Samantha Irby on “Wow, No Thank You” and Desanitizing Women’s Lives and Bodies

 Samantha Irby, author of Wow, No Thank You (Photo credit: Ted Beranis)

Since launching her blog Bitches Gotta Eat in 2009 and building an audience over time, Samantha Irby has cultivated a devoted following that adores her work and appreciates its authenticity. Irby discusses racism, classism, and sexism in ways that feel refreshingly real, avoiding the oft-trodden space of detailing trauma via theory and flowery language. Instead, she leans into moments with such sharp specificity and realness that it’s impossible not to cringe as hard as you laugh.

The first essay in Wow, No Thank You, Irby’s most recent New York Times-bestselling collection, spoofs Into The Gloss (beauty brand Glossier’s magazine). She shares that she’s super nosy about how other people get beautiful and that she has her own desire to be a lavish, stylish, trendy, Instagram-face-mask-wearing person. But in reality, Irby’s world consists of trying on orthopedic flip-flops, applying T-Gel to dandruff, and sorting through towels that somehow always manage to smell like mildew.

In Meaty, Irby’s 2013 debut collection, a young Sam gets her period before her post-menopausal mother can prepare her. Though she’d been partially educated about periods, she’s still shocked to find that menstruation doesn’t deliver neat little spots of red in prim white underpants, but instead tend to involve large, lumpy clots (and somehow, make you shit even more than usual). Irby’s work doesn’t avoid these large, lumpy moments. Instead, she douses us with them until we realize just how normal they really are. And she forces us to laugh out loud through nearly every single one.

Irby’s 2017 bestselling collection, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, introduces us to her as a young person who’s struggling with Crohn’s Disease and has to shit out of the side of a car, with her bare ass visible to passersby on a snowy highway. We also meet a Sam who gets in her feelings about men who don’t text back or who encourage her to rent an entire apartment for them, though he never comes to said apartment.

Irby has dominated a personal essay space that’s often treated as if it’s self-involved and frivolous because she’s been so smartly aware of what her work will be compared to and she’s so deeply disinterested in doing anything that’s been done before. Irby isn’t the traditional writer who left her hometown for New York City with little money, a big heart, and bigger dreams; instead she’s taken a more untraditional path, working as a receptionist at an animal shelter and regularly seeing horrible animal things before deciding she had a penchant for demon kittens (who, by the way, haunt you long after they’re gone). She didn’t write Meaty with the goal of being The Next Black Writer to Follow on Twitter; she just wanted to impress some dude who wasn’t worth the lovely language and thought-provoking narrative that filled the pages of her breakout book.

In some ways, Irby feels like an outsider in the best sense of the word, but most important, she feels like a writer rather than a brand waiting to be marketed. She feels as real on the phone as she does on the page, making readers, myself included, feel okay about not pressuring ourselves to have big, lofty goals or feel good about that weird bit of skin on their neck or that one awkward moment in front of an important person. She feels like the reality check so many of us have been actively avoiding because it would force us to be honest with ourselves about ourselves.

After the release of Wow, No Thank You, I talked to Irby about creaky kneecaps, leaving TikTok to the cool kids, and dreaming of a world where it’s possible to write a book from your bedroom in Kansas.

You’ve now written three books that exist in the same universe. Though each book builds on one another, each book also offers different lenses to understand your experiences. How do your books relate to one another?

I wrote them at three distinct periods in my life. I think of Meaty as the overview of the past: This is where I was. This is what I was doing. These are the things that shaped me. We’re Never Meeting is a kind of blend: There’s still some this happened back then mixed with a tentative this is what I think I’m doing and where I’m going next. And [Wow, No Thank You] is a nod to the past. But it’s pretty firmly about what I’m doing and thinking about right now and hesitantly looking toward [in] the future.

You write about chronic illness and disability that does something different: Not many women’s essay collections talk about shitting and orthopedic flip-flops. Why is it important for women’s essays to become more candid and less sanitized about bodies?

The less sophisticated answer is that, selfishly, if I’m going to meet people, tour, and have relationships with people, I need to be fully honest about what they’re getting. And it feels freeing to be like, I’m going to be at this thing, but I might have to leave to have diarrhea. Or when you meet me and you see I have on shoes where the sole is five-inches thick, you understand that’s because my body is broken and these are the shoes I need to wear to get around. Part of it is straight up my own self-interest: When you’re honest about what’s going on with you, it makes it easier to move through the world as a creative person.

