Garth Green­well & Hanya Yanag­i­hara in Con­ver­sa­tion

on gay books

Hello Mr. Magazine - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - Il­lus­tra­tions by JUN CEN

HANYA YANAG­I­HARA I’m go­ing to go for the big ques­tion. What does it mean to write a gay book? Is it the fact that the writer is gay that makes a book gay? What does mak­ing gay lit­er­a­ture mean at this par­tic­u­lar mo­ment?

GARTH GREEN­WELL I don’t re­ally have an an­swer for that. I think any­one who cares about the ques­tion is go­ing to have a dif­fer­ent an­swer.

HANYA YANAG­I­HARA is the au­thor of A Lit­tle Life, her sec­ond book, fol­low­ing the lives of four friends in New York City, some gay, and one of whom is cop­ing with an un­nam­able trauma from his past.

GARTH GREEN­WELL is the au­thor of What Be­longs to You, his de­but novel, about an Amer­i­can teacher in Bul­garia who falls in love with a young and charis­matic hustler.

But do you think there’s such a thing as a queer aes­thetic? I know that you’ve ar­gued per­sua­sively that there is this idea of an ex­trav­a­gance of emo­tion, a big­ness of mood, a sort of tonal­ity. I think es­pe­cially when gay art – in film or mu­sic or books – had to dis­guise this idea of gay­ness, there was this twin­ning of shame and eroti­cism that they had to ex­press in a dif­fer­ent lan­guage. Is that still true?

I don't think that there’s a queer aes­thetic, I think there are many queer aes­thet­ics. And I ac­tu­ally don't think it has any­thing to do with – well I don’t think it’s de­ter­mined by an artist’s iden­tity. Be­cause I don’t think you're born into a queer aes­thetic, I think you have to work for it, learn it. I think there are styles that queer artists have cho­sen, and I cer­tainly feel that when I think about the kind of sen­tences I’m drawn to. Whether you're think­ing of Proust or James or Woolf, that comes out of a queer tra­di­tion. And yeah I do think there are modal­i­ties that have been coded queer both ad­ver­sar­i­ally and in a sort of iden­ti­fi­ca­tory way. So it does feel mean­ing­ful to me to think about queer art. Maybe more in­tensely be­cause queer life and queer cul­ture have been so main­streamed.

A very lim­ited sense.

That’s ex­actly right. In a way that ex­cludes, that can feel con­strain­ing, or that can feel like it sac­ri­fices too much. There is this kind of de­sire, among a lot of queer writ­ers and artists I know, to push back and to as­sert a kind of queer­ness that has fallen out of the mar­riage – equal­ity – pic­ture of gay life.

When you were writ­ing this book, were you con­scious of fol­low­ing in a cer­tain tra­di­tion of a “queer aes­thetic?” What­ever you write, now and in the fu­ture, even if your writ­ing, sub­ject­wise, seems to have noth­ing to do with gay life or gay his­tory or gay ex­pe­ri­ence, is it still, by your ex­pe­ri­ence, a gay book?

Be­yond my cur­rent projects I have no idea. The cur­rent projects are queer in both of those senses. I don’t think queer­ness in art is nec­es­sar­ily or pri­mar­ily about sub­ject mat­ter. In David Halperin’s book, How To be Gay, he makes this ar­gu­ment that things like opera and Broad­way mu­si­cals are more ex­pres­sive of queer­ness than some­thing like Broke­back Moun­tain. In that, ob­jec­tively queer con­tent puts more pres­sure on the queer­ness of the style. That’s an in­ter­est­ing ar­gu­ment to

me, but I don’t know if it’s ex­actly true. I think Genet’s nov­els are as queer as any­thing could ever get, both stylis­ti­cally and in terms of sub­ject mat­ter. But Alexan­der Chee’s The Queen of the Night – there’s not a lot of ob­jec­tive queer­ness in that, but it’s a su­per gay novel.

It is su­per gay. I do agree with you that it’s like that fa­mous line about pornog­ra­phy – you can't de­fine it un­til you see it. But I also think there is a queer aes­thetic in a way that there is per­haps not an Asian-Amer­i­can aes­thetic.

Oh that’s in­ter­est­ing.

