I organized this panel in response to a talk Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You, gave at last year’s AWP. For those unfamiliar with Greenwell, his latest novel has been hailed the “great gay novel of our time,” and as a queer writer, I was eager to hear him speak. On the podium, Greenwell talked about his views on being marginalized as a “gay writer” (a place some writers try to avoid as it often is seen as a curse, a label that can keep a writer from becoming more established and well read). He brought up Aristotle’s idea of the universal, that belief a writer’s our goal should be to tap into a collective consciousness of sorts, where no matter where you live or who you are, if the writer is doing their job, the reader will be moved by a “universal” sense of what it means to be human.
This is something I’ve always aspired towards in my own writing, this sense that all stories, even a queer story (especially a queer story), can be made into a story anyone can relate to, if done correctly. This idea works with my own sense of idealism, and for years, I’d gone about on this quest quite happily. But then, Greenwell threw a metaphorical wrench in that system. He questioned this idea of the universal, wondering who it was made for? Was it made for people like us? Or was the universal created out of the artistic aesthetic of a privileged few. And that aesthetic looks a lot paler, whiter, and straighter than my own.
And so Greenwell argued, why aim for the universal at all? “I am a queer writer,” he said, “writing queer characters for a queer audience.” He spoke, quite passionately, about the so-called “gay-ghetto,” claiming by the end that if James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf are in this “gay-ghetto,” then count him in.
In my talk, I discussed my struggles with Greenwell’s statement. On one hand, I loved the “screw you” approach to the greater publishing world and felt like his words were a good reminder of the writer I used to be before existing in the MFA program, the girl who sought out queer literature and devoured it in single, all night sittings, who didn’t worry about what writing was supposed to be, who simply loved existing in story. But after this most recent election, I’ve been wondering about my role as a writer, especially given the extreme turn our country has taken, when so many of us feel powerless in the face of our current government, and for me, the one thing I take refuge in, the one place where I feel we not only have space but tremendous power to cause change is with story.
One of my favorite TED Talks is one by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, a writer who is easily becoming one of my favorites. It’s called the “Danger of a Single Story,” and if you haven’t seen it, I consider it a MUST SEE for everyone, but especially writers who are, in any way, an “other.”
In this TED, Adiche talks about the ways stories have been responsible for our existing stereotypes, specifically because of the way they often present a single view (a single story) of an individual or group of individuals. So, for example, Adiche talks about the “single story” we have of what it means to grow up in an African country, and how Americans only get the image of the poor starving children living in squalor, seeing the entire continent of Africa as one thing and not many countries, and therefore making a lot of incorrect assumptions about what it means to be African.
You are probably intimately familiar with this idea of a “single story” – of Muslim’s as terrorists, of Mexicans as illegal immigrants, of lesbian women as lonely spinsters– stereotypes emphasized not just by the media, but by the countless wealth of existing stories which are often written about one group by the group in power (think, for example, about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and how lasting those images are of African people and how those descriptions still effect perceptions we have of African people today). Adiche’s argument is that when we live in a world saturated by the single story of what it means to be from a certain group, it makes it easy for other groups to demonize and demoralize the same group, so that, for example, at the end of one of Adiche’s readings, a fan came up to her and said, “Isn’t it a shame that all African men abuse their wives?” (referring to a male character in her book). Her response was that she had just finished reading American Psycho, and “wasn’t it a shame that all young white men were serial killers?” The point, of course, that because there are many stories about white men, when you read one about a serial killer, you don’t mistake ALL white men for serial killers. But since there were not as many stories out there about African men, the same could not be said of her own character.
I can’t help but feel that through a single talk, Adiche has been able to answer one of the biggest questions floating about the country – about how our country could be so divided. About why so many Americans cannot see outside their own experiences despite the fact that the other side is screaming that their experiences are real (and even have empirical evidence to back this up). Because for the group in power, they have had only one story of what it is like to be other (whether the “other” is queer or black or Latino or Muslim). And it is the single stories that do not allow for complexity that is, perhaps, the only real “universal” element of what it means to be human.
So – I asked the audience – as writers, what are we to do? Write, of course. Write stories that reflect a world as multi-facetted and complex cast of queer characters to help combat the single story of what it means to be a queer person living in today’s America. The talk went on, but here is where I would like to stop to tell you about the thoughts that have come AFTER the conference was over.
Since Washington D.C., since this talk, I have felt a prefound shift in my own writing. I started examining the work I had been doing, specifically a book that I have been paining my way through for roughly a decade, a book that I have since finished three times and queries over 100 agents and been rejected by roughly 20 different contests and agents and small presses. A book that I had, prior to this AWP Conference given up on.
But now, after a year of working on another project, after thinking through my arguments with Greenwell, after listening to writer after writing speak similar sentiments about our role as writers and the potential power of our stories, when I returned to the book, I had a Joycian moment: “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” In my quest to be a good student, to be applauded for my ability to “transcend” the gay into the “universal,” I had toned down the very thing that made the book worth reading: it’s gayness.
The first draft of my novel had a lot of sex. At one point, I gave a reading and the 15 minutes of prose had three different sex scenes, each of varying lengths and details. Over time, the MFA world taught me to shift from first person present tense to third person past tense. It taught me to think of a greater audience, to focus on my sentences, to craft my prose. I do NOT regret my MFA. It was, perhaps, the single most important decision I made in my life (for it lead me to my wife, to this blog, to writing, and this writer’s path). But I had turned Aristotle’s advice about the “universal” into a rule about writing, one I tried to follow to a ‘T.’ I thought that good writing, literary writing, had no choice but to follow this rule. Looking back, I realize that Greenwell was more right than I wanted to believe.
And so, while I had set out to argue with Greenwell, now I find myself seeking a center-ground between him and Adiche. I find this ground to be a yearning to re-connect with my younger self, that avid reader who craved queer stories like I now crave caffeine in the mornings. And likewise, I want to uphold my responsibility as a writer to tell queer stories so that the greater audience can also read and engage with them. BUT, by toning down the gay, I was doing both Greenwell and Adiche’s advice a disservice. For how can I show a multi-faceted view of what it means to be a lesbian in today’s world when I’ve toned down the queer?
Since then, I’ve come up with a new mantra: Go gay or go home.
I say it every time I sit down to write. Now, another draft of the book finished, let's cross our fingers that there's an agent out there brave enough to take me on.