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mama mia!


first opened Mia Kirshner’s new book, I Live Here, at a children’s playground—which is either the most appropriate or the most inappropriate place to look at it. My 7-year-old niece and my 2-year-old nephew happily ran around the play equipment while I read the heartbreaking stories of women and children in four war-torn corners of the world. The contrast was jarring, like a splash of cold water to the face, but I could hardly put the book down. Kirshner's stories, written beautifully as first-person poems, essays and biographies, document the sufferings and strength of people who have seen the worst of humanity and lived to tell about it. It’s a far cry from Hollywood, and from the moneyed, fashion-centric life portrayed on The L Word, Showtime’s hit series. Kirshner, best known for her role as narcissistic navel-gazer Jenny Schecter on the series that made her a star, is a longtime supporter of human rights organizations like Amnesty International, and has travelled with Artists for Amnesty. Over a five-year period, Kirshner actually witnessed what the lives of refugees were like firsthand. Written in collaboration with J.B. MacKinnon (Dead Man in Paradise), and Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge (of AdBusters fame), Kirshner’s book is an extremely personal and intimate look at her own émigré family and the lives of refugees in Chechnya, on the BurmaThailand border and in Malawi. She also documents some of the 400 women thought to have been killed in North America’s worst case of femicide, and the families that survived them, in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. “Amnesty doesn’t work on the ground, so I really wanted the work that we did on the book to benefit the communities themselves,” she said of the book and her I Live Here Foundation. The foundation is “telling the stories of silenced and unheard people through a series of books and other media projects.” Their efforts have produced creative writing programs—like one at 46 | curve

the Kachere Juvenile Center prison for youth in Lilongwe, Malawi—and collaborations with disenfranchised writers to produce journals, stories, images and graphic novellas. The stories, woven throughout the beautiful illustrations and the sometimes-disturbing photos, are a wake-up call to the atrocities that are occurring daily, but Kirshner excels at highlighting the humanity of her subjects, from the little boy in Chechnya who was adopted by a woman on the run from her abusive husband, to the Burmese refugees so bored with life in Thai camps that they were willing to take risky day trips to clean houses for strangers, even though they knew their chances of being attacked or raped were high. Back home after her journey to the cotton fields in Juárez—where the bodies of some of the missing women were found in 2001—Kirshner found herself in a clothing store surrounded by advertising images of happy people playing in the snow. “I did feel like an alien,” she says thoughtfully, “especially after that trip. [There were] increments when, you know, you just get to know your life through a very…different set of eyes. I guess I saw—I see much more how lucky I am. I think I was probably taking a lot of things for granted.” The work left its scars, though. In one story about the life of a girl in Juárez, Kirshner muses to the dead girl, “A twenty-five-kilogram FedEx box. It arrived at my house four months ago. I needed to tell your story somehow, knowing that maybe this was none of my business. So before I cut the box open I promised you my cuts would be soft. I was trying to cut you free. Claudia, I'm ashamed to say that many of the promises I've made I have broken.” Saddened for months after visiting the site where so many women factory workers (maquiladoras) were found raped and murdered in the desert

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Mia Kirshner just spent five years traveling the world, and we aren’t talking sandy beaches here. The L Word's resident philanthropist tells us all about it. By Katie Peoples • Photos by Naomi Kaltman

