ICONOCLASM INTERVIEW SERIES SUBJECT #6 — Sezin Koehler, Performance Artist, Author, Mermaid
I’m a huge believer in both the significance of numbers and the ability to sit patiently in accordance with the universe and allowing it to provide you with your most ideal creative direction. Thus, on the weekend after the first anniversary of the 2016 Presidential Election, on Saturday, November 11, 2017, I decided to take a chance on myself and invest time, effort and energy into honing my best creative self. The result is “Iconoclasm.” It’s a regular series of interviews (possibly eventually more) wherein, in accordance with the definition of the word “iconoclasm,” I decided to throw caution to the wind and assertively challenge people whose creative output I cherish, and via their production have created beliefs, values, and practices that have significantly altered the course of my life.
What I have done is sent an email of introduction and thanks to a select, and diverse crew of people who have aided in my journey to joy as a creative being, and as well, been key in my discovery of a sense of empowerment via self-expression. I noted that I wanted to interview them because “something tells me that given the era with which we’re presently confronted, that there’s something significant in being able to empower those who may be nervous about discovering their own best selves as unique creative forces, or even greater, as progressive leaders of underground-to-mainstream communities.” Upon receiving a response, I then, very nervously sent questions to these people — many of whom I view as living legends — and awaited a response. What exists below, is, unedited, the response from someone I value about issues regarding evolving into our best selves with which we should all be aware.
If I’m your favorite writer, then Sezin Koehler is “your favorite writer’s favorite writer.” Yes, that might come off like the faint praise of meme worthy hip-hop dialogue that chokes the modern digital atmosphere. But, I’d like to think that I hold myself to a higher standard than damning someone with faint praise. Thus, I say this about Sezin, my now internet friend, with the highest of honorific acclaim.
Much like myself, I’d say that she’s an apprenticing master of all trades and “jack” of none of them. She’s been featured in Wear Your Voice Magazine, Bitch Magazine, Ravishly, Broadly, Huffington Post, Sociological Images, The Displaced Nation, The Mary Sue, and Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. As well, she’s had her work highlighted by Al Jazeera, Huffington Post, Feministing, xoJane, Jezebel, Buzzfeed, and Think Progress. As well, she’s written three books, and is a noted thinker in regards to South Asian issues, the TV show Twin Peaks, Frida Kahlo, feminism, politics, and social activism. All of this has also occurred whilst living in Sri Lanka, Zambia, Pakistan, Thailand, India, Switzerland, France, Spain, Turkey, Czech Republic, Germany, and now Lighthouse Point, Florida. Plus, she’s surviving thyroid disease as well.
This is also the best time to mention that Sezin absolutely refers to herself as being a “witch” and a “mermaid.” There’s MANY people these days who, in the wake of the latest global feminist wave and just generally wanting to be on the right side of both pop cultural cool and history will refer to themselves as such. However, I am an avowed believer in female-led spirituality, so I take such proclamations with a level of seriousness akin to Caiaphas attempting to discern whether or not Jesus Christ was King of the Jews. Sezin, unlike 99% of the population that makes such claims, checks out. Her work is guided by a blunt honesty that, once pierced via a reader’s compassion, reveals a healing, empowered, birthing, natural, and omniscient spiritual energy.
This interview was an absolute pleasure to conduct, and I hope it brings you as much direction as it gave me joy.
If I said to you “the digital age allows for those with peak mobility and unique creativity to shine brightest,” as someone who’s lived all over the world and crafted dynamic work in the midst of that, would you agree?
Yes and no. Yes, because social media does allow people access to others and diverse platforms in which they can share their work from anywhere in the world to just about anyone in the world. But at the same time social media is inundated with so many people vying for the same spot. Many of these are creative spots that would never have been available to such a diverse group of people in a pre-digital-age, but yet I’m noticing there is less and less room.
Look how people used to be able to make a living as a writer before the Internet, and now publications that used to pay living wages often pay pennies just because they can. The playing field got leveled with certain aspects of access in the digital age, but in many ways the financial rewards certainly did not. People might be shining brightly, but a lot of us are also dying of exposure just trying to get our foot in the door.
How would you define “third culture” to someone who doesn’t quite get what that means? As well, in defining yourself via that terminology, how has aligning yourself with that phrase aided your personal comfort and professional development?
“Third Culture Kid” is the term coined during the 70s for children who spent their developmental years in places that aren’t their parents’ passport countries. In a nutshell, the concept of “Third Culture” signifies children who grow up shuttling between worlds and cultures, and has also come to signify immigrant kids who might, for example, speak one language at home and another one entirely outside the house instead of the expat context many people focus on when discussing Third Culture Kids. In my case, I was born abroad to a white American mom and a Sri Lankan dad, and most of the places we lived were neither of their homes. The key of being a TCK is the fact that you spent *developmental* childhood years outside your parents’ home countries/cultures, becuase this has been shown to dramatically alter social, cultural, personal, and interpersonal traits.
Until I read Ruth Van Reken and David Pollock’s “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds” I felt like there was a huge gap in my understanding of many of my own personality and emotional makeup, and an inability to understand the profound depression I’d lived with my entire life. Turns out, unresolved grief is one of the lesser-discussed traits a majority of TCKs suffer from on account of having to uproot so often as well as potentially a lack of roots due to an intercultural or transcultural family. When I was growing up there was no social media, so goodbye was often GOODBYE. Final. The younger generations of TCKs have a bit of an easier time since they have access to Facebook, email, chat services, even cheap flights, so moving to a new place isn’t quite the end of the world that it sometimes felt like when I was growing up. There’s also a lot more awareness now with parents who are raising TCKs, an awareness that simply didn’t exist for my generation and older of TCKs, so I think it might actually be fun being a TCK now. It really wasn’t when I was living it.
