Thursday, May 5th, 2022 @ 7PM, Friends, Sonomans, and the culturally curious! Occidental Center for the Arts’ Literary Series is thrilled to present An Evening with Andrei Codrescu, star of page, screen, and NPR who will talk, read, and generally hold forth. Tickets $25 GA/ $20 for OCA Members. Ticketholders will receive a poem by Andrei Codrescu in a limited handset letterpress broadside edition of 100, designed and printed by Pat Nolan and Eric Johnson at North Bay Letterpress Arts Limited tickets available – get yours today! Refreshments for sale. OCA: 3850 Doris Murphy Way, Occidental, CA. OCA’s facilities are accessible to people with disabilities. For more info: occidentalcenterforthearts.org or 707-874-9392. Thank you for your continuing support of OCA by posting our listings.
Sunday, May 1st,@4 pm Occidental Center for the Arts’ Literary Series presents American Peace Gardens: A Memoir, 1996 to 2020 by Stephen C. Fowler. In August of 1996, Steve Fowler set out on an odyssey, gathering soils from organic farmers all across America in preparation for a ceremony, with Native American collaborators, on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The narrative of that adventure, and the personal challenges that led up to it, are the subject of this short book. The connection between peace work and farm practices is the main theme. Quixotic and quirky, this is the script of a work of performance art by an actor and poet (50 Cent Poems, 2017) who is a gardener by trade. Free admission, all donations gratefully invited. Refreshments for sale. Selected readings, Q&A, book sales (Hand assembled in loose-leaf binders; includes a 70 minute CD which contains 32 tracks, mostly interviews with farmers, plus a few musical interludes)& signing. OCA: 3850 Doris Murphy Way, Occidental, CA. OCA’s facilities are accessible to people with disabilities. For more info: occidentalcenterforthearts.org or 707-874-9392.
Sunday April 24th 4-5:30 Occidental Center for the Arts Literary Series presents artist Leeann Lidz. Adventures on the Gringo Trail: An Artist’s Awakening. In 1974, the author set off on a nineteen- month journey through Central and South America including the birth of her daughter in the Andean highlands of Ecuador. As an artist, she kept a journal of over 100 pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations of the places she visited: The unique story of her travels and evolution as an artist and mother living in Ecuador in a time before technology. Free admission, all donations gratefully invited. Slide show/Andean music with selected readings. Refreshments for sale. A Q&A, book sales & signing. OCA: 3850 Doris Murphy Way, Occidental, CA. OCA’s facilities are accessible to people with disabilities. For more info: occidentalcenterforthearts.org or 707-874-9392.
Sunday April 10th 4-5:30 pm Occidental Center for the Arts Literary Series. Local Author Michael David Fels’ Bodies in Motion: Short Trips in An Expanding Universe. A collection of first-person memoirs, an internal journey on the impact of movement/travel on the author, taking the reader to The Philippines, China, Dubai, Lebanon, Canada and Thailand as well as California, Kansas, New York, and New Mexico. Free admission, all donations gratefully received. Masking requested for unvaccinated. Selected readings, Q&A, book sales & signing. Refreshments for sale. OCA: 3850 Doris Murphy Way, Occidental, CA. OCA’s facilities are accessible to people with disabilities. For more info: occidentalcenterforthearts.org or 707-874-9392.
Welcome to May We Present…, a column from Lambda Literary that highlights authors with recent or forthcoming publications. This November, we’re featuring Nefertiti Asanti and their new poetry collection, fist of wind, published on October 29th by Foglifter Press. fist of wind centers the simultaneously magical and mortal Black body as a site of healing and transformation from pain, ranging from larger forms of structural, communal, and intergenerational pain to the personal pain of menstruation out of which the collection was born.
With fist of wind, Asanti became the first winner of the Start A Riot! Chapbook Prize, a prize for local emerging queer and trans Black writers, indigenous writers, and writers of color, created by Foglifter Press, RADAR Productions, and Still Here San Francisco. The win was well deserved, as fist of wind is a breathtaking and candid lyrical testimony, one that might be thought of as an exceptional exploration in translation. Asanti masterfully translates the physical into the textual and, through the reader, back into the physical again. Through bold engagement with form and space, Asanti translates the dynamic qualities of the spoken word into the written word without losing its sense of embodiment. Reading fist of wind becomes a transfixing, corporeal undertaking, one that everyone should experience at least once.
Below, Nefertiti Asanti elaborates on the most difficult tangible sensation to put into words, how poetry interacts with other forms of text, and the last thing she read that surprised her.
When did you realize you had to write fist of wind?
When I started writing toward fist of wind, I was actually writing toward stopping some pain. I was living alone in Brooklyn in a basement-level apartment I could barely afford after resigning from the first full-time job I’d ever had. I was living alone, and I was in pain, physical pain as a result of my period. I had cramps, debilitating cramps that demanded my attention once they hit and kept hitting.
One day it was just out of control—the pain was so uncomfortable and relentless and beyond me, something inside me was like, “This don’t belong to me; this ain’t mine,” so I prayed a spell into it. Eventually, the pain subsided and along with it went the idea of the pain being a singular thing that I owned, that owned me.
During that time, I wrote what I called “full moon lunes,” three-line, three-syllable, three-word per line poems that were prayers to my womb to welcome healing and expel the pain I’d absorbed from being Black and bleeding and alive and the un/healed histories of my ancestors, lineage, and community. As a person who absorbs so much of what’s around me, it was important that I let go of what I could in a form that echoed the physical boundaries pain can create and transcend them. At least two pieces in fist of wind are in lunes or borrow from the form. I wrote fist of wind because I wanted to have conversations with other Black people about periods and healing from violence, whatever the source.
Proust wrote “Perfume is that last and best reserve of the past, the one which when all our tears have run dry, can make us cry again!” The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert offers a vivid and striking story that exemplifies this observation. A whiff of a scent conjures up an event in the past, transporting one to that moment where a smell becomes indelible in the catalog of one’s senses. In a novel imbued with deception hidden in plain sight, perfume emerges as the most powerful and truthful presence in this redolent tale of Nazi Occupied Paris during World War II.
