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In Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father (W.W. Norton & Company), Alysia Abbott shares her story of growing up as the daughter of writer and editor Steve Abbott, a leading cultural critic and important voice in the New Narrative movement, who raised Alysia from the age of three after Barbara Binder Abbott, his wife and Alysia’s mother, died in a car accident.
The book begins in Georgia in the late 60s, when Barbara and Steve met and married, and ends in San Francisco in 1992, when Steve died of AIDS, Alyisa at his side. In between is a world of memories, remembered through letters from father to daughter; Steve’s journal, maintained as long as he could; and recollections from Alysia, who in the 20 years since her father’s death has become a parent herself, and grapples with what it means to be a straight woman with a queer legacy and a connection to the ongoing AIDS crisis that no one wants to discuss. Fairyland is a story of love and survival, and American history.
For Lambda Literary, Alyisa sat down with writer Ted Kerr to talk about her father, her book and her responsibilities. They begin by discussing the letters she and her father would write each other, beginning when she was a little girl summering with her grandparents in Illinois, and continuing right up until Alyisa came back from her studies in France to take care of her father as he was dying.
How did letter writing impact you as a writer and a daughter?
I can’t say I was writing beautiful letters as a child. They were dashed off, they were playful. There was one that says, “I love you more than Reagan loves to lie.” Silly little things that were between us. I am not sure it influenced me as a writer; I think it influenced my relationship with him. It was intimate. He was my friend. It was always something great that happened to me and I want to share it with him, or I am really anguished about this relationship and maybe he can give me advice.
Absolutely. In one letter, not included in the book, I wrote him about my French boyfriend’s premature ejaculation. I was not sure what to do. He wrote me this really thoughtful detailed advice, something like; “a lot of men think sex is about penetration, when it is so much more. Tell him how much you love him. And if none of that works—just shoot him.” So very playful – very available.
Was it these letters from your father that inspired you to write the book?
He died 20 years ago last December. Almost immediately after he died I took the letters and I put them in chronological order. Reading them with my friends made me feel that I was with him. His letters are filled so much with his voice. There were so many great stories and scenes I was overwhelmed, and then I discovered his journal. It was almost too much for me to process. Eventually I tried to write about him. I published two essays in anthologies around 2000, and then I pursued an MFA and used the material, quoting them, never knowing how it was all going to fit together. The feedback I was getting was people could not see the arc of the story. I needed some distance. I had a hard time seeing myself as a character, which was a problem because the best stories are those in which characters go through some change. I had no distance on myself so I could not see how I changed through the course of my life with my dad. I was just the girl who this all happened to.
How did you change?
A lot of the book is about me feeling closeted about my father’s sexuality. In the straight community I did not have the bravery to come out about him because I didn’t know how they would react to me. Now I am very much out.
Growing up I wanted to have a life separate from my father but I also recognized how much he defined me and how living with him, and the culture I lived in, was a gift. I had to come to terms with my past to share his story, and not just paint a smiley face on it and say he was a perfect gay dad like all the straight dads except that he was gay.
The book ends when my father dies so that change only manifests itself in how I write it, meaning, I could comment on myself in the book, I could be aware that I was a difficult teenager to live with, or when my father was sick I had a hard time tuning into his needs. I did not have the maturity to stop and ask; Okay what is happening to him? I could only see from a distance of 15, 20 years that I was struggling to be my better self. So it wasn’t just that I changed during the course of my life with my father. I feel like I changed from the person that held my father’s hand when he took his last breath.
Early in the book you ask yourself, “Why was it so difficult to contain my weirdness, to hide my dirt and mask my scent?” And then later you write, “My unusual position, as it turned out, would become both my greatest complaint and my greatest comfort.” To me this is your arc, the story of how you survived. Or put another way, how did you learn to deal with your weirdness?
I was bullied at a young age. I was called weird a lot. And it wasn’t just that my father was gay, I was living in a very bohemian lifestyle with lots of roommates and instability. At the same time I was going to a private school that valued beautiful things so I was living in this package of difference.
Children are born dependent on their parent and they need them for everything. When I was young my father was my sun and moon. As I grew older and aware of the smells and the dirt I also became aware of other ways of being. I could see then I lacked agency, and even if I had it, what would I do with it?
I think it is interesting how you are able to write about all the difference you are experiencing growing up, even from a position of being seemingly less weird now.