I thought lots about what makes a gay book or not. Is it the con­tent, is it who’s writ­ing it, is it the themes, or is it the tone? What is it? Be­cause one of the ques­tions I thought I’d get asked a lot, and didn’t, is: Why are there no Asian-Amer­i­can char­ac­ters in my book? And are you an Asian-Amer­i­can writer? In the end, I was asked it only twice, both by Asian-Amer­i­can writ­ers, and the an­swer to both is “Yes.” I think that much of Asian-Amer­i­can his­tory in Amer­ica has been, largely for cul­tural rea­sons, ac­cept­ing what’s handed to us. It comes down to a philo­soph­i­cal dif­fer­ence of think­ing that life can’t be changed, ver­sus think­ing that if you push hard enough against cir­cum­stances they will change, which is a very Western way of think­ing. There’s a Ja­panese phrase Shikata ga nai – “It can’t be helped” – and the Eastern way of think­ing is sim­ply that. Which is why, for ex­am­ple, peo­ple find it per­plex­ing that Ja­panese-Amer­i­cans never up­rose in large num­bers when they were put in in­tern­ment camps. It sim­ply wasn't part of their phi­los­o­phy. And in that way, I thought my first book [ The Peo­ple in the Trees] was an in­dict­ment of how Asian-Amer­i­cans have al­lowed them­selves to be treated in this coun­try. I did think that was a very Asian-Amer­i­can book. But no one has called it that, even though I do. So I’m not sure there’s a cer­tain Asian-Amer­i­can aes­thetic the way there is def­i­nitely a queer aes­thetic.

Well part of that may be that Asian-Amer­i­can iden­tity –

You can’t hide it.

You can’t hide it, and also you're born into it, you can’t deny it.

It’s not as­so­ci­ated with shame and hid­ing and a process of dis­cov­ery.

And ed­u­ca­tion, or ini­ti­a­tion. Be­cause I think with gay iden­tity, there’s a kind of ini­ti­a­tion to it.

It’s some­thing you have to act upon.

And it’s some­thing you have to seek out. I re­mem­ber, be­cause I grew up in a very un-gay en­vi­ron­ment, there were no gay peo­ple around me for a long time, and I had to seek out gay­ness and try to find im­ages of my­self that made me not want to die. And that in it­self was a kind of train­ing. When I was 13,

“I don’t think that there’s a queer aes­thetic, I think there are many queer aes­thet­ics.”

I went to this book­store in Louisville that had a lesbian and gay sec­tion. I didn’t know any­thing about lit­er­a­ture, I was in Ken­tucky pub­lic schools, and I would just pull books at ran­dom.

Do you re­mem­ber a book you read that you saw your­self in?

I re­mem­ber Gio­vanni’s Room, Our Lady of the Flow­ers, and Con­fes­sions of a Mask.

Wow, you re­ally went for the trio.

There’s a way in which, be­cause of that sec­tion, I knew that any book I pulled out would speak to me in a way.

There is this idea of the [queer] tribe – the emo­tions are the same, the process is the same. If you are gay, the process of be­com­ing a gay adult is much more sim­i­lar than not. The cir­cum­stances might be dif­fer­ent, but the emo­tions are all the same. And it does cut across nationality and race and so on and so forth.

In that way I could read Mishima and feel that his books were about me. Even though they were books about a world very sep­a­rate from Ken­tucky in the early 90s, I could say “This is a book about me.”

What does it mean to write a post-gay novel? If you be­lieve such a thing ex­ists?

I want to hear your an­swer to that.

I don’t be­lieve it ex­ists. I un­der­stand what it means in­so­far that gay de­sire isn’t some­thing that has to be writ­ten about in code. You don’t have to sort of fer­ret it out in a book. It’s not sub­text, it’s text. I sup­pose that that could be a def­i­ni­tion of a post-gay lit­er­ary age. But I think “post-gay” as­sumes that ev­ery­one un­der­stands and ac­cepts what gay­ness is. “Post-gay” sug­gests that gay­ness is some­thing that isn’t ex­pan­sive in of and it­self, that it’s some­thing that isn’t uni­ver­sal in of it­self, that it’s some­thing that has to be moved be­yond, and I just don’t think that’s true. What do you think?

The idea of post-gay is bound up in a nar­ra­tive of gay­ness and gay com­mu­nity as a re­sponse to shame.

Or sex.

