Beyond Magenta is a collection of the real-life stories of six young transgender people in America, interviewed and photographed by Susan Kuklin. Most of the teens live in New York, with the exception of Luke, who is from Wisconsin. Some of the six are still in their teens, while others are out of their teens by a couple of years, telling the story of their youth.
This is a raw and refreshing book which feels as though the subjects were given total freedom to tell the truth and make sure it was told their way. Kuklin notes that the subjects were very much involved in the process of what went into their chapters, and is honest about the fact that some things were edited if they weren’t quite relevant to the main focus of the book. All the subjects read their chapters prior to publication and Kuklin says of the process: “We worked together to make sure that everything written was honest and authentic.”
So don’t expect any sugar-coating because some of the chapters are brutal. Some are funny. All are interesting. These are real stories, and while it’s hard to read about the terrible abuse some of the kids suffered, their story is also part of what we need – the bravery to speak out about who we are, what we’ve been though, and where we go from here. There is an abundance of hope in Beyond Magenta, and a good range of experiences from super-informed, self-confessed nerds with supportive networks and ideals of activism, to those who had to work it out on their own without even the vocabulary to express themselves, let alone the support they needed. There are gaping holes in gender education for teens, but also what is clear is the effect on a young person and their families when they have access to that information early on.
Five of the narratives are accompanied by photographs with the notable exception of one, Mariah, who requested that no photographs be included in her chapter. Four of the five who do have photos include face/full body shots, except for Luke, whose family requested his face not be shown. These exceptions in a book of photo essays speak volumes. Although the reader isn’t told exactly why, it begs the obvious thoughts of fear of outing whether that be the trans person themselves or their family’s fears. While it may be something other or innocent in its reasoning, the shock of going from totally open, laid-back photos and stories to something closed off and mysterious has an immediate, worrying effect.
Beyond Magenta is another of those classic cases, for me as a thirty-year-old trans guy, of “I wish this had been around when I was younger.” Cameron, who proclaims proudly, “I’m dressing gender fuck,” would have blown up my thirteen-year-old brain in the best possible that’s-me-that’s-me-God-yes way. I hope Beyond Magenta finds its way into public and school libraries, and into the hands of the kids who need it. I hope it becomes just one of a selection of similar non-fiction books for young adults that teachers, librarians, and friends can recommend and say “There’s a bunch of great books about that.”
Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out
Written and Photographed by Susan Kuklin
Hardcover, 9780763656119, 182 pp.
The story of Keepsake Self Storage starts with a “body” floating down the Connecticut River. However, May Hammond is wrong about the ominous looking blob, as she finds out later when the police investigate to find a bag of old clothing. Nevertheless, a body-shaped bag of debris turns out to be a metaphor for the madness that ensues as the tale regresses into a madcap chain of events that sends all parties involved into tornado-like whirlwind of emotion and chaos, sweeping the characters up and spinning them out of control.
May is well beyond 70, as is her volatile lover, Canadian-born Avola LeFebre. The two women have been a couple for years, but May has put off Avola’s invitations to move in with her over and over again. One of May’s concerns is her son, Earl. At forty-seven, he still lives at home with May and doesn’t seem to have much ambition. He works as little as possible at the Keepsake Self Storage facility and relaxes with a joint now and then, blowing smoke out his bedroom window. He thinks May knows nothing about his recreational drug use, but he is mistaken. There’s something a little off about Earl but it’s not what the reader may think. When a dead body materializes at the storage facility, Earl’s computer and other personal items are seized from his home by the police. Earl decides there’s only one way to remove himself from police scrutiny—he hits the road without telling a soul.
Once the initial hubbub dies down, Avola hopes Earl’s extended absence is her chance to make a life together with May, but those dreams have been dashed by May’s friend Vera, after Vera’s house catches on fire and she moves in with May. Vera definitely puts a cramp in Avola’s style, but Avola has more issues than just her frustration with May’s inaccessibility. However, it remains to be seen whether or not she will ever be able to confront her own demons.
Earl’s problems compound as he runs all over the country seemingly without logic, making one bad decision after another, getting himself into trouble from which he seems unlikely to be able to extract himself. At home, May keeps Avola at arm’s length, partly afraid to be herself and partly because of Avola’s explosive personality. Avola holds such deep-seated trauma in her heart from events long ago that she doesn’t even realize what makes her so easily upset. This cast of characters is traveling on a trajectory toward either deliverance or destruction. Either way, the momentum can’t be stopped.
While Avola retreats to Cape Cod to a friend’s house to make sense of her reactions that alienate the one person she wants close to her, her outspoken long-time friend tries to put her back on track. Meanwhile, May gets a life-changing call that sends her on a journey she never imagined she’d have to take and Earl finds his search for the mysterious “blue lady” might finally bring him some peace. In the midst of all this, Avola finally confronts her past trauma, hoping to open a path back to May.
What appears at first to be a crazy “Keystone Cops” type of madcap folly is deceiving. Slowly, the path winds back on itself to become a study in the human condition, and all the ways people seek or eschew healing. Banks has given us a deviously zany story, the beginning of which seems humorous and slightly off-kilter. However, as the tale progresses, a new story is revealed about deep wounds of the psyche and the harm that can be done in living for appearances. This triad of characters offers interesting perspective to move the story along, and motivations, although not always what they appear to be, are key. Keepsake Self Storage is a story that is more than it seems at first glance. It will keep the reader wondering where the next turn of events will lead and hoping that chaos can eventually turn to calm.
