Monthly Archives: June 2012

A Conversation with Bil Wright by Gavin Atlas

Bil Wright is the author of When the Black Girl Sings, a Junior Library Guild selection, and Sunday You Learn How to Box, which was one of Booklist’s best adult books for teens; a New York Public Library Best Book for the Teen Age; a Coretta Scott King Celebrating the Dream Book; and on the ALA’s list of Books for Gay Teens. His newest novel, Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy, received the 2012 American Library Award for
Young Adult and Children’s Fiction as well as the 2012 Lambda Literary Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in several anthologies, including Shade, Black Like Us, The Road Before Us, and Black Silk. Bil Wright lives in New York City.

Hi, Bil!
Thank you for doing this interview.
I enjoyed Putting Makeup on the
Fat Boy
very much.   There was an early scene I found gut wrenching.
I won’t give away your plot except to give you the pass phrase “Stella
McCartney Boots”.   Do you find it more
excruciating as a writer to put a character through horrible, grinding emotions
than it is to read about the pain of a lovable character written by someone
else where you don’t know how bad the situation will be?

BW: For me, those are two very different situations. When I create a
character, very often the situation he or she is in occurs very naturally as a
result of their circumstances. I don’t plot every event that happens to them,
but follow the characters and allow them to lead me. The situations that they
find themselves in are natural outgrowths of who they are and what their
journey is. Carlos, for example, in PUTTING
MAKE-UP ON THE FAT BOY
, is pretty fearless, so he doesn’t back down and to
be with him on that journey is sometimes painful, but sometimes it’s hilarious.

GA: Since we’re on the topic of what’s difficult,
what do you think has been the hardest thing for you to write?  I mean that either in terms of taking endless
rewrites before you felt you’d got it right or a scene that was so emotionally
draining you felt you needed to sleep for a week before you felt better.

BW: The closest thing for me is going over something in my mind “a
hundred times” trying to figure out if I’m being really truthful to the
situation. I’m reading a book right now on Stephen Sondheim where he talks
about one of his mantras being “God is in the details.”  I wholeheartedly agree. I feel that I have to
be a camera and really zero in on what the details are of a conversation, an
event, a thought. Sometimes, in really examining that moment, you realize that
there is a false note that may be colored by the writer having too much
information.
Then I have to
go back and figure out what is truest to the story I’m trying to tell and not
to any personal agenda I may have as an individual.

GA: When I was small, my sister worked at the
Estee Lauder counter at Macy’s in White Plains. I remembered stylish haircuts,
clicking heels, and that she had to have her glamorous “bring it to the runway”
face ready to go before I was half out of bed.
However, until I read Putting
Makeup
I’d never been intrigued by the world of cosmetics or the magical
power of transformation that a skilled artist can possess.  Is it a fascination you share with Carlos and
is there a part of you that would love to be indispensible to a star actress
like your character, Shirlena Day?   Are
there other wild fame or success fantasies, maybe from childhood, that you’ve
held onto?

BW: What a great question! It made me laugh, mostly the idea of
being indispensable to a star. I think, although I’m the world’s biggest fan of
talent, I’m not great at any form of servitude except clearing the dishes and
washing them after a dinner party to show my respects to the host. So I’d
probably get fired really fast if I ever got a job being in service to anyone,
even if it meant I’d been hired for a special skill of some sort. But I am fascinated
by the concept of transformation, whether it is theatrically or spiritually or
physically. And yes, I’m thrilled to see any artist who has transformative
skills. In some sense, it’s very much connected to the art of creation, so yes,
that really stimulates me.

 

GA: I once took a writing class with you, and I remember
you didn’t let vague critique slide by.
Once you asked how I felt about a classmate’s piece, and I said, “I had
trouble getting through it”.  You said, “Why?  Give me a word.”  I drew a blank until I realized my issue had
been with some unsettlingly graphic description, so I said, “um, squeamish?”
That worked for you.  “Squeamish is a
word,” you said with a nod.  Obviously,
you make a lasting impression.  Is there
anyone who gets the credit for teaching you to be an insightful instructor?   Can you describe any moments from your
career that have made you say, “THIS is why I love teaching writing”?

BW: I must say, reading quotes of statements I’ve made is both a
humbling and enlightening experience. As I said earlier, I think I have always
been a reader who is fascinated by details and more specifically the way that a
writer handles them. Shakespeare, J.D. Salinger, Tony Morrison, James
Baldwin—all writers with an astonishing sense of detail, but with very
different voices. The more detailed they are, the more specific our response.

