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Lily Burana – the LF interview – Part One

June 21, 2009

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Ladies and Gentlemen, the one, the only, the incomparable – LILY BURANA! Lily is, for those who haven’t been following her, the author of “I Love A Man in Uniform” – the funny, sad, witty and thoughtful tale of a former dancer’s life as a new military spouse when she marries an officer teaching at West Point.
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When I met Lily at the milblog conference, I was impressed by her energy, her humour, and her willingness to talk to all of us about everything from her former career, her problems and joys as a milspouse, and the challenges we are all facing with deployments, depression, PTSD and the expectations of both other members of the military community and civilians. I asked if we could get a written interview with her for LF, when the initial high tempo of her book tour eased. I sent her the questions from the authors last week – and here are the answers.

I was going to do some cut and pasting, make this a real newspaper like interview – but I loved her answers so much – I’m going to let all of you enjoy them too. As an aside, when my parents visited a couple of weeks ago, I loaned my mom the book. She finished it before they left, and apart from her rave review, said something that floored me “I understand more about you as an Army wife from reading this”.

Part One – of the Left Face interview of Lily Burana.

1. Does she retain any of the more common punk values? Not just the anarchist tendencies, but also fab DIY projects? And how do those in her milspouse circle(s) respond?

My little DIY pet project is pretty much Operation Bombshell, the burlesque school for military wives. I figured more than anything, wives, in particular, need support in the form of fun and distraction. There’s so, so, so little that’s just *for the wives*, who so often, take care of everyone else in their household, and just as often, neighbors and other unit families. From my own experience, I’ve found that the chance to just get out of the house and get a change of scene during deployment does a world of good, but not every woman can break loose and travel about. So I come to them. Just a one hour class, no nudity, no stress–it’s not much, but I hope it’s something uplifting. Even at my most punk I was a girly-girl, and I do believe that glamour heals. Notice how lipstick even sells during a recession? A little feminine indulgence is good for the soul, and not too hard on the wallet. Esp. since Op Bombshell classes are always free.

2. What lessons learned from her dancing days does she use to cope with the military life?

Hmmm, interesting question, since I don’t see much overlap between the two worlds as far as life lessons. One thing that I did learn is that I do better when I have my own job, and my own financial wherewithal. Dancing was, at times, really a very crappy job, however, I always had my own money, so I never felt particularly beholden to anyone. And it got me out of the house, interacting with other people, and it forced me to think creatively, even if the creative ends weren’t, like, some great work of art or community service. When I first got married, I would have periods where I made so little money and was working so sporadically, I was dependent upon my husband and not getting any closer to my own goals. I realized the hard way, that for me, I really needed to work–for my own sense of well-being, to feel engaged with the world, to exercise the part of me that is very much an extrovert and can’t sit indoors alone for long without going mad. There is an opposing part of me that wishes I could need it less–that’s my own reactionary anti-feminist beating me up–but for the good of all mankind, I have to have a big project to hack away at, or else I am slightly nutso. I just have too much mental energy to burn off. Otherwise, I’m chewing the chair legs and obsessively combing the dog.

That is a big challenge in being a military wife: How am I going to fit MY dreams into this marriage? Usually, it comes down to this: Think portable! Six years of graduate work at one school may not be in the cards, but being a consultant, a nurse, a freelance artist, and/or a teacher just might. Luckily, I just need a laptop and a wireless connection and I’ve got a link to sanity wherever I am. I don’t know that I’d be okay if I, say, made giant theater props or whatever, cuz moving enormous papier mache dinosaurs and scale model pirate ships across the country every two years could really cramp your style!

3. Considering her husband’s trials with PTSD and the common Army refrain of “suck it up,” how does she feel about the number of suicides and especially of responses such as that from Ft Campbell? If she were a member of a committee aimed at working with service members returning from Iraq/Afghanistan, what recommendations would she make to ease transition, deal better with emotional and psychological problems forged overseas, and reducing the suicide trend?

I believe in my heart that the Army is really, truly trying to do its very best in the face of this crisis. I was deeply saddened to learn that last month, more service members died by suicide than in combat–as someone who’s been suicidal, I am left speechless at the magnitude of suffering. The challenge is how to reach those in pain–exhorting someone to “tell someone” if they’re thinking of hurting themselves is a start, but a slogan is never a complete solution. Given that suicidal ideation, as I’ve experienced it, is a crisis of mind, body, and spirit, it takes special skill to treat. By no means is it un-doable. I believe the Army can get a handle on this. But it involves taking seriously the need for qualified mental health practitioners who can treat troops holistically, not just medicating them and turning them back into the Army or chanting “tell someone” over and over. And the stigmatization of seeking mental health help within the Armed Forces has simply got to stop. While that cultural shift is taking place–and who knows how long it will take to fully shift–soldiers need to feel empowered to get help off-post from competent, qualified practitioners, so they have privacy. Privacy and dignity are key to successful treatment, as no soldier wants to be advertised as weak or broken or lacking in character.

4. Granted, there will always be a few spouses (let’s say it: wives) who get snooty about her being a stripper half a lifetime ago. But I’m wondering if she’s getting even more flak from folks who think she’s all uppity because she’s a writer: “Oh, there’s the published author.”

Oh man. No. I can’t say anyone has ever given me any grief about that whatsoever. It’s not as if being an author is like being a movie star. I don’t have “handlers,” or a stylist or a personal chauffeur. It’s mostly just me and the dog, in my office, day after day. I get rejected a lot, try to goad myself into keep on in the face of that rejection, stare at the screen, then, about lunchtime, I go downstairs and pop an Amy’s Indian entree into the microwave and eat it, usually over the sink. Then, back upstairs for more screen-staring. Yah, I can see how someone might envy that dazzling lifestyle I’ve got goin’! 🙂

I didn’t get a Fairy Godmother wand-wave to write this book. I slaved over a proposal, did several different drafts of it to get it into the best shape, and sent it around to multiple publishers, like anyone else. A crapload of publishers turned me down flat, for all kinds of reasons. It got to the point where I simply said, “I don’t want to see the rejection letters” because they messed with my head so much. I can’t turn criticism off in my head, so I had to shield myself from it, or I knew I’d be haunted by it forever. I mean, I’m still dwelling on comments from rejections of what I wrote ten years ago!

And there are lots and lots of great writers and bloggers in the spouse world, so more than anything, I find myself more pulled into fun, gossipy shop talk than anything else. We have tons of stories and we should be the ones to tell them!

Tomorrow – Part Two.

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