It’s six months since the Nazis took over Paris. An American ex-pat lesbian, seventy-two-year-old Clementine, spends her days creating perfumes on the first floor of her house, formerly a school for young gentlemen, which serves as her laboratory and shop. At night, Clem dresses in her best menswear to move around the dingier side of Parisian nightlife. Accompanying Clem on her nightly excursions is Blue, named after his stunning blue eyes, a twenty-one-year-old gay Frenchman, who escaped his abusive uncle to find the school. Most nights Clem and Blue, in matching tuxedos, head to Madame Boulette’s, a brothel that hosts a lively and seedy cabaret. At Madame Boulette’s, they visit their friend, Day Shabillée, an American singer known for a sentimental hit twenty years ago.
As Clem’s reputation as a perfumer precedes her, Madame Boulette also hires our hero to produce signature fragrances for her girls. With a candid first-person voice, Clem’s empathy, tinged with cynicism, establishes itself in her relationships. Day summons Clem to Madame Boulette’s in hopes of convincing her to help her friend, Zoë St. Angel, the daughter of a famous Jewish perfumer, Monsieur Pascal.
… the novel evokes a tapestry of smells and their obscure origins. Paris is wistfully recalled through the scents of each character’s freedom before the war.
The Nazis have taken Pascal away and a superior intelligence officer, Oskar Voss, is ensconced in his house. Zoë receives a note from her father adorned with a special symbol which she knows is the key to finding her father’s perfume secrets, including the formula of the eponymous perfume he created for her. Faced with the reality of the Occupation, she wants to reconcile with her father after a seventeen-year absence. She asks Clem to help her find his book before it falls into Voss’s hands. Voss believes the diary contains a perfume recipe that can disguise the use of a fatal gas which he hopes will solidify his worth in Hitler’s estimation. Clem herself has an ulterior motive for finding Pascal’s book: she thinks it will confirm her suspicions that Pascal stole a perfume from her.
When Voss hears about Clem and her talent for recreating any scent, he orders her to his house so they can partner in the search for the book. Voss, close in age to Clem, flirts with her with invitations to parties and excursions including a grotesque free reign shopping spree in a department store housed with goods taken from the Jews of Paris. He finds Clem so enigmatic because she was mythologized in a tawdry exposé, The Perfume Thief, penned by a detective that spent his career chasing after her. Voss challenges her gender expression by sending over dresses for her to wear on their outings. Clem demonstrates her agility to code-switch as she strings Voss along with stories of her thieving escapades and revealing to him about the great love of her life, M. Clem learned from M about tea concoctions that elicit sickness. She uses this knowledge to make sachets “stitched together [from] a smoky blend of noxious herbs and pernicious weeds that would be fatal only to a kitten,” and passes them off to Voss as healing teas. What ensues is a high-stakes strategic and intellectual game of cat-and-mouse with consequences that could result in death for either of them. Their relationship is complicated further by their flourishing respect for each other’s survival skills.
As the novel pulses forward, the narrative is infused with impending danger as Clem struggles to protect everyone. Through interspersing chapters, Clem narrates the memories of her past triggered by her present life. Clem’s intelligent narrative voice and her upfront tone captivate with its honesty and acuity. Through Clem’s perspective, the novel evokes a tapestry of smells and their obscure origins. Paris is wistfully recalled through the scents of each character’s freedom before the war. As secrets and truths are revealed of all, the destiny of each character—and the choices they make—cause reverberations in the lives of the others.
Small acts of bravery during the Resistance may be less known, but this novel gives imagination to the courage of queer lives during the Occupation. Clem embodies the wisdom of a fully-rendered life, filled with deception, compassion, and transformation.
Small acts of bravery during the Resistance may be less known, but this novel gives imagination to the courage of queer lives during the Occupation. Clem embodies the wisdom of a fully-rendered life, filled with deception, compassion, and transformation. A luminous character invented to populate the queer history that was lost. Once she’s allowed herself to love others, she deceives one last time for those she loves.
The Perfume Thief
by Timothy Schaffert
Hardcover, 978-0385545747, 368 pp.
Harriet M. Welch, the titular character of Louise Fitzhugh’s iconic children’s book Harriet the Spy is eleven years old and determined to write everything down. As training for one day becoming a famous novelist, she ventures on a daily “spy route,” stalking a handful of brownstones on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, secretly watching her friends and neighbors, chronicling their business in a private notebook using a tone so deadpan and factual it borders on cruel. Readers young and old, however, sixty years ago as much as today, find in Harriet a cathartic release and creative permission. Now Harriet’s author, Louise Fitzhugh, is the subject of a biography—Leslie Brody’s Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy, a succinct and readable portrait of the short-lived and charismatic lesbian writer and illustrator.
A Queer Heroine in Childhood
With her matter-of-fact tone and acerbic humor, Harriet the Spy is the quintessential story of a tomboy—a queer heroine in childhood. Harriet is unstoppable: she eats cake and egg creams in the afternoons, argues with grown-ups, climbs onto buildings and into dumbwaiters to spy, all while filled with that kind of youthful rage one can only find in children. It is hard to tell whether Harriet’s influence on queer writers comes from her insufferable writing ambitions, her gender-agnostic bearings, or that she finds her world incomprehensible and repressive.
Much of the humor and intrigue of Harriet the Spy is the heroine’s own interior monologue, a relentless string of crude, or, as we say today, very real observations, externalized by the notes she takes: “DOES PINKY WHITEHEAD’S MOTHER HATE HIM?” She writes about a boy in her school, “IF I’D HAD HIM I’D HATE HIM.”
With her matter-of-fact tone and acerbic humor, Harriet the Spy is the quintessential story of a tomboy—a queer heroine in childhood.