As for the term “Third Culture”, it really helped me find a place in a global culture of international nomads, many of whom like me who can’t easily answer the questions “where are you from?” or “where’s home?”. In the beginning, the term helped shaped my writing and awareness: many of my first published articles were about TCK issues. Now, since I do feel there is a huge gap between the experiences of my generation of TCKs and the new one that enjoyed/enjoys the privileges of social media, I feel like there needs to be a fresh exploration of what it means to be a member of the “Third Culture” and the emerging differences in how the pre- and post-digital age TCKs interact with the world.
Writing-as-advocacy is a “thing” now, moreso than ever before. When using language to create compassion, are you ever attempting to use words as weapons? Or, what adjectives would you use to define your intent via word choice? I’m sure this question feels loaded, and in fact, it is, lol. I’m sure there’s a lot to unpack in that for you specifically.
Absolutely there is so much to unpack! My first novel American Monsters is a raw treatise on the power of female pain, rage, and trauma, and it is a book I often warn people about before they dive in. When I first published it I even put a “DANGER” label on it because its ferocity is brutal (but necessary) in unpacking violence against women through the lens of the Southern California rave scene during the 90s. Because most of my published essays on trauma, depression, identity and how these things relate to culture and society are driven by empathy and compassion — helping people who might not understand what these things feel like or helping put into words these experiences for those who are unable to articulate their pain in a way that their family and friends can understand — people are often shocked when they hear my passion is writing horror novels about a group of women monsters with trauma-related superpowers. But at the same time I think that the extreme violence my monsters survived and their resulting actions are the opposite side of the same coin as my compassionate essays about difficult topics. Anger is one of my driving emotions for many good reasons, and I need a solid place to put that where it can be productive. Hence, my novels. I also need places to put my overflow of empathy. These days, my main goal is seeking balance and you don’t often see people talking about anger being a complement to empathy/compassion.
What is it about water that inspires you so much? Earth and nature are always viewed in an inspirational light, but I think you understand the interplay between humanity and nature in a much more nuanced and intriguing way than most.
I was born on an island and when I was a little girl (and occasionally even now) I used to fervently pray to the gods to make me into a mermaid. Now, at 39, I find the mermaid archetype — a fierce, fanged, clawed, water warrior, not those narcissistic Disney mermaids — to be one of the most useful in my own healing. Being a racial and cultural hybrid myself, I’ve always been drawn to hybrid monsters like mermaids, faeries, and a variety of horror movie creatures who also fit this bill of living on the margins or being forced to shuttle between disparately different worlds.
I never actively planned it, but everywhere I have kept a home is near flowing water. There is something in the depths and its movement that comfort me in its intransigence. My spirit flower is the lotus, a hardy plant that carries its own roots in its structure and floats wherever the current takes it. That sums up how I’ve moved through my life, going where opportunity pops up and moving on when its time has passed.
My astrological chart is also majority made up of water elements, and I have the tearful disposition to match. I cry all the time. Public, private, it doesn’t matter. For years I used to swallow those tears and I had so many health problems as a result. Now, when I feel the need to cleanse through my eyes I do it regardless of the situation. And many of those past health problems improved.
As the Lakota say, “Water is life.” Water is necessity. It is fear. It is the unknown. It is the conduit for magic. It’s the great detoxifier. Water is emotion. Water is love.
Fear as a reaction. Can you explore that for me in regards to how that interacts with your writing and life in general?
As someone who suffers from acute and long-term PTSD, fear isn’t an intellectual excersise for me. Fear is an entity that walks beside me and whose presence I am constantly mitigating. Fear tells me when I need to get out of a situation. It tells me when it is safe to continue. Looking back at our ancestors, fear was the thing that kept people alive. It’s not a personal weakness to be afraid. Instead, it is a way to listen to our ancestors’ voices telling us when we are on a good path or when we need to change direction entirely. America is a place that simply breeds fear, and this goes all the way back to its bloody founding. I’ve lived in some gnarly dangerous places around the world, and yet the fear I live with on a daily basis here — gun violence, racial hatred, microaggressions, and more — are by far scarier than anything I’ve experienced elsewhere. I honor fear because it has kept me alive this far.
What does it mean to be “one’s best, most loved, and most empowered self?” And, is it possible to ever reach this status?
I feel like this is better as a guide to a good life than an actual end result. I mean, one day I’m going to wake up and say, “Yup, I’ve done all the growing I can do and that’s that”? Um, nope. Life is constant growth, whether painful, necessary, or even cosmetic. And something else I’m learning is that there are no ultimate depths to love, either loving oneself or loving others. We can always love more. And when we think we have reached maximum capacity for self-love or loving others, we will always find that love is able to deepen. At least, that’s something I actively work toward every day. Expanding what it means and looks like to actually love myself and the skin I’m in, as well as developing all the different kinds of love I feel for others. Like the saying goes, you have to put your own emergency mask on first; you can’t give without anything left in your own cup. Empowering and loving others in so many ways begins with the self. It’s taken me 40 years of discomfort to learn this, and now each day I do my best to live mindfully.