Tuesday morning, with the dark pressed against my windows and the overhead light necessary in order to see; it’s also very chilly this morning and I didn’t want to get out of the bed. I slept extremely well last night–much deeper than Sunday night (without checking the Fitbit to see)–but it was a very deep restful sleep the alarm jarred me out of this morning; the bed and blankets were marvelously comfortable and welcoming, and I deeply resented the alarm going off. I think today will be a better day than yesterday–the sleep alone is a vast improvement over yesterday already–and I also don’t have an event tonight after work. Last night I did an event on diversity via ZOOM for the Chessies chapter of Sisters in Crime; I believe it was for a library in Alexandria, Virginia. These things always cause me stress, and I think with it hanging over me all day yesterday that put me into a stressful mood; like the sword of Damocles was hanging over my head all day. But it was lovely–and informative. Moderated by Cathy Wiley, my co-panelists included the wonderful Sherry Harris, Kristopher Zgorski, and Smita Harish Jain (I hope I spelled that correctly), and it was a very pleasant hour talking about writers and diversity and how to increase diversity in your work.
And yes, sure, it gets old sometimes always being asked to diversity stuff, but it needs to be done. Maybe in my lifetime we’ll reach the point where diversity conversations and panels will be no longer necessary; wouldn’t that be lovely? A lot has changed in our country and society during the course of my many years on this planet; that one would be more than welcome, certainly.
Paul was working last night as I finished the ZOOM panel, and I was literally exhausted. I sat in my easy chair and watched some videos on Youtube. I tried to read for a bit to see if I wasn’t too tired to focus–I was–and wound up going to bed very early. On the way home from work tonight I need to stop and get the mail as well as make groceries; tomorrow is procedure prep day, so I am working at home as my system cleans itself out (such a revolting thought, really) and I can stay close enough to a bathroom so it’s not going to be an issue. That means I can sleep a little later than usual tomorrow (although I need to stay up late that night and get up ridiculously early the morning of the procedure) and relax around the house, making condom packs and doing data entry.
I am also starting to feel like I am caught up a bit, and this is always a dangerous thing. Getting caught up inevitably winds up with me thinking about other things oh now I have plenty of time so it can wait which inevitably leads to me getting behind again. I will never, I think, learn the lesson to stop taking down time until everything is finished so I can do it relatively guilt-free, and when other things need my attention again I don’t have to worry about feeling overwhelmed or buried…however, this is how I’ve been my entire life, and I don’t think sixty is when I am going to effect sincere and successful behavior change.
Stranger things, however, have happened.
And always seem to, for one reason or another.
I did manage to spend some time revising the first chapter of A Streetcar Named Murder, the latest thing I am terribly behind on. I was trying to do this while I waited for the ZOOM panel time; while also moving everything off my kitchen counters and hiding them so no one can see the condition the Lost Apartment is in during the early part of the week. (For the record, my washer and dryer currently have a shit ton of stuff sitting on top of them; I’ll have to do something about that tonight) I am hoping to work on the book some more tonight after work–before or around watching the season (series?) finale of Only Murders in the Building, which we are enjoying tremendously. I’d like to get the first four chapters revised by the weekend, so I can focus on writing the next two or three this weekend. (Note to self: check what time the LSU game is on Saturday; the Saints play Monday night) Ah–the game is at 2:30; so I have the morning to go run errands, go to the gym, and write. That will make for a busy morning, methinks. Maybe if I run the errands on Friday after work I won’t have to go out on Saturday other than the gym?
We’ll see how it all goes.
And on that note, it’s time for me to get ready for work. Check in with you again tomorrow morning, Constant Reader. Have a lovely Tuesday!
So, on National Coming Out Day this past week, October 11th, the current Superman—Jonathon Kent, son of Lois and Clark—came out as bisexual. When I saw the New York Times piece I literally gasped out loud. This wasn’t some minor character in a team comic; this wasn’t even a second-tier lead of a less-popular title. This was fucking SUPERMAN, the Big Blue Boy Scout, the tentpole character on whom all of DC Comics, and the DC television and film franchises, are built around.
I literally had tears come up in my eyes. This was So. Fucking. HUGE.
I cannot even begin to tell you how much that would have meant to me as a deeply closeted and terrified gay teenager in the Chicago suburbs and later, small town rural Kansas. I really don’t know how best to explain what this meant to me as a sixty-year-old gay man, but here goes.
Oh, Superman. You are the ubiquitous comic book character; since your debut back before the second world war you have become the default; the super-hero every other super-hero is judged against. It’s even right there in your generic name: you are the super man, hence you are Superman.
Superman is kind of the Bill Jones or Joe Smith of comic book heroes: basic, simply named, and the best of them all.
I was a kid when I first started reading comic books about super-heroes. Before I bought my first Action Comics (all I remember is that Lex Luthor was the issue’s villain), I read Archie in all of its iterations; I also read Millie the Model, Dot, Little Lotta, and some others that have faded from memory. The Jewel Osco where my mom used to buy groceries when we lived in Chicago had a comic book vending machine near the entrance, right next to a soda machine dispensing cans of Pepsi and its variants. You put in a dime and two pennies into the appropriate slots, and pushed the appropriate buttons for the comic you wanted; the metal spiral thing holding the comics would spin and drop your comic down, so you could reach in through the door and pick it up. That particular day I wanted a Betty and Veronica, which was A5 but I was in a hurry and accidentally pressed B5 instead; voila, I got an Action Comics instead, much to my bitter disappointment. One of the local independent stations, Channel 32 (which also showed repeats of The Munsters, among other black-and-white classics) aired reruns of the old Superman television show; which I thought, even for my unsophisticated childish palate, was cheesy and silly. I remember grousing about it to my mother—whose response, “Boys read super hero comics anyway” was the kind of thing that usually would guarantee that I would never read a super hero comic book, but I picked it up after we got home and I started reading, certain that I would hate it.
It probably should go without saying that I didn’t hate it.
And it opened an entirely new world for me. Sure, it got a little frustrating from time to time for me (Superman was such a goody two-shoes, but that was kind of his job) and Lois being so desperate (and jealous) to either marry and/or expose his secret identity was annoying; especially because Lois otherwise was such a kick ass woman. There were any number of Superman or Superman-adjacent titles, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen had their own titles; Superman often appeared in (and was definitely a charter member of) Justice League of America; there was also Superboy (“Superman as a teenager!”) and Supergirl…it was like the comics readers couldn’t get enough of Superman and his world. I eventually moved on to other DC Comics titles, too—everything Batman (Detective Comics was always my favorite, because there was a mystery to solve) and Flash and Green Arrow and Green Lantern and…yes, my dollar allowance every week for a long time went to comic books (Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys were $1.50 and my allowance was $1 per week; and no, I couldn’t wait until I had two dollars to get one; I always needed to spend my money as soon I got it on Thursday—Mom’s payday—at either Jewel Osco or at Woolworth’s…because I could always talk Mom into buying me a book if there were Hardy Boys or Three Investigators to be had). When we moved to the suburbs the Zayre’s didn’t carry comics, nor did the grocery store in town; the 7/11 only carried Marvel (I tried with The Mighty Thor, but the continuing story aspect Marvel used irritated me because I would inevitably miss an issue), and when Zayre’s finally started carrying comics, things had… changed. Wonder Woman was no longer an Amazon, and was just an every day modern woman running a boutique (somehow she’d given up her powers). Supergirl had been poisoned, which meant her powers came and went without warning; one moment she’d be super, the next she wouldn’t. It was an attempt to modernize the books, of course, make them appeal to the newer, more sophisticated modern audience of the 1970’s; some of them started addressing social issues and became a lot more adult in theme. (Green Arrow actually became my favorite book during this time; he was drawn naturally—had curly chest hair AND nipples—and he had no powers other than being an expert archer and skill at hand-to-hand fighting). I eventually moved away from comics because I started spending my money on novels—Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, etc.—and comics were, I thought, really for kids.
Later on, when we moved to Kansas, I got back into comics again, and things had changed yet again. Some of the Legion of Super-Heroes’ costumes made them look like strippers (male and female); the drawing of the characters had become more natural and realistic (Superman, for example, went from being barrel-shaped to having a narrow little waist and abs showing through his skintight costume), and Wonder Woman was an Amazon again. This was my Howard the Duck period, when I also started delving into Marvel a bit more. Comics always remained of interest to me throughout my life, with me going through periods of collecting and reading in large volumes at different times…before moving on from them again. I am not an expert on comics by any means; I know the names of some artists and some writers, but for the most part, I always paid more attention to story and character (go figure). But I’ve always maintained a love for the characters; and yes, the original Christopher Reeve Superman movie (which I rewatched recently for the Cynical 70’s Film Festival) indeed made me believe a man could fly.