I feel like I don’t have the freedom to claim weirdness because of the responsibilities I have as a parent. Like gay pride weekend was such an amazing time, right after the DOMA ruling. I really wanted to be in New York or San Francisco with friends, celebrating, but I had my children. And my husband was not going to be happy for me taking off. I was just in California promoting my book. I had responsibilities.
I think your experience is closer to many within the queer community for whom Pride is not a celebration they feel is for them.
For the reasons you are stating. Who can celebrate Pride? Who can take that time off? Who is welcome? Who is welcome to celebrate in public? Who is so willing to celebrate the success of some and not others? Having to deal with the realities of your material life—feeling responsible to people you love— is more in keeping with the alternative queer movement. And now having read more of your dad’s work I think he would be on the same page. What do you think he would say about the current mainstream gay rights movement? Same-sex marriage?
Yeah, there are a lot of people asking. I think that he would be glad for the sense that gay couples would be afforded the freedom and respect but that the focus on marriage and military service are not consistent with the history of the movement. I think he would be more interested in gay rights movement liberating everyone.
Your dad wrote things we need to hear, and things people think are new but actually have a long history. I think his best line in View Askew is, “ To fight AIDS and the conditions that threaten us we need more than scientific research, more than money, more than leadership. We need to rethink America’s spiritual, political, social and cultural systems at the most fundamental root level.” What have you learned about HIV/AIDS and writing from your dad’s writing after he passed away?
I am still getting to know my dad’s writing. I also really loved the epilogue in View Askew about the gay community’s need to survive and have a point of view and there are still things I am learning. I wish there was a better system to access all of the articles he wrote for the Bay Area Reporter (BAR) or the San Francisco Sentinel. During the course of this book I spoke to Gerard Koskovich, a scholar, who is a curator at the GLBT Historical society and collector of rare books. He gave me a window into the role my father played in his community. In that time the gay experience and gay writers were so marginalized that my father worked to build a canon and educate a younger generation, passing on an education that wasn’t being taught in schools. He was also keen on encouraging gay artists to express themselves. He felt the gay community had a unique thing to say. As a critic and editor that is what he did. He had a lot of mistrust in the establishment, believing they just promoted who was already in, whereas he was more attracted to the fringe. He committed to taking a radical position and embracing others who did. As a child, I was sort of thrust into it and I didn’t really have a chance to say what I wanted. He was so attracted to the transgressive and I felt uneasy. Transgression is what was getting me in trouble, getting me bullied.
Yet at the end of the book you write: “Though I am straight and haven’t had a living gay parent for almost twenty years, I still feel a part of this queer community. This queer history is my queer history. This queer history is our queer history.” So for you what is the project of queer history?
I feel like queer history is so rich with daring revolutionary people.
What do you mean by queer?
I am playing with the meaning of queer there: different and strange, but also people like my father who identified at GLBT but dared to be a different. I don’t want to forget how daring people have to be to pursue same sex love, especially back in my dad’s time. It was dangerous. And I have a lot of respect for that, for my father who did all that.
While also trying to make a career.
Yeah, and not as something stable like a banker but as a writer poet and a critic. I know some people would say he was irresponsible; he should have just got a job. But it is brave to declare what you want and go for it. From a young age my dad went for what was different, not what society expected of him. The process of writing this book I was able to see my father and history in a new light. The struggle for gay liberation is fundamentally an American struggle.
What do you mean?
America was founded by people who were rejected for how they wanted to live so they broke away. That is the utopian ideal. So moving to San Francisco, like so many people did, was an act of wanting to build a new community because the one they came from did not respect them. To me that is a fundamentally American tradition. So much of the ruling conservative movement over the last few decades has been saying the GLBT experience was apart from America. I feel like losses from the AIDS crisis were due to this deep homophobia that sanctioned people turning their backs on people who needlessly died. A lot of the people who died of AIDS, died because they chose to live freely. We have so much to learn from them. “Give me liberty or give me death.” They should be heroes. We should know about these fascinating people and their movements, not just to celebrate but also to inform moving forward.
The challenge is enshrining this important information without creating a canon or becoming conservative.
My father started out organizing with Gay Liberation Front after Stonewall. His Great Speckled Bird cover says, “You don’t have to be gay to fight for gay rights.” But then as he became more open in the topics he covered he felt it was important to meet other gay writers, and have a safe space to explore because in straight, and even mixed, audiences there was some resistance to him openly talking about his gay experience. He had a need to build community. Yet near the end of my father’s life, when he was writing for the BAR or the Sentinel, he was writing that he and his peers needed to integrate. He thought it would do a disservice to stay cloistered. So it is a hard balancing act. You need gay bookstores and bars, but you also want to have GLBT writers and artists enjoyed by the larger public. You know what I mean?
