First published on VICE.com, August 17, 2014. Read the original, with photos, here.
Trans author and artist Sybil Lamb was living in George W. Bush’s version of The Hunger Games—also known as post-Katrina New Orleans—when two men beat her with an iron pipe, taking a chunk out of her skull, and then left her for dead in a rail yard. She received emergency surgery for over five hours, and the subsequent brain damage affected her balance, memory, and language abilities.
Lamb has transformed this experience and her travels around America into a new book called I’ve Got a Time Bomb. Like her survival, the book is magical—and I don’t mean charming or full of glitter. (OK, maybe a little glitter.) I mean magical, as in a logic-defying story that deeply moves the reader. Interested in learning more about Lamb's novel, I spoke to her about her writing and survival.
VICE: I loved the book. What motivated you to write it?
Sybil Lamb: I needed to list the [reasons why] my last five relationships went bad, [to discuss] my own ongoing mild flirtations with substances, and to talk about that one time I got my head bashed open. When I woke up, I had a plastic head that was missing a lot of cognitive functions, and I'm still just a little bit brain damaged. All the stuff was in other books, from five or seven different zines or short stories from the past ten years. “How to Kill Queer Scum Properly” was the original version of the bashing with a pipe story, but [Topside Press] got me to rewrite the whole thing in third person for the readers.
How close is the story to your life?
That's a fun question. It's written in brain-damaged bits of punk rock, so I tried to get a sticker on the front that said 88 percent completely true. The bashing story was completely true though—100 fucking percent.
Are there any major differences between the book and your life?
The only real difference is Trifle and I never actually shot a girl in the leg. (I will totally put that out there right now: I never shot any girl in the leg.) There's a syringe fight story that's really cool that didn't get in the book, but that'll be in I've Got a Time Bomb Two, out in 2018. Also, I didn't just go around the complete North America once. I went around about three times.
What’s your life like nowadays?
I am in Toronto—that's the other difference from the book. I'm no longer a crazy, homeless, wandering wreck. Look at this awesome studio I have. The whole building is intact; it's nuts. I'm still getting used to it. I've [lived in a house] for almost six years now—and I'm still freaked out—but I managed to sell all my old punk rock friends out, and I have cashed in. I got at least a steady supply of money, so I can drink and buy cheap dresses [when travelling] in Brooklyn.
At one point, the protagonist helps another character with what she calls an “important downward spiral.” What is an “important downward spiral?”
I feel like so many people need to go test the worst waters—not just test the waters but test the rapids. It's like picking a scab; it's like pulling out your little hairs one at a time. You can think of it as a rite of passage, but a rite of passage for whom? Why do you have to keep proving you can take so much? If you can take more, and you're unbreakable, you've gotta just keep doing it—gotta keep building up your calluses until you're the toughest pile of calloused calluses, smoothed-over warts, and raw hardtack with feet. But you can never really know beauty and intimacy and the reassuring-ness of a touch until you've seen horror, hatred, and how not nice a touch can feel. That's an important downward spiral.