“ intention is to raise the topic, and on one side, be funny, and on the other side be really serious underneath; to find a way into people’s minds in a way that isn’t confrontational, because then most people would go, “Oh yeah? You want to confront me? You’re aggressive! Why should I stay and listen to you?” So I try to sneak in there with a good story that they would like to read, and in the good story, things are hiding.”
Joey Juschka is a male-female author and performer. Her writing addresses everyday issues, witnessed in Berlin and around the world, for which she fictionalizes potential solutions. Juschka has written short stories, commentaries, spoken word pieces, and a radio play, all published and performed in major German outlets. She is currently writing a novel.
Sarah J Halford: Can you tell me a little bit about your creative practice?
Joey Juschka: I’m a writer. The main thing that I’m writing right now is a novel, but I also write columns for one of the papers here in Germany, which is pretty cool because I’m free to write whatever, as long as it is a scene that supposedly happened in Berlin.
SJH: What kind of things do you enjoy writing about the most?
JJ: Things that get on my nerves. There was a series of short stories that I started writing that all have some topic or observation where I think, “Oh, that’s me.” So, I think: okay, let’s make this fictional, and let’s make a fictional law that is somehow as realistic as possible so that people who read or hear the story can question if it is true or not – basically create a fictional world that is much better than what’s around now.
I like this, because it also gives me a through-line to my work; I decided that I write about observations of things that I don’t like and then change them, fictionally. The best for me is when I read a story at an event and people come up to me and say something like, “Is this true?” I like to keep it as grounded as possible so that people question if the fiction is actually true or not. Are we living this already? Or not yet?
SJH: What do you think is important about creating such realistic fiction?
JJ: If a story is realistic, it touches people’s lives. They can relate. They start thinking, if only for a second, “If this is true, how does it affect me?”
The best example is maybe the very first story I wrote in my “The World, Improved” series; a story about peeing in public. There’s a lot of peeing in public in Berlin, and it bothers me. I don’t want to turn a corner and suddenly stand in front of a guy with his dick hanging out and peeing. I believe you can technically fine this person, but of course only if you’re a government official. So, in fact, nobody ever gets fined, and the dick-out-and-pee-business continues. So, I made up a story about a clever lawyer who successfully pushed for a law that anybody who sees somebody peeing and feels bothered by it can fine that person right on the spot.
When reading or listening to this story, people, at least in Berlin, are either very concerned that the law really did get changed in the way described and they could be fined any time now that they pee in public, or people suddenly get this look on their face like “Cool! I can finally do something about something that really, really bothers me!”
Even though they can’t do anything in the end, because it’s only a fictional law, for a second their reality was changed. For a second there was an opening into another world of possibility. And I believe once you experience this moment of “Oh! There actually was a solution to a no-solution-problem,” then the next time there’s an apparent no-solution-problem, you know that maybe it isn’t a no-solution-problem after all. You can go back to that experience and look into it, get reassured that there is a solution – maybe a real wacky one, but way wacky is way better than being stuck in thinking that there’s no way one can change anything. You can change everything. Think broader, think more absurd, come up with whatever and go from there. Think back to that one time that there was something that bothered you, with at first no apparent way out, and then there suddenly was a way out; even if only fictional, but you believed in it for a second. You’ll find a way out again, whether now what bothers you is a small everyday life problem or a huge political issue.
SJH: Do you write with the intention of being political or does it sort of happen on its own?
JJ: A mixture. I think I am only satisfied when there’s some sort of message, not just nice words that you can read and then forget about. So, it’s a mixture of wanting to write politically and having it also come automatically.
SJH: Where do your words live? Solely on the page, or elsewhere?
JJ: For the past one and a half years, I haven’t done any public appearance because I’ve been so concentrated on the novel. But I’ve done spoken-word performances. I also sometimes print my words on little sheets and put them in places. One short piece, called Die Toilette, was made into a radio play. That was interesting, because it was on Deutschlandradio, which is like German radio’s big station, and they kept saying that they might want to use it, but that it might be too “risky.” They took a half a year to decide! I was like, man, it’s just public bathrooms – what’s risky about this?
