Dispatch From a Parallel Universe:
a conversation about everything

Text by Nora Rosenthal
Mixed-media collages by Isa Benn

Isa Benn is an artist and filmmaker. She’s an Afro-diasporic Jewish person: she’s queer, she’s autistic, she’s singularly well-read and well-watched. None of these qualifiers actually express how utterly unique her worldview is, or, perhaps far more unique, that she has an ability to express that worldview in her words and art alike. We spoke over the phone this summer, and the following interview has been edited for length and clarity. Let’s begin in media res:

Nora Rosenthal: Isa, you have a bluntness in describing things that no one else does.

Isa Benn: I don’t know that I’m blunt until I’ve offended somebody. Usually I’m always like “This is sugar coating” and then someone’s offended and I’m like “I could have said it so much harsher”.

NR: You have a willingness to engage with [just about everything] that is not popular.

IB: There’s something in the culture, there’s something now in the air that people refer to as being politically correct but it’s something entirely different or it’s the true heart of political correctness which is an entire conservative movement where it has silenced everyone into having no real internal opinion.

I feel like everybody is so willing to have the same opinion as everyone else which I don’t have the capacity to do and then when I accidentally say something that is not maybe a popular opinion or even just an opinion that this person has never heard before, the reaction is either stunned silence or explaining to me why I can’t think that. Culturally we’ve given up on thinking. We’re fully in 1984, it’s Brave New World it’s Fahrenheit–you know?

There is no nuance. I have no capacity to dance around anything. I just don’t have it in me which is why I’m not talking to people anymore. It’s also just boring. Talking to people is so overwhelmingly boring because no one thinks. It’s not even because their opinions are not similar to mine, it’s because they don’t even have real fucking opinions and that’s boring. I find being bored literally physically painful. I find being bored so overwhelming that I could vomit. It’s so physically tortuous to me to be surrounded by people who seem dumb.

NR: I was reading a review of the book The Sex Lives of African Women [by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah] and thought of you because of how you talk about the attitudes on sex and sexuality in your family, attitudes that are so much more open than in my vaguely left-wing family for instance and 

because how you talk about Africa feels like a parallel culture and parallel world that white people in North America do not know about at all. Could you talk about your family and this openness in terms of sexual identity? Because you seem to have grown up in a different universe to mine.

IB: I think that my family is pretty unconsciously dedicated to being very pre-colonized African. In our family this is just how humans live peacefully among each other and at bare minimum as a child you’re going to know what it is to be humane and being humane is being loving and understanding and spiritual on a level which white society really just has no space for. It does feel kind of like a parallel universe but I don’t feel like it’s a parallel universe until I’m having a conversation with even other people of colour who are just more colonized than me and who have internalized colonization way more than I have. I don’t even remember until I’m interacting with a person of colour who is essentially defending white colonization in one form or another without maybe even them knowing it, and that is so heartbreaking but it’s also so eye-opening to me because yes I was raised very particularly and I am encountering it right now.

NR: How far back does this go in your family? Because I feel like we all need to look to as many examples as possible to learn how to maintain that internal mental liberty, to learn how not to be brought down by this chaotic, horrifying indifference that’s everywhere.

IB: I agree. I was raised by two extremely passionate people to the point of continuous argument all the time in our household. They’re not passive about anything. No one in my family is very passive. Voicing your opinion, voicing your spirituality, living your values and your truth is just innately a part of who we are very far back. My great great grandmother was part of an underground movement of pro-Africanism throughout North America, throughout the Caribbean, into Africa. The more I learn about my bloodline there’s just a trail of people who were revolutionaries or radical destroyers of structure. I think it just gets inherently passed down as the norm and I don’t even know it’s not the norm until I’m talking to someone and go “We should overthrow the government, right?” and they’re like “What are you talking about?” But obviously that’s what we’re supposed to be doing now, isn’t it? Like, hello?

