I walk into Annabell’s — a Highland Square bar known for hosting punk shows in their basement — on a Tuesday night. It doesn’t take long to spot the people I’m meeting: a group of about eight women sitting around a table in the back of the bar, with one standing at the end in a witch’s hat.
This collective is the self-described “punk rock book club,” ChickLits.
We make our way to the basement for their monthly meeting, where we’re greeted by a Halloween playlist and a banner of “movie monsters” on the back wall. They’re planning to read Stephen King’s Carrie over the next month, in keeping with the Halloween theme. After that, they plan to read literature by indigenous American writers to counterbalance the colonial history of Thanksgiving.
But tonight, they’re discussing the book they read for last month, which is the opposite of spooky: Winnie the Pooh.
During their discussion everyone is also stuffing Halloween treat bags to be given out to children at the Harvest Home shelter in Akron, a reflection of another part of ChickLits’ mission: “Giving back to the city of Akron.”
The woman in the witch’s hat, Jillian Smith, founded this group. I sat down with her a few days later to learn more about ChickLits.
The Devil Strip: How did ChickLits get started?
Jillian Smith: I was going through a quarter life crisis at the age of 26 when a friend of mine asked me a question that changed my life forever: “Jillian, what brought you joy as a child?” The first thought that came to my mind was reading. I remember being curled up with a book with my dad reading next to me throughout much of my childhood. I picked up a book for the first time in some time, and within six months, I had read nearly 50 titles.
A very palpable change occurred in me. I started wanting to spread this around, daydreaming about how the world would be a better place if everyone read more books. I dreamt of starting a book club that wasn’t like the rest: literary cocktails, monthly potlucks, showcasing speakers and local artists, drag shows, burlesque shows, film screenings, etc. However, I still wasn’t sure if I would have the confidence to put myself in the open. It wasn’t until I saw Patti Smith at her 70th birthday show at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago (in December 2016) that I knew I could do it. It changed my life. When I got home, I perfected my ideas and approached the owners at Annabell’s and, much to my surprise, they said, “Let’s do it!”
DS: Can you share an example of a time when you saw ChickLits make an impact on people’s lives?
JS: Our body-positive burlesque show last January was an incredible showcase of women being celebrated for the things that typically we’re told not to celebrate. It was important to me to make sure that many body types, sexual orientations, and people of color were represented. We had some amazing speakers: body positive activist and model Alysse Dalessandro who shared with us her personal journey to body positivity; and Rachel Kacenjar, another body positive activist who shared with us a hilarious, heartfelt, relatable story of being too fat to be desired in the dating pool. I think every person who attended that night felt challenged to accept the parts of themselves they were self-conscious about beforehand. It’s implementing little things like self-love that promotes change within a community. When you feel good, you do good.
DS: How has ChickLits changed over time?
JS: ChickLits has evolved quite a bit since we got started. When I first started brainstorming for ChickLits, I had the idea to make it a women’s only space. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that transgender and non-binary folks in our area didn’t really have a place where they could connect, so I opened the club to them as well. We also do a lot of icebreakers now which make the connections more intimate and rewarding.
Something exciting happening now is (that) ChickLits has been offered a grant and a partnership with Literary Akron. We will be implementing literary events, poetry, creative writing workshops, and promoting literacy all over Akron. I think it will be a great partnership, and I hope to continue to bring in incredible speakers and artists to supplement the themes of the books that we are reading. It’s really exciting.
DT McCrea is a genderqueer poet at the University of Akron through the NEOMFA program.
Photos by Shane Wynn. Used with permission from Jillian Smith.