I try to get members of a
writing workshop to commit to being very specific with each other so that we
not only hear honest responses, but know how to give them in a supportive way
that still allows for real criticism. Yes, I rarely allow people to cop out on
responding in a workshop, because we all have responses and to learn how to
articulate them is important. I think in order to take responsibility for my
own work, I should be able to communicate on some level what I’m trying to do.
Giving supportive, yet honest criticism to another is good practice at learning
how to identify and articulate your thoughts on your own work. Sometimes, just
being able to voice questions is a good jumping off for discussion that may be
worthwhile for the writer and the reader.

Any time someone walks into a workshop and really wants to be
there and really wants to learn and grow, I’m excited by teaching. And for me,
“teaching” means leading a workshop with some growing knowledge. I continue to
grow as a writer. I don’t know any Master Teachers, and I certainly don’t
consider myself one. There are writers I admire greatly and instructors I
admire greatly, but I don’t know that one equals another—as a matter of fact,
I’m sure being a good writer, and even a famous writer does not make you a good
teacher. When I’ve lost the joy of teaching, I hope I have the good sense to
stop. Right now, I still love working with writers who want to be in the room.

 

GA: I read your novel, Sunday You Learn to Box a number of years ago, and I thought the
ending was an awesome, empowering response to bullying. Then I felt conflicted about
that reaction. In my head, my mother said, “No, it’s actually a heartbreaking
ending.  If a problem is solved by
violence then that justifies all the abuse the main character had to put up
with all those years, doesn’t it?  It’s
honest. It’s true. But it’s so sad.”  If
you could settle my imaginary argument with my mother, that would be lovely,
but it might be easier for you to tell us what your favorite reactions from
readers to your ending have been and what your own view of the ending is.  Has your view of the novel changed at all
over the last decade?

BW: Louis Bowman in Sunday You
Learn How to Box
is a survivor. He survives his circumstances and he
survives everything and everyone around him who says he can’t. I didn’t have
any agenda for the book as much as I wanted to be true to the character. It
goes back to what I said earlier about creating a character. Louis follows his
path to a natural ending. I would only be concerned if the ending felt false.
But life happens. And if it feels like life—in all of its unpredictability,
both triumphant and tragic–I feel like I’ve been true to the character.

GA: I know you’re also a playwright.  Are there ways you find that medium
satisfying that you don’t get from fiction?
Do you have any favorite memories from productions of your plays?

BW: I love live theatre because people respond to the story being
told right there in the moment. Also, it’s such a collaborative art form. The
contribution of a good actor is invaluable, as is that of a good director.
 

And, it’s a little bit different each night.

Two summers ago, there was a production of THIS ONE GIRL’S
STORY, a musical I wrote with a really gifted composer, Dionne McClain-Freeney.
It’s inspired by the murder of Sakia Gunn, a young black, teenaged lesbian who
was the victim of a bias killing in Newark, New Jersey.  Every night as the audience (an extremely
diverse audience of various ethnicities, straight, queer, old, and young) took
that journey with the characters, it was so emotional. They went from laughing
with the protagonist and her friends as they explored the Village, to holding
their breath when the protagonist and her friends were in jeopardy, to weeping
openly, to a catharsis of grief mixed with hope at the end of the play. It was
a total gift to be able to go on that journey with them from night to night and
I’ll never forget it!

 

GA: When it comes to books, film/TV, music, or
theater, what makes you laugh or puts you in a great mood?

BW: Music is the great healer, liberator, and equalizer. I’m in awe
of what certain voices can do, or combinations of voices. Because I grew up in
a very liberated and liberating church, a gospel song can open my heart or fill
it to bursting. But then a Puccini aria or a rock song can do the same. It’s
the combination of voice and lyric and spirit that is so powerful to me and I’m
so glad I was exposed to it at an early age so that I’m not closed off to any
one type of music. Music is such a gift to our civilization. 

GA: In my imagination, I can picture you silently
fuming at a card you received in the mail from a friend, thinking, “I’ve known
you since nursery school.  It’s
B-I-L.”  How do you feel about the one
“L”?

