Have you heard the song, “July, July!” by The Decemberists? You should.
Anyhow, last month was my LGBTQ reading month and it went better than expected. I read a total of 7 books, all of them LGTBQ-themed. This month, I’ve turned my attention to poetry. I’m covering a few different approaches within this larger goal, though. For example, I’m reading two non-fiction texts on poetry and how to read and write it. I’m reading two short collections of poems by individual poets, and I’m reading one anthology. Finally, I will be reading one hybrid novel that contains poetry and is about a young poet.
As I work on my own novel, I find that I’m trying to avoid reading anything else in the genre (LGBTQ YA). I don’t want to be influenced or find myself doubting my abilities. So, instead, I’m pursuing other genres while writing, genres that are far from what I’m doing but still inspiring. I think, when I’ve finished the full draft and move on to edits and revisions, I’ll return to reading within the genre as a kind of research exercise. (“Am I doing what the genre is doing, generally, but in a way that’s unique to me?”)
I’ve become obsessed with Ocean Vuong, after reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I actually started following him on Instagram before reading any of his work, because I found his aesthetic interesting and had heard good things about him. And then reading him blew my mind to smithereens. I spent the last week reading some of his work in places like The New Yorker, as well as reading a bunch of articles about him in The New Yorker, Interview Magazine, The Paris Review, and Poet & Writer. In the interview with Poet & Writer, he commended his freshman English composition course and the community college experience with providing him a foundation experience, a welcoming and motivational environment in which to work with a diverse group of people, all of whom were there for the same reason: to improve themselves, to achieve a goal, and to fulfill a dream. It was a small but beautiful statement on the power of community college education.
All of this is to say, one of the collections on my reading list this month is Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds. I’ll also be reading Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here (incidentally, I picked up a copy of John Okada’s No-No Boy recently as well, inspired by the disgusting concentration camps our government is operating, dysfunctionally, at the southern border.) I guess I’m on some kind of thematic kick for Asian-American writing.
The others on my list this month include the two I am reading right now: Thomas C. Foster’s How To Read Poetry Like a Professor and Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry, edited by Timothy Liu (whose collection, Burnt Offerings, is a personal favorite). I’m half-way through both of these, and I’m really enjoying them. The anthology is particularly interesting because most of the included poets are new to me.
After the Foster, I plan to read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. When I finish the anthology and two poetry collections on my list, I will be completing the month’s project with Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X.
Speaking of writing: It has been going generally well. I joined Camp NaNoWriMo this month, which is like the regular NaNoWriMo except you can adjust your goal, create cabins to collaborate with others, work on any kind of writing you want (even though it’s an off-shoot of National Novel Writing Month in November, this one is really meant to get you writing whatever you want). The social media accounts also run regular “word sprints” to encourage people to sit and write, as well as offering up a variety of prompts, e-mailed encouragement, etc. My current stats on this WIP are as follows:
I’ve been averaging about one chapter a day. I get up early in the morning and head to “my spot,” which is the same spot I used for my 100 Days Journal project. I’ve found that creating and inhabiting one’s own writing space is crucial. Yesterday, after a sleepless night (thanks, insomnia!), I couldn’t get up to write. I tried later in the day and managed only about 1,000 words (about 25-30% of normal) and that was writing additions to a scene in a previous chapter, rather than working on a new chapter. I sat there staring at the “Chapter 11” header, at 2 in the afternoon, and simply couldn’t get anything onto the page. I guess I need my routine. (Is this what they mean by “creature of habit?”)
This morning, though, I managed to get up on time (despite another sleepless night) and got the chapter done. I’m happy with this pace and progress. If I can maintain it, then I’ll have a complete draft done by the end of July and can work on revisions and edits as the new school year begins, when the opportunity for new writing is, let’s face it, not readily available. I get too tired and too burned out from lecturing, grading essays, attending meetings and trainings, etc. I do plan to keep my mornings for myself, though, but rather than working on a lot of new material, I’ll probably be revising and editing, revising and editing. I guess this means, sometime around August I’ll be looking for beta readers. How does one go about doing that, anyway? And what about finding an agent? When is that supposed to happen? How does that happen? Oh dear.
