Free within ourselves

Thinking about yesterday’s post, I’m reflecting on what a position of privilege I’m in to be able to call myself a queer writer. Historically, and still today, there are many writers who couldn’t come out of the closet as queer. And many people in other positions, too. Maybe they wouldn’t necessarily need to identify as a “queer football player” or “queer politician” to establish who they are, but I’m sure it would be liberating if they could just be honest about that aspect of their lives.

A younger me would’ve been shocked to see me in this position. There was once a time when, because of familial and religious pressures, I thought that I would never come out of the closet. I thought I might tell my parents about my sexuality only in the most dire of circumstances, i.e. if I fell deeply in love with a woman and planned to spend the rest of my life with her, and if my parents didn’t know, I’d have to be sure that nobody else knew, so they wouldn’t find out.

And now here I am, setting out to establish a career in which I identify myself as, of all things, a queer writer. I’m “out” in most areas of my life, though not all, but now I’m broadcasting it on the Internet for anyone to find (shout-out to any extended family who are snooping here now — hi! Yes, the rumors are true). The fact that I was able to come out, and I can now proudly declare who I am while keeping my health, my safety and my livelihood, shows that I’m quite lucky. It’s not a matter of life or death for me, like it is for some folks. So while I certainly don’t believe that everyone should be forced to come out of the closet like me, it saddens me to know that even some of the iconic queer writers and artists who paved the way for our voices to be heard today must be forced to remain in the closet, even long after their deaths.

People ask me about my influences, and three names that come up most often are Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. Notice a pattern here? Nobody denies that they’re all black. Nobody denies that they’re all great. But, according to some, somehow I’m supposed to believe that identifying all of them as queer will somehow hurt one’s status as a respectable writer.

I’ve loved Langston Hughes’s work for a long time. And I often cite him as a gay icon, forgetting that many people still try to deny this fact. Obviously, his incredible work stands on its own, but knowing that he’s a black gay writer is what makes, for me, the difference between simply respecting his work and revering him as an iconic figure who laid the groundwork for what I do today. Denying his sexuality is, as Saeed Jones puts it, “as foolish as ignoring his race” (in an old post; I’d recommend checking out his newer updates). Must I really disregard who he is as a person in order to appreciate his work?

It’s frustrating enough when mainstream literary circles try to perpetuate the myth that only straight white men can write what can be considered great. It’s downright insulting to include a gay man among them, to recognize his place as one of the literary greats but only by claiming that he, too, is one of the great straight men.

So I’m coming from a place of privilege when I call myself a queer writer. I’m also coming from a place of gratitude, for those who came before me and struggled as queer artists, particularly queer writers of color, to insist that their voices deserve to be heard as much as anyone else’s. Gratitude for Countee Cullen, for Bruce Nugent, for Gladys Bentley, and yes, for Langston Hughes, and for countless others who deserve to be recognized for their work and for who they are — for all of who they are.

As Hughes has asked many times, what happens to a dream deferred? What happens when our dreams only feel within reach if we pretend to be something we’re not? Though many folks are forced to remain in the closet today, there are others who are opening doors, simply by being themselves and putting their work out there without leaving any part of themselves behind. I hope to join them, to reach my goals simply by being me, and nobody else.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Water-Front Streets

by Langston Hughes

The spring is not so beautiful there–

But dream ships sail away

To where the spring is wondrous rare

And life is gay.

The spring is not so beautiful there–

But lads put out to sea

Who carry beauties in their hearts

And dreams, like me.

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The queer artist

Yesterday I explored some ways I can feel like an authentic writer, methods like blogging from cafes and drinking coffee. It’s clear that these things aren’t what define me as a writer (although, full disclosure: I’m back today, at the cafe with coffee).

Today I’m thinking about how I can identify myself as a writer. Not that I’m eager to put myself in a box, but in many ways I’m sometimes expected to. I try to avoid it sometimes, and succeed for as long as I can until the next person asks that question: “what do you write?” It’s that question you might get from many people when you identify yourself as someone who writes.

Maybe there was a time when answering this question would’ve been a simple one, but it’s since gotten more complicated for me. I often say I’m a fiction writer, but I feel a little guilty about it, because that’s not entirely true. But does each person who asks really want to hear about my internal struggle over whether I’m writing fiction or poetry?

I’ve taken to identifying myself as a queer writer while trying to figure out how to answer the question. You might wonder why I would want to put myself in such a box, especially if not everything I write is distinctly queer.

It’s kind of like the question of why I’d taken on the label of queer. I’ve been asked why queer people want to “flaunt it,” why they would have to broadcast their sexuality as such a primary part of their identity. At times I’ve tried to put this perspective in terms of a bookstore. I can walk into the fiction section of an average bookstore, and I’m sure I’d find plenty of great books, but I might have a hard time finding stories that reflect people like me. I’d scan book covers and summaries on the backs to see if there were any featuring women of color as main characters. I’d try to read into every description of character relationships to see if there could possibly be a queer character somewhere within the pages.

But of course, the majority wouldn’t focus on queer characters, or women of color, and surely there would be very few featuring queer women of color. In all the time I spend searching each book for them, I would definitely find some wonderful books, but the number of books I’d find including my identity might range from very few to zero.

That’s why I have some kind of nerdy bookgasm when I walk into a bookstore to find sections like Black literature, queer literature or (gasp!) lesbian fiction. I don’t necessarily want to limit myself to reading books by authors like myself, but since such books are so rare in mainstream literature, I love finding entire sections devoted to highlighting such work.

So maybe that’s why I call myself a queer writer. As much as I would love to be simply considered a good writer (period), to be identified as a black writer or a queer writer would mean that folks like me, in search of some reflection of their own story, might find my work and hope to find it.