Keepsake Self Storage
By Marianne Banks
Paperback,9781594933950, 220 pp.
Reviewer Annalisa Quinn says the poems in Glück's new collection Faithful and Virtuous Night are lovely in places, but also misty, ambiguous and seemingly in love with their own haziness.
Also: writing advice from Emma Straub; the legacy of John Updike.
Marcos Giralt Torrente's memoir of his absentee father, the famed Spanish painter Juan Giralt, frequently resorts to lists and repetition to get across Torrente's exasperation, anger and love.
Born erudite, John Rechy, 83, is the author of twelve novels and three non-fiction works.
He was raised Mexican-American in El Paso, Texas at a time when Latino children were routinely segregated. He was assumed to be Anglo because of his light skin. A teacher “changed” his name from Juan to John.
Always with a flair for the creative, after appearing as Jesus in a play at age ten, Rechy wrote Shirley Temple a letter offering himself as her movie partner. He devoured classic literature at an early age and has published in an essay his own rules on writing. His mother was a big fan of Liberace, who sent her a miniature piano and an autographed photo. He insisted to People magazine in 1978 about his now canonized, high temperature novel City of Night, “I didn’t write it to titillate.” That book brought out the worst and the best in reviewers and readers and has been in print ever since its 1963 publication.
Gore Vidal hailed him as “one of the few original American writers of the last century,” and Michael Cunningham, one of his former writing students, has called him an author “whose life is almost as interesting, and meaningful, as his work.”
He wrote memorable commentary and reviews, published in Beneath the Skin, The Collected Essays of John Rechy, for The Nation, New York Review of Books, and The New York Times and a memoir/fictional narrative About My Life and the Kept Woman. His insights often pre-sage what others concluded decades later.
Recently, Rechy talked with the Lambda Literary Review about his long life that bridges The Great Depression, World War II, the Korean and Vietnam War, the tumultuous 60s, the Stonewall Riots, AIDS, and the assimilation of the LGBT community into marriage and the Armed Forces.
As a young boy, you stayed inside writing stories. Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes, my desire to be a writer came quite early. Before my teens, about ages 7 to 12,
I had written many stories. Several of them were “retellings” of movies and of my father’s opera productions. For example, I retold the story of Madame Butterfly and Carmen. Not intentionally, those “adaptations” were very funny. Madame Butterfly to Lt. Pinkerton: “Guess what? I’m pregnant.”
At age 13, I began a novel titled Time on Wings, a historical novel about–get this!–Marie Antoinette. It reached about 500 pages before I stopped to move on to grittier subjects: a very sexy expose about high school students. I continued to write from then on, and as editor of my high school newspaper and later of the college magazine, I published quite a few scandalous stories. I was fired as editor of a school magazine for a satirical poem and an article titled “Babbitt Ain’t Dead, He Just Went to College.” Around the same time I wrote my first finished novel, Pablo! based on Mayan legends. At one time, Grove wanted to publish it, but I didn’t want that very early novel to come out as my “second novel” after City of Night.
I also wanted to be an artist, and created several comic strips which were usually set in earlier times. For a time, I also wanted to act, after I was cast as the boy Jesus at age ten.
How did that come about?
My father had worked in Mexico with the great actress Virginia Fabregas, the Ethel Barrymore of Mexican theater. She had her own touring company which came to perform in El Paso, and they needed a kid for the role of an allegorical Jesus in “El Monje Blanco”—the White Monk by Blasco Ibanez. I got the role with an all-star cast of Mexican actors and actresses. I loved the costume—a rather brief loin cloth. My great scene, the climax of the play, was when I am in the area where my father is a carpenter (circa early A.D.), and on the set are several wooden boards, scattered. My mother, an allegorical Mary, is with her husband, an allegorical Joseph. Some kind of crisis is looming, and my father announces that he has to go away. At that point, I lean back on some boards on stage that formed a cross and I spread my arms on it. Then I say to my father: “Me abandonas, Padre?” (‘Are you abandoning me, Father?”) obviously echoing Jesus on the cross. My father then says: “Ya esta crucificado! (“He is already crucified.”) That created loud sobs in the audience. After the first performance, I ran out into the audience in my costume and the ladies, some gentlemen too, reached out to hug and kiss me and continued weeping. That was a great time. When the play was going to be made into a Mexican film with the great Maria Felix as Mary, I was chosen to play the part again; but that would require moving to Mexico which was not feasible for our family. A few years later, still a boy, I wrote Shirley Temple offering myself as her partner in movies. She didn’t answer, and so my theatrical aspirations were ended.
It’s tempting to be reductive. Does your story about playing Jesus at age ten help to define John Rechy into his adult life?
I hope not, in any religious sense. Oh, God, no! However, performing in a sexy costume and arousing so much “love”—that might have had some influence in my latter years.
In a 1988 LA Times review of your novel Marilyn’s Daughter, the writer quoted you saying that you were a Texas writer not mentioned on lists of Texas writers; a Chicano writer omitted from anthologies of Chicano writers; a California writer ignored in books about California; and even though excluded from homosexual anthologies you were still known as a ‘homosexual’ writer. How does your legacy look to you today?