Part of the reason I began my 100 Days Journal project about 4 months ago is that, in addition to wanting to “force” myself into a daily writing routine, I found I had been struggling with severe depression all year. Since about January, I’ve been in a slump. It’s not unusual for me to have ups-and-downs, but this was a long one, and that “light at the end of the tunnel” we who suffer from depression come to rely on, just wasn’t showing up. Not even a little pinpoint in the distance. I didn’t know what was taking so long to come out of it at the time, but I have my thoughts now. In any case, one of the things I’ve realized is that I’ve been craving a kind of reckoning with myself and my beliefs, for lack of a better word. I’m an emotional and spiritual person, though agnostic and anti-religion. Still, I do always, always look for connections. The bigger picture. The threads that connect all of us. I’m a hopeful person, I guess, and so part of my struggle lately has been finding hope in a time that seems hopeless, perhaps not even worth hoping for. As I thought about what might help me investigate myself and find renewed purpose, I started to learn a little more about Buddhism. Here’s what I wrote on Twitter:
Do I have any practicing Buddhist friends who would be willing to point me to good places to start my reading? History, tenants, meditation, zen, beginners guides? I can look up lists online, but I’d rather have personal recommendations from people living the path. To be honest, I’m looking to connect with myself spiritually, to understand and articulate my own value system. I need a philosophy or “faith,” for lack of a better word, that is without deity, and Buddhism is the closest practice I know of, currently. At my core, I’ve a desire to be driven by kindness and generosity. I’ve seen a lot about Buddhism’s mindful approach to acting and reacting with love. That’s the sort of thing I want to get better at, particularly now when, let’s face it, there’s a revolution of hate happening. Ultimately, even Buddhism might not be for me. It’s possible that no established “religion” will be. But I’d like to learn more about it anyway.
I received some excellent and helpful suggestions, as well as inspiring and motivational comments and conversations. I also discovered that some of my Twitter connections are practicing Buddhists, though I never knew it. What a world of possibilities and revelations can open to us, if only we have the courage to ask! I’ve begun my journey with The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation by Thich Nhat Hanh. So far, it is resonating with me. His style is warm and to the point. He explains a lot of how the history of Buddhism has been corrupted or altered (inadvertently or intentionally), and then gets into the tenants and philosophies, including what they mean and how to practice them independently. I’m excited to continue learning more, and I’ll probably stick with Hanh’s texts for now, though I also hear good things about Pema Chodron. Am I a Buddhist? I don’t know. I take a lot from Christ’s teachings, too, but I cannot be Christian (ask me about that some other time). It may end up the same with Buddhism, though something about this experience so far, and the embracing of human philosophy rather than the supernatural, is appealing to me.
Take a breath, and onward.
I wrap-up my Pride Month reading with two final pieces of fiction, one a classic adult novel of lesbian literature, the other a young adult novel inspired by Walt Whitman. Please feel free to check out the rest of my pride month reads. I had planned to read 5 LGBTQ books this month but managed to read 7, and I wasn’t disappointed at all!
Jane DeLynn’s novel, Don Juan in the Village (1990), is a classic of lesbian fiction. It follows the escapades and sexual conquests of its female protagonist, a lady Don Juan, as she travels the world and sleeps with as many women as she can. The narrative spans the course of 20 years, beginning sometime in the 1970s and ending sometime in the 1990s. There is a clear and stark, sometimes painful, contrast between the freedom of the post-1960s sexual revolution and the advent of what the narrator labels, “the plague.”
Each chapter is titled with the name of a different place to which the protagonist travels. Within, she describes not just the place she is visiting, but the women—and types of women—she meets there and makes love to. These experiences range from the soft and sensual to the nearly sadistic, but in any case, the narrator is almost always “very wet.” Yes, indeed, the story is that bold, that graphic, that open about sexuality, and female sexuality in particular. As a gay male, these experiences are about as far removed from my own as is possible, and yet the importance of this kind of text, particularly in the cannon of LGBTQ+ fiction, particularly in the canon of women’s literature, and particularly at a time when AIDS was devastating the gay community, is not lost on me.
So, while the writing style did not particularly appeal to me (rather dry, like a kind of Gertrude Stein meeting Ernest Hemingway at the middle of an intersection), it also makes sense: what better way to share taboo experiences to the widest range of readers as possible than in a clinically modernist way, as if “these are the facts, and if you can’t handle them, you’re the problem.” So, upon consideration, it’s an incredibly smart approach by an obviously talented writer. I think many readers will respond to this one, though it wasn’t right for me. That said, readers of LGBTQ fiction and those interested in LGBT literary history, as I am, should not pass it up.
Sarah Henstra’s We Contain Multitudes (2019) is one of those rare novels that catches my attention right away, keeps it word-for-word, line-for-line, and page-by-page, and then upends everything just as I’m wondering if I could possibly love a book more. Somewhere about 75% into the novel (no, let’s be honest, I counted the pages and it was exactly 75% of the way in), the story takes an unexpected turn, one that I was not prepared for and one that I did not appreciate. It felt like my world was shattering. I understand how hyperbolic that must sound. IT’S JUST A BOOK, MAN, you’re probably thinking. Except that’s just it. This wasn’t just a book. This novel, these two young Whitman lovers, these two young Walt Whitmans, indeed, are much bigger than a story.