Members of my family who had yet to meet or know each other in the late 1800s into the 1920s were all part of revolutionary movements which led to things like the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement. Recently I found a letter from Nelson Mandela to my grandmother saying “Thank you so much for your efforts”. This is just who we are. It’s in our blood.

NR: To go back for a second, I love what you’re saying about how your parents argued, about how that’s part of what they inculcated into you, because this idea of protecting children from ideas and from strife is so baked into the white Western parental model.
What form did your parents’ arguments take?  

My parents argued about everything you could argue about. I didn’t know about things that seem culturally accessible to everybody else like “Oh, he doesn’t pick his socks up off the floor”. I didn’t know that that was an argument people had. My parents would argue about things like should a three-year-old be exposed to sex or violence. My mom was on the side of she can watch things with sex in it because sex is a part of life. She was born from sex. Then my dad would be like well she can watch violence. Violence is a part of her reality as a Black person. It’s a part of life. Birth, even, is violence. This is a seemingly small argument but then it’s blown up into a giant philosophical argument that lasts a week that neither one of them will let go of.

It was a very open household. More than I knew. I didn’t know that people didn’t have conversations with their kids about literally fucking everything. There was nothing that was off limits, anything that crossed their minds they were going to tell me about it. I was just a member of the family, I was just another friend and so anything that was happening they would just tell me it was happening, even between them.

NR: Can you tell me a love story from you or your family that comes to mind?

IB: I’m an extremely non-linear thinker so a billion love stories come to mind. Everyone in my family is queer, everybody in my family has beautiful love stories that they’ve told only to me, everybody’s first experience was with a member of the same sex, maybe innocently, maybe when they were six. Even in my personal life there are so many versions of a love story especially because my ideas of love are not very neurotypical. It’s almost an insurmountable amount that comes to mind.
I talk to eveyrone in my family about sex and about love and about life and about spirituality and about colonization and about being an immigrant and about queerness every day. That’s what we talk about. We talk about it as it pertains to the food we eat and what we write and what we consume and the media that we love and the media that we hate and literally every conversation is all conversations. It is an extremely African thing for every conversation to be about everything.

NR: That way of talking about everything, do you think that happens in conservative African households too?

IB: 100 percent. The same way that in the West there’s this throughline of passive-aggressive politeness, no matter who you are you’re indoctrinated into it, so in Africa no matter who you are you can get into a cab and if the radio is on the cab driver’s going to say something about what’s on the radio, you’re going to make a comment to the cab driver about whether you agree or disagree. You’re going to get into an argument but it’s going to stay polite. That is the throughline of Africanism is that we can have a polite conversation where we disagree about fucking everything. If you’re going to Africa you’re going to hear the [Islamic] call to prayer, you’re going to celebrate Christmas, you’re going to celebrate Chanukah, if there are Indians where you live you’re going to celebrate all Hindu religions, all Punjabi religions. Everything is awash of everything. If anything I feel a daily cultural shock where if I try to talk to a Canadian about fucking anything they try and neutralize all political aspects of it to the point where I’m actually insulted. Trying to politically neutralize me is dehumanizing, you are white-washing my experience.
NR: What do you say to someone when they try to neutralize your ideas in this way?

IB: If I can sit down with racists, which I have to do anytime I talk to most people at this point in Western history, and say “Oh why do you feel that way?” or “I personally find that your perspective comes from this”. If I can have a conversation with you about your political ideology that you don’t even know I find wildly insulting, I don’t know why you can’t listen to my radically-different-from-your ideas.

I am the same with literally everybody. I’ll say “I find that very offensive and this is why”. It just comes down to how much of my energy am I willing to give to you. I don’t want to give that much energy away to someone I don’t think will do anything useful with it.

NR: Do you want to talk about what you’re working on right now? And about how you approach people and performances? And writing, too?

