Features interview

Author, playwright and MacArthur “genius grant” winner,

Han Ong

Heroic Recall:
an Ong’s newest novel, The Disinherited, is a 2004 Lambda Literary Award finalist in the Gay Men’s fiction category. His first novel, Fixer Chao, was a scathing satire about a con artist who infiltrates New York society. Ong was awarded a MacArthur grant in 1997 for playwrighting; he was one of the youngest ever awardees. Currently, Ong is resident playwright for 2005 at Ma-Yi Theater Company; Ma-Yi has produced Ong’s plays Middle Finger (in 2000) and Watcher (in 2001). Check out www.ma-yitheatre.org for more information.

intersects with

Han Ong’s Homecoming

Tom Cardamone

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guess I meant that neither novel is the typical “coming out” story, or even focused on homosexuality. And though sexuality seems both uniquely peripheral and integral to The Disinherited, it’s not strictly a gay novel. Am I right here? HO: Absolutely. TC: So do you think gay fiction in general isn’t meeting some needs of the reader—maybe it’s not broad enough? HO: Honestly, I don’t have any criticism about gay fiction, negative or positive. I like the salacious and the serious in equal measure. Coming out stories are not my cup of tea because in life, as in art, I’m not attracted to ingénues.

Tom Cardamone: Both of your books [Fixer Chao and The Disinherited] have this economic span, people from one end of the spectrum looking at people from the other, but neither book is polemic. Why does this interest you, and drive your fiction? TC: I heard an NPR interview about Fixer Chao where you disHan Ong: I guess a writer is a fluid creature. He is working class, cussed hanging out with hustlers while growing up in Los sometimes below that, but he might be taken up by the wealthy Angeles—Fixer’s protagonist is a former hustler. One of the cenor find himself invited to their homes. Or he is invited to speak tral characters in The Disinherited is a boy prostitute. There are at events, and who should be the funders and underwriters of issues of survival here, but also life-defining choices, or a lack thereof. What’s your main such things but the upper class, for whom “Coming out stories are not my cup of tea because in life, interest in choosing to tell their stories? book-reading (like as in art, I’m not attracted to ingénues.” HO: I was raised a opera-going) is a marker of distinction, of a certain refinement (read: money)? A writer Catholic. And the main legacy of a Catholic upbringing is the censtraddles both up and down. And it seemed natural that I should trality of sex. Sex is THE FORBIDDEN. I believe that if you make something forbidden to a child, it will forever be a tenant in his want to include or, at the very least, broach that in my writing. or her imagination. But also, prostitution is at the intersection of TC: I described your books to a friend as “gay-but-not-gay.” I all the things I’m interested in: besides sex, there is money, class,
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Han Ong photo credit © Jeffrey W. Chiedo

Features interview
power. Also, again, prostitution, like writing, exposes somebody from one class to a class he or she might otherwise not have been exposed to. It’s a perfect vessel in which to embed a dialogue about the up world and the down world. But I also find prostitution—in my typically perverse, lapsed-Catholic way—heroic. I think these people are incredibly brave. Incredibly scary and incredibly brave. TC: In The Disinherited you capture a very stark, an almost magical-realist view of the Philippines, and family as well. Was there a “homecoming” involved in the book, a physical return? Or do you go back to the Philippines often, never? I guess I’m interested in what “back” or “return” means to you, and in the context of this novel in particular. HO: I haven’t gone back to the Philippines since coming here in 1984, at the age of 16. So, for me, writing the book was my version of a “homecoming”—part heroic (even if I do say so myself) recall and part interviewing and hanging out with friends who’ve gone back is how I got the details. TC: When I first heard about The Disinherited I immediately thought of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I’d like to know what your literary influences for this book, or really, for life in general, are. What are you reading now? HO: I’ve never read Mr. Vonnegut, I’m afraid. I was thinking more along the lines of Under the Volcano—a straight white (sort-of) man who goes to the Third World and has a kind of nervous breakdown. My favorite book of last year was Little Children by Tom Perotta. I’m currently reading Tama Janowitz’s latest novel, Peyton Amberg. She’s a fantastic writer, even if the book is spoiled by Ms. Janowitz being determinedly downbeat. I like writers like Tama Janowitz; that is to say, writers who have been passed by, or undervalued, because the culture has had their way with them and no longer has any use for them. I think the culture, as a whole, is largely stupid—even the highbrow culture—so if they pass something by, there must be tremendous value in it. TC: There are references to film in both books, more strongly in The Disinherited, and movie metaphors crop up throughout. I’ve thought of film as a pretty undocumented influence on writing for awhile now; for good or ill, I think both popular and more experimental authors are taking more and more of their cues from film. I read your piece in the 27th Asian American Film Festival Program. If I recall correctly, you’re something of a cinephile. I’d like to know your thoughts on cinema as a literary influence. HO: I’m not sure about literary influence, but I just love the movies. And I think part of writing is to include the things that you love in your work, right? Also, literary influences: Pauline Kael, the great film critic. My favorite film director is the Japanese great Yasujiro Ozu—though Tokyo Story, supposedly his “best” work, is far from my favorite. Like I said, most critics are dunderheads. TOM CARDAMONE, 35, lives in New York City, harbors a skullfull
of novels and recently launched his web site, www.pumpkinteeth.net.

Guide to Divestment

Reviewed by Tom Cardamone

The Disinherited
By Han Ong Farrar, Straus and Giroux ISBN 0-374-28075-4 HB, $25.00, 369 pp.

he Disinherited opens with a long, humid funeral procession. The rest of the book slowly reverses course but not tone; as the patriarch of a Filipino family diminished in wealth and stature is laid to rest, much of the family’s callowness, their incestuous social cannibalism, is unearthed. And these aren’t pretty bones. This book, the smarter cousin to Han Ong’s first novel, the choice satire Fixer Chao, is a novel of premature penance. Fixer Chao was enjoyable primarily for its evisceration of Manhattan A-listers, but where his first book skewered, the second excavates. With The Disinherited Han Ong thankfully bypasses typical second novel pratfalls by simply going wider and deeper, applying a strong sense of syntax and psychological wit toward a nuevo-Gothic tale, replete with a mother enshrined in a madhouse, giving us a Filipino Addams Family that eschews snapping for class-conscious chinos. Seriously; this is one scary family. Roger Caracera, the youngest child-rebel son, crushed by the soulnumbing conformity demanded from his family, has escaped to a listless life in America. Now in his forties, he is recalled to bury his father. The character of Roger is fully realized, warts and all. In fact, special attention is paid to the warts—escape doesn’t mean ascension. A failed writer-turned-writing instructor, he’s pretty much a mildly reformed (read: tired) hedonist who favors telling an easy lie over the complicated truth; horrified by the taint of a surprise inheritance that’s meant to rekindle his link to the family, he does everything he can to quickly pull off this monetary shroud before it settles to recast him in the likeness of his despised father. He wants to get rid of the money fast, much to the horror of his conniving and suspicious family, by distributing it among workers associated with the family’s sugar plantations. Sugar, an all too fitting saccharine metaphor; all that is white is sweet and nourishing –the book’s meditations on colonialism and race are apt and broad. The author is not pointing fingers but performing autopsies, meaning no one is safe; there is no easy divide between criminal culture and native victim. Australian pedophiles are treated to the same knife as the Filipino culture that readily cashes their American Express traveler’s checks. Much of the book’s success lies in the problematic situations that arise with this attempted redistribution of wealth. Roger flounders with the money. Possible recipients balk. Eventually, he splits his time championing a begrudged, fledging tennis star while attempting to reform Blueboy, a child prostitute. Personally, I’m ready for authors working within the genre(s) of gay fiction to retire hustlers

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as a stock character, but fortunately this is not the problem it could have been in The Disinherited. In Ong’s first novel, Fixer Chao, the protagonist is a hustler whose “hustle” graduates, hilariously, from turning tricks in Port Authority bathrooms to scamming the chic with faux-feng shui chicanery. Roger Caracera wants to remunerate Blueboy, past paramour to his dead uncle, the former bastion of the family shame (until Roger came along, that is). Han Ong wisely invests Blueboy with a serious amount of adolescent histrionics, exacerbated here to the highest pitch due his sexual past. Gay literature often shows sex workers as left cold, numb from their experiences—a bland “physically available to all, emotionally available to none” theme has been worked to death, equaling a big yawn for all. But Blueboy is volcanic. He is in it for love, and love is as big as America. Love is just across the ocean. A big, buff Christopher Reeves-Superman-type—or maybe Clark Gable—just needs to fly over and swoop him up. This is how Blueboy initially sees Roger Caracera, as a Clark Gable look-alike who will totally and utterly Give-A-Damn. The only problem is his savior is straight and more than a bit appalled by his diminutive suitor. The Disinherited is a well-crafted, unique novel; all conventions are pushed aside to allow the reader a walk down real-world streets and interior alleyways normally forgotten or ignored. And the very title promises a story of divestment, but can someone successfully shed their origins, assuage a most ephemeral guilt? A harsh question, one answered by a very honest book. TOM CARDAMONE, 35, lives in New York City, harbors a skullfull
of novels and recently launched his web site, www.pumpkinteeth.net.

