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“The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBTQ writer, or LGBT person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.
This month’s “Banal and Profane” column comes to us from writer Christina Cooke.
Born in Jamaica, Christina Cooke is a fiction writer who bounces between the U.S. and Canada. Her stories have appeared in The Caribbean Writer, Epiphany: A Literary Journal, and Sou’wester, among others. She is an editor for Poetry is Dead, former member of the editorial collective for Room Magazine, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Start of a new work week. My work this week: finishing the current round of edits on my novel. I’ve been hacking away at these edits longer than I’d like to admit. Those who know me believe it’s because I’m overly meticulous. “If everything happened your way,” they often say, “it’d take everybody weeks just to make breakfast.” Smiling silently, I take their jokes. Honestly, it takes hours of mental wrangling every morning to get over myself and produce, to convince myself that what I’m writing has potential and meaning and is not just the expression of a hot-headed delusion (though that’s there too, even when what I’m producing has dynamism and life).
Setting up shop at the kitchen table, I print the pages I need to edit. There’s a bit of coffee left in the pot from breakfast, enough for one more cup. Grinding fresh beans, I fill the machine to start brewing anew. The printer spits more pages onto the growing stack. One cup will not be enough.
I added another sex scene today. I fucked my girlfriend on the hallway floor before writing it. For inspiration, as they say.
I’m as slow a reader as I am writer: I’m still working through a stack of books I bought over a year ago. Everyone keeps telling me to put those books down and pick up instead A Brief History of Seven Killings and Here Comes the Sun, the two novels written by Jamaican-born authors that recently came out. Every time, I thank my friends for the suggestion then say the books are already on my list of to-reads. And every time, they’ll pause, squint a little, stare at me with strange curiosity–as though it’s somehow my patriotic duty to know, from the moment it hits the market, any and every piece of Jamaican literature that the American book industry deems as “good.”
I’m being a brat. I know I should read them, for appreciation and inspiration and to make myself aware of who I’ll find myself in company with if my novel ever makes it off my hard drive. But I can’t. Partially because I don’t want to cloud my head with other people’s stories while I’m working on my own, but mostly I’m afraid any overlap between my work and theirs will render my novel repetitive and irrelevant.
Intellectually, I know the above line of thinking is total bullshit. Thinking my novel might not receive attention because it invokes Jamaica is to buy in to the tired track of tokenism, that there can only be one spokesperson to stand as representative for a multifaceted “other”. But emotionally, it’s an unavoidable anxiety that finds its grounding in the countless black and brown writers releasing books every year that rarely become part of people’s larger understanding. Everyone knows Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, and (now) Marlon James–but how many others can you name of a similar ilk?
This is how racism works, people. Instead of feeling inspired and excited that other Jamaicans have acquired accolades for their work, I’m terrified and depressed that crowning them means there’ll be no space in bookstores or in readers’ imaginations for me. This is how racism morphs ambition into violence, forcing us to focus on getting that one “diversity” position as validation for our lifelong efforts at the cost of ostracizing ourselves from the very communities we claim to care about.
So I’m trying to stay the course. I will continue my reading in the order I’d already decided on. I will read their novels and feel what I feel then try to examine why I feel what I feel, calming myself down or hyping up the excitement I feel from their prose. And maybe, if all goes as I so deeply hope, my novel will one day be in bookstores just a few shelves over from theirs–in happy, multi-vocal harmony.
I’m rewriting an early chapter. I’m stunned by what’s on the page, so much so that I feel like a scribe for my characters rather than their all-powerful god.
When I first took to writing–like, real writing, where my fiction stood as something more than glorified diary entries–my work suffered from an absolute refusal to allow my characters to be human. Literature is where we as artists must imagine our communities to be better than they currently are, I lectured myself. It is where our deepest humanity should be most profoundly and intricately expressed. I still believe that, to some extent, but I now also believe that these profound expressions can and must contain space for people to fuck up, to hoard all the goodness the world has to offer for themselves, to be human. I think I’ve reached a point where my writing reflects that reality, where my characters are not only pawns on a page but also full people in my head, teeming with loveliness and contradictions. I hope my readers feel the fullness of their presence, too.
I look over the rewrites I did yesterday. I don’t completely hate them–yet.
I grab a bite to eat with a friend then drink myself silly at a nearby bar. Afterward, my friend and I pop in to a sex shop on our way to the train. I need lube. My friend is a bit uptight, won’t let the store clerk squeeze any of the testers onto her wrist. In retaliation, the clerk shoots my friend the most epic side-eye then shades her out with such swiftness, such ease, we don’t know what else to do except run out of the store then laugh. I live my life in constant awe of shady queens.
I cut the sex scene I added on Tuesday. It doesn’t gel with the mood and intent of the chapter. That’s the frustrating thing about writing fiction: unlike life, everything in a book has to exist for a reason. This is one of those rules you can’t really break (trust me, I’ve tried), so I’m saving the sex scene in a separate document for some other project.
It’s 8:32 p.m. It’s my turn to make dinner. I close my laptop and turn on the oven, listening to the sounds of my girlfriend rustling in her office down the hall. In about an hour, we’ll eat then lounge on the couch then three glasses of wine in, she probably try to touch her toes to my face (did I mention she’s a weirdo? A total, lovable weirdo). Maybe she’ll start dozing right where she’s sitting, or maybe I’ll grab my new bottle of lube and we’ll fuck. Either way, tomorrow’s Monday, the start of a new work week. My work next week: inching ever closer to completing my novel.