When my friend Charles Howard was murdered on July 7, 1984, in Bangor, Maine, I had already quit my job teaching and was planning to leave Bangor at the end of the summer, in about two months. After Charlie’s murder, and thinking that someone was going to write a book about this—it needed to be written down—I collected a box of flyers and newspaper clippings for the person to use who was going to write the book. In the end, nobody else took up the challenge to write it all down—so I did it, wrote the novel about what happened after Charles Howard was drowned.
A novel about a murder of a young gay man can have many shapes. A writer could introduce a man or woman who is a detective who hears about the murder and who begins to investigate, which makes of the novel a detective fiction. Or the novel could be the young gay man’s story. He tells us he has had a hard life, difficult relationships with his family, is rootless, a wanderer, abused, wounded. The novel would end with the death of this young man. These approaches use the broad facts of the murder and concentrate in different ways on one person—the detective or the victim. Choosing one or the other of those options is critical to the kind of novel it will be. But there are other options. What I was moved by was the community of us who came together after our friend was murdered, who got to know each other and to explore our lives together and to learn what we could do to make our lives better—all while we were experiencing initial shock and grief. I realized I wanted to write about this group of us, recognizably a group of us, and also recognizably individuals. I came to understand that the truth that I wanted to write would not be a simple, declarative truth. It would be a truth that was multi-faceted, many-colored, iridescent truth and would change from person to person according to generation and gender among those represented in the group of people at the church that night. This would be a kind of conglomerated truth.
The group of us had no leader that summer, so I didn’t want to organize the book in such a way that emphasized one person. Or produced one truth. There would be no single narrator to tell this truth. I struggled, at first, looking for a way to organize it, experimenting with third-person omniscient point of view, but then it gradually came to seem right to have each of my characters be his or her own narrator. The reader would not be told one story, he or she would be told a number of different stories which touched on each other in different ways. The story here was the narratives of a number of separate people who for a time accomplished some tasks together and some tasks individually and who frequently contradicted each other. And the result would not be what would happen if you squeezed red paint on a palette, and then blue, and mixed, ending up with purple. What I wanted to see was red, and distinctly separate, blue. And, from a certain distance, a person could begin to see, out of the red and blue, Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte—but only after a long time and from a great distance.
I began to realize that each character, when he or she began to narrate an episode, would be doing at least two things. Timothy, for example, in his episode, called the Prologue, tells what happened on Saturday, the day of the dance, and he focuses on what they did that day—he and Bernie, which is the name of the boy who is murdered, walk across the bridge, they walk up the hill to Bernie’s room, they have sex, they take a nap, they put on makeup, Bernie punches a hole in Timothy’s earlobe, they walk through town to the church where the dance will be held—and also focus to some degree on the overarching story of the novel, the introduction of the other characters, the basic situation of their group in Cardiff—the fictional name of the city of Bangor—and the death of Bernie Mallett and its immediate consequences. Timothy, sixteen years old, is the gay person who tells us that he saw Bernie die. His last word in this episode is “screaming.” The narrative that comes out of Timothy’s telling us about himself and about what happens to Bernie, I now began to understand, was going to be messy, unfocussed, confusing, deeply moving, and brilliantly illuminating. And it was going to be contradicted by the next episode. Even aside from being the sole witness to his friend’s violent death, Timothy was already victimized in all the ways kids can be victimized. He was sexually abused, he was essentially alone, he was homeless, he had an unspecified learning disability. Each of his parents had rejected him for different reasons, and he was probably an alcoholic. While telling his story, he was also telling the story of homeless LGBTQ youth in town. I wanted to write about a group of individuals who know each other in different ways and in different degrees of intimacy, and who therefore create a dialogue among the LGBTQ people in which, sometimes, one person speaking is answered by another’s speaking—and sometimes not. Most often, a person’s monologue ignores or pays no attention to anything else that has been said, and one monologue is connected to another monologue only in a reader’s mind. The fact of the subject—a group of random LGBTQ people—created the structure of the novel, separate monologues from a random group of people, but joined by the horrific effect of Bernie’s death.
I was aware from the beginning that Ceremonies would not be an easy read. Reading the text up close can be painful many gay people tell me—they feel the pain like primary colors, undifferentiated and endless—but at a distance, at the distance of purple, they can begin to see other colors. At a distance, the reader, looking at Timothy, would see a boy in harsh pain with strength and courage.