Revelations and Revolutions: Queer Filipino Literature
By Patricia Justine Tumang ueer Filipino writers, once an anomaly in the publishing industry in the United States, have recently been getting noticed. Published last year, Han Ong’s new novel, The Disinherited, has been receiving excellent reviews and is nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. Rick Barot, author of the poetry book The Darker Fall (2002) and recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant, received the Katherine A. Morton Prize. Noël Alumit’s masterfully written debut, Letters to Montgomery Clift, received an American Library Association Stonewall Award for Literature and a Global Filipino Literary Award for Fiction in 2003. Joël Barraquiel Tan won the Spoon River Poetry Review’s Editors’ Prize for his poem “Manila Zoo,” from his forthcoming poetry book Type O Negative. Despite recent attention, we’ve been around for some time. For

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over two decades, queer Filipino writers living in the United States have written about issues that impact our communities: HIV/AIDS, immigration, family, relationships, visibility, sexual revelry, colonization and the comBino Realuyo plexities of language. The late 1980s was a period when queer Filipino writers burst into the LGBT literary scene, most notably with Chea Villanueva. Villanueva’s first novel Girlfriends (1987) and its sequel The China Girls (1991) captured the erotic essence of street-smart, savvy butches and racially diverse lesbian relationships. Unfortunately the novels, like Villanueva’s poetry book The things I never told you: love poems (1987), are out of print. Villanueva’s later books, Jessie’s Song and Other Stories and Bulletproof Butches, continue to break boundaries and address the glamour and grittiness of working-class lesbian life. Villanueva’s honest and gutsy prose offers a compelling glimpse of Filipina butch identity and expression. The Philippine diaspora spans far and wide. Toronto-based writer Nice Rodriguez’s short story collection Throw it to the River (1994) is an uncompromising series of vignettes that explores Filipina lesbian life in Canada and the Philippines. Written with a keen eye for language, Rodriguez’s prose sparkles with rich imagination and storytelling. R. Zamora Linmark, who was born in Manila, educated in Hawaii and now lives in California, locates his novel Rolling the R’s (1997) in Kalihi, Hawaii. Inspired by pop icons like Farrah Fawcett and Scott Baio, Rolling the R’s is a raunchy exposition that blends camp, pidgin language and gay sexuality into an amiable and fun-loving mix of Filipino Catholic superstition and rebellious gay youth. Whether set in Philippines, the United States or elsewhere, one key aspect in many queer Filipino writers’ work is the centrality of a queer character. In Bino Realuyo’s novel The Umbrella Country (1999), 11-year-old protagonist Gringo learns to navigate his troubled childhood on the streets of 1970s Manila. He is protective of his older brother Pipo, who likes to cross-dress and stage “Miss Unibers” beauty contests. Writing Filipino gay characters is important to Realuyo. He says, “Literature is an act of political activism for me. I want readers to see the complexity of gay life beyond onedimensional portrayals. My next book, The F.L.I.P. Show, is teeming with gay characters, all Filipino-Americans.” Noël Alumit’s novel Letters to Montgomery Clift (2002) also explores Filipino gay sexuality in childhood. Writing letters to his idol, screen legend Montgomery Clift, Bong Bong Luwad recounts life in America, where he was sent by his parents to escape the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. Gay sexual discovery is a provocative subject that many queer Filipino writers embrace. Joël Barraquiel Tan and Ricardo Ramos have a reputation for writing about titillating sexual experiences. Tan, editor of Queer P.A.P.I. Porn (1998) and Best Gay Asian Erotica (2004) and author of Monster (2002), revels in all the complexities of gay sexuality: locker room jaunts, hop-hop porn and subversive desire. Ramos’ novel Flipping (1998) is an action-packed sexJune • July 2005

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ual journey that investigates how three gay Filipino men come to terms with their sexualities. Touted for its raw and explicit sexual escapades, Flipping controversially questions how desire is racialized and exoticized. Two poets that eloquently weave complex narratives around issues of language and metaphor are Rick Barot and Maiana Minahal. Rick Barot’s poetry book The Darker Fall strikes an even balance between clarity and the sublime. [For more information on Barot, see LBR November/December.—ed.] Barot’s provocative prose reveals how language captures moments from different times and landscapes. Minahal’s Sitting Inside Wonder is haunting and imaginative. Writing about love, desire and colonization from a queer Filipina perspective, Minahal’s verse evokes myth, tradition and transcendence. Many are familiar with Han Ong’s work. Ong, a high school dropout, was the first Filipino-American and one of the youngest recipients of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award at the age of 29, before he wrote his first novel Fixer Chao. Fixer Chao documents gay Filipino hustler William Paulinha’s transformation into feng shui expert Master Chao. His latest novel The Disinherited is set in the Philippines, where Roger Caracera returns after inheriting a fortune from his father and $60,000 from a gay uncle who is ostracized from the family. What people may not know is that before Ong turned to novels, he was an acclaimed playwright, the author of more than three dozen plays. Like Ong, other queer Filipino writers have used the stage as a vehicle to express themselves. Filipino gay playwright Ralph B. Peña has staged numerous plays with the Ma-Yi Theatre Company in New York City, of which he is a founding member and artistic director. One of his well-known plays, Flipzoids, deals with the harsh coming Regiespective, Onomatopoeia and a quarter life crisis and Faith Hope & Regie, have toured the United States. His poetry has appeared in over thirty anthologies and he is the coeditor of Poetry Nation: A North American Anthology of Fusion Poetry (1998). His exploits on gay Filipino culture Sabrina Margarita Alcantara-Tan are humorous and explicit. One group of queer Filipina writers and performers to watch out for is the San Francisco-based artists collective Kreatibo. Founded in 2003, Kreatibo documents the underrepresented experiences of queer Filipinas onstage. Using artistic forums as a means of cultural activism, Kreatibo uses pop culture and traditional Philippine artistic forms as a framework for delving into intimate and social issues that

Whether set in Philippines, the United States or elsewhere, one key aspect in many queer Filipino writers’ work is the centrality of a queer character.
plexities of Philippine immigrant life in the United States. Dead Man’s Socks captures the idiosyncrasies and obsessions of four gay men living in New York City. Alison de la Cruz, a Los Angeles-based mixed-race queer Filipina performer, has performed her one-woman show Sungka to sold-out audiences in the West Coast. Gigi Otalvaro-Hormillosa, a mixed-race Filipina Colombian queer feminist activist and performance artist, uses interdisciplinary performance to speak about issues of race, sexuality and the body. Her performance video “Inverted Minstrel” incorporates sound and imagery to address the politics of hip-hop in communities of color. Rich Kiamco’s one-man show Unaccessorized is an autobiographical frolic that follows a queer Filipino man’s journey from Illinois to the fashion mecca of New York City. Dan Bacalzo, the director for Unaccessorized, is also a performer. His two one-man shows, Sort of Where I’m Coming From and I’m Sorry, I Don’t Speak the Language explore themes of gay Filipino identity, religion and family. Poetry slam champion, activist and stand-up comic Regie Cabico has appeared in HBO’s Def Jam Poetry and his solo shows, includJune • July 2005

