The Boss

Probably one of the most annoying, if not downright irritating, thing about being considered a marginalized author–no matter the cause of the marginalization–are the inevitable diversity panels one is almost always required to participate in; diversity is a topic worthy of discussion on panels at conferences or for libraries or bookstores or round tables for websites, newspapers, and magazines, after all; and what better way for people to learn about the challenges non-straight and non-white writers face all the time than public forums where they can talk about those things?

But it’s also a double-edged sword, too: as Steph Cha once put it, very wisely, “diversity panels inevitably turn into let’s teach the nice white people about racism panels.”

She’s right, although in my case, as a general rule, it becomes let’s teach the nice people about homophobia as a general rule.

It’s frustrating, and it’s tiring, frankly, and more than a little bit on the insulting side to realize programmers only see you as being of value because you’re different from the majority of the pool of writers they are programming for; why, for example, can’t I talk about character or plot or story or setting or all the plethora of subjects straight white people get to talk about? I am not just a gay writer; I’m a writer, and the adjective gay shouldn’t overrule or overpower any noun that comes after it.

But…I accept the invitations to do these panels because other invitations to do other panels, other readings, other events, aren’t forthcoming. I only get invited to do “diversity” readings and “diversity” panels; but I do them, even as I gnash my teeth a bit as I read the invitation.

I do them because my hope is that by doing them, queer writers of the future won’t have to do them. It’s a long haul, and a long game to play, but the recent movement of the crime fiction community in the right directions regarding diversity, and diverse authors, has been absolutely lovely.

But I also realized, several years ago, that I myself have no high horse to mount and ride in this game; because I myself wasn’t reading books by other queer and/or non-white writers. I set out to correct this, and an entirely new world of reading opened up to me; other experiences, other points of view, different ways of seeing society and culture and the world–and using these new points of view to breathe new life into a genre that was beginning to get a little stagnant again.

And I hate the thought that I might have, because of ingrained prejudices of a lifetime lived in a culture rooted in white supremacy, missed out on reading authors like Zakiya Dalila Harris.

Stop fussing at it, now. Leave it alone.

But my nails found my scalp anyway, running from front to back to front again. My reward was a moment of sweet relief, followed by familiar flood of dry, searing pain.

Stop it. Stop it.

I’d already learned the more I scratched, the more it’d resemble the burn of a bad perm–a bad perm that had been stung by fifty wasps and then soused with moonshine. My small opportunity for reprieve would come only after the trains started moving, when I could finally close my eyes and take comfort in the growing distance between me and New York City. Still, I continued to scrape at the itch incessantly, my attention shifting to another startling concern: we weren’t moving yet.

My eyes darted to the strip of train platform visible through the open doors, my mind moving faster than I’d moved through Grand Central Terminal just minutes earlier. What if someone followed me here?

The Other Black Girl is a riveting novel of suspense; workplace noir rather than domestic noir–and really, is there any place more noir than the office workplace? I’ve always been fascinated by group dynamics; how individuals behave in groups, and even in the smallest of workplace, office politics inevitably come into play–unfair bosses, under-appreciated employees; the suck-ups who don’t work as hard or aren’t as competent but somehow always get the plum gigs and promotions because they play the game properly; the underminers….the first workplace drama I ever remember reading about was, of course, also set in publishing: Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything, which is vastly overdue for a reread (but I barely have time to read as it is). While the workplace and the drama swirling around the coffee machine or the break room wasn’t the center of the novel–it was more about the girls who worked there’s outside lives, and trying to maintain the balance between what they wanted with their ambitions and what is expected of them as women in American society–it’s always remained in my brain as a book about the workplace. The Devil Wears Prada also took a look at a workplace–that of a fashion magazine–and I personally thought the deeply flawed film version was far better than the deeply flawed book–but also firmly established in American culture the character of Miranda Priestley, the monstrous boss from hell; but Miranda was also the most interesting character in both book and film to me. I wanted to know more about her, who she was; Andie was neither original nor interesting enough, in my mind, to center a book or a film around.

The Other Black Girl also takes places at a prestigious publishing company, Wagner’s, and our main character is Nella–and a fascinating, well-rounded, and deeply developed character is she–one it is easy to sympathize with, to become vested in, and root for. Nella is a young woman of color–the only Black employee in editorial at Wagner’s, and her own drive and activism is being gradually worn down by the micro-aggressions and games and politics played in that workplace, only to be further complicated by the arrival of another Black girl, Hazel. At first, Nella is excited to have another Black girl in the workplace with her…until she slowly begins to realize that everyone responds to Hazel better; listens to her more; and sees her own not exactly rock-solid position at Wagner’s slowly being undermined by the other Black girl…is it deliberate undercutting of a fellow Black girl (‘there can only be one”) or is Nella being paranoid, the every day stressors of working in a mostly white environment making her paranoid, her grip on sanity beginning to slip a little bit? And then she starts getting threatening notes left on her desk….

