Hannah Gadsby’s “Ten Steps to Nanette” is part autobiography and part memoir.
Although the autobiographical portion is a bit clunky and not always engaging, the memoir portion is anything but clunky and a joy to read.
For those unfamiliar with Gadsby, she is an Australian comedian and writer — a lesbian — who was born and raised in the conservative state of Tasmania, which considered homosexuality a criminal offense until 1997.
Growing up in Tasmania was difficult for Gadsby, and her stand-up has frequently detailed those difficulties, including internalizing the area’s rampant homophobia. Gadsby has been performing since 2006, and in 2018, Netflix released her groundbreaking hour-long special “Nanette.”
To refer to the show as strictly comedy would be inaccurate. Yes, Gadsby does some traditional stand-up in the show, but she blends that stand-up with blistering anger at the status quo, represented primarily by straight white men, which allows so many to be marginalized and silenced, their stories never shared.
In the book, “Ten Steps to Nanette,” Gadsby writes of her childhood, coming out, her early days in stand-up and developing “Nanette,” hence the title.
She has divided the book into 10 chapters (10 steps) and devotes the early chapters to an exhaustive retelling of her childhood. For me, these early chapters are a bit clunky, meaning details are just thrown in and one subject doesn’t necessarily relate to another.
Gadsby puts the details together more with “this happened, then this happened and then this happened,” instead of perhaps linking details thematically.
For example, as a child Gadsby had quite a few bicycle accidents. I’d have preferred a structure in which she puts all those accidents together, or perhaps, as she was also in and out of the hospital, a chapter on hospitals, in general.
Instead, Gadsby put the early chapters together chronologically.
That structure, in my opinion, doesn’t serve the book or the author and could have been improved.
Throughout those opening chapters, Gadsby acknowledges a ghostwriter might have been helpful, especially when writing about the politics of Tasmania in the early 1980s.
However, she also acknowledges a ghostwriter would never have agreed that the most significant event of 1989 was Gadsby getting a dog “because that was the year (she) was molested for the first time. (p. 87)
I felt impatient with these early chapters; the prose felt wooden. Because I’d seen Gadsby’s stand-up prior to reading the book, I knew she wasn’t wooden, and I found myself wanting her to put herself and not just details of her life on the page.
The ending chapters, which detail Gadsby’s creative journey to bring “Nanette” to the stage were fascinating. As a writer, I loved reading about Gadsby’s process, and, as a woman, I loved engaging with her anger at the status quo that left her so disempowered that she never reported being raped or beaten up.
Although I still wish those early chapters had been structured differently, I recommend “Ten Steps to Nanette,” and I also recommend the Netflix special, “Nanette.”
(Maureen Cooke has been writing, editing and teaching others to write for the past 30 years. Currently, she’s working on a mystery novel and a memoir. She’s a member of the Corrales Writers’ Group.)