affect lesbian, bisexual and transgender Filipina women. Their first showcase Halo Halo: A Queer Pinay Revue investigated issues of gender, sexuality and Filipino identity. Dalagos & Tomboys: A Family Affair, Kreatibo’s most recent showcse, premiered at Bindlestiff Studio in April 2005 to sold-out audiences. Lolan Buhain Sevilla, a member of Kreatibo, will be self-publishing her poetry book Translating New Brown this year. On deciding to self-publish, Sevilla remarks, “Because there isn’t a particular niche for it, I’ve never been masochistic enough to send my writing to different publishers. Self-publishing feels incredibly empowering. It’s been more of a community project rather than a corporate one.” Self-publishing has become a new avenue for queer Filipino writers. Joël Barraquiel Tan, who self-published his poetry book Monster (2002), calls self-publishing “the new small press.” Others have followed suit. Los Angeles-based queer Filipina poet Irene Suico Soriano self-published her poetry collection Safehouses, through the AISEREMA/Disorient Journalsine’s chapbook series. Zine-making is another creative method to publish writing. Sabrina Margarita Alcantara-Tan is the editor of Bamboo Girl Zine, an independent print publication that “challenges racism, sexism,
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and homophobia from the Filipina/Asian Pacific Islander/Asian mutt feminist point of view since 1995.” Alcantara-Tan self-finances this endeavor, which has a print run of 2,000-3,000 annually. She recalls, “I started writing Bamboo Girl Zine because the work that was being published was usually by white queer feminists and women of color publications catered mainly to African-American perspectives. With Bamboo Girl Zine, I validated my own existence as a mixed race queer Filipina.” Alcantara-Tan believes in the power of community. Community donations raised by her annual Bamboo Girl Zine fundraiser support the zine’s livelihood and make the process more collaborative. Throughout the publishing history of queer Filipino literature, one remarkable thread that weaves these writers together is community. In the 1980s and 1990s Asian and Pacific Islander lesbian and bisexual women, including Filipina lesbian activist Trinity A. Ordona and writer Nice Rodriguez, found that anthologies were a way to create community and establish visibility, when white feminists dominated the feminist movement and many lesbian of color coalitions and publications focused on writings within the black/white paradigm. Although significantly important, anthologized writings receive only limited visibility nowadays. [See Filipino book list for titles, p. 14.—ed.] Other events in the past two decades helped push queer Filipino writing to the forefront. Nominated for a National Book Award, the release of Jessica Hagedorn’s novel Dogeaters (1990) marked the growing popularity of Filipino-American literature. Dogeaters features a mixed-race black Filipino gay hustler named Joey Sands who dreams of a better life outside of Manila’s slums and gay disco scene. As one of the first Filipina-American writers whose work featured a gay character, Hagedorn opened a door for queer Filipino writers to publish their work and gain legitimacy in mainstream literary audiences. The advent of HIV/AIDS in Asian and Pacific Islander communities in the 1980s gave birth to new queer Filipino writing. A few gay Filipino writers—like Joël Barraquiel Tan and Noël Alumit—were AIDS activists before they became writers. Another AIDS activist, gay Filipino writer and scholar Martin F. Manalansan IV is the author of Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora (2004), an ethnographic odyssey into a Filipino gay men’s community in New York City. The book offers an enormous contribution to queer and Asian American studies and anthropology and joins the voices of other popular queer Filipino scholars such as Karin San Juan Aguilar and Trinity A. Ordona. As queer Filipino writing flourished in the United States, a breakthrough in LGBT writing was occurring in the Philippines. With the support of alternative gay-friendly publishers such as Anvil Publishing, the publishing division of the National Book Store chain, LGBT literature in the Philippines prospered in the 1990s. Danton Remoto and J. Neil C. Garcia are popular gay Filipino authors who have written extensively in English and Tagalog. Other popular LGBT writers in the Philippines include Nicholas Pichay, Margarita Go-Singco Holmes and Tony Perez. LGBT anthologies that were published during this time include: Philippine gay series Ladlad (1994) and Ladlad 2 (1996); Aida Santos and Giney Villar’s lesbian anthology Woman to Woman; and Ana Leah Sarabia’s anthology Tibok: Heartbeat of the Filipino Lesbian (1993).
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Queer Filipino literature in the United States emerged at the intersections of significant social movements in history: the height of HIV/AIDS activism, women of color organizing in the feminist movement, the queer Asian and Pacific Islander activist movement, growing LGBT activism in the Philippines, the U.S. LGBT movement and the incorporation of LGBT publishing and FilipinoAmerican literature. Its roots are deeply saturated in this collision of ideologies, marketing trends and community coalitions. Queer Filipino literature will continue to make a distinct and powerful mark on the publishing industry. PATRICIA JUSTINE TUMANG is a Filipina-American lesbian
writer and activist whose nonfiction work is featured in the anthology Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism (Seal Press, 2002) and in Waking Up American: First-Generation Women on Cultural Identity (Seal Press, forthcoming 2005). A member of Kreatibo, she resides in Oakland, Calif. with her partner, where she is earning her MFA in creative writing from Mills College.

Meditations on a Lost Language: Maiana Minahal’s poetry By Patricia Justine Tumang

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fter immigrating from Cagayan de Oro, Philippines to the United States when she was 6 years old, Maiana Minahal spent most of her adult life trying to remember her first language, Visayan. Poetry became her vehicle to express this desire for language. “When I wrote poetry, I came to see how I was choosing to write in English. Becoming a poet meant investigating my relationship to language. Writing poems pushed me to think about my identity as an immigrant in this alienating country,” Minahal says. Her poetry collection Sitting Inside Wonder (2003) investigates her struggle with language and the traumatic impact of immigration. Minahal calls the Maiana Minahal collection her “coming out book,” because she explores her identity as a queer Filipina poet. It is a work that documents a vivid landscape: the mapping of the American Dream and how desire for love, community and language introduce possibilities for re-envisioning and reconstructing a fragile past. Minahal was born in 1968 during the Year of the Monkey according to Chinese astrology. Monkey years have historically been associated with tenuous upheaval, transformation and revolution. Being uprooted is nothing new to Minahal. When her family immigrated to the United States during wintertime in 1974, she says, “We moved a lot and became really transient.” From New Jersey, Minahal’s family relocated to Pennsylvania and then Burbank, Calif., finally settling in Torrance, Calif. She recalls, “The experience of always moving, not
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being rooted in one place after knowing what it was like to live in a place where I belonged to, then immigrate to a country where I distinctly felt like an outsider, was a traumatic experience.” The thought of not returning home haunted Minahal for many years. The greatest impact of this loss was Minahal’s inability to speak Visayan as an adult. “One teacher suggested that my parents stop speaking Visayan at home,” she says, “and they stopped speaking to us. I only realize now how much it impacts me. English was a foreign language but I became good at it.” Poetry gave her a space to reflect on silence and heal from the pain of losing a language. Minahal’s introduction to poetry was incidental. Although encouraged by her parents to pursue a career in medicine, when Minahal left her family’s home in Los Angeles to attend the University of California at Berkeley, she decided to try something different. She took a class with June Jordan’s Poetry for the People. Minahal was moved by Jordan’s passion for the literary traditions of writers of color. Minahal recalls, “The poetry we read in class was really different from any other kind of poetry I’ve read before. It was a huge revelation that there were people of color of all ages who write poetry. I started feeling connected to other people’s experiences in the world. This was when I began to take poetry seriously.” Although she considers herself a lyric poet by nature, Minahal became interested in haiku. She says, “Haiku doesn’t try to solve anything; it becomes something more profound.” Performance and collaboration were other avenues for Minahal to investigate issues of language and possibilities of decolonization. She says, “How we internalize hundreds of years of colonization is very personal. Creating art through performance opens up decolonizing possibilities for people and is a continuous source of inspiration for me.” As a member of Kreatibo, a queer Pinay artist collective based in the San Francisco area, Minahal uses performance to deconstruct language and queer Filipina history. For her poem “Worship Singkil,” Minahal created an audio-visual score based on video footage of the Bayanihan Dance Company’s performance of Singkil, an indigenous dance that enacts the courtship and wedding between a Filipino Muslim man and woman. “Because there’s so much history and ritual in Singkil, it really appeals to me,” she says. “Knowing that the dance is an indigenous Philippine dance that represents something preSpanish and pre-United States colonization, it symbolizes the wholeness of a people.” Minahal’s poem “Worship Singkil” analyzes the difficulty of breaking up with another woman of color. She says, “To juxtapose the poem with the video of Singkil, a dance between an indigenous heterosexual couple, makes me meditate on what was lost during colonization when very sacred parts of us were destroyed, much like the loss experienced when breaking up with a partner who is a part of your community.” Minahal is a firm believer in following her path, although there were many hardships that threatened her success. After Monkey Book Press, headed by Elizebeth Chávez, published Sitting Inside Wonder in 2003, the press folded. “I can’t get any more copies of my book through Chávez’s press. Now I have to find another publisher,” Minahal laments. “You want to be able to do things within the community but it is so under-resourced. The question of going outside the community with my manuscript brings up other concerns: Are they down with my vision? Are they trying to tokenize me? I’m
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still trying to make my way through that.” Minahal is pushing forward with a positive outlook. She hopes to find a new publisher for Sitting Inside Wonder very soon. In the meantime she continues to write poetry, teach writing workshops and perform with Kreatibo. “I’m happy with the choices that I’ve made in my life,” Maiana says. “Whenever I was interested in something, my late father used to ask me, ‘Why would you want to do that? It’ll make your life harder.’ This applied to all facets of my identity as a queer activist poet. I would tell him, ‘I know you don’t quite understand it, but this is what I have to do. It can do something good in the world and I’ve seen it.’” For more information on Maiana Minahal and her poetry book Sitting Inside Wonder, visit www.maianaminahal.com. —Patricia Justine Tumang Envisioning Desire: The Sexual Storytelling of Joël Barraquiel Tan By Patricia Justine Tumang lthough it wasn’t his name, his mother called him Ignacio when he was acting like a smart-ass. Joël Barraquiel Tan found his childhood nickname endearing. His knack for troublemaking marks his reputation as a gay Filipino writer who pushes the envelope. He is the author of two poetry collections, Monster (2002) and Type O Negative (forthcomJoël Barraquiel Tan ing, 2006), as well as the editor of two anthologies, Lambda Literary Award-nominated Queer P.A.P.I. Porn (1998) and Best Gay Asian Erotica (2004). Tan is a complex poet whose writing explores issues of colonialism, incest, language, Filipino history and gay male sexuality—all through the complicated lens of desire.