Or sex. But if we can get be­yond shame then the bonds that might make the iden­tity and the com­mu­nity in­tel­li­gi­ble will be gone. It’s a kind of wish­ful think­ing that we’ve cleared away all the prej­u­dice and now we can live more ex­pan­sively, and it’s an un­der­stand­ing of gay­ness that is far too nar­row – it buys into this bo­gus idea of “the uni­ver­sal.” The idea of “the uni­ver­sal” is some­thing that’s scrubbed clean of par­tic­u­lar­i­ties – all that does is let it be white. All that does is let it be straight.

What is a gay book with­out sex?

That seems like a re­ally easy ques­tion to an­swer. A book doesn't have to have sex in it. In your book [ A Lit­tle Life] Willem feels a great deal of de­sire for Jude. Some peo­ple would say “ob­vi­ously it’s not a gay novel, Willem says he’s not gay but he just loves Jude.” And I’m like, that’s the gayest thing any­one could ever say.

I know [laughs].

Of course you can have cen­tral, pri­mary, nour­ish­ing, im­por­tant gay re­la­tion­ships with­out sex, just like you can have het­ero­sex­ual re­la­tion­ships that have all of those qual­i­ties that don’t have sex at the heart.

Yes, it’s a very lim­ited way of think­ing. I think all of us, gay peo­ple and not-gay peo­ple, are guilty to a cer­tain ex­tent of as­sum­ing that a cen­tral part of a gay re­la­tion­ship is sex. One of the things that I wanted to dis­cuss in the book is how lim­ited the idea of sex­u­al­ity is for men. Women don't have as much power as men and so we are there­fore left more to our­selves to glide up and down the spec­trum of sex­u­al­ity. If you’re a woman who iden­ti­fies as straight and you end up sleep­ing with an­other woman and you still want to claim your­self as straight, no one re­ally cares. If you're a man, it doesn't work that way. Be­ing gay as a man threatens the idea of mas­culin­ity in a way that be­ing gay as a woman does not threaten the idea of, if not fem­i­nin­ity, then wo­man­hood. Love be­tween men, in its most beau­ti­ful and flu­ent ex­pres­sion, has tra­di­tion­ally been be­tween gay men be­cause it is as­sumed to be part of the ex­pres­sion of what a gay man is. Not that straight men aren’t ca­pa­ble of that, but they’re cer­tainly not al­lowed to ac­cess it. So it was, in its truest sense, a book about the depth and the com­plex­ity of love be­tween men. I re­mem­ber when I was first think­ing of this book I was at a din­ner party with the great pub­lisher Ann God­off, and she was say­ing that what you saw dur­ing the worst years of New York’s AIDS cri­sis was a flow­er­ing of friend­ship and a tes­ta­ment to the elas­tic­ity of friend­ship that modern times have never seen be­fore. And it was be­cause of gay men. It was gay men who cre­ated that and showed how durable and how ex­pan­sive the re­la­tion­ship could be. In that way te book was in­spired by a part of gay his­tory. But I wasn’t con­sciously writ­ing a book about gay life. I will say that when I turned it into Anna, our agent, the first thing she said was ‘There are too many gay peo­ple in this book.”

[Laughs] Bad Anna.

And that it wasn’t re­al­is­tic be­cause of that. But it is re­al­is­tic! If you're in a cer­tain city, if you're in a cer­tain class, if you're in a cer­tain cir­cle, if you're in a cer­tain in­dus­try, that is what you see. And you see th­ese mini-utopias of peo­ple who have found, in per­haps very small uni­verses but com­plete ones, places where love and af­fec­tion and phys­i­cal in­ti­macy and ro­mance and sex and friend­ship and jeal­ousies, and all of the things that love can be be­tween men, are pro­foundly and im­per­fectly and won­der­fully ex­pressed.

“The idea of “the uni­ver­sal” is some­thing that’s scrubbed clean of par­tic­u­lar­i­ties – all that does is let it be white. All that does is let it be straight.”

Some peo­ple re­sponded very strongly against the idea that A Lit­tle Life is a gay novel, or that it could be claimed as a gay novel. There were cat­e­gories those re­sponses fell into, and I sort of ranked them from stupid to non-stupid. The most stupid was ‘This can’t be a gay novel be­cause it is writ­ten by a woman.’

Well, lis­ten, if you came to me and said ‘Garth Green­well wrote the great Asian-Amer­i­can novel,’ I would think ‘No, he didn’t.’