Sometimes You Have to Lie
When Harriet’s classmates, without Harriet’s consent, obtain and read her notebook—which spells out PRIVATE on the cover—they are horrified and start a campaign against her. Following the lead of the school bullies, even Harriet’s closest friends turn on her. Finally, after bravely resisting mob rule, Harriet manages to make amends by following the advice of her beloved former nanny, who suggests using white lies to save Harriet’s friendships: “Sometimes you have to lie,” goes the moral truism of the novel, “but to yourself, you must always tell the truth.”
Published in 1964 into an undersaturated book market of children’s literature, Harriet the Spy’s idiosyncratic eleven-year-old protagonist instantly hit a nerve. The book spoke to its readers as complex people and not as inferior creatures, changing the tone and sophistication of children’s and young adult fiction for generations to come.
“Sometimes you have to lie,” goes the moral truism of the novel, “but to yourself, you must always tell the truth.”
A Kind of Detective Work
And yet Harriet’s popularity and household name eclipse that of her creator, whose larger-than-life persona remained out of the public eye. For the length of her career, Louise Fitzhugh minded her privacy. She never made public appearances or gave interviews to promote Harriet. After her sudden death, at forty-six, Fitzhugh’s estate and friends worked to retain Fitzhugh’s evasive nature according to their own terms. Only very few photographs were circulated of Fitzhugh: one, from the cover of Harriet the Spy, shows the intrepid Fitzhugh sitting on a swing with an unreadable, if mischievous expression. Even to children (or at least to the author of this text) she seemed somehow readably queer. Gamine, with short brown hair and lively, discerning eyes, the person depicted in this photograph was all that many of us ardent readers knew of her, including the fact that she was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1928.
Brody likens her biographical research to a kind of detective work, setting different chapters to key terms of “spy language,” using words like snoop and detect. The metaphor seems just a little too obvious: in order to reveal Fitzhugh’s hidden life, Brody had to do some sleuthing of her own. With Brody’s storytelling, Fitzhugh’s personality resonates distinctly, deliciously, to a degree that the reader falls in love with Fitzhugh as much as with the heroine of any good novel. Privacy, after all, does not equal shyness.
[..] the Fitzhugh that emerges comes across as a charmer, the kind of person you would want at your party, vibrant, contradictory, and extremely creative.
Quite the opposite actually: the Fitzhugh that emerges comes across as a charmer, the kind of person you would want at your party, vibrant, contradictory, and extremely creative. Wherever Brody’s research hits the sealed lips of former lovers or estates, the biographer leaves spaces alive and lets secrets and omissions speak for themselves—she paints a distinct enough character of Fitzhugh for the reader to fill in the blanks. What she does end up uncovering of Fitzhugh’s life story, Brody seems to suggest, like many queer histories, was never truly hidden. It was just kept slightly out of the spotlight of a hetero-centric world.
The Ultimate Resistance Facing a Hypocritical World
In the same way Louise Fitzhugh never appeared to be actively closeted—just simply never put in the limelight—so too are her politics of justice and resistance consistently overt. Harriet the Spy and her two best friends—wily Janie, an aspiring mad scientist, and gentle Sport, who looks after his bohemian father—can just as easily be read as queer by virtue of not behaving according to gender expectations. Beyond the obvious non-conformity Harriet displays in her behavior and attire (a tomboy of the mid-sixties, Harriet’s comfort clothes consist of sneakers, old jeans, and a hooded sweatshirt), she is an outspoken observer, the ultimate resistance facing a hypocritical world.
Her dilemma, or a good deal of it before the novel’s dramatic disaster strikes, consists of puzzling over how to fit into society and retain her dignity as a powerless eleven-year-old, but also in her identity as a spy. With the help of her nanny, Harriet devises ways of passing in straight society: she will, for instance, go to the revolting dance classes her mother wants her to attend, because spies, like Mata Hari, need to know how to dance in order to deceive people. Harriet needs to be a spy to fit into a world of dishonesty and deception while the rest of the world simply bows to injustice.
This unsentimental, humorous, and political attitude towards childhood runs through all of what is published of Louise Fitzhugh’s creative output: from her illustrations in the Eloise-parody Suzuki Beane (Fitzhugh drew the barmy ink illustrations featured in Harriet the Spy, as well) to the advocacy towards children’s political agency in Nobody’s Family is Going to Change, children strive for autonomy and fairness in Fitzhugh’s work.
Like several prolific female writers of the 20th century still known today, Louise Fitzhugh came from generational wealth that allowed for relative financial independence. And though she could live quite comfortably off her inheritance and royalties, Fitzhugh never turned her work away from people; instead, she fueled her writing with a subversive political will: “Her response to any kind of assertion of supremacy,” Brody writes, “was to oppose it.”
Liked to Consistently Reinvent Herself
Fitzhugh also liked to consistently reinvent herself and turn her own life into a tall tale. This comes to her biographer’s aid. Brody’s portrayal of Fitzhugh’s tempestuous life takes on the shape of those figures within 20th century literary genres where famous lesbian authors were starkly prevalent: Fitzhugh’s childhood, situated in what sounds like a gothic Memphis mansion, surrounded by an eccentric grandmother, a disturbed uncle living in the attic, various nannies, as well as a wealthy father extorting Fitzhugh’s working-class mother for money, recalls the kind of lonely child narrator by the likes of someone like Carson McCullers or Harper Lee.
Once Fitzhugh dropped out of Bard college to join her first girlfriend in bohemian 1950’s Greenwich Village, she resembled a pulpy heroine not unlike those by Ann Bannon and Vin Packer. Popular, charismatic, and energetic, Fitzhugh hung out in gay bars and galleries, painted and wrote, travelled to Europe, and entertained and collaborated with her long list of lovers as well as many well-connected friends. (Harriet the Spy’s neighbor and subject Harrison Withers lives with two dozen or so cats named after many of Fitzhugh’s close friends.)
Among these were the likes of Lorraine Hansberry and James Merrill, as well as pulp writers such Sandra Scoppetone (the author of Suzuki Beane), with whom Fitzhugh both collaborated and romanced, and through whom Fitzhugh befriended the grande dame of lesbian pulp fiction, Marijane Meaker—aka Vin Packer—who spent several years in a relationship with Patricia Highsmith, later penning a whole book about it.
