Literary Hub

Encountering the Celebrity Male Gaze

I vividly remember hearing Khadijah Queen read at a packed bar in Seattle a few years ago. There was no microphone and Khadijah read very quietly; everyone in the room was straining to hear, hanging on her every word. When people laughed—what she read was often quite funny—they allowed themselves only a sharp, abbreviated laugh, in order to not miss anything; Khadijah wasn’t performing that staple of public-speaking etiquette by which the speaker pauses to encourage her audience’s protracted bouts of laughter. Never before in my history of attending readings had I witnessed a group of people so quickly and so fully become putty in the hands of a reader. The experience was spellbinding, goosebump-inducing, and unforgettable.

Not long after hearing her read, I emailed Khadijah—a poet whose second book, Black Peculiar, my wife and I had previously published through Noemi Press—and I asked her about these vignettes she had read at the bar. She shared with me a digital chapbook, published by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2013, called I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On, a collection of 16 prose pieces describing the narrator’s encounters with the male gaze, as directed toward her by Cuba Gooding, Jr., Dave Chapelle, Edward Norton, Andre 3000, Samuel L. Jackson, and other famous men. The version of I’m So Fine released last month by YesYes Books expands on this list of gazy male celebrities to include Prince, Bill Cosby, Ochocinco, Donald Trump, and many others.

Khadijah and I recently exchanged a series of emails about her new book.

Evan Lavender-Smith: I’m So Fine includes descriptions of your encounters with a great number of famous men, many of whom are, to various degrees, behaving badly. When we read about Dave Chapelle or Chris Rock ogling you, for example, we judge these men harshly, as we should; but the book also kind of develops a “behind-the-scenes” look at celebrity—we get to watch famous actors and musicians and athletes without the pressure of the camera on them—and there’s something appealing about that, at least there is for me, someone who’s entirely fascinated by celebrity culture. To what extent is the book critical of celebrity? To what extent is it obsessed with celebrity?

Khadijah Queen: I think people love artists and love to connect with them through their art, but as fans, they have a measure of control over that connection, either by turning the television on or off, buying a ticket to a show, purchasing a print, or listening to music. It’s a relationship that is mostly linked to enjoyment—humor, appreciation, entertainment—and deep emotion. The minutiae of daily life is edited out or glossed over, and in following the glamorous lives of celebrities we can be distracted from our own troubles or boredom.

I think in some ways that sense of control and marketed lack of difficulty (or controlled difficulty?) has made celebrity culture appealing as an escape or an illusion. It has also made many of us strive for perfect outer appearances even more, when underneath we are all just a messy sack of bones and flesh and feelings. Maybe the book is obsessed with the ways celebrity culture amplifies the most dramatic aspects of human lives, and critical of the way we perceive celebrity status as aspirational.

And rather than a behind-the-scenes look at celebrity, it is a straightforward portrait of what it’s like for a woman to move in the world, especially one without the privileges money confers. The celebrity part works as a frame, as the surface appeal (or lure, maybe!) leading the reader to the stories/struggles of a regular person. And, in addition, it shows that celebrities aren’t immune to conditioned/common behaviors . . . like ogling. But they can be cool, too, open to connecting on a positive and human level despite the mistrust or caution their lives must often instill. I think, also, they have that caution in common with women who’ve been constantly subjected to street harassment and sexual assault. As well, though—returning to my first point about control—celebrities seem to have more of that than women do in terms of interactions. The book presents that contrast.

ELS: That’s right, the celebrities in I’m So Fine do seem to have a lot of power—but there’s also a way in which, through the writing of this book, you’re taking at least a small part of that power back from them: these men become objects for the poet to locate in relation to her lived experience, her desire, even her suffering. Another contrast that appealed to me while reading was that between my laughter and my discomfort. There are so many funny moments in this book (Danny Glover chastising your sisters for drinking in the street, or your mother being disappointed that you didn’t give Samuel L. Jackson a copy of your book Black Peculiar), but there are also many harrowing moments (the description of what became of the underage girl who had sex with David Bowie, or the fear and doubt that the proximity of Ochocinco instills in the speaker). Was it a challenge moving back and forth between levity and gravity? Can you talk a little about the emotional range of the book?

KQ: It felt very natural, actually, the simultaneous humor and seriousness. Being a woman, especially a Black woman, means you have to survive in a society that kind of hates you—I mean, look at who America has “elected,” both in Congress and in the White House. Look at domestic violence statistics, look at the histories of recent mass killers and the common thread among them of past violence against women. It’s very easy to see. It would be a natural response to want to withdraw and close yourself off from a violent world. And yet, you’re a vital part of the world, too. We (women, femme-presenting individuals) can laugh about the absurdity of what we go through because it is absurd, and further, so we can go through it and stay sane. We’re also sick of it and want our fellow humans to evolve— to educate themselves out of misogyny, misogynoir, sexism, racism, ableism, classism, homophobia, etc.—outdated ideas and beliefs that have caused so much disconnection, and damage to us all.