Right. Like Dar­ryl Pinck­ney said, “But it has been such a bat­tle for th­ese sto­ries to be told.” Not just queer sto­ries, he was talk­ing about but black sto­ries and about the black ex­pe­ri­ence and for th­ese sto­ries to be told in their own voices. That has im­por­tant value, too. And he said this beau­ti­ful thing about how we have to be able to hold con­tra­dic­tions and hold con­tra­dic­tory things to be true. Writ­ers have to write what they have to write, and they have to be free to write that and it is also im­por­tant that sto­ries be told in their own voices. It’s not a con­tra­dic­tion to as­sert that how­ever per­ilous and dif­fi­cult, it is pos­si­ble and also valu­able to write across dif­fer­ence. We all have to be in­vested in cre­at­ing more spaces for voices that have not been heard, for voices that are struc­turally de-priv­i­leged to be heard.

I feel like if you’re re­ally con­cerned that you can’t write across dif­fer­ence, there is a big­ger prob­lem with you, your­self, as an artist and a per­son. But I also think that in the con­ver­sa­tion, of writ­ing across race or sex­u­al­ity or gen­der or re­li­gion, we for­get that there’s an­other way to write across dif­fer­ence. The way that the char­ac­ters think and move in my book – and cer­tainly many au­thors would say the same about the char­ac­ters in their books – are not nec­es­sar­ily how I think or how I’ve been trained to think. The sense of priv­i­lege th­ese char­ac­ters have, their sense of ease, are not things that I am privy to nec­es­sar­ily, and that, too, is a writ­ing across dif­fer­ence.

No ques­tion. And to think about what it takes to write across dif­fer­ence? It seems to me it takes a kind of emo­tional in­vest­ment that puts the writer at risk. It takes work.

Let me ask you some­thing else. What are you tired of see­ing in queer books [laughs]?

There’s noth­ing I’m tired of. I’m not tired of com­ing out nar­ra­tives – that’s

“I do see a con­flict be­tween my work and my iden­tity as an ac­tivist.”

an in­cred­i­bly rich ex­pe­ri­ence that’s in­flected by all sorts of dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories. I don’t think that sex work is a story that we wear out, be­cause it’s this hu­manly rich, in­fin­itely var­ied ex­pe­ri­ence. Just like, I don’t think we’re go­ing to wear out boy meets girl or girl meets boy, I don’t think we’re go­ing to wear out th­ese sort of fun­da­men­tal hu­man sto­ries that we’re go­ing to tell. And the sort of lie at the heart of that com­plaint of “Ugh, are we go­ing to see an­other com­ing out nar­ra­tive, or an­other nar­ra­tive about sex in bath­rooms,” is this as­sump­tion that th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences are less valu­able be­cause they're gay. I think it is just ho­mo­pho­bic.

Also this idea that there’s a same­ness to the com­ing out nar­ra­tive.

There’s a same­ness to any grow­ing up nar­ra­tive. There’s a same­ness to grow­ing up in a house­hold and then leav­ing it. Th­ese are just fun­da­men­tal ex­pe­ri­ences. Re­ally there aren’t new sto­ries. Hu­man life fol­lows a lim­ited num­ber of pat­terns.

Let me ask you about this. Is it the artist’s obli­ga­tion to be po­lit­i­cal, and what does that mean in this day and age? Does a gay writer, a self­pro­claimed gay writer, writ­ing th­ese days have any sort of re­spon­si­bil­ity?

No. I think there’s a lot at stake for ev­ery­body in pro­tect­ing writ­ers, in pro­tect­ing artists from those kinds of de­mands. I do see a con­flict be­tween my work and my iden­tity as an ac­tivist, as some­one who is in­ter­ested in pol­i­tics and po­lit­i­cal change. My work and my iden­tity as an artist is all about am­biva­lence and am­bi­gu­ity, but work in the po­lit­i­cal sphere, it can­not en­ter­tain that kind of am­biva­lence and am­bi­gu­ity. I think there is a flat­ten­ing out of vi­sion when you are en­gaged in the im­por­tant work of po­lit­i­cal change that is dam­ag­ing to the artist. Fight­ing for po­lit­i­cal change for queer peo­ple has meant pre­sent­ing a kind of nar­ra­tive that is true and false, and I think be­ing an artist means try­ing to tell the truth as much as you can. In that way I do feel a con­flict be­tween my art and my pol­i­tics. It does feel like a split al­le­giance, be­cause both of those en­deav­ors feel re­ally im­por­tant to me.