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Patricia Justine Tumang: What brought you to write poetry? Joël Barraquiel Tan: I started off as a painter and rather than pursue what seemed to be a promising career as a visual artist—as marked by a scholarship and awards in high school—I decided it was too bourgeoisie. I became an AIDS activist for seventeen years and in the process discovered poetry. I started writing in my early teens but I didn’t think it would be good enough to share because I never felt adept enough in English. For a while that inhibited me, this feeling that I couldn’t speak English well enough. PJT: Did you grow up speaking English as your first language? JBT: Yes. English is one of the Filipino languages. English, the
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Features interview
language of instruction in the Philippines, is a condition and legacy of colonization. I also spoke Tagalog and later learned Spanish in Catholic school. I have a three-line poem called “Ignacio” that speaks about the complexities of language: “Seguro in Spanish means surely. Seguro in Tagalog means probably. He asks me if I’m in love with him.” My love for language makes me a writer. I’m kind of a geek when it comes to language. PJT: In Monster, you have a couple of poems that are written in Spanish and Tagalog. Is there a language you prefer to write in? JBT: The “Polyglot” poems are my nod to language poetry but I don’t have any particular language preference. Tagalog, swardspeak (Filipino gay vernacular), Spanish, the Chicano Caló, English and Ebonics are the six languages in operation. This is reflective of my linguistic history. I didn’t have a specific language in mind when I wrote. I straddle different worlds so the dialogue in my brain is multilingual. PJT: Your anthologies are entitled Queer P.A.P.I. Porn and Best Gay Asian Erotica. Do you make a distinction between porn and erotica? JBT: This is where the publishers get involved. Since there wasn’t a collection of queer Asian male sex stories previously published, there was no concept for it. Cleis Press gave me free rein on Queer P.A.P.I. Porn. P.A.P.I. stands for Pilipino and Asian Pacific Islander. I wanted to distinguish Filipinos from Asian—because we’re not Asian. I added “porn” just to fuck with people. Porn was repeatedly contested in the reviews. Some asked, “Why would he call this work porn, when some of the writing is beautiful?” I wanted to challenge people’s notions of porn and erotica as it applies to literary writing. My publisher was shocked that Queer P.A.P.I. Porn was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award because it had the word “porn” in it. PJT: How did people respond to the cover and content of Queer P.A.P.I. Porn? JBT: Glenn Tuliau, a Samoan man, graces the cover. It was the first time an Asian and Pacific Islander anthology had a Pacific Islander representing it. This was just prior to the emergence of a gay hip-hop generation so I wanted to show a thuggy boy. The publishers wanted a sexy image. Can we get away from these contrived poses of seduction and get into complicated notions of what sexy is? Sexy to me is a beautiful man laughing. In the end, I got the cover I wanted. Some queer Latinos got upset with me because they thought I was appropriating the term “papi.” Others thought those critics were being reductive. A key difference in the book was that it wasn’t organized around the identity of the writers, but rather the identity of the subject matter. PJT: One controversy was that writers of other races were contributors to both anthologies. How was this received? JBT: Gay men with stringent identity politics believed that I was ruining the economy for other gay Asian male writers. I think that’s ridiculous. I begged many gay Asian men to write something for me and some responded by saying, “I’m a legitimate writer, I
12 Lambda Book Report

don’t write about sex.” It’s vastly complicated. I worked closely with the white writers for both anthologies because they approached desire complexly. One white writer grew in his process of thinking about his hard-on for Asian men. I didn’t demonize them for having that desire. Latino writers and a straight-identified African-American writer also contributed to the book. There is no apartheid around who gets to write what. I strongly believe that self-permission to write about sex in an honest and uncensored way only leads to true artistic mastery. PJT: How is the Best Gay Asian Erotica anthology different from Queer P.A.P.I. Porn? Did the market limit your book in any way? JBT: It’s crazy how the market dictates and begins to limit how we write and how we think. The publishers felt that Queer P.A.P.I. Porn had high quality writing but it didn’t sell well. I didn’t have free rein on the next anthology, Best Gay Asian Erotica, so when I suggested a cover image of two Asian men in their fifties laughing together, they thought I was crazy. I asked them, “What? You’ve never seen any beautiful middle-aged gay Asian men? They’re some of the most beautiful men I know.” They didn’t buy the idea, but they were right about what would or would not sell. I never made a penny on royalties from Queer P.A.P.I. Porn but I’m starting to see a profit on Best Gay Asian Erotica. PJT: Do you feel that publishing is important? JBT: I formed my own press, Noice Press, which was constructed around Monster. I wanted complete control of my publishing experience from start to finish. The four hundred copies sold quickly because we did a lot of community organizing. Self-publishing is the new small press. Because of the pressure of the market, small presses have been forced into behaving like large presses except with fewer resources. The freedom that one hopes for is rarely found with small presses anymore. My distribution for Monster was my community. I’ve often said that I would be internationally ignored as a writer given my allergy to mainstream formulas and sexual storytelling obsession. The success of Monster and the literary prize I’ve recently been awarded for poems from my forthcoming Type O Negative are proving me wrong. If that’s what being ignored feels like, then I’ll happily stay ignored. PJT: Tell me about your new poetry collection that will be published by Red Hen Press in 2006. JBT: My new book, Type O Negative, centers on blood themes. The first half is about bloodlines related to family. The second half is about AIDS. Most of the AIDS poems are written in cyclical poetic forms to replicate how the virus mutates. The family poems center on a boy narrator’s terror-filled journey through his Manila childhood, with the child being both the seducer and the seduced in an incest situation. My poems move into the thick, smelly, gritty stuff of sexuality, particularly sexual development within the family. —Patricia Justine Tumang

June • July 2005

Features poetry
You Bring Out the Filipina in Me

boys
By Joël Barraquiel Tan
my lover points into the trash heap. there are four volumes jammed inside a wire crate, cloth covered & hardbound. boys will be boys, gilded fonts wink under the sun. black & white images of 10 tykes in shorts & white socks, bottoms up, hanging over a bridge. a towheaded freckled monster pecks his twin, not quite the mouth not quite the cheek. a gawky long-limbed pre-teen, hairless & naked hovers over a huge trampoline in mid-bounce, his pale arms outstretched wings. the air is radioactive, teaming with gulls. as papa lay dying, i peek underneath his face, the gray skin hiding the hot springs of naga. the smell of boiling salted duck eggs & ancient mud. his white-skinned father, sits on a cement bench, scowling & spitting into the bubbling pool. it is twilight & papa, a boy short for his age, calls me into himself & with his finger traces the shapes of my eyes, nose, & mouth on the water’s surface thickening with his father’s phlegm. now, i place a mask over his. my face as a child, airy meringue cheeks & cool skin, lips pursed. a child’s mouth is always ready for kissing. then, my tío, a tall beautiful teen from the provinces bites & nibbles on my lips. tío calls me sweetmeats. mama dresses & powders me like a doll. i run around with my feet arched, balancing on tippy toes like a squat chicken dashing about. i whiz by papa disgusted, mama amused, & tío hopelessly in love with my ballerina sprint & protruding belly. there is a photograph of me & tío. my small body fitted between his legs. his hand inside my shirt. my head thrown back, laughing. had the communist guerillas not thought tío a traitor, he would be here now. with me & papa in this hospital room. in silent vigil. when papa got word that tío’s corpse was found, mangled by vultures & hanging from a tree, his face smoothed over & set, clay cooking from within. had he done as i told him, had that stubborn boy finished university…papa throws his glass against the wall, a shard scratches past my cheek. i turn to run but papa’s blow to my small back knocks me flat on my face. he stands over me, screaming, you are not a bird! you are a boy ! you are the first son as i am the first son as my father & his! & then nothing. Just blue & dreams & tío calling sweetmeats. sweetmeats. when the nurse tells me its almost over, i stand up. joints stiff from a lifetime of watching papa die. my lips throb, the silence presses against me like flat heated stones, the stink of sulfur suffocating. im told that had tío lived, he would’ve grown old to look like me. i hover over papa & lean in to kiss his lips. papa’s wet sputter, his phlegm thick in my throat. then papa becomes the small disinfected room widening into the empty los angeles summer streets. papa becomes whitening bone & concrete & the tinkling of a paleta cart bell building & multiplying into a network of freeways. papa is the ocean bringing the separate parts of itself together again & i am a seabird, no longer a boy, my arms, muscled brown wings hovering over the rage of saltwater, thick with phlegm, sinking continents.
—Earlier versions of “boys” appeared in Hyphen Journal, January 2004 issue and Fusebox 3, edited by Barbara Reyes. Copyright © 2004 by Joël Barraquiel Tan