I’ve always had, and always will have, a soft spot for Superman.
To me, Christopher Reeve was Superman–the prior versions of the character, including the popular television show (which I watched religiously) always seemed, to me, to be an actor playing the part; Reeve somehow just was the character. He was so insanely and ridiculously handsome; the body was just right, and he had the right mix of charm and charisma the part demanded. Reeve’s Superman could never be seen as a threat–and he also made it completely believable that no one could tell Clark was him, with different hair, glasses, and street clothes; he physically changed how he stood, his posture, everything about him that was Superman, when he was playing Clark.
Reeve never got enough credit as an actor, frankly.
And while my memories of Margot Kidder as Lois Lane aren’t fond ones–I thought she was a fine actress, but miscast–overall, the first two Reeve films were good ones. They could have stopped there, but didn’t–and the last two weren’t good. I enjoyed Lois and Clark (despite what Dean Cain turned into) and Paul and I eventually succumbed to the simple pleasure that was Smallville…but I wanted to see Superman back up on the big screen, where he belonged. I was very excited when they cast Henry Cavill in the part (I’ve been crushing hard on Cavill since first noticing him on The Tudors)….and then came the movies. I enjoyed them for what they were, and I did think some of the changes made to update and modernize the story (how would Americans today react to the discovery of a super being from another planet?)–and you can never go wrong with Amy Adams, either.
But…they forgot the most important thing about Superman: his kindness and genuine concern for people. In the quest to make the DC Film Universe of all that is dark and angsty like the Batman movies–the direction Batman has gone in since the comic mini-series The Dark Knight Returns–was a bad one. Patty Jenkins got Wonder Woman so fucking right–and it was the same basic formula as Superman. Superman used to be derisively called “the world’s oldest Boy Scout”, but that can work with the character, and with the right actor. I think Cavill has the charisma and the charm–and the extraordinarily gorgeous smile–to pull that off; I just wish they would have let him have the chance.
The new show on CW, Superman and Lois, is also excellent; I absolutely love it, and I do think that Tyler Hoechlin is one of the best Supermans of all time, frankly. (The entire cast is stellar, frankly.)
So, as I said earlier, I was pretty fucking jazzed the other day to see the piece in the New York Timesearlier this week about Superman “coming out”–on National Coming Out Day, no less–and even if it turned out to not be Clark Kent, but Lois and Clark’s son Jonathan (in the comics they have the one son; on Superman and Lois they have twin sons, one of whom is named Jonathan), and while I, in my white gay male privilege assumed this meant that he was gay–he’s actually bisexual. But he is attracted to other men, and even has a boyfriend.
There was one particularly noxious piece posted on Medium, which the homophobic piece of trash who wrote it proudly posted on Facebook (I reported his post on Facebook as well as the piece on Medium as hate speech; the Medium piece came down, but the last time I looked, of course Facebook had done nothing about it). I read the whole thing–poorly worded, not grammatical, would have given a C- grade on the construction basics level alone–but the part that I couldn’t get past, the part I can’t forget, was him saying this: But why take one of the few heroes left for the “Straight World” and make him abnormally offensive to us?
I guess I missed the massive closet exodus for the DC and Marvel Universes? Let me see–right off the top of my head, at DC aren’t Batman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Nightwing, Cyborg, Aquaman, the Flash, the Martian Manhunter, the Question, Beast Boy, the Elongated Man, and Shazam, all straight? (And that is just off the top of my head., and only DC.) But you know those people who are so afraid of the queers–you know, like the piece of shit who wrote the Medium piece–they just can’t help themselves or keep their fucking mouths shut. Oh, no, Mr. I’ve Never Brought a Woman to Orgasm just can’t let us have anything without letting us know how much it offends their delicate, needle-dicked sensibilities. You know, the same kind of guy who undoubtedly always complains about “cancel culture” and “social justice warriors” and “wokeness” and I don’t have a problem with gay people but why do you have to exist? Those kinds–sad, bitter little men with so little joy in their lives they have to spend their precious time on this planet letting everyone else in the world know how much they object to our existence.
But he has a right to his opinion and we are oppressing him if we call it out for the hateful trash it is…and him for the piece of shit he is.
As my editor at Kensington wrote on a note he included with a copy of a bad review of one of my books, this just reeks with the stench of failed author.
This guy claims to be a crime writer, and claims to work for a publisher (I’ve never heard of it or him before this moment)…but after reading this piece and another one he published on Medium, the real crime is his actual writing.
Fuck off, dude. And know that bisexual Superman is going to have way better sex than you could ever pay for, no matter how long you live.
At some point over the past decade, a movement started on-line to promote the voices of minority writers writing about their experience in fiction, called “#ownvoices”. The focus of the tag was primarily for non-white writers, whose work has been so long marginalized and kept out of the mainstream of publishing; forcing those writers to either not see print or go with either a small press or self-publishing. It brought up some interesting conversations about who gets to tell what story, the importance of representation in fiction, and the need for greater diversity in the popular culture.
Recently, the “who gets to tell what story” debate took on an entirely new meaning and went in an entirely different direction with the publication of a piece in the New York Times that became known as, for simplicity’s sake, “Bad Art Friend.” Who owns a story, and who gets to tell that story? Both women on either side of the conversation appeared, to me, to be kind of assholes; but when it comes down to brass tacks, I strongly believe that if you feel your own story—the story of your own life—belongs to you and only you, then you need to write it; not tell the story to other writers (or other people in general, really) and expect them not to use it. Writers are thieves, every single one of us; anything we ever are told, read, see, and hear goes into the computer of our mind and at some point, might come back out in a fictional form. The fact that the “kidney story” was used as a jumping off point for a short story by a writer fascinated by the story of the woman who donated said kidney—and her need for attention predicated on the ownership of that story—shouldn’t surprise any writer; as I read the piece in the Times myself I kept thinking, I don’t know that I could have resisted writing about this woman either—it’s such a fascinating place to start an examination of both altruism and narcissism, how could anyone resist? I also started, in fairness, to think of the story in terms of crime fiction—how would I build a crime story out of this?
I do know, however, how shitty it feels to have my story taken and told in a way I didn’t much care for; yet that doesn’t mean I couldn’t tell my story how I wanted to, if and when I choose to. Everyone’s take on this has been interesting to watch on social media–you can certainly tell how personal experience effects other writers’ opinions on things–but I think the bottom line of it all is, don’t be a shitty person. Everyone involved in that whole mess was kind of a shitty person, at least in how it was reported–and again, those people involved in the group chat/email or text chain or whatever the hell it was and were actually named in the Times piece? Their story is now being told by someone else. Karma? Serendipity? The arc of justice? Who knows? Who gets to decide?
So, who does get to tell whose story?
Most of my work is fiction, and the majority of it is also set in New Orleans. New Orleans is one of the few cities in the United States with a majority minority population (at least it used to be; I’m not as certain post-Katrina of that fact as I was pre-Katrina) and it would be impossible to write about New Orleans without including non-white characters; that would be science fiction. It might be possible to live in New Orleans and never, ever come across a non-white person; I don’t see how, frankly, but, on the other hand, I’ve read any number of lily-white books set here. The casts of my two series contain one person who is non-white; police detective Venus Casanova, a character I love deeply and have always wanted to write more about. I had two ideas for Venus novels over the years—Stations of the Cross is one, and more recently, Another Random Shooting—but I always held back from writing either of them because I am not a Black woman. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a Black woman in New Orleans or in the South, let alone the struggles faced with being a Black woman working for the New Orleans Police Department—the racism, the micro-aggressions, the misogyny—and while I still believe both books would be good ones, I still am not entirely comfortable writing from that point of view—nor am I comfortable taking a publishing slot (if it came to that) from an actual Black woman crime writer, of which there aren’t enough as it is.
Bury Me in Shadows didn’t present the same kind of issue that I have with writing from Venus’ perspective (I also started writing a short story once with her as the main character; I revised it to be from the point of view of her white gay partner on the force, Blaine Tujague), the issue here was that I was going to be looking at and examining the racist history of the South and issues of race themselves…from the point of view of a twenty year old white gay kid. Just what the world needs, right, another white take on racial injustice in the southern United States? The possibilities for offending people were endless; do I have blind spots in my white privilege when it comes to racial injustice? Would those blind spots come across in the book? (I don’t care if I offend Confederate apologists, none of whom would be reading anything I write to begin with for fears of gay contagion.)
