JFL42 Lena Dunham Sony Centre, Toronto ON, September 20
Published Sep 21, 2014At a festival full of top comedians, Lena Dunham's book reading and Q&A stood out on the schedule because it wasn't stand-up or sketch and yet, by the end of this hilarious, insightful and inspiring evening, it really was one of the most rewarding spectacles yet at JFL42.
Dunham's new book is Not That Kind of Girl — A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned" (out September 30 via Random House) and she read from a cutesy chapter about a formative experience she had as a child at Fernwood Cove, an overnight camp for girls in Maine. "I was in hell, I was in heaven, I was at camp," she related in the midst of this tale about herself, then a precocious theatre nerd going through puberty, which Dunham fans lapped up. The story possessed all of her idiosyncratic hallmarks: the wide-eyed yet fiercely incisive wonderment about why the world around her functions as it does; the raw perspective of a young, confident/insecure woman surrounded by other women; finding humour and joy in the profane; and such a poetically evocative, vivid way with words.
"My greatest obsession was B.O.," she read to gales of laughter. "I smelled it everywhere. In the bathroom, on the wind during kickball, on Emily's hairbrush, which I borrowed because my old one was growing some kind of mould. I couldn't imagine my life without that smell — just enough like onions to be truly confusing but from your own body." Then came the horror of discovering that that distinctive fragrance was now emanating from her.
There were boys and men at the camp from time to time for socials and dances, and some of them made a huge impression on her. "At some point in the night, I opened the door to the bathroom to find a boy, hunched over the toilet, furiously masturbating." Or the killer story about a white water rafting trip with a guy named Bear who taught her the amazing acronym "A.M.F.Y.O.Y.O.," which stood for "Adios motherfucker, you're on your own." "We were children white water rafting and I was like, 'What do I do if I fall out?' and he said 'A.M.F.Y.O.Y.O,'" Dunham read and the room erupted.
She was unequivocally charming and naturally funny. She read with poise but her tone was conversational despite the rhythms of a comic mind performing her work. That carried over into her revealing, hour-long conversation with Jian Ghomeshi. Earlier in the day, they'd recorded a conversation for his CBC Radio One show Q, and Dunham gushed a bit about the thoughtful questions he'd asked. They clearly had an easy rapport.
Ghomeshi called back to the discussion they had earlier but also pressed her on some aspects of her reading. "What does it look like when someone is 'furiously masturbating?'" he asked wryly, and Dunham responded, "It was just real fast. I had never seen any men masturbate until that point so I was just like, 'That's a lot. You seem angry at yourself.' Some times you just need to get some stuff out."
The conversation had a playful tone about her first trip to Toronto (Dunham believes Sarah McLachlan might be Canada's Oprah) but also delved into serious discussions about her upbringing as a loner, her mental health and self-esteem, the stature and actual viewership of her "hit" HBO show Girls, the social media-generated habit of "oversharing" (which Dunham dismisses as a misogynist notion targeted at women), her friendship with her late mentor Nora Ephron, problematic and misinformed rejections of feminism, and via audience questions, points about getting into writing and ally-ship.
The whole evening had this simultaneously heavy and light vibe, Ghomeshi and Dunham respectfully throwing little jabs at one another but ultimately working very well together, as Dunham gave herself away. She was unflinching and open about her upper middle-class life and cultural work and there was no falseness in the air. Dunham's book sounds frank and funny and she was really, really endearing, commanding the room effortlessly.