By Maiana Minahal For Joël B. Tan Inspired by Sandra Cisneros’ “You Bring Out the Mexican in Me”

you bring out the filipina in me the language born of blood in me the p instead of f in me the glottal catch in me the visayan the tagalog in me the ancestors in me you bring out the murder of magellan in me the revolution of seven thousand islands in me to survive 500 years of colonizers in me you bring out the guerrilla soldier in me the olonggapo bar hostess in me the mail order bride in me you bring out the bahala na immigrant in me the god they’re so american in me the yes, i do speak english in me the tnt green card in me you bring out the pinay in me the sass in me smartass badass in me the proud walker shit talker third world girl the majority in me you bring out the barkada in me wolf among sheep in me the danger the desire in me the drink til i’m drunk fuck til i’m good and fucked you bring out the queer in me the dyke in me the brave beautiful butch in me voracious femme in me the bastos the bakla the walang hiya in me you bring out the wake up laughing laughing not crying in me my brother my brother mahal mahal kita yes you do oh yes you do
bahala na - “what god wills” barkada - friends bastos - rude bakla - faggot walang hiya - shameless mahal kita - i love you (From Sitting Inside Wonder, Monkey Book Press) Copyright ©2003 by Maiana Minahal

June • July 2005

Lambda Book Report 13

Features interview
FILIPINO/A LGBT WRITING: AN ABBREVIATED BOOK LIST Anthologies
Between the Lines: An Anthology by Pacific Asian Lesbians of Santa Cruz, California (1987)
edited by Cristy Chung, et al. Dancing Bird Press ISBN 0962281905

Tibok: Heartbeat of the Filipino Lesbian (1998)
Edited by Ana Leah Sarabia Anvil Publishing ISBN 9712707369

Fixer Chao (2002)
By Han Ong Picador ISBN 0312420536

Letters to Montgomery Clift (2002) Take Out: Queer Writing from Asian Pacific America (2001)
Edited by Quang Bao and Hanya Yanagihara Asian American Writers Workshop ISBN 1889876119 By Noël Alumit Alyson Books ISBN 1555838154

Piece of My Heart: A Lesbian of Colour Anthology (1991)
Edited by Makeda Silvera Sister Vision Press ISBN 0920813658

The Disinherited (2004)
By Han Ong Farrar, Straus and Giroux ISBN 0374280754

Best Gay Asian Erotica (2004)
Edited by Joël B. Tan Cleis Press ISBN 1573441848

Ladlad: An Anthology of Philippine Gay Writing (1994)
Edited by J. Neil Garcia and Danton Remoto Anvil Publishing ISBN 9712703509

Poetry
The Darker Fall (2002)
By Rick Barot Sarabande Books ISBN 1889330736

Fiction
Dogeaters (1990)
By Jessica Hagedorn Penguin ISBN 014014904X

The Very Inside: An Anthology of Writing by Asian and Pacific Islander Lesbian and Bisexual Women (1994)
Edited by Sharon Him-Ling Sister Vision Press ISBN 0920813976

Prime Time Apparition (2005)
By R. Zamora Linmark Hanging Loose Press ISBN 1931236461

Throw it to the River (1993)
By Nice Rodriguez Women’s Press Ltd. ISBN 0889611874

Type O Negative (forthcoming, 2006)
By Joël Barraquiel Tan Red Hen Press

Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay & Lesbian Experience (1996)
Edited by Russell Leong Routledge ISBN 041591437X

Jesse’s Song and Other Stories (1995)
By Chea Villanueva Richard Kasak Books ISBN 1563332353

Nonfiction
Seduction and Solitude: Essays (1995)
By Danton Remoto Anvil Publishing ISBN 9712703940

Flippin’: Filipinos on America (1996)
Edited by Luis H. Francia and Eric Gamalinda Asian American Writers Workshop ISBN 1889876011

Bulletproof Butches (1997)
By Chea Villanueva Hard Candy ISBN 1563335603

Ladlad 2: An Anthology of Philippine Gay Writing (1996)
Edited by J. Neil Garcia and Danton Remoto Anvil Publishing ISBN 9712705781

Rolling the R’s (1997)
By R. Zamora Linmark Kaya Press ISBN 1885030037

Philippine Gay Culture: The Last 30 Years (1996)
By J. Neil Garcia Anvil Publishing ISBN 9715420907

Flipping (1998)
By Ricardo Ramos Floating Lotus Books ISBN 094277714X

Q & A: Queer in Asian America (1998)
Edited by David Eng and Alice Hom Temple University Press ISBN 1566396409

Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora (2004)
By Martin F. Manalansan IV Duke University Press ISBN 0822332175

The Umbrella Country (1999)
By Bina A. Realuyo Ballantine Books ISBN 0345428889

Queer P.A.P.I Porn (1998)
Edited by Joël B. Tan Cleis Press ISBN 1573440388
14 Lambda Book Report

Anvil Publishing books can be purchased from www.kabayancentral.com. Click on “Books.” Also visit Asian American Writers Workshop at www.aaww.org.
June • July 2005

sorrows
THE POWER OF

Gregg Shapiro interviews Richard McCann

other of Sorrows by Richard McCann is a book that I GS: Several of the chapters from Mother of Sorrows were origihave been anticipating for almost twenty years. Since first nally published individually in anthologies and literary journals, reading the short story “My Mother’s Clothes: The School dating as far back as the mid-1980s. Were they cohering into a of Beauty and Shame,” in the 1988 anthology Men on Men 2, I novel as far back as that or did you still think of them as separate have been waiting for the opportunity to further explore McCann’s entities? exquisite prose in RM: I think all ten have book form. Over the been published separately. years, I have gotten to One is coming out in Ms. become familiar with in an upcoming issue and a his poetry, including few are still being pubthe Beatrice Hawley lished. I started with “My Award- and Mother’s Clothes” and Capricorn Poetry that started off as a work Award-winning Ghost of nonfiction. I was just Letters. Now my trying to write about somepatience has been thing that had been very rewarded with shameful to me. When I Mother of Sorrows, sent it out it was the first in which McCann’s really long prose piece I reliable and unfalterhad ever done as an adult. ing narrator takes us I sent it out as nonfiction through his suburban and it came back, I remem1950s childhood to ber, from The New urban adulthood, Yorker, from the fiction from the medina of editor, who said, “This was Morocco to the Eagle forwarded to me and we Lake Lodge and think it moves too slow for Cottages of the fiction,” and I thought, Adirondacks, all the “Well, it’s not fiction.” I while acquainting the sent it to the Atlantic and Richard McCann reader with one of the the editor wrote back and said, most unforgettable and complex families in contemporary American “This is wonderful, but it moves kind of slow for a story,” and I literature. McCann has spent seventeen years as co-director of the thought, “But it’s not a story.” He asked, “Could you make it graduate program in creative writing at American University in move faster?” and I thought, “Who cares if it’s a story or not?” and Washington, D.C. and regularly teaches at the Fine Arts Work I said yes, and then he took it. I then thought maybe what I Center in Provincetown during the summer. I recently had the pleas- should be working on was fiction. I had never thought of myself ure of speaking with Richard McCann about his new book. as a fiction writer, and over the course of the years a lot of time for me was spent figuring out who I am as a prose writer. I don’t Gregg Shapiro: As someone who is a poet, a novelist, and an really regard myself as a novelist. Those pieces, I believe, fit essayist—if you had to rank your preference for each genre, how together to make something that feels like a novel—that has the would you do it? force of a novel, I hope. I think of them as movements in an Richard McCann: I don’t think of myself in those terms. I did orchestral piece more; that is to say that I think of them also as think of myself for many years as a poet and I wrote and pub- being separate. lished only poetry for a long time. I actually think of myself now as someone who is working from autobiographical sources. From GS: The constant throughout the book is the voice of the narrathat point, what something becomes is a different matter. I actu- tor. I think that’s what connects it as a novel. ally tend to regard the work as all being of a piece and that it’s RM: That and if one were to think of it as a novel, it seems to linked, really for me, very deeply by autobiographical explo- me that all the stories are about loss. They move from a frightenrations. Sometimes those explorations either require or inadver- ing premonition of loss from the mother saying, “One day I will tently take on fictional aspects and that’s why, in my mind, they’re be dead,” to the narrator in the last story being a survivor of a lot fiction, for no reason other than that. In essays I really often try of people; being a very tentative survivor because he himself is ill. to think about “what’s the story here?” If I were to rank myself To me, the base also seems very linked by questions of loss and right now, I think of myself, although it’s open to change, as a what it might mean to be at least a provisional survivor. prose writer. I don’t really make the distinction between fiction and nonfiction that much. GS: The book is called Mother of Sorrows, but the mother in the