One thing my main character Jake’s mother always emphasizes to him is “the heritage is hate, Jake—never forget that.”
Jake has no pride in the fact his ancestors enslaved people, or in the family history of what was once a plantation that has now dwindled to a small amount of acreage that is mostly wooded; his mother refused to raise him that way, and I wanted to show how possible and effective—and important– breaking the generational link passing white supremacy along for centuries can be. Like most white people, Jake really hasn’t thought much about the history or his own privilege—there’s a part in the book where he thinks about how many students of color there were in his elite, private Catholic school—and being there, on the ground soaked in blood and perspiration and oppression, he has no choice but to face up to it, think about it, and be appalled by it all. I didn’t want to write something that could be called, or considered, an oh look another white guy explains racism or even worse, oh look another white person discovers racism is actually a thing and is horrified book; but the land is definitely haunted by its past.
Another theme I worked on within the book is the history of this county is written in blood. That’s a recurrent theme within any of my Alabama fictions; I tend to always write about my fictional Corinth County, and its history is actually very heinous. There’s a short story I’ve been working on for years called “Burning Crosses,” about a lynching that happened there many years ago; during the horrors of the Jim Crow era—in which a young white girl, a student at the University of Alabama, comes to Corinth to research the lynching for the Justice Project—a fictional group at the University that researches all racially motivated killings in the South since Appomattox, to name the victims and so the memories never fade with time. Again, not sure if I am the right person to tell this story, and the possibilities for giving offense with it are endless; so, I continue to work on it, tweaking here and there, and maybe someday I will try to get it published. But Corinth County’s bloody history is very real in my mind, and there are countless book and story ideas (and in-progress stories) I have for continuing to write about it.
Whether I will or I won’t remains to be seen, of course, but there are files and files and files…
So, for today’s BSP about Bury Me in Shadows, I am going to talk about where the actual story that goes to the heart of the plot came from.
My grandmother was probably one of the biggest influences in my life, for both good and bad. I won’t talk about the bad—I was raised to believe you never bleed in public—and there was quite a bit of it; I didn’t speak to her the last thirteen or so years of her life. But the good was good, really. She loved old movies and passed that love of the glory days of Hollywood on to me; she always encouraged me to read and to be a writer; and she was the one who instilled in me my love for crime films and (to a lesser degree) horror ones—what she used to call “scary movies”; I watched The Haunting for the first time with her, and sometimes when I rewatch an old classic, like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers or The Letter, I remember watching it with her on the couch. She was also the one who introduced me to some authors I love, Victoria Holt (The Secret Woman) and Mary Stewart (The Ivy Tree), and she also encouraged my interest in history, which she also really enjoyed. She used to tell me stories about the past all the time when I was young—stories that at the time, and for most of my life, I remembered as being “family history” and was very surprised as an adult to find out they were fairly common legends and stories from all over the South, as well as from books and movies. In other words, none of the stories were true…but when I was thinking about this again the other day it occurred to me that it was entirely possible I was remembering it wrong—it was a long fucking time ago, after all, and my memory has been wrong before. It’s entirely possible she was just telling me stories, that I assumed were family histories…anyway, there were a lot of them, and when I was in college I started writing a lot of the ones I remembered down. They were often tales of blood and murder and crime; sometimes ghost stories.
The Lost Boys, the legend I used as the basis for the book’s background, is one of those stories.
And yes, bits and pieces of the story are apocryphal; sewn together by my grandmother into one story to entertain me.
Long story short: before the Civil War the county where my family comes from (again, not sure if this is true or not; the histories of the area I’ve read indicate that it’s not; so she either was weaving a story for me or I misunderstood the story or altered it in my memory as I got older) used to mostly belong entirely to one family—from which I am theoretically descended from (my grandmother also had a lot of delusions of grandeur)—and after the war, they lost nearly everything, except for a small tract of land that still remains in the family to this day. Anyway, the father and the oldest son went off to war, leaving his wife and two younger sons behind. The father was killed in the war. When the son came home after the war was over, the house had burned to the ground and there was no sign of wife or the two youngest sons anywhere; they’d vanished without a trace. No one ever knew what became of them; and the story, according to my grandmother, was that a deserting Union soldier burned the house and killed them (yes, the same story as appeared in Gone with the Wind, among others; my grandmother also told me another story about a Union deserter committing murder of a defenseless Southern woman—which I also turned into a short story that collects dust in my files), and that on or around the anniversary of their deaths, you could hear the younger boy calling for his mother in the woods near where the old house had been. Good stuff, right? I certainly thought so, and what a great basis for a story.
Of course, when I started researching the history of the county, none of this appeared to be true—the Union army never came any closer to the county than Tuscaloosa, for one, so the odds of a deserter making it all the way there on foot are pretty slim, and especially if no one else saw him—and of course, none of my ancestors owned most of the county. But it was a good story, even if not true, and I felt that writing about it could make for an interesting tale. My main character, Jake, is aware of the old family legend; he wrote a paper about it in high school, but doesn’t believe it’s anything more than a legend. I thought it would be cool to leave the ruins of the original house there, deep in the woods, far from the county road and the current domicile of the family, the crumbling house on the dirt road just off the county road. I also brought in a team of archaeologists from the University of Alabama, excavating the ruins—one of the few sites left that haven’t been excavated—and the professor leading the team, Dr. Brady (named after a historian friend), while intrigued and interested in the legend, isn’t trying to find proof one way or the other; he’s simply interested in what information about how the family lived can be unearthed.
The book is more than this, of course; but the Lost Boys legend was the starting point from which the rest of the book grew. I have a very complicated relationship with Alabama, to be honest; it’s my homeplace and I love the state. It’s stunningly beautiful. Even the poor rural county we came from is beautiful, with rolling hills and small mountains covered in pine forest, hollows filled with kudzu, muddy orange streams and rivers, riotously colored flowering bushes, and the air…oh, how wonderfully clean and fresh and pure the air smells. I love the orange dirt, and how round and smooth the gravel can be. The sky is a gorgeous cerulean, and of course, when it rains, it really rains. I can remember how still and heavy and damp the hot summer air was, the gnats and mosquitoes and dirt daubers and wasps and hornets and bees and horseflies. Whenever I stop as I drive through on my way somewhere else (usually Kentucky or Atlanta), I am always amazed at how lovely the young people are working in the small highway-side town’s fast food places. I remember screen doors with a coil so they’d always shut (or slam, if you just let go), and the big red Coca-Cola coolers with the bottle opener on the side in the general stores—and of course, the big old style Dr Pepper signs, that looked like a clock with only the numbers 10, 2 and 4—because that was the time for a Dr Pepper. (I also remember it was considered a cure-all when you were sick; just heat some Dr Pepper on the stove and add lemon; just like 7-Up was a cure for an upset stomach.)
But the state’s history– enslaved people, what happened to the indigenous tribes, Jim Crow, Selma, the institutionalized racism–is also deeply problematic. How does one write about the problematic history of the state? How do you point out how wrong all of that is without becoming preachy? I’ve often taken issue with white-written narratives about the pre-Civil Rights era in the South, as well as those set during that era and after; I remember reading one book where the heroine was doing research about the history of an incredibly racist town where a race-related murder had occurred, driven by the Klan–but focusing on the good, non-racist, non-Klan members of the town–what I call the see? We aren’t all bad take. I definitely didn’t want to write one of those stories. A few years back, I found a copy of a book I read when I was fairly young–it belonged to my uncle, actually–about the Civil Rights era in Alabama, called The Klansman by William Bradford Huie, whom I believe was actually a journalism professor at the University of Alabama…and it was different than I remembered, yet still chilling. I’m not sure what Huie was trying to do with the book, to be honest; the Klan sympathizers really came across badly, and even those who weren’t out and out members of the Klan were still racists who saw the Klan as a necessary “evil”–the sheriff couldn’t get elected without the support of the Klan, and he spends the book trying to walk the line between pleasing the Klan and not doing anything illegal…but you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas. (I read it the same summer as I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which also belonged to my uncle; the two books are forever linked in my mind.)
Bury Me in Shadows may be many things, but it’s not a Lost Cause narrative, nor is it a “look at the nice white saviors” novel, either.