The novel is told in epistolary form, as a series of letters written between two high school boys, a sophomore and a senior. They are given an assignment to write to each other, typically with some kind of prompt from their English teacher. As they are in different classes, of different ages, and in wildly different social circles, they had never spoken to each other before, though they each knew who the other one is. This is because, in their own way, they are both wildly inconspicuous. What begins as a series of assigned letters, though, quickly drifts away from a mandatory task and into true, good old-fashioned letter-writing. Henstra adroitly creates two different styles and voices that match the two different teenage protagonists.
One struggle is that, given the design, the boys must re-tell each other the events to which they were both a party (otherwise, how would the reader know about them?) That said, even the author recognizes this complication and manages to address it through the characters’ letters as well. This is perhaps the only place where the author’s identity (or narrator’s, if we want to be more academic) can be felt. That said, a benefit to this is that the boys recount their shared experiences from their own perspectives, which turns out to be revealing to the reader, but also to the other person involved. A significant question that comes about, then, is how much can we really know another person?
I won’t reveal what happens at that three-quarter mark, except to say that it crushed me. The book resolves in a mostly satisfactory way, in my opinion, but I personally had been so distraught over the major conflict, that I was—I still am—left reeling. In a way, this speaks to the brilliance of Whitman, first of all, and to the brilliance of this novel and its characters, too. Upon reflection, I realize that Adam Kurlansky is deeper and more complex than he is given credit, and far crueler than I am or could ever be. I realize that Jonathan Hopkirk is stronger and more flawed than he seems, and far more forgiving than I am ore ever could be. And so, in this way, the point is proven: they do contain multitudes. We all do. The poetry is the point, and the poetry is in us all.
I haven’t felt this connected to Whitman or to myself since, well, since reading Whitman. It is not without its pains, nor without its fearsome joys. When I finished reading, I could only think of Whitman’s poem, “To You,” which, unless I’m mistaken, does not make an appearance in this novel. And yet…
Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,
I whisper with my lips close to your ear,
I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you. O I have been dilatory and dumb,
I should have made my way straight to you long ago,
I should have blabb’d nothing but you, I should have chanted nothing but you.
-Excerpt, “To You” (Walt Whitman)
Abdi Nazemian’s young adult historical fiction novel, Like A Love Story, is the fourth LGBTQ-themed book I’ve read this month. Like the others, it has not disappointed. Every good coming-out-story, like every good coming-of-age story from Little Women to The Catcher in the Rye, manages to do this, to balance a personal, individual story with a unique experience in time and place and the larger issues this entails. What the author does best in this novel is to integrate powerful and accurate portrayals of two difficult events, the Iran revolution and the AIDS crisis, into a story about an immigrant boy’s coming-of-age and coming out. Magically, it is all held together by the unlikeliest but most appropriate of figures: Madonna.
Reza is that immigrant boy. He arrives in New York City, by way of Canada, after his family flees Iran. Reza has always been the good boy, the one his mother can depend on, while his older sister has always been the rebel and troublemaker. But when Reza meets the beautiful punk photographer, Art, and his best friend Judy, everything changes. Reza is thrust into a world that values independence and individuality, and into a sphere that is fighting desperately to survive. Judy’s uncle Stephen is dying of AIDS, and through his example of activism, friendship, patience, and counter-pop culture, Reza, Judy, and Art learn to thrive, to live, and to love.
Like A Love Story is not only a beautifully-written young adult novel, but it is a historically and socially important one. Nazemian reminds the reader just how hard gay and lesbian people had to fight to win their freedoms and equal protections, a fight that continues to this day and that is constantly under attack. The author includes several important historical lessons, weaving them seamlessly into the story of these characters’ lives, so that readers who give this work a chance will find themselves learning critical history that is often overlooked, forgotten, or under-appreciated, while at the same time enjoying an excellent story. At the heart of it are themes of friendship, forgiveness, and first loves, as well as first losses and the reality of mourning. These very human themes are so universal that the reader, while connecting with the fictional of it all, might find themselves relating to a story well beyond their own lived experience.
This is one of the most important and illuminating LGBTQ novels published in recent memory.
The fifth book I read for Pride Month is Jeff Garvin’s The Symptoms of Being Human, a young/new adult novel about a gender fluid protagonist’s coming-out experience. Riley Cavanaugh’s father is a conservative politician in a conservative Orange County, California district, in the middle of a re-election campaign. Riley’s mother is kind and well-meaning, but much of her time is devoted to her duties as a politician’s spouse. Just as the election season is heating up, Riley suffers a kind of panic attack at an important event, after which they are hospitalized for attempted suicide. To ease some of the tension, Riley transfers out of her private Catholic school, where they were tormented, to a public school, where they hope to be better treated. Unfortunately, high school is still high school, conservative areas are still conservative areas, and plans often go sour.