M

June • July 2005

Lambda Book Report 15

Features interview
novel really shares the spotlight with the narrator, the father, the brother and others. Would you agree that she is not the sole focus; that she is sharing with these other people? RM: I would to a degree. She shows up in every story but one and in later stories she shows up more as a background, but I think she is a force that the narrator is struggling with the whole time. It’s hard for me to speak to, because in a lot of ways my own relationship to my mother was that she believed I was her, and I believed I was her, too! A lot of this book, for me, was investigating the relationship between two people who didn’t really have boundaries and how that was both beautiful and very painful. So, for me, they’re sharing the spotlight also because they’re sharing a self. A lot of the narrator’s effort as the book moves on is to, in fact, separate himself and move out into the world. The brother is kind of an interesting one for me, because a lot of people now are reading this as a book that is as much about two brothers as it is about a mother and a son. The last story I wrote was “My Brother in the Basement,” and it was a story I had never wanted to write. I do have a brother who died and I had never been able to write about it. After that story was written, I realized that it snapped into focus a whole different story that had been going on through the whole book. It had been very subterranean and it suddenly, in that story, was brought forward and it brought it forward in the book as a whole. That came as a real surprise to me. GS: The brother relationship is unlike any I have ever come across. Early in the novel, the narrator admits to scrawling, “I HATE DAVIS,” in reference to his brother, on a notepad near the telephone in his parents’ house. And yet, Davis is full of surprises, including that he is, like the narrator, also gay. That took the relationship to a whole other level. RM: Yes, I hoped so. I hoped that he becomes gay isn’t too great a surprise… but it’s a surprise to the narrator. I guess to me Davis seems sort of depressed in a certain way after the father’s death through a lot of the book. He sort of recedes a bit and when he comes back out later in the book he seems to be a very changed person, somebody we haven’t been looking at for a while. GS: I’m glad that you mentioned the father, because there is also the theme of the father and the young son who knows he might be gay. RM: I don’t think of the boy as the gay son, because gay isn’t the way he is thinking of himself yet. He is just feeling different; I think of him as the sissy-boy son. I guess something that has really interested me—having been at least in my own mind, a sissyboy—was what that felt like; what it felt like to realize that you were not pleasing a person and what it feels like as a small child to understand that the love that is being described as unconditional is not feeling that way to you, because you’re already starting to fail. There are images that you are supposed to be living up to. What’s being loved? Are the images that you’re supposed to live up to what’s being loved, are they what’s being desired, or is it the more frail actuality of what it feels like to be you? I guess
16 Lambda Book Report

for the boy in the book, he’s always worried that the frail actuality of what feels to him like him is not a loveable thing. There’s that wonderful anthology of gay men writing about their fathers that Bruce Shenitz put out. I really loved that anthology because it does strike me as a very complex thought. In the anthology it’s rendered so variously; men who were close to their fathers, men who were not close to their fathers, but nonetheless here is a figure of a man who more often than not is a straight man who is represented as the person you are supposed to be. I was named after my father and I look like my father, so that’s an extra thing. I felt that, in a way, I could not tell him, or could not allow to be seen that I wasn’t like him. I was very sorry that was the case, but I didn’t of course, have any language for that, nor did he. GS: Another unexpected character in the book is suburbia. It’s something that is being written about more and more. How do you feel, as being the sissy-son, what suburbia does to the sissysons? RM: How I feel about suburbia is that I’m not sure it exists anymore. I think for that boy, and for sissy-sons in general, it was incredibly isolating. The images that we were aspiring to were images of a certain kind of boy on a Schwinn bike with his other boy pals. I was a boy riding around on a Schwinn bike, but I also wanted to festoon my bike with streamers; that was the problem. [In] the kind of suburb where I grew up, where everyone kind of moved in at the same time, there were no trees—none, not one— when we first moved in like in 1951, when I was just an infant. We all had these giant picture windows and there was a strong sense that you were being watched at all times—there was not a secret to be had. You were starkly visible in the stark landscape. I think what it must have been… not just for sissy-boys, but what it is to carry secrets around in that landscape was very difficult. The boys and the images that you’re learning don’t have secrets. One of the things that makes them boys is that fact that they don’t need secrets, they have a naturalness and ease in the world. I didn’t and the sissy-boy doesn’t; you don’t have the naturalness, because you’re stricken by a kind of self-consciousness of what you’re hiding. GS: The final chapter is titled “The Universe, Concealed” and yet so much is revealed. RM: I hadn’t thought about it until you mentioned that story; his friend in that story, Helen, is also a mother of sorrows. It just suddenly occurred to me: “Wow, her son has died just like the narrator’s mother had a son who died.” I think [what] you might know from the story is the idea of a concealed universe is central to a Hasidic text. The world we are living in is the revealing of that which remains concealed by God, the Creator. That was an idea that was enormously interesting to me in that story. The idea of concealment bears on other ideas in the book, like shame and secrecy. They are both holding secrets and are still struggling with things that they don’t want…. These two friends who were so close, even then, things are not fully known, and they make jokes about things that are concealed. I think a lot of the strain in their relationship, actually, is that there is also something that they are
June • July 2005

not saying to each other, which is that each of them is supposed to be a kind of stand-in for everything that they have lost in life: “You dear friend, should make up for that for me.” I don’t think they ever quite say that, but it seems like a kind of unspoken, but beautiful, painful covenant that they’ve made with each other as friends. GS: Have you started work on another book-length manuscript? RM: Yes. In 1996 I had a liver transplant. In the last few years I have been writing a series of sort of short memoirs or autobiographical narratives about that experience. Not just as an event— “I was cut open. I was in surgery for twelve hours”—but what that event also has meant. What it means to walk around, as I do, in a body that is kept alive by the fact that a stranger has died, that I have part of that stranger inside me. [The essays are] an almost phenomenological look at the experience of what it was to receive part of a dead person and be resurrected, however temporarily.. Also, [I’m looking at] the broader context of what it means to live with both a very strong and cherished and hated awareness of mortality. GREGG SHAPIRO is a freelance writer living in Chicago, Ill.

Masterful Memoir
Mother of Sorrows
Richard McCann Pantheon ISBN 0-679-41176-3 HB, $20.00, 196 pp.

