Interview: Kiki Sabater On Judgment, Culture, Gender and her New Book

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Set Me On Fire Before I Blow

Set Me On Fire Before I Blow is a mixed-medium monograph by Kiki Sabater. Based on a series of Sabater's notebooks from 2012 to 2018 this book explores the life of a young female artist. Stylized photos capture intimate moments and accompany journal entries and handwritten excerpts from the notebooks by Sabater. In poems, lyrics, prose, and photos, she examines what it means to be a writer, musician, lover, and woman who wrestles with mental illness and shares these experiences without boundary or judgement.

BUY $24.95 US

ISBN: 978-0999294307

Photography / Poetry / Women
Paperback (Now Available)
7.5 x 9.25 inches | 180 pages
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What cultural value do you see in writing, reading and storytelling?

In a world where tech, social media and messed up world politics reign, I think art is what we need now more than ever. Art is healing, unifying, and precious. Art in any form gives both the artist and the consumer a chance to connect to the human experience. For me, talking about the things I talk about in the book has value. I hope to connect with people of all ages, but especially young people. Late teens and early twenties are really fucking tough. So are anxiety and depression and trying to figure out who you are, what you want, and what is good for you. I want to talk about these issues. I want anyone who picks up this book to feel less alone. I think it is important to maintain and preserve the value of honesty in our society. If art is a way I can accomplish that, then I’ll be glad. Same thing with a songwriting. My music isn’t super cheerful stuff, but it’s honest and I intend to continue to create honest work.

If you could express a few thoughts about your book to all your readers what would it be?

I suppose the end of the introduction gave me a chance to crystalize the reason I created this book. What I’ve come to is the truth that everyone has their stuff. Everyone has their insecurities, their pain, their ugliness, madness, whatever it may be, but that none of us are alone in that. And it’s ok. And you’re still ok. 

There appears to be a strong through line of mental illness that shapes the book’s journey. Can you expand on that personal journey?

I don’t think I realized its influence on the book until I read the proof copy I received from the publisher right before the book went to press. I was deep in a cycle for a few years at that point, on and off meds. In hindsight, the instability of my moods and my ability to cope influenced the emotions discussed in the book. 

I suffered from intense anxiety as a kid. I ran the spectrum of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, to Panic Disorder, to having specific phobias. I was sensitive and hyperaware of my surroundings, other’s emotions, and the energy of an environment. Small stimuli that were unfamiliar or uncomfortable would set me off. I took medication for the anxiety when I was ten. I had counseling and then also worked my way to getting back onto the school bus (a terrifying phobic fear) through Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy with a psychologist. The panic attacks abated some throughout my teen years but the overwhelming, constant, daily anxiety persisted through college, which transformed itself into obsessive and compulsive behaviors surrounding food and exercise which made me feel more in control of my mind. It’s funny—when you spend half your free time obsessing about calories and the other half exercising them off, you have no time or energy to be present or deal with your mind or emotions. I was in a state of depression when I was away at the conservatory in the UK, but I didn’t recognize it because its onset had been so slow, and environmental, situational and geographical aspects of my life had changed, I assumed this is just how I felt. I ended up transferring back to school in the states and recovered from two years of Anorexic behaviors. 

When I graduated school and moved to the city, I thought I was doing pretty kick ass and decided 6 times over the past 4 years to go off my meds. Drugs are great if you take them when you’re supposed to, and I’ve learned that they don’t work so well anymore when you stop taking them. My first big blip was two years into living in New York City. I was suffering from intense social anxiety, was irritable, but then, sometimes woke up energetic and inspired. I would make plans for weeks out and race around the apartment a few hours later melting into the couch as I couldn’t seem to accomplish anything and had been pacing the hall making phone calls. I became paranoid and phoned home. I told my parents that people were watching me and that I couldn’t leave the apartment. I saw a new psychiatrist in Florida and flew back up a week later. I went back to playing shows, drinking, doing drugs and forgetting to take my meds again. The cycles continued, up and down, down and up but I had become so accustomed to these energies and mood shifts I felt like I was lazy or overtired or a brilliant musical genius who could only write or play when inspired. 

All of this took place over the course of the time span of the notebook entries and in the book. I didn’t realize how sick I was until I ended up at Bellevue Hospital this past winter. I don’t think I realized how sick I was until I felt better. When there was a clarity in my thoughts and my mood stabilized. In reviewing the book proof I had a moment of deep sadness. I realized I had been suffering for years and never allowed myself to get the help I needed. I was too busy putting on a good face. The whole book isn’t about being “sick”. But being ill had a huge impact on my behavior, the topics of my journal writing and influenced my music during that six-year span.

It’s important for me to share. Even now with a little more clarity, I don’t want to forget, hide or be ashamed of a condition I have that results from shitty luck and genes. There are so many people suffering in their own ways, or the same ways, or any way at all and I don’t think suffering is something we should hide from as a society. What happened to being honest? What happened to being unafraid to be ugly, to be yourself and to be unashamed of the truth? 