While Riley struggles to figure out who they are, some days feeling like a girl and some days like a boy, and other days not like either one, they also navigate the process of healing from self-harm, dealing with anxiety, hiding a powerful secret from their parents and, let’s face it, an entire district that has the Cavanaugh family under its microscope, and trying to make friends, or at least avoid making enemies, at a new school. Any one of these conflicts would be difficult but trying to deal with all of them simultaneously is beyond unlucky. To help, Riley’s therapist suggests that they start a blog and share privately and anonymously what cannot be shared publicly. To write is Riley’s true therapy, and as it turns out, they are very good at it. Ironically, this talent is what causes the largest crisis of all.
Somehow, Riley finds themselves with a popular blog that only grows in popularity as its presence is picked-up by one of the largest LGBTQ community websites online. Riley receives thousands and then tens of thousands of followers and is bombarded with comments of praise, questions for advice, and plenty of hate mail, too. Eventually, Riley’s identity is discovered, right around the time some of the advice they have given to a transgender teen goes terribly wrong, and suddenly they are thrust, with their secrets, into the glaring spotlight that is a political election season.
The major climax itself did feel unnecessary to me, in an almost troubling way. In my reading, the event felt manufactured to fit a gap in the construction of the narrative, rather than necessarily and organically manifested by the sequence of the story itself. It is also a device so often used in stories of sex/gender diversion that, at this point, it has become cliché. This is not to say the problem is not real, because it is very real and all too common, but the introduction and handling of it (and particularly the “fall out”) are even more important for that reason. This is the one element that pulled me out of an otherwise truly engaging, interesting, and important work that deals with gender fluidity, family, hate crimes, coming-of-age, and mental health.
One of the most incredible things about Symptoms of Being Human is that the author manages to treat Riley Cavanaugh’s gender fluidity with complete honesty throughout the course of the narrative. It is never revealed whether the protagonist was born biologically male or female, nor what their parents assume to be Riley’s sex or gender. This is an impressive feat. The story is well-paced, moving slowly and thoughtfully through the complex areas, then speeding up rapidly during moments of intensity. I was able to read the entire thing over the course of one round-trip flight, and rarely did I want to stop to put it down.
I’m currently reading Jane DeLynn’s DON JUAN IN THE VILLAGE, which will be my 6th book for Pride month (this one features a lesbian protagonists sexual experiences around the world), completing my planned reads for the month, though I hope to get one more snuck in under the wire. DON JUAN is also a book on my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge List. Check out my thoughts on earlier Pride Month reads, ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS as well as GEMINI and HOLD MY HAND.
The irony is not lost on me that, just a couple of days after claiming that I no longer plan to write formal/lengthy book reviews for this blog, I finish reading Ocean Vuong’s first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It would be absolutely thrilling to think that I can articulate just why it is so necessary for me to write a full-length reflection about this novel, but the idea that I can do this book justice is ludicrous. Still, I’ll try my best.
Ocean Vuong is an acclaimed Vietnamese-American poet who has already won numerous prestigious awards, including the T.S. Eliot award for poetry. His collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, is one of the highest regarded contemporary collections on the market, which made the anticipation about this first novel all the more extreme. It is rare to see a talented writer in one genre, like poetry, crossover into another genre, like fiction, and even rarer still to find that she or he manages it expertly. Vuong is such a rarity.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is marketed as a letter from a Vietnamese-American boy to his mother, who cannot read. Taken literally, this is the case. Little Dog is writing to his mother about all the secrets he has kept, all the memories he has buried, and all the love he carries for his mother and his grandmother, both of whom are reeling from the traumas of war, immigration, loss of language, and Alzheimer’s. So, it is a kind of love letter to these women, to their past, but also to himself as a boy and to his future self, the man who will be made possible. He knows his mother cannot understand the words he writes, the language he speaks, so he shares without restraint and sends the letter to us all.
One of the reasons why I enjoyed and appreciated this novel so much is that it is written by a poet. This is clear not just in the language, but in the shape and delivery of the major themes and ideas. Vuong, through Little Dog, looks at the world through the eyes of the poet and describes what he sees in a way that only a poet could. The mundane is made miraculous, the painful is paradox, and the beautiful is wrenching. He manages to make the reader empathize with a host of characters, from the quietly rebellious protagonist, to his contradictorily abusive yet loving mother, and to his young boyfriend, a country redneck simultaneously terrified of yielding himself to another boy while still capable of treating his lover with the greatest compassion and tenderest care.
What holds it together most, what makes it a masterpiece, is its honesty. Words like “courageous” are often applied to novels like this one, stories that tell of family traumas, of coming-of-age and coming out. But Vuong’s honesty, here, is on a different level altogether. The way he describes his coming out and his growing up, his ever-progressing awareness of self, his first love and loss, moves beyond courageous. It is an act of total surrender, a giving up of everything that the world tells us should be kept to ourselves. In this way, Vuong allows Little Dog to reach the two kinds of readers who most need his story: the readers like Little Dog, who experienced or will experience the unique moments of gay life, of immigrant life, of life as an outcast, that can rarely be discussed in public, if ever. And the readers who know nothing of this type of journey, but who might learn what it means to be the someone else, the one without words or defense in a world that is terribly loud and aggressive. To be the dove in a crow’s nest.