That has changed dramatically, I’m glad to say, although some hints of “being left out” continue. I’ve been given PEN-USA’s Lifetime Achievement, One Magazine’s first Culture Hero Award; William Whitehead Lifetime Achievement, the Leal Lifetime Achievement Award for a Mexican-American writer and West Coast Lambda’s Pioneer Award. My writings are now taught widely in universities and colleges—especially City of Night, and now The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez, and some other books of mine.
Several students are writing their PhD’s on my work and university conferences hold panel discussions on my books. Okay, so that sounds like bragging. It is bragging, yes, and I do it here because I wasn’t always included. Plus, I don’t believe in “humility,” which most often is an arrogant pose. So, yes, I’ve overcome a lot of weird prejudice, including from gay flanks, like this: Right after The Sexual Outlaw had come out, I was baffled by the hostility from gay folk. I did a reading with Alan Ginsburg in of all places San Francisco, and a whole contingent of gay men walked out on me. I went on reading, and then another contingent walked out. I didn’t understand why, except that in Outlaw, just out, I was upholding “promiscuity” (I call that “sexual abundance”) and that was not, then (1977), “correct.” Also, in Los Angeles cruising, I was attacked by a huge man denouncing Outlaw. As I rolled away from his violent advances a little queen who witnessed my attack offered, “You can’t please everyone!” Another time while hustling, I ignored a drag queen. Angry, she said, “Your muscles are as gay as my drag!” These were weird times.
Some years later at a big writer’s conference in San Francisco, things had changed powerfully. And (here goes the bragging, non-humility again) I received two standing ovations while Edward Albee, who was on the same stage, was booed.
You’ve written fifteen books – twelve fiction and three non-fiction. How do you view your own body of work?
I’m very pleased with it, my body of work. I’ve ranged very widely, too, both in subject and in form. Gay subjects, yes; but also a Mexican woman in L.A. (Amalia), teenagers in Texas (The Fourth Angel), a possible daughter of Marilyn Monroe, a spooky female evangelist (Bodies and Souls). In my essays, starting back in the 50s, I’ve written about discrimination against Mexicans in Texas, illegal jailing of “juvenile delinquents,” GIs protesting the Vietnam War, and, of course, about the scourge—physical and psychological (on all of us) of AIDS, in The New York Review of Books, the Advocate, other publications. I want these books, and my essays, to be considered in dealing with my “body of work.” I’m glad to say that it increasingly is and I often speak in classes where one or another of my books is required reading. There are new translations regularly of my work, in Bulgaria just recently.
I think your collection of essays Beneath the Skin, The Collected Essays of John Rechy, written over 40 years for The Nation, New York Review of Books, and The New York Times is profound, then and now. With your writing—is there a gay sensibility?
Of course there’s a gay sensibility. There’s a whole essay in my book about that (“Hollywood and Homosexuality: Heterosexual Films in Drag”). And it’s a good “sensibility”—we are shaped by exile, born into the “heterosexual camp” with all that implies. Very early, we deal with “camouflage” in various ways, and that shapes a unique “sensibility.” I uphold our differences and resent them being “erased.”
You always wanted to be a contender. Are you a contender in the pantheon of gay male writers?
The pantheon of gay male writers? Really, is there such?
Do you mean, then, Proust, Wilde, Genet, Djuna Barnes, Virginia Woolf, et al? I do think all writers should aim for the best, always; and, yes, that is where I have always aimed. When I referred to myself as a “contender,” I meant I simply want my work to be read without prejudice or preconception. Some “critics/reviewers” clearly haven’t read my books and still criticize them; it is always easy for a writer to tell when a “reviewer/critic” has not read one’s book(s). I don’t want to be “corralled”—I want to be viewed as a writer, period.
Related to that—“pantheon”—are the silly lists that purport to indicate a “best,” etc. those lists are ubiquitous, from Time magazine to—yes, really, in my opinion, the bombastic self-appointed guru of literature, Harold Bloom. Those lists and gradings are insulting to artists, I feel, an arbitrary comparison is made, very often reflecting only their personal choices.
Critic/author Jameson Currier wrote in the April 2, 1999 New York Blade News: “Perhaps more than any other American author in the 20th century, his [Rechy] writings have helped shape the sexual consciousness of several generations of gay men.” How has the gay consciousness changed since your early novels? For better or worse?
I marvel at the folks who have brought up all sorts of discrimination cases to the courts and fought and won. They’re real heroes. Although we don’t see them being invited to ride as marshals or whatever during our ghastly, giddy parades. I do hope my books have contributed to good causes. About gay parades: I think they are entertainment for straight folks. Lots of moms bring their kids: “Look at the gays, Sonny.” I think that sort of thing should be left for Halloween or New Year’s, and pride parades should be designed with dignity, and I mean all factions, men in leather, yes, queens in drag, yes, all our factions, but all produced with pride, not giddiness for heterosexuals to be entertained or have a chance to laugh at us. In San Francisco, there is an open “fair” once a year where some of the worst excesses of S&M are mimed as tourists gather, watching us whipping, getting whipped, dragged, forced down. Very ugly entertainment for straight people with their cameras to show aghast neighbors, laughing.
On being reduced, historically, gay men were defined as sinners, mentally ill, or criminals. In your essay “The Outlaw Sensibility: Liberated Ghettos, Nobile Stereotypes, and a Few More Promiscuous Observations” (1991), you write that adopting the outlaw identity “might lead us into a frightening trap.” Please explain.