And now it’s the day after, and you know what? I feel no older, wiser, nor smarter than I do on any given morning. I don’t think I will ever completely grasp why everyone makes such a big deal of birthdays.
I slept very late this morning–past nine, which may be a new record–and I feel very calm, very rested, and very relaxed; an auspicious start to this my sixty-first voyage around the sun. My birthday was actually very chill, and very relaxing. We got up and went to Costco to pick up Paul’s glasses and a few other things (I got a new LSU cap for my birthday–GEAUX TIGERS!!!–and then we went out to Metairie to pick up my amazing deep dish Chicago-style pizza from That’s Amore–jalapeños, hamburger, mushroom, and pepperoni, for those who are wondering–and then came home to have a most relaxing day. I put on last year’s LSU-Florida game for background noise (the Shoe Game, which will never get old or ever stop being funny) and curled up in my chair to finish reading The Other Black Girl, which was amazing–it will be getting its own entry, no worries on that score–and also started reading The Turnout, which of course is the new Megan Abbott. I also watched the season finale of Superman and Lois–seriously, Superman fans, this is the show we’ve been waiting for since Christopher Reeve took off the cape–and then we got caught up on other things, like Ted Lasso, Animal Kingdom, and Titans. We also started watching Nine Perfect Strangers on Hulu; which we’re enjoying, but are there really only three episodes, or did Hulu only drop three to begin with? (A quick google search assures me they only dropped three of eight thus far.)
Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a more delightful birthday. It was exactly what the doctor ordered–no emails, very little social media (trying to like all the happy birthday wishes on Facebook; I’m not sure I succeeded), and no stress at all. It was marvelous, really, and then a wonderful night’s sleep capped off the end of the day. If this is indicative of what my sixties are going to be like, well, then I am ALL about them. Today I am going to run a single errand–picking up the mail–and then I am going to come hide back inside the cool of the Lost Apartment, read more of The Turnout, and then I am going to start working on the edits for #shedeservedit. I also at some point–possibly during the reconfigured Bouchercon vacation–need to do the copy edits on Jackson Square Jazz so I can finally get its ebook up for sale (as well as a print edition, and the print edition of Bourbon Street Blues as well), not to mention work on Chlorine. I also have a contract for an exciting new project to go over before signing and returning it; so my weekend is going to be fairly full this weekend. We’ll probably start on The White Lotus tonight, as well as maybe something else; I’m not sure what, really. I also know there are some absolute classic noirs that have been airing lately I would love to rewatch–I’m looking at you, In a Lonely Place and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers–and as always, there is so little time to get everything finished that one wants to get finished.
But I also have to do some organizing around here as well. I put that off for far too long far too often, and I often, even when I do filing and organizing, inevitably always have some odds and ends I am not quite what to do with; today is the day I am going to do something with those things–or throwing them the fuck out. I also have to figure out what I am going to do with all those boxes of files I moved out from under my desk and scattered discreetly (ha ha ha as if) around the living room; a lot of those files are New Orleans and Louisiana research I may never get to use, or get around to using–and the more you learn about local history here, the more you realize you’ll never really know. That can be daunting, of course, but for me–it just fuels my desire to know, and learn, more.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to make a research trip out to the old guardian forts along the mouths of the Mississippi and near the openings of the lakes–I suspect at some point Scotty is going to wind up left to die in one of those old forts, or something; it’s simply too good of material to just continue to let sit there, mouldering and crumbling in our swamp climate without ever writing about them; just like one of these days I need to write a Scotty book that somehow involves Jean Lafitte and pirate treasure. The next Scotty, Mississippi River Mischief, is very amorphous right now and is going to need some more gelling and planning and pulling together; but I think it’s going to be one of the better Scotty books, I really do.
When I get to it. I do also think I want to get the Scotty Bible written and pulled together–at long last; only in process to write the ninth book in the series, so finally? I also want to catch things from older books that have been left hanging. It’s also occurred to me that I could go back in time and write Scotty adventures–there’s time, after all, between books for other cases to drop into the boys’ laps; and it might be fun to go back and revisit Scotty in the early days of his relationships and his detecting career, such as it is.
I am also thinking about a stand alone book with my true-crime writer, who’s crossed over between both series now, and whose name I cannot think of right now–oh, yes. JERRY. I could write an interesting story about him as well, methinks, although he would be the perfect main character for a novella I am planning to do for Chanse…in fact, I thought about using him as the POV character before realizing it works better as a Chanse novella than as a Jerry story.
And on that note, I am going to go curl up with Megan Abbott for a bit before I can run my errands, while swilling more coffee. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader.
Sometimes I try to remember the first time I saw or heard or watched or read something, anything, that made me feel less weird, less like an outsider…often to no avail. I can never remember if it was That Certain Summer (a very SPECIAL ABC Movie of the Week), or reading Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, or discovering The Front Runner on the paperback racks at the News Depot on Commercial Street in Emporia; and then I will remember something else, some vague memory of something–hints about Richard the Lion-Hearted in Norah Lofts’ The Lute Player, or subtle hints here and there throughout history (Edward II and Piers Gaveston; Louis XIV’s brother Phillippe Duc D’Orleans; James I and Robert Carr; Achilles and Patroclus)…Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great series…I can never remember precisely the first time I was exposed to who and what I am in popular culture, nor can I remember if it was positive or negative. I do know that in my own life, it was made very clear to me when I was very young that what I am was not normal, was unacceptable, wasn’t what I was supposed to be. My earliest memories are of me not being like other boys, and it took me a while to realize that the others were just playing at being boys (something I was never very good at) and were actually like that; that they weren’t, underneath, just like me, just better at pretending than I was.
This is why we have emphasized, as a community, the importance of representation in popular culture; kids needs to see themselves reflected in the culture they consume so they don’t feel like they don’t belong. Queer kids aren’t raised queer; we don’t learn how to be queer by interacting with our peers (who are mostly straight when we are kids), nor do we learn anything about being queer while we are inside the educational system in this country. I’ve always firmly believed that queers take longer–at least in the olden days–to form lasting romantic relationships because we don’t have “trial runs” when we are kids; we don’t get to date, we don’t get to “go steady”, etc. We don’t get to play House with other kids of the same gender, we don’t learn societal and cultural expectations about relationships and how they work when we are actually kids. Our queer adolescence doesn’t actually start until we come out–admit it to ourselves without shame, and then start telling our family and our friends and our co-workers that we aren’t wired the same way they are. It’s very tricky, and very complicated and sometimes very messy.
Representation absolutely matters.
And we cling to that representation when it shows up. When a prime time show like SOAP introduces the first long-running gay character to the world in Jody Dallas (does anyone even remember this was Billy Crystal’s big break, playing gay on a sitcom in the 1970’s/early 80’s?), we watch–even if the depiction is problematic to the extreme (you also learn very early that your hunger for representation will also force you to turn a blind eye to some things). Steven Carrington on Dynasty, the terrible film Making Love from the early 1980’s, as well as some other problematic depictions and films along the way–we took what we got, and always had to remember that these characters and stories also had to be palatable to straight people…that, in fact, these characters and stories were created with straight people in mind.
As they used to say, “but will it play in Peoria?”
As i stare down sixty this month, I am very happy to see that representation becoming common-place. It’s lovely to see gay books–THRILLERS, even–being published by major presses with queer characters in them. It’s lovely seeing straight writers including sensitive depictions of queer characters and their stories in their books.
And over the year, yes, problematic tropes that can make you very, very tired have also developed–which makes me wary every time I approach a book by a non-queer person that takes on a trope without hesitation, as S. A. Cosby’s Razorblade Tears does, and that trope is one of the biggest and most hated by the queer community: bury your gays.
Ike tried to remember a time when men with badges coming to his door early in the morning brought anything other than heartache and misery, but try as he might, nothing came to mind.
The two men stood side by side on the small concrete landing of his front step with their hands on their belts near their badges and guns. The morning sun made the badges glimmer like gold nuggets. The two cops were a study in contrast. One was a tall but wiry Asian man. He was all sharp angles and hard edges. The other, a florid-faces white man, was built like a powerlifter with a massive head sitting atop a wide neck. They both wore white dress shirts with clip-on ties. The powerlifter had sweat stains spreading down from his armpits that vaguely resembled maps of England and Ireland respectively.
