Check Out Subversive New Alphabet Book “P is for Pussy”

A is for Ass… B is for Blow… dare I turn the page to find out what C stands for? Of course I do, because I'm dying to learn what other words author Elissa Blount Moorhead has selected for each letter of the alphabet in her new children's book, P is for Pussy.

Beautifully illustrated by Meltem Sahin, the book is a hilarious study in double (and triple) entendres. The celebration of 26 words is steeped in references to sex-positive feminine power, hip-hop culture, African American vernacular, and recreational drug use. What makes a joke funny often rests upon who's in on it—P is for Pussy has plenty of culturally specific witticisms. The idea of who “gets” the punchline (and who doesn't) is a part of what the book plays with: the joyful experience of language and its multiplicity of meanings when examined in different contexts.

I read P is for Pussy with delight, each page a wonderful, exuberant surprise. Author Blount Moorhead and illustrator Sahin spoke with me by phone about the book's inception, their collaborative process, and whether they'll work on another project together (I hope so!).

Author Elissa Blount-Moorhead and illustrator Meltem Sahin

JEAN HO: How did the two of you come together to work on P is for Pussy?

ELISSA BLOUNT MOORHEAD: It took many, many years. The initial idea was that I would do something as a response to wanting smarter, funnier children's books that would appeal to parents on one level and to kids on another level, in the way that the Muppets did in the seventies. I just started playing with language and did years and years of revisions.

Fast forward six or seven years, I came to MICA's [Maryland Institute College of Art] illustration MFA program. We did a semester-long charrette process with the students in the program where I described my intent and talked through a lot of ways to visually communicate the ideas. It was pretty incredible. Everyone made an attempt to do most of the letters and Meltem stood out the most in terms of being able to convey the ideas. And the aesthetic of her work was really beautiful, obviously.

MELTEM SAHIN: I had a background in children's illustration before, with three books published in Turkey. When Elissa came to MICA, I was super interested in the project. I found it really brilliant. Actually, it was really interesting to see that some of my classmates felt like they couldn’t do something like that! But for me, I thought about how this is a project that I couldn’t do in Turkey for maybe another 50 years. So this was my chance to get crazy and do whatever I want. I jumped into the book. Some people think that my illustrations can be kind of ugly, but I don't call them ugly. I'm trying to have a humanistic approach.

ELISSA: In the charrette, there was a long process of trying to get people to understand the double entendres. It's a layered and complex conversation around race, sexuality, and gender. It's also things that were in the Black American lexicon, references that have to be explained. I spent years, literally, thinking about these words. The line between offensive and edgy is razor-thin. I'm acutely aware of that. I had abandoned lots of ideas even before I got to the class. Meltem was really courageous. She comes from a country that would be considered a little more conservative, yet her personal work that I've seen is always pushing the edge. So we easily bonded.

You mention that line between being offensive and edgy. In your revisions, how did you make the artistic and editorial decisions, to draw a conversation out of that space?

ELISSA: It was difficult. I self-published, it's independent. It's funny because I think in a lot of cases you can find things that are independently published and they're not necessarily vetted. People are nervous about self-published books for a reason. What I had to do was build my own vetting process. I worked tirelessly with friends and editors. I ran ideas constantly by other writers, theorists, scholars, feminists. I was just joking with someone recently that I don't think anyone could have vetted the book harder than I did, because I felt like my feminist credentials, my Black credentials, everything was on the line! [laughs]

I also work in the world of visual arts. When Meltem is describing her characters being “ugly”—that's where I dwell. That's what I'm interested in. Things that people can't quite connect to because it's not normative. That's where I find beauty. The faces in P is for Pussy are sort of morphed. 

There were some letters that Meltem and I changed together. If I just felt like it wasn't working, I would ask Meltem to translate it visually and she's really expert at doing that. If it still didn't land right with me, then I'd know it was the word and not her work. When we were talking about “hoe,” for example, how could we help people understand it was about female empowerment and not as a word used negatively to describe promiscuity. We wanted to use it as a word for liberation.