BW: People whom I’ve known for a long time very rarely make that
mistake. I think, as names do, the spelling becomes synonymous with the person.
People just think of me as Bil, instead of Bill or William. And I only actually
get grumpy when people feel they have to correct my spelling of my own name. I
will send something in to a copy editor and my name will be all over it and
they feel they have to “correct it” and add an L, instead of checking. I always
have the same response: I am certainly capable of making a mistake—even with
the spelling of my own name—but would I make the same mistake three, four
times? Highly unlikely.

 

GA: I saw a picture of you on a beach with a very
fun-looking dog.  Is travel (or an
afternoon escape from the city) important to your well-being?  Are there destinations you dream of visiting? Also,
there have been authors I’ve interviewed who have said how much the animals
they love affect their writing.  Is that
true for you?

BW: Don’t get me started on Sydney, my Maltese! The picture you saw
is of me trying to get her used to the water at a place called Dog Beach in San
Diego. She has no interest in swimming, so we have to limit our water play to
baths. I love water and find it soothing and restorative. When I’m around
water, the ocean that is, my mind slows down to a not so rapid-as-usual hum and
the combination of Syd and the ocean is about as close to tranquil as I get. I
probably could get about twice as many novels done in a year if I lived near
the beach. I don’t have to be on it as much as around it. It’s my water
sign—don’t ask! But if you use a pic with this, definitely use the one with me
and Syd! It’s me at my happiest—-well, one
of me at my happiest!

GA: I read in Christopher Bram’s Eminent Outlaws in a passage about
Truman Capote that no matter how much success an author gets, he’s not
satisfied and still wants more.  When you
were working on a first novel you said to our class you hoped it would be
picked up by “a major house instead of…(you paused to think up something
silly)…Maple Syrup Press of Vermont.”
So now that you’ve had several books with Simon & Schuster, and
you’ve received some wonderful awards, do you allow yourself “Yay!  I did it!” moments or do you think
Christopher Bram is largely correct?
Either way, are there dreams you look forward to achieving in the
future?

BW: Oh my gosh, another quote to live down! Lol!!!! Forgive me,
Maple Syrup Press of Vermont! (I hope there really isn’t one!) The reason I said
that is because the industry is so challenging, the business is ever evolving.
God knows, I didn’t have any money to promote my first book myself and decent
exposure for it was what I was hoping for.
Exposure to media has only become more vital and even though there are
so many ways to do it, the importance of having a book well distributed and
publicized is still crucial to its growth. The whole concept of success, as you
know, is so different to different people. I still tell stories that I think are
worthy to be told and I still hope that they will have a platform—that  they will be able to circulate throughout the
world and get to people who will say, “I get it! I’m glad this is published and
there are more so I can recommend it to people who it will mean something to,
one way or another.” I’ve been really blessed because the feedback I’ve
received has been really positive—-from young audiences, who are the people
I’m writing primarily for—to adults who have said to me, “I wish this was out
there when I was younger, but I know this kid who would really benefit by
it”—or, better yet, “I know it says Young Adult, but I laughed and cried and
I’m recommending it to some people I know who will love it.” Now, that’s one
form of success only. And I’ve had a bit of that. And I’m really grateful for
it. Do I want more of being able to tell stories that people will respond to
and maybe—here’s the cheesy part— be helped by in some way? Absolutely! And—would
I also like to work in television like Christopher Bram has and buy a pool in
L.A. to teach Sydney how to swim in? Send me the contract! Why? Why not! I’d
still find a way to tell the stories I want to! I know I would!

Thank you so much, Bil!

To learn more about Bil Wright, his books,
and his plays, and see a picture of him and his dog, Sydney, please visit www.bilwright.com

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Silver Moon – Catherine Lundoff (Lethe Press)

Buy it direct from Lethe Press.

Menopausal lesbian werewolves? Seriously? You bet. Nothing
serves to re-energize a tired genre than a swift kick up the ass, which is what
two-time Goldie winner Catherine Lundoff delivers to lycanthropes in Silver
Moon
, a nifty page turner that empowers as well as entertains.

Becca Thornton, a recent émigré to Wolf’s Point, is
recovering from her divorce from philandering Ed. She discovers her
independence and menopause simultaneously, but the “change” brings about more
than one transformation. The onset of middle age also brings out the wolf in
her, as it does a number of local women who have kept the valley safe for
generations. And their expertise is needed as they deal with a traitor who has
developed a serum that threatens their way of life.