October 2008 | 47


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I realize this is a

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loaded thing to say, but I don’t like labels at all. Maybe you’ll help me figure this out, because I think I’ll be asked this again. borderland between northern Mexico and Texas, Kirshner says she felt a sense of powerlessness. “I sort of came full circle with the book…in terms of being really energized to do it…working on the book, and being totally disempowered and then feeling like, OK, I can’t do everything, but this is what I think I can do. I can do my best,” she admits. “The communities we go into, I would hope—I think— when somebody feels…cared for, it just makes them happy and listened to.” In her first foray into writing, Kirshner is always cautious about how to label herself. In a world where Angelina Jolie made humanitarian work among refugees the hip thing to do, Kirshner worries about being seen as just another actor jumping on the bandwagon, merely to garner publicity. But, she says her travels weren’t easy. Since she was doing this largely without the support—or security—of an organization, Kirshner found herself illegally crossing borders and walking through war-torn cities, sometimes without bodyguards. But meeting refugees this way made it easier to get them to open up to her and share their experiences. Using the first person throughout, Kirshner retells the refugees' stories in a journal that contains mini comic books as well, an ode to Kirshner’s love of graphic novels. This makes the book unique. “I’m not a journalist and I’m not a trained writer. There’s no byline on any of the pieces…so it really could be anybody—you or myself. I just felt like the book was supposed to represent an intimacy. My partners and I felt like a journal sort of suggests intimacy and closeness.” Both journalism and humanitarian work are disciplines Kirshner is familiar with. Kirshner’s father and many of her friends are journalists; her mother teaches refugees. And the Canadian native is no stranger to painful events. She comes from a Jewish family that bore witness to the Holocaust and experienced diaspora. “We sort of grew up with not knowing what really happened to the family,” she says. “That really [is] haunting all of us, and I’m sure that’s why my father became a journalist. That stuff was thematic growing up.” While she is quick to say that that her life is nothing like those of the people she interviewed, Kirshner feels an emotional familiarity with them. “We’re all displaced and are refugees in a sense,” she says of her family. “And it’s an issue that I’m interested in, and has, at times, changed my life. You realize after the fact, when you look back at years in the past, you realize how quickly that time passed. And I just felt like…I’m basically floating through things and I better start changing the way I live, so that’s sort of the evolution of the book.” The book focuses mostly on women and children, and Kirshner worries that it will be marginalized because of it. She says she dislikes using certain words—activism, inspire, humanitarian, even feminist. “Those words shut me down, because I’m a pretty cynical person and it feels like you’re being talked down to. So I really tried to use language I felt would appeal [to people] who are as cynical as I am.”

But don’t think for a minute that everything in Kirshner's world is dark and depressing. The woman whose star has been on the rise since she first stunned audiences as a young stripper in Atom Egoyan's Exotica, cemented her provocative reputation as a dominatrix in Love and Human Remains. She also appeared as a bisexual terrorist in several episodes of 24, showed off her comedic chops (and lesbian kissing) in Not Another Teen Movie and played Heather Graham's BFF in the queerish Miss Conception. And of course, there is The L Word and the role that made her a household name (albeit, a hotly debated one). While on The L Word set, she and the cast goof off, play pranks on each other and meet up for beers after work. “Last year, Kate and Leisha stuck fake silicon breasts on the headlights of my SmartCar, which I drove around a couple weeks because I didn’t notice,” she says, laughing conspiratorially as she shares her form of revenge. “Kate is actually driving around with the same thing on her car right now.” While she plays Jenny, arguably the least popular character on the show, Kirshner doesn’t let the occasional flak from angry fans get to her. She sees Jenny as a job—a special kind of job, no doubt— but one that she enjoys doing. “I understand that she’s not a hero and I understand that she’s a troubled character,” she says. “I think she’s entertaining. I mean…she’s a human car crash.” Season six is a complete mystery to her, as is her next big career move. With the I Live Here Foundation growing, Kirshner says that she loves acting but will need to find work that can accommodate her commitment to the foundation. “I love to act and it’s a pleasure for me to work on something I’m passionate about,” she says. But don't expect Kirshner to get on a queer soapbox. “I realize this is a loaded thing to say, but I don’t like labels at all. I don’t know, maybe you’ll help me figure this out, because I think I’ll be asked this again.” Labeled or not, the actor has another book in the works. Called I Love Here, it will be about how people love, and through the foundation she plans to launch another creative writing program in brothels along the Thai-Burmese border, not to mention traveling the country on her upcoming book tour. For Kirshner, the sixth season of The L Word marks a time of transition. “It’s the beginning of something, not the conclusion,” she says. n October 2008 | 49

mama mia! Mia Kirshner just spent five years  

Mia Kirshner just spent five years traveling the world, and we aren’t talking sandy beaches here. The L Word's resident philanthropist tells...

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