Once my work started getting out there and more people started reading it and seeing themselves represented—not to ascribe a loftier purpose to my work than there actually is—it helps us all get free if one person can talk about it. I hope other people feel like they can talk about their stuff and they can be unapologetic and not feel shame. When you’re comparing yourself to people’s highlight reel [and] when you’re only comparing yourself to the good things that people show you, it can make it feel like you’re by yourself. I’m here to be like, you don’t have cartilage in your knees? It takes you five minutes to get up from a seated position? I’m here for you—because that’s me too.

I’ve only gotten good feedback from [readers], and it just makes it that much easier to continue being open about what’s going on with me because, guaranteed, it’s going on with at least one other person too. But [writing candidly] also [frees me from] the box of needing to be perfect or to hide who I am because I’ve already been honest about it.

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby (Photo credit: Vintage Books)

In “Season 1, Episode 1” of Wow, No Thank You, you write about crafting a Black woman protagonist in your television show who’s “being okay with just being okay.” Who is doing a good job of putting Black girls who are being okay with just being okay onscreen and in books?

Insecure does a good job of showing this. We often get such narrow focuses of what Black women can be like; the four leads on that show are four distinctly different types of Black women, which is so refreshing to see. There’s not just a sidekick [or] the beleaguered single mom. Usually we get one and that’s it. But [Insecure offers] four very different examples of Black womanhood.

In We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, you write about fucking a bunch of dudes and then you’re dating a woman and that’s it. You don’t use the word “bisexual” until Wow, No Thank You, and even then, there’s not a big essay about queerness. That stood out to me as a queer person because it feels very different from current sexuality discourse where coming out is key to any sort of realness. Why did you decide not to write a traditional coming-out essay?

[Throughout] the first part of my writing, I was dating both men and women. I never had a relationship with a woman that was so bad or so stupid that I wanted to make fun of it, which is generally a lot of what I do. I also was like, man, the world doesn’t need me to drag any more women. We know where to go to find bad things about women. So I just never wanted to drag a woman [as I made] fun of my dating life.

I started dating both men and women early and I also didn’t have to come out. My parents died when I was 18. Usually, the journey is when you tell mom and dad, but I didn’t have to do that. I was just dating who I wanted when I wanted and doing whatever I wanted. So even if I’d wanted to write a coming-out essay, it wouldn’t be real because I didn’t have to do that. I don’t know why I hadn’t used the word “bisexual” before. I don’t have a problem with the word. I honestly don’t know why I never said that until this book, but it has always been true. So when I met my wife, and I [knew] this [relationship was] going to be a serious thing and I’d start writing about her, I didn’t feel like I needed to [explain it]. I did write this piece on my blog [titled] “lesbnb” about our first experience traveling where we got locked in this Airbnb. That was [my wife’s] introduction to my audience. But I never felt like I needed to let anybody know or break it to anyone! It was just like, Oh, this is who I’m with now. This is what I’m doing. Here we go.

You didn’t do the New York City thing and write a boring, easily marketable book, but you’re still very much a leader in the essay space. You have this devoted following and have created this work that people truly love. How did you create that space without getting mangled by the bullshit?

My path was so unconventional. I had this blog for a long time and I was doing what I’m doing. Then I started performing in Chicago, and then Meaty [was released through] an indie press. The [publisher] was like, we will publish whatever you want; just put something together. We’ll make it look like a book, and then we’ll sell it. I did all that without an agent and I didn’t make any money. We signed a contract over a beer, and I was extremely shocked when they actually made a book. By the time my [current] agent found my book—I still don’t even know how he found it—I already had a style.

I already had an audience (a small audience, but an audience). And I’d already found my little lane of success. So when we started pitching big publishers in New York, I already had my thing. I didn’t even think about changing my style. And luckily for me, none of them [said], hey, you really have to clean this up. We tried to sell what ended up becoming We’re Never Meeting In Real Life, and the editor I talked to was like, “I’d like to do this like a memoir where you start at the beginning of your life [through] now.” And I was like, But that’s not what I do. So, thanks! Thanks for taking the call, I guess.

It also helps that I’m extremely Midwestern and [that I] haven’t left the Midwest. I never had to suck up to New York because I was just presenting them with a package of who I already am. And everyone was accepting of it. I call myself a Midwestern potato, and I truly am happy being this; it was never my dream to become a New York girl, a writer person, [or] the Mary Tyler Moore of it all. That never appealed to me, and luckily, no one made me change. And now they’re stuck with it. You can’t put out three books like this and then change who you are. So they have to accept me as I am, whether they want to or not!