I was nervous about the letter “I,” because we were going to use Ice Cube. It's sort of a triple entendre, because it's “ice” for frozen water, diamonds, and jewelry, and it's also the rapper's name. But then the representation of him looked like what I think of as a stereotype of Black maleness. In illustration form, it read as menacing and all the other negative stereotypes that have been mapped onto the Black male body. It's one of those things you just instantly, viscerally feel, and you're like, “No, this isn't working for me.” The face that we eventually chose for “ice” is kind of a reference to Vanilla Ice, which I thought of as perfect fodder, as a person who is culturally appropriating rap and doing it badly. To me, it didn't feel problematic to use that image. It might be problematic for other people, but for me it felt fine.

There's such a thoughtfulness to the illustrations and to the words that you chose. When I'm reading the book, I love the feminist, sex-positive vibe, and all the subtle references to race and gender identities, but I never feel like it's beating me over the head.

MELTEM: In picture books, I always believe there are more layers of meaning that come with the illustration, so in our book I was trying to balance it. For instance, with the word “hoe,” we wanted to show the woman as a strong character, that's why she's standing, and all the boys are in her hoe, sitting there. Also in talking to Elissa, we decided we wanted to put more curly hair, so that maybe it's a reference to different races. Also the people don't have real human flesh colors—Elissa commented on that and I really liked that comment—so it's not specific to a race, and you can still feel that there's a variety of characters in the book.

ELISSA: When there's a real reference, like the Betty Davis reference in “funk,” race is in there, but the book is about being inclusive. We spent a lot of time talking about that. Some of these words could have represented the male gaze and the Western gaze, and neither of us are interested in that. Meltem and I, we're both women and we're not white American women, so maybe that's why we shared that perspective.

We wanted to give all kids and parents who picked up the book a chance to find themselves or to learn something they know nothing about. We wrestled with the word “dime.” Growing up, “dime” meant a really good-looking woman, the etymology is that she's a “ten.” That can be interpreted as obviously objectifying a woman. But I've also heard “she's a dime” used to describe a woman who's brilliant, and to mean, “We're compatible, I'm in love with her.” Same with “hoe.” Women might use that word to mean: “I'm not really concerning myself with other people's opinions of me, I do what I want, I'm completely sex-positive in how I want to have my relationships and how I use my body.”

The We Need Diverse Books campaign is a grassroots effort to promote children's and young adult books that honor and reflect the lives of all young people, to reflect a diversity of experiences. It sounds like P is for Pussy really subscribes to the politics of the campaign.

ELISSA: I was really influenced by that movement. I'm a parent, I have a twelve-year-old and seven-year-old. Diversity isn't just about racial and ethnic diversity for me. It's also about diversity of stories and perspectives. For example, different family structures. Some people have grandparents raising them, some people have two moms raising them, so that diversity of perspective is important to me, too.

What sort of experience do you imagine parents and kids having reading this book together?

MELTEM: Before I met Elissa, I was showing my drawings to publishing companies in the US and they were always finding my illustrations too sophisticated for children. It's kind of dark and they would say that it's too creepy for children. Then I met Elissa and she was awesome. If children look at our book and can't read the words, they will only look at the pictures and they won't understand the adult meaning. 

ELISSA: The experience I hope people have is that they explore language. When I read it with my seven-year-old, he won't say “A is for Ass,” because he's a little tiny prude. “I know that's a bad word,” he'll say. Then I'll say, “Well, you know it's in the Bible!” And then the rest of them, he doesn't get the subtext. I'm obsessed with words. They're meant to be played with. There are very few words that are off-limits in my house as a discussion piece. If one of my kids sees Bitch magazine, I'll be happy to talk about the word “bitch” all day long with them. What the word means, and what it's meant over history. I hope adults will read it and they'll have a snicker, all the way to the end—parents often fall asleep reading children's books [laughs]. I hope kids see it and say, “Wow, these are pretty pictures.” Then later, they'll turn sixteen, seventeen, and they'll look back and laugh and think, “Oh, my parents were pretty cool.”

by Jean Ho
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Jean Ho is a writer in LA. She was born in Taiwan and grew up in southern California. Her work has been published at NPR Code Switch, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Flavorwire, and others. She's currently a fiction fellow at USC’s Creative Writing & Literature PhD program. Read her tweets at www.twitter.com/jeanho.

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