SJH: Well, what are your thoughts on public bathrooms?
JJ: Hm. It’s always a complicated issue for me. Usually, I avoid public bathrooms, because it’s always the questions of, “Where am I?” “Who are the people around me?” “In which bathroom would I fit more?” Like if I’m at the opera and I’m dressed in a tie and suit, I ask myself, “do I go into the women’s bathroom where I’m out of place?” Because, of course, all of the women are dressed in dresses at the opera. But, do I go to the men’s bathroom? Which would fit more like how I’m dressed, which I could get away with at first sight, but at second sight they may realize, “Oh, that’s a woman!” So, I’m like, ugh. God. I just want to pee.
I’m running a google search instead of concentrating on writing. I blame the yoga studio where I just was, more precisely: the men’s toilet there. It’s filthy, and I wish I’d chosen the ladies’ instead, but I didn’t because I’d been in the men’s locker room just before – and from there straight on to the ladies’ bathroom: nah, that’s asking for trouble. Asking for funny looks at the least. There would’ve been funny looks, too, if I’d chosen the ladies locker room right from the start – not by everyone and maybe only for a few seconds – but funny looks nevertheless. And I didn’t want funny looks, I didn’t want to feel out of place; I just wanted to change.
So I’m sitting here, thinking “uhm”, and googling “gender neutral locker room Berlin”.
Google thinks “uhm”, too, and spits out reports about school sports in Sweden and unisex loos in Berlin, but nothing else useful really.
“Uhm”, I think again, and then I remember “bottom” and “top”. That’s what the locker rooms are called at the place where I do Qi Gong: “bottom”, or downstairs, and “top”, upstairs, rather than “ladies” and “gents”. For three years I was always on “top” before I realized that it wasn’t that gender neutral after all. At the “top” there were only men – men on top, women at the bottom. I don’t know why it’s like that, there’s no sign anywhere, but it is like that there.
Excerpt from “Top and Bottom – Empty Locker Rooms” by Joey Juschka. Translated from German.
SJH: Are there gender-neutral bathrooms in Berlin?
JJ: A few. There was one in an artist house, which is now closed, but it was the first gender-neutral bathroom, which was pretty cool.
SJH: Is it a big topic of discussion here?
JJ: Not a big topic, but actually in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, one of the districts of Berlin, they put gender-neutral bathrooms in one of the public buildings. That was a start, but it was also interesting to see the articles in the newspapers with the reactions of, “Why do we need this?” and “Why are we spending money on this?”
SJH: Did you set an intention for the work when you wrote about the bathroom situation?
JJ: I think the intention is to bring this topic out there, but in a way that’s funny, also. I like humor a lot, which is why I also like performing my pieces or doing spoken-word instead of having people read them silently, or thinking that they’re reading a piece of literature. That happens in Germany a lot; and the literature gurus don’t like funny. But it’s not meant to be serious, it’s meant to tickle you.
So, the intention is to raise the topic, and on one side, be funny, and on the other side be really serious underneath; to find a way into people’s minds in a way that isn’t confrontational, because then most people would go, “Oh yeah? You want to confront me? You’re aggressive! Why should I stay and listen to you?” So I try to sneak in there with a good story that they would like to read, and in the good story, things are hiding.
SJH: Would you put yourself in the category of creative activist, then?
JJ: I think…yes. Yes, actually.
“The world, improved” readings, where I actually ask the audience way ahead – by newsletter, flyers, postings, etc. – what they’d love to be improved, or I let them pick from a list of problems and improvements I’m currently writing on so that they can have their say on which one I should finish for the next reading. That’s very fun and also gives me an idea of what’s important to people.