I will say that we’re in a pe­riod of gay lit­er­a­ture in which you can have un­happy gay char­ac­ters, loath­some gay char­ac­ters. Our un­der­stand­ing, per­haps in lim­ited spheres of what it means to be gay and to have a gay life, has ad­vanced far enough that I don't think writ­ers worry as much about pos­i­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Whereas I don't know if trans writ­ers feel that they have to re­as­sure, that they have to make an end­ing that feels un­am­bigu­ous some­how. I sup­pose that is cul­tural and artis­tic progress when you have a broader di­ver­sity of gay life and gay out­comes and gay end­ings in lit­er­a­ture, when you don't feel the bur­den per­haps of speak­ing for an en­tire com­mu­nity.

Not just the bur­den of speak­ing for but the bur­den of speak­ing to.

And of know­ing your book is go­ing to be the one in which some kid finds sal­va­tion, which is crip­pling for art.

What po­lit­i­cal change for mi­nor­ity groups means in a democ­racy is mak­ing a case to the ma­jor­ity. It means trans­lat­ing the val­ues of par­tic­u­lar lives and pack­ag­ing that value in a way that will be leg­i­ble to the ma­jor­ity, pack­ag­ing them in a way that they're palat­able to the peo­ple who are dis­gusted by the idea of queer life. You go back and you read some of the Con­gres­sional de­bates around the AIDS cri­sis, and the ways in which queer bod­ies are just de­mo­nized and vil­i­fied and spo­ken of in an­i­mal­is­tic terms. Just this dis­gust, which was unashamed then. And that’s what the po­lit­i­cal fight had to counter.

It meant ev­ery­one had to be on their best be­hav­ior. And now you don’t have to be as much.

I think that that’s just part of what fight­ing for mi­nor­ity rights en­tails. For queer peo­ple it meant get­ting them think­ing about ev­ery­thing ex­cept anal sex, be­cause straight peo­ple are dis­gusted by two men fuck­ing. And so get­ting them think­ing about ev­ery­thing else. So maybe that was nec­es­sary, but it’s also nec­es­sary now to push back against that and try to re­cover, to try to re­store the re­al­ity of queer ex­pe­ri­ence.

Well, I mean, that’s one of the things I love so much about Ed­mund White’s books. They’re un­abashedly, of­ten very fun­nily, but un­flinch­ingly, de­light­edly about sex, es­pe­cially City Boy.

I think that’s a great sub­ver­sion.

Did you – this is go­ing to be a re­ally ter­ri­ble word in this con­text – did you re­ally en­joy lard­ing it up in your book [laughs]? Be­cause the sex scenes are very sexy and they're very much about sex. You can’t pre­tend they're just sort of hav­ing frot­tage in the equinox.

Or in Gio­vanni’s Room, where the bod­ies just dis­ap­pear when they have sex.

They sort of con­ve­niently fade.

I don’t think there’s nearly enough sex in What Be­longs to You. I don’t think there’s enough of it. For the last 20 years, there has not been a lot of vis­i­ble gay fic­tion that has got­ten at­ten­tion that has ex­plicit sex in it.

Hollinghurst has.

I think The Swim­ming Pool Li­brary has it. That is the book that man­aged to get pres­tige and at­ten­tion even though it had a lot of gay sex in it. Sa­muel De­lany is one of the writ­ers do­ing the most re­mark­able sex writ­ing, but those books aren't be­ing widely read. Ed­mund White has never been rec­og­nized as the ge­nius he is by the broader lit­er­ary sphere. His fic­tion has never won the huge prizes he should have. Even if you look at a writer I adore, An­drew Holleran, who I think is a great Amer­i­can writer who has never been rec­og­nized.

Not that we should say win­ning is –

Right, but –

But it is a recog­ni­tion from some sort

“I think of sex as this ex­pe­ri­ence that cap­tures a whole se­ries of in­ter­locked con­tra­dic­tions.”

of academy that what you're writ­ing is rel­e­vant to cul­ture.

G Oh! David Leav­itt, too. G The Lost Lan­guage of Cranes.

H I’ve al­ways loved it. My fa­ther got it for Y me when I was 12.

G [Laughs] G

H Yeah, I don’t think he knew what it was Y about.

G That’s a won­der­ful book to read when G you're 12.

