Lena Dunham talks up new book at BAM
Notable Friends Jemima Kirke, Zadie Smith, Jack Antonoff and Mike Birbiglia Join Unique Book Launch Event
“I’m so happy to be here on the last night of my tour,” Lena Dunham, the acclaimed writer, director, producer and star of HBO’s “Girls,” told a packed room at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Tuesday night. Dunham, who hails from Brooklyn, where her TV show is set, was there to talk about her new book, a collection of essays titled “Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s ‘Learned'” (Random House), as part of BAM’s and Greenlight Bookstore’s Unbound literary series.
This was not a run-of-the-mill literary event. While the evening focused on Dunham’s reading, a cast of the star’s notable friends backed her up, sharing their diverse talents. Comedian and writer Mike Birbiglia — who Dunham revealed was the first to read any of the essays featured in her new book and who introduced her to her boyfriend, musician Jack Antonoff — drew continuous laughter from the audience as he riffed on his love of inside jokes.
Antonoff, best known as the lead guitarist for the band fun., performed three songs, and was joined on the last one by musician Sonia Kreitzer, who attended Oberlin College with Dunham.
As Dunham took the stage, she exclaimed, “Obviously Brooklyn is my home,” and called out to her mother in the audience. Dunham’s demeanor was as frank as her writing. Before reading from the section of her book called “Grace,” which focuses on her younger sister, Dunham confessed both that she was uncomfortable sitting on her stool and that she had never before read this passage aloud. Midway through the reading, after fidgeting in her seat and stumbling over her words, she paused and said, with a disarming smile, “This is a f**king disaster.” The crowd, who laughed appreciatively, clearly thought otherwise.
Dunham — who told this writer after the presentation that she has been a Brooklyn Eagle fan since her teens — has been getting rave reviews for “Not That Kind of Girl.”
Like her work in “Girls,” Dunham’s book presents an unflinching portrait of a girl’s journey to womanhood. A collection of utterly candid essays comprised of memories, reflections and lists — “15 Things I’ve Learned from My Mother,” “13 Things I’ve Learned Are Not Okay to Say to Friends,” and even a food diary chronicling Dunham’s food and drink consumption and estimated calorie count over several days — “Not That Kind of Girl” gives readers an intimate glimpse into not only Dunham’s life but also her energetic mind.
“Grace” delves into Dunham’s shifting relationship with her sister. Like the book as a whole, the essay is at once humorous and moving. Dunham recalls the first time she saw Grace, who was “the only Caucasian infant in a nursery of Chinese babies. I peered through the glass: ‘Which one is she?’ I asked.” Dunham’s exploration of the sisterly dynamics that ensued is unique, of course, but familiar to anyone who’s shared a home with a sibling.
Candid as always, Dunham read from one of the more intimate scenes in her book — the moment when her sister came out to her. Dunham’s admiration for Grace is evident: “When [Grace] writes, which isn’t often,” Dunham read, “I get insanely jealous of the way her mind works, the fact that she seems to create for her own pleasure and not to make herself known.” But Dunham tempers the praise with humorous jabs: “She dresses like a Hawaiian criminal,” Dunham writes of her sister. “She is thin but physically lazy. Guys love her.”
Dunham credited Grace with the book tour’s social outreach aspect — a collaboration with Planned Parenthood. The organization has joined Dunham at each event to provide information about its services and volunteer opportunities. “They’ve been with me at every stop and we haven’t had any protesters,” Dunham quipped, “which means either times are changing or the tour wasn’t well publicized.”
Dunham urged the audience to vote in the upcoming midterm elections, emphasizing that even in “liberal” New York, inequality is rampant and each vote counts. “We want change, we are change, so we have to vote,” she said.
Following the reading, writer Zadie Smith and fellow “Girls” cast member Jemima Kirke joined Dunham in an often uproarious discussion that revealed the women’s close relationships. Dunham addressed head-on some of the criticism her work has received. Speaking about her feature film “Tiny Furniture,” in which Kirke also stars, Dunham noted that she was surprised more people didn’t see the film as a satirical critique of class, which was part of her intention in creating it.
She explained that Kirke’s character in that film, Charlotte, was meant to be an “embodiment of this privilege — this girl who was so undone by what she’d been given.” Later, Dunham responded to criticism she has heard over the characters on “Girls.” “That girl was mean to her friends and she should get the death penalty,” she mimicked, while pointing out the irony of that statement when we live “in a world where Tony Soprano and Walter White are our favorite TV characters.”
When Smith asked Dunham how her upbringing might have contributed to her trajectory, Dunham credited her mother. “My mother was a female artist in a male-dominated art world [and always] told me what was possible for me as a woman … My mother was engaged in her work and confident in her contribution to the world. That was the real gift,” Dunham said.
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