An extremity of “difference”—emphasize “extremity”— might veer toward the criminal as quintessential “outlaw.” I think Genet is there. Some gay writers have had a fascination with criminals; e.g., Capote, Vidal (of course Mailer, but he’s not gay).
You’ve said: “I was always an outlaw except now I want to live.” As a Mexican and a homosexual, you navigated two unrelenting worlds – the American class system, which we routinely deny even exists, and the Heterosexual Dictatorship. Was your first identity as an outlaw tinged with self-doubt?
No, I didn’t think of myself as being easily defined, and I have always rejected self-doubt. As I’ve always said, I shun “humility” as a fake pose. I wince when someone receiving an award, especially an Academy Award but also the office of President or an honor and dutifully—yes, dutifully—mouths the words “I am humbled.” No honor, no recognition, no award should humble anyone; it should elevate, not only the recipient but whoever is extending that honor, a grand synergy.
My situation in regard to racial and sexual prejudice is somewhat unique. In Texas, when I was young, discrimination was quite powerful against Mexicans, and, of course, black folk; but I suppose because my father was Scottish and born in Mexico, I was fair skinned and so could easily “pass” as Anglo. That exposed me to hearing terrible insults about Mexicans that I then rebutted. In the little Texas town of Balmorhea, where I went with two Anglo friends who were, without knowing I was Mexican and poor, “rushing” me for their all-white fraternity. We had dinner at the ranch home of one of my friend’s relatives; a rich woman. At dinner, as we were served by the Mexican maid, the relative slapped her silver down until the woman was out of sight, and she announced that the maids had strict instructions they were to disappear as soon as they served. “I just can’t eat when they are around” she said. I think that was what “radicalized” me. I got up and told her that I had to leave her table, then.
And then later you wrote about racism for various publications?
My first published writings in the 1950s were about discrimination and the outrages perpetrated. I was writing about racism for the Texas Observer, The Nation, and Evergreen Review. As a gay man, I didn’t experience personal discrimination that I remember; but, of course, I was aware of it and wrote a lot about the subject, including for The Advocate and The New York Review of Books, along with very early articles about the mysterious illness AIDS. Of course, my book The Sexual Outlaw was overtly political in its defense of gay sex, its exposure of vice arrests. I was arrested three times in Los Angeles by vice cops, and I wrote about what happened during those arrests, and after one such article, I was exposed to being tracked by plain clothes cops and assaulted. That sort of thing still goes on but young gay people don’t want to know about that part of our history. It seems that many of them prefer to exist in a limbo, where AIDS doesn’t happen, where violence is over. Maybe not all young gay males but too many.
You have stated: “The autobiographer is the biggest liar for claiming: This is exactly how it happened. The biographer is the next level down for arguing: I am capable of knowing another’s life. The most honest writer is the novelist, who says: This is a lie, a fiction, but I’m going to try like hell to make you believe it’s true.”
Where do you fall, using your own claim?
I believe what I’ve said very firmly. I’m not saying that the writer deliberately falsifies, although that is true often, but that memory when applied to autobiography is entirely unreliable. Yet autobiography is often accepted and attempted as “the truth.” The past constantly changes in our memories—memory is a harsh editor. About biography: I read a long time ago Stefan Zweig’s biography of Marie Antoinette (when I was writing my own “Marie Antoinette” novel), and in one place he wrote that during her marriage night the curtains that enclosed the royal bed did not move—meaning the couple didn’t have sex. That stopped me. How the hell did he know that?
I’ve been moving into a melding of “true” (i.e., remembered) autobiography and fiction. In About My Life and the Kept Woman, I melded the two—biographical events and their transformation into “fictional narrative.” In my new book, almost finished and titled Island! Island!, I use autobiographical events from years ago when I was a guest at a private island. Within the book itself, the narrator begins writing the novel he may write based on those events. I call it “a true fiction.”
You’ve taught creative writing. Michael Cunningham (The Hours) and Kate Braverman (poet, novelist) studied with you before their careers began. Care to share memories?
Only this: That it pleases me enormously that my first encounter with their work was in my writers workshop. I recognized how uniquely talented each was. Michael remains a friend, and Kate and I became friends, and we played Scrabble; she was very good, but—she may say otherwise—I usually beat her. Of course, there have been many other well-known writers that have emerged from my workshops. My mate, Michael, who studied with Stella Adler, told me this story about her: In a new class, she was asked what it was like to know that she had “taught/mentored” the likes of Marlon Brando, Meryl Streep, and Robert De Niro. She answered that, yes, her experience with them was good; but that she powerfully lamented those who were equally talented and never made it. Very wise, very sad. I feel the same way. I’ve encountered in my workshops (at Occidental College, UCLA, USC, and my private workshops) hugely talented writers who have not yet “made it.” I try everything I can to bring them attention but at times “The Great Stupid Out There” does not budge.
Author/critic Michael Bronski has said about you, “[He] super-radically and forever altered how mainstream American culture wrote about, saw, experienced, and conceptualized homosexuality…”
That’s really good, but I don’t know how exactly that is so; but I admire Mr. Bronski a lot, and if he said so, then it’s true. In the arts, aside from writers, David Hockney, Gus van Sant, others; and, ironically, several heterosexual figures have acknowledged my influence, including David Bowie, Jim Morrison, Tom Waits, Soft Cell, Bob Dylan.