Ike’s queasy stomach began to do somersaults. He was fifteen years removed from Coldwater State Penitentiary. He has bucked the recidivism statistics ever since he’d walked out of that festering wound. Not so much as a speeding ticket in all those years. Yet here he was with his tongue dry and the back of his throat burning as the two cops stared down at him. It was bad enough being a Black man in the goo ol US of A and talking to the cops. You always felt like you were on the edge of some imaginary precipice during any interaction with an officer of the law. If you were an ex-con, it felt like the precipice was covered in bacon grease.
“Yes?” Ike said.
My faulty memory doesn’t remember how and when I first became aware of S. A. Cosby. What I do remember is that I bought and read one of his earlier works (perhaps his debut?) My Darkest Prayer, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Hard-boiled with a healthy dose of noir, I had a great time reading it–and was thrilled when his Blacktop Wasteland debuted to raves and attention and lots of recognition. Cosby can write like a house afire; and while he keeps up a rat-a-tat pace of story, he also manages to construct sentences and paragraphs beautifully, with a poet’s gift for language–spare and tight, yet poetic and beautiful at the same time (Megan Abbott is the Galactic Empress of this).
So, when I heard the “elevator pitch” for Razorblade Tears, I inwardly winced a bit, even as I had to admit Shawn’s guts; taking on bury your gays is a ballsy move–and also a bit of a dangerous one. If you don’t stick the landing…you’re fucked.
For those of you who don’t know what bury your gays means, it’s very simple: a show, or a book, or a movie, will introduce gay characters (lesbians, queers, whatever initial in the all encompassing umbrella those characters might choose for their identity), get the audience (and especially the queer viewers) deeply vested in them–and then kill them off suddenly and unexpectedly, all so the other queer characters (but usually the straight ones) will experience some kind of personal growth…in other words, you introduce a gay man into your narrative simply to later use him as a plot device, so the other characters can mourn and experience personal growth.
That’s probably explained badly, but you get the gist: gays will inevitably die. A good example of this is the so-called groundbreaking AIDS movie, Philadelphia–but the Tom Hanks character in that movie existed so that Denzel Washington’s character could grow and develop and move on from his own homophobic beliefs and fears about HIV/AIDS; as Sarah Schulman, one of our community’s finest minds, once said, “the entire point of Philadelphia is to make straight people feel better about HIV/AIDS and the gay men dying from it.” (Sections of her book Stagestruck: Theatre, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America are absolutely brilliant; it should be required reading for any Queer Studies course.)
The plot of Razorblade Tears is so deeply steeped in “bury your gays” that the gays are already dead when the book opens. The gays in question–Derek and Isiah–were brutally murdered, and the police don’t seem to care too much about looking into who killed them. Their homophobic fathers–both ex-cons–decide to look for their son’s killers. Both Ike and Bobby Lee feel a lot of guilt about their sons and how they rejected them both–their relationship, their eventual marriage, their child–while they were alive; finding their killers isn’t just about revenge but also a matter of atonement. In some ways, it’s like this book is borne from the anger every queer child rejected by their parents feels–you’ll be sorry when I’m dead.*
Ike and Bobby Lee are, indeed, sorry now that their sons are dead.
This also falls into another long-existent fictional trope: don’t fuck with a father. How many films (I’m looking at you, Liam Neeson), books or television shows are about a father’s rage, a father’s revenge, what a father will do to save or avenge their children?
Ike and Buddy Lee aren’t supermen, though. Cosby’s strength (besides his ability with words and images) is how well he creates characters and makes them human through their faults and frailties. Ike and Buddy Lee don’t much like each other as the story begins to move along–I kept thinking of the old Sidney Poitier/Tony Curtis movie, The Defiant Ones–but their ability to look past their own internal prejudices to see the commonalities between them as they unite in this foolhardy crusade to avenge their murdered sons is the real strength of the book here. (As well as the language.) You eventually start to understand them, care about them, want them to get their vengeance…even as you know it will bring them no peace.
I have to admit, I was hesitant to start reading this. I really was concerned I wasn’t going to be able to read it with the empathy necessary for Ike and Buddy Lee and their suffering–that I would think, yeah, well, maybe you should have thought about that when he was alive–but the book ultimately isn’t about their redemption, either; which is a genius move by Cosby. He makes their pain all too real–I cannot imagine the pain any parent should feel when their child dies–but he makes it clear there’s no easy answers here for Ike and Buddy Lee, and that pain will go on even if they get justice for their sons.
Shawn is also a master of writing about the Southern working class–about the poverty, the lack of opportunity, the societal neglect and how those factors all combine to keep those already mired in it trapped with little chance of escape; he clearly loves the rural South but not so much that he can’t expose the tragedy and ugliness that exists there.
It’s a powerful book, and I do recommend it….although the people who probably should read it inevitably won’t. I can recommend it, and do, enthusiastically; it’s a very powerful book, and it made me think–and what more can you want from art?
*sadly, I have seen all too often that a lot of those parents aren’t sorry when their rejected child dies; far too regularly they will say something along the lines of “So-and-so died for me years ago.”
I don’t remember his name. All I now for sure is it started with a K.
Kevin, maybe? Keith? Kerry? Kenny? Maybe Kelly; for some reason the name Kelly-for-a-boy has always been stuck in my head, to the point that sometimes, frequently, when I need a name for a male character Kelly always pops into my head. So maybe that’s it. I never recorded his name anywhere–mainly for fear someone would find it in my journals or diaries (I’ve always kept some sort of written record of my life and my various emotional breakdowns over the years)–and I was also certain I would never forget it. And yet I have; the first openly gay man I ever knew, and also the first casualty to HIV/AIDS that I knew personally–that was more than just another name in the paper.
I’ve never really dissected my past as thoroughly as I probably should have; as I’ve said before, when I turned thirty-three I decided to never look back, stop having regrets, and not let the past continue to influence my present and my future. There was never anything but pain back there, so why revisit that? Now as I hurtle towards sixty at an ever increasing speed (less than two months now!), I do find myself, for some reason–maybe the sixty milestone? Being equally distant from twenty as one hundred?–allowing my mind to drift back to the past. I think it also has something to do with the two most recent books I’ve written (Bury Me in Shadows is dealing, in some ways, with my past by forcing me to remember stories my grandmother told me as a child and the legacy of being from rural Alabama; #shedeservedit takes me back to my teens in Kansas–and basing the main character in that book so deeply into my own psyche forced me to relive things and emotions and feelings I experienced as a teen in Kansas, even if the book is set in the recent present), as well as watching It’s a Sin earlier this year, and seeing the story of HIV/AIDS told from the perspective of young people who were my age when it all began. I’m not sure, really; but whatever the reason, my mind has been going through the file cabinet where I have locked all my memories from before 1994.
Kelly (I decided to call him Kelly, didn’t I?) was the first openly gay guy I ever met. I’d met guys who were attracted to men before; and I am sure guys I knew from my high school in Chicago were, even if they weren’t out (I did remember one’s name recently; I knew him only slightly but was certain back then he was like me; I looked him up recently on-line and sure enough, he’s out and proud and–thank God–alive). I wasn’t sure when I first met Kelly if he was or he wasn’t–he was effeminate and queeny, though; the stereotype–and we worked together at a fast food place on Blackstone Avenue in Fresno. He was already working there when I was hired; we both worked the closing shift on Fridays and Saturdays and our manager was a really hot muscular straight guy with a porn-stache that I stole glances at whenever I could; managers wore the same polyester pants the rest of us had to wear, but got to wear T-shirts with the company name and logo on the front–his were extremely tight, and so were his pants, for that matter–but he was also juggling three women at the same time (no surprise, really) and was clearly straight. I did notice Kelly also was stealing glances at him from time to time. Kelly was flamboyant, funny and friendly; I would have liked him even if I didn’t suspect he was also gay. He was certainly not as deeply closeted as I was, and certainly not as determined to keep it hidden. He was taller than me, and slender. He wasn’t what I was physically attracted to at the time–when I was younger I was a lot more narrow in my definition of what I thought was attractive, and what I was attracted to–but he did have a nice ass.