The concept is intriguing and, once you think about it, rife
with possibilities. Lundoff runs with it, creating a world that turns
lycanthropy into a metaphor for empowerment, both personal and universal.
Through transformation, Becca takes charge of her own life and joins others who
have done the same, uniting for a cause that is, by extension, maternal in and
of itself. It’s to Lundoff’s credit that the product of such a layered concept
can be read as either metaphor or adventure story.

As exciting as the metaphor is, the adventure is also pretty
damn good. Once the concept is presented, the antagonist arrives and we’re
underway—drugging, kidnapping, betrayal, non-consensual medical procedures—all
served up with verve and some subliminally erotic tension. Lundoff’s prose is
uncluttered and precise, and she has a knack for realistic dialogue that
doesn’t sound written or forced.

But beyond those elements, Silver Moon would be
little without the character of Becca Thornton. Lundoff does a fine job drawing
this woman—newly divorced, possessed of skills and powers she has yet to
develop, but still awkward and unsure about her new community as well as her
place in it. Rather than revert to her old patterns, however, she’s determined
to conquer the new experiences that present themselves to her, no matter what
the consequences. That’s the true bravery of this character.

Whether you’re reading for high concept or sheer
entertainment, Silver Moon will not disappoint. Here’s hoping the women
of Wolf’s Point will return.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler 

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Camptown Ladies – Mari SanGiovanni (Bywater Books)

Buy it now direct from Bywater Books

Loud, funny, larger-than-life ethnic families have been a
staple of comedy since the American melting pot was forged, and those families
now have their share of strong, fiercely independent out gay men and women.
Some of these families face their challenges with subtle, self-effacing
humor…and then there are the Santoras, as portrayed by Mari SanGiovanni in Camptown
Ladies
, her sequel to Greetings from Jamaica, Wish You Were Queer.

Recovering from her breakup with a closeted female
celebrity, Marie Santora decides to join the family effort—spearheaded by her
loud, brassy lesbian sister Lisa—to upgrade a shabby Rhode Island campground
into a gay and lesbian retreat. She is aided in this effort by her parents, her
aunt and uncle, her brother Vince, and Lisa’s queeny friend Eddie along with
contractor Erica, who Marie used to work for. But Erica’s connection to the
family runs deeper than that. She’s also Vince’s ex-girlfriend. And now she’s
deeply in love with Marie.

SanGiovianni knows this territory well, having already seen
the Santoras through a Jamaican adventure, but Camptown Ladies reads
just fine as a standalone. The characters are well-drawn and quirky, but not to
the point of caricature. Their portraits are sketched with humor and filled in
with love. Lisa, in particular, is rude, crude, overbearing and wholly
endearing. You just wouldn’t want to be her enemy. And SanGiovanni’s enthusiasm
and joy in writing this family is evident. She clearly enjoys spending time
with them.

This enjoyment, however, sometimes gets in the way—resulting
in a trip to Provincetown that, while pretty funny, does little to drive the
plot. And Erica’s confession that she is enamored of Marie takes longer to
occur than it should, especially since the reader sees it from her entrance.
That said, the sheer vivacity of these characters carries the book through,
riding over the weak spots with such confident assurance that you hardly notice
them.

From Rhode Island to Provincetown to Italy, the Santoras
thoroughly enjoy life and love in all its permutations, and it’s safe to say
that you’ll enjoy the Santoras in all their permutations. We can only
wonder where we’ll follow them to next.   

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler 

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98 Wounds – Justin Chin (Manic D Press)

Buy it now direct from Manic D Press

“You cannot,” declares the narrator of 98
Wounds
, Justin Chin’s stunning, essential new short story collection, “must
not, believe anything – not a single word – that I say.”

It is a fine joke, the best and the last
laugh in this dark, witty book, Chin’s seventh and his first of prose fiction.
For, by the time we read the above pronouncement, we have come to know this
narrator as one of the most straightforward and reliable we have ever met. If
we cannot believe him, who can we believe? Which may be the point of that
statement. If 98 Wounds is unreliable (the title is from Rimbaud’s Book
of Absinthe
, wherein Verlaine denies God and makes “the ninety-eight wounds
of our Blessed Lord bleed again,” an image picked up by Patti Smith in
“Privilege (Set Me Free)”), then language and narrative themselves may be
unreliable delivery systems, which of course they are. In the meantime,
however, Chin’s language and tale-spinning ability give us a dizzying,
dazzling, deeply affecting ride. Fine – let him tell us not to believe. By the
time he does so, he has already made us believe incontrovertibly.

