Friday, July 06, 2007

The Color Line + More On Black Gay Male Fiction

I just received the following invite to what looks to be an amazing summer art exhibit at New York's Jack Shainman Gallery. Carl Pope is a friend of mine, and I've written on this blog about J'Un Ulrick Desert. I've also eagerly followed the careers of Kerry James Marshall, one of the important contemporary American artists, as well as Radcliffe Bailey, Olu Oguibe, Nzingah Mohammad, Nick Cave, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, and Mario Cravo Neto. The exhibit runs through August 3, 2007, so catch it if you can!


I received two responses on my previous post on Black gay literary fiction, so I'm posting them with some responses.

Here's the first response, from Kai:

Through highschool and college and for a couple years afterward, I read literally every work of fiction even rumored to have been written by a gay black man (I came across Annotations during this time, by the by). These days, many books pass me by, but I still read at least five a year, especially if I hear they have literary pretensions. I should say that I'm frustrated by the quality of much of what sees print: some of the authors (I won't name names) I've met during their writing processes and, when asked "Who do you read? Who do you like?" I'm met with blank looks, which stay blank as I suggest various (man!) names of writers I like. I definitely get the sense that there's a pervasive sense in the culture that "writing a novel" is something any bloke off the street can do, regardless of talent, mastery of basic grammer, or even literary interest; all that's involved, essentially, is the tenacity to fill approximately 300 pages with words. The lack of literature (written by black gay men) which even pretends to the literary breaks my heart constantly, when I pour over the shelves at B&N or browse Amazon. Occasionaly I come across a novel (I'm thinking particularly of one set in Ohio, a man goes home after a long time, a church scandal, a former lover--name's not coming to me) which seems to have enormous potential, which (in my mind at least) an excellent editor might have guided to a high polish of accomplishment; but all to clearly the hand of this hypotethical editor was lacking. Also heart breaking. Did you read Delany's most recent "Dark Reflections"? In fictional terms, he explores most of these very issues.

I really appreciate your reminding me about Samuel R. Delany's Dark Reflections, which I'd mentioned when I blogged about Perseus's purchase of Avalon, which led to the destruction of Carroll & Graf, which published Delany's novel. I picked it up today.

You're right that there are many people who think that "anyone" can write a novel. (I am of the mind that everyone has a story to tell.) As to anyone writing even a good novel, that's another issue altogether, and the difficulty that many people have even completing and revising a short story, let alone a longer work, points to how difficult novel writing really is. On the other hand, as the bookstalls all over New York testify, many people do manage to put enough sentences together to make a book, some of which are quite interesting in terms of content, even if not well written.

With regard to the comment about editing, that's another issue; I see it as an effect of the current publishing environment, which over the last 25 or so years has led a dwindling of editorial positions and the retirement or dismissal of some of the best, most experienced editors at a number of publishing houses. Just a month ago, Daniel Garner mentioned in his New York Times "Paper Cuts" blog that acclaimed editor Daniel Menaker was leaving Random House, which caused somewhat of a brouhaha, but this was only one of several such resignations at that time. I know that Janet Hill of Harlem Moon, a Doubleday (Bertelsmann?) imprint, carefully edits several notable Black gay male writers, but between agents and editors, it may be the case that some writers, like the one you point to, aren't receiving the editorial attention they might once have.

Then Keguro wrote:

I go back and forth on the "problem" of "black gay fiction." On the one hand, as Kai says, the quality of some very unedited, very unstructured, and downright bad novels, so bad that even my pomo-queer readings can't rescue them, makes me believe there's some merit to the old argument that writing "gay" or "homosexual" work might be a terrible strategy. But then I catch myself and wonder if I'm imputing an ideological tag to what might more properly be called an issue of craft.

I hear you, though I was speaking specifically of Black gay male literary fiction, which is to say, work that foregrounds, in some way, its "literariness" (a problematic category), as opposed to the broader grouping of Black gay male writing, or Black LGBT and queer writing (which would include lesbian, bi, trans and other queer writing). Most of these works--the few of them that are out there--are not, as far as I can tell, as ineptly written as you describe, but then my knowledge isn't that exhaustive. I do think you may be attaching a particularly ideological reading to an aesthetic issue; of course all aesthetics are ideologically informed, but craft and technique as a measure of quality is only one aspect of a possible aesthetic understanding of a given work, right?

I will admit, though, I'm not the best audience for black gay work, especially not fiction. My favorite reads over the years have more often than not troubled categories of race and sexuality instead of affirming them. And I read essays more than anything else right now.
But we might also think about the international scope of black gay writing. Just as rap has become international (my local station was playing Kenyan rap the other day, to my delighted shock), it might be we need to think about black gay diasporic writing, a category to which, arguably, Thomas Glave belongs. Sorry for the rambling. My sentences are on leave.

Keguro, your sentences are fine. Part of the problem may be the line I'm trying to draw between "literary" fiction and popular fiction, which entails a category distinction that doesn't exist (any more? did it ever?) in rap, a local and global Black product. I agree with you on broadening the notion of "Blackness" to "Diasporic," but the described set, nevertheless, remains small, and I was talking specifically about the relative paucity of US Black gay male literary production. It is interesting to think of it in light of the global circulation of other aspects of Black cultural production, and also in light of specifically Black gay popular culture. Certainly Glave would fit both the US and Diasporic categories, as well as others (Jamaican, Caribbean, etc.). In terms of Black Diasporic gay male literary works of fiction, there still aren't many; a few people who come to mind are Colombian-American author Jaime Manrique; K. Sello Duiker of South Africa (he died just a few years ago); Jean Wyllys of Brazil (I'm translating one of his works now); and a few other current writers. From an earlier generation, there were people like the great Cuban writer Severo Sarduy, who theorized racial and sexual multiplicity through his works. (And then there were closeted writers, like South Africa's Richard Rive--but I think I also am trying to focus on works that narratively depict same-sexual desire and relationships, as well as ones in which African, African-American and African Diasporic people are at the narrative's center.) I also keep in mind that it's a dicey proposition out there for many LGBT folks in many parts of the Diaspora, and then there's the issue of literary production as well. My colleague Evan Mwangi has written and spoken about Anglophone African works that treat sexual difference and homosexuality in various ways, so I should probably query him for the names of some of the authors who fit this category. In any case, there aren't many. But your point is a great one.


  1. John, I'm still mulling over my thoughts on the Southgate article and your comments on black gay male literature. In the meantime Eisa Ulen's blog features a number of comments on Southgate's article. Plus Martha Southgate has guest blogged an addendum to her NYTBR article explaining what compelled its penning and some additional quotes that were cut by NYTBR editorial.

  2. BTW, I'm excited to see the Color Line exhibit, and what Carl Pope is up to currently. The gallery website doesn't list their hours or directions so I emailed them and here are the hours: "For the month of July we are open Monday through Friday, 10-6. We are closed in August and will resume to the hours of 10-6, Tuesday through Saturday Beginning in September." Hopefully they close in August after the exhibit closes! They're located @ 20th St. & 10th Ave, closest station 23rd Street on A,C,E subway lines.


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