H When I think about it, who re­ally does Y write gay sex ec­stat­i­cally?

G In the stuff that I’m work­ing on now, G there’s a lot more sex. It’s much more ex­plicit. I am in­ter­ested in push­ing that fur­ther. I do think it is this al­most unique tool for a writer, it puts so much stuff un­der pres­sure.

H That’s an in­ter­est­ing way to think about Y sex – both as an an­nounce­ment and a pres­sure ap­plier for the rest of the book.

G I think of sex as this ex­pe­ri­ence that G cap­tures a whole se­ries of in­ter­locked con­tra­dic­tions. It’s when we’re at our most vul­ner­a­ble and our most per­for­ma­tive. It’s when we’re most thrust into our own sen­sa­tions. And, if it’s in­ter-

es­t­ing sex or if it’s good sex, most at­ten­tive to the sen­sa­tions of an­other. I think it’s when we’re most bod­ily an­i­mal be­ings, and when we have our great­est in­ti­ma­tions of the meta­phys­i­cal.

H I sup­pose if A Lit­tle Life sug­gests Y any­thing about sex, it’s that it’s not fun­da­men­tally nec­es­sary to the hu­man con­di­tion. That sex might be some­thing that is not af­forded to ev­ery­one and is not cen­tral to ev­ery­one.

G The much bet­ter ar­gu­ments about the G book are in think­ing about it as the first great asex­ual novel.

H Yes! And hear­ing from read­ers who Y have taken the time to write very thought­ful and in­ter­est­ing notes, I won­der, are we at a mo­ment in a par­tic­u­lar slice of gay Amer­ica, the slice of gay Amer­ica that you in­habit and that many peo­ple in this city in­habit, in which there is a ter­rific amount of pres­sure as a gay man to have sex, to be talk­ing about sex, to be flu­ent in sex? One of the in­ter­est­ing through-lines of th­ese let­ters has been th­ese sorts of con­fes­sions of, “I don’t re­ally like it that much,” “I don't have it enough,” “I feel like I’m fail­ing as a gay man be­cause I’m not do­ing it enough,” “I’m not en­joy­ing it enough,” “I’m not ex­per­i­men­tal enough.” Cer­tainly, I don’t think any other group has that sort of pres­sure.

G You can’t ques­tion it. I think there was G a mo­ment where straight women had to prove it, too.

H I agree, but that mo­ment has sort Y of passed.

G Sex­ual lib­er­a­tion does not mean G your whole life is cen­tered on sex. I do think that’s some­thing that’s been rec­og­nized in gay lit­er­a­ture. I think you see this in Ed­mund White, you see this in Alan Holleran quite ex­plic­itly. Part of rec­og­niz­ing the rich­ness of sex and sex­u­al­ity is rec­og­niz­ing that it ac­com­mo­dates te­dium as well. Part of the rich­ness of sex and sex­u­al­ity is the fact that it is pos­si­ble for it to be not very mean­ing­ful.

H What do you think about this idea that Y for many years, and cer­tainly still in many places, gay life was in­ex­tri­ca­ble from dan­ger? This idea of a fear­ful­ness of po­ten­tial new en­coun­ters, very broadly de­fined. That part of the thrill of go­ing to the park at 3 a.m. was that you might get ar­rested, but it was also a ne­ces­sity.

G I do think one of the most dan­ger­ous G things in Amer­i­can cul­ture is that timid­ity, that fear of Oth­er­ness, that fear of cross­ing th­ese bound­aries we in­scribe our lives with. It is true that much of what seems the rad­i­cal­ity of queer life, or the po­ten­tial rad­i­cal­ity, is that it did all of those things. When you went to the cruis­ing park you would meet all kinds of peo­ple. There could be a height­ened dan­ger but also a height­ened pos­si­bil­ity. And I think we are so ob­sessed with safety. We are so ob­sessed with safety and that is to­tally sti­fling. I do think risk is re­ally im­por­tant.

Hm. The clos­ing of the Amer­i­can mind to risk. And the de­fang­ing of gay life for ac­cep­tance and vis­i­bil­ity. And the seiz­ing of a cer­tain type of gay life or rep­re­sen­ta­tion of gay life as en­ter­tain­ment, is dan­ger­ous. Not all rep­re­sen­ta­tion is help­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tion, es­pe­cially when the rep­re­sen­ta­tion is as a sort of clown.

