This week in the LGBT-themed arts:
This year’s PEN Literary Awards have been announced, and gay poet Frank Bidart has won the $5000 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. His citation, which singles out his most recent collection Metaphysical Dog, reads, “No poet of our time has so embodied conflict, creating living expressions of a consciousness moving through guilts and unmastered desires without resorting to easy resolutions.” (more…)
You may know Ariel Schrag as the author and illustrator of a series of graphic memoirs ( Potential, Likewise), or as a writer for The L Word. She also received the most exuberant name-check in the Le Tigre song “Hot Topic,” a nod she returns with a wink in her debut novel Adam (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). When seventeen year old Adam Freeman ditches his boring scene in Piedmont, CA to spend the summer with his lesbian sister Casey in New York City, he’s hoping for life-changing excitement in one form only: Girls. When he meets Gillian, the girl of his dreams, fun turns to major confusion as he realizes she has mistaken him for a transman, the most plausible explanation for why this cute young guy is hanging out with a bunch of lesbians. The book is riotously funny, deeply romantic, and a head-clearing breath of fresh air in its look at sexual and gender politics. I asked Schrag via email about Adam, trans inclusion then (the book is set in 2006) and now, and The L Word (because I simply couldn’t resist). (more…)
Do you have problems with your love life? Do you hate your job? Is your social life lacking a certain zing? All of these questions and more can be answered through literature—or maybe at least by the people who create it. With that in mind, we here at the Lambda Literary Review have started our very own advice column called “Reader, Meet Author.” Think of the column as a sort of a “Dear Abby” for the LGBTQ literary set.
This month’s author is La JohnJoseph, a British-born, American-educated performance artist and writer living in Berlin. The original scriptwriter for radical Californian Dada drag revue BoyfriendRobotique, she is also a librettist and the author of the critically acclaimed solo memoir play Boy in a Dress. Her performance work has taken her from the San Francisco MOMA to the Royal Opera House, and across Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including The Gay Times Book of Short Stories, Bird Song, P.S. I Love You, Fat Zine, and 21st Century Queer Artists Identify Themselves. Everything Must Go , her first novel, debuted this spring.
Are all healthy relationships inherently boring? I should feel blessed. I have dated a succession of great guys who are perfectly nice and stable. But like clockwork, after about twelve months of dating these stable guys, I grow terribly bored and break up with them. It is the crazy guys—the guys who scream and yell and don’t know how to communicate, the guys that never call when they say they will–that inspire the most passion (and the better sex!). Is it just me, or do I have problem with stability? Or is it a universal law that passion/lust and stability do not mix? Must I choose one or the other?
Dear Crazy Passion (and Total Lack of Imagination),
You seem to be suffering from a delusion of reality, which is sadly a very common and unbearably dreary condition. If you’re telling yourself you can only experience fireworks with someone who treats you badly, may I first advise you to quit it with all of those J-Lo movies, or at least skip to the end where she realizes she loves herself for the person she really is? The person you really are is a very disturbed masochist, and I think that’s wonderful. It’s nice that you want someone to put their cigarettes out on your ass, you’re doing the world a favor in these days of eternal ashtray shortages. But did you ever think that maybe, just maybe, there is a pervert just as twisted as you out there, who will hold your hand and call you back, but is also unafraid to gag you with his piss-soaked jock strap after hours? Streamline yourself for a successful lover, and get a nice guy who can be both your life partner and your master—perhaps a dude with multiple personality disorder, or a Gemini.
X La JJ
I have recently started dating a wonderful woman, who unfortunately has a twelve-year old daughter who is a real brat! The child is rude, does not respect her elders and runs roughshod all over the woman I am dating. I think the child need more discipline and a sterner hand. It’s getting to the point where I only want to hang out with the woman when she finds a sitter and we can hang out alone. We have only being dating for a couple of weeks—do you think it would be all right at this point for me to tell the woman that the child needs to be reprimanded for her awful behavior?