IB: I really love writing. I’m afraid of it. I approach writing the same way neurotypical people approach dating where I’m like “I wonder if writing’s going to like me today” or “I wonder if writing’s going to receive me today” or “I wonder if I’m pretty enough to write today; I wonder if I’m grounded enough to write today; I wonder if my mental health is good enough to write today”. Writing is my whole fucking world. More than I even know, more than I acknowledge, my entire life, my entire day, my week, my years, are set up to write to the point where it reminds me – I have an uncle who’s a physicist and whenever he would talk about writing a proof it is exactly the way I talk about writing a script. If I haven’t written in three hours I’m like “Holy fuck it’s been three hours since I did something productive towards this script” and I’m counting down the seconds. “It’s been three
hours and 45 seconds since the last time I contributed something worthwhile to this script” and I start to beat myself up about it. Within the math community something I’ve noticed is that they’re almost exactly like hard core artists. The amount of self-hate and self-harm, like mental self-harm that you put yourself through when you are not creating for them a proof and for me the perfect script [is the same]. My uncle and I have connected deeply on things like physics and scriptwriting since I was a child.

NR: When did you write your first script?

IB: I would say I wrote my first version of a script when I was four.

NR: Do you remember anything about it?

IB: I spent a lot of time alone when I was four and I had watched mostly only movies between 1929 to 1977, maybe 1981, but I didnt really know about movies outside of that so I’d seen a lot of soliloquies mostly, ‘cause it’s all based in theatre at the end of the day, but these were momments where I was like “Holy fuck this is an amazing life-changing scene”, where a character is alone and you’re seeing their thought process, where you fully see the vulnerability, the desperation of a character, and I was always destroyed by those moments, so I think the first thing I ever wrote was about a character having a mental breakdown, about losing a child. I remember going to school and acting it out and dying on the playground. I hadn’t told anyone I was going to act this out. I wanted to know if I was a good actor. The whole playground stopped. They rushed around me, they thought that something horrible had happened and I was like “No no it’s okay this is acting!” I know that I did a good job because I got a phone home. They were like “Isa is doing very disturbing things”.
NR: Do you remember one of the first soliloquies that you saw that just got under your skin?

IB: I don’t know if it’s a soliloquy but it’s a story that my mom and I talk about a lot because it’s the first time that she realized this kid is fucking weird. I was three and I was watching Imitation of Life [by Douglas Sirk] from 1959. That movie fucked me up. It still has me fucked up. I think about it a lot, probably once a week, because it changed the whole trajectory of my life, I assume. It was so heartbreaking, and I had watched movies before where I felt for the people in it but this is the first time I had ever seen a film that portrayed a Black woman, a Black mother who is strong but vulnerable and weak and wanted nothing more than to see her child succeed in a way that felt genuinely authentic. It was like my version of Romeo and Juliet. She spends this whole movie chasing her child and by the time she dies is when her child, who is biracial, realizes ”Oh, my mother loved me the way that I’m always trying to get white people to even look at me, my mother loved me that much”. The end scene where her child finally realizes “My mother is everything” but her mother is dead and she’s just beating this casket... I was fucked up. I was dead silent for the whole movie and “The End” comes up on the screen and I have a whole mental breakdown. I’m just crying to the point where my mom is like “the neighbors will think we are beating you, you have to stop”. I couldn’t get myself together.

Nothing had destroyed me so much and I don’t think anything has destroyed me that much since. I had no concept that anything could reach through a screen and just have a chokehold on you like that and that was probably when I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I would like to create a thing that whenever anyone sees it, it speaks that deeply to them that it can destroy them and change the entire course of their life.

For me that’s why I’m doing anything. That’s also why I beat up on myself so much for not writing because if I don’t cry while I’m writing it, you’re not going to cry when you’re watching it.

NR: Do you think you’ve succeeded?

IB: Yeah, only recently though. Every time I make any film I hate it almost immediately after I’m finished making it but this script that I’ve been working on the longest, the reason I’ve been working on it the longest is because I need to love this, and the only way it will change other people’s lives is if every single sentence, every page, and every amount of dialogue has changed my life. It really pushed me to my limit to make it and only probably three months ago did I finally look at it and all the pieces had fallen into place and I was like “Holy fuck this is amazing”. I have never felt that way about anything I’ve ever done.