This is a terrific read, and I loved Nella (although I would have loved to see more of her best friend, Malaika); Nella was fascinating to me. Raised in a mostly white upper middle class world, Nella often questions herself about whether she is “Black enough”–she has a white boyfriend, Owen, and has spent most of her life in mostly white spaces, and has for the most part found herself comfortable–if micro-aggressed–there; she’s ambitious and has a role model–a Black female editor who worked at Wagner before disappearing–and you can’t help but root for her to achieve her ambitions. Hazel is more of a mystery, but she is developed as well as can be for someone who isn’t the point of view character; and this mystery helps drive the story. What exactly is Hazel up to? Is she even up to something?

And the book also–spoiler alert–has a huge shift about 2/3rds of the way through that the reader will NOT see coming…and after that point, you won’t be able to stop reading.

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I loved it.

Too Late

Hey there, Friday, how you doing?

A thunderstorm woke me up around six this morning, as one has the last three days or so, as well as a downpour. It has since stopped raining since I got up–well, at least it’s not a deluge as it was when it woke me up; now it’s just kind of sprinkling–and again, this makes me rather happy that I don’t have to leave the house today. I do need to make groceries and get the mail, but this can wait until tomorrow if need be; or after I finish working today if the weather has cleared up.

Last night I finished reading The Man With the Candy, and the story continues to fascinate me–and the dead boys haunt me. It’s amazing to me also how little there is out there about the case–John Wayne Gacy, being caught alive and tried, essentially erased Corll from the public imagination. Had there been 24 hour news channels in 1974, there would have been so much coverage it would be impossible for the Candyman story to so utterly and completely disappear from the public consciousness; I only know the story because I lived in Houston about fifteen years after Corll was killed, and people in the city still remembered. The book will get its own review post at some point–it’s very well done–but I also can’t help but wonder if all those boys would have been murdered had society not been so homophobic at the time….but I suppose I can talk about that when I write about the book.

We also started watching an Oxygen documentary series about Aaron Hernandez last night, another case that has long fascinated me. While I always tend to reserve my sympathies for the victims, Hernandez never really had a chance, given his abusive childhood, his sexual molestation as a child, his homophobic father and then becoming a professional athlete in an incredibly homophobic sport (well, almost all the professional and amateur sports have a certain level of homophobia built into them as part of the toxic masculinity so rampant in our country as well as the systemic homophobia we still fight to this very day); not to mention all the brain damage he sustained playing football. It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for him, despite his crimes; how different would his life have been had his father not been an abusive homophobe, had he not been sexually molested, and had the society and culture he was raised in been so horrifically homophobic, forcing him to play the toxically masculine role of the stud athlete?

I suppose that’s the case with so many criminals, though–had it not been for this or that, perhaps they would have had a productive life that benefited society.

Speaking of toxic masculinity, yesterday while making condom packs I watched a Mike Nichols film from 1970, Carnal Knowledge, starring Jack Nicholson and Arthur Garfunkel (of all people; I’m curious how he wound up being cast in this). The opening sequences, with the two men playing roommates and best friends named Jonathan and Sandy respectively, was kind of amusing; it’s easy to forget that as recently as the 1970’s it wasn’t uncommon for actors to play high school or college students when they were clearly way too old (see The Way We Were); but it’s also difficult to find actors young enough to play them as college students while looking enough like them to be believable as well as being able to act as well as the stars. My prime away takeaway from this movie was, well, anyone who ever wonders why the Women’s Movement was necessary and needed should just watch this movie. To say that it hasn’t aged well is a MAJOR understatement; and while it seems the entire point of the movie (and this may just be my modern reading of it) is to point out how societal expectations and sexual mores of the time not only punished women but also poisoned men with toxicity. The movie opens with the two men at a mixer when an incredibly beautiful young Candace Bergen arrives; both are interested, but since Sandy “saw her first” she’s his for the taking (boom! not even five minutes in and we are already exposed to the sexist, misogynist notion that a young woman belongs to a man she’s not even met because he saw her first…no consideration whatsoever to what she may want or need) and she reluctantly begins to date him, although it’s fairly obvious she doesn’t really feel anything for him. We never get any understanding of her or who she is, nor do we get any sense of why Jonathan pursues his best friend’s girlfriend or why she sleeps with him. He eventually demands that she choose, and she chooses Sandy. We then follow the two friends through the years, as Jonathan becomes even more toxic and distant, unwilling to get married and unwilling to commit to any woman; Sandy’s marriage ends in divorce and he begins seeing another woman whom Jonathan also pursues, eventually convincing Sandy to “swap” with him; at this point Jonathan is living with Bobbie (played by Ann-Margret; a really terrific performance) a model/actress who moves in with him and quits working and slowly begins to crumble emotionally–he’s also abusive; we never actually see him strike her, but the verbal and emotional abuse is horrific. Sandy goes into the bedroom only to find Bobbie has overdosed on pills…which finally gets Jonathan to marry her. The next scene we see, they are already divorced and he is living alone; Sandy is visiting him with his new girlfriend (a very young Carol Kane), who is horrified by who Jonathan is and his attitude towards women–he shows them a slideshow of every woman he’s been involved with, calling it the Ballbuster Show; Susan (Candace Bergen) briefly appears on the screen and he quickly clicks past her. Appalled by him, the Kane character leaves, and the two old friends go for a walk. Sandy talks about how she is teaching him how to love and how to love himself, and that he hopes cynical Jonathan can find someone who will teach him the same lessons. Jonathan scoffs, and the final scene of the movie shows him going to a prostitute, Rita Moreno, with the hopes that she’ll enable him to get hard this time–impotence has been an issue for him going back to college, which is apparently caused–the script infers–by his inability to be vulnerable or to connect emotionally with women. And that’s all, folks; credits roll.