But back to the laughter as survival mechanism, and emotional range. What I also hope comes across is the power of the human imagination, the power of the body and mind to heal under impossible circumstances, and to learn to exist in as healthy a way as possible in very dysfunctional and often dangerous situations. And that means clear sight outward and inward; I feel that humor is a huge part of integrating those two necessaries (i.e., feeling one’s feelings and recognizing both internal and external causes). Laughter is an intermediary and a window. It helps you see what’s beyond pain. I grew up with and associate with powerful women who take the L, who cry when they need to, who laugh at fools and ourselves, who advocate for one another, who stand up when ready and keep it moving. We got shit to do.

ELS: Can you talk a little bit about how this book came to be? A portion of it was originally published as a chapbook a few years back. Was it a matter of expanding on the work you did in the chapbook, or was the chapbook an excerpt from an already completed longer book?

KQ: It started as kind of a happy accident. I began to write them in the summer of 2013, during The Grind (a writing accountability group, where you sign up with others to write something every day for a month). The first was a Letterman-esque top ten list of celebrities I met while living in Los Angeles, and what I was wearing when I met them. I didn’t even consider it a project, but it was fun to write, and a lot of people wrote to say they loved them—and people don’t generally comment on each other’s work during The Grind, since we all know they’re drafts. With that encouragement, I wrote more. The more I wrote, the more I remembered, then I began to share them at public readings. In Denver in late summer 2013, Erin Costello of Springgun asked about publishing them as a chapbook, but I didn’t have enough yet or take it seriously as a project. When I read them in Atlanta in October 2013, Megan Volpert from Sibling Rivalry Press was in the audience. She offered to publish them as a digital chapbook on the spot. At that point, I still only had about 20 poems (I initially thought of them as prose poems). In no way was a book an idea before that! They were just for fun.

ELS: I remember hearing you read some of them a few years ago and I was totally blown away. Reading them now, in book form, it does seem that the intensely demotic or colloquial register of language is well suited to—and maybe influenced by?—orality and performance. There’s the lack of punctuation, the vignette-like sectioning/chaptering, the monologic condition of narrative . . . I know you’ve done writing for the stage, as well. Are these poems/narratives related to that impulse, do you think?

KQ: I think there’s no denying its relationship to orality and performance, especially since I listened to a lot of music from the era as I wrote. I did try several different structural containers, adding punctuation and line breaks, but that did something to the flow that I didn’t like; it didn’t feel as natural. The speed of unpunctuated text creates a contrast that amplifies the humor alongside the difficult subject matter, which then creates a kind of tension that I think works well both on the page and off. I’ve definitely toyed with the idea of adapting it for the stage.

ELS: You’ve written a couple books of poetry, a hybrid-genre work, a verse play, and now, in I’m So Fine, a collection of narrative writing. Is this wide-ranging formal exploration a matter of feeling restless with respect to genre and convention? Is pushing yourself to do something entirely new from book to book an important part of your process? Or is it just something that seems to happen?

KQ: I definitely like to push myself to try new things genre-wise, out of both restlessness and curiosity. I love having a sense of discovery in my writing process—it can be frustrating at times, yet it’s also exhilarating. But mostly, I aim to find the right container for the work itself, letting the content dictate the form. I usually will attempt multiple different kinds of structures for what I write before I settle on one in which the work feels like it belongs. For I’m So Fine, line breaks mostly seemed not to do anything to propel the narrative or heighten the language, and the lines needed to run freely on the page without too much grammatical or poetic interruption. So I made room for the sentences, as embodied by the voice in that work, to do what they wanted to do in their respective blocks on the page. Almost like little mono-stanzaic memory banks.

ELS: What’s next for you? Are you working on something new?

KQ: Like any self-respecting Gemini, I’m working on multiple books in multiple genres, some at a quicker pace than others. I’m in the generative part of the writing process, though there are loose structures and alliances forming. I’m also teaching, and working with a Holocaust survivor on editing her memoir. And I’m taking a life drawing class, which I love. I don’t yet know which project will get to the finish line first or how (a play? essays? traditional poems? a story? all of the above, probably??) so I won’t give details, but it feels really good to keep making things, to see how they evolve and help me to evolve. It still excites me to begin at the blank page, and it’s joyous to finish after the tough work of getting the words down, of puzzling them into something to call complete.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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