Other times, I have a set of stories I’ll read, so the audience doesn’t chose which ones I read, but they do chose which one is the most important to them, that they want to hear it first, next, third, etc. So it’s a live voting on “we need a solution for this first”. I love doing this, too, because it’s a great interaction with the audience. And the voting in general also adds a layer of “there’s somebody out there, working for me, taking care of the problems that I don’t know what to do with myself.”
SJH: How do you feel about speaking your words out loud, bringing them off the page?
JJ: The main thing for me is that actually reaches people as much as possible. I think that’s a line that I’m trying to walk, with the writing or other stuff that I do: making it so that it is mainstream enough that it’s not taken as, “Oh yeah, that’s just some other queer, political shit that we don’t want to read.” As if it’s too left or something. But to actually get into the mainstream with the queer message is important.
I think I also like to have the nice, shiny pictures of the mainstream and then put something in there which is a little subversive, rather than doing it from the outside, creating another culture. Which is also an option, but it’s not my work, and I think it’s also the reason why I’m not so connected to the activist scene. A lot of the activists that I’ve met here in Berlin want to stress, “We’re different! We’re creating our own queer parties!” And I think…yeah, but I don’t want to be on the fringe and stress that having no money is good. I want to change the mainstream, basically. I want to change the world instead of just going on the edge of the world and making our own world there.
SJH: Do you ever feel like there are sacrifices that you have to make by working within the mainstream?
JJ: Not yet, “sacrifices.” Maybe that will come. But it’s more of the challenge of getting in there, being accepted. Putting things out there and realizing that they didn’t accept the story because it’s not literary enough or…there are things that I couldn’t take anybody to court with, that I have no proof of, but I know I didn’t get it because it’s not a “nice” story about a dog, or something.
SJH: Do you change the stories when you get that feedback?
JJ: No. No. The maximum that I change is like, if there’s a call for submissions and they want 1,500 words and my story is 1,000, sometimes I try to fix it. But my story is how it is and I will find the place . But not from the content. Also because the feedback I get once people actually hear the stories or read the stories, they basically say, “Okay! We were waiting for something like this.”
There was a story called, SCHAF e.V., that I wrote about another law that I wanted to change, which got on my nerves, that was about the women walking alone who get hit on constantly by men because they’re alone…
SJH: Yeah, street harassment.
JJ: Yes, that’s it. I thought, let’s do a “fictional protection thing” of a man who protects the woman without the woman noticing. So, there’s a woman walking and the man just walks next to her, signaling to everyone else, “This is my woman. I protect her. Leave her alone.” So I made a story about this, which was a bit weird. But then, when I read it out at a few places, people thought it was totally funny because I overdid it with how the men react, and how macho they act, but they’re not really allowed to make any contact with the woman who they’re protecting. With that story, I got a lot of feedback of people saying, “Yeah, that’s really a problem. And your solution, maybe it’s not realistic, but it’s funny.”
I want to explain well. Somehow I find my new job important. It’s the first job I find important. Not that I did have that many jobs; nobody wants me, really. But I think they would want Bulldog, and he would like it. A lot. SHEEP NGO. I clear my throat.
“Here, see the handbag”, I start and hold it up. Bulldog had put it down in the grass. “Now, you think it’s blood on there, or not?”
Bulldog nods. Blood.
K.C. has taken a step to the side, watches us both. NGO’s. Missionaries. That’s his tree to hit his head against. And now I’m truly on a mission – I want Bulldog to join me at SHEEP NGO. And K.C., too, eventually. As for now, though, I don’t pay any attention to him. I turn back to Bulldog.
“Blood”, I say. “In the handbag. And who carries handbags?”
“Women”, I say. “Women carry handbags. And you think this here would’ve happened – the blood, I mean – if the woman wouldn’t have been walking around alone?”
Alone. That’s right on the spot.
Bulldog has a sister, a little one, whom he prefers stay home. Or at least not walk the streets alone, walk in the park. Walk our Park. We can come here alone, but then again we are boys. Men, almost.
“See”, I say. “But SHEEP NGO protects women walking alone. We do. We protect women.”