For me, Ocean Vuong’s novel comes at a time when I am re-examining my own life and past. It comes at a time when Eugene Lee Yang releases his beautiful artistic articulation of a similar journey. For me, it seems, a universe of ellipses is falling into place at exactly the right moment, and to read a perfect book in a turbulent and confusing time is perhaps the most miraculous way to think of one’s place in that universe as intentional, purposeful, and necessary.
“The nameless yellow body was not considered human because it did not fit in a slot on a piece of paper. Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are” (63).
“The children, the veal, they stand very still because tenderness depends on how little the world touches you. To stay tender, the weight of your life cannot lean on your bones” (156).
“To be clean again. To be good again. What have we become to each other if not what we’ve done to each other?” (206)
“The thing is, I don’t want my sadness to be othered from me just as I don’t want my happiness to be othered. They’re both mine” (181).
“The sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted” (238).
Hello, TBR Pile Challengers!
Welcome to the MID-WAY POINT for our 2019 TBR Pile Challenge! I don’t know about you, but the time seems to be flying for me. I’m already too many weeks into my summer “break” and feel like far too many months in the year have passed.
That said, I have somehow, someway managed to keep pace with this challenge (sort of.) I’ve read and reviewed exactly 6 of my 12 required books. Since I hope to read all 14 on my list, this does put me a bit behind schedule, technically, but “to win,” one only needs to hit 12 of 12, so I’m counting it as pretty good performance thus far, even if my reviews have gotten rather brief.
As you can see, the more recent reviews are pretty short in comparison to what I usually write, but that’s partly because “book blogging” or “reviewing,” anyway, is becoming less of a priority for me. I still plan to keep up with this blog and sharing my thoughts on the books that I’m reading, but it will likely not be in the form of full-on reviews. I think the next book on my list I want to try will be either The Ascent of Woman or Light the Dark: Writers On Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.
Below, you’re going to find the infamous Mr. Linky widget. If you read and review any challenge books this month, please link-up on the widget below. This Mr. Linky will be re-posted every month so that we can compile a large list of all that we’re reading and reviewing together this year. Each review that is linked-up on this widget throughout the year may also earn you entries into future related giveaways, so don’t forget to keep this updated!
I’ve been pretty busy with both reading and writing, lately. I guess I am thankful that it is summertime and, while I’m still working hard on course preparation and planning for the fall term, I at least have a break from teaching right now.
A little more than three months ago, I began what I called the “#100DaysJournal” project. The goal is pretty self-explanatory: write in my journal every day for 100 days. Although I missed a few days here and there, extending my finish date by about a week, I’m happy (excited? stunned!?) to share that I did finish the project today. I was also really pleased to hear that a few people on Twitter have taken up the call, too, and they are also getting back into writing. Hooray!
The most tangible outcome so far is that I wrote 250 pages by hand, filling almost two full journals. The writing covered a whole host of topics, mostly mundane things, but some really important personal breakthroughs, some professional planning and reflection, and some important writing (WIP) items as well.
I did have a box of prompts to draw from every day, but after about 30-days, I tended to look at the prompt, consider it, and put it away. This is why my earlier posts on this project petered out; I really wasn’t following the prompts anymore and I didn’t find anything “thematic” to write about every 10 days, as planned. But that’s okay. I think the project itself worked out really well.
For example, I began to build a writing routine that now seems mostly natural to me. I get up a couple of hours before I “need” to every day, and that is my focused writing time every day. I walk to a nearby cafe, find a seat (usually the same one, if I’m lucky) and grab an iced coffee, and then I write. That’s it. Without this writing routine and the daily practice, building myself back up to the stamina I once had, I don’t think I would have gotten to the place I’m at now, which is to say, working on my second book.
In the last week, that morning writing time also started to incorporate the writing of my current WIP, a young adult (probably? not really worried about genre classification right now) novel set in the mid-1990s. It centers on the relationship between three friends, each of whom is dealing with an important personal struggle. Currently, I’ve written the first two chapters and outlined most of the third. It’s a pretty exciting time for me. I like these characters. I like the setting. I feel like their struggles are important, and that they need each other. And maybe I need them, which means perhaps other readers might need them, too.
I have also been focused on reading LGBTQ+ stories this month, in celebration of Pride month. I’ve now read the first two books on my list of six, which are Gemini by Michel Tournier and Hold My Hand by Michael Barakiva.