This is my reality, and it is part of the story I had to tell in this book.

Where does gender fit in with your relationship to the world and how does it influence your writing?

I address gender at the beginning and again towards the end of the book, but I think there is an inherent aspect of a woman in the writing. I talk about women’s experiences. I talk about self-esteem, about my body, about bleeding, about giving, as women so often do at the expense of themselves. I say, “I forget this is a man’s world and I am just a piece of woman in it”. That isn’t how I see the world, but that is often how life can feel as a woman. The power of women in our society is strengthening, but it is always a fight. It feels like a never-ending uphill battle. Sometimes, it’s difficult muster the energy to fight. 

I’ve been a self-proclaimed feminist since the fourth grade. I made a petition for all the girls in my class to sign to let the boys let us play sports with them at recess. I hate playing sports but I hated the idea even more that they wouldn’t include us because they were girls. I came to school the next morning to find the boys had scribbled all over the petition I wrote that the teacher had posted on the whiteboard. I told the other girls that this act only further showed their discrimination. We would have to fight harder. I feel as if that fight has continued now into my adult life. As a female musician, you fight to be seen as equal to your male counterparts. I’ve gone to play shows and walked into the venue with my guitar to be told by the promoter I could drop off my “boyfriend’s guitar” in the greenroom but couldn’t stay backstage. As a writer, there’s a little more respect, but at the start of this project I had a guy tell me this was the stupidest idea he ever heard of. He asked what I thought was so special about my notebooks and my writings that anyone would want to read them. He asked why I thought I had something more important to say than anyone else. It’s shit like that that is horrible to hear but it makes me want to fight harder. I have moments of weakness for sure, and that kind of negativity gets you down. But this book is a statement that is a big fuck you to all those people (namely men) who told me why my work wasn’t valuable, why I was undeserving of a book deal, and how I had only been successful in any measure because I was “hot”. I shouldn’t have to fight to show my worth but that is the reality of the world. 

Talk about judgment, you’re open in this book, was that a difficult process?

Yes, and no. It’s more difficult now as people are buying the book and are reading it for the first time. I’ve been sitting on this material for a long time, longer than when I started the process of putting it into the book, so, I never wrote coming from the perspective of “oh this will be read by anyone and everyone”, they were just personal notes for me. Now, that it’s out, the experience of the book, the process in its entirety from beginning to now, the release stage is one of the more difficult parts. It’s out of my hands. I can’t change what we printed. I have to take about an hour or two to ground myself before I read people’s reviews or personal messages they send me about their reaction and experience with the book. I’d like to say I don’t care and I am far enough removed from the material that people’s opinions don’t affect me. But to be honest that’s not the case. 

What about nudity? There is partial nudity throughout the book. Could you talk about that choice?

Regarding nudity, I don’t feel so vulnerable. One of my favorite artists, Rita Lino, says, “nudity is not nakedness. I keep hiding behind this body. I want to show you how I feel. I want to have a feeling in the first place, but my body keeps getting in the way”. 

In the opening passage, I think I touch on some of those ideas. Like most women,  I have a complex relationship with my body. I’ve used my body before as a way of getting what I wanted, and I’ve also struggled with myself image. I spent the first two years of college dancing with Anorexia, and I’m not sure that stinking thinking ever goes away. It’s like an addiction—a battle you have to fight every day to take care of yourself and your body. That being said, I talk openly in the book about the objectification of my body by others, and for me it feels like a way of reclaiming my power. Not only over people who objectify women’s bodies but also over my mind. It does not mean the photos were meant to be sexualized. They are not designed to be erotic. There is no retouching. This is my body, this is me. I wanted to document the reality, the imperfection, and own it. 

A friend’s boyfriend saw an early version of the book with some photos now included and made a horrible comment about being excited for the book to come out, so he could see my pussy. That kind of garbage is inevitable I guess when you expose yourself, but it’s a shame that perspective is the one that prevails instead of an appreciation of the non-sexy, real representation of a woman without shaved legs or perfect skin that is brave enough to be herself. At this point it’s out of my hands, but I want to be clear that the photos are not meant to be gratuitous, sexed up, or nudity just for the sake of nudity.  I don’t care if anyone thinks it’s attractive or not. That’s not the point. 

What would you say to other young people who may fear or be apprehensive about being judged? 

It’s a personal journey, it’s a choice. My brand of sharing and expressing myself isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and I know that. Judgement will always be there. Everyone is a critic, everyone has their opinion, and thanks to the internet people feel entitled to blast their opinions all over the place like a confetti cannon. There’s little to lose. The most important thing about expressing yourself is just being honest to who you are and saying what you need to say. Hopefully, you’re not being a dick. Other than that, people will say what they will say and as long as you feel good about your work and what you’ve created, the rest doesn’t matter.