And I would have to ask myself, what would be the advantage of eliminating the labels, identifying myself as only a “writer” without distinguishing myself from any other? Langston Hughes wrote “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” in 1926, and his words still resonate with me today. He writes of the black poet who just wants to be “a poet — not a Negro poet,” in attempt to fit into the white American standard as much as possible. The black poet says it “as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world.”

I identify who I am as a writer because I’m not ashamed. I’m saying that, although voices like mine have long been ignored in many mainstream literary circles, my world is as interesting as any other world. Even if I’m never accepted in those mainstream circles, I will find myself amongst others in celebration of who we are. As Hughes writes: “We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

Another world possible through… poetry?

On art and social change:

I’ve always had this crazy idea that I’m gonna somehow change the world through writing. If not through my writing itself, then at least by helping others find their voices and discover the power of words.

I’ve also always thought, of course, that I’d have to be a little bit crazy to think this way. Of all the various kick-ass ways of going about creating social change, could sitting down and writing really be counted among them?

Some folks at the U.S. Social Forum certainly seemed to think so. Many led workshops sharing their wisdom and inspirational stories surrounding creativity, the arts and social change. There was much to learn, not only about creative practices but also about where I stand on their place in social justice movements.

So I’m going to start small. Rather than try to answer the bigger question of whether I believe in art as social change, I’ll begin with what I know. This I believe:

  • We can speak through writing when our voices are lost. Whether we’re forcibly silenced or held back by our own lack of confidence, writing can help us find and project our voices when we don’t have any other way.
  • Anybody can write (shh…). Now don’t let this one get out, because writing is supposed to be my thing, but I believe that anybody can write. No amount of talent or training (or lack thereof) matters when it’s just you and the pen, and you’re writing from the heart, telling your story like only you could. Don’t believe me? Get in touch with me, and I’ll help you dare to try.
  • Writing has made change before. There are countles examples from history, and I really believe that the world would not be the same if not for writers like the Beat poets or those of the Harlem Renaissance, who insisted on telling their stories in ways the world had never heard. If nothing else, the literary arts can capture a movement from the point of view of those involved, so that their stories will not be forgotten.
  • Writing can help communities heal, reflect and grow. I believe that simply by telling our stories, we can shake off pain and shame, celebrate our lives and communities, and learn to love ourselves and each other. Facing injustice, being constantly put down and out, we can feel stuck, and become unwilling or believe we are unable to take on the hard work of making change, even if it is for our own good. Celebrating and sharing with our communities through writing can help remind us that we’re worth it, deserving of a world in which we can thrive as we are.

So, I guess the answer is yes, I am crazy. Crazy enough to believe in the power of writing to create social change, and to not find the idea so crazy after all. What do you think? How do you see art as social change?

——————————————————————————————————–

I must write,

for I find the call of the blank page,

like the call to revolution,

irresistible.

Writing my way into history

There are many reasons why I write. I could call this part one of an epic series on the subject. But one reason that has been coming up quite a bit lately is to make a place for me and for others whose stories are often erased from history.

One of the recent events that inspired this post was Sunday’s Imagine How Free We Can Get: A Radical Queer Walking Tour of the Mission. It was part of the Queer Arts Festival, started at Modern Times Bookstore and was led by the wonderful Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Leah showed us vibrant corners of San Francisco’s Mission District that were rich with queer history. The only question was, why was this all a part of marginally recorded history? Why were so many of these stories, of places and events like the Catacombs and the Valencia lesbian stroll, made up of distant memories and attempts to recover what has been erased in the writing of history?

I’ve struggled with this issue a lot, feeling like I want to make an impact on a world in which the stories of people like me, women and queer people and people of color, are often silenced. So, though I’m not always consciously thinking “this will go down in history” as I write, I know that on some level each word I put on the page is driven by my need to put out the stories that won’t always be heard. They may not make it into history books or the canon of literature or any other realm usually dominated by heterosexual white men, but they’ll be out there, and the very presence of these stories in the world will declare that they matter. So that someday, maybe someone who has been told that her voice is unimportant will learn otherwise. Once we let our words be heard, they cannot be erased. They’ll keep echoing through our bones for as long as our communities’ hearts are beating.

This is adapted from part of a more personal piece I write in a Writing Ourselves Whole workshop:

I worry so much that my voice won’t be heard.

So then I write a stupid poem.

Go outside and read it aloud, look around and see people who don’t care about the world beyond their big toe.

Go home and throw away my stupid poem. They didn’t hear a thing.

Saw a house once where queer women used for fuck each other, just meet every Friday and fuck, as their way of getting their voices heard.

Had to put sound-proof glass in the windows, the neighbors heard their voices so much.

There’s a young white family living there now. Soundproof glass keeps the neighbors from hearing the wife’s cries at night.

It’s like I want my voice recorded as a part of history, but I’m afraid as soon as I speak, my words will go down into history’s basement, where queer voices, where voices of color can so easily be erased.

It’s like I’d rather not have them say, “this is what she said,” but “Listen up. She’s still speaking.”

How can I write in permanent ink? Ink that echoes, that trembles, that shakes so much it can’t stay on the page, but goes on and on to reach ears that haven’t even been born yet. To say, “Hey, baby. Someday you’ll feel different too, and that’s all right.”

Because if my words matter, then so do theirs. So does everyone who’s ever been silenced. Historians have erasers they use as weapons, but they’ve yet to meet the weapons of my words. If my words matter, then so do the voices of all those queer women who lifted their voices in ecstasy each Friday night, and so does the voice of she who cries within those walls now.

Once I was afraid to lift my voice. Today I say, Listen up. I’m still speaking. I never got to finish telling my story.

Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 10:35 AM  Comments (1)  
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