What happened to Timothy, causing him to address his own personal crisis and at the same time to show evidence of a cultural crisis, happens all the way through Ceremonies in most of the narratives from the LGBTQ citizens. These people gain an increasingly sophisticated awareness that they are not the only ones being abused, though they are abused in different ways, and they learn how to cope and sometimes to stop it. And they find it very difficult to speak with one voice, leaving the reader of Ceremonies the difficult task of finding the narrative.
From the moment we came together, it was clear that the men and women in the auditorium of that Unitarian-Universalist Church had unexamined issues with each other. The women, who came from many years of feminist activism, wanted equality with men and recognition of their own abilities and capabilities, and the men, who hadn’t paid much attention to all that, wanted equality with straight men. It was clear from the beginning that there were going to be at least two fights going on in the pages of this novel—between gays and straights, and between men and women. The women, who already had years of experience in women’s organizations and the advantage of university courses and the whole feminist library of books from writers beginning in the sixties like Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, and later, in the seventies, Adrienne Rich, Del Martin, Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller, Kate Millett, were impatient with the men who merely wanted to mop up the floor with some straight ass. This conflict among the genders was real, and the divisions went deep and affected everything we did in those months right after Charles Howard was murdered. And, as in the larger conflict, the divisions between men and women exhibited qualities in different people according to their ages, class, ethnicity and geographical origins, and, of course, temperament, education, gender, and family.
When I got into the book and made some significant progress, I began to think, there is very little else out there like this. My characters were constantly talking about politics and talking in political terms. There were times when characters come together to talk about plans for the next Coalition meeting. They talked about the presidential election, which was ongoing that summer. They talked about the Democratic candidate’s choice of a woman for vice-president. They were beginning to see the connection between rejection by a parent, as Mickey is rejected by his mother, and rejection by the President of the United States, who believed, erroneously, that it is morning in America. They talked about what laws needed to be passed to prevent another murder of a young gay man. My realization had to do with the fact that I have introduced politics into my book.
Politics, I learned in school in the fifties, has no place in fiction. Jaime Harker has written Middlebrow Queer: Christopher Isherwood in America, in which she analyzes the tangled relationships between the government and cultural matters after World War II.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Cold War intellectuals sought to establish the United States culturally as well as politically (and many did so with covert CIA support for key literary journals). The discipline of American studies—established in books by Leo Marx, F. O. Matthiessen, Richard Chase, and Leslie Fiedler—sought to establish a mythic American spirit; critics in the Partisan Review contrasted the freedom of highbrow aesthetics with the niggardly realism of totalitarian regimes. These cultural interventions were marked by an aggressive masculinity; any deviance was denounced as aesthetically compromised and un-American. Literary criticism implicitly enforced conservative gender roles and betrayed anxiety about inordinate cultural influence of women and gay men in the United States, an anxiety alleviated through prescriptive and narrow literary norms. (p. 5)
In an essay on Salon, “Where’s the buzzed-about gay novel?” Daniel D’Addario discusses something he calls “minority lit,” in which the minority writer will write, in the words of Alexander Chee, “about the difficulties one faces as X minority in the US—and so this becomes the expectation.” Chee concludes, “even before you pick up the novel, it can feel like you’re about to read a long-form complaint.” In a blog post for this website, “We don’t tell the truth about ourselves,” I wrote that D’Addario seems to feel that the possibility that a novel is a “long-form complaint” is a terrible thing, driving away publishers and readers. Yet the Declaration of Independence is a long form complaint. And so is Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Intruder in the Dust, Fear of Flying, Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa, and virtually every other novel published since La Princesse de Clèves. Or, slightly earlier, The Canterbury Tales in the fourteenth century. There is very little literature that doesn’t have a political thread more or less obviously there for the reader to see. And, of course, the presence or absence of the political thread has nothing much to do with whether or not the fabric is art. As the twentieth century has lavishly shown, art can be made of anything, including a crucifix in Andres Serrano’s piss. Despite this overwhelming proof from the whole of twentieth century art, “cold war intellectuals” focussed on one kind of political fiction which was to be guarded against.
