If you’re a fan of 90s riot grrrl bands, you’ll know that Brownstein is the guitarist in the American band, Sleater-Kinney. If you’re not, what you need to know is that Brownstein can not only write song lyrics, she writes brilliant prose too.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is divided into three sections. The first ‘Youth’ looks, as you’d expect, at her childhood. She begins with music and the shared experience of being a fan of a band in your teenage years:
That’s why all those records from high school sound so good. It’s not that the songs were better – it’s that we were listening to them with our friends, drunk for the first time on liqueurs, touching sweaty palms, staring for hours at a poster on the wall, not grossed out by carpet or dirt or crumpled oily bedsheets. These songs and albums were the best ones because of how huge adolescence felt then, and how nostalgia recasts it now.
Right from the first pages of the book, Brownstein’s tone is one of a straight, honest, unflinching account of her life up to the reformation of Sleater-Kinney. She tells us that her first gig was Madonna and it was at a George Michael concert that she realised she wanted to ‘be the object of desire’ on the stage. She bought a guitar, she started going to punk and rock gigs with her friends who were old enough to drive.
I needed to press myself up against small stages, risking crushed toes, bruised sides, and the unpredictable undulation of the pit, just so I could get a glimpse of who I wanted to be.
In this first section of the book, as Brownstein begins to explore who she wants to be, she shows her burgeoning awareness of where she was coming from. She writes about her family life, the secrets her parents held and her own isolation. She’s not afraid to relate moments where she’d be considered unlikeable, or those that reflect her vulnerabilities.
The second section, and the bulk of the book, is titled ‘Sleater-Kinney’ and begins with Brownstein’s move to Olympia in 1993:
…Olympia itself was a university I wanted to attend. Everything coming out of that scene had started to define me, or at least I wanted it to…It was a world I was desperate to be part of. I wanted a new family of outlaws, of queers and provocative punks, of wit and sexiness. I had one trajectory and that was to get out: of Redmond, of my childhood, of my head. But I needed a place to take me in. It was both a calculated move and an aimless one. I possessed the force of a bullet, albeit one shot from a very shoddy gun.
There she spends her time at gigs, plays in a band called Excuse 17, builds on an earlier meeting with Corin Tucker beginning both Sleater-Kinney and a relationship with her, and becomes friends with Miranda July.
Brownstein captures what it’s like to tour on very little money, how each of the band’s albums were made and, most powerfully, the personal impact of being in a band. This comes in three forms: needing a steady home to return to; the variety of illnesses she suffers on tour, and the shape of her identity being decided by music journalists:
I wasn’t reading about myself; I was reading about a character the writer had made up to fit his tendentious point of view about the band, a narrative he was creating that we needed to fit inside…If you haven’t spent any time deliberately and intentionally shaping your narrative, if you’re unprepared, like I was, then one will be written for you.
In Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl Brownstein does get to shape her narrative. Taking a largely chronological approach, her prose is sharp and clear and aids her in discovering who she has become. In the final section of the book, ‘Aftermath’, she’s living with two cats and a dog.
A male loner is a hero of sorts, a rebel, an iconoclast, but the same is not true of a female loner. There is no virility in a woman’s autonomy, there is only pity. I was floating. I had created my own abandonment.
If you’re a fan of the band or musicians in general, there’s much to interest you here. Alternatively, you could read the book as the story of a woman trying to work out who she wants to be, who she is and how the two might marry. It’s a book about how an identity’s created. It’s thoughtful and insightful. It’s well worth a read.
Thanks to Virago Books for the review copy.