Monthly Archives: September 2015

What Color Is Your Hoodie? Essays on Black Gay Identity – Jarrett Neal (Chelsea Station Editions)

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Barack Obama’s presidency has brought a number of changes, regardless of how you look at it. Perhaps the most important is bringing racial dialogue back to the country’s collective consciousness (assuming one exists). It’s never really been away, but the focus seems to be sharpening exponentially in Obama’s second term. Although the voices on both sides are many, Jarrett Neal’s is particularly interesting due to his perspective as a black gay man. His collection of thirteen essays, What Color Is Your Hoodie?, provides a quiet common sense as he tries to fit together the pieces of the puzzle that matter most to him. And us.

Neal starts out strong with “Guys and Dolls/Weights and Measures.” Though they appear as separate essays, they’re linked in my head due to their similarity in structure. Neal’s powerful recollections of his childhood and early influences alternate with analysis from the man he’s become, giving the reader an excellent baseline understanding of both Neal and his views. This leads into Neal’s exploration of the homo-thug trope in “Let’s Talk About Interracial Porn.” He delves into popular culture, and even porn again, in other chapters (“Film Studies for Black Gay Men,” “Real Compared to What”), but “Let’s Talk About Interracial Porn” certainly gave me some things to think about and titles to search out. Purely for intellectual purposes, you understand.

Neal deals with current(ish) topics like Barack Obama (“My Last Love Affair”) and the furor surrounding out football player Michael Sam (“Sam I Am”) as well as Trayvon Martin in the title piece. For my money, however, the most winning of the entries were “Baldwin Boys and Harris Homies” and “Peewee’s Peepee.” The former is an account of the relationship between Neal and a gay writer friend named Langdon, but it’s also Neal’s statement about where he stands between James Baldwin (intellectual, literary) and E. Lynn Harris (neither–but that’s my assessment, not Neal’s).

But “Peewee’s Peepee,” the account of Neal’s adult elective circumcision, is the most involving and engaging piece in the book. It deals with the Neal’s major themes of body image issues as well as the masculine ideal and the many factors both subtle and overt that play into why and how we buy into that ideal. Personal in ways that many of the other essays are not (yes, in part because it deals with genitalia), this piece is the one I remember a month after having read the book. It’s worth the price of admission alone.

However, there’s much to love and think about in What Color is Your Hoodie? from an academic perspective as well as the street view. And one is as valid as the other, because if we can’t grasp both, we really can’t get a handle on either.

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

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A Father for Lilja – Ryszard Merey (Lethe Press)

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“Art was a union of the father and mother worlds, of mind and blood. It might start in utter sensuality and lead to total abstraction; then again it might originate in pure concept and end in bleeding flesh. Any work of art that was truly sublime, not just a good juggler’s trick; that was filled with the eternal secret, like the master’s Madonna; every obviously genuine work of art had this dangerous, smiling double face, was male-female, a merging of instinct and pure spirituality.”

–Hermann Hesse, “Narcissus and Goldmund”

Merey gives us storytelling that requires us to gut the fish, then examine what’s been done; the offal of it sifted through our bloody fingers as we search for the essential meaning of what it is we have before us. Is this offal so awful? And look! The scales still shimmer rainbows! Or do they?

We have Jain, the protagonist, the diarist, the narrator, the little girl whom we learn becomes a software engineer as an adult. She works in code. She writes code: a precise, exacting exercise where there must be a beginning, a middle, and an end. Code requires logic; one event must necessarily lead to the next; premises and conclusions must be known before they are posited. Oh, but life is not like that. Jain understands this. Indeed, her story will, as she says, “…fold on itself like a snake eating its own tale and it was not my intention to make it that way, it is just the way it ended up coming into existence.”

The storytelling, the diary shows us Jain as a young girl, infatuated with her cousin, Viju, as she visits her grandfather’s estate in Provence. “Viju,” Jain tells us, “wasn’t a boy and she wasn’t a girl, though sometimes she was both and sometimes she was neither, but at most she was a person, nothing more and nothing less.”

Jain ages, becomes involved with Nine—to whom much of the diary is written—a “common” boy who eventually becomes a chef, whom Jain finds similar to Viju in appearance, and who, as a teenager, meets Emilio in an online chat room. Emilio, or as we learn later is called Lio or Lia, engages Nine online for some time before actually meeting him. Emilio eventually becomes Nine’s lover/companion in a relationship that defies convention. Lio/Lia is sexy but asexual, never taking his/her clothes off for sexual encounters, and ambivalent about Nine’s sexual forays with other men or women. And Jain, inextricably caught up in Nine’s and Emilio’s sphere, becomes one of those women.

This is a literary work with a “…dangerous, smiling double face…male-female…” It is indeed “…a merging of instinct and pure spirituality.” Merey’s prose is lovely, complex, questioning. This work is heavy in content and length; its bulk weighted in places with dialogues that seem a wee bit unnecessary, a little forced, a little TMI.

An early hint about what this storytelling will become is a reference to Ovid’s story about Iphis, a female child whose mother concealed her true sex because the father, Ligdus, had announced he would kill the child if it weren’t a boy. Eventually, Iphis is promised in marriage to a beautiful girl, and before the wedding the mother brings Iphis to the temple of Isis and prays that this conundrum can be somehow rectified. Isis comes through by transforming Iphis into a male, and the newly wedded couple lives happily ever after.

Gender assignment flows throughout the work as something vaguely wrong, or something that exists as a mere inconvenience without any substantive worth. It’s beside the point. It’s the wrapping quickly discarded because it is not essential to the prize inside.