As a culture, we’ve mostly gotten beyond this fear of politics and the blanket rejection of gay-themed literature. But there is a version of this belief which is still around and which still cripples our literature, and this one attacks LGBTQ subject matter from the standpoint of aesthetics. In 2013 Daniel D’Addario interviews Caleb Crain on Salon, in a column titled, The straight canon is very gay. Crain has this to say:
I don’t really think that it makes sense for a work of art to take on a social purpose. Just because there are so many constraints that you’re working under already — what material is available to you, what your capabilities are with the abilities you have, what will the market bear, what’s the nature of your audience — these are the constraints you have to satisfy. If you have a purpose of social reform, I don’t think it’d be art.
I also wrote about this column on this blog, The validity of the lives we lead.
But sometimes, you can’t escape politics. Sometimes, to write about a subject at all means the writer has to take the plunge into politics. Jaimie Harker quotes Christopher Isherwood saying,
‘There are certain subjects—including Jewish, Negro and homosexual questions—which involve social and political issues. There are laws which could be changed. There are public prejudices which could be removed. Anything an author writes on these subjects is bound, therefore, to have certain propaganda value, whether he likes it or not.’ (p.14)
To write honestly of LGBTQ lives is to raise the question in the mind of the reader, Who or what is responsible for this abuse? This is an implicitly political question which proposes reform. And yet descriptions of this abuse cannot be considered art, according to Caleb Crain in Daniel D’Addario’s article.
Ceremonies was about men and women who were abused and discriminated against in the American republic by American culture. The proof of that lay in the dead body of Bernie Mallett. During the course of the novel much of what people said to each other or said to the reader was to examine just how American culture had abused and discriminated against them. The novel was also about the question how do we respond? The reason this was problematic begins with the ancient roots of anti-gay bigotry in Christian Europe. Bigotry in Christian Europe almost always took the form of silencing any attempts to speak out about homosexuality, the very mention of which, according to Blackstone, is a disgrace to human nature. But there was something much more insidious and dangerous, much closer to the group of LGBTQ people in Maine in the summer of 1984.
What this meant for our purposes was that “cultural interventions” resulted in publishers refusing to publish books which examined the place of homosexuals in American society or which even assumed LGBTQ people had a place in America. As a freshman in college, I worked on the staff of a literary journal, which I found later was one of the recipients of the CIA money designed to get the journal to support “conservative gender roles” or “prescriptive and narrow literary norms.” I remember getting ready to submit a gay-themed short story to this journal when I was in graduate school, in the sixties, but their advertisement in The New Yorker said, “We do not accept any gay-themed stories.”
The literary establishment during the fifties and sixties said the lives of LGBTQ people cannot be made into art. We were outsiders and the significant facts about us—the way we had sex and the object of our sexual attraction—meant that the churches, the schools, and the civil authorities all legislated against us. To come out was a political act—we were acting against the culture—and so, apparently, our lives could not be the subject of art. However, knowing that the biggest conflicts and crises of my life have been the consequence of Acts of Congress (the most painful were the consequence of ignorance and stubbornness of members of my own nuclear family), I came to see that if I were to create art out of my life—if I were to tell the truth about my life—it would have to be a political art, in violation of the rules of my culture. On the other hand, every writer on the Stonewall Riots has said that coming out is a political act. “High Art” was the subject Faulkner wrote about and received his Nobel for, and the “old verities” he talked about in his acceptance speech did not include old homosexual pains. But the suffering of LGBTQ persons is a fact about LGBTQ community that writers cannot ignore when they come to make art out of the lives of LGBTQ persons.
I wrote this in 2013 in a post on this blog, The gay protest novel—1: “Observe the damage these ‘Cold War intellectuals’—who took the CIA’s money and sought to control the publishing industry to depict only real men—did in the late forties and fifties: a generation or two of gay people savaged by people they thought they could trust, a generation of gay writers whose works were savaged, but most of all, a critical principle repeated so widely that it became everywhere accepted, that gay novels on serious political subjects can be no more than mere propaganda and not in themselves capable of being interesting and compelling literature. We were told, gay art cannot be high art. That’s a crime, to have told us that. We’ll never know what literature has been lost to us in the last sixty years because of these ‘Cold War intellectuals.’”