One of the more tragic and mysterious sections of the biography is the plot surrounding Louise Fitzhugh’s lost manuscript. The contents of this manuscript were rumored to be the re-telling of Fitzhugh’s first own secret teenage romance with another well-off Memphis girl, Amelia. Fitzhugh and Amelia had been each other’s first true loves in the South, later successfully eloping to New York to make it the home of their artistic pursuits. Amelia would become a reporter for the Times and a good friend of Fitzhugh’s, before her tragic and disturbing death in a freak accident. The manuscript containing the story of this teenage courtship, which some friends claim to have read excerpts of, would have been one of the first lesbian young adult novels ever published in the U.S.—years ahead of what is known of the first of its kind, Sandra Scoppettone’s Happy Endings Are All Alike (1978).
The existence of this manuscript, its content and disappearance, remain a mystery. It is possible Fitzhugh lost the manuscript by accident, or by her own mechanization? What would a book of Fitzhugh’s lost manuscript have looked like? Was it more literary than the lesbian pulp novellas of her day, or was it meant for a younger audience? Would it have been a kind of forerunner of historical young adult LGBTQ+ romance fiction, not unlike Malinda Lo’s recent, and powerfully moving, Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021)?
The manuscript containing the story of this teenage courtship […] would have been one of the first lesbian young adult novels ever published in the U.S.
The mysteries at the heart of this biography, alongside its depictions of various eras of queer literary New York City, only make for an even more compelling read. And Brody’s complex depiction of Fitzhugh, with her contradictions and idiosyncrasies, her tireless work and quest for artistic fulfillment, becomes a refreshing study of the arduous process and pay-offs of creativity itself: its fits, its dead ends, its blinding inspirations, leaving behind a vast and complicated legacy that might, in the end, emit one truly great achievement, a single character and her unforgettable name—Harriet the Spy.
Since its publication nearly a decade ago, Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universehas been widely regarded and accepted as a seminal young adult novel in the queer literary canon. Sáenz’s lyrical and beautiful novel about two Latinx boys becoming best friends and falling in love has been beloved among queer readers of all ages in the years since, prompting a sequel that released October 15, 2021, Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World. I spoke with Sáenz via email about the new novel, his unique writing style, and what readers can expect from the new book.
I want to start with a simple question—why a sequel to Aristotle and Dante and why now?
In the years after Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was published, I had the awful feeling in a dark corner of my heart that, in the novel, I had stopped short of exploring so many things that mattered—that mattered to me, and that mattered to other people as well. The first book turned very much inward and explored Ari and Dante facing themselves and facing each other. The book was intimate. It ended at the very moment that Ari acknowledged the love he had unknowingly buried deep inside him. The novel I wrote was deliberately sweet and tender—but it failed to examine the serious implications of a love between two boys in 1987. It ends at the easiest part of their relationship. Falling in love for the first time foregrounds Ari’s and Dante’s innocence and sense of wonder.
But staying in love is quite another thing. I don’t mean to be so critical of the first Ari and Dante book, but it’s rather romantic and doesn’t deal with the realities of a relationship between two boys in the late eighties. The sequel turns outward, toward the culture, the society, the country, and the world in which the boys live—the world that helps define them and is often a kind of prison that impedes their freedom.
Ahead of its release, there has been a re-examination of the first Aristotle & Dante book and some discussion of the sequel. Without spoiling either book, can you discuss the storytelling choices you made and why? What do you have to say to readers who might find this subplot transphobic?
I understand why readers might find this subplot in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe transphobic—and to those who do, and who feel hurt and angry and disappointed in me, I offer my apologies. I have learned a lot from the trans community since the first book came out, and I am still learning. And I understand that just because I offer my apologies does not mean I am entitled for others to accept my apologies.
When it comes to Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World, I brought everything I had learned to the way I wrote about this existing subplot. I did my best to honor the trans character by giving her a new name, Camila, and by having Ari show respect and reverence for her life in a way that is true to his character, an eighteen-year-old boy in the 1980s who still has a lot to learn about life. And, like Ari, I’m sure I still have more to learn, too. I take responsibility for the things I say, write, and do, and offer no excuses.
I did my best to honor the trans character by giving her a new name, Camila, and by having Ari show respect and reverence for her life in a way that is true to his character, an eighteen-year-old boy in the 1980s who still has a lot to learn about life.
Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World is set against the backdrop of the AIDS pandemic. Considering the two books are so close together in time, why did you choose to incorporate it in the sequel, but not the first novel?
The AIDS pandemic was something that affected me personally, just as it affected millions of people. I lost a mentor, Arturo Islas, a brother, Donaciano Sanchez, and a very close friend, Norman Campbell Robertson. The AIDS pandemic was a watershed moment for the gay community and, to my mind, it was in many ways the beginning of the Gay Rights movement as we know it.
In addition, since we are experiencing yet another pandemic, I thought my readers could draw their own parallels between the AIDS pandemic and the pandemic they are living through. I wrote most of the book during the early COVID-19 pandemic.
Elephant sitting on the living room couch
Much of Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World deals with Aristotle discovering who he is as a man. How did this central theme develop for you and why do you think it’s relevant for young readers?
We are obsessed with masculinity and the toxic forms it takes and the way it affects our society. Manhood is the elephant sitting on the living room couch. And of course, it’s relevant for younger readers. Remember being in high school? The great thing about being gay is that you have an opportunity to pause and think about what kind of man you want to be because I knew that I would never be a man in the way that the heterosexual world defined it.
Toxic masculinity is what rules in our politics, our police departments, the way we organize our educational system, our family lives, the way we do business. And the theme that runs alongside that is the issue of feminism.