Adding to our pleasure is surprise that we
can thrill to such sober, grown-up candor in a narrative sporting all the
earmarks of pomo. It’s gritty, it’s grimy, it’s sexually, emotionally and
pharmaceutically “X-treme,” its characters and storylines are blurred – isn’t
it obligatory that the writer not write so much as riff? Mustn’t this be a
literary drug trip, the kind that is great fun to write but torture to read?
Hardly.

The only pain here, and it can be
considerable, comes from Chin’s clear-eyed, spot-on frankness. Even when he is
metaphorical, surreal or satirical, we know with a jolt to our hearts the
suffering he specifies: abuse, addiction, illness, and isolation. When he says,
“my husband was possessed by an evil spirit,” it introduces a passage that, for
all its Exorcist imagery, will be squirm-inducingly real to anyone who
has endured any kind of abusive relationship. As for his portrayals of physical
illness and decay, I will tell you that I read 98 Wounds twice: one
before my 94-year-old mother’s recent illness, and once after. The first time I
thoroughly enjoyed myself, in spite of the narrator’s multiple afflictions. The
second time I could not read more than three pages without having to put the
book down. This, obviously, is a high compliment. It also means that, having
had two equally rich and rewarding but quite divergent experiences of 98
Wounds
, I am hooked and I want to read it a third time. (And speaking of
elderly mothers, wait till you meet the one in this book. You will not forget
her, or the scene in which she appears.)

It occurs to me that, after 400 words, I
should probably say more concretely what this book is “about.” If I say abuse,
addiction, illness and isolation, it is all true. But these words are just
boxes into which we sort Chin’s verbal shards so we can feel secure, as though
by such a reading we have done something quantifiable. The book is not finally
“about” these things. It is intimately, painfully about us, about what you
do to yourself and others every day, no matter who you are, no matter what your
relationship is or is not to people, substances, viruses, or abuse. No one,
Chin implies, is sane. No one is innocent. Werner Erhardt, the founder of est,
was fond of saying, “Everyone has fucked their dog.” Chin’s narrator knows you
have done worse. He certainly has. We are all a micron away from the abuse and
suffering he portrays. Everyone is infected. You’re not slumming. You live
here. Reading 98 Wounds gives you the experience William S. Burroughs
described in the title Naked Lunch: “a frozen moment when everyone sees
what is on the end of every fork.”

Fortunately, failure on this scale has a grandeur.
So does Justin Chin’s extraordinary book.

Reviewed by David Pratt

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Teeny Weenies And Other Short Subjects – Matt Kailey (Outskirts Press)

Buy it now from Outskirts Press

I’ve known Matt for several years; in fact, he is directly
responsible for the career I have today. We’ve worked together, bitched
together, workshopped together, fought over the office thermostat and
celebrated each others’ victories, and I’m happy to report the pieces that
comprise Teeny Weenies are among his best work yet.

I doubt I’m as well-read in transgender literature as Matt
is, but what I’ve read is largely serious—either politically strident or
excruciatingly detailed stories of personal journeys. This is all necessary and
inspirational, but no one seems to be writing anything humorous about
the transgender world, a subject that has as much potential for funny bits as
anything else. Matt Kailey fills that void nicely.

His last book, Just Add Hormones, dealt with his
transition, but most of these essays are about his childhood as Jennifer and
show the influences and thought processes that shaped his adult life. All these
reminisences are heartfelt and true, sketching a life of Midwestern wonderment,
confusion and certainty about all the wrong things—as in his skewed perception
of beauty in “There She Is,” about watching the Miss America beauty pageant as
a little girl.

Kailey’s humor is gentle; full of self-deprecation and
homespun truths rather than shameful snark—a welcome change from David Sedaris
and Augusten Burroughs. He is most comfortable poking fun at himself and his
foibles rather than pointing the finger at someone else. As expected, gender
confusion looms large in such pieces as “The Disappearance of Richard,” about a
childhood game Jennifer played with her girl friend Toby, “Boy Attacks,” and
“Queer Theory.” Kailey shines here, able to make you smile as your heart breaks
for this girl who cannot seem to find herself no matter where she looks.

