Unapologetically Lily Be: The Chicago Literati Interview

Elizabeth McQuern Bowden (c) 2016

What drew you to storytelling?

Nothing. In Feb 2010, I “attempted” suicide and spent 7 days in a mental ward. Upon my release I went into a deep depression that resulted from being shamed and abandoned by friends and family; in May 2010 I was invited to Grown Folks Stories by a friend who also threw my name into the bowl without my knowledge; I have never wanted to be a performer of any kind; I didn’t find storytelling, it found me.

What is your favorite book and why?

 Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor; TALK ABOUT STORYTELLING!
I love this book because it’s the first book I read about Mexican families that spoke on the struggle to become American and why it’s important that we hear those stories.

What inspired you and Clarence to create The Stoop?

I dragged Clarence along for the ride. He’s an innocent bystander of MY crazy. I just thought it was a great way for people to start listening and understanding each other.

If there was something that low-key inspired me to do it, it was how life changing it had been for me. It took 3 years after attending my first show to start The Stoop. Thanks to a conversation with Monte LaMonte, The Stoop was born.

What do you feel is the real spirit of Chicago?

It sure ain’t that boat at Navy Pier.

Hmmm, I would say, ride or die-ness; our longtime residents and neighborhoods of color, for sure. While alive and thriving, we are vibrant and connected and “bout it”.
Unlike the people and neighborhoods that have been killed off or are dying. Neighborhoods and people that have become drab, closed off, and fickle.

The spirit lies with the people that are here for Chicago and not just making it their intentional pit stop to wherever.

What is your favorite neighborhood in the city, and why?

 I was born and raised in Humboldt Park.

That’s all I’m going to say.

You trying to get me fucked up, Abby?

What is your favorite memory from the Obama administration? How did it inspire you?

Michelle and her health initiative; I don’t remember a more fit and inspiring first lady. She planted the health bug in my ear, that’s for sure.

I loved everything that woman did. EVERYTHING. I’ll miss her the MOST! I was definitely inspired by her in so many ways.

What do you love the most about the live-lit scene? What do you wish there was more of?

 I love the people I have met. OMG! I’m not even talking about performers or producers. Just the regular ol’ folks that come up to you after you share, to connect with you. That is my most absolute favorite part about this scene.

In the 6 years I have been sharing stories, I can make a list FROM MEMORY of all the storytellers of color “in the scene”. 6 years ago, I could count them on one hand. No fucking joke. Believe that, in a city like Chicago, with an art like storytelling, I could count all the brown or black tellers ON ONE HAND?

Worse than that though, I very rarely ran into another Chicagoan sharing stories at a show. I think Monte was the first outside of Grown Folks Stories that I had met.
Lastly, live-lit is very privileged. Meaning that unless you have the money to go out and share a story, you don’t get exposed to this. I had a host tell me that most things aren’t made for broke people, almost as if to justify why this was ok; which sucks, because in 2010 when I started this, I was PO’. I had $11 in my bank account and was suffering from depression. If Grown Folks had not been donation based, I know I would not be here today sharing my stories. I wish ALL INCLUSIVE really meant ALL inclusive.

Do you feel there’s enough diversity in the live-lit scene?

There isn’t enough diversity anywhere, to be honest.
The live-lit scene is doing what they can. Can they do better? Most definitely, however, diversity doesn’t stop at sex and skin color, right? We need to be reaching out to communities that have stories that we will never hear because we will never live under conditions and circumstances like theirs.

I tell ya, if there was enough diversity in the live-lit scene, MY PEERS would not have referred to me as a “street” style storyteller when they were interviewed by another publication doing a piece on live-lit. I’m still a little hurt by that, 2 years later; “street”, is what they called my style of storytelling. Why, “street”? Was it because it didn’t come from some written style of perfection or because I didn’t read my story from paper? I don’t know, but I am not referred to that way in diverse communities. I’m just Lily, the storyteller. So, no there isn’t enough diversity. For god sakes, I was the first Latina to win The Moth GrandSlam in the The Moth’s 20-year history. WHY?
Oops, I have been told that asking that makes me ungrateful to the organization. My bad.

You’re inarguably the queen of the scene, having regularly appeared in myriad series from Write Club to You’re Being Ridiculous, as well as working with Second City, how do you manage it all?



I don’t go out as much as I want to. I don’t waste time. Every minute is spoken for.

Tell us a little more about your highly anticipated one-woman show, how long has it been in the works?


I’ve never worked on anything like this
I’ve been working on it for a little over a year. It’s so surreal. I’m super excited to share stories about my life. Stories that I believe help to explain not only WHO I am, but WHY I am who I am. That’s all I can say.

What is your favorite word and why?

 Fuck or any variation of it.
It’s so fucking versatile, yo.

Show me a more versatile, word!

You have an incredibly rich and amazing heritage, how does this inform your career and your life?

