Mother lode

Ayun Halliday births an engaging, unconventional tale of parenting

May 15, 2002 at 12:00 am
How did Ayun Halliday, a 37-year-old former actress/waitress from Indiana, become the patron saint of cool, neo-hippy urban motherhood? She was honest, really honest, about herself, her life, and the incredible frustrations and amusements that come with procreation.

Every millimeter of Halliday's tiny (3-inch-by-5-inch) zine East Village Inky is crammed with cartoons and messily hand-lettered musings on her life as the mother of two children — India, aka Inky, 4, and Milo, 1 — in the urban jungle that is New York. Her new book, Big Rumpus: A Mother's Tale From the Trenches, goes deeper into her life, eschewing illustrations for sharp, candid essays. And you don't have to be a mommy to get it. Part struggling artist, part social commentator, part supermom, Halliday is as easy to identify with for 18-year-old girls with piercings as for their mothers and grandmothers. Witness this passage, from the first chapter of Big Rumpus:

I studied theater and applied my degree to a career in waiting tables. I traveled around Europe, Asia and Africa with a dirty backpack on my shoulders. . . . I got married in a rented loft in New York City wearing striped stockings and a cheap dress, through which, I later learned, my underwear was plainly visible. I wrote poems that I didn't finish, considered plastic milk crates furniture and had a lot of friends like myself. My first child wasn't born until I was thirty-two. I'm not an idiot, but I genuinely believed that the baby would spend a lot of time curled at my feet like a kitten.

That did it for me; you might give the knowing nod to chapters on breast-feeding, the incompatibility of grownups' and children's desires, or the frustration of having parents who think things are best left unsaid. Halliday's misconceptions are my misconceptions. She is me in 10 years — though after reading such an honest portrayal of motherhood, procreating is the last thing on my mind.

Then again, when Halliday was my age it was the last thing on her mind as well. She was a Northwestern grad living in Chicago and performing with the left-field theater company the Neo-Futurist in a left-field production titled "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind." In mid-1995, her boyfriend and co-Neo-Futurist Greg Kotis decided he wanted to try his luck in New York; Halliday, who had always dreamed of living there, went too. She worked as a massage therapist, he got a job scouting scenes for "Law & Order", and they mounted a New York production of "Too Much Light," among other artistic endeavors. They got married in November 1995; a year later Halliday discovered she was pregnant (the result, she says, of "a determined sperm who scaled the rubber barrier of a diaphragm in true action-hero style"), and India arrived in July 1997, with difficulty (the baby spent the first several days of its life in intensive care due to what was probably a sepsis infection).

"Inky came along as a great surprise," Halliday says over the phone from her apartment, no longer in the East Village (the family now lives in Brooklyn). "And thank goodness, because I don't think there ever would have been a good time for us to decide we were in a good position to have children."

Motherhood, Halliday discovered, came with plenty more surprises. "It's like going to war. You can't really 100 percent imagine what it's like until you find yourself in the middle of it," she says, joking that she finds herself "in a constant crouching position so I can spring to action." She also wasn't prepared for how hard it would be to maintain her artistic pursuits with a small child in tow. After struggling to remain active in the theatrical community, Halliday says, she realized that "if I was going to find any sort of creative outlet that would meet an audience, it had to be something really simple."

So Halliday looked back to her childhood habit of doodling drawings of her classmates. The doodling turned into East Village Inky, which debuted in October 1998 and now comes out quarterly. (She says she writes and assembles the zine during Inky and Milo's naps.) She made just 50 copies of the first issue; the most recent one had a print run of 1,200. Halliday says she gets flooded with letters from readers (and insists that she keeps every one), and the zine led to opportunities to write for HipMama, Bust, and Ms. Magazines and In 2000 Inky was nominated for the Utne Reader's Alternative Press Awards in the zine category, and this year won the Firecracker Alternative Books Zine/E-Zine award.

It was HipMama editor Ariel Gore who hooked Halliday up with an editor at Seal Press, and Big Rumpus was born. (Halliday says she wrote the book in just three months.) "Everything that I've ever gotten that's worked out in my life has usually come tumbling through the back door, be it publishing a book or becoming pregnant," she says.

Big Rumpus is a fun, engaging read, but it's not for the faint of heart, especially when Halliday recalls Inky's time in intensive care or acknowledges how frustrating first-time motherhood can be. "I thought about what it would be like to strangle her," she writes about her daughter, "the way I dream about slapping the person who takes the last dryer at the Laundromat or blowing a whistle into the ear of the friend who telephones in the middle of "ER."

Halliday's candor can be a bit shocking, and the book eschews structured narrative, instead jumping around from the author's childhood to Inky's birth to Milo's and back again. But it's Halliday's unconventional outlook and occasionally harsh honesty that make Big Rumpus more than an ode to motherhood. It makes it a real glimpse into the heart and mind of Ayun Halliday, and those are places worth checking out.

Anna Ditkoff writes for the The Baltimore City Paper. E-mail [email protected].