Gemini is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It’s both beautifully written and an important and powerful exploration of philosophy, particularly a study in binaries and dichotomies. The novel is essentially about a set of identical twins, Jean and Paul, who are so similar that even their own parents call them “Jean-Paul” for ease. The brothers form an intimate bond, presumably in the womb, which lasts through their childhood, youth, and into adulthood. One twin, however, tries to sever that bond, and the other chases after him. Their twinship and their manufactured differences are then reflected in the oppositions that Tournier explores in the unfolding of his tale, including the relationships between city and country, war and peace, heterosexuality and homosexuality, filth and cleanliness, rich and poor, Europe and elsewhere. It is, in all honesty, a strange tale, but it is a fascinating one. Written in the 1970s and set decades before that, the narrative also remains highly relevant. Take this excerpt about the Berlin mall and those trying to flee East Germany for the West:
There was something simultaneously tragic and ridiculous in the spectacle of those terrified men and women compelled to hurl themselves into space because they had left it too late before deciding to change sectors. One thought kept haunting Paul’s mind all the time: We are not at war. There is no earthquake, no fire, and yet . . . Surely it is very sinisterly typical of our times that what is, after all, a purely administrative crisis should lead to such scenes? This is not a matter of guns and tanks, but only of passports, visas and rubber stamps.
While Gemini is a heady and sometimes disturbing (although, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny) read, Barakiva’s contemporary young adult romance novel, Hold My Hand, is quite the opposite, despite the tension caused by the two betrayals at the center of its plot. Alek Khederian is a young Armenian-American teenager who is on the verge of “going all the way” with his older boyfriend, Ethan. At the same time, he is attending Armenian Saturday school, learning more about what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. Just as Alek is celebrating his birthday, surrounded by his supportive family and his amazing boyfriend, and with the news that his “What Being Armenian Means to Me” essay has won top score at school, meaning he will get to read it at Christmas service, everything starts to fall apart. His boyfriend betrays him. His church betrays him. Alek is left to decide how far he is willing to go to repair the damage, how willing he is to follow the Christian tenant of forgiveness, and how capable he is in standing up for what is right, not just for him but for anyone like him. Despite an overwhelming number of proofing errors (there were dozens of places where I had to stop to edit a sentence — it was strange!), the story is compelling and edifying. I for one loved to read about a young person dealing with issues of faith, sexuality, and ancestry all at the same time, and I found learning more about Armenian culture to be one of the most rewarding parts about reading this book. It also reminds us just how difficult it is for anyone who is different to exist freely in public. Excerpt:
Holding hands now made something perfectly clear to Alek: that what he wished he could make the reverend father, his own parents, and all those well-meaning straight people understand was that he and Ethan would never really have the privilege of holding hands as a neutral gesture. The act, taken for granted by people all over the world, would never be just that for him and Ethan. Part of him mourned that possibility–of never knowing what it would mean to perform that act unitalicized.
Currently, I’m reading Ocean Vuong’s new novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which I’ve been looking forward to. Up next is probably Jane DeLynn’s Don Juan in the Village. Next month I will be focused on poetry (reading it and reading about it), so please send me recommendations of your favorite collections. I’ll be starting with Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook.
I also wanted to mention that my book of literary criticism/history is on sale this month ($5.00 ebook/$19.69 print.) This is in honor of Pride month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which occurred in New York City in June, 1969. I was thrilled to learn that the book was Amazon’s #1 New Release in LGBT Literary Criticism!
I have also been overwhelmed and flattered by the great feedback the book has received online. I worked hard on it and am pleased and proud to have it out there in the public sphere, for others to enjoy and learn from.
I first started coming out to people when I was sixteen.
It began with a friend who, as it turns out, didn’t deserve to be told first, but who was nevertheless mostly supportive in the beginning. A few months after telling a second friend, I told my sister. And that was the limit for a little over a year, until I went to college and came out more broadly to a whole bunch of friends and family back home, all at once during the first semester of my freshman year. I used a ridiculously cheap but safe-to-me method, one of those “How Well Do You Know Me?” personal surveys that were all the rage for a while back in the early-2000s.
For me, the process was mostly painless and undramatic, with the exception of a couple family members who did not take the news well. I didn’t expect it all to go very badly, but I also didn’t expect it to go as easily as it did. There are still some people who are uncomfortable with the fact that I’m gay, but for the most part I have been very fortunate to have a loving and supportive family and to have surrounded myself with good people, both before and after coming out, who never saw that one part of my personality as anything other than what it is, a normal aspect of who I am. I know how very lucky that makes me, which has always made this next part confusing and embarrassing to me.
After 20 years of being “out” in some form or another, I sit here during Pride month and realize that there is one coming out I have yet to achieve. It’s an even more painful one, something that I’ve hidden or avoided talking about for 15 years; only two people have known anything about it, all this time. I started to think about this while walking the mall a few days ago. I noticed so many stores have their PRIDE colors out and their love/equality merchandise on display. The commercialism of it is a double-edged sword, but for the most part I choose to look on the bright side: visibility is a good thing. To feel welcome in public spaces is a good thing.