I don’t remember how or when he told me he was gay, but he did. He was also the first person to take me to an actual gay bar; there were two in Fresno at the time. It was the Express, and it was also on Blackstone Avenue, near Olive, I think; I don’t remember exactly where it was, to be honest, but I know there was an off-ramp for a highway right there as well (I recently tried to locate it on Google Maps, but Fresno has changed a lot since I left over thirty years ago, and it no longer exists). I don’t remember how he talked me into going–you can imagine how reluctant I was (what if someone I know sees me going in? What if someone sees my car parked there? What if what if what if what if…what if someone I KNOW is there–this last is hilarious, of course; obviously, if they were there…) but I remember walking in that first time and realizing, everyone here is into men. There were no women, the music was loud and there were some incredibly hot guys there. Kelly got us both a drink–vodka and cranberry; I drink I have ever since always regarded as a ‘gay’ one–and then he dragged me out onto the dance floor because he loved the song–it was the first time I’d ever heard “It’s Raining Men”, and it’s always been special for me since then; the first song I ever danced to in a gay bar–and I, who’s always loved to dance but always got made fun of for enjoying it at school dances and in straight clubs–felt free for the first time in my life.
As Madonna sang in “Into the Groove”: only when I’m dancing can I feel this free…
It became a weekly thing: every Friday and Saturday night after work we’d go over to his apartment, sponge off sweat and grease from work, change, and go dancing. There were so many hot guys–but I would never approach anyone; that social anxiety thing and fear of rejection has always hung over my life–and Kelly’s roommate was also really beautiful. Kelly had a lot of friends I was attracted to, but no one ever showed any interest in me–at the bar or at any of the after-parties we went to.
And yes, eventually, we did go to bed together. I wasn’t in love with him, nor he with me; he was the first time I became aware of the “friends-with-benefits” thing. I wasn’t his type, either–and I’ll never forget him saying, “just because we aren’t each other’s types and we’re not interested in being boyfriends doesn’t mean we can’t help each out, you know? It doesn’t always have to mean something. Stop thinking that way! It’s very Christian of you.”
I was slowly starting to come into myself when he got fired, for allegedly stealing money. I didn’t think it was true–it may have been, I could have been wrong about him and his character (it wouldn’t have been the first or last time I misjudged someone’s character) but I always suspected it was because he told me once that he’d given the hot straight manager a blowjob in the office a couple of times. I didn’t believe him, but I also don’t think I was the only person who worked there he’d said that to, and well, that just wouldn’t fly, you know. But he told me, through tears, that he was leaving Fresno and moving to San Francisco because “Fresno was really just Topeka in the valley, when you think about it.”
I’ve used that description numerous times since then.
He gave me a big hug, and told me to trust myself, and stop being afraid to be myself.
I didn’t see him again for years. It was a few years later when I ran into his roommate at the mall. I was high, had gone there with friends to waste time and get an Orange Julius, and was sitting on a bench just enjoying my drink and being high at the all and watching people when someone said my name. I didn’t recognize his roommate–whose name is also lost to time–because he didn’t look the same. He’d lost a lot of weight–he’d been lean but muscular, but was now barely more than skin and bones. He had to tell me who he was, and how I knew him, and I’ve never had much of a poker face–still don’t, actually. He smiled at the look on my face, and told me he had AIDS. Not only did he have it, but Kelly did as well, he was back in Fresno, and he was actually dying. “You should go see him,” he said, “I think it would mean a lot to him. He doesn’t get a lot of visitors. Anyway, it’s nice seeing you.”
I was, at the time, trying really hard to be straight again–still having furtive encounters with other guys, of course–and terrified that I was going to get infected myself. I didn’t have a car at the time, and the last thing in the world I was going to do was ask one of my straight friends to take me to see someone dying of AIDS in a hospital. I had met other gay men since Kelly, and considered them friends…but it was something we were all afraid of; made gallows humor jokes about; and I didn’t want to involve any of them in this, either. (All the gay men I knew at the time didn’t know my straight friends–and any gay man I met through a straight friend I kept at a distance because I still wasn’t ready for those separate lives to have crossover.)
I took a city bus to the hospital. I remember they put me in a hospital gown, gave me a mask and rubber gloves to wear before I could go see him. I remember how bad he looked, how labored his breathing was; and I don’t think he knew who I was; I don’t think he ever did know who I was or why I was there. I sat with him for a while and held his hand, and we didn’t talk much. It didn’t seem important then to try to get him to remember me. I remember being afraid, and to this day i wonder if I would have held his hand if I didn’t have the gloves, and even having that doubt fills me with shame; and no matter how much I remind myself I am far better educated now than I was then–even then there was so much misinformation and unknowns I couldn’t have been as educated as I am now–I still feel a bit ashamed. There were several people on that ward; guys i recognized from those nights at the bar, guys I’d been attracted to but never acted on, guys I met after after-parties, whose names I don’t remember now. I went back as often as I could, as often as I thought I could get away with, sitting not just with Kelly but those other guys, too. Kelly’s old roommate eventually ended up there, too, and I sat with him sometimes. Every time I went back I was never sure who’d be alive, who would still be on the ward, or if someone else i recognized or had known would be there this time. I don’t remember how many times I visited before Kelly died; I just remember I came back and his bed had someone else in it. I know I went to some memorial services and I know I went to some funerals, and I know I kept going back there periodically; I wasn’t worried about getting infected and dying because I had begun to believe it was inevitable. I know I went numb at some point during that period, and I also know it was when my college career went off the rails for the last time and I began losing myself in drugs and alcohol to stop feeling anything. I knew I couldn’t make myself straight because I would be miserably unhappy if I tried; I was miserable trying. I also believed I couldn’t be myself because I would lose everything and end up dying all by myself in that ward–also knowing that when the inevitable day came when I wound up in that ward, I’d die alone.
There were times I wish it would happen so I could get it over with–the horrible death–because my life was so miserable I often didn’t want to go on living.
And yet, no matter how many times I wished I were dead, no matter how many times I wanted to die, I never could end my own life. I couldn’t do that, for some reason.
So on I lived, somehow getting through my days, letting life happen to me rather than making my life happen, until I shook myself off and decided to take control–death is inevitable for everyone, after all, so why not live until then?
Here I am, on the cusp of sixty, still alive when everyone gay I knew from back then, from my first baby steps into living my life as myself, died. I wasn’t there for all of them. I wasn’t there when many of them died, and I felt guilty about that, guilty about not getting sick, guilty about living, guilty about somehow still being here when so many of them have gone. I feel guilty about not remembering their names.
I fought a long hard battle with myself and who I am, and somehow came out on the other side of it slightly wiser, definitely wounded, and still struggling from time to time.
This is how I remember it, through the fog of time and the prism of my own narcissistic self-absorption. I have things wrong, I’m sure–it’s been over thirty years–and I’ve never tried to remember before. I’ve certainly never talked about it before to anyone and I certainly have never written about it before. My memory, once so sharp and perfect, has become fogged and befuddled the older I get and the more time passes. Watching It’s a Sin, frankly, made me start to remember–so much of it brought back memories–and I also realized I never mourned, never really dealt with any of it. Was that the right coping mechanism? I don’t know. I just know I went numb and decided never to talk about it; when I left California I closed the door on that part of my life and knew I had to change my life. It took another four years before I was able to also change my mentality and got a new attitude towards life and love and well, everything; not only closing that door into my past again but sealing it hermetically and walling those memories off in my brain, never to remember, never to relive, never to examine.
And I realize now that while I never stopped mourning them, I also never allowed myself to experience the grief…and in order to finally heal, I need to finally grieve.
I picked up a copy of Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show: A Political History of New York 1987-1993, this week at the Latter Library. I imagine it’s going to be a rather painful read, and probably difficult at times, but I also feel that it’s important for me to read it. I am pleased that she, one of our community’s best writers and brightest thinkers, has written it. Sarah, whom I have known now for over twenty years plus, has written extensively about HIV/AIDS, both in her fiction and non-fiction; her non-fiction work is always thought-provoking, incredibly well thought out, and written beautifully. Her fiction is always fascinating; she always tackles enormous and important themes in her work–and often plays with form and style, in innovative and creative ways that would never occur to me, let alone attempt (Empathy is one of the most creative novels I’ve ever read; she reminds me of Faulkner in her willingness to experiment with styles and narrative form). She’s always incredibly fun to talk to–I have greatly enjoyed every conversation we’ve had; she is fiercely intelligent and yet has the remarkable ability to not make you feel stupid, or incapable of understanding what she is saying. (As someone whose intellect has always been somewhat less than, or been made to feel less than, I’ve always appreciated her speaking to me as an equal and peer; even though I am inevitably humbled and awed by how her mind works.)