The young women in this novel play a big role. They’re not just sidekicks to Ari and Dante. They’re strong and they know themselves, know who they are, know how to communicate and confront, know how to fight for what they believe. And these young women help Ari and Dante become men. And so do Ari and Dante’s mothers. It was my mother who taught me how to be a man—much more than my father. And it was my two sisters who had the kind of strength that we, the five brothers, seemed to lack. They were the organizers of our family life. At one point in the novel, Ari asks Dante’s father, “What would we do without women?” Dante’s father answers, “We’d be screwed, that’s where we’d be.”
“The great thing about being gay is that you have an opportunity to pause and think about what kind of man you want to be, because I knew that I would never be a man in the way that the heterosexual world defined it.”
“Writing those parts made me feel beautiful, really beautiful”
Related, the sequel finds Ari and Dante navigating a new element of their relationship including their respective queer identities. I found this to be one of the more charming and sweet parts of the book. What do you want readers to take away from these moments?
I must admit that I still wince at the word “queer.” I know that I am in the minority here, but for me, that word conjures up a lot of hate. It isn’t that I don’t accept the fact that young people and intellectuals use the word with pride. Nor am I offended when someone applies that word to themselves. Most members of the LGBTQ+ community seem extremely comfortable with the word. Young people understand the power of words when it comes to their identities. But I carry the history of that word inside me, and in my body, and in voices I remember. And those voices are the voices of cruelty and bigotry. I’m 67 years old and I don’t call myself queer. I call myself a gay man.
And yes, I agree with you about these parts of the book. Ari and Dante are learning how to love and what that means. They’re learning about their own bodies and their own desires—and it’s funny and it’s tender and there’s nothing dirty about that. It’s never dirty. It’s pure. But our religious institutions and our duplicitous political culture and even our educational institutions make something dirty out of it. I loved writing those sections of the book because writing those parts made me feel beautiful. Really beautiful.
“Growing up is also about loss, after all. Growing up is about learning to let go and what to hang on to.”
Without spoiling anything, Ari experiences a big loss in the sequel. What led you to this storytelling choice and why did you place it at the point in the novel where you did?
The event seemed necessary to me. So many young people experience losses and I wanted to show Ari live through and transcend that loss—because those moments of loss make us aware of what love is, and makes us aware of what we’re really made of. And that had to occur early enough in the novel so we could see Ari’s acceptance and experience his pain, and the slow healing after such a loss. Growing up is also about loss, after all. Growing up is about learning to let go and what to hang on to. This novel would have been all the poorer without that event. It seemed so right and even necessary to me in this novel—just like the car accident seemed right and central to the original book.
Additionally, the structure of the sequel is a bit different from the original. While they’re both told in parts, Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World is broken down into more acts and uses epigraphs to guide each section, reinforcing the “cartographer” theme of the novel. How did you come to this structure and theme for Ari’s journey?
God, I wish I could answer that question. I rely on instinct and the epigraphs just felt right. And this novel may be a sequel, but why repeat the same things and the same themes and the same structures that were in the first novel? I think every novel has to justify itself and it has to be unique. Things have changed. For the characters of the book and for the author. This is a more mature novel—and that’s the good news and the bad news. If you’re fixated on the first novel, then you won’t allow yourself to experience the changes that have occurred. Change is what makes life interesting. Change is inevitable. Change is the only constant in our lives.
“I think every novel has to justify itself and it has to be unique. […] This is a more mature novel—and that’s the good news and the bad news.”
You’re known for your unique way of writing dialogue with a tendency not to rely on speaker tags. How do you build out the scenes so that the reader will understand who is speaking? How does this change when there’s more than two people speaking?
I find not using speaker tags a challenge. It’s an art. I don’t mean to be coy, I really don’t—but if you study those sections carefully, you’ll discover the secret. If it’s more than one person, well, that’s part of the art of dialogue. You know, when I taught creative writing, dialogue was very difficult for my students. But I always enjoy writing dialogue. It’s what makes my characters seem less like characters. One of my editors told me I didn’t write characters at all. “You write people,” she said.
“They always ask me if I know Dr. Seuss.”
You’ve written for younger readers and adults as well as both poetry and prose. What are some of the joys and challenges of writing different forms for different age categories? How do you know what project will fit which form or audience?
I’m writing a book of poems right now, and poetry remains my favorite genre to write. It brings me a type of peace and makes me feel centered. Poetry makes me meditate on life in the way no other genre allows me to do. I feel comfortable in my own skin when I write poetry. For a man who’s been writing for more than thirty years, I’m not always self-assured and confident.
Writing different genres and age groups demands that I respond to the different sides of me. I can tap into the little boy in me. I can tap into the high school kid in me. I can tap into the hurt and hopeful man in me. I’m able to manage to do that. But I don’t know how it happens.
I love writing for little kids. And I love reading to them. My favorite audience of all: first graders. They are simply amazing. They always ask me if I know Dr. Seuss. I love their uncensored responses to what I read to them. Apart from the Ari and Dante books, my most successful book is a children’s bilingual book entitled A Gift From Papa Diego. It was published in 1998. It’s been in print for 23 years and it’s still selling and reaching new audiences of children.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Oh gosh, yes, I have to say that I still feel that it’s a great privilege to be a writer. I got to be what I wanted to be—an artist and a writer. I’ve lived my dream. That doesn’t mean that life’s been easy—but it’s not supposed to be easy. And I’m very grateful to have an audience, be that audience small or very large. I’ve learned that I’m not entitled to have an audience just because I wrote a book. I’ve always written the books I needed to write, and I write because I need to write. That’s how I’ve survived. I did with my life what I was supposed to do. I am the luckiest.
Even as the death toll rose, the Roman Catholic Church reinforced its stance and also opposed the gay and lesbian rights movement more generally, creating an ongoing tension. Despite this, some nuns and priests went against those teachings and worked behind the scenes to care for and sit at the bedsides of people dying from AIDS-related illnesses.
O’Loughlin, a journalist who lives in Chicago, writes in the first chapter that for as long as he can remember, he’s been on a search. “I am gay and I am Catholic,” he wrote. “And I struggle continuously to reconcile those two parts of my identity.”