As I walked through one store, though, I took a closer look at their Pride displays and read that they are partnering with The Trevor Project this year. With every purchase, customers can choose to “round up” to the next dollar, and all of those donations then go to help this organization prevent teen suicide in the LGBTQ community, where the issue remains severe and far too common. The juxtaposition of all those joyful, vibrant Pride colors with the reminder that, every day, there are queer kids out there contemplating suicide, was jarring to say the least, and it dragged me back to one of the most painful times in my life.
During my second year of college, I was, by all appearances, the happiest and healthiest I had ever been. As a kid who struggled his whole life with obesity and body issues, I suddenly found myself rather fit, making close friends, and doing crazy things like learning how to dance, performing on stage, going to parties, and all sorts of other activities I had only dreamed about since childhood. But, doing all of those things took a great deal of energy for me. I didn’t realize at the time what it meant to be as anxious and introverted as I am, so I ignored the pain of being in public and among people all the time, even though my mind and body were trying to tell me, again and again, that I was doing too much.
Eventually, I would listen, though, and retreat into an even unhealthier environment.
I was also dating for the first time. There’s a lot that could be said about who I chose to date and how those experiences went. It suffices to say for now that, none of those choices were healthy or right, and that I was looking for something to make me feel better, not realizing that this was just adding to the problem. It would take a long, long time to understand that what would make me feel better, feel like me, and feel like I deserved to be alright, wasn’t something I could ever find in someone or something else; not in a guy, not in a friend, and not in an activity. I realize now that I was overcompensating for the fact that I was not as happy or comfortable as I pretended to be, and that even though I was out and had been surrounded by friends who accepted me completely, I hadn’t ever accepted myself.
The combination of persistent, paralyzing body issues and lack of self-esteem plus the fact that I hadn’t yet accepted my sexuality, despite pretending confidence in both of these things, led me to long-distance online dating. There was something wonderful, I thought, about this opportunity. Here, I could be as romantic and loving as I wanted to be and fulfill any fantasies I had, emotionally and imaginatively anyway, but not have to risk being with someone physically. This meant I could “be me” in the safest way possible, and in the only way I thought would work for someone like me. Deep down, I was convinced nobody really wanted to be with me physically. I was so uncomfortable about my body, so unwilling to give myself up to another person, and so completely unsure of how I was supposed to “be” with another man, that I sacrificed the opportunity to heal those issues and learn more about myself. Instead, I would hide behind a screen and pretend to be happy in a digital relationship.
What I first thought to be the answer, turned out to be one of the worst mistakes of my life. The relationship I entered was an abusive one. I didn’t realize it at first, and even after coming to a slow and steady awareness about the kind of person I was dealing with, I couldn’t get myself to leave. Yes, it was a long-distance, digital relationship. Yes, eventually, I realized I was being manipulated by a sociopathic narcissist. But because my self-esteem was so low and because I had convinced myself that this kind of romance was the kind that I deserved, I stayed. I endured endless cruelties and started to doubt myself even more, even the things I actually was confident about. I started to question my own sanity and intelligence, and to berate myself for knowing the truth of the situation I was in but not being “smart” enough to get out of it. I started to blame myself and to hurt myself because I had convinced myself that if this person could make me accept these abuses, then some part of me must deserve the punishment and the pain.
After far too long, that relationship came to an end. It was, as can probably be imagined, not a pleasant parting of ways. But when it ended, I was left empty and devastated, and less in control of myself or my emotions than I had been before it all began. I know now that anytime a relationship ends, there is some pain and grief, some regret, even if things are amicable. But there should also be some growth, some path forward. Unfortunately, at that moment in my life, because I had been avoiding so many truths about myself in the first place and because I had been ground down by months and months of the worst kind of toxicity, I was left completely unprepared for the fallout and incapable of handling the loneliness and despair that followed. And because I hadn’t been honest with anyone about what I’d been going through, none of my friends even knew that I had been in this relationship in the first place. I felt quite literally all alone.
The night of the fallout, I was by myself in my dormitory room. A few months earlier, I had had my wisdom teeth pulled and there was a full bottle of pain killers left over in my closet. Never before that moment and never since have I ever had a desire to die. But that night, after 20 years of pretending to be happy, pretending to be normal, pretending to be that “ideal gay” who has his shit together and could do anything and be accepted by everyone, my inner pain spilled out, and I broke. I shattered completely and deeply, and in a way that I never knew a human being could break.