Lately, I have found myself worrying that the truth and actual history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the societal neglect and systemic homophobia that made it so much worse than it could have, should have, been would be erased from history and forgotten. I am reminded of this every day at work, really; as I’ve aged in my job, the people I test and see regularly become younger and younger. At first, I was always a little taken aback by clients born in the 1980’s; now those people are nearing forty. As we move into the third decade of the twenty-first century, I am now starting to see people born after the turn of the century; 2000 babies are turning twenty-one this year, which is stunning to me. Those born in the 1990’s don’t remember a time when infection was a death sentence; and slowly but surely the horrors of the height of the plague seem as distant as the Spanish flu epidemic of the World War I era, or the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages.
This month was the fortieth anniversary of the New York Times article announcing the discovery of the first cases of what was soon to be called the “gay cancer”, eventually renamed GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) before it was finally labeled as HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome)–this is a vast over-simplification of the history of the disease and its naming; you can find an excellent timeline for it here:
1981 was the year I turned twenty; it was also the year I moved to California, putting Kansas in my rearview mirror once and for all (I’ve never returned); and I can remember the feeling, the excitement, of moving to a more progressive state (or so I saw it at the time) from one that was deeply mired in conservative values and Christianity. I already knew I was a gay boy before we moved to Kansas when I was fourteen, but that short period of time spent there (short in the overall scheme of my life; at this point as I stare down sixty rapidly approaching on the road ahead, I spent about a twelfth of my life there) was warping. (Then again, what part of my life wasn’t warping?)
It’s also very weird to think HIV/AIDS has now shadowed two-thirds of my life.
I tend not to look back at the plague years before 1994 very much; it’s all a part of my “never look back” mentality. I made some great friends in college–the ones who didn’t give a shit when I finally came out to them; I relish and love those memories made with them during the 1980’s, but the shadow always falls over that part of my life too; I was, as I said on the San Francisco Public Library panel the other night, trying everything I could think of to make myself straight (or able to push my true self so deeply into the closet that it would never ever see daylight) and yet there was still the other part of my life my straight friends knew nothing about; the sneaking out at night to gay cruising areas where other closeted types like myself met up; the furtive visits to gay bars and hoping no one from my other life saw me coming or going or saw my car parked nearby; the trips to hospitals to visit the always held at arm’s length gay friends who tried so hard to help me be myself, even when they were dying alone and unvisited in their quarantined hospital beds. The specter of HIV hung over me at all times; the shame of what would happen if I got infected, and the certainty that my family and straight friends would turn away and leave me, too, to die alone and unmourned, getting what I deserved.
And even when I moved to Florida, getting away from Texas and California and trying to get my life and act together, trying to be who I was, to live openly and honestly for once on my life, the phantom was always there, just out of my line of sight: the death sentence we were all sentenced to by fate, by timing, and by the callous indifference of the mainstream American community.
By some strange twist of fate I survived the plague years, never got infected, never got the bad news I expected was my inevitability.
I merely served witness, and even then, I was never anywhere that saw the worst of the decimation: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and even New Orleans; this small Southern city’s community was ravaged and decimated; that shadow was over this city too. I can remember coming to New Orleans every month after I discovered its magic, and seeing the evidence of the plague here in the disappearances of people from previous visits; a waiter at the Clover Grill, a bartender here or a bar back there–service people who made me feel welcomed, made me feel like a part of the family, helped convince me that my gut feeling New Orleans was the right place for me, helped me believe that gut instinct was correct. Now, years later, I don’t remember their names and maybe, if I try hard enough and come up with other memories, I can also summon up their faces but the names are gone–just like those I lost in the 1980’s, names I never recorded in my journals for fear someone might find and read them, experiences and joy and laughter gone forever because I was too afraid of leaving a record behind if and when the plague came for me.
Never look back was the theme of my life from 1994 on; a maxim or motto that should have been cross-stitched onto a sampler for me; the only words I ever thought about having tattooed on my body: NEVER LOOK BACK. There was only pain in the past, and I wanted to move beyond that pain, forget the scars, and try to live in the now and for the future–whatever it might hold, if I was even fated to have one.
I always thought, even as a child, that I was destined to die young. When I became aware of HIV/AIDS, I assumed that was the ticket to the hereafter I would eventually punch. And yet here I am, nearing sixty, and the last twenty-seven years of my life have held more joy than I ever dared to dream were possible for me, and the dreams I held wrapped so tightly to my chest, those dreams that got me through even the most difficult of times, eventually did come to pass, and came true for me.
Watching It’s a Sin earlier this year brought it all back to me; as I have mentioned to friends, it hit me much harder than any other HIV/AIDS film or series; primarily because in films like Longtime Companion and in the fiction that has come to be known as “witness” or “survivor” fiction inevitably the story began in the pre-HIV hedonism of the 1970’s before the change; and while the lives were always cut dramatically short, they were somewhat older. It’s a Sin was the first time I saw it all through the eyes of characters who were the same age I was when it all started; and while their experiences and what they went through was so different than my own, it was impossible not to watch and remember and think my God, we were all so young when it hit. Watching the show allowed me, for the first time, to grieve; I know at some point back then I simply went numb. I know where my aversion to funerals comes from; I’ve always known, really, just never faced up to it before.
I’ve never wanted to write about the plague years, never wanted to write about what I witnessed and what I saw, the unbearable sadness I lived with for so many years. Others had it so much worse than I did, and so I never really felt like it was my story to tell; there was always a sense, a feeling, a fear, that I would make it all about me when it wasn’t, and sometimes I do wonder–since watching the show–if the work I do at my day job is, in some ways, an atonement for still being alive when so many are not. Survivor’s guilt is very real, and something I think about on those days when the pendulum of my moods swings too far in the wrong direction, when despite my best efforts not to look back, I do. I also think I don’t ever want to write about that time because my memories are so untrustworthy; and I am not entirely certain that I can tell those stories without centering myself…because it’s not my story but theirs.
So, I am both looking forward to and dreading reading this book, but no matter what, I am very grateful that it exists and that the record of the times, the anger, and the way the community rose up to challenge authority and thus changed the world will not be lost to the passage of time.
There is still, to this date, no vaccine for HIV–and yet, one was developed in less than a year for COVID-19.
Well, I wrote the timeline for Bury Me in Shadows last night–lame as it was; I am waiting for my editor to write me back and say, um, you could have made more of an effort on this. But it’s done, and I am well relieved to be out of those woods–for now, at any rate. I am kind of mentally fatigued; two books back to back like this will tend to do that to one–although I used to do it all the time; book after book after book. But I also didn’t used to have to get up at six three days a week, either, nor did I ever have the insomnia issues like I do these days. Last night was another of those nights where Morpheus chose to not visit my bed, but I feel relatively okay at the moment, as I swill my first cappuccino. I am sure I will hit a wall later today. Tonight is also supposed to be a gym night, but…we’ll see how that goes.
I’ve decided to put aside the Thomas Perry novel for now. It’s very well done, but I am not connecting with it, which is more my problem than Perry’s; I am just not in the mind space right now for a hired killer thriller. I’ll come back to it at some point, I am sure; so it goes back into the TBR pile rather than into the donation box. I’ve actually gone on a tear with buying ebooks on sale (or for free) lately, and I’ve also gotten some wonderful e-galleys stored in my iPad–including this year’s titles from Laura Lippman and Alison Gaylin, not to mention some sparkling debuts and some wonderful classics. Yesterday I finally figured out how to sort my ebooks (I am such a Luddite) in the iPad by title, so I could see how many duplicates there were–and there were quite a few, so I deleted all the duplicates to free up space as well as make it easier to find things in there. I think when I go visit my parents, I may just take my iPad instead of books with me to read–although I am taking the hard copy of From Here to Eternity with me–that way I can read through take-off and landing…although I suppose one could just put the device on airplane mode but I still think they make you power it down. It’s been so long since I’ve flown anywhere, it’s hard to remember. I just ordered some more books with points from credit cards that should be arriving this week–yes, yes, I know; I shouldn’t continue buying more books when I still have massive TBR piles–but I’ve cleaned out so many books over the past few months that I thought why not use the points and get some new titles, as well as the Laurie R. King backlist. I am still planning on reading something else before treating myself to A Letter of Mary–I just haven’t decided what just yet. I am torn between She Who Was No More by Pierre Boileau (which Les Diaboliques was based on) and The Cook by Harry Kressing, which was filmed as Something for Everyone with Michael York and Angela Lansbury–a classic and bizarre queer film from the early 1970’s–it’s on Youtube.