I always think about what my grandmother would be telling her ghost friends about me. HAHAHA! In all seriousness, I want to be known as an AFRO-LATINA woman from Humboldt Park that did all she could to make sure her people weren’t erased or forgotten or whitewashed. If I ever feel like that is the case, in any institution or at any event, I walk away. You ain’t going to tokenize me or use my heritage for your white show’s entertainment. I also refuse to connect and be around people that cannot respect and appreciate the unpalatable nature of my culture.

Who or what inspires you?

 My son, Xavier. At 20 years old, he is already broken chains and ended negative cycles of behavior that I am still working to break and end. Things like not letting anger get the best of me and being comfortable with who I am. I wish at 20 I was half the thoughtful, caring, intelligent human he is; I’m also inspired by the following artists and activists in Chicago; David Pintor and all of Southide Ignormus Quartet; Melissa Duprey and Coya Paz and everyone at Free Street Theater. Kristiana Rae Colon and Damon Williams of Let Us Breath Collective and Freedom Square.

Cesar Visual Zamudio of Hello Hip-Hop

Ashley Victoria of The Crowd Theater

All the members of Matt Damon Improv

The Young Fugitives

Eric Williams – The Silver Room

Cara Brigandi – Grown Folks Stories

All the folks at The Gala

My soul sister Tequila Shabazz – Founder of BRIJ Embassy for Black America

Onicia Muller

My BFF, Clarence Browley

My son’s father Mike.

My sister, and all the women in my family doing the damn thing.

Last and certainly not least, Ricardo Gamboa and his partner, Sean James William Parrish.

What food or drink always kick-starts your creative process?

 It’s not a food or drink, na’mean?

What is your favorite aspect of storytelling?

The empowerment that comes from owning a piece of yourself you were once afraid of or ashamed of owning. That feeling of empowerment has allowed me to navigate better around people: myself, my triggers, and the world. It’s pretty amazing what happens when you can come to terms with all the good shit AND bullshit that went into making you and explaining why you are the way you are.

You have a unique and amazing quality of being able to crack open the zeitgeist by voicing things a lot of us feel, but never say, where does your inherent bravery come from?

My bravery comes from reflection. Specifically reflecting on how I should not be here. I almost died in 2010, damn near ended my own story. I say what I want to say because so many people past and present don’t always have the luxury.

What has been the greatest thing you’ve ever seen?

My grandmother fighting another grandmother for hitting one of her grandchildren.

We connected once over the rise of slacktivist culture (re: the safety pin, hashtags, etc.) and how problematic it is to actually overcoming adversity, if you could say anything to these people what would it be?


I want these people to know that their power to change what’s happening to us comes from listening and then doing FOR US!!

Safety pins are for them. Pantsuit Nations are for them. When I say for them, it’s to make them feel less guilty for NOT LISTENING to us all these years.
How insulting to see a safety pin on someone to me. It’s like they get to wear something that says: “hey, I’m not a threat to you and your people.”

WTF? The nerve to flash around a symbol that lets the world know they are safe and should not be targeted. Where’s the symbol POC, trans people, and other marginalized community members can wear to mean the same?

THERE ISN’T ONE! So why do they get one? Ugh, it’s problematic because yet again, our struggle is overshadowed by their guilt and good intentions.

The political climate has never been perfect, especially toward women and POC, as an artist who affects change in the community, how do you deal with racism and misogyny when you encounter it? What would be your message to the privileged people unaware (or fully aware) when they engage in acts of intolerance?

I have been dealing with racism by calling it out. I don’t call people racist, but I do question their racist actions and statements. I like to ask people if they know what they are saying is offensive. A lot of times people just don’t know. However, there are a lot of people that DO know and to those people, I let them know that I don’t agree with them.

Now, I don’t expect to change minds, but I do let people know where I stand with THEIR bullshit. It’s the least I can do to allow them the chance to learn how to navigate and/or speak around me.

My message to people is to spend as much time with people that are less like you, as much as you are spending with folks that are just like you.
That means that if you’re rich, hang out with some poor people.
If you’re white, hang out with more POC.



Support more POC and their communities, their art, their voices.

STOP asking us to school you, USE TF OUT OF GOOGLE. Feel free to ask us questions about what you’ve learned or don’t understand.

If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, living and dead, who would you choose and what would be on the table?

 My grandmother. I’d make her tamales for the first time to show her that I never forgot all she taught me.
The table would be all coffee, stories, tamales, and tea…the kind Kermit drinks. 😉

Do you think you’ll take your one-woman show on the road?

 How does one do that?

Do you think you’ll ever write a memoir? If so, which publishing house would you want to take it on?

I’m going to leave that to the universe. I never thought I’d be doing this, so I can’t say yes or no. I can say this: I will never stop LIVING THE SHIT out of my life, pushing through fear, and sharing my truth. If anyone wants to take that on, I’ll BE around until I am not. ❤


Lily Be’s one-woman show, NO HAY MAL, debuts this Thursday at 7pm at The Free Street Theater (1419 West Blackhawk Street, 3rd Floor, Chicago, Illinois 60642)