The following pleases me and amuses me: The opening lines of The Village People’s iconic disco hit YMCA are clearly inspired by an early chapter in City of Night, where the “youngman” protagonist is directed to the YMCA by, of all people, a cop. The song refers to that, and refers to “youngman” as a compound word. What I like is that that song is routinely sung now at heterosexual weddings. The Village People, unlike the others, have never acknowledged the origins of their inspiration.
You’ve created a signature style that combines words—youngman, sexturf, sexhunting. How did that device come about?
I love words and some words when combined create different meanings than when used separately. I must say, too, that a big misunderstanding about me that came about from those combined words is that I was not that bright. Can you imagine that?
Mainstream gay America is now about marriage and military service. Progress or is assimilation acquiescence to heterosexual norms?
Wonderful, terrific progress! But also just as much a dangerous, psychic time for us were we risk losing our unique qualities, our differences, our rich sexuality, our gay “sensibility.” I hope we will never become “straight imitators.” When I hear married gay males referring to each other as “husbands,” and lesbians referring to each other as “wives” I wince. I wince when I see the giant white wedding cakes, and the tuxedos. It is offensive to me because it makes it seem as if what we wanted all along were all the giddy and silly trappings of straight marriage. Okay, look, I never celebrated marriage, gay or straight; however, we saw the brutalities that occurred during the AIDS crisis when long-time partners were denied being with their dying partners. Yes, achieving marriage status is important for us because of the reality of inheritance, taxes, lots of good stuff not possible otherwise. That to me is all that’s important about achieving “marriage.” Those benefits have an exigent reality. The day before no more marriages would occur in Los Angeles, Michael and I were driving past the judicial building where the licenses were being given out. It was then that we thought, it’s important, let’s go do it. We were told we were too late in the day, but we managed to charm the lovely black lady and a Chicana rooting for us, and so they went ahead and gave us the certificate. Then the black lady said she’d perform the wedding, and, in her impressive robes, she led us to a small room decorated in white for “weddings.” Michael and I stood before the lady in her elegant robe—and, I hesitate to tell you this because it is so extremely romantic and even sentimental, Michael and I were both moved, very much. Yeah, we held hands—she told us to—and kissed—but that wasn’t the reason we did it. We did it because, well, yes, it was quite lovely.
And I do hope that being “married” doesn’t mean that we will adopt the nonsense restrictions of hetero marriages; like rigorous demands of so-called “fidelity.” I’m not sure either that the form courtship has taken among gay men is going to work. I mean, to me, it is unnatural for gay men to date first and get to know each other before they have sex later, if at all. It’s more natural for us as gay men to follow the old-fashioned way: Have sex (protected sex, of course), don’t talk a lot before or during sex—then, if something significant remains after the (protected) sex, like good feelings, possible bonds of interest, good conversation, then date each other.
Sarah Schulman has written extensively about “homo-nationalism,” coined by Rutgers professor Jasbir Puar in her book Terrorist Assemblages. The phrase means that the benevolence of Western democracies is judged by LGBT advances, namely marriage and military service. She fears assimilation at the big table means LGBT folks will grow less inclined to challenge, for example, if the Iraq Wars were necessary or if the state has compelling interests in allowing religious exemptions to gay marriage. Your thoughts?
I, too, am apprehensive about assimilation, and borrowed celebrations after gay weddings (giant cakes, balloons, all the props of straight weddings). I hope we never become “straight-impersonators.” I was in the army, the 101st Airborne Infantry Division. And in the army gay men were pretty open back in the 50s and 60s. I thought, really, it was a good thing that you could get out of the hated “services” by revealing that you were gay. Of course, you had to pay a price for that—dishonorable discharge, benefits withheld. I’m talking more metaphorically here. Of course, gay people should be able to join the army, whatever, even be a cop, I guess. I do hope that gay people will always be at the forefront questioning unjust heterosexual authority like the criminal Iraq War waged through lies about weapons of mass destruction. I hope that since we have been the objects of massive injustice, we would be among the first to question it elsewhere.
The labels we choose for ourselves change as our circumstances change. But you don’t like “gay” as a moniker?
Now I marvel at what gay people choose to call themselves. “Gays” still makes me wince, and I remember Christopher Isherwood saying that made us sound like “bliss ninnies” and so it does; too late to change that. I am sad to know that lesbians are abandoning their grand designation”, the classy designation of “Lesbian.” But the worst development is accepting the word “queer.” That’s crazy. The word is ugly, the meaning is ugly. For gay men I have often suggested we call ourselves “Trojans.”
Did you know Gore Vidal? How did you interact with him?
Although people assume I knew Mr. V, I never met him. We “saw” each other twice. In his Paris Review interview years back and in his forward to a book of his essays, he made nasty remarks about me, while having claimed that he never “struck first.” He did, quite often. I wrote him protesting his swipes at me, and he wrote back very nearly apologizing; my agent’s wife does claim that’s the only time he actually did apologize.
When I was much younger, I admired Mr. V., his courage, his essays (brilliant at times); but as I learned more about him—especially his view of hustlers, how he underpaid them, his disdain, his chintziness—my admiration began to wither. His granting all the money from his estate to Harvard—not a cent for legitimate gay causes; e.g., AIDS/cancer research, money to help elder gay men and lesbians. Also, his bullshit about “no homosexuals, only homosexualists, only homosexual acts” was repulsive, his own definition to allow him to continue in the closet, peeking out now and again, then dashing back in—in intellectual camouflage.
