Founded in the wake of the 2016 election, The Freya Project is a monthly fundraiser and reading series that supports organizations focused on women’s issues across the country. The idea for the project was developed by Nonie Brzyski, who is working on her first novel, and Natalka Burain, owner of the bars Ramona and Elsa, and the author of Welcome to the Slipstream. Each month, The Freya Project brings together five women who share a personal essay based on a theme, and the events have created a space where women can bond over common experiences. Previous readers have included Ann Friedman, Aparna Nancherla, Lena Waithe, and yours truly. Within two years, The Freya Project has grown to include a Los Angeles chapter and continues to expand. I talked to Nonie and Natalka about the beginnings of the project, the act of balancing work and personal life, and the special guest they would love to have read.
How did The Freya Project get started?
Nonie: Natalka and I had been talking before the election, and then we were horrified by Trump getting elected, especially by his rhetoric around women. I think a lot of people felt energized and were trying to get more involved and trying to understand how he got elected. For the last few years I’ve been thinking about how society looks at women in general. I use to be a really big football fan and when the domestic violence accusations came out, I kept thinking over and over again about how much our society doesn’t care about women. So part of it was I wanted to get involved in supporting places that were supporting women, emotionally and also tangibly.
We started thinking about how we could support small organizations that were providing abortion care and help for domestic violence victims, who had already been doing this work because these issues are completely pervasive. We really wanted to support those organizations but also bring people together—we thought about how to get people off their computers and interact, be in a space where there was a like-minded community reaching out to other like-minded communities across the United States and helping them, and also have our events be places where women could come and talk and listen.
Natalka: And find comfort—there was a physical component to it, where everyone would be in a room together and you’d be with people who cared about the same things you cared about. It would help show people who cared about these issues across the country, maybe in communities that are less supportive, that there are people who care about you too. It was about bringing those two components together under one umbrella.
Nonie: I think we got really caught up in the idea of coastal elites, so we try to support organizations and consider the areas that need help. There’s need everywhere, but we really wanted our events to be like a olive branch and say, “You’re not alone out there doing this work.”
Natalka: Particularly reproductive justice—initially most of our efforts were focused on Deep South reproductive justice organizations.
Nonie: There are so many states that only have one abortion clinic and those are being targeted, so we wanted to pick places where it felt bleak to us and try to send them support.
Natalka: It was great to see that this work has real results. We’ve had people contact us to say, “Thanks to your donation someone was able to travel to get an abortion that they needed.” It’s been really empowering to us to know that this thing that we do has these life changing effects, and I think we intended that but I don’t think I ever expected to see that happen, and that’s been really interesting and great.
Nonie: We pick organizations that are small, and often it’s the two of us running the events, but then the places that we give money to are often small too and they’re overly effusive and so surprised—we don’t tell them we’re giving them money beforehand. We’ve gotten a reputation with these abortion funds. People have heard of us and they know that we have fundraisers, and it’s been interesting to see how these organizations have a network and talk to each other. There is this whole web of people trying to help women with reproductive justice across the United States which I didn’t really think of before, outside of Planned Parenthood. There was an article recently in The New York Times about how the black maternal mortality rate and the infant death rate has skyrocketed in the last few years. It was specifically about a family in New Orleans but it focused on how Doulas are helping these women and the work they do. [Editor Note: You can read the article, titled “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies are in a Life-or Death Crisis”, here. It’s a powerful read.]
How did you decide to tie the reading element to the fundraiser?
Nonie: We met in a writing class and we wanted to uplift and amplify women’s voices in general, so we knew we wanted the event to include women reading. We wanted it to be a space where women could tell their stories.
Natalka: It seemed like a very natural decision. I don’t remember why or how we came up with this number of five women, but it’s been the perfect balance thematically every time we have events. Even though you have the same theme the stories are so different and engaging and you learn something, everyone in the room learns something.
Nonie: We wanted an event that felt warm, and to present these really interesting women talking about their personal experiences. It felt like a great way to connect and find empathy and think about other people’s lives, hearing women read about their own experiences.
What’s the process for selecting readers?
Natalka: We’ll ask each other about the books we’ve read or note if someone wrote a really interesting piece. Every month we try to find a balance—we’ll have someone who’s really funny or someone who’s a journalist who’s going to have a different perspective. We have a long list, an on going Google Doc of names. The pool is random but then the readings are specifically planned to get a mix from different professional backgrounds.
Can you walk me through planning an event?
Natalka: We actually wrote a whole manual about this! Obviously I love being able to use the bars, that’s part of how it all coalesced for sure. This year we planned out the entire year in advance, thinking we’re going to have these five women this month, these five women this month and then thought about the themes.
Nonie: I feel like we start with the dates, we pick organizations, and then we build the theme from there because we want to tie it to the organization that we’re funding. We started asking readers last November for 2018, and 2018 is full. People cancel and things move around but this year we really tried to plan it out far in advance—easier for us to not be scrambling.
Natalka: There’s so many things that I’m thinking about now, so many little things like updating the website regularly, making sure the readers share their pieces ahead of time, and putting the pieces in order. There are a lot of things the week of.
Nonie: Mostly people write original pieces—some of the more established writers we’ve had have read pieces that they’ve published before. A lot of readers publish their essays afterwards which has been great.
Natalka: I love that, I love seeing the work that you have heard in print—it’s such a great feeling. I love the growth of our network of readers. I’m excited that these women I know are doing amazing things. I feel excited for our readers every time I see an accomplishment. I follow many of them on social media or keep in touch with them or they come to readings. Seeing all these incredibly smart women doing these incredible things is amazing, another unexpected perk.