Everything in this book is worth your attention but two
essays in particular deserve a special mention. “My Father’s Purse” is a
genuinely lyrical ode to Matt’s father as well as a lesson in gender roles and
their expression. My favorite, however, is “Most Changed Since High School,” a
piece about Kailey’s high school reunion. Brilliantly observed, Kailey’s
recollection of this event seems to bespeak a society that has moved toward
acceptance and tolerance—until he goes to the bathroom. The stall has no door,
and a spy is sent in to see if Matt is sitting or standing. His reaction to
this shamefully childish stunt?

I hold my head
level and walk back out into the onslaught of

voices, the
blur of faces in a fog of cigarette smoke, the

smacking of
pool balls against one another, the music that is

now just a
garbled screech from the aging overhead speakers,

and I show them
the confidence, the courage, and the comfort

of the world
that I brought along to share with them. I show them

the pride of a
life well lived, however it is lived. And I show them –

despite
the minor inconveniences of living in a transsexual

body,
always hoping for a door on a public bathroom stall –

what it means to be whole. 

It’s hard to read that ending without a tear in your eye—not
for the sadness of his experience but the peace and pride to be found in living
the life you were meant to have. 

This is beautifully written stuff, as funny as it is real,
and not only for transgender eyes. Gay, lesbian, intersexed, questioning,
queer—this is for everyone. Thanks for sharing, Matt.

Now, get back to work.

Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler

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Refuse – Elliott DeLine (CreateSpace)

Buy it now through Amazon.com

Elliott DeLine is an ambitious, witty,
self-deprecating, thoughtful writer whose debut novel Refuse could
meaningfully be compared to the work of Dennis Cooper (with far less violence),
Brett Easton Ellis (with far fewer chemical substances), David Sedaris (with
not as many belly laughs) and Leslie Feinberg (with a much less mournful
air).  Conversant with the queer
coming-of-age narrative, the disaffected-youth novel and the transgender
memoir—as well as the feminist and gender theory that each of these literary
genres has inspired—DeLine pushes back against the familiar, and safe,
conventions of these sources to produce a captivating story populated by fully
rendered, completely believable characters who, while not always likable, and
never the objects of pity, somehow manage to make an affective claim on the
reader.  With this as his debut effort,
DeLine, not yet out of college, is a writer to watch.

Refuse’s protagonist Dean—an anti-hero with more charm
than Holden Caulfield, but about the same level of ambition and social skill—is
a female-to-male transgendered college student who has an obsession with The
Smiths and a secret desire to be a famous author.  (Novel? Memoir?  You decide.) 
Alternating between first- and third-person narration, the novel opens
by introducing the reader to Dean’s internal monologue before taking the reader
into the events of Dean’s life.  This is
a brave choice on DeLine’s part.  For the
first half of the novel, I found Dean utterly unsympathetic.  Without any change in Dean’s voice, without
any grand redemptive moment, without any remarkable maturation on his part,
however, I found myself slowly but surely coming to see him struggling as best
he could to make sense of the world he occupied.  This is one of DeLine’s (sure to be
controversial) strokes of genius.  In his
novel, queer folk and their friends are no more admirable than anyone else—they
are flawed, narcissistic, immature and cruel; there is no wisdom or nobility,
just humanity and honesty, to be found in DeLine’s characters.  And, most significantly, their foibles cannot
be explained by the oppression they face at the hands of a
homo-and-trans-phobic society.  The novel
forces us to acknowledge that queer people are human beings—rather than saints
or martyrs.  As my friends and I used to
say, “Just because he’s a homophobe, doesn’t mean you’re not an asshole.”

DeLine tells a fairly familiar story.  Dean is struggling to find himself,
especially since he is a non-conforming, college-aged kid attracted to his
roommate, another FTM, who refuses to embrace his attraction to Dean, remaining
very invested in his relationship with his girlfriend.  The novel is populated with other
transgendered folk—at various stages of their journey, and various levels of
self-acceptance—as well as several gay men—some of them more palatable than
others.  It is littered with references
to music and the ways that music can save tortured souls, as well as the way
that celebrity is a deadly lure.  At a
certain point, I wondered if Refuse might be more successful if some
characters or plot elements had been trimmed. 
It began to feel a bit like Quentin Tarantino’s more recent work:  each moment was brilliantly rendered,
evidencing genius of a certain kind, but there just too many of them for the
machinery to feel like it was being controlled by a steady hand. 