He wanted to speak with people who had lived through similar struggles, and in 2015 a friend who was a priest suggested that he speak to gay Catholics who lived through the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States. He ran with the idea and began tracking down scientists and doctors involved in AIDS work — nuns and priests who served as caretakers to the ill, and activists, including those from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP.
He said he chose to focus on stories of compassion because he is interested in “people who had a lot to lose by taking on the power structure of the church but still did the right thing.”
“So, the priests who minister to gay men dying from AIDS, some of whom come out as gay themselves, and challenge the churches to be more welcoming and accepting,” he said. “The nuns who are really scrappy people who find the resources to learn all they can about HIV and AIDS and then do their own ministry. The gay Catholics who find themselves caught between their inclination to be part of the gay activism world but also remain part of the church.”
He said he kept asking himself, “How do they make this work?”
“I’m drawn to those stories because there’s something universal about summoning the courage to do the right thing when it would be much easier to do nothing,” he said, adding that this courage “applies to all sorts of situations even today.”
The book doesn’t attempt to “rewrite history” and also recounts how church leaders advocated against LGBTQ rights. But at the same time, O’Loughlin said he wanted to make sure the people who did extraordinary things and cite their Catholic faith as their motivation were also part of that history.
He noted that many of the people he spoke with said their journeys were complicated. Over 10 years, Sister Carol Baltosiewich, a nun and nurse from a small city in southern Illinois, traveled to Kansas City, Chicago and eventually New York City to care for people living with AIDS. She told O’Loughlin that she didn’t know any gay people before she began her AIDS work, and she had to reconcile the church’s teachings with her drive to care for people.
O’Loughlin said that it was at times painful for the people he interviewed, including Baltosiewich, to take a hard look at their prejudices and biases before their experiences changed them.
“When she began to learn about HIV and how it was affecting the gay community, it was sort of this whole new culture,” O’Loughlin said. “It was this clash between what she had known and something that was foreign to her, so she eventually learned and grew, but I think that some people are maybe hesitant to look honestly at that time, because there was so much stigma and shame that even the most well-intentioned people really couldn’t free themselves without making a conscious decision, which she did ultimately, but many people were just kind of in this culture that looked with such hostility at the LGBT community.”
Some of the people O’Loughlin spoke to experienced that hostility themselves. The Rev. William Hart McNichols, a Jesuit priest and an artist who attended the Pratt Institute in New York City, ministered to people dying from AIDS-related illnesses. In 1989, McNichols came out as gay publicly in a chapter for a book published by New Ways Ministry, a group that ministers to gay and lesbian Catholics.
He asked the permission of his Jesuit superiors at the time, and they told him that it was his choice to make, but that if he came out he wouldn’t be able to work at a Jesuit high school, college or parish. As an illustrator who worked in a hospital, he wasn’t offended by the response and decided to write the chapter.
O’Loughlin said the LGBTQ people he interviewed all made a decision at some point to stay in the church “no matter how strong the headwinds they faced,” because it was their church, too.
“Once people made that decision, there seemed to be something — whether it was grace or just stubbornness — that kept them involved,” he said. “And that kind of spoke to me as I continue to figure out what place I have in the church and as I interview dozens and dozens of LGBT people every year going through something similar, that you have to make that decision to stay and then be prepared to fight to keep your place in an institution that isn’t always welcoming.”
O’Loughlin wrote Tuesday in an op-ed for The New York Timesthat conducting interviews for his book had a “profound effect” on his faith, so much so that he wrote a letter to Pope Francis to tell him about the book and the conversations he had.
In August, the pope wrote back. The letter was written in Spanish but was translated to English.
“Thank you for shining a light on the lives and bearing witness to the many priests, religious sisters and lay people, who opted to accompany, support and help their brothers and sisters who were sick from H.I.V. and AIDS at great risk to their profession and reputation,” Pope Francis wrote.
The pontiff added, “Instead of indifference, alienation and even condemnation, these people let themselves be moved by the mercy of the Father and allowed that to become their own life’s work; a discreet mercy, silent and hidden, but still capable of sustaining and restoring the life and history of each one of us.”
O’Loughlin wrote that the letter won’t heal old or new wounds — the church still won’t bless same-sex marriages and teaches that homosexuality is immoral — but that it gave him hope that church leaders “will be transformed” in how they see LGBTQ people and “others whose faith is lived on the margins.”
Regardless of whether that happens, O’Loughlin said one of his goals for the book is to show LGBTQ people struggling with their faith that they aren’t alone, and that there are many people who came before them.
“By meeting people and learning about the struggles and learning the history, I’ve realized that this is not new at all,” O’Loughlin said. “The reality is, people have been grappling with these questions for forever … and there’s a lot of wisdom in these stories that have helped me realize I’m not alone at all.”
Comics fans are still reeling from the news that next-generation Superman Jonathan Kent, the son of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, is bisexual. Although DC shared the news on Oct. 11, National Coming Out Day, Kent will explore his feelings for another young man in “Superman: Son of Kal-El” No. 5, dropping in November.
Queer representation in comic books has exploded in recent years, but in 2021 it went supernova: In part that’s due to an expanding presence in sci-fi TV shows and — with the release of Marvel’s “Eternals” next month — a blockbuster movie.
Below we celebrate a dozen comic book characters who hoisted the rainbow flag this year in print or screen.
No, Clark Kent hasn’t come out: His son, Jonathan, is taking on the mantle of the Man of Steel while Dad pursues an existential threat off-planet.
After Jon physically and emotionally burns out from “trying to save everyone that he can,” according to a DC Comics news release, Jay is there to support him. The two have their first kiss in the book’s fifth issue, out on Nov. 9.https://iframe.nbcnews.com/erqkh9l?app=1
Series writer Tom Taylor insists the storyline “is not a gimmick.”
“When I was offered this job, I thought, ‘Well, if we’re going to have a new Superman for the DC Universe, it feels like a missed opportunity to have another straight white savior,’” Taylor told Reuters.