The Freya Project has expanded to Los Angeles; how did that happen and who is running things out there?
Natalka: We didn’t plan to expand at all. My friend Aisha Muharrar, she was a writer for Parks and Recreation and The Good Place, she reached out to me and said, “I’ve been seeing what you're doing and I was wondering if you’d be interested in having an event out here,” and I was like “Actually we would love that." Having it become such a sustained situation was more spontaneous and it has presented another set of challenges. The events don’t work identically—the organizations that we support and the organizations that LA supports are leaves of the same tree, but there is a distinction that I like and it feels like we’re covering all the bases.
When we were talking about setting up the LA event, we talked about what continuity we wanted between the two events. The number of readers, the theme, the idea of a night out for the guests and attendees. Having it in a location owned by women and supporting a small business was important to us too. I think our mission for moving forward is to expand in that way. I think we’ll have more pop-up Freya Projects all over the country.
Nonie: Which is why we wrote this manual, with the idea if people approach us saying, “We’d love to do one of these where we live,” we have a set process on how to do it and keep it under our umbrella. We are trying that in D.C., we’ll be having an event down there in May. We’re volunteers, so it’s the idea of how to be smart and efficient with our growth in a way that doesn’t impact us.
How do you balance running this project with your daily lives/careers?
Nonie: We’re both very good at using every moment, which is definitely a skill you hone with small kids because you never know when you’re going to be able to do anything. When I have five minutes I’ll sit down and I’ll send an email. We understand that we need to communicate but the time is so limited. I think since it’s our second year it feels a little smoother but we’re also expanding and also have more things going on. There’s no set time but we’ve made it work, we’ve made space for it.
Who are some of your dream readers you’d like to include in the project?
Natalka: Mine’s always been Michelle Obama, my number one reach!
Nonie: She would be amazing but now I’m thinking about it and that would be a logistical nightmare, we’d have to hire security!
Natalka: I’m sure if she decided to participate we’d get some help with security!
Since you’re both writers can you talk about your practice and what inspires you?
Nonie: I try to understand things through writing, I use it to understand my place in the world. I’ve always been interested in wanting to learn more and for me writing is a way to do that. It feels like something you can bring all of the pieces of your life to, it makes you check yourself and think about the things you live in a blind denial about.
Natalka: I think for me writing is a way to be alone. You’re diving into your weirdest thoughts and I really love that. I like writing across different projects. I wrote a novel that takes place in West Virginia and in doing that I learned so much about the prison population. Now I’m thinking about writing a non-fiction book on incarcerated women in West Virginia. When you look at the most recent data, West Virginia has the most incarcerated women in the world, and I’ve been thinking, “How do I talk about this?” Everywhere there’s a door and that’s what I love about writing. [Editor Note: You can read more about the rate of incarcerated women in West Virginia here.]
You are the first mothers I’ve spoken with for the newsletter—can you talk about motherhood and how it relates to running The Freya Project?
Natalka: I have two daughters, so I think it's essential to me that my daughters never feel like the things that seem prohibitive and restraining to us now, they’ll never come up against those things. I want to make supporting women something I do all the time, and I want them to see that and I want them to know we’re always improving, the world is getting better. Being a mother, it affected my writing in a similar way. Being a mother your needs come last, but also you do so many amazing things—you give birth! It’s such a strange contrast and it motivates me in a specific way.
Nonie: I have a son and a daughter, and I feel like having kids makes you want to work harder, in part for them but also in part for myself. It makes me want to be a better person not just for them but for the world in general. For me having kids made me feel more like of a part of society, it kinda grounded me—it gets you into a rhythm. I push myself more because I know I can do more and I want my kids to see me working hard because that’s how you learn.
What’s up next for The Freya Project?
Natalka: As we grow we’re looking into how we can continue to support the causes that are important to us, and into new ways that we can expand.
Nonie: We’re also thinking about the women who work with us. We’re offering a grant for our readers, and we’ve been giving money here and there to arts organizations, which we don’t support through the fundraiser. We were thinking how we could tie the project back to women and young girls and the arts. We funded a scholarship for the Kundiman Retreat, and we donated two travel stipends the Jack Jones Literary Arts retreat. We’re really trying to be the most efficient with what we have and support organizations that already exist.
What is your sign and how to you feel about it?
Natalka: I’m a Leo but I feel like I’m a sleeper Leo. I hate public speaking and I’m not someone who likes a lot of attention. I do love being born in the summer though!
Nonie: I’m a Libra. I think I’m pretty Libra-ish, pretty balanced and calm.
What's the last book you read & what are your currently reading?
Natalka: I’m reading The Idiot by Elif Batuman, it’s so good. I read her other book The Possessed, which is more of a memoir, and The Idiot is an autobiographical novel. It's so funny and moving, beautifully written. It reminded me of a book one of our upcoming readers just wrote, The Little Clan by Iris Martin Cohen. She’s reading in July.
Nonie: I read Autumn by Ali Smith, and I loved it. I also just finished reading John Bainfield’s The Sea, it won the Booker Prize in 2005.
What are three great places in your neighborhood?
Natalka: I live in Carroll Gardens—there’s so many places that I love. There’s a really good bakery called Mazzola, they’ve been in the neighborhood for eighty years and the women behind the counter have been there for forty years. There’s an amazing pizza place Lucali—the rumors are true, it’s really good and two blocks from my house. Also Books Are Magic is the best.
Nonie: I live in Williamsburg on the southside, and I love Marlow & Sons and Diner. I also love this place called Lorimer Market, which is this old Italian deli. Walter Foods is also in the neighborhood and is really good, and a new McNally Jackson just opened up.