Reviewed by Stephen Breedlove

R

ichard McCann won awards for Ghost Letters, his haunting collection of poems that was published in 1994. He should also win awards for Mother of Sorrows, ten tightly connected, meticulously constructed and beautifully written stories that come directly from his poems. McCann uses an unnamed narrator to tell these sad yet wonderful stories that powerfully portray a gay American man’s life from his boyhood in the 1950s to midlife. The theme of these stories is the sorrow and loss that the narrator suffers in his relationships with other people and endures just by being alive. From the first story, “Crepe de Chine,” in which the narrator wondrously evokes his childhood relationship with his mother, to the last one, “The Universe, Concealed,” in which the narrator, middle-aged and HIV-positive, wonders if there will be anyone left to tell his story, the narrator takes the reader on a journey through his life that is disarmingly candid and full of surprises. Ranging in length from four to almost forty pages, the stories are placed in a sequence that could not be altered without destroying the complex structure and unity that McCann has created. The stories jump back and forth in time. The following is not a criticism: The reader will have to get to the last page of the book to put all the pieces of the narraJune • July 2005

tor’s life together—the pieces the narrator chooses to reveal. In “Dream House,” “The Diarist” and “My Mother’s Clothes,” the narrator perfectly describes family life in post-World War II suburbia, a world of picture windows, pole lamps, the welcome wagon and Gunsmoke, where nothing, he says, is beautiful. These stories contain motifs and metaphors, such as cut glass, basements and diaries, which are woven through the fabric of the book. The narrator’s mother tells him and his brother that in Spanish her name, Marie Dolores, means “Mother of Sorrows,” a role that she plays to the hilt. His father (also unnamed) almost falls into the stereotype of the distant father with the sissy son; but, of course, we are seeing him through the narrator’s eyes. The father dies when the narrator is 11. The narrator has problems coming to terms with being gay. When he and his friend Denny dress up in his mother’s clothes and get caught (“My Mother’s Clothes: The School of Beauty and Shame”), he cruelly discards Denny because he is too much like himself. When a young man, he realizes that he sounds like a homosexual, although he says he hates them. He hesitates about fulfilling his sexual desires (“Some Threads Through the Medina”); then he unexpectedly tells us about his seven-year relationship with a man who dies of AIDS (“Eduardo’s Hair”). This reviewer would have liked to know more about the narrator’s development from a closeted homosexual to a loving gay man who could form a long-term relationship. Davis, the narrator’s brother, is only fifteen months older. “My Brother in the Basement” is the penultimate, shocking and tragic story of the narrator’s relationship with Davis, a relationship he describes as that of Cain and Abel, but with a difference: “I was Cain and Abel both, as was my brother.” No more can be said about this story without spoiling the book. After finishing this story, the reader will have to take a deep breath before going on. Why is the narrator unnamed? This reviewer cannot satisfactorily answer this question. Can the unnamed narrator be Every[gay]man? Many gay men will read these stories and think, “This is my life, too!” Interestingly, the word “gay” does not appear at all in the jacket blurb for this book. The following two of McCann’s many poetic, visual images are unforgettable: The narrator stands outside his mother’s bedroom window and tries to write her name with sparklers; as the first letters drift away before he can finish the last letter, he draws a circle around what remains of her name to hold it in place. The narrator and his friend Helen drift in a rowboat at night in the middle of a lake with a lighted yahrzeit, or memorial, candle in the bow. From the sorrow and loss he has experienced, McCann’s unnamed narrator gives us these stories. He presents a brutally frank memorial to his parents, his brother and his lovers—and to himself. Mother of Sorrows is a masterpiece that should take its place among those essential works of literature about the gay male experience. STEPHEN BREEDLOVE is a librarian at La Salle University.

Lambda Book Report 17

Features interview

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t has always been my fervent belief that adults need to pay attention to what is being written for young adults because for many people, young adult books address issues that have remained dormant for many years. Julie Anne Peters, one of the most important writers to appear on the young adult book scene since Nancy Garden, has written three novels that address GLBT issues. Keeping You a Secret, Luna and her newest, Far from Xanadu, touch on such topics as first love, transgenderism and lesbian baiting. Her books are groundbreaking because they eloquently and poignantly talk about what it’s like to be a gay, lesbian or transgendered teen. In fact, her books do what is most important in young adult literature—transcend the gay/straight reader divide. She speaks of universal experiences that will help create more straight allies, while providing a voice for so many teens who feel silenced.

guage. Sometimes they don’t reveal their true character (or lack of it) until I’ve written most of the book. Then I want to delete them. I want to strangle them. Throughout the entire process of developing a novel, the people who inhabit the story inhabit me. LE: Luna is such a tremendously groundbreaking book. How did you set upon the idea for Luna? JAP: Luna, the person, came to me as a visitation. She was a vivid, distinct being. In retrospect, I believe she was a spirit whose energy I must’ve been channeling—this from a diehard pragmatist who cultivates skepticism about all things even remotely occult. But at the time, February 2001 (I remember the exact moment Luna landed in my head), I didn’t even know a transgender person, or if I did she hadn’t revealed herself to me. For months Luna would wake me at 3 a.m. and nag me to write about her. I put her off and put her off. I confess a stubborn bias in favor of authentic voices in LGBTQ literature and there was no way I felt I could bring truth to the trans experience. When it was apparent the only way to expunge this Luna-tic from my brain was to write her out, I began the long process of research and interviewing that would culminate in a novel. But there were fits and starts, crises of conscience. It was presumptuous to bring my own perceptions to bear on the story; I was trivializing the struggle by fictionalizing the TG experience. At one point, a year and a half into the writing, I abandoned the project completely. Condensing transgender lives into a composite representation was, I feared, diluting the singular beauty of a unique life. I felt, and still do, that transgender people should tell their own stories. Then Fred C. Martinez, Jr. was murdered. F.C., as he was known by his family, was a 16-year-old Navajo living in Cortez, Colo. My state. His bludgeoning—and it was a brutal murder—was reported in the Rocky Mountain News (and, I suspect, wherever else it got a sound bite of coverage) as a hate crime because Fred was gay. All I had to do was to look at the picture in the paper and read the testimonials from F.C.’s friends who said, “She was the funnest girlfriend we ever had,” to know she was most likely trans. But Fred will never know. I knew because I was educated now. I thought, maybe this book can serve a purpose beyond entertainment. Maybe writers have the ability to bring voice to those who cannot speak. I dug out all my notes and continued Luna with renewed vigor. If I finished it and it was published, I vowed to dedicate it to F.C. and send her spirit out with every copy.

Lynn Evarts: You write for children and young adults, but why should adults be aware of what is being written for GLBT teens? Julie Anne Peters: Today’s literature provides insight into how our history is being shaped in contemporary culture. It’s obvious to say, but today’s young readers are tomorrow’s old readers, a.k.a. adults. They’ll also be voters, and literature informs attitudes and perspectives. Five years ago mainstream literature for queer youth, if you could find it, was rarely solicited by major publishing houses and the stories that did make it into print resolved in bleak endings—suicide of the main character or unrequited love. Times change. Society now allows for more happy, hopeful endings. Increased awareness in all forms of media influence the social and political climate of the LGBTQ movement. Young people carry the torch. Our readers extend beyond the community to straight kids and activist allies. Writers, educators, even parents can glean a sense of contemporary queer lives by reading what kids are into. In general I think adults, and writers in particular, would enjoy YA literature as an art form. It’s experimental and evolutionary. I find YA books cathartic, a return to those years where I can see myself reflected in literature. There’s a kind of revalidation process, a closure, that wasn’t attainable when I was a teen. I probably need therapy. LE: Your characters are so realistic. Tell me how you create them. JAP: I never look on the people in my books as characters. They’re people. They aren’t people I know, in case anyone is overly litigious. The challenge for me has always been trying to render these people onto paper in full dimension using the sparest of lan18 Lambda Book Report

Young at Heart: An Interview with Julie Anne Peters

By Lynn Evarts

June • July 2005

LE: What kind of mail have you received from Luna? JAP: I’m always moved and informed by my reader mail. There’s a cycle of empowerment created between writers and readers. Young people, especially, enlighten me with their perceptions, interpretations and personal connections to my books. The Luna mail is interesting in its breadth of readership. I do hear from young readers—straight and gay—who know trans people or are interested in gender issues, but the vast majority of my mail is from adults. People who’ve never fully understood the nature of transsexualism write to extend their appreciation for heightening their awareness. I’ve heard from many TG and TS people, of course, who wish they’d had this literature when they were younger and looking toward transitioning. Parents and siblings of trans people write to express thanks and share their own stories. One mother from a small midwestern town told me her daughter had transitioned in the third grade and, as a parent, she was grateful to find her child validated in print. The mother’s own personal journey had been harrowing, but also rewarding in its positive outcome of promoting understanding and acceptance. Many teachers, librarians and social workers write to thank me for filling a gap in the literature. Teens write and plead with me: “Please! Write about T-guys!!!!” It’s a reminder that there is still important, unexplored terrain. LE: All of your books involve such a wide variety of occupations and interests. Are they all personal interests of yours or do you find yourself doing a lot of research? JAP: Writers are told to write what they know, but it’s limiting when you have a brain that retains nothing. Every new work requires months of research. The Internet has been a godsend for me because I’m anal about accuracy and authentic detail. In my new book, Far from Xanadu, I found myself researching a hundred disparate elements that would need to intersect thematically at some point, including plumbing, morbid obesity, Kansas, softball, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and strength training. I have no personal investment in any of those topics (although I do enjoy girls wielding bats and tools). LE: Your new book, Far from Xanadu, is, in my opinion, going to blow the doors off lesbian fiction for young adults. The whole theme of lesbian baiting is unheard of in YA literature. Where did the idea come from? JAP: Certainly I’m not the first to write about obsession or manipulation, about preying on a young person’s innocence and vulnerability. An earlier YA novel, Crush by Jane Futcher, deals with lesbian baiting, in a sense. But after Keeping You a Secret, my first foray into LGBTQ literature for young readers, I heard from so many girls who were crushing on their best friends, their straight friends. Even though their friends would tell them there’s no chance of a relationship, they’d make overtures. They’d touch or tease in intimate ways. And I thought, “Right. This is where it starts.” I have a lesbian friend who’s been obsessed with a straight woman for twenty years. The woman is flattered to have my friend’s attention. Who doesn’t want to feel desirous? Finally this woman got married and I thought, “At last. It’s over and my friend can move
June • July 2005

