What does redistributing power and wealth look like? Isabelle Nastasia sat down with Grace Dunham to discuss radicalization, fame, and family.
Grace Dunham pops up on my screen, slightly glitchy, but definitely grinning back at me over Google Hangout. “Hello!”, we echo back to one another like kids in an underpass. The sun is reflecting off of Grace’s glasses, and their hair is clearly growing out of what was a much shorter, bleached cut. Grace’s look is pretty nostalgic, and at certain angles they remind me of a young Judith Butler, piercing eyes and playful expressions. Wearing a simple red button up, Grace uses gentle and tutorial hand gestures to punctuate their points, emulating “super butch” Jay Toole. At times, they even remind me of the late River Phoenix, floppy haired, articulate, charming but coy.
“Are you in New York right now?” they ask me, with a kind of soft familiarity that actually makes it feel like we’re both sitting on my bed. “I am in Brooklyn, I am in my bedroom on this lovely Saturday morning, where are you?” I ask as I adjust my WiFi network. Grace is drinking something out of a coffee mug, hanging out on what looks like an outdoor patio, soaking in the rays. “Right now, I’m at my sister’s house in Los Angeles.”
Grace is a writer and activist, who just released a compilation of poetry entitled The Fool. The 30-page chapbook was published late last month on a neon green website, and despite having access to money and cultural capital, Grace chose not to work with a publisher or other institutional channels. With the help of some friends, they dropped the link in a tweet with the line: “read + share + steal cuz it’s free”, which might be the perfect window into Grace’s overall sentiment towards value, and what needs to happen in this fucked up world we live in. The child of artists Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham (both of whom have received fellowships from the Guggenheim), Grace grew up in Manhattan's TriBeCa, attended private school at Saint Ann's in Brooklyn Heights, and is more than familiar with rigid, dominant, and indeed, violent conceptions of success and ambition. And that was the case even before their sister became one of the most famous young people in the country.
If you don’t know, Grace’s sister is Lena Dunham, an actor and producer known for her satirical depictions of white twenty-somethings experiencing a kind of anxiety and existentialism with post-college life, never better embodied than by her hit HBO series, Girls. Lena’s first feature film Tiny Furniture co-starred a teenage Grace, and captured a kind of awkwardly honest, if not, intimate inner-life of someone coming of age in a well-to-do family in New York. But Tiny Furniture wasn’t Grace’s be all and end all career as an actor. Believe it or not, their name only first came into my orbit when they played the part of “Junior” in Happy Birthday, Marsha!, the short film directed by Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel about the lives of Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and the hours leading up to the Stonewall riots. While these projects might seem worlds apart, I think that speaks to the spaces that Grace travels in, as well as the unique set of questions they face as somebody in proximity to both wealth and power, and radical ideas and action, including those that seek economic redistribution, and the end to prisons and police. Close friends, Reina and Grace have given talks and been interviewed together about state violence, the importance of aesthetics in organizing, and things like selfie-taking and stealing as queer and trans modes of survival. Grace cites Reina ceremonially, attributing much of their entry into trans community and social movements to the two of them becoming close following Grace’s graduation from Brown University.
Since graduating, Grace has worked as a nanny and a researcher, but as of late has been pursuing work as a writer. These days Grace is being published in places like The New Yorker, and The Village Voice. “Most of the things I do for money are not the most fulfilling things in my life,” they speak like a true millennial. Instead, Grace emphasizes the giddiness and warmth they feel when exchanging writing with friends and getting feedback in the form of Facebook comments on their posts. Before leaving New York, “for the time being,” Grace appeared as a reader at several events, from small gay bars to big white-walled Chelsea galleries, which they see as serving very different functions in terms of how they speak and advocate in those different worlds.
Lately, Grace has found themself in what they describe as a “constant turmoil,” trying to figure out where they fit into a lineage of resistance and gender deviance – as somebody with a fundamental commitment to fighting capitalism, somebody who grew up in a rich white culture, somebody with a profound love for art, sex, and friends, somebody who inhabits a queer life and is searching for fulfillment, joy, and pleasure. But despite their internal dilemmas, Grace speaks with a kind of self-awareness, empathy, and also healthy doses of cynicism that is humbling to interface with, even over webcam.
Grace spoke to us about how they decide what to wear in the morning, what it’s like for them to navigate family, fame, and radical politics, and what they’re hopeful about.