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Season 03: Episode 15: Erika Duncan Transcript

Queer Diagnosis Podcast

Season 03: Episode 15: Erika Duncan

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Zarya: Hi, Welcome back to Queer Diagnosis. We're back for your third season and I'm your host Zarya, my pronouns are she/her/hers.

Srihita: Hello, I'm Srihita. My pronouns are also she/her/hers. Our guest today is the founder of HerStory, Erika Duncan. Hello Erika, could you please introduce yourself with your pronouns?

Erika: I'm Erika Duncan, my pronouns are she and her.

Zarya: Erika and I met a few months back when one of the Ph.D. students who's working on HerStory, which we're gonna get into a little bit, reached out and Queer Diagnosis and HerStory have a partnership. Erika, do you mind telling us a little bit about what HerStory is and what inspired you to create it?

Erika: Okay, we're going back 27 years now. HerStory is officially, as of a couple of weeks ago, we've changed our name to HerStory Writers Network to celebrate the transition from a single workshop 27 years ago to an international network today. We are a network of some very small, intimate writing circles that spread through Long Island's jails, through the community, through different school districts and empower people to write their stories with the technique that's based on the creation of empathy in a reading stranger and way to help anybody regardless of whether they've written before, and regardless of where they're coming from, to dare somebody else to walk in their shoes.

Zarya: I am not very good at writing. I can say, having done one of the workshops that we're working on right now, it's such an inclusive environment for listeners. In case anyone wants to get involved, we will include more details about that following our conversation with Erika. Erika, you touched upon this earlier but in what ways have you cultivated community through your work with the LGBTQ+ community?

Erika: Going back a little bit to my personal story, I got married quite young. I decided to. My mother seemed to feel that being a mother was the most wonderful thing in the world. That wasn’t necessarily my perception of the relationship. I had been going to college and then I left college and I had three children, totally because I wanted to, before the age of 24 and was happily settled, I thought. I was starting to write. I was seriously studying writing with a mentor. Then all of a sudden, back in 1976 these couple of women... oh, and I was having for my mentor...I was having these literary salons in my Westbeth loft in the city. All these kinds of wonderful well-known writers were coming and one day somebody came and she said to me "Well, I love them. I love this. You're doing what I've always dreamed of doing. But the people in the room are wrong." I didn't know what she was talking about.

I was visited a couple of days later by these four women and one was wearing overalls and a backward baseball cap. I was nursing my youngest child, holding her like a shield, holding my happy marriage. They began to talk about forming these salons for women writers and what it would be like, [women's writing] it’s always been the background with men's literary movements and that they were doing something. To make a long story short. I was hosting sometimes for over 100 women in my apartment, which was the seat of my marriage. I asked my husband "Well, don't be around". My three daughters were helping to collect little bits of contributions and it was Mother's Day and we had a salon for Adrienne Rich, at that point, I hadn't heard of her. But it was kind of wonderful to have her and Catherine Simpson and Barbara Deming who were all women's activists, and lesbian activists in my living room, and I began to have long conversations with one of the women on the phone all the time about large ideas, writing, and it was a real high. My husband kept saying, "Oh, well, you're in love with this woman." and I'd say "What are you talking about? Come on. That's not happening." All of a sudden, I realized "Hey, wait, he's right." I was. That's when my whole life turned around. But it was also at the height of this movement to give voice to women writers who were not yet recognized. Famous writers who had come to my apartment, to introduce writers who are now household names, but who none of us had heard of. That is how it all began. But it was also planting the roots for HerStory, and without knowing it, once again, people were suddenly bringing me women who had stories they want to or wanted to write but they were blocked. It turned out I was fairly good at helping them. I was something like 29 years old.

Srihita: I think it's interesting that you bring up the idea of feeling blocked and you being able to help them through those moments. In your moments of stagnation and frustration, are there certain experiences that you use as touchstones to keep you motivated?

Erika: That's possibly a much more tricky question than you realize. What I think happened to me, one of the things and my goals for HerStory is that it should never happen to anybody else. I had not been exposed to a nonhierarchical type of writing situation. In, I want to say the old days, but when I was coming of age, even if your mentor was a woman which mine was, it was a hierarchy. If you got very, very close to that woman or man, whoever, you would be invited to have coffee, you might be invited to events. If your style or your way was too different you would be badly excluded. Years later, I would end up with students my mentor had thrown in the garbage. All of a sudden what happened with this woman’s salon is there were all these writers who in terms of my own aesthetic or style, I might not have thought that I would have chosen to support their work. Here I was having salons and their styles work extremely differently from mine. What happened though, to me, is that after a while, and especially 20 years later with the founding of HerStory, they're helping other people have a voice. That took over and it began to sustain me. My students were asking some of our fellows, yesterday, as I was telling all these stories "Well what about your work?" and I said, "Well, someday, HerStory will have all the help it needs. I'll be able to get back to my work." So what happens? I think one of the goals I have is that regardless of style, voice, level of education, or whether people have written before, we would somehow form something where everybody could feel that they could write and be part of the writing community if that was what they desired, but we would also give them the tools in writing like anything else. Since you intersect with medicine, I mean, writing is in art. It's a skill. It's a craft. It’s not something you just do.

