Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project interviewed Nina G on October 2, 2014 at StoryCorps San Francisco.
This is the last of two blog posts about their interview. Below are approximate excerpts from their conversation.
On being women with disabilities and white male privilege
Alice: …stutterers must encounter people mocking them all the time. For some reason, that’s hilarious to non-disabled people. I don’t really get it. Tell me about that.
Nina: This is something we don’t always talk about in the disability world but what I find, at least around my stuttering, is that men will tease you in a way that’s making fun of your disability but kind of flirting with you at the same time but kind of trying to take a place of power at the same time. It’s this really weird, rape-y, kind of interaction. You know what I’m talking about?
Nina: Yeah, what the fuck is that?
Alice: It’s like male domination, again, within this public space. They’re mocking you, but it’s a sense of entitlement. I think race, like white supremacy, plays in that, but also there’s a very overtly misogynistic strain.
Alice: Right? I can do whatever I want, I can say whatever I want to your face because I am a white male, or a male.
Nina: What I’ve found is that comedians, they make fun. Like my friend Dave, when he introduced me he says, “What can I say about Nina that wouldn’t take a really long time for her to say about herself?” Very cute, and comes from a loving place. Comedians can do that stuff and I’m OK with it. Some of them, no, but if I love you, you can make fun. It’s these people who do it in this creepy-ish way.
Alice: It’s just the people who have really never met you or know you and then they just think this is a charming way to interact or banter with you when it’s really an invasion. Right? It’s an invasion on your personhood.
Nina: Mm-hmm. (affirmative)
Alice: I’ve had guys come up and make these really weird comments about my wheelchair.
Nina: Mm. Like what?
Alice: Like, can I play with your buttons? I know what you’re talking about. I don’t think that’s really cool. That’s really creepy. And they think they’re being funny or whatever and it’s so eww.
Nina: Yeah. A lot of it is that in our culture, you can think they’re attractive but you can’t really do anything with them. Don’t be out in public with them.
Nina: And don’t do this. So it’s in this weird, creepy space. I’m sure women get this who don’t have a disability, but when you add disability into it there’s a creep factor there.
Alice: Right. Also I think we are this oddity where it’s almost a fetish. Where it’s like, oh let me just, quote unquote “flirt” with this disabled girl, she’ll get a kick out of it. Or she’ll enjoy it because she never gets enough attention.
Nina: It’s like…
Alice: I’m doing you a favor. You’re going to love it. You’re going to remember me. What a treat. I’m just a male treat.
Nina: Yeah, isn’t it weird?
Alice: It is weird. I think the female disabled experience is so much in terms of experience, which is really different from, let’s face it, the male [disabled] experience.
Nina: I talk about this all the time. I talk about it in the stuttering community a lot especially because you tend to be outnumbered in certain disabilities, so people talk about it. It’s the whitewashed male experience and it doesn’t always include the other aspects of it and you bring up those aspects and they’re all, no, this is stuttering and that’s it. But there are these subtle things that our communities don’t always talk about. It’s so interesting to me that you have a physical disability and it’s an apparent one. I say that I have a semi-apparent disability because you only see it when I talk. People make assumptions and then they make other assumptions. It’s a similar experience. It’s really interesting.
Alice: Yeah, once people within those first few seconds, once they identify you as a disabled woman…that gives them permission to say whatever they want, right?
Nina: Then also being a comedian, then they extra think they can say whatever they want.
Interactions with non-disabled people in the public sphere
Alice: A lot of this verbal jousting, verbal defense, verbal offense….I think every disabled person probably has these skills because they’re so used to these, I don’t want to over-dramatize it, but verbal assaults in the public. Like staring, really inappropriate commenting, asking invasive questions that you would never ask any non-disabled person, questions like “How do you do this? How do you that, were you born with this?” It’s none of your fucking business unless you know me, unless you’re my friend, that’s a different story. But when total strangers on the street see you, think you’re either an inspiration, “So special, oh she’s on stage, doing comedy, oh that’s so amazing.”
Nina: What I always say is that when you meet someone who doesn’t have a disability, suddenly they have a PH.D. In the thing you have. I talk, and people will offer me advice like, “Just slow down and breathe.” Gee, I never thought of that in the 30 years- plus I’ve been stuttering. It’s those kinds of things that you encounter all time. Also, I don’t want to lay this all on men, because women do a lot too. I did a comedy club in San Francisco once and I did my act and afterwards I went up to the woman and asked her if there was a show she might want to put me on and she said, “You just keep doing open mics and one day, I’m sure that you’ll have enough self-confidence that you’ll stop stuttering.”
Nina: I know, right?
Nina’s comedic process
Alice: Tell me about your process, where you have this feeling or thought, for how you’re going to refine it down to a succinct and a targeted joke where it really has the most impact. How does that evolve?
Nina: I think with my stuttering too, I have to formulate a joke so that the punchline hits. A lot of comics, they talk and they talk and they build it up and they build it up. I cut the fat. As a person who stutters, I’ve learned to cut the fat. If I didn’t stutterer, I’d probably have an hour of material, whereas now I have a half hour. I’ve kind of learned to do that in my life. Which in comedy, that’s what you want.
Alice: Right, it’s more economical.
Nina: Yes, exactly. I’ll write it down, I might put it on Facebook, I might see if there’s a response, then I might try it at an open mic. If it doesn’t hit, and I really like it then I’ll try it again and again and again. Sometimes jokes are just for me, and sometime they’re for others. Sometimes I just need to do it for my own sake.
Alice: Are there certain words where you know you will stutter a little more, so word choice is very particular? Let’s say if you want to emphasize a certain word but you know you’ll stutter, will you reshape the structure of what you say?
Nina: I try not to.
Alice: So you know you’re own patterns.
Nina: I try not to but there is one sentence that I do say that I know I stutter more on this sequencing. It works well comedically. So it’s the only time I stutter for comedic emphasis which is say, “Orgasms and stuttering have a lot in common because they both take hell of the the the the the the fuckin’ long,” and I stutter on that all the time. Like that was a natural stutter but it works good because it also mirrors a woman’s orgasm.
Alice: Right. You’re using what you’ve got for full comedic effect. In a way, we always joke about being disabled and especially as children we’re always told to do these therapies. I’d like to think that kids who stutter should do stand up. The way you’re using your stuttering to your best advantage is really fun.
Nina: Well, yeah and everybody should have it as a tool to use and it’s one of the highest defenses, one of the highest functioning defense that you can have.
Nina G, comedian
Nina G is America’s favorite female stuttering stand up comedian (granted she is the only one). She is also a disability activist, storyteller, children’s book author and educator. She brings her humor to help people confront and understand social justice issues such as disability, diversity, and equity.
When she isn’t performing at comedy clubs like the San Francisco Punchline or the Laugh Factory, she is playing colleges and presenting as a keynote speaker to children with disabilities and training professionals.
Check out her newest project, Once Upon an Accommodation: A Book About Learning Disabilities! Nina writes from her own experience as a person with a Learning Disability and how to navigate the world of disability related accommodations in school.
Facebook Fan Page: Facebook.com/ninagcomedian
Twitter: @ninagcomedian (occassional adult content)
Youtube: NinaGcomic (some adult content)