The tears started falling before I took the first pill and before I stepped out of my dorm room and started walking aimlessly in circles around campus. I remember the black and red hoodie I was wearing, because I kept the pill bottle in the front pocket, for easy reach. I walked around at midnight, at 1am, at 2am… popping another pill every few minutes and swallowing it with a sip of water from the bottle I’d remembered to bring with me. I passed the same group of students from my dorm three or four times. They were hanging out in the “smoker’s spot” near one of the back entryways, shielding themselves from the cold midwestern winds, and eventually one of them realized there must be something wrong with me, because he called out to ask if I was alright. Invited me to join them.
I waved him off.
Finally, I reached the bottom of that pill bottle. I don’t remember how many I had taken, but I do know it was mostly full to start. And nothing was happening. I thought the pills would have had an immediate effect. I thought I would be passed out in a field somewhere, or laying face-down on the sidewalk. But, mostly, I was just utterly exhausted and I couldn’t keep going. I felt a little dizzy and disoriented, and I was tired from all the walking. But I was still awake and still alive. Why? Another failure.
With the bottle empty and nothing happening, I went back to my dorm and sat down on a couch in the common room. A few minutes later, the guy who had called out to me wandered in and sat next to me. He started to talk to me, but I have no recollection of what he said. All I remember is the way it felt to have my hand wrapped tightly around that empty pill bottle, inside the front pocket of my hoodie. I can still feel the heat returning to my hand and making my fingertips tingle. I can feel the sweat making that small plastic bottle slippery as I debated taking it out of my pocket and showing it to this guy, which is what I finally did. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say. I was desperately confused, terribly embarrassed, and suddenly very aware of what I’d done. I was stunned.
He saw the bottle and immediately ran the few steps to the director’s apartment, pounding on it until she awoke. An ambulance was called, and I remember most of that ride, the questions they asked and the looks they gave me. I remember my boss riding with me, being supportive and asking me what happened, was it about a boy? And I remember the sidelong glances from the paramedics, the looks that I took to be disgust, and the way they spit out, “Ma’am, please stop talking.” I remember how humiliated I was when they inserted the catheter, how they took my blood, and when they asked me who they should call. And I remember my mom and my sister showing up. I remember their faces, most of all, though the face of the hospital psychologist completely escapes me.
All these things I will remember, but most of all, I remember how alone and confused I felt. Not just that night but, in retrospect, all the time.
When people talk about suicide, when they ask how anyone could do that to themselves, to their friends and family, I think back to that loneliness and confusion. I think about the façade I wore day in and day out, and the way that people saw me but did not know me. I think about how easy it is for us to imagine we understand the people in our lives, especially the ones closest to us, whom we love, and yet I know, intimately, that we may not know anything at all.
We say “things get better” and they do. We say “things are better” now than they were 100, 50, and even 5 years ago. And in many ways, that is true. But some things haven’t changed. The strength it takes to get up every day, knowing you’re different, is exhausting. The pain of having to come out not just once, but almost every day, in every public space or whenever you meet someone new, is ever-present, because the assumption of straightness remains. And the confusion about what it means to be gay, to be a boy or a girl, to be in a relationship or not, to be a friend, to be a son or daughter… that confusion is something, I think, almost everyone is trying to work out, all the time. It’s just especially difficult for those who are also questioning who they are and living in fear about being rejected or attacked for it at any given moment.
I never wrote a suicide note, so I’d like to think of this as a note of a different kind. A note I get to write because I failed. It’s a reminder, mostly to myself, to check in on people and to pay more attention. It’s nobody’s fault, what I did. Not that horrible guy, not the friends I kept at a distance, and not even mine. When you get to a point of true misery, you’re no longer in control. You’re not even yourself anymore. You’re lost and there seems only one way out. So, you take that route. You find that exit. In that moment, it seems entirely logical.
I can’t imagine, now, having tried to commit suicide. I can’t imagine, now, ever trying it again. But what I can imagine is the many seemingly valid and justified reasons why people, and LGBTQ+ teens in particular, make that choice every single day. I can imagine their pain, their loneliness, their fear. Because I’ve felt it, too.
I’m glad I’m still here. The friends I made in the months following that suicide attempt are still my best friends to this day. I met and married the love of my life. I went further in my education than my dreams ever really allowed, and now I spend my life educating others. I try my best, now, to really look at people. To see them in a way that I felt unseen, because I know what it’s like not to be able to look at yourself or show yourself to anyone else. I don’t know if it will ever make a difference, but I can’t risk closing my eyes.
I’m glad I’m still here. I’m glad I could write this suicide note.
To learn more about The Trevor Project and how you can help prevent suicide in LGBTQ+ youth, please visit: https://www.thetrevorproject.org
If you think you or someone you know might be contemplating suicide, please visit: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Read. Write. Resist.
A Writer and His Reading
Notes on Classic Literature and Life
Thoughts on books to read in your spare time...
~ a classic book conversation ~
Discussing Paths Towards Happiness
Freaky Tales from Far and Wide
We believe in being brave.