Like the Woman, Hate the Child
First of all, I love children. They’re literally the only cool people left on this planet. They have the best outfits and the best candy, they’re always screaming about everything, and they never make you listen to such tedious problems. Basically, I agree with the twelve-year-old. I’m glad she’s smashing everything up and driving you up the wall. You’re probably quite awful yourself. I mean, if you have only been dating her Mother for two weeks, maybe you should inquire what the child was like previously. Perhaps she’s just acting out because she detests you. It’s a possibility; I have that effect on a lot of people—why do you think the Reformation came about? Seriously. If it does transpire that Little Miss Sunshine is simply trying to get rid of you, then I say, stick around—even move in—and see how out-of-hand things can really get.
It’ll all end in tears, so bulk-buy Kleenex,
X La JJ
Is it okay to date a former intern? I am a mid-level manager at a small nonprofit, and we have a new set of interns every season. Two seasons ago, we had a smart and attractive intern (he is six years younger than me) and we really clicked. We had a great working relationship, and while I was attracted to him when we worked together, I kept it professional. He emailed me recently about a new job that he recently acquired, and he also asked me if I would like to grab a drink to catch up. I would love to pursue a friendship and possible more with this former intern. Do you think it is appropriate to date former subordinates? Should I check in with my boss to make sure it is okay? I don’t want to seem like the office leech who picks up all the younger (former) guys who have worked in the office.
Keeping It Professional
I say, date everyone; if you’ve got it, flaunt it, right? Test the waters and have your new boy toy come pick you up from work, preferably in a 1948 Bentley Coupe and a boiler suit unzipped to the navel—see how your colleagues react. If they seem to be merely surprised, then bring him up to the office and reintroduce him to your work mates. Then fuck him on the receptionist’s desk. I promise you that you will see a twofold return on your investment if you follow my advice. For a start, your coworkers will certainly not think of you as ‘just’ a leech; they’ll be bewitched by your brazen attitude, and furthermore, the number of applicants for next season’s internships will soar. Moreover, you may well get fired, which will conveniently free you up to fuck whoever you like whenever you like without worrying what Marge from finance might say about it.
Thank me later,
X La JJ
My interest in violence is organic and manufactured like the testosterone I inject, the metallic fact of the needle I push into my thigh every Thursday. It’s socially enabled, like the startling effect my male body has on other men: the locker room size-ups, the threatened exes, the shoulder-swiped near-fights on the train. It’s relational as my own brush with death at the hands of a man who later went on to shoot two other men and kill one, or the father who modeled the worst kind of masculinity: predatory, crushing, anxious. Whatever the tangles—and maybe I’ll never fully understand, as much as I try to excavate and map, my own heart—what I do know is that my memoir, Man Alive (City Lights Books), which explores the way violence can be gendered and also undone by queering gender, owes its lineage to Truman Capote’s brilliant, chilling true crime classic, In Cold Blood.
For the uninitiated, Capote’s 1966 work was originally serialized to wild acclaim in the New Yorker and is a beautiful, epic piece of literary nonfiction that details the 1959 murders of four members of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas. Legend has it that Capote—fey, bowtied, tiny—read a 300-word New York Times story about the killings and traveled to Kansas accompanied, cinematically, by his good friend Harper Lee, to chronicle the search for the murderers and the effect the killings had on the town. Ultimately the two men responsible for the murders were captured and Capote spent six years on the book, forming a particularly close relationship with one of the accused, Perry Edward Smith, in the process. His portrayal of Smith is nuanced, almost affectionate, and, in many ways, deeply queer—a fact that caused rumors about the nature of their friendship even at the time.
I don’t believe the two men had an affair, but the fact of Capote’s identity, to this reader, is the lens that allows for a more complex, humane layer in a story that could easily have been reduced, normatively, into villains and heroes. Capote brings an ephemeral sympathy for the outsider, distinctive but not cloying, that asks us to see ourselves in Perry’s miserable life.