Now I said it: “We.” I see K.C. disappearing among the trees. Too much “we” for him, too much missionary, and NGO. But he’ll be back.
And Bulldog’s with me, the next day. I introduce him to Erna. She’s thrilled. No wonder, given how Bulldog’s built. When she starts dividing us up, I say: “He doesn’t like being on his own. Can’t he come with me, only for today?”
Erna frowns. “But then the women will get afraid, if there’s two of you following her.”
“Well”, I say. “Fear is better than blood.” And then I tell her about the handbag. Erna looks sad right away, which I didn’t want to happen, but for today Bulldog can come on patrol with me.
–Excerpt from SCHAF e.V. (SHEEP NGO) by Joey Juschka. Translated from German.
SJH: How do you know if a piece has registered with your audience or not? You talked about feedback a little bit. Can you say more about that?
JJ: I can see the connection if I read the piece. I’m a person who doesn’t read by looking down at the page, but who talks to the audience, makes eye contact, and sees that, okay, they’re listening. There’s something happening between us. And then, usually afterward people come up to me and say something – say that was good, or not, or whatever.
SJH: What about in instances where you’re distributing flyers or when you write something that gets published somewhere?
JJ: Hmm. That’s harder, I guess. There’s no way to control it, really. Putting flyers in the bathroom with little pieces about queer people in the bathroom. Okay, I put them there, but maybe people rip them off the next day. So it’s more like hit or miss and take the chance. But then, usually when I do things like this they’re so important to me that it doesn’t really…well…it does matter but it’s more important to me that I put it out there and then hope for the best.
SJH: Can you think of a time when you wrote or performed a piece that turned out to be a resounding success?
JJ: Actually, that was SCHAF e.V. I won the Audience Choice Award in a big German literature competition. It’s one of the biggest awards for non-published authors. When I read this, and people were applauding at the end, I realized, “Whoops. I just won something.” I didn’t get the literature prizes, which came with money, but at least I had people. They determine the prize by going through the audience and listening to what the people are saying; which of the 20 stories that they heard that they liked the best. The audience jury reacted like, “No doubt – this is the story.”
SJH: Can you think of anything that someone said that sticks out in your mind?
JJ: Well, it’s not political, but someone said, “Oh, that’s her alter-ego up there!” The piece uses first-person narrative, and I do the voice of the character. So, actually, that was true. It is my alter-ego; I would like to be like this person.
SJH: It’s interesting that they drew that connection. Do you think that the piece also worked on a political level?
JJ: The media picked it up, but not so much regarding the content, more like “This story won that prize.” The newspaper published the story afterward, but there wasn’t much discussion of the content. But one reaction that I remember was a 55 or 60 year old woman coming up to me after another reading of the story that I did, and she said, “This is literature that I’ve been waiting for. It has a meaning and a message that’s more than just nice words. It’s not just about a topic that has no connection to my life.” And that’s what I want to do. I want to take the things from everyday life which I see. Of course, it’s just my perception; there are other things that get on other people’s nerves that maybe I don’t see. But they have to write about it.
It’s very nice, though, to have the feedback that other people actually have the problem that I see, and to have them realize that something can actually be done about it, even if it’s just being talked about.
SJH: When you’re writing, do you think about how your audience will react to it while you’re creating it?
JJ: Hmm. Yes. On one hand, I do on a very practical level. When I write it, I hear it in my head – the rhythm of how it actually sounds so that when you speak it out loud it’s not boring. I write very much how people talk, so the grammar is off sometimes, and words are changed, but actually it’s meant to be heard, also, not just read. That’s one thing that’s really important. I want it to sound to the audience like whatever else they hear on the street or at home.
SJH: Do you happen to know the demographics of your audience at all?
JJ: The family audience, the queer crowd basically, I do spoken words for them because they’re very open. Whoever wants to read can read their stuff. Then, there’s the literature audience, which is probably most of what I get, which is nice too, because they’re surprised when they get funny literature. In Germany, there’s a big gap between what they call “entertaining literature” and “serious literature.” Am I doing only entertaining literature or more serious? I think I’m more in the middle, to get both.