Zarya: I think it's incredible. This project that you started is amazing, especially now started in 1976, we've come a long way since 1976. I think that's the same year that my mother was born. I know the exact years. But my point is, I also think it's amazing that you were able to fit over 100 women in your New York City apartment, Srihita and I were living in a New York City apartment, about a year ago, as well. We could barely fit three people in our apartment. That was its own fun. I suppose one of my questions to you is what was the demographic of the women that were coming to you at the time? What were their backgrounds? Was it a diverse group?

Erika: This is the early woman salon, not early Herstory which... the early women salon was not tremendously diverse. It became more diverse over time. People like Alice Walker were there. We had Native American women who were my close friends. [They] did a beautiful salon, I think that... and we became friendly with people, women coming from India. I think that the diversity grew slowly. I think that one of the things that were characteristic of both the woman's salon and then later HerStory, is women loving women. At that point, they were not, at least in the salon set, working separately from women who were more identified with men. One of my favorite stories is about someone who came over from France and had been working with Monique Witting and wanted to meet all the lesbian separatists I knew. They immediately mentioned, Andrea Dworkin and Phyllis Chesler, and Robin Morgan, all of whom happened to be living with men, but very strong feminists. We gave a salon for Olga Broumas who had won the Yale Younger Poets Prize, a beautiful lesbian poet and very young at that time. There were all these quite heterosexual scholars there. I think that kind of openness to each other, to each other's stories, the kind of discovery that went on was quite wonderful.

Zarya: I do think that it's an amazing project, especially with HerStory now. Kind of thinking about the partnership that we have between Queer Diagnosis and HerStory, do you mind telling us a little bit about the workshop that we've created as well as what we're hoping to accomplish?

Erika: Sure. I think I discovered Queer Diagnosis when one of our fellows had done some research through his other work at Stony Brook and found you. I was very, very excited because I felt that the work that you're doing and looking at what happens in the medical profession, especially struck by what it means to not be able to have doctors, leaders, practitioners, be able to be open about who they are, and therefore people who need to find them can't find them, that whole thing of invisibility. I was also struck by stories that I had heard over and over again, about how young people, who are from Islamic communities or communities that are less accepting, even in the mainstream, could not be open about their lives with their parents and have support and I felt that the stories that you all had, were important. That link between healing the universal right to health care and identity, I could go on and on about the topics but we always say you can argue with a political position, but you can't argue with a story. The first time that we met, and we were telling you about what we did, I suddenly found that I was retelling the story of the founding of HerStory all intermingled with my search for the perfect lover. It's not the story that I usually tell about the founding of HerStory, but then I found that when you are telling your story, I said this story has to be out there in the world, because I think all of our stories are deeply individual, but they ring a chord for our common humanity. I sense that in the fall, this partnership will flourish and grow and that the stories we produce will begin to make a change.

Zarya: How can the listener who's listening right now get involved?