Responding to my objection to certain homophobic attitudes in The New York Review of Books, he wrote me that he felt the same and therefore would never again write for that periodical. Of course, he continued to write every month or so. What remains, for me, is this: The superb essays, the prose, the wit. Oh, yes, he was mighty arrogant. When he was living in Los Angeles, he got a friend of mine and his—the wonderful writer Gavin Lambert—to call me to ask whether I would like to come to lunch with them at his home. It was 11:30 A.M. and he was inviting me to lunch! That was insulting. Of course I didn’t go. I have to say that I regret this change in my view of him. I truly admired him, highly, for several decades.
You provided your perspective on Vidal to Tim Teeman for his biography In Bed with Gore Vidal…
I wondered, and said so to Teeman, as did many of Vidal’s friends and peers, what underpinned his desire to remain undefined, as not “gay” per se. I found him “fascinating. For all his bravery and courage, which he had in spades, he never came out. He did not want to be identified as a homosexual. In an incredible way he was trying to define homosexuality in a way to fit him perfectly: a mode of never really coming out or this empty bisexuality, which people doubted. He was [uncomfortable] with overt “homosexuality.”
At the end of About My Life, you recall how, reluctantly, you wrote City of Nights. Why reluctantly?
I never intended to write about the streets and hustling. What happened was that during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, I went somewhat crazy, booze, pills, sex, and more sex, no sleep—and in the madness of Mardi Gras (as if heaven and hell had opened up and sent everyone out screaming into the dirty streets), I saw myself sinking, losing myself; for the first time I doubted that I would ever be a writer. I saw a bleakness ahead. I fled back home to El Paso, my mother’s house in the projects. There I felt lost, terrified really. I wrote a letter to a friend about the experiences in New Orleans.
I didn’t send the letter, I thought I had thrown it away. About a week later I came upon it, and it sounded like a story. I sent it to Evergreen Review and lied by saying it was part of a novel “almost finished.” My great editor Don Allen saw through the lie but championed my work. I only then began to write in sections. Slowly, I thought, yes, it could be a novel. But as I wrote it and even now, I often feel a terrible sadness, as if I had betrayed the queens and the hustlers, and the customers. I had lived among them and now was leaving. I do tell myself that as characters they do continue to live. But I am often haunted by memories of the real people that I wrote about, and wonder where they might be; like Miss Destiny, Chuck the Cowboy, Mr. Klein, who were living on the edge.
Your novel Rushes (1979) profoundly presages the next immediate chapters in the lives of gay men, in some ways on the edge. It mimics NYC’s The Mineshaft and sex venues like it during the Stonewall-to-AIDS years (1969-1981). You had gay men in mind when writing it?
I told the LA Times in 1988 about Rushes: “I just didn’t aim Rushes at the gay community. In a way we were reaching a dead end…And although I had been a champion of sexual liberation, I had seen some of the bludgeoning of it, some of the dangers that were occurring.”
No one can claim to have “foreseen” the invasion of AIDS; no one. But what was happening just before that was the exclusivity of sex, the proliferation of violent sex—yes, the Mineshaft. I think there was occurring a bludgeoning of our senses. Nothing was enough. So-called “fisting” became a sexual act. There were the toilets, the filthy bath tubs, slings, imported garbage, jail cells (how many of us experienced the actual ones), and much more. Intimate sex with one partner was not enough—there had to be three, four, five, more and more. In Rushes, the protagonist looking at the orgy downstairs, thinks that what he sees looks like a huge animal devouring itself.
By the late 70s, early 80s, was every aspect of the 60s counter culture devouring itself? Did putting all our energies into sexual liberation only advance or retard efforts of the larger culture to understand gay men?
I think you state it very well. We had reached a dead-end. Nothing was enough, and because of that we were pushing gay sexuality into a place where it wasn’t sex any more. It had become, often, pain and humiliation. I’m not talking about our rich proclivity for sex, often called “promiscuity.” As long as sex is protected and allows for human contact, that is, feelings, I see no terrible negative.
Was the whole Mineshaft experience an elaborate acting out of Catholic guilt intertwined with internalized homophobia?
I structured Rushes as a Catholic Mass, very carefully. The description of the bar makes it very like a church. The graffiti on the walls correspond to the Stations of the Cross, but rendered as gay pornography. The last station, which is cloudy in Catholic dogma, I turned into a tangle of lines, disintegration. The S&M-er Chas has dialogue that begins with “I believe …”—and then I followed the rhythms of the Credo, but, here, Chas is “believing in the rituals of S&M. When the action descends to the lowest level of, yes, the Mineshaft, there is a mimed crucifixion—and outside there is gay-bashing. To me the connection with the bloodiness of the Mass and the rituals of S&M are related. I know I’ve become controversial because of my views on S&M. I talk about that from experience, from my own participation. I see it now as miming not only religious violence (“As often as you shall do these things in memory of me shall you do them”—it couldn’t be clearer), but ourselves enacting a ritual of self hatred, including both the so-called “master” and the so-called “slave”—and how often the roles are reversed. Handcuffs, chains, those are the real props cops use on us during arrests, and so we play-act at that. I would never suggest those rituals be “banned” or forbidden as rituals of our oppression, I have always suggested only looking into those rituals honestly. Now I’m not talking about role-playing at control or submission or just wearing leather—I’m talking about the heavy rituals of pain and “slavery” and real humiliation.