NR: What’s it about?

IB: So it’s really difficult to explain. It’s about a woman who’s having a mental breakdown but in her mental breakdown discovers that she has magical powers that have been passed down to her for generations. She’s an oppressed person so nobody listens to her but those powers are the very powers that can help everyone around her. It’s ironic, so it’s comedic that no one will listen to her because she’s a person of colour. It’s a very dark, dark, dark comedy with fantastical elements. It’s very bizarre. It’s not even in a format that I’ve ever seen a film be made in before, which are my favourite films. So that’s why when someone asks “What is it about?” I’m like “What isn’t it about?” It’s about all the stuff that I care about. So all the stuff.

NR: What’s it called?

IB: Catch Red Bird, Hit Red Wall.

NR: Where does the title come from?

IB: My heart.

NR: Are you going to direct?
IB: Yes.

NR: Are you in it as well?

IB: Yes.

NR: You say that in a funny way.

IB: I do. I feel funny about it. I feel so weird about all of it. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever done and that’s why I know that I like it. It’s the Catch-22. I like it because it’s so fucking weird and it’s weird so I feel weird about it and I feel weird sharing it with people because it’s so me. It’s so deeply me that anytime anyone is like “Oh my god I love it” I go “Really that seems bizarre. Is something wrong with you?”

NR: If up until this moment you’ve hated everything after you’ve made it, what is it that convinces you to recuperate and make work again?

IB: I think that is what being an artist is. I don’t know how to stop even when I want to stop. Even when I’m like “Fuck I need a break, turn off you crazy bitch, stop! Power down!” I can’t. It’s like I’m the Manchurian Candidate. There’s a crank and I just sit up out of bed and I’m typing again. I cannot turn it off.

NR: So, I have two big fears as an artist, looking at the history of other artists: one is that you have your one big idea and you expunge that from yourself and then there’s nothing else and you have nothing else to say, or two, there’s you know the Marc Chagall route where you have the same preoccupations forever and you live so long that you just keep rehashing the same ideas in new media. He got old and was doing the same things but with stained glass in the end but there was no escaping his own vortex. That seems both beautiful and limiting at the same time. So after writing this script, what’s your process like in order to move forward?

IB: I’ve thought about this a lot and some conclusions I’ve come to are one, that the majority of the time when we’re referencing artists who poured their souls out and then could never really figure out how to do it again, they are men.
I don’t mean this in any shady way because I love all people the same amount which means I hate all people the same amount, but men are socialized to be more emotionally lazy. To pour your entire soul out is fucking taxing. It’s time consuming, it’s overwhelming, it makes you want to kill yourself at times. To do it again takes a kind of resilience and dedication and strength that not a lot of men have. When I think about great artists I think about Frida Kahlo – not a man – who continued to just continue to impale herself on the cross of I will make meaningful art to my current experience to the day I fucking die.

As a child I would study other artists and the people I would come back to even though I loved so many kinds of art were all women. I think about Vivien Leigh really snatching the role of Scarlett O’Hara, in a really problematic movie [Gone with the Wind] and I’ll put that to the side for a moment – but snatching that role out of the jaws of women who quote-unquote deserved it more and then all these years later doing it again for A Streetcar Named Desire. Most men thirty years later they’re either doing the same iconic role or they’re just taking whatever role anyone will throw at them and this bitch was like “I’m going to fucking fuck myself up emotionally yet again to play this Southern belle” and it’s fucking amazing. Or Liz Taylor. The amount of Liz Taylor movies I watched growing up. I’m talking like I literally grew up in the 1940s but I would watch National Velvet, I watched Miracle on 34th Street with Natalie Wood and these women only got better. I feel like as a society when [we say] “artists follow this trajectory” we are actually almost exclusively talking about men and we don’t even know it. The great female artists tend to keep bringing it. Like Toni Morrison, we will just keep bringing it, we’ll keep going “What do I have to lose?” No one’s going to look at me anyway I may as well do my best work right the fuck now.
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