Hannah Gadsby understands the value of context. In Nanette, her startling stand-up comedy show that was made into a Netflix special in 2018, she memorably provides additional context for Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. She recounts how she was once confronted by an audience member who, in the course of criticizing antidepressants, argued that if Van Gogh had taken medication for his depression, he would not have painted his flowery masterpieces. In response, Gadsby drew on her education in art history and “tore that man a college debt-sized new arsehole,” explaining that Van Gogh was in fact not only medicating, but that one of the medications he was taking had a side effect of increasing the intensity of the color yellow.
Besides providing a sharp counterpoint to some unwanted feedback, this context also gives us more information about how Van Gogh’s work connected with his life. In Gadsby’s new book, Ten Steps to Nanette, she offers us a similar gift, amplifying the significance of her performance by building frames of reference for its groundbreaking content.
Just like the show its title references, Ten Steps to Nanette is honest, incisive, self-referential and very funny, with the author’s wry humor threaded throughout its pages, her trademark asides transformed into frequent footnotes.
And, just like in her show, Gadsby gives her context on her own terms. Of her formative years, she states: “They were the most precarious years of my life, and I need not have survived them, and I want to be sure that you understand that. That you are not reading my story like it’s some kind of rags-to-riches inspiration porn. It’s not. Why must Empathy always be held hostage in exchange for entertainment? I want the world to stop expecting cohesive stories about trauma. I want the world to stop demanding gratuitous details.”
This approach is not likely to win over Gadsby’s detractors. Their loss. Within the parameters Gadsby lays out, she creates a lush landscape around a remarkable hour of performance that adds to its already considerable depth.
This being, as the subtitle indicates, a “memoir situation,” the book offers a deep look at Gadsby’s personal life and family, but not in isolation. In her year-by-year account of her early years, local, national, and international events march alongside personal stories from her childhood and adolescence, simultaneously highlighting both the forest and trees of her own personal context. Her chronicle of 1990 includes: the launch of the Hubble telescope, MC Hammer’s release of “U Can’t Touch This,” the discovery of the golden-mantled tree kangaroo, Gadsby’s sister’s departure for college, Gadsby’s retirement from hockey due to a knee injury, Tasmania’s brutal public debate over the decriminalization of homosexuality, and Gadsby’s molestation.
This experience and the other personal traumas that are part of the heartbreaking emotional climax of Nanette are not recounted as narratives. Gadsby explains that she “do[es] not wish to prioritise my abuse in the telling of my story, because it was not luxury I could afford at the time it was happening.” Rather, her references to her trauma are unexpected and shattering, surfacing abruptly and then sinking quickly back below the surface of her story, demonstrating rather than telling it.
These threads of context intensify the show’s pain, but they also enhance its humor. Early in the show, to contrast her lifestyle from the more boisterous elements of the Pride scene, Gadsby says, “My favorite sound in the whole world is the sound of a teacup finding its place on a saucer.” This line could be dismissed as a throwaway bit of comedy, meant only to exaggerate her sense of alienation from the larger gay community. But in the Ten Steps to Nanette, she gives us context: as a young girl, her best friends were Nan and Pop, her elderly next door neighbors who served her tea every day after school “from a fine china cup with a thin lip and never not a saucer.” The sound of a teacup settling in to a saucer signals not just a variety of homosexuality, but a deep sense of undiluted safety and love. This doesn’t lessen the laugh, but it does add a resonance to it, a reverberation that may send empathetic echoes through our own experiences.
In Ten Steps to Nanette, Gadsby also offers more technical contextual details for the show itself that its fans will savor. We learn more about Gadsby’s encounter with Nanette, the vestigial namesake of the show (which we find out could have been titled “Punching a Shark in the Face”). In a nail biting sequence, she describes the anxious moments leading up to her first onstage performance of Nanette so well that it conjures the glare of the stage lights. Of the taping of the Netflix special at the Sydney Opera House, she informs on the origin of the stage decor, the intention behind the camera angles, the delicate extrication of a crying baby from the audience.
These tidbits do satisfy, but the part that will sweep you off your feet is Gadsby’s careful, detailed deconstruction of how she wrote such a show. Those who have seen Nanette have surely marveled at its intricate structure – recursive loops, self-referential signposts, carefully balanced opposites. Its craftsmanship is extraordinary. Despite her assertion that “a creative process is beyond words, even when the process is in the service of words themselves,” Gadsby, thankfully, gives it a go in order to dissuade her readers from thinking that what she did was “magic.” She describes Nanette’s inception, its iterations, and its careful layering, representing her thinking in actual images of her early notes and through artistic metaphor: the shapes of ideas, the palette of thoughts. Any artist, any creator should value the chance to examine the composition of this revolutionary work, and the context from which it came.
Dana is a writer and editor living in Chicago.