Look. A few years ago, there was in Los Angeles a “gay slave auction”—with all the trappings, handcuffs, chains, etc. It was raided by L.A. cops. There was this revealing spectacle: Fantasy masters and slaves were handcuffed and carted off to jail by real cops. I’ve been arrested three times, and I can tell you that real handcuffs and jail cells are nothing to play at. Too ugly, too serious.
Where does all the S/M come from? In his movie Sex Positive Richard Berkowitz, himself a former hustler, opines that NYC’s gay sex culture, and other urban centers, had unknowingly absorbed negative tensions about gay sex from the larger culture.
I think that masochism is at the core of the Christian religion, especially since that’s what I was as a kid, in the Catholic Church. The main symbol is, of course, Christ on the Cross, suffering, bleeding, dying. But he is also very sexual—the long loin cloth on the almost-naked body, the striated muscles, the beautiful face. And, look: The contortions might even be seen as sexual, “coming.” Suffering and sexuality, especially when stupidly prohibited, become paired. It’s that suffering (or coming) figure that congregants kneel before. Pretty S & M-y, no? And, I do believe that in the name of religion that more outrages than from anything else have been perpetrated over and over throughout history.
You’ve held, maybe still hold, radical views.When The Sexual Outlaw: A Documentary sold out its first printing you said “public sex is revolution, courageous, righteous, defiant revolution.” Still believe that? Or were your words contextual to the times?
Yes, contextual. AIDS changed that, and then so did the computer. Essentially, I still celebrate the richness of gay sexuality—cruising, making out, all that, but always, always employing safe-sex. It is frightening to read that HIV instances have become dramatically less among heterosexuals, but that among, especially, young gay men, infection has increased dramatically.
I don’t know how that figures with “Internet” meetings for sex. As long as the sex is protected or safe, that would not seem to be a factor in HIV’s proliferation.
To deviate: About “sex on the Internet”— especially porn— it amuses me the number of males who identify as “gay for pay.” I think a more accurate description would be “straight for pay.” And by that I mean pretending to be “straight.” Back in the day [when I was hustling] clients would often demand: “You’re not gay, are you?” A bold affirmative answer might very often cancel any arrangement. That, too, of course, is a form of self-hatred, no?
The theme in your novel Marilyn’s Daughter is that we cannot run away from ourselves. If we remake ourselves, we start with who were are and then move to whom we wish to be. Are you finally where you want to be? At 83, are you finished?
Finished! You mean through? Ended? Over with? Gone to get my reward? If so, no, not at all. I’m finishing my novel, Island! Island!, deep into another one, and planning a third. My mate Michael, a successful Hollywood producer, and I are closer than ever. He’s a miraculous relationship I never sought or expected. It just happened. We live in a beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills. I continue to work out with weights, and although, the word “love” makes me cringe, yes, our wonderful love has endured and grown for, now, for almost 40 years. I sometimes say that instead of committing suicide, I met Michael, and my life changed.
Now, I think a lot about my literary work. I hope that eventually the restrictive labels I’ve been burdened with—Chicano writer, gay writer, Los Angeles writer will become simply “writer.” I am very proud of my work, its wide range, and I want to see it evaluated on its intended level, as literature. And so who am I now? I’m someone who’s lived fully, even when sad, and I am a combination of all I have been. I guess that’s a bit of a “lofty” answer, but truly, I’ve never subscribed to the “finally–discovering-who-I-am” thing–a kind of false epiphany, I think, something that authors are fond of saying they’re after. This is a mangled “paraphrase” from Becket; but I’ll go ahead and mangle it: “I can’t go on, I won’t go on, I must go on.”
Mistakes come in all shapes and sizes. Some, like the one Rem Gunnersen makes when he kidnaps a customer’s dog in a wrongheaded act of revenge, are small—relatively speaking. Others, like the United States’ military involvement in Iraq, are huge; they’re global in scope. Richard House’s novel The Kills is a chronicle of such mistakes and resultant disasters. What we learn quickly enough is that no matter what happens, no matter how enormous or egregious a mistake might be, there is always someone ready to turn what’s happened into an advantage. And all too often that person’s name is Paul Geezler. The Kills is a couple inches thick and it recalls Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Clocking in at over a thousand pages, the novel contains four separate narratives—Sutler, The Massive, The Kill, and The Hit—that really only work when understood as parts of a whole. Each narrative contains its fair share of mistakes, disasters, and deaths: “a multitude of disconnected elements” that never fully cohere. The atmosphere is one of confusion, manipulation, and deceit, feelings we come to experience alongside the characters. “Under this simple fact,” House writes, “lay the itch of another story.” Under each supposed truth is another possibility, which debunks the accepted version of events. This brutal world has been founded on half-truths, false promises, and Geezler’s masterfully organized lies.
The Kills is not a poetic thriller or a political thriller. It’s a business thriller about how America operates abroad. The protagonists are mostly gullible men gunning after money, because money means freedom, because “money would turn around a life that otherwise had no direction but forward and down.” And HOSCO, a corporation contracted by the US government to support the rebuilding of Iraq, is hiring. So what do you do with a mistake the size of Iraq?
