Interview – Mia Kirshner
– by Monet Lucki
Many of us are familiar with Mia Kirshner from her roles in films such as Exotica, Not Another Teen Movie, and Black Dahlia, and TV series such as The L Word and Vampire Diaries.
But let’s take a second look at this actress and give her the praise she deserves as an activist and a writer. Kirshner recently completed a book called Intimacy. Each page is handmade and crafted, using photographs taken by the actress at an L Word Convention in Liverpool. A love story between two women, the limited edition book sold out surprisingly quickly.
Kirshner’s first book I Live Here (2008) left many enthralled by her artistically creative documentation of raw, unheard stories from around the world. By capturing these emotions with journal entries, comic strips, and drawings, Kirshner evoked a strong intimate connection between these women and children, and her readers. And this is not the end; I Live Here has become more than just a book, but an organization with plans to further extend and grow. For more information on this organization and how you can help, please check out the website.
Monet Lucki: What was your inspiration for writing Intimacy?
Mia Kirshner: I was really antsy after I Live Here to do something else that was much smaller in scope. And when I was at the L Word convention, which will be my last convention that I go to, I was really struck by the fact that it was so not about the show. But it was really about the community of women coming together and sort of various women coming to these things to meet each other and to just have a safe place to be together.
So I began to take pictures while I was there and then I began to ask the women to write about their lives, like how they came to be here, where they come from, their first kiss, sort of in the same style as in I Live Here. And then from there myself and this woman Mia B out of New York, a designer, put together Intimacy, which is basically inspired by the writing of the women. And it’s a love story between two women I guess with a bit of erotica in it.
ML: How did you get everything together to make this possible?
MK: The process of putting a book together is never easy in the sense that you can’t just make something in a day then expect it to be right. It’s taken months and months and months to just really make sure that each page reflects what the story is saying. We drew a lot, we re-photographed the images that I took.
ML: Are you doing any book tours to help promote this book at all?
MK: No this really is a tiny limited edition book and it was really done specifically for the group of women who attended the convention. And because it’s in such a small print run we sold a couple, then we sold more and now we’re sold out.
MK: Yeah, it’s exciting. We’re looking at offering some of the prints that we made because each page really looks like a sort of old French new wave poster.
ML: So you weren’t expecting it to sell out that quick?
MK: No. It’s great, because I Live Here I think has really become this movement. And I think a lot of people support the work we’re doing and really like our approach to design and that’s sort of where the emphasis came from. It just takes a long time to do these things. With each project I always forget it doesn’t take a day or a month. I mean I could easily just keep on working on this book for years but that’s not possible.
ML: What was your inspiration for I Live Here?
MK: Stories can change the world, and I just feel like especially with the way our media is right now, you really have to search for individual stores from people in isolated communities, and how they live, what they’re going through. And really I felt that I had a lot to learn so the book really started out months ago, with just wanting to pick four different countries and focus on getting people to write about their lives so we could learn about them, and to make a book that was accessible and really used art as the medium to express the story, something that I thought my friends might want to read.
ML: It’s a lot more personal that way because it evokes more emotions because you can see their feelings through their artwork and from their writing.
MK: That’s what we tried. Mike Simons and Paul Shoebridge did the book we did it together and with James MacKinnon who all live in Vancouver. They worked so hard on this book. The book is what it is because of them and our collaboration.
ML: Did you have any fears when starting this project?
MK: I mean I thought that it would take a year. I had no idea that it would take this long. I had no idea how much money it would cost. At the time, I didn’t apply for grants because I just felt like, I don’t know what this book is going to be when I’m finished with it because I’ve never done one of these things before, so I spent all my money on it. Which is a good thing to do in life because you get time in what you’re trying to produce. But yeah I guess I was, when you’re working on it at the time I wasn’t even thinking about it getting published. That was a big scare, if people would actually like it or read it.
ML: How would you describe your overall experience doing this project and visiting these four countries?
MK: It was a life changing experience. Once you start that kind of stuff, it’s kind of in your blood. It’s definitely not easy and it definitely eclipsed my whole life, in the sense that it really became clear to me that in order to do this, I had to make a hundred percent commitment. Because I went to the places and collected the material, but after that the process of putting the material together is the most labor intensive part.
It’s definitely a challenge and it also is a challenge being able to let go of a page when you are finally thinking it’s done. Because it never feels done. You’re never quite sure when it’s ready to be sent off. It definitely took a lot of patience and it taught me a lot about working with people.
ML: Seeing it finished and as a whole, and how successful it’s been so far, must feel really good.
MK: You know what feels good, is when I made the decision in Malawi, in Kachere Juvenile Prison, to start the I Live Here Projects. We [Kirshner and MacKinnon] worked hand in hand on that chapter. James and I talked about the fact that no body was in that prison helping those kids at the time, and nobody was advocating for their rights. It was really a very quick decision. I was like, I don’t think the book is enough, so I think we need to start the I Live Here Projects, which is going back to the places that we worked in, and setting up programs that really seek help for the communities. That really helped us.