Balance. It relates to the metaphor people don’t get around HIV / AIDS: it is both banal and extraordinary. How do we begin to dig into what may appear to be the minutiae of a thing?
In writing the book, I was able to check in with a lot of grief I didn’t know I was dealing with. I think a lot of people have not had a place to feel that. People are writing me and saying this book helped [them]. There needs to be a reckoning, a taking stock of what happened.
In Gentrification of the Mind, Sarah Schulman writes, “Where are the children of people who died of AIDS? There must be hundreds of thousands of them. Most children of murdered parents coalesce into some kind of community, but not these. I fear that the descendants of people who died of AIDS do not fully understand that their parents perished because of governmental and societal neglect. Not because he or she was gay or used drugs. Where is our Nuremberg trial? Where is our catharsis, our healing? Where is our post-traumatic stress? Where is our recovery?” Do you relate to that?
Yeah, I read Sarah’s book to get in touch with anger. It has not felt safe. I have felt alone. I think some of it is this complicated sense of stigma of our parents being sick and how the culture was treating it at that time. It is not something people walk around saying, “Hi, my father died of AIDS.” When it does come up, we go in the corner and talk about it for hours. But is harder to find those people. For my generation – people whose parents would have died in the 80s-90s—we are waking up. We are also seeing the ways in which the rest of our families responded. Like when my dad was sick, no one in my family came out to help him. They had their own reasons, but no one would even talk regularly to me about it. For them I think there was shame or confusion. There was no “I’m in this with you.” I could only find that within the gay community. With straight people it was more awkward. That sense of isolation became ingrained into the experience: I don’t know who I can tell about this. So when you meet someone else whose parent died of AIDS you cling to them. A friend and I are starting a website, a place where people can share stories and put up pictures. Kind of like a memorial site, to say this affected us too. There have been important moments like the AIDS quilt; the excitement around How to Survive a Plague, but the role of children is very minuscule. We have felt like, do we belong here? Do you want us here?
Right, and HIV stigma has gotten worse. HIV criminalization means that beyond the virus and the social stigma there are now also legal ramifications, so people have to be afraid that their kids don’t say anything that could get them locked up in prison.
As children of gay dads we were not brought up as fighters, we were just trying to have cereal in the morning. In some ways we were raised to be secret keepers. I appreciate Sarah’s call for us children to be angry. But first we have to find each other, and then we have to say it is okay to be angry. I don’t have to be embarrassed or ashamed, this is not something I have to hide.
It was lucky that your father was such an interesting guy. You could have had a dud of a gay dad and all this work would be much harder.
Duds certainly exist. What is interesting about him was that he took history and community seriously. He was committed to seeing things from a lens of difference. And I miss that even more now. Because I lost my dad half a lifetime ago, I have lost some of my connections. I have gay friends and we like to talk about stuff like grindr or whatever, I can plug in. But with my Dad gone, blood connection to the community was severed. So I am driven in a unique way to know the history. I feel a hunger, maybe more than someone coming out as gay. I want to know what was it like to be gay as my father was growing up. That is fascinating to me. I know gay writers who say, you are more gay than me!
So, talking about writing, how does all of this—your father’s life—relate to the New Narrative movement?
Based on what I know, New Narrative came in as opposition to the language poets. In the late 70s, the descendants of the beats were seen as indulgent and mystical. So then the language poets came in with a powerful rigor. They removed the I, and you were not to be writing about personal concerns anymore. A mathematical grid put on language. It was exciting for those that were in it. But isolating for those who did not fall in with that point of view. And of course this is around the beginning of the AIDS crisis, so something profound was happening and there was not away to talk about it within the language movement.
My father, along with Bob Glück and Bruce Boone, had a lot of conversation, influenced by Jack Spicer and Frank O’Hara— poets who used their poetry to get in touch with their gay identity instead of away from it. They felt the personal narrative had to be reclaimed and sexuality and gossip had to be included. My dad just called them the New Narratives in Soup magazine where he would publish someone like Bob Perelman, one of the language poets, against a piece by Bruce. He was trying to create conversations. And there were other New Narrative writers as well: Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Sam D’Allesandro. I have not read all of their work. I have read scholarly work to understand it. Kaplan Harris and Rob Halpern are working on it, putting New Narrative into context. It is not something I know a lot about. I don’t have my father to ask. I am in a position where I want to know more.