SJH: What’s the importance of getting both, for you?
JJ: Because I think people actually read it. They take in new things easier. So, like what I said with the mainstream before, I try to get in there so that I can reach more people than if it were just those who read high literature, which nobody from the mainstream reads; they want a good story. And, also, it’s much more fun to write good stories, of course.
SJH: So, when someone reads or hears one of your pieces, even though it’s a good story and it’s funny, you still seem to have a message. What do you want people to do with that message after they take in your work?
JJ: Sometimes, I wish they would act on it, if it’s possible. Or not forget it so quickly, basically to have heard the message and go, “Oh, that’s something I’ve never thought about before.” I would prefer if it changes their way of thinking a little bit so that they may be more open to the next queer person that they meet. Maybe the goal is to give people a release for the feeling that they had already.
There was a story I wrote about a man who was on public transport just swearing at a woman just because she was in the way or something. So I made a story – and I wish somebody would actually do this! – I wrote about an app that you have on your phone where you type in whatever happened, the guy said, “you old cunt,” or something, and you hit to find the right swear word for him. And the app would find a synonym for old and cunt. And then the app actually speaks it out loud in a voice that doesn’t fit to you, so it’s just your phone swearing back at the guy who doesn’t really know where it comes from.
That came from me actually being in a tram and witnessing something like this actually happening, and I was there but I didn’t dare stand up to the guy to defend this woman. But I was thinking about how this happens a lot, people don’t know how to react when they see something, when somebody attacks someone else and you don’t really know what to do. So, I thought about making something where you can change the dynamic, you can interact, but you’re sort of safer. That’s what gave me this idea for the app in the story. Somebody needs to actually invent this app!
When I read it once, people found it so funny because of the swear words I was using, plus they had something mirroring what they had experienced, and now they could just let it go for a while and go, “Whew!”
SJH: But that’s brilliant because it considers the tension that people experience in an attempt to be an ally, where it’s much easier to think about doing something than to actually do it, right?
JJ: Exactly, that’s what I mentioned before of playing on the edge of: Is this real? Or not? Could this actually be a way that you could act differently in a really weird situation that you don’t like? How can we change it a little bit?
SJH: Have you ever been able to link your work to some kind of tangible change?
JJ: Well, I don’t know. Could be, but nobody told me. People tell me that they like my stuff and this and that.
Actually, there’s another story that I wrote about the issue of women earning less money . I always think about how to write from an angle that’s not so cynical, and I think, okay, I should change something in the story so I don’t have to repeat year after year after year how bad it is. I would sometimes read at places and make that shift, so at least people would get out of their old way of thinking to see that there are different options. We don’t always have to complain, we can see that there are other possibilities and even if it’s just to laugh about it for a while, give that “Whew!” to release tension, and then maybe have new energy from this to come up with a new idea to change the problem, or something.
SJH: Tell me more about the tension. What do you think is so harmful about it?
JJ: Well, if I have tension, I get stuck. And then I’m just repeating the bad situation over and over again without finding a way out. Relieving the tension, maybe for a short time only, opens things up so that I’m not thinking “It’s so bad, it’s so bad, it’s so bad, I don’t know what to do!” So I think about something that was funny in relation to the issue; I’ve had the “it’s so bad” thought for years, so maybe it’s time for another thought.
SJH: When you’re performing the pieces, and you’re watching the audience’s reactions in real-time, do you know when it’s just not working?
JJ: Oh yeah. I had one where the story was actually good, but the way that I presented it wasn’t. I knew something was going wrong because I kept trying to push harder and harder. My partner, who was in the audience, told me later that I seemed really aggressive, which was true. She was my outside view, who gave me the feedback that I fell into the angry feminist stereotype. I was like, “oh shit, that’s not part of the story at all!” Of course it is a feminist story, but it is not like that. So, I made the wrong connection and the audience was drawing back from me. My default reaction was to go stronger and be more aggressive.