So again these decisions are really made quickly but we’ve grown a program in that prison which I’m really proud of. I think because of the book, the prison is has more visibility, which is great. These kids can’t slip through the cracks anymore because I wrote about it once a month for The Huffington Post. There are a lot of people that know about this prison now.
We put composting toilets into each cell, and we set up a school. And something that I’m really proud of is, the kids weren’t getting enough food, and their nutrition was totally off. And because of that, the kids were getting sicker and sicker. So we started a garden around the prison walls, based on the concept of permaculture, which is basically only using what’s available from the area you’re working in; no chemical fertilizers, learning how to save your seeds. So it really saves the farmers a lot more money in the long run, and gives them healthier food. Because they don’t have to rely on the big seed companies.
So yeah, we also look after legal rights in the prison. We’ve been able to get a lot of kids released who shouldn’t have been there. We’ve been able to help this kid with a tumor on his head now who I met with when I last was there in January, who’s being released and getting medical care. So I’m really proud of what we’ve done.
ML: That’s amazing.
MK: What’s cool about it is our team. Because we are all volunteers, the only people that are paid are the staff in Malawi. Finally, we just hired somebody to work full time with us on the administration of this stuff, because if you can imagine it’s a lot of work. You know, we really have a team; if you can include their names because they’ll read this, and I think it would make them feel really good to be recognized because they worked so hard. Erica Solomon, who’s a teacher in LA. Judy Battaglia who’s a professor at LMU. They really came forward and helped develop the I Live Here Projects to be what it is today. And James, Mike, and Paul just because I want to make sure they get the credit, because they deserve a lot of it.
ML: It sounds also like it would be a very emotional experience. Did you ever feel overwhelmed with what you were seeing that was going on there?
MK: Actually, you know, yes. Definitely in Malawi. I think it’s a couple things that are overwhelming at first because of the magnitude of people’s problems when you’re looking at poverty. It is so overwhelming because you don’t know where to start. Like, do you give somebody a net for malaria, do you look after their nutrition, do you look after their legal rights? It’s hard to choose just one, whereas most major organizations just choose one thing to look after. And I wasn’t able to choose so we decided to do as much as we could.
I think that the thing that’s the most disturbing to me at this juncture is the larger organizations that we have tried to deal with in the past. I feel as organizations we should all work together to help each other with the common goal of helping these kids. We approached UNICEF because the government won’t supply cleaning supplies to the kids in the prisons. And we asked UNICEF if they could, and we got a letter back saying we don’t think the kids should be in prison, so we can’t, and we’ll work on the justice side of things. But they’re not, because we work on the justice side of things. So I know for a fact that nothing is going to be done.
ML: So you asked them to help with supplies and they said no?
MK: Yep. Because they said they believe that kids shouldn’t be in prison. And I was like, but they are. It’s sort of like, what are you going to do with those kids that are in there now? I believe kids shouldn’t be in prison either, but that is the reality, so how can you not help them. And the kids in there are really sick. I mean we can do as much as we can, but after a certain point larger organizations must come in and do more, and help. And that’s been sort of difficult. We are doing more than any other organization working in the prison, and I think that rocks for a group of girls who are just volunteers, and just working our butts off to do the best we can.
ML: So ideally, what would you like the results of the project to be?
MK: I Live Here is a multi-faceted thing, one facet of which is continuing the series of anthologies. The second part is our projects. Now, in terms on where we are going next, we are going to create an online community for people whose stories go unheard, for example people who have been affected by the recession, newly homeless people who can’t afford health care, things that affect us in North America. They will have a place to put their stories online with video, sound, and photographs and then we’ll make a book from that in addition to keep on running the Malawi program.
ML: When are you planning on starting your second project?
MK: I think post-July.
ML: Is there anything else that you want people to know about this project, the book, or anything that you’ve been doing?
MK: We always want to hear people’s stories, and that is something we’re collecting now. People send us videos all the time. This is a random example: “I am a teenager who’s struggling with depression and I don’t know what to do.” Or, “I am a gay woman and I was just discharged from the military.” So I hope people will send us their stories because this is something that we’re really able to curate once we build our site.
ML: There are a lot of unheard stories, and people don’t feel comfortable talking about them, or they don’t know where to go.
MK: Yeah. When you’re in it, certainly nobody’s life is easy.Sometimes when we’re going though a problem or an issue we feel like our problems aren’t important enough to voice. And to have a safe place to go for people to do this, and to be able to be heard, if we feel valued maybe it’ll make our community stronger, because we will feel better about ourselves and our lives.
ML: And to know other people out there are going through the same exact thing.
MK: Yeah. Exactly, exactly.