to explore in the next book?

I do know for sure that one will be domestic, I don't know where but I do feel it's important to do something here [in the United States]. That's the only thing I'm sure of. And I have a pretty good idea about the theme and what I'd like to cover and the way in which I want to do it. But you know you never know until you get to these places because the different places dictate the style.

What has the book tour been like, getting to meet people and talk about the book?

It's good. Again, it's very unnatural for me. I think I'm very lucky to get to talk to people about an experience that changed my life. And I hope that I can find the right words to describe how I feel about this to make other people feel the same way that I do about this. Nobody makes money off this book. My royalties go to Amnesty International. I really hope people go buy it because it's important for so many reasons.

The royalties are going to Amnesty International, but you also started the I Live Here Foundation, and aren't you developing programs?

Yeah, at Kachere Juvenile Prison. People need to buy the book so we can continue this work, which is incredibly important. We got funding from Causecast.org and Chris Abani did the first curriculum -- there are four three-week curriculums we'll run throughout the year. If you read the story about Miriam [in the Malawi section of the book], she's going to be hired to oversee it. It's really exciting.

More information about "I Live Here" and the work The I Live Here Foundation is doing can be found at i-live-here.com.

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