But DeLine knows the ways that this
familiar story doesn’t work.  He never
parrots the “trapped in the wrong body” narrative line to explain Dean.  In fact, in the first-person sections of the
novel, Dean says any number of things about transgendered people, their
motivations and their shortcomings that are likely to infuriate some
readers.  And in the third-person
sections his words and actions often infuriate the other characters.  But, this is what makes DeLine’s novel so
fresh and so important.  As unfamiliar as
DeLine’s novel is as a coming-of-age memoir, readers will recognize Dean, even
with all his flaws—he may not be the transgender everyman, but he is the
transgender someone.

At the same time, I wondered about the
ways the novel flirts with transgender identity (if “identity” is even the
right word for its complex perspective on trans issues) as a metaphor for the
struggle to name authentic desire and purpose generally.  While there is a certain kind of political
power and insight contained in the mantra that we are all transgendered, to
move too quickly to universalism, too quickly to the tropic, is to undercut the
specific experience and concrete reality of actual human beings.  This flirtation doesn’t mar the novel as a
novel, but it is a political question that DeLine’s novel raises . . .
precisely as it tries to push back against the typical narrative conventions—and
political frames—for rendering trans lives. 
(For further efforts in this vein, I would recommend DeLine’s May 22,
2011 New York Times essay, “Stuck at the Border between the Sexes.”)

I received an electronic copy of DeLine’s
book for this review, and so I have never heard the title spoken aloud.  It contains an ambiguity that is relevant to
the story the novel tells and the characters DeLine fabricates.  Refuse.  Is this a tale about the detritus of our
social order?  The left-over, tossed
away, discarded remnant that has no value within the dominant economy?  Or, is the title an action?  Is the novel one grand gesture of negation, a
rejection of definitions of personal, professional, romantic success and
destiny that queer lives are called to embody more fully?

Elliott DeLine is a talented writer who
has something to say.  Refuse is a
remarkable start to a literary career. 
I, for one, look forward to what comes next.

Reviewed by Kent Brintnall

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Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy – Bil Wright (Simon & Schuster Young Readers)

Check out the author’s website to find out where to purchase this book.

I’m sometimes asked by non-writers why everyone reads Young Adult fiction these days.  I have two theories.  First, perhaps the internet is destroying everyone’s ability to concentrate, so shorter books are now what people want.  (Before Harry Potter and Bella Swan raise objections, I’ll add that there are exceptions.)  The second theory was sparked by a comment I read from author Becky Cochrane.   Teenagers are subject to astonishingly powerful emotions.  When teenagers suffer a loss or have their hearts broken for the first time, they have no frame of reference to know if they will ever recover.   The exuberant enthusiasm for the future and the honesty of adolescent pain can be compelling and revelatory to teen and adult readers alike.

Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy (winner of the 2012 Stonewall Book Award) is a perfect example.  Carlos Duarte is a New York teen with a dream—to be a famous makeup artist.  His mother isn’t thrilled and wants him to be the “man of the house” she needs him to be, especially when it comes to protecting his older sister, Rosalia, from her apparently abusive boyfriend.  With the help of good friends and despite a new enemy, Carlos lands a part-time job at the FeatureFace counter at Macy’s.  Soon, celebrity actress Shirlena Day, impressed with Carlos’ talent, asks him to demonstrate to the grouchy makeup artist at her TV studio that there’s such a thing as hypoallergenic cosmetics, and Shirlena needs them.  Even readers with zero interest in being a makeup artist will be swept up in Carlos’ vitality, and it seems like his career takes off overnight.

However, author Bil Wright wields the maxim “put your protagonist up a tree and throw rocks at him” to great effect.  Carlos must deal with dangerous homophobes (including Rosalia’s boyfriend) and a jealous boss at FeatureFace who has it out for him from day one.  There’s also the loss of a close friend thanks to an incident that can’t be completely be blamed on Carlos even if he takes full responsibility and the lonely, confusing frustration of a major crush on a sweet-natured classmate who might or might not be gay.

Carlos is a character who is not afraid to live life at full volume.  He makes mistakes, but when knocked down, he always gets back up.  He’s a wonderful role model for gay teens, and Wright finishes with a logical, realistic ending that is thoroughly satisfying while still leaving the door to a sequel a tiny bit open.  Here’s hoping.      

         Gavin Atlas

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