I was determined to write a political novel about the lives of LGBTQ persons. Since the lives of LGBTQ persons are so explicitly political, the question, from the beginning, was not whether but how. There aren’t very many LGBTQ novels about the political condition of LGBTQ people. I suppose that the short answer is that the writer writes about one subject the same way he or she might write about other subjects, which is to say, to the best of his or her ability. The conflict in a political novel may lie in whether the law is legitimate, in a person’s violation of the law or in how it feels to be subject to the law, to name a few possibilities. But when considering the pain LGBTQ men and women have experienced in the last three thousand years, the politics of their lives lies in their response to pain, not in whether or not they have suffered.
I knew that it is necessary always to tell the truth. The writer may lie to his or her reader but must expect the reader to discover the truth by the novel’s end. What the writer cannot consciously do is lie about the subject of the novel. I am going to tell you all about the life of a gay man. And then, in small letters at the bottom of the page of the contract between writer and publisher, I am not going to put in my novel the fact that my protagonist’s generation would predict that my protagonist is white hot with rage at being prevented from getting married to his lover. Or, I am not going to tell the reader that my protagonist has a 32% chance of being infected with HIV. Or, a five-times higher chance of killing himself than the straight characters in my novel. If the writer is going to write about a gay man, he or she must include the fact that LGBTQ persons have been pursued and discriminated against for two or three thousand years. That is, unless you choose at the beginning to write fantasy novels. And if you choose to write fantasy, you should not pretend to be writing realistic fiction. A gay novel which pretends to be realistic which does not include significant information on the effect of bigotry on its characters’ lives is a lie.
Our very lives have been, for several thousand years, defined by political and moral oppression. It is clear that the politics of gay people’s lives—our oppression by the politics of the majority—are vastly underreported as the subject of literature, so I went ahead with my plans to write the whole story of the consequences of the murder of Charles Howard among the gay community. Then, I thought, when I have finished this very political book, I’ll deal with publishing it.
It seems that the publishing industry has arranged things so that the subject for gay fiction has to do with sex, which has to do with coming out, and with characters who are fairly young—the age when you come out—and they were not interested in other subjects. But the sex is not what is distinguishing about us. It is that we are legislated against because of the way we have sex. It is the discrimination against us that distinguishes us. And it will always be what distinguishes the generations of LGBTQ people up to now and for the foreseeable future. Even after marriage and the invalidation of sodomy laws and other legal victories, in 2018 we are being told that the appointment of a single new Supreme Court justice may mean the roll-back of our current place in the legal system. Of course, Moonlight, Brokeback Mountain, Call Me By Your Name all tell us that coming out is still political, still dangerous, and still here. Neither gay writers nor publishers have yet discovered that gay men and women have lives, which necessarily includes a political predicament brought on them by their government.
A legitimate subject of LGBTQ novels is the answer to the question, How did it feel, to be gay and to be eighteen years old and to be told that you can’t serve in the Army? Or work in the State Department? A legitimate subject of LGBTQ novels is the effect on the community of any number of situations LGBTQ people find themselves in. The friend of a man who has just been murdered. How did it feel to be in the Stonewall Riots? What did you think about? What if you were in Pulse Nightclub the night of the attack? How would you feel if you had grown up in the house of your father, Senator Aloysius Beekman, who is a notorious homophobe? What if your lover—your husband—passed on HIV to you? Or you to him? What if you had started a novel—the opening sentence is Happy families are all alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way—and you planned for the novel to be about three gay men, two of whom are in a difficult relationship into which the third is insinuating himself. These—and many more—are the questions that need to be asked and answered in our literature about a gay man living on that small planet floating around a small star in a distant corner of the cosmos falling through space. The way these questions are answered is—or ought to be—a major part of our literature. Our thoughts and feelings about these questions, and about the hundreds of other questions, are what make our lives matter on this small planet and are the raw material out of which comes an answer to the question, How is it for you there on that small planet? We must be able to say, before we die, I lived here, and I felt this, and my name is Timothy. I am sixteen years old. Straight people have this kind of literature. I want it for us, too.
This is the fifth in a series of blog posts about reading and writing and about my books and, of course, about the LGBTQ community, who are riding on planet Earth along with everyone else as it falls through space.
Jaime Harker. Middlebrow Queer: Christopher Isherwood in America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.