This definitely fits into the Cynical 70’s Film Festival; it’s probably one of the darkest films I’ve ever seen when it comes to relationships between men and women. Perhaps that’s what Nichols and screenwriter Jules Pfeiffer were trying for; I certainly hope so, as that was the end result. There were several times while watching that I couldn’t help but think, this is a Rona Jaffe novel only from the men’s perspective rather than the women’s, which just goes to show how fucked up we were as a society back in those “good old days” of the 1950’s conservatives keep wanting us to go back to–no fucking thanks, for the record.

And on THAT note, tis off to the spice mines with ME. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader.

Walking After Midnight

Here I am, up at the crack of dawn–well, not really, but earlier than I usually get up on a Thursday–so I can catch a flight to New York later this morning. And I think I packed the clothes I intended to wear on the plane this morning–which is fine. Not particularly smart, but I’ve been running on accessory all week as it is, so it’s not particularly surprising, either.

I also woke up well before my alarm this morning, too. Not sure what that’s all about, but there you have it.

Today is also my first time flying out of the new terminal at Armstrong, so that’s also kind of exciting.

I am taking probably too many books with me on this trip: The Talented Mr, Ripley; Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely; Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little; and Dread Journey by Dorothy B. Hughes. I’ll probably finish Ripley at the airport and get started on the Neely on the plane. I hope to have some free down time periodically in order to do some work on my secret project; but knowing how these trips usually go that’s most likely never going to happen. But hope springs eternal and all that nonsense.

Last night didn’t do much of anything once I got home. I packed and spent the evening in my easy chair, watching videos on Youtube–clips and analysis of the LSU game on Monday, as well as discussions on whether or not this team is one of the best of all time. It’s kind of hard to argue against it, really; given the teams they beat and how they beat them. The last three games of the season were against Number 4 Georgia (37-10); Number 4 Oklahoma (63-28), and Number 3 Clemson (42-25). They beat everyone in the preseason top 4 (Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Georgia). Excluding the LSU losses, those three times they beat at the end of the season totaled 2 losses total; add Alabama into the mix and that would be three; adding Florida would make it 4.

Sorry, I know I tend to run on and on about this LSU team, but damn, they were amazing.

But I’ll be glad when this trip is over and I get home Sunday evening. I have Monday off–Martin Luther King Jr Day–and so I can relax and recover and get some things done before I return to work on Tuesday. Traveling has become more and more of a chore the older I get; I always wonder if getting older has just made me crankier, or if traveling has, indeed, gotten terrible. I suspect it’s a combination of the two–less patience and more stupidity and inefficiency. But I do love New York; I never feel more like a writer then I do when I am in New York; probably because as a child New York was the nexus for authors–and certainly in every book I read that had a writer as a character, that was certainly the case; everything from You Can’t Go Home Again to Youngblood Hawke to Peyton Place, for that matter; and of course the crown jewel, Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything. And I will be there this afternoon! It’s not that I mind trips–it’s the getting there, the actual travel, I’ve come to loathe–from getting to the airport to the check-in process to security to the seemingly endless wait at the gate; the gathering of luggage and transporting one’s self to the final destination.

And on that note, tis time to hop in the shower and make my final preparations for the departure. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader!

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