“So, this isn’t everything to do with them. And there’s a reason this is coming in issue five and not issue one. We didn’t want this to be ‘DC Comics creates new queer Superman.’ We want this to be ‘Superman finds himself, becomes Superman and then comes out.’ And I think that’s a really important distinction there.”
Taylor added that he was proud “more people can see themselves in the most powerful superhero in comics.”
Numerous young men and women have donned Robin’s iconic red and green tights, but it’s Tim Drake exploring his sexuality, starting in “Batman: Urban Legends” Number 5, released Aug. 10.
In the story, Tim reconnects with an old friend, Bernard, who gets kidnapped by the Chaos Monster. Over the course of the issue, Tim realizes his feelings for Bernard are deeper than he’s realized.
“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that night and I — I don’t know what it meant to me,” Tim says after rescuing his friend. “Not yet. But I’d like to figure it out.”
Bernard then asks Tim out on a legitimate date, which the young hero accepts.
“Batman: Urban Legends” is an anthology series, so readers won’t learn what happens next for the pair until issue No. 10 in December, when Drake is expected to leave Gotham City.
The character has previously been linked to Stephanie Brown, the superheroine Spoiler. Should he prove to be bisexual or even bi-curious, he’d be the first male member of the Bat family to join the LGBTQ community.
“While female LGBTQ representation is very important, especially in comics, there is also a history of deeming these characters as ‘acceptable’ only because LGBTQ women are often fetishized,” “Urban Legends” writer Meghan Fitzmartin told NBC News earlier this year.
In the DC Comics universe, Batwoman is an out lesbian, Catwoman has been presented as bisexual and antiheroes Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy have been portrayed as romantic partners.
“It becomes uncouth for male characters to explore their sexuality because of what it may mean for the male readers,” Fitzmartin said. “Ultimately, what I want from art is for it to challenge the way we see the world and face us with the truth that exists below the surface.”
Jess Chambers debuted as Kid Quick, part of an alternate-universe version of the Teen Titans, in the holiday-themed anthology “DC’s Merry Multiverse” in December 2020. Their universe, “Earth 11,” is not that different from the DC universe we know except genders are reversed, with heroes like Wonderous Man and Aquawoman.
The speedster, who uses they/them pronouns, got a major promotion during the “Future State” storyline that ran through various DC books, miniseries, one-shots and anthologies in January and February and continues to impact current continuity today.
Chambers debuted as the Flash in the first issue of the two-part “Future State: Justice League,” released Jan. 12.
Writer Ivan Cohen said in a reality that is already commenting on gender, it felt natural to introduce a hero that defied the binary.
“In the DC superhero universe, we’ve got a superfast character, Kid Flash. And I thought about how ‘Kid’ can really be any gender,” Cohen told NBC News in November 2020. “There are all these choices we can make — why don’t we do something besides what we would have made up if it was 1965?”
Setting the story on an alternate Earth also freed him from decades of comic-book continuity.
“Earth 11 is such a blank page that making it more diverse didn’t require a lot of shoehorning. No one is going to run to their back issues and complain we contradicted something,” Cohen said. “If someone has a problem that a Flash from an alternative universe is nonbinary, there’s a lot of other comics they can read.”
Batwoman, a.k.a. Kate Kane, debuted in the 1950s as a female foil to the Caped Crusader. But in 2006, writer Greg Rucka reintroduced the character to comics readers as a lesbian vigilante kicked out of the military for violating “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
During the “Batwoman” season two premiere on Jan. 17, 2021, bisexual actress Javicia Leslie took over Batwoman’s cowl, playing a brand new character, Ryan Wilder.
“What I love is that she’s not only strong enough to keep going, but she’s also an advocate and fights for her community,” Leslie told NBC News previously. “I think that subconsciously it plants seeds of empowerment in our community … seeds of power, strength, and toughness.”
Green Lantern is more a title than a single superhero name — it’s been used by numerous characters throughout DC Comics’ history. The most famous is Hal Jordan, played by Ryan Reynolds in the 2011 “Green Lantern” film. But the first hero to slip on the magic green ring was Alan Scott, created in 1940 by writer Martin Nodell and artist Bill Finger.
When Jordan’s Green Lantern debuted in 1959, Scott was relegated to an alternate universe and, over the decades, he’s retired, returned to crime-fighting, been tossed in limbo, become an elder statesman, and been rebooted as a young gay crimefighter on yet another alternate Earth. https://iframe.nbcnews.com/HeWRxar?app=1
This year, Green Lantern Alan Scott returned to his roots as an older WWII-era hero who has “walked this Earth for a long time, much longer than should have been allotted,” as he said in March’s “Infinite Frontier” #0.
In the same issue, penned by bisexual writer James Tynion IV, the gray-haired ring-slinger comes out as gay to his adult children, the superhero duo Jade and Obsidian.
Scott admits to having had relationships with a few women — including their mother — but added, “I knew there was something about myself I was hiding away.”
Scott says he was asked to be a guardian of the Earth, and tells Jade and Obsidian, “I didn’t think it would be right to take that job without finally being the whole of myself.”
In May, EW confirmed British actor Jeremy Irvine will play Alan Scott in the HBO Max “Green Lantern” series from Arrowverse architect Greg Berlanti.
Transgender character Nia Nal, whose powers include precognition and astral projection, premiered on The CW’s “Supergirl” in 2018, played by trans actress Nicole Maines.
“Date Night” was actually written by Maines. In it, Nia Nal stops the League of Shadows from poisoning National City in time to make her date with super-intelligent alien Brainiac 5.
“The bar is now set very, very high, because if you can be a superhero, you can be anything,” Maines told Buzzfeed in April. “It’s like, ‘Well, if I can be a superhero, everything else is very easily within reach.’ So, that’s what I hope people take away from seeing Nia.”
She also praised Dreamer as a chance to demonstrate “trans people are more than what’s in our pants. We are more than our trauma. We’re more than our gender. We are just fully-fledged superheroes, who have an arc outside of our transness.”
In June, Marvel’s “The United States of Captain America” miniseries hits stores, introducing readers to a variety of everyday people from all walks of life who’ve taken up the mantle of Captain America to defend their communities.