Camp Liberty, aka Camp Crapper, is the centripetal location. It’s a possible site for the Massive, a grand project that exists only on paper, and is the current site of five burn pits where waste—every variety imaginable: human, mechanical, biomedical—is incinerated with jet fuel, creating smoke that changes “from black to brown to yellow.” That this smoke is highly toxic is of little concern to HOSCO, even though it ends up poisoning their employees. As readers, we see the larger questions posed by these burn pits roaring with shit, blood, and damaged equipment. How much filth has the war in Iraq produced? What does it cost to dispose of a mistake so huge?
Money drives each narrative. In the opening pages, a man working for HOSCO under the nom de guerre “Stephen Sutler” is promised two hundred thousand dollars if he flees Camp Liberty. In The Massive, Rem Gunnersen is offered a bonus of fifty thousand if he hustles off to Iraq. Behind the money is Paul Geezler, HOSCO’s Advisor to the Division Chief in Europe—a title that is a euphemism for “villain.” Later on, once the promised money has vanished in clouds of yellow smoke, we follow the many threads of Operation Lazarus, a transnational mission designed to find the real “Stephen Sutler.” It’s an epistemological quest in a world where there is ultimately “only unknowing.”
The weight of influence is heavy here. The sections cribbed right from Bolaño—such as the death catalogue that opens The Massive or the Mannfuktionprojekt in The Hit—are pale facsimiles because House doesn’t write with Bolaño’s dark poetic flair. The third narrative The Kill, which is a Bolaño-inspired intertextual study about a novel also called The Kill, becomes increasingly erratic and then collapses about two-thirds of the way through. When House’s narratives stray too far from action and the violent intrigue of money, the stories wither. This is true of the domestic scenes especially. In The Massive, while Rem Gunnersen is off in Iraq dealing with the burn pits, his wife Cathy is back at home. She’s worried and pregnant. But we never truly become invested in her struggles, which if anything are worse than her husband’s.
House writes in a fluid, straightforward manner. He’s able to fit great deals of information into his paragraphs, which is necessary given the complexities of these narratives. But there’s a consistent lack of linguistic excitement. His dialogue rarely snaps—albeit for the line when an operative is killed by a train and someone wonders if he “[a]sked a Russian for directions.” When describing upheaval or its aftermath, House is skilled at conveying both bafflement and urgency, particularly as they’re understood by the Western bureaucrats who are theoretically responsible for Iraq. The novel’s primary failing is that House writes in this strictly straightforward style for all 1,003 pages.
Undeniably, The Kills is an ambitious project. For this alone it deserves it deserves our respect. But delving deeper into the novel, dullness overtakes any possible interest we may have in the action or characters thanks to the reams of blunt exposition. Too many paragraphs begin with topic sentences—such as: “Rike receives a call from Isa as she returns to the apartment.”—after which House provides additional expository details. We’re constantly told what characters are doing (i.e. “He looked … / She heard …”), instead of getting caught up in the moment of experience with them. We never occupy the characters’ hearts or minds. No matter where we are or who we’re following, the lives of the characters feel synthetic and contrived, which is unfortunate given the scope of House’s ambitions.
By Richard House
Hardcover,9781250052438, 1024 pp.
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It was with a bit of trepidation that I waded into Gregg Shapiro’s slim new volume, Lincoln Avenue: Chicago Stories (Squares & Rebels). It wasn’t the book’s quality that gave me pause, but its specificity—Chicago is a city that I’ve never visited and don’t know very much about. Luckily, while Shapiro’s wry and entertaining tales are deeply rooted in his hometown, they explore a geography that will be instantly recognizable to many of their readers: the inner life of young gay men growing up in the not-so-distant pre-Internet age.
Most of the stories are distinctly set in the Windy City during the 1970s and 1980s and nearly universally revolve around a gay male narrator or protagonist. And while these tales do offer an interesting contrast to the world of today—where former owners of defunct gay bars are blaming their decline on the prevalence of hook-up apps—the rush of young love, the thrill of the chase, and the illicitness of a secret romance will be recognizable to members of every generation.
Lincoln Avenue is a quick read, partly because the stories are short, but also because they’re fun and engrossing. Each installment expounds on a different facet of young gay life. “Threes” portrays badinage in the form of a phone call between two friends, in which one believes he’s acquired psychic powers that have caused him to summon his high school crush and ex-boyfriend within 24 hours; “Marilyn, My Mother, Myself” tells of a mother who’s coping with her son’s homosexuality by sending him every piece of Marilyn Monroe paraphernalia she can get her hands on; and the book’s eponymous story is an erotically charged tale of young love dotted with sex in parks and romantic kidnappings to run-down motels.
A few of the stories, however, leave you wanting more, in not necessarily a good way—they seem to end right when things are getting good. And there’s only one story that does not fit the mold of young gay life: an unflinching and explicit chronicle of the narrator’s young upstairs neighbor, Lily’s, brutal physical abuse at the hands of her parents. It’s certainly an interesting and worthwhile piece on its own, but in the context of the rest of the stories it’s distractingly out of place and makes them seem almost frivolous by comparison.
Overall, though, Shapiro has crafted a lively collection of stories that are fun, nostalgic, and sexy—sometimes all at the same time. And while Chicago natives will surely enjoy an added layer of meaning, the fact that readers of all ages and backgrounds can relate to something in these tales and chuckle at them with knowingness is a true testament to the author’s talent as a storyteller.
Lincoln Avenue: Chicago Stories
By Gregg Shapiro
Squares & Rebels
Paperback,9780979881695, 100 pp.
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