Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man is not a memoir—though, in all likelihood, it will often be characterized as such, in a testament to both the limits of cultural understandings of nonfiction and of transgender storytelling. In reality, Man Alive is a gem of creative nonfiction, and an excellent example of what distinguishes that often nebulous genre. As Lee Gutkind, one of the explicators of the form, explains on the site for his journal, Creative Nonfiction: (more…)
One of the most alarmingly overlooked issues facing lgbt politics is the impact of social and economic class divisions within the lgbt community. Today, as lgbt organizations increasingly promote the image of the upper middle class professional as the face of its campaign for rights, it is more important than ever that we understand the role social and economic class plays in the queer world as issues such as gentrification, homeless youth, and affordable healthcare affect the more vulnerable members of the community. Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims presents a fresh insight into examining social class as an integral part of gay identity. Part personal memoir, part philosophical treatise on the relationship between sexual identity and social class status, Eribon’s book is both a delicately told tale of a young Frenchman crafting a gay self in the working class world and a stunning analysis of how acculturation into a social class identity affects sexual identity and vice versa. (more…)
Queerly Beloved: A Love Story Across Genders by Diane and Jacob Anderson-Minshall is a creative non-fiction account of Jacob’s transition from female-to-male, told from both Jacob’s perspective and his wife Diane’s. The book explores the many ups and downs of transitioning and the effects that can have on a relationship, identity, and for this well-known couple, the status of “professional lesbian,” as Diane puts it, in the publishing world. (more…)
Margaret Thatcher was no friend to Scotland – hundreds gathered in Glasgow’s George Square to celebrate her death in 2013 – nor was she one to the burgeoning gay community – she passed Section 28 which outlawed the promotion of the “acceptability of homosexuality” in 1988 – yet for the young Damian Barr, her indefatigable resolve and uncompromising femininity were beacons guiding the way to a better life. In Maggie & Me: Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland, Barr recounts an often-harrowing childhood in North Lanarkshire. However, in quite a characteristically Scottish fashion, bred in a people whose summers always retain “a patch of snow-wash denim blue in the indigo of night,” his story is not weighed down by hardship. Rather, with a playful prose, both light and expressive, Barr’s is an account of optimism and the bold pursuit of a happier future. (more…)
“Who will love you if you never tell the truth?”
This question carries a universality beholden to the human condition, which seeks intimacy but simultaneously fears it. It is a question posed by Janet Mock, who is hesitant to reveal certain aspects of her life to Aaron, the man she loves, but it is also one experienced by all of us. (more…)
‘The Reappearing Act: Coming Out as Gay on a College Basketball Team Led by Born-Again Christians’ by Kate Fagan
You would think what with all the progress we’ve made that it would be easy for kids to come out nowadays, but as we all know, it’s still no picnic, and it’s especially hard when you’re surrounded by folks who like to use the Bible to defend their homophobia. This was the environment Kate Fagan found herself in at the University of Colorado and she tells her story in a powerful way in the new memoir, The Reappearing Act. (more…)
Michelle Theall’s new memoir, Teaching the Cat to Sit, brings some big topics—God, sexuality, abuse, loneliness, love, family—to the page. It’s a rocky ride, full of contentious conversations, frank disclosures, and plenty of struggle.
There is an odd shadow that falls over the posthumous reputation of anyone who once excelled at what posterity deems, spitefully, too many different things. This fate can afflict the living, as well: think of Hollywood stars who take up novel-writing. It is difficult to fully suppress one’s feeling that such people should be satisfied with the fame they already have. An air of greed hangs over their output. Carl Van Vechten, the protean subject of Edward White’s wonderful new biography, would surely be chagrined if he could see how thoroughly his novels, best-sellers in the 1920s, have been forgotten since his death exactly half a century ago. White’s biography proves conclusively and entertainingly his contention that “the man is simply too contradictory to slot snugly into the established narrative of the American Century.” He was a critic, a reporter, an essayist, a novelist, a photographer and above all, a cultural impresario. His diminished fame is a victim of his own multifaceted career that spanned the first half of the twentieth century. This engaging, well-researched biography should change all that.
Carl Van Vechten was born in 1880 to a prosperous Cedar Rapids family. His parents, Charles and Ada, early champions of civil rights, insisted that their children address their gardener as Mr. Oliphant and their laundry maid as Mrs. Sercey. “Beneath his carefully managed image of the sophisticated iconoclast Van Vechten’s moral exemplars were his parents, whose bold stand on race relations kick-started his interest in African-American culture.” In 1906 Van Vechten moved to New York City, where he would live the rest of his life. He became the music critic for The New York Times, and was the first American critic of modern dance, promoting the careers of Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller and Anna Pavlova. In fact, he had an unparalleled talent for finding and publicizing all types of artists, both those emerging and those unjustly forgotten. He helped revive Herman Melville’s reputation as well as launching the careers of Gertrude Stein, Ronald Firbank, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker and George Gershwin, among many others. During the 1920s he published seven popular novels with Alfred A. Knopf, beginning with Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works, and including The Blind Bow-Boy, “a masterpiece of camp,” Parties, and Nigger Heaven. He befriended and promoted most of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, introducing white America and Europe to a vibrant indigenous art that captivated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. The book’s epigraph, a quote from its subject, perfectly encapsulates his correct belief that “Americans are inclined to look everywhere but under their noses for art.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, art and culture belonged to Europe. Three decades later Van Vechten’s indefatigable promotion of American art–in particular, black music and dance–had earned America a permanent place in the cultural firmament.
In 1930 he published Parties, his last and best novel, before setting fiction aside. The following year the Cuban illustrator Miguel Covarrubias returned from Europe with a Leica camera. When he showed it to his friend, Van Vechten quickly became obsessed with a new hobby. He set up a darkroom and portrait studio in his apartment and began photographing an endless procession of the century’s most brilliant people, including Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Joan Miro, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, W. Somerset Maugham, Gertrude Stein, Billie Holiday, Salvador Dali and Diego Rivera, to name but a few. He had a gift for putting his subjects at ease and his skill as a portrait photographer earned him the admiration of such acknowledged masters as Alfred Stieglitz and Man Ray. Today most of his photographs are housed at Yale University and the New York Public Library.
His personal life was no less complicated than his professional one. His second marriage, in 1914 to actress Fania Marinoff, lasted fifty years, mainly because Marinoff was willing to share her husband with a succession of younger men. White stops short of claiming Van Vechten was exclusively homosexual: “He was able to feel physically attracted to certain women, but his sincere need for female companionship was much more emotional than physical.” Nor does the author gloss over Van Vechten’s less appealing attributes, among which were a jaw-dropping degree of self-absorption, childishness and possessiveness toward the artists whose careers he helped launch. At the same time, White demonstrates that very often it was precisely Van Vechten’s character flaws that fueled his remarkable achievements. His outsized appetite for reflected glory led him to discover and publicize many of the last century’s most talented people. After meeting twenty-three-year-old Langston Hughes at an awards ceremony, he sent to Alfred Knopf the manuscript of his first poetry collection. He suggested an order for the poems and the title The Weary Blues, and within two weeks Hughes had his first book contract. Although Van Vechten could all too often be obnoxiously insistent on linking his name to the artists he discovered, his crucial role in gaining recognition for America’s autochthonous modernism more than makes up for that. The Tastemaker is essential reading for anyone interested in how America emerged from the cultural shadow of Europe in the last century.
The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America
By Edward White
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374201579, 352 pp.
‘Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol)’ by Breanne Fahs
Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.
Erasure is a central concern when it comes to representations of AIDS—be it in the face of hegemonic narratives, or absence. Historian Martin Duberman addresses this in his new book, Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill and the Battlefield of AIDS (The New Press, 2014). A dual biography, the book profiles Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill, both gifted, successful, HIV+ gay men who came of age in the Reagan years and with the onset of AIDS in America. The primary difference between the two being Hemphill was black and Callen was white, a fact that did not save either from needlessly early deaths, but one that does impact how they lived and how they are remembered. (more…)