In one particularly poignant scene, Capote describe the recurrence of a lifelong dream Perry has while in prison: “Throughout his life—as a child, poor and meanly treated, as a foot-loose youth, as an imprisoned man—the yellow bird, huge and parrot-faced, had soared across Perry’s dreams, an avenging angel who savaged his enemies or, as now, rescued him in moments of mortal danger: ‘She lifted me, I could have been light as a mouse, we went up, up, could see the Square below, men running, yelling, the sheriff shooting at us, everybody sore as hell because I was free, I was flying, I was better than any of them.’”
Growing up, my biggest fear was that I’d become my father. The reality that I was actually a transgender man forced me into a crucible I’d never have chosen otherwise: at 30, as I grew ever hairier and muscular, as my voice dropped and I passed like a ghost through locker rooms and confused men in gay bars with my dissonant presence, I had to make peace with the shadows and ghosts that bruised every pronoun, every “sir,” every gesture of fraternity, every woman who crossed a lonely street to avoid crossing my path late at night.
The first year of my transition I monitored myself, alert to secret signs of impending evil, as if a blooming would accompany the testosterone shots—a secret, psycho gene just waiting to turn me into a boogie man. It was in this edgy borderland that I re-read In Cold Blood and wrote most of Man Alive. I waited for my worst self, resigned like a guy with a rifle watching the door in a horror film, out-powered perhaps but not going down without a fight.
There’s no doubt that Capote and his wild, dark book changed literary history. Many critics believe it popularized, if not fully created—the nonfiction novel. Even the critiques of his work are familiar to anyone working in this genre today—accusations of fabricated scenes or dialogue, places where facts are sacrificed to the gods of larger narrative. But for this writer, Capote’s effort here—tight, dark, sharp, kind—is cause for celebration for another reason entirely: its bravery. In Cold Blood taught me that I could dive into my shadows, face my would-be killer, plumb my heart for the kind of compassion that the worst kind of men never gave me, and find myself there. I’m not sure what Capote went looking for in Kansas exactly, but it’s impossible to not see his tenderness toward Perry, the kind of open heart that results from being vulnerable enough to identify with and integrate your most shadowy self, and to make room for the multitudes of others in that harrowing process.
I can’t speak for Capote, but the tilt of my masculinity, the outsider nature of my view, gave me access to both a deeper empathy and a broader lens for the world around me. In one of his pretrial hearings, my mugger and I made eye contact and I believed, for just a moment, that he recognized me. I held his gaze, I tried to see the humanity there. I’m not, as it turns out, my father’s son and here’s why: I knew, in that moment, that it was the least I could do. It’s just the kind of man I am. I’d never have known if I hadn’t been willing to look.
This week in the LGBT-themed arts:
Hope is not lost: Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia–the oldest LGBT bookstore in the U.S., which closed its doors earlier this year amidst a trend of online book retailers outpacing independent local businesses–may reopen. (more…)
All I Love and Know (William Morrow), by Judith Frank, is a brilliant, thoughtful, unexpectedly funny new novel about a gay couple, Daniel Rosen and Matt Greene, who live in Northampton, MA. It opens with a café bombing in Jerusalem that kills Daniel’s twin brother Joel and Joel’s wife Ilana. When it is revealed that Joel and Ilana designated Daniel the guardian of their two small children should they die, a firestorm erupts in both Daniel’s and Ilana’s families about the possibility that the children will be taken out of Israel and raised by gay men. The novel explores what happens to Daniel and Matt’s relationship in the wake of this conflict and this trauma. It is also page-turner that keeps the reader deep in the story until the very last page. And thinking about it afterwards for days. (more…)
There are few writers in the world to equal the breadth of Nadine Gordimer. The valiant fighter against apartheid and against the oppression of women and gays in South Africa died July 13 in Johannesburg, South Africa, her family announced. She was 90. (more…)
Lorrie Sprecher’s fiction stars women whose lives are propelled by a passion for activist culture and an almost painful compassion for the disenfranchised of the world. For Amanda, the protagonist of new novel Pissing in a River (The Feminist Press), a love of punk rock and distaste for U.S. foreign policy drives her to take shelter in England. There, she finds her way toward friendship and romance while forming a band, keeping tabs on her lifelong obsessive-compulsive disorder, and dealing with fallout from the rape of her partner, Melissa.
