In chronicling Ginsburg’s journey from Brooklyn to the bench, “Notorious RBG” features graphic timelines, annotated legal documents and even a special section dedicated entirely to Internet tributes, ranging from Web comics to screenshots from the Beyoncé Voters Tumblr.
In a phone interview, Carmon and Knizhnik talked about the book’s genesis and why so many young people love RBG.
On how to categorize the book: A biography? A scrapbook? A vision board? Something in between?
Shana Knizhnik: We wanted the book to be more than just a scrapbook. We wanted it to be a biography, a narrative form with that feel of a scrapbook. One of the most important things we are really proud of is the annotated excerpts from her briefs that she’d written when she was an attorney and also the opinions she had written as a judge and justice and annotations [from legal experts and former Ginsburg clerks]. These opinions can be very difficult material for a larger audience.
And with the annotations we wanted to use language that was more accessible. We don’t want to dumb down the substance, but we just don’t think that the fun aspects of it are in conflict with the substance. It’s not about choosing “oh, this silly meme” versus engaging with the issues. You can do both.
On RBG’s enduring popularity among millennials
[Let’s talk about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fishnet gloves]
SK: It’s about bringing this person out from this really esoteric high court and making her accessible as a human being, as a real person, to everyone.
Irin Carmon: This is something else — just how ahead of her time her feminism was. The fact that it still really holds up and has a resonance for us. Young women are used to being underestimated. She has been underestimated her whole life, and yet she has reacted with strength, integrity and grace.
SK: We found out some really hilarious and amazing stories about just how physically fit she has been. The story we love to tell is when she was told she should probably sit in the back of her white-water rafting boat — but in fact she said, “I don’t sit in the back.” We have this amazing photo of her in the front.
On collecting photos, comics and online tributes to include in the book
SK: We were trying to find images that didn’t necessarily fit in with any particular section of the narrative of her life, but which represented exactly what the Notorious RBG phenomenon is all about: celebrating the substance of what RBG has accomplished, while still having fun with it. So that includes the Beyoncé Voters memes celebrating women on the bench; a bobble head with RBG on the grounds of the Virginia Military Institute, which she made co-ed; an RBG mug subtitled “her story in the making,” and of course, the RBG Lego (complete with Lady Justice League colleagues).
On everyone’s favorite Jewish grandmother
SK: I spoke with both of her grandchildren. They are basically my age, and it’s really fascinating to think of that aspect of her life. We think of her as this amazing figure, which she obviously is, but then to them, speaking on the phone with her grandchildren, they’re calling her “Grandma.” They’re telling stories about how her granddaughter had a nose ring and Justice Ginsburg was extremely unhappy with that. They’re a family.
It’s really important, too, to think about having fun with this image of the Jewish grandmother and her wincing at people getting tattoos with her face on them. She said she was concerned about that, and it’s hilarious to think about that. But from a more earnest perspective, it’s important to think about women in particular. There’s this tendency for society to dichotomize — either you’re a working powerful woman or a motherly nurturing figure — and there isn’t space for complexity. You have to choose these roles when obviously there are lot of conversations about having it all. It’s really about being yourself and having your work.
Maybe not everyone can be a Supreme Court justice at the end of the day. But she gets out. She enjoys herself with the amazing network she’s created. She’s a full person.
Shana Knizhnik and Irin Carmon will speak at Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe on Nov. 15 at 6:30 p.m.
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