Erika: Okay, well you can visit our website which is and you can go into the “Contact Us” or you can directly email me at But I think one of the things especially with our community online workshops, which we offer free of charge, is that you can come once or twice to work on a particular story that needs to be told, or you can continue year after year writing a book-length project and it is a family. A lot of our fellows, by chance, or not by chance, and I don't think it's an accident, identify with the community. We also have in-person workshops. We've worked a great deal in the schools. We work with newcomer students. We don't usually have special classes for students who identify with the community, but over and over, we're seeing that when we have a writing workshop, even for students who have crossed the border, we will get these extraordinarily poignant stories about how god still loves them or what happened when they told a friend or. I think that one of my favorite HerStory stories was from a workshop in West Babylon on Long Island and run by a counseling center that was very LGBTQ-friendly. We had our first transgender writer and at that point, this is going back quite a while, there was some debate even with the Counseling Center. "Wait for a second, if we have a women's group, can we accept that this person feels that she, in this case, always identified as a girl, even through the childhood of being a boy?" I said, "Well, we're writing our memories, our perceptions, and our dreams.” and I sort of stood firm. On the day that Donna Riley, who is quite a well-known activist now in the community, first came to the writing workshop, we also had Ruksana Ayyub, who was from Pakistan. Her mother had grown up behind the high walls and veils and had the first love marriage. Ruksana was brand new, and I had no idea how on earth this was going to work. I was kind of nervous. I didn't know either of them. What happened in terms of what we call page one moments, is Roxanna had told the story of how she had trouble finding the place and she kept going in and out of tunnels. That made her remember when she was a little girl. Her mother had a love marriage but had been brought up in the confines. She was terrified to let her daughter go beyond the little wall and it wasn't the high wall it was a tiny wall. She said that she remembered how she dug a hole under this little wall crawled through it and came up and said "Okay, Mom, I'm here I'm okay." and then she said, "I'm in an arranged marriage, and I want to see where I come up." Meanwhile, Donna was working on her page one. She originally wanted to start at the moment when they were going to cut off her penis. I drew a deep breath thinking who knows how everyone here feels about all of this but... and I said but, that won't allow this imaginary stranger reader to get to know who you are and how you even feel about having a penis anyway. We talked about it and we found instead a moment where she was in Sag Harbor, on eastern Long Island, and she was wearing a dress for the first time a long skirt flowing in the wind. She was with her wife of 20 years. She wanted to start the story with how suddenly these guys call out, "Hey, ladies" and suddenly her wife turns to her and says, "I don't know if I can be a lesbian." and then you find out through the way that she was constructing the writing, that they have a son and that they're... and we were talking about this, and then I went into a parking lot later. Still not knowing well, how did this fit with everyone? I see them, Ruksana and Donna, talking to each other in the parking lot. I hear them saying, "We're in the same place. We were both born into the wrong bodies." and I wanted to cry. That's what our work is about. Ruksana did indeed take the strength of the writing process and she was able to become, a human rights activist leader of NGOs in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and all over. She took off. That's what I think our work is about.

Zarya: I think that's an amazing story. If I'm being honest with you, I'd love to read the actual stories that came out of that. Especially because I don't even know what to say...those are amazing stories. I think it’s a great example of what could come out of it if listeners would come out to our workshop.

Srihita: Our last question is a tradition. If you could turn back time and talk to your 20-year-old self, what would you tell them?

Erika: Interesting question. My 20-year-old self wasn't yet woken. I'd have to talk to maybe my 29-year-old self but to that 20-year-old self… I think I would have to choose that other moment. To that 20-year-old self, I probably wouldn't ask her to do anything different. She had to fall in love at that point, in that moment, and in that culture. Who knows? If I was living in this current era, maybe I would have skipped the thing with a man altogether, but having three daughters I'm happy. To the 29-year-old self, I think I would have been able to say "Don't rush so much." There's something heavy and beautiful about all of his. But within this, there are going to be all kinds of people, women around. I think I was trying to make people who weren't yet able to love women…I spent years falling in love with the wrong people. I think that same thing of spending years trying to find the right lover for whatever writing I was doing, and I would do exactly what everybody in Herstory keeps saying. They all say "If only I had HerStory. If I had had a Herstory workshop when I was 20 maybe I wouldn't have even had to get married early." If I had a HerStory workshop when I was a teenager, I think I would have discovered who I was. I would have known that the world is kind of wider. That's why I try hard. That's why our school programs and our programs for people your age, they're important. Because I think hopefully each generation can spare the coming generation some of what we had to struggle to make happen. Notwithstanding that in some ways, this world is going backward alarmingly. Somehow, I think that when we were young, there was also more of a movement. One of my hopes for this collaboration is that we'll be able to use this story-shaping project to create more of a sense of movement, because we need it badly, more than ever.

Zarya: Thank you so much for sharing that. I think that is especially important, I think to engage in the workshop. Now I'm kind of wondering if I'm engaging with the workshops to the full extent that I can be. I'm 22 right now, and I do think that the workshop is a great opportunity for people to become more introspective, reflect on their experiences, and then share that with the world. I'm extremely grateful to you for creating the workshops, as well as for interviewing with us today. Thank you so much.

Erika: Thank you. This was wonderful.

Srihita: We probably could have spent hours doing this but thank you so much for the time that we got to talk to you.

Erika: This was great. Yeah, it was fun.

Zarya: Thanks for listening. Please consider making a donation to the Queer Diagnosis Scholarship Fund to connect students with much-needed financial support as a means of guaranteeing their academic success, particularly those students who identify as members or advocates of the LGBTQ+ community. Read the transcript for this episode at Queer Diagnosis is

Srihita: Srihita Mediboina.

Katya: Katya Shemelyak

Jameson: Jameson Coleman.

Zarya: And me, Zarya Shaikh. Music is composed and provided by Cara Dugan and Adam Fredette. This podcast is supported by listeners like yourself. Our Patreon is Rate and subscribe to Queer Diagnosis wherever you like to listen.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future.

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