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It feels like that specific path, and writing about trauma, especially when you’re not white, is the only way to do it.

That’s why I put that in the essay, “An Extremely Specific Guide to Publishing a Book,” in the book. I hadn’t pitched that when we went to sell them this collection. I had a detailed outline of things I wanted to write, and then I wrote a totally different book. [Even though] it wasn’t in my original outline, so many people ask how I did it. So many people are like, I could get an [Masters of Fine Arts], right, that I was like, let me just write about how you can have a desk job and a blog and still write what you want to write and find your audience and be who you are. Because if you leave it up to TV, it really is the go to New York, become an editor, have 12 roommates, and struggle to fit into some box. If I help one person continue to stay in their Kansas bedroom and write their jokes, then I will be happy.

I live in North Carolina, so I feel that a lot.

Great! Yes! You would think that, as far as writers and books, it’s truly just New York and the surrounding areas where people can clickety clack on a laptop and put a story together. It’s insane to me. I’m trying to usher in a new wave of Midwestern and Southern essay writers. Let’s see if I could do it. I tweeted: Listen, weird, sad queers, get your pitches ready. Use my book as an [example]. People will buy your books. Get a book deal. It’s a bad time at the moment, but I want everybody who does what I do to pitch their books.

We get sample pieces of your upcoming television show in Wow, No Thank You. What can you tell us about it?

All of Hollywood is at a standstill, but right before all of this went down, our show got picked up to pilot. Once this all is lifted and we can go outside again, I think they’re going to let us shoot a pilot. We have to find our perfect Sam (and I know she’s out there) and all the other little cast of characters that we put together, and then we’re going to shoot the pilot. And then hopefully, Comedy Central will love it and let us write a whole season. So, at the time when I turned this essay (“Season 1, Episode 1”) in, we hadn’t gotten the pilot pickup yet. 

If I write another book, I can either say, yeah, we made the show or oooh, that didn’t work out. So at this point, we have a pilot pickup, and hopefully we will be freed from our homes, and we can shoot it. And then Comedy Central [is] obviously going to love it—fingers crossed. Knock on wood. Hopefully, they’ll love it, and then we’ll get to make a whole season. That would just be so much fun. As long as I don’t have to be in it, I think it will be great.

Samantha Irby leans into moments with such sharp specificity and realness that it’s impossible not to cringe as hard as you laugh.

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In Wow, No Thank You you mention learning about TikTok. You recently retweeted a video of the duck quacking in time to Cookiee Kawaii’s “Vibe.” Have you gone on TikTok? If so, what TikToks resonate most with you?

I can’t go on it because I don’t know how to find the funniest things. But I do follow people on Twitter who repost funny TikToks. I’m sure there’s a world of TikToks I’m missing by not being on the app, but I tried for a couple of days, and I was like, how come I don’t know how to find anyone? It just seemed like too much work to find all of the things that made me laugh. But I do love to watch them and retweet them so I can prove that I watch something funny and cool. I just let the young folks of Twitter repost [TikToks], and then I just watch them. And it makes me very happy.

TikTok is truly [proof that] the kids are going to be fine. Everybody’s funny. Everybody’s so smart and hilarious. It truly makes me feel better about the world. These kids are 16 and in a bedroom with whatever little props they have around their room, and I’m scream-laughing. This is amazing. The future is bright.

TikTok takes a while, but once you’ve curated it properly, it’s the best platform. It’s the only one that I use at this point.

My friend Jesse was like, “I will tell you all of the funny people to follow.” But even then, I felt like I was missing something. So I gave up. I’m easily defeated. I was like, this is the universe telling you, grandma, that Instagram and Twitter are it for you. Let the young people have their thing, and you can enjoy the things that people you follow upload to the platform you actually know how to use!

Thanks for answering my questions about TikTok, which is my own obsession.

That was my favorite question I’ve ever been asked! I truly think [TikTok is] genius. I love when someone does a thing, and I have no idea how I would even approach doing it. So to have it be little 20-second videos people make on their phones in their homes, and you have no idea how they put that together and why it’s so funny—it’s the best. People are geniuses. It’s incredible.

And it’s difficult! I’ve attempted one, and I couldn’t figure out the transitions, and I gave up.

See?! Geniuses. Kids come out of the womb now just being like, “Hand me a phone. I’m going to make a hilarious video.” I love it so much.

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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Greatist, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.