One is gay teenager Aaron Fischer, “the Captain America of the Railways,” described in a release as “a fearless teen who stepped up to protect fellow runaways and the unhoused.”
Joshua Trujillo, who wrote Fischer’s debut, said he is “inspired by heroes of the queer community: activists, leaders and everyday folks pushing for a better life.”
Trans artist Jan Bazaldua said she really enjoyed designing the character.
“I am happy to be able to present an openly gay person who admires Captain America and fights against evil to help those who are almost invisible to society,” Bazaldua said in a statement. “While I was drawing him, I thought, well, Cap fights against super-powerful beings and saves the world almost always, but Aaron helps those who walk alone in the street with problems that they face every day.”
Adapted to Marvel Comics by Stan Lee himself in 1962’s “Journey Into Mystery” No. 85, the Norse trickster god Loki is both Thor’s wicked half-brother and a perpetual thorn in the side of the mighty Avengers.
In Norse mythology, Loki is a shapeshifter who has appeared as a fish, a fly and a mare — and gave birth to Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse. In the comics, he’s been presented as an adult male, a child (“Kid Loki”) and a woman.
In the 2021 Disney+ series “Loki,” Tom Hiddleston’s version of the character was confirmed to be bisexual in the show’s third episode, which aired June 23. In it, Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino), an alternate-reality female version of Loki, asks Hiddleston’s character about his romantic history.
“What about you? You’re a prince. Must have been would-be princesses,” Sylvie says. “Or perhaps another prince?”
“A bit of both,” Loki responds. “I suspect the same as you.”
In a tweet that morning, “Loki” director Kate Herron confirmed the character’s sexuality, writing, “It was very important to me, and my goal, to acknowledge Loki was bisexual.”
“It is a part of who he is and who I am, too,” wrote Herron, who identifies as queer. “I know this is a small step but I’m happy, and heart is so full, to say that this is now canon in [the MCU].”https://iframe.nbcnews.com/5bHJrpt?app=1
Loki won’t be the only queer in Asgard for long: Tessa Thompson, who plays Valkyrie, confirmed her character will be involved in an LGBTQ storyline in May 2022’s “Thor: Love and Thunder.”
“First of all, as king —as new king — she needs to find her queen,” Thompson told audiences in July at the San Diego Comic-Con. “That’ll be her first order of business. She has some ideas. Keep you posted.”
When Marvels’ “Eternals” arrives in theaters on Nov. 5, viewers will get to see the first out superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Played by “Atlanta” star Brian Tyree Henry, Phastos is described as “a brilliant inventor with a mind for creating weapons and technology.”
While Phastos is part of a tribe of alien immortals with fantastic powers, he is married to a human husband, played by out actor Haaz Sleiman. The two share a kiss, according to Sleiman.
“It’s a beautiful, very moving kiss. Everyone cried on set,” Sleiman told Logo TV last year. “For me, it’s very important to show how loving and beautiful a queer family can be.”
That may explain why the movie has earned a mature rating in Russia, where depictions of LGBTQ people in pop culture are prohibited.
Another Eternal, Sprite appears to be a mischievous tween but is actually centuries old and has been trapped looking like a child. Created by legendary artist Jack Kirby in the 1970s, Sprite has alternately been depicted as male, female and gender fluid.
In the upcoming MCU film “Eternals,” the character is being played by actress Lia McHugh, though it’s not clear what their gender identity will be.
Interestingly, Makkari, an Eternal whose super-speed allegedly inspired the myth of Mercury, has been changed from a male character in the comic books to a female character in the film, played by deaf actress Lauren Ridloff.
Wiccan and Speed
Super-powered twins Billy and Tommy Maximoff, the sons of Wanda Maximofff, a.k.a. the Avengers’ Scarlet Witch, made their print debut back in the 2005 comic book series “Young Avengers,” with Billy, alias magic-user Wiccan, already paired with his shape-changing alien boyfriend (now husband) Hulkling.
The twins didn’t make their MCU debut until January 2021 in the hit Disney+ series “WandaVision” as the titular couple’s five-year-old sons. While they don’t exactly assume their grown-up identities in the show, they do begin to exhibit powers — Billy magically ages the boys into adolescence — and wear Halloween costumes that hearken to their superhero alter egos.
With the Scarlet Witch expected to appear in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” coming to theaters in May, and fellow Young Avenger Hawkeye debuting in her eponymous Disney+ series in November, it’s possible these queer siblings will be back soon, either on the big or small screen.
Since her 1980 debut in the pages of “Uncanny X-Men,” Kitty Pryde has been romantically linked to fellow mutant Colossus and Guardians of the Galaxy leader Star-Lord.
But she’s also been, in the words of writer Kat Calamia in GamesRadar, “the queen of subtextual storytelling” with flirtatious relationships with female X-Men Rachel Summers and Illyana Rasputin.
“Some may even go as far to say it was queerbaiting,” Calamia wrote. “Giving just enough to make queer fans ‘happy’ without actually having to deliver on any real representation.”
In Marauders #12, Pryde, who now goes by “Kate,” has been resurrected by her fellow mutants after being murdered by the treacherous Sebastian Shaw. Eager to celebrate her new lease on life, Pryde gets a tattoo and shares a kiss with the female artist who gave her the tat.
“It’s a wonderful scene,” Screenrant’s Thomas Bacon wrote, “not least because artist Matteo Lolli gives Kate a look of sheer delight after she’s initiated the kiss.”
Technically, Marauders #12 had a Nov. 2020 cover date, but since it confirmed long-held suspicions about the X-fave, we’re going to allow it.
“Kitty was trying to find her authentic self, and her near-death experience helped her achieve it,” Calamia wrote. “With so few bisexual characters in superhero comic books (and even fewer bisexual coming out stories), it makes it that much more important for Kitty Pryde’s bisexuality to continue to be visible,”
In the 2014 live-action film “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” Pryde was played by transgender actor Elliot Page.