Will there be a father for Lilja? Oh, I will not tell you the answer to that. What I will tell you is that this work is fascinating, so literary; it is a tale so full of meaty and vague references that the careful reader will understand that it was written with “…mind and blood…,” and the ultimate meaning of it all is perhaps left to the reader. I believe the author would agree.

“The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project.”
–Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

© 2015 George Seaton

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The Witch of Stalingrad – Justine Saracen (Bold Strokes Books)

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I enjoy historical fiction because it takes me out of the present and puts me somewhere else. That’s not a bad idea when you consider today’s headlines.  I usually learn something and, hopefully, I’ll get a good story in the bargain. Justine Saracen delivers on all counts with her latest, The Witch of Stalingrad. And may I say, that pulp magazine cover is brilliant.

WWII American photojournalist Alex Preston is on assignment in Russia in 1942, covering the effects of the German Blitzkrieg, including the efforts of a squadron of female Russian pilots. These “Night Witches” as the Germans call them, harangue the Nazi troops and generally make life miserable for their enemy. And Preston falls for the most successful pilot of all, Lilya Drachenko. They bond immediately, but can that bond survive POW life, imprisonment in Lubyanka, miserable conditions, and all the other hardships of life at the front? Well, this is a romance, after all. But, oh, the places Saracen takes you… And that cover is wonderful.

I had no idea these brave women existed, and I really loved seeing this world through Alex and Lilya’s eyes. Along the way, I learned not only that, but I also got to know quite a bit about airplanes and wartime flight procedures. Saracen has clearly done her homework, but she never lets the technical details overwhelm you. She knows just when to throttle back, and you’ll not find an anachronism here. But all the research in the world won’t help if you don’t have good characters driving an interesting plot. One or the other usually winds up being sufficient, but Saracen delivers both here. The cover is also superb.

As a character, Alex Preston is a real corker. Of Russian ancestry herself, she moves effortlessly between the Americans, the Russian pilots, and her fellow journalists at the Metropole Hotel. Fully three-dimensional and fearless, she even asks favors of General Eisenhower to get what she wants. And what she wants is Lilya, who is just as strong as Alex but in other ways. Alex has some experience with love, but Lilya doesn’t. Neither one of them is prepared, however, for the depth of attraction they feel for each other. Their encounters are few but memorable, and Saracen does a wonderful job of creating those special moments that provide a respite from the routine deprivation of war. And the cover is something special.

The Witches of Stalingrad is a terrific read. historically rich with deep, interesting characters. Even if books about war aren’t your thing, this is worth a try. Oh, and did I mention the cover?

It’s perfect.

© 2015 Jerry L. Wheeler

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His Steadfast Love and Other Stories – Paul Brownsey (Lethe Press)

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His Steadfast Love and Other Stories, the debut collection by Paul Brownsey of Glasgow, Scotland, contains sixteen short stories; despite their deceptive shortness and deft humor, these stories examine many aspects of modern gay life, and even the human condition, with a dispassionate, discerning eye.

A few stories involve characters so remote from the ordinary—Judy Garland, Queen Elizabeth II, even God Himself—that they nearly verge into the realm of speculative fiction.  Certainly the title story, narrated by God, qualifies; who knew that He, like so many of His worshippers, was so intent on destroying love between men?  (Granted, the relationship between Jamie and Alex appears to have run its course, but still.)  But within His dark, biting humor, God (that is, Brownsey) reveals Himself to be a keen observer of humans and their relationships:  how they begin, endure, fall apart, even resurrect themselves.

For example, about Jamie and Alex, God notes, “They have always enjoyed verbal plays.  It’s one of their foundations.  You, reader, are incredulous:  `Something as flimsy as that—a foundation?  For love, lifelong union, etc.?’ But anything at all can be a foundation; I know.” (Page 101)  Indeed, Brownsey shows this in “True in my Fashion,” which opens the collection:  the narrator first confesses a single white lie he has told his lover, and then the elaborate mechanisms he creates to keep his lover from finding out the truth; a lie may be a strange foundation for a long-term relationship, but in a way it demonstrates the myth-making that a couple (any couple) engages in over time.  Similarily, “Continuing City” documents an epistulary relationship between two men that lasts a quarter century—an intermittent, annual correspondence that began after a single one-night stand, and lasted longer than any physical relationship that either man had during that time.   “Human Relationships under Capitalism” tells the story of Simon and Barratt, who were business partners and lovers, until their shared business began to fail, which ultimately led to the disintegration of their nineteen-year relationship.  (Which then raises the question, can bringing back the former somehow reinstate the latter?)

For all their surreality and even unreality, these stories will strike chords of recognition with most gay men (indeed, anyone who has navigated the uncertain seas of relationships).  For example, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which compresses an entire relationship—infatuation, settling down, infidelity, and finally break-up—into a week and a half, pokes fun at the lesbian stereotype of instant coupledom, but who hasn’t met someone and immediately been convinced that they’ve met The One?  Typically, once the infatuation has worn off, reality sets in and the relationship ends nearly as quickly as it began (even if you’ve already planned it years into the future).

So if you want to find out what really happened to Judy Garland (hint:  she didn’t die in 1969, never mind that she inspired the Stonewall Riots), or how to talk to Her Royal Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (etc., etc.) when lecturing her about gay rights, or even if a relationship where two men don’t actually see each other for twenty-five years can withstand them meeting face-to-face again, then by all means buy this collection; don’t be surprised if lurking within the humor you find yourself grappling with these and larger questions.

© 2015 Keith John Glaeske

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