G Then the ques­tion be­comes, cer­tainly G as a writer, how do you put the fangs back? Or how do you re­claim some of what’s been lost in ex­change for a kind of ac­cep­tance. This is a thing that unites all re­sponses to A Lit­tle Life, peo­ple who love it and peo­ple who hate it, is the in­ten­sity. I think it’s owed to the in­ten­sity of the ex­pe­ri­ence that is read­ing that book. I think ev­ery­one should read the book. I tell them, I’m not sure if you will love this book or if you will hate it, but it will be a land­mark. Af­ter you fin­ish this book you will be in a dif­fer­ent place. It is a book that feels like it as­saults you. How in­ten­tional was that when you made it? How much is that a qual­ity of the art that you love, the ad­ver­sar­ial qual­ity?

H I sup­pose the easy an­swer is that I Y wasn’t trained as a writer. I didn’t know what kind of mis­takes I should be avoid­ing. But if there’s some­thing I don’t like in lit­er­a­ture right now it’s the safety of it. I think artists of all sorts should be en­cour­aged to make big mis­takes. You should be mak­ing mis­takes on the page, you should be reach­ing for some­thing un­com­fort­able, you should be less wor­ried about pret­ti­ness. And I think we’re at a mo­ment in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture where a lot of the work is pol­ished, it’s con­tained, it’s buffed, it’s per­fectly fine. It’s of­ten tech­ni­cally per­fect. But that’s

not what a book should be do­ing – a book should be try­ing to make some­thing new, and by mak­ing some­thing new it should have bolts and nails show­ing. It should be some­thing that makes you a lit­tle un­com­fort­able to do, or a lot un­com­fort­able to do. It should be some­thing that makes you some­times queasy, some­thing that makes you ac­tively chal­lenge your­self to do some­thing ugly. I do think that ev­ery writer has an obli­ga­tion to reach for some­thing big and to be un­afraid of be­ing un­liked. When you look at pho­tog­ra­phy, which I’ve been col­lect­ing for a while, the word that photo ed­i­tors will of­ten use to dis­tin­guish a work they don’t like from one they do is – this is a very damn­ing word – “easy.” A photo di­rec­tor will of­ten say, “Have you seen so and so’s work?” And they’ll say, “Oh yeah, it’s tough work.” And what they mean by that, ob­vi­ously, is that it is work that is un­com­pro­mis­ing, not just in its sub­ject mat­ter nec­es­sar­ily, but be­cause you have the sense that the artist is re­ally for­get­ting au­di­ence. It’s re­ally hard to for­get your au­di­ence when you’re cre­at­ing a vis­ual work, and some­one’s walk­ing by or a gallery owner is flip­ping through your port­fo­lio, and you have a sec­ond or a mi­cro-sec­ond to catch their at­ten­tion. You don’t want to put in the tough work. But the tough work is the work that an­nounces you have some­thing to say, that you are see­ing some­thing and that some­thing is see­ing you back. And if you can’t do the tough work, if you can’t for­get about the au­di­ence enough, then you shouldn’t do the work at all. Do com­mer­cial work, that’s fine. I look at my col­lec­tion here in my apart­ment and a lot of th­ese pieces are not pieces that are go­ing to en­dure. They’re tough pieces, they’re un­lik­able pieces. But I al­ways ad­mire the artist who has some­thing to say, and is go­ing to say it with­out think­ing about who’s ac­tu­ally go­ing to see it.

G The thing that is scari­est to me about G the process of the pub­lish­ing and the re­cep­tion of the book is that when you’re pro­mot­ing a book, you are in this very ar­ti­fi­cial en­vi­ron­ment that has this in­cred­i­bly strong grav­ity that dis­torts val­ues. I was an opera singer and then I was a poet, those were my train­ings in art.

H So you left the money-mak­ing world Y be­hind [laughs].

G I’ve al­ways ad­mired writ­ers who G seemed ut­terly un­con­cerned with any con­ven­tional mea­sures of suc­cess. For the first time in my life, I’m aware of sales fig­ures, and I hate that. There’s

such in­tense pres­sure put on writ­ers now. If you’re go­ing to pub­lish with a pub­lisher like Dou­ble­day or FSG then peo­ple are go­ing to care about sales fig­ures and you’re go­ing to be put into this ma­chine. And the ques­tion I have now is how do you get back to that place where you’re not think­ing about an au­di­ence? Where you can have the fangs?