Amanda is funny and, when it comes to standing up for her beliefs, not afraid to be intense—qualities shared by her author. Sprecher took the time to talk via email about her new book, the next two she has planned (one a sequel), and her thoughts on being an American at a time when advances in gay rights coexist with dramatic steps backward in reproductive rights and national policy. (more…)
Fonseca’s Literary Sass: Censorship, Censorship, and More Censorship, and New Highsmith-Inspired Music
Lately, in literary censorship:
A theater company in Flowertown, South Carolina is in jeopardy of losing $3,000 in funding after a city councilman voiced disdain over the Flowertown Players’ recent (and wildly successful) production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent:
It was one of the raunchiest things I’d ever seen in my life – and I’m far from being a prude,” Jenkins said at a finance committee meeting earlier this week. “I just thought it was totally inappropriate for a neighborhood community.”
The fight for queer artistic freedom is no stranger to South Carolina. You may remember that College of Charleston came under scrutiny for featuring Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home in curriculum. Despite a collective outcry from CoC students, the newly-minted state educational budget mandates that these institutions use a respective $52,000 and $17,000 in funding “for instruction in the provisions and principles of the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers, including the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals.”
Because if nothing says, “I don’t want to spend tax dollars on immorality,” it’s spending three times that amount of tax dollars on state-imposed morality.
If you were under the impression that these issues were indigenous to the red states, think again:
A school board in Delaware recently voted 6-1 to remove Emily M. Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post from Cape Henlopen High School’s optional summer reading list. Like in the instance of Rent, the dissenting board members spoke in general terms about the work of literature’s offensiveness, begging the question of whether or they had actually read the work:
The school board president, Spencer Brittingham , did “some research” and concluded that the book was “not appropriate” for high school freshmen. It’s for more mature students–you know, like “sophomores or juniors.” He perused the book a little and found “four or five” F-bombs.
AfterEllen has an excellent write-up of this case that highlights its double standards and lists the email addresses of the dissenting school board members.
As if this weren’t enough:
The Singapore government has ordered the country’s National Library Board to remove and destroy three LGBT YA books from library shelves, including The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption, Who’s In My Family: All About Our Families, and–perhaps most amusingly–And Tango Makes Three (the true account of two male penguins raising a chick together at New York’s Central Park Zoo). The decision has been met with much criticism in Singapore and virtually. One opponent has drafted a Change.org petition which currently has more than 2,000 signatures.
If you need a pick-me-up after that:
The same week that Delaware’s Cape Henlopen voted on the fate of Cameron Post, gay YA author David Levithan gave an insightful interview to Delaware Online:
It’s never too early to foster kindness and equal treatment, for whatever group. So much of the pain that LGBT kids go through is because they feel distanced from all of the narratives they’ve been given. They’ve been told that everyone grows up a certain way, and now their own way is diverging from that.
The best thing parents can do, whether their kids end up queer or straight, is to acknowledge all of the different options that are out there, and letting their kids know that they support them no matter which options end up being theirs.
The folks at Out Magazine have crafted a thorough timeline of queer sex throughout the ages, beginning with Sappho and ending in present times.
Electronica artist Goldfrapp’s new single sounds reminiscent of Ingénue-era k.d. lang. The music video for “Stranger” is also drenched in Sapphic melancholy. Filmed in black and white, the narrative traces the love and loss shared between two women in a beachside town.
Given that Goldfrapp has called Tales of Us an exploration of “memory, identity, and gender” and has cited Patricia Highsmith as a key influence for the album, this is hopefully just a taste of what’s to come.
Until next week!