on. She is released from her self-imposed bondage.” But no, this woman still calls and says, “I miss you. I think I made a mistake marrying a man.” Oh brother. Could someone please take her out? I don’t know if it’s unique to our community, but it is an interesting phenomenon to explore—loving someone who can’t love you back; the distance between people, emotional and even biological, that never can and never should be crossed. I always counsel young lesbians with bait-hooking straight girlfriends to run. Run as far and as fast as you can. LE: You’ve mentioned to me that the character of Mike had been with you a long time before you began Xanadu, but you were a bit stunned when the first sentence you wrote dealt with her father’s suicide off the water tower. Why? JAP: Yes, when you set out to write a book about lesbian baiting and the first sentence spills out, “After my dad’s suicide, the town council decided to remove the bottom portion of the ladder from the Coalton water tower,” you do wonder if you’ve finally succumbed to artistic autism. I decided I’d better write the last chapter to see where this book was heading. It didn’t help. Now I had plumbing and morbid obesity and an exposed cranial cavity of loose ganglia. But a novel is an exercise in engineering, I find. Ordering chaos and assembling elements into a cohesive system is what I’ve been trained to do; it’s where the fun is. LE: It’s so refreshing that Mike’s main problem is not her “coming out.” I see young adult GLBT fiction as coming to a crossroads now with that attitude. How do you see young adult GLBT fiction changing in the next decade or so? JAP: I’d like to see literature for young readers advance in three directions. First, with stories that examine our lives in broader perspective, which is what I hope to accomplish in Far from Xanadu. It’s interesting the ways in which we interact with the world; [how we] view ourselves and our relationships with others. LGBTQ literature in the mainstream gives us an opportunity to focus on our sameness as opposed to our difference, where our gayness can be both central and incidental to the story. Occasionally, we should widen the lens. But we still have rich stories to tell about our lives in close-up. Our relationships with each other are unique in all of human experience, that blending/bending of gender roles and sexual ambiguities. After the first blush of love, what are the forces that keep us together or drive us apart? How do two gay people function as a unit? Within this area much more literature needs to be written and published with main characters that are bisexual and gender fluid. Third, I hope there’s always room for coming out stories. These are our first love stories and they keep our literature fresh and alive. Coming out stories are original in that they play out on two levels—learning to love and accept ourselves while loving another human being. I consider it a developmental level. These stories will always find a hungry audience among young queer and questioning readers. People need their love validated—at all ages. I do hope publishers will recognize this ongoing need and that librarians will continue to update and augment their young adult colLambda Book Report 19

Features interview
lections with coming out stories. LE: What did you read growing up? JAP: The backs of cereal boxes. I wasn’t a reader as a child. I credit SRA (Structured Reading Assessment) for my hatred of reading. It was a conscious loathing. When I finally found illumination in books, I was in junior high. I gorged myself on teen romances, then graduated to Russian novels, spy thrillers, mysteries and sweeping family sagas. LE: How do you stay so connected to teenagers? You seem to know them extremely well. JAP: I’m surprised adults are so disconnected with young people, or seem to be. When did growing up mean growing old? I try to cultivate my youthful exuberance for life. To me it means living with passion and ferocity and drama—lots of drama. This serves a writer well. Not to mention I’m addicted to reality TV and pop culture. I’d never want to return to the agony and ecstasy of my teens, but there’s enough emotional residue that I find it easy to transport and re-imagine myself at 13 or 16 or 18. Writing as selfexpression is a direct heart-to-heart connection. My choice is to remain young at heart. LBR LYNN EVARTS is a librarian at Sauk Prairie High School in Prairie
du Sac, Wisc.

For the Love of Mike
Reviewed by Nancy Garden

Far from Xanadu
By Julie Ann Peters Little, Brown/Megan Tingley ISBN 0-316-15881-X HB, $16.99, 288 pp.

ou gotta like Mike Szabo, the tough-on-the-outside, trying-tobe-tough-on-the-inside baby butch who’s the protagonist of this engrossing young adult novel. Unless one knows in advance (maybe from reading, um, a review), one doesn’t learn till the end of the first chapter that Mike’s a girl. She looks like a guy and is often mistaken for one, but she no longer wants to be one; in fact, she’s not sure she ever did. Sometimes, at least in the beginning of this latest book by award-winning author Julie Ann Peters (Luna, Keeping You a Secret, Define “Normal”), Mike says she wishes she, like other girls, were attracted to boys. But she’s not attracted to boys, and she sure is attracted to girls. Mike’s days are pretty predictable, starting with her morning ritual of greeting the nude pin-ups that decorate her room, going to school (she’s a junior, and gets good grades), practicing and playing softball (she’s her school team’s star catcher), working out with weights at the local run-down gym, hanging out with her best friend and classmate Jamie (who’s probably the only gay guy in their little

Y

Kansas town), and working for “The Merc”—Thompson’s Feed, Seed and Mercantile. Before Mike’s alcoholic father committed suicide and her older brother Darryl (whom she calls a “wastoid”) began neglecting the family plumbing and heating business, she often helped her father on the job, and as a result she’s almost a plumbing pro. She misses her father, to whom she was very close, and is furious at him for killing himself. Her deeply depressed mother is hugely overweight, a slob and a glutton, and has been no good to anyone, including herself, for a long time, especially since the death in infancy of her third child, back when Mike was still a small child herself. But Mike’s bleak (except for softball) and predictable life changes on the day a gorgeous girl named Xanadu walks into math class. Soon Mike learns that Xanadu is related to and staying with the Davenports, who are among the Merc’s customers and who live a little way out of town. After a while, Xanadu reveals that she’s staying in Kansas while she’s on probation for selling ecstasy to a girl who died of it. She’s scornful of most of the local farmers and townies, but not of Mike, whom she figures out is gay and on whom she relies for friendship and excitement. Mike’s soon crazy in love with her, but Xanadu’s straight and she falls hard for Bailey, a Stetson-wearing, six-foot-plus-tall local hunk. Still, she obviously needs Mike’s friendship. She confides in Mike, relies on her for comfort, and frequently hangs out with her and Jamie; she genuinely cares for Mike, but just not “in that way.” Mike, however, dreams on. Running through the unrequited love story is a lot about softball and small-town life, along with Mike’s anger and depression over her father’s death, her mother’s inability to pull herself together, and her brother Darryl’s apparent neglect, plus her own bleak view of the future. Peters manages to weave all these elements smoothly into the story, to relate them to one another and, for the most part, to resolve them believably, although not entirely unpredictably. In the end, a crisis breaks Mike’s tight control over her own emotions and brings her closer to Darryl. In a final scene with him, she gains insight into herself, her family and her future. The ending is almost too pat, almost too dependent on Darryl’s surprising insights, but it’s saved, I think, by Mike’s resistance to him, their familiar banter, and Mike’s processing of what she’s finally learned and understood. This story takes one on a fascinating journey into the heart of its prickly, lovable main character and the people around her. Yes, it’s bound to resonate with anyone who, like most of us, has fallen hopelessly for someone who’s straight, but more than that, Peters, in her skillful and compassionate exploration of Mike’s complicated psyche and the psyches of Mike’s parents, her brother and Xanadu, gives all her readers clear, on-target insight into a variety of flawed but appealing and very human characters. NANCY GARDEN is an award-winning author of young adult
GLBT literature.

20 Lambda Book Report

June • July 2005

June • July 2005

Lambda Book Report 21