If you aren’t already familiar with the writing and performing of Elna Baker, prepare yourself for awesomeness. Baker is a comedian and storyteller living in New York. She is the author of a new memoir, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, describing her life as a single adult (a review will be coming later this week). She has written for The Onion and many other publications, and has been featured on This American Life and Upright Citizens Brigade. It is very possible that Baker is the best working comedienne and author in all Mormondom. We asked her some questions in connection with her new book.
BCC: Would you personally be willing to adopt a black baby doll if they ran out of white ones?
Elna Baker: Of course.
BCC: Much of your book seems to be about different Elnas, each doing battle with each other: “semiretarded school girl” Elna, the Blond Evil Elna, the 235 lb. Elna, the Mormon Elna and the penis-grabbing Elna. Who are you?
EB: All of the above.
BCC: Do you ever feel a need to censor yourself in discussing Mormonism? It seems like even in this memoir you are holding back a little about what you really believe (religiously speaking). Where do you express that side of yourself?
EB: For me a person’s faith is a very private and personal matter (which is why I’ve written an entire book about my own). Much of my material originated from solo shows, which I did in small, dimly lit comedy clubs throughout New York City. It was there that I learned how to balance dense religious discussion with the audience’s comfort level. If I spoke briefly and openly about the tenets of Mormonism, the audience appreciated my candor. But if I talked for more than three minutes, I’d catch them eyeing the nearest emergency exit. In my writing I try to maintain this same balance. When I speak about my faith, it’s in an attempt to dispel misperceptions and to explain my point of view, not to convert.
BCC: You spend some time talking about expectations in the singles’ wards, expectations from your patriarchal blessing… what should the realistic expectations be of a single woman in the Church? How is our church doing in terms of taking care of singles? Would things be helped by acknowledging “that we are here to eventually screw a nut on a bolt”?
EB: A Catholic friend of mine recently told me that what he liked about his congregation was that it was full of imperfect people who came together once a week to re-charge before going back out into spiritual battle. I often wish that my singles ward were more like this. Instead of constantly showing how “put together” we all are, I wish we could go to a place where we openly discussed our doubts and spiritual struggles without judgment, or repercussions (i.e. a non-existent dating life as a result of being a potential sinner).
To give you an example of what I’m talking about: I was briefly living in Provo and struggling with my testimony, when one Sunday, my ward announced that they were having a Women’s Appreciation Day. I decided to go in hopes that I’d be inspired by the female speakers. Instead, I walked into a church gym that was decorated with lace and Christmas lights. Disney princess songs were playing on the loudspeaker and all the women were wearing tiaras. As I walked through the door a young man stopped me, “Sister, we appreciate you,” he said, handing me a tiara.
Situations like this bother me because I don’t attend church to escape life, I go because I need help addressing it.
BCC: Every so often you’ll say something like “I’m apologizing for my Mormonism again.” Being Mormon is something inherently weird — what has the social/professional cost been for being a Mormon? Has it been worth it?
EB: Professionally, being a Mormon comedian is kind of a one-trick pony. I don’t want it to be the only thing I’m known for, especially because some of my best stories have nothing to do with my religion. But because my book tackles Mormonism, I’m usually labeled as a “Mormon comedian” instead of a “comedian.” But this is a risk I am willing to take in an effort to explore my own cultural identity.
On a more personal level, sometimes I think that if I weren’t Mormon I’d be a freer artist, more capable of exploring my darker side, more of a risk taker… and way more into hallucinogenic drugs. But that’s not my path. I’ve learned far more from writing about who I am than I would’ve if I tried to become something I’m not.
BCC: You say, “…I love saying yes. When you say yes you can start and end the day in two totally different places. Yes takes that space between unlimited possibilities and reality, and stretches it out so that anything can happen.” But ultimately, your memoir is about sometimes learning to say “no” despite this open horizon in front of you. Where do you stand now on saying yes to some things and no to others?
EB: I still say yes to the unknown. I still follow my curiosity and I’m still spontaneous. But the times that I’ve chosen to say “no” have taught me a lot about myself too. So in that sense saying “no” has become just as important to me as saying “yes.” But I’d much rather say “yes.” When you start the day in a yoga class and end up in a hot air balloon with an entire mariachi band, it just makes for a better story.
BCC: Are you really “sentenced to shove a square peg into a round hole for eternity”?
EB: I’ll get back to you when eternity ends.
BCC: Every once in a while you describe a Mormonism that is perhaps more conservative or restrictive than it might actually be. For example, “if I choose not to get married in a Mormon temple, I forfeit the ability to be with my family in the afterlife” or, say, attitudes in Mormonism on things like Prop 8 or conservative politics. Do these portrayals reflect your own beliefs, or are they sketches of the religion you see around you? How has your time in New York affected these religious views? Have you been able to find a Mormonism that is less homogeneous and more able to embrace both your desire to commune with God and your sense of adventure?
EB: Inside and outside of the church, I write about the people and the situations I see around me. And if I ever misrepresent the gospel, which I try hard not to do, it’s only because of my own misunderstanding. And I do believe it’s possible to be a Mormon who communes with God and still lives a life of adventure. My parents, who currently live in Siberia, are an example of this for me. I hope to be able to make it work for me too, it’s just that sometimes I have rather un-Mormon desires and I’m still grappling with these conflicting wants.
BCC: You and your body have had some interesting discussions. It seems like you’ve gone from enemies to friends and back a few times. At one point your body tells you, “…I can do all of these incredible things… but you don’t love me.” Do you love your body now? If so, what created that love — was it your dramatic weight loss, or something else?
EB: Do I love my body? My relationship to the woman I see when I look in the mirror will always be fraught. Some days I think I’m hot, other days I go back to seeing myself as a chubby little girl. But over the years I’ve learned a lot from this body. I’ve learned that it’s my job to believe in myself. No one else is going to tell me I’m worth it but me, and telling myself otherwise will only hurt my own progress. So I draw strength from the mantra I write about in my book: I am what I am. I’ve also learned that I have the strength within me to change my own situation, so whenever I’m unhappy, that’s what I try to do. I also believe that we’re all a lot stronger, smarter, and more beautiful than we give ourselves credit for and I’m happy for the very chance to be alive.
BCC: How has being a comic affected your dating life? how has dressing like a fortune cookie that really looked like a giant vagina affected your dating life?
EB: I would not have survived being single in NYC for nine years without a sense of humor.