H Yeah, and there’s noth­ing sweeter than, Y in ret­ro­spect, when you’re writ­ing your first. No one knows, no one’s read it, the book could be any­thing. It’s as close as you can get to a pure state of writ­ing. There’s some­thing very sweet about that. In or­der to be an artist, it’s use­ful if you're in some sort of state of con­stant hu­mil­ity. Whether it’s liv­ing in an­other coun­try, or sur­round­ing your­self with an­other form of art you can’t quite un­der­stand or won’t or don’t have any pure, true ac­cess to. Or you’re sur­rounded by oth­ers who don’t un­der­stand you, or are in a job where you are di­min­ished some­how. It’s nec­es­sary.

G It’s the priv­i­lege of marginal­ity – that is G the priv­i­lege of queer­ness. That ex­clu­sion.

H Right. If you’re lucky enough to ex­erY cise it.

G I do think that writ­ing across dif­ferG ence, if it’s done in a way that feels au­thor­i­ta­tive and not ob­jec­tion­able, has to be earned.

H I think peo­ple get into trou­ble be­cause Y of two things: you cre­ate a char­ac­ter and you try to make this char­ac­ter, their Oth­er­ness, be in­ci­den­tal to who they are; or you try to make their Oth­er­ness all of who they are.

G Ab­so­lutely. G

H They’re the same prob­lem. It’s the Y same way that peo­ple will say “My black friend so-and-so,” or “I don’t see it’s race.” As of­fen­sive as that is, and as prob­lem­atic as that is, and as will­fully blind as that is, in life so too is it in art.

G I think es­pe­cially in this coun­try it’s just G ag­o­niz­ing to wres­tle with those things. Es­pe­cially around race, more around race than around sex­ual iden­tity, even though both of those mi­nori­ties have been sub­jected to such vi­o­lence. It is a kind of agony. To me, the au­then­tic­ity, or the sort of the le­git­i­macy of writ­ing across dif­fer­ence, is the ex­tent to which you are will­ing to con­front and take on and feel that agony.

H Yes, and I cer­tainly don’t think you Y can an­nounce “I’m go­ing to write a gay book.” That’s where you re­ally run into prob­lems.

“You should be mak­ing mis­takes on the page, you should be reach­ing for some­thing un­com­fort­able, you should be less wor­ried about pret­ti­ness.”

You have to do the work of try­ing to un­der­stand not just your ideas or the myths you’ve been told about an­other group’s ex­pe­ri­ences, but about that ex­pe­ri­ence it­self. Writ­ing across dif­fer­ence be­comes ob­jec­tion­able when it is car­toon­ish in the sense that it is just in­hab­it­ing myth.

H And it can’t be your sort of chal­lenge Y for that par­tic­u­lar month, or that par­tic­u­lar book. It’s not Kil­i­man­jaro and you’re not go­ing to climb it and it’s not go­ing to be some­thing you dust off your hands at the end. It should leave you with more ques­tions and to­ward a greater sort of search­ing. And if it doesn’t, you’re not do­ing it right.

G Ab­so­lutely. G

H Yet how ex­tra­or­di­nary it re­mains, and Y how mean­ing­ful it might be, to have the sense that you are be­ing rec­og­nized by some­one not of your tribe, as be­ing a full hu­man, a full mem­ber of what hu­man­ity is. I sup­pose that’s what I find the most mov­ing. When we talk about a work of art as “uni­ver­sal,” what we’re re­ally talk­ing about is its par­tic­u­lar­i­ties. We’re not talk­ing about a generic per­son in a generic land­scape deal­ing with generic prob­lems, how­ever you might de­fine that. What makes a book uni­ver­sal is the prob­lems of the par­tic­u­lar. By say­ing that this is ter­ri­tory that can only be told or trod by a gay writer means that you are tak­ing away your right to be rec­og­nized as the uni­ver­sal. I hope that other writ­ers would think that a gay life is just as mean­ing­ful, just as uni­ver­sal, as a life that con­forms to the con­tours of het­eronor­ma­tive so­ci­ety. But some­one else talk­ing about a queer life who’s not queer does not mean that other peo­ple won’t have their chance, nor does it mean the nar­ra­tive that comes from ex­pe­ri­ence is less mean­ing­ful.

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