Or…maybe something else.
We watched another episode of The Innocent last night; this show is so damned good and full of didn’t-see-that-coming plot twists! Of all the Harlan Coben shows on Netflix, this is my favorite so far–not really surprising, since Paul and I have fallen in love with Spanish-language crime shows (cannot WAIT for season 4 of Elite to drop)–we talked about this last night, and Paul said–and I agree–this particular show wouldn’t be as good in English, or if it was set in the US or England or France.
Of course, hot Spanish and/or Mexican actors might play a part in our thought process. Just sayin’.
I also have a story in yet another anthology that is dropping in June and can be preordered now: Unburied, edited by Rebecca Rowland, from Dark Ink Press. My story is “Night Follows Night”; which I wrote an original draft of years ago for an MWA anthology–I think–that didn’t get accepted. I revised and rewrote it a number of times, and when this call for submissions was forwarded to me by Felice Picano (thanks, Felice!) I thought, well, “Night Follows Night” loosely fits this call, and sent it off–and was very delighted to hear back from Rebecca that she loved it and wanted it. Yay! This was the same period last year where I sent off five stories in one day and sold three of them within 24 hours–which was exactly what I needed to have happen at the time, as I was going through one of my malaise periods…nothing like selling three stories in less than twenty-four hours to get you past that hump (the other two were rejected, but that was expected; they were long-shots to begin with).
And on that note, tis off to the spice mines with me. I hope I have enough energy to make it through this day–I was planning on going to the gym tonight, but the lack of sleep for two days running means that probably won’t happen….
The sun is actually out today and there aren’t many–if any–clouds in our beautiful blue sky this morning, which is lovely. It’s rained pretty constantly ever since Tuesday afternoon, and everything outside is still wet from nearly a week of rain. I love rain–especially thunderstorms–but even I thought five straight days of them was a bit extreme. I wound up running my errands in the rain yesterday–I dropped off another five boxes of books to the Ladder Library sale yesterday (you actually can tell now that I’ve gotten rid of books)–and made groceries and got the mail. It was pouring while I did all of this, so my plans to go to the gym yesterday were finally scrapped. I also wound up taking the day off from almost everything yesterday–I think I needed a brain-free day, frankly–and so we watched a lot of television–we binged all the way through a delightful comedy called The Other Two, watched the Tom Holland movie Cherry on Apple Plus, and then switched over to Acorn for a riveting crime show called The Cry.
Yes, I was a slug all day and I am not a bit ashamed of it.
Oh, sure, I had my journal with me and scribbled notes freeform all day–my favorite is that I came up with a short story title I now HAVE to use, “To Live and Die in La.”, while having absolutely no idea what the story would actually be, but I laughed at the title and now want to. use it–so I did do something. But today I have to start revising/copy editing/making notes on Bury Me in Shadows–due to be returned to my editor no later than the first of May–and so, if I do go to the gym today (leaning towards it, since it’s sunny out) I can curl up in my easy chair to do it, so that’s a start. I really need to work on my story–the deadline for that submission call is May 15, I believe–and so I need to kick everything up a notch this week. I am getting caught up on a lot of other things as well–it’s never-ending, and have also accepted that I only have so much bandwidth for things. The emails, for example…I’ll never get caught up on those, ever…so I need to prioritize and so forth in order to get through everything that absolutely needs to be responded to immediately.
I also need to spend some time getting organized and cleaning a bit this morning. There’s filing to be done, of course–always–and somehow the kitchen looks like a tornado ripped through here (not completely an exaggeration, to be honest) and I need to get that taken care of this morning. I have a load of laundry to do, and there’s always dishes–always. I also want to organize the refrigerator a bit more this morning. Since the sun is out, I’ll probably grill hamburgers later on this afternoon, which is always an absolute treat (I really prefer all meat to be cooked over hot charcoal, frankly–or at least, most). I am also a bit excited that the next step of book decluttering (and yes, I am aware I am completely Marie Kondo-ing my apartment) is to go up into the storage attic and start clearing the boxes up there. This will, of course, be more complicated than the bookcases and the hidden boxes in the living room, since I’ll have to bring them down and go through them, combining the ones to keep (I can’t imagine there will be many of those) while putting aside the ones to donate. The goal is to clear out enough space in the storage attic so I can clean out my storage rental and close that account; most of the books in the storage are copies of my own books (and my kids’ series collection) along with some other things–mostly papers–and it would be nice to either no longer have that bill every month, or to use that space for other things…but at the moment I can’t think of anything that we’d need to keep it for.
But it would be great to lose that bill by the end of the summer.
Not as great as paying off the car, but still pretty good.
I think I’m going to add Semi-Tough to the donate pile. The first three pages are nothing but racial slurs as well as justifications for using them, and how the main character–it’s a first person narrative–isn’t really racist and the slurs are just words that don’t mean offense and so on–and yeah, I really don’t feel like spending any of my time with that kind of character. I certainly wouldn’t in real life–imagine being at dinner or a cocktail party and the person you are talking to says, and this is a direct quote from page one: Just because I may happen to say (the n-word) doesn’t mean I’m a racist.
Um, actually it does. It says a lot about you, who you are, and how you were raised, as well as how you see people and the world.
And I really have no desire to read a book filled with racial slurs…because you KNOW its also full of gay slurs, too–and most likely without the caveat justifying the racial slurs: Now listen, just because I say “faggot” doesn’t mean I’m homophobic.
There are so many other good books to read, why reread something I originally read as a teen that plays on racism and homophobia and misogyny for humor? I stopped rereading The Last Picture Show, a book I absolutely loved, a few years ago when it got to the part about bestiality, and how it was perfectly normal for the teen boys to fuck animals…I closed the book and put it away. I may go back and reread the entire thing at some point–the reason I was rereading it in the first place was to examine how it handles homosexuality–which I distinctly remembered it doing–but I don’t think I was able to get far enough into it to get to that part. I know that Coach Popper–long-suffering Ruth’s awful husband–was a deeply repressed one, who favored one of the more athletic boys primarily because of his attraction to him; that the preacher’s son Billy Bob Blanton was often mocked and teased and bullied and humiliated for being a “four-eyed queer” (before he molests a little girl, after which he’s taken away as a pervert); and that the heterosexual English teacher, who was cultured and sensitive and kind, was accused by the coach of impure thoughts and fired (everyone, of course, would never suspect the manly football coach of anything, or question him); and I remembered a particular poignant scene between the fired English teacher–who’s been fired, whose wife has left him and taken their daughters and filed for divorce–and Ruth, where he’s just so beaten down and defeated that it’s heartbreaking. But yeah–that whole “boys will be boys” attitude towards bestiality was too much for me to get through again.
The Last Two is a terrific show, and quite funny. Paul and I really enjoyed it; the premise of the show is the two older children are in their late twenties–one is a struggling actor whose most recent audition was for a commercial in which he would play “Party-goer who smells a fart”; the daughter had wanted to become a dancer until she broke her ankle and dropped out of dance school and cannot figure out what she wants to do with the rest of her life–when suddenly, their thirteen year old brother puts up a video of him singing a ridiculous song (“Marry Me at Recess”) and becomes an overnight viral sensation with a record deal and a manager under the name “Chase Dreams”; which makes them feel even more like losers. The older brother, Cary, is also gay and in a weird relationship with his straight roommate; the daughter has broken up with her boyfriend and is now homeless at the beginning of the show. I thought it was terrific, frankly, and look forward to season two.
My primary takeaway from Cherry is that Tom Holland is an amazingly talented actor–he really gives a stunning performance as a poor young man who falls in love, gets his heart broken and joins the military, serves as a medic in Iraq and comes home to nothing but PTSD and drug addiction, which leads him to a life of crime. It’s a very dark story–but also weirdly a love story at the same time–and I don’t think the film, worked overall; the Russo Brothers, who directed, turned it into this big grand opera style thing in the way they shot it; to the point where the beautiful imagery is almost intrusive. It’s a very real story–based on a true story–and it highlights, very powerfully, how we abandon our troops completely after their service is over (since they’re no longer the troops….”support the troops” makes me angry because it is used primarily as a political prop and the actual soldiers themselves suffer in silence and neglect while we give billionaires and corporations every break in the world), but it’s worth watching for Tom Holland’s performance–he was also fantastic in The Devil All The Time–and it’s really nice to see him pushing himself in his non-superhero roles (he’s also the best, in my opinion, Spider-Man).
And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader!