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Luis Negrón’s striking debut short story collection, Mundo Cruel (Seven Stories Press), mines the emotional lives of “a small community in Puerto Rico joined together by its transgressive sexuality.” In a wry voice that seamlessly combines both sincerity and camp, Negrón examines how desire, love, and sexuality simultaneously inspire and warp the citizens of Santurce, Puerto Rico.
From a tale of a male hustler whose murderous impulses lead him tragically astray, to stories that detail the hilarious comings and goings of small- town “queens,” Negrón’s shrewd, humane, and lyrical collection offers insight into the queer lives of those that are often off the mainstream map.
Negrón took some time to talk with the Lambda Literary Review about his debut collection, author Manuel Puig, and the power of being queer.
Your collection opens with quite an epigraph from artist Eduardo Alegría, “Faggotry is always subversive.” This quote encapsulates a lot of the themes in your book: the power of the extreme characteristics of gayness and sissyhood to usurp the perceived natural order of things. Is this theme/interest borne out of personal experience?
I came out of the closet at 23 and did it by going to the clubs, but I was not very lucky in fitting in, so I became more of a spectator. I would just stand in a corner and observe, very closely, the behavior of many of the people there.
Eventually, the “outcasts” of the clubs and bars would come to me. They were the only ones that talked to me. These were the sissies, the queens, and the hustlers that I write about. As a writer it was a great source of material. They were marginalized in an already marginalized world. They were loud, poor, and with almost no political commitment in the “traditional” LGBT way, but for me, their behavior was very subversive and disrupting, not only in the gay scene, but also the community at large. They had nothing to lose and being very flamboyant was a way of questioning the patriarchal order.
So you found “gayness” to be this truly great muckraking force?
It is, very much so. Puerto Rican society rejects gay behavior at large. People are bothered by masculine lesbians, the transgender community, and the whole gamma of sexual diversity. Gayness is then a shock, something that comes to disrupt the established order, an order that is fragile because it leaves behind the real nature of the human experience. So “gayness” questions the idea that society has of itself.
How do you feel “faggotry” can contribute to making new and exciting forms of art and writing?
I really hope that “faggotry” will not disappear from gay literature. The queer experience is vast and it seems that it won’t go away. Assimilation seems to be the call for LGBT people and that is ok if that is your thing. But for artists and writers, I think it will be a great loss to ignore the queer experience in the margins.
Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
It is difficult to answer that question, because I feel so close to many of the stories and characters in the book. But I have to say “The Vampire of Moca” and I will tell you why. This story offers a portrait of the kind of gay character that is somehow [informing] the gay liberation movement that is going on in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. [The main character] pretty much engages in a behavior that may appear contradictory. He goes to the gay parade; he knows Mel Gibson is homophobic, but still ends up chasing straight men. That is the kind of contradiction that I find amusing.
In terms of pulling Mundo Cruel together…did it take you long to complete the collection?
When I started writing the stories, I never thought they were going to be published. I would write one and let it rest and then move on to the next one. There was a lot of rewriting involved. It took me around three years to complete the collection, mostly because I was not thinking of it as a book. I was just having fun writing them.
So becoming a writer was not a straightforward trajectory?
When I was a kid I wanted to be in the movies and a writer. I grew up in very difficult circumstances, for being gay and for being poor. Books and movies were my salvation. But access to books was very limited and going to the movies was most of the time out of the question.
So I created my own stories, for my own pleasure. When I went to college I tried cinema, but there I learned that making a movie is nothing like the movies. It is not as fabulous. So I decided to study journalism and it was great because there I learned how to write with confidence. But, writing news was something that I did not enjoy. I was always tempted to add more flavor to the stories and this was not accepted.
I started to write short stories, but I was really afraid to share them with others. Until one day, a friend of mine convinced me to read one of them at a gay bar where they were having a cultural event, celebrating queerness. The reaction gave me confidence, but still I was hesitant to publish.
In 2007, a call for an anthology of Puerto Rican queer writing came to my attention. I sent in some stories and they were well received by the editors. I became very close to the editors and ended up being one of them at the end.
When the anthology came out, people started asking me when I was going to publish my stories, and three years later came Mundo Cruel.
What was the hardest to story to write? In terms of making it “work.”
“The Garden” for sure. At the beginning I wasn’t sure that I wanted to write a story about AIDS, [particularly] about AIDS as a metaphor for another form of life. That was a challenge, but I remember a friend of mine whose lover died of AIDS and he told me that he was so attracted to [his lover], that even at the end of his life, when he was in poor physical condition, they still had sex—at least on one occasion. That is the story I wanted to tell—how life and passion still persist in the presence of sickness and death. But I also wanted to talk about isolation. How even in this family of academics…how even well connected and respected [people] can fall in to the margins of society because of the epidemic. They become pariahs, no one visits them. But even then, they resist by being alive, by daring to live.
Also, I wanted melodrama to be present in the story. The voice of Nestito, the narrator, is a melodramatic one; because that is the way he sees the world. That is how he survives. Melodrama is very tricky. But it was clear to me that melodrama is a fake way of dealing with feelings. People often grab on to what they know in order to live. It is a way of resisting the impact of true suffering.
Once I had Nestito’s voice clearly in my head, it was easier to write the story.
Your stories combine a real camp sensibility with a strong sincere sense of humanity. How hard was it to balance these often opposing aesthetics: irony and sincerity?
I just paid attention to human behavior. I wanted to be very honest when creating my characters. I did not want to make them funny for the sake of it. Camp is a truly human behavior; if we pay close attention we can still find beauty and humanity [within it].
Are there any other writers you feel also get this tone right? Or inspired your style?
I have to say Spanish writer Eduardo Mendicutti, whose novels I love, especially his first novel. There is also Copi, an Argentinean writer who portrays subversiveness in a very funny way. Pedro Lemebel, from Chile and Manuel Puig from Argentina also showed me the right way of dealing with melodrama and how subversive it can be.
You have been compared to Manuel Puig. Suzanne Jill Levine, a friend of Puig and translator of his work, translated this collection. How did you two connect?
When my editor in the U.S., Gabriel Espinal, started to look for a translator for Mundo Cruel, he remembered that I used a quote from Puig at the beginning of the book so he went to a bookstore in New York and bought one of his novels in English. He read it, liked it a lot, and decided to contact Puig’s translator. That was Suzanne Jill Levine, who is a legend in Latin American literature for translating many major writers.
When he told me that he had talked to her and that she said yes I was really happy. My dreams never go that far. Working with her was really easy. She understood the book and the characters. Once we had a draft I went to New York to work with her. It was a great experience to witness the joy in which she works.
Of course, at every chance I would ask her about Manuel and Suzanne is a great storyteller so I was in heaven.
You edited a collection of queer writing from the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Did anything surprise you as you pulled that collection together? Any recurring motifs in the work you edited?
Los Otros Cuepos, that is the title of the anthology (The Other Bodies), was a chance not to only re-discover queer writers from the past but also a great number of new voices. We were able to gather 44 pieces that included short stories, poetry, and segments of novels and essays. The real surprise was the variety of subjects. Puerto Rican queer writers have the ability to show a vast spectrum of the gay experience and that seems to be the norm. Not one work was alike and I believe that is wonderful. Many people seem to believe that gay and lesbian literature is very limited, that once you read a gay book you have read them all, but this anthology proved them wrong.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a short novel using part of my childhood as the main material. It is not an autobiography, because as a storyteller, the joy I find in writing comes from creating. It is not only about growing up gay, it is also about growing up poor and how the struggle to survive in the margins of society can feed the imagination in order to resist.
I’m also working on another story about three queens from the rural part of the island trying to get to—for the first time in their lives—the Gay Pride in San Juan. I’m having a blast writing these stories. Very campy, very funny, but of course, very human.
Photo Credit: Eny Roland