SJH: What did their “drawing back” look like?
JJ: Sitting there with the arms crossed and looking like, “I don’t know…this person is really weird.” And yes I am really weird! But people are usually leaning forward, at least.
“Loo flyer #2: Fag Boy/Drag Toy” by Joey Juschka
Editor’s note: flyer to be read horizontally. Translation of the German text in right column:
drag toy even worse
just one (male gender)
in his pink dress
just one (female gender)
SJH: Can you tell me about SWAN Day?
JJ: I did with my partner for a few years. My partner is very involved in the performance, dance, theatre scene, and at that time I was trying out if I wanted to do that as well. It’s a festival called “Support Women Artists Now” Day. So we said, okay cool, let’s do something in Berlin. We created this huge festival that was so crazy.
SJH: What happened at the festival?
JJ: That time we went all weekend and had maybe 20 pieces, not all of them onstage, maybe half of them. Some were also installations, visual art, and just made a festival where everyone could come.
We presented this, and what was very interesting and frustrating was that when we went to apply for funding for the next year, a lot of feedback that we got from the head honcho funders was, “We’re not going to support some feminist art. This is not about women’s equality, we’re doing art.” But I’m like, “yeah, this is art, we just happen to be all women.” So, it was really hard to sit there with these people who were so convinced. They were trying to make it like we were doing a women’s equality thing with art, but it was the opposite. We were doing art and were all women. They would never say that a show with all men is doing an “equality for men” festival. So, just call us a festival and give us the money!
SJH: So what was your intention then, in creating this day?
JJ: The personal intention was to get to know a lot of women artists. We did an open call for submissions and we got literally hundreds of submissions. That was very interesting to see all of the different things that were out there and to connect them to each other. The next year, when we didn’t have the funding, we did a much smaller exhibition with 100 or so women artists who wrote to us, and we told them to come and see what the other people are doing and make connections.
Also, presenting women was another point. Basically, to make the conscious choice to realize that there’s lots of art out there but for now we’re only going to focus on women’s art because they usually have it harder.
SJH: So, you say that it’s an art festival where the artists just happen to be all women, but the fact that that they are all women was a also conscious choice. Do you think that there’s an activist piece to that choice?
JJ: Hmm. Probably.
SJH: Well, what were you thinking at the time?
JJ: At the time I was thinking that it really sucks that women have such a hard time in the art industry. So again, there’s something in the world that bothers me, that I don’t like, so let’s do something about it. Yeah, you could call that activism.
SJH: It seems like the agitation or the frustration that you feel about an issue is a big factor in your work. Do you think that that agitation is an impetus for you to write?
JJ: Yeah. Yeah. Because makes it easier to deal with it. I’ve realized that when there’s something that gets on my nerves, I’m very lucky that I get to write about it. When something happens on the street, I can put it into a story that makes it easier for me to deal with it instead of swallowing it and feeling bad.
SJH: Are you “friends” with the agitation that you feel? Or do you feel like you want to get rid of it as soon as possible, so you have to create something right away?
JJ: I think friendly. I take it in and I watch it to see what happens. I try to be still, so that I don’t get defensive about why I didn’t react to the situation in a better way, like with the story about the man yelling at the woman on the train. I have to be like, “OK (exhale) stay with this. It sucks that I didn’t do anything but (exhale) let it be OK.” And then suddenly the idea comes.
SJH: Do you feel like your work, or work like it, can affect social change?
JJ: I think so. It’s an interesting thing; how do you change the world? People think that you can’t really do anything, which is why they say, “You don’t have to go to vote, it doesn’t change anything.” But if one person sees a flyer on the street, and starts to think about an issue in a different way, then great – you changed something socially, even if the laws are still the same and the main industry is still the same. There are different areas that people can work, like the petitions and demonstrations, but also on the everyday level, which is where I see myself. I want to take the everyday problems, give them back to the everyday people, and bring a different solution to them.