Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Review: Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal

Blue Boy
Rakesh Satyal

Published by Kensington Books

Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson

Cincinnati is an unlikely place to find a reincarnation of the blue god Krishna. Yet, here we meet an adolescent boy in the early 1990’s who paints his face using his mother’s make up and believes himself to be just that. This coming of age novel explores the life of Kiran, an American boy who hopes to dazzle his uncreative schoolmates, parents and teachers in his school talent show. He is keenly aware of how different he is from those around him, especially from the Indian peers he sees regularly at religious and social functions. However, his position as an outsider makes him a keen observer able to perceive the foibles and inner-workings of groups in a way that is in some ways advantageous to him. Attempts he makes to ingratiate himself fail. A chance he takes to befriend two girls at his school turns into a humiliating experience. Bonding over “boobies”, his burgeoning group friendship with his hunchback lunch companion and a tall boy quickly goes sour. His art teacher scorns his artistic talent and creativity. His attempt to tattle to family friends about an adolescent affair he witnesses goes horribly wrong. Even the librarians seem to scorn him when he huddles in the corner of the library doing research on the history of Hinduism. Other than his Jewish tutor who appreciates his abilities, Kiran’s closest companion turns out to be the doll he reveres and keeps hidden, Strawberry Shortcake. Kiran’s journey is both hilarious and heart-rending as it is filled with a keen sense of detail. His tale is indelibly his own.
Rakesh Satyal is a natural story-teller leading the reader on a sympathetic journey through the painful steps of adolescence and sexual discovery. Kiran perceives something essential about people through the rhythms of their speech and the theatricality of their actions: “To me, they are more than just girls. They are a manner of speaking, peppered with slang and cast in a joyous lilt.” The people he encounters are exotic and fascinating for the boy, but ultimately unknowable. Satyal brilliantly describes Kiran’s queer perspective of the world and the ways that this viewpoint causes the boy to feel both joyous and isolated: “Being gay is a self-contained, alternate world.” When Kiran notices his skin turning blue, he becomes convinced that the aspects of his personality which set him apart from everyone else must have been imparted upon him from a divine source. The great tragedy at the heart of the novel is that Kiran feels he must become the reincarnation of a deity to display his unique skills and assert the importance of his life. The truth is that Kiran is already a very talented, beautiful and important individual – he just doesn’t realize it yet living in a community that doesn’t appreciate his unique qualities. Importantly, he doesn’t allow himself to be silenced. His parents love him dearly and understand Kiran better than he thinks. Satyal skilfully reveals how Kiran’s mother is keenly aware of her son’s peculiarities. Though his parents try to mould him, Kiran stubbornly expresses himself and follows his own path. In this way, an uneasy acceptance of Kiran’s individuality is formed. Blue Boy is an entertaining, clever and important novel.

Eric Karl Anderson is author of the novel Enough and has published work in various publications such as The Ontario Review, Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly, Blithe House Quarterly and the anthologies From Boys to Men and Between Men 2.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

Entre Nous

Overview of the 2009 London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival by Sophie Mayer

A few years back, a friend of mine joined a dating agency called Entre Nous, which held out the promise of an “exclusive” match-up service for professional men. Up front, it was classy – and pricey. But the dates were all disasters, and when he wanted to leave things went “Hotel California.”

On the other hand, 57000 KM Entre Nous is the title of one of my favourite films at this year’s LLGFF, a film that expounded this year’s theme of family and adolescence with wit, charm, and edginess. As filmmaking, it was both psychologically insightful and artistically innovative. Rather than being exclusively focused on queer characters, it brought together a family with both queer and straight members, and – through its sharp, almost Ozon-ian gaze – queered the bourgeois family beautifully. Which is to say: the message of this year’s LLGFF was that queer cinema is entre nous: I’m just not sure which of the two meanings of the term they’re managing to put across. With the trans programming strand continuing strongly from last year (although supported by fewer community events), excellent retrospectives of lesbian experimental filmmakers Ulrike Ottinger (I’m still grooving on Delphine Seyrig among the yurts in Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia) and Barbara Hammer (and a more questionable dive into the misogyny-fuelled world of film noir), a new strand of queer-friendly family programming (but no Spongebob?!), and a hard-hitting, global range of documentaries, it would seem that the festival was casting its net wide to create its inclusively queer (queer as inclusive) family.

My favourite film, John Greyson’s Fig Trees, was all about creating that family, documenting transnational AIDS activism as it combated (and learned from) corporate globalisation. Fizzing with pop, opera, poetry, one-liners, drag performers, gorgeous visuals and animatronic squirrels, Fig Trees was a visual and political all-you-can-eat, everyone-invited feast. But the festival programme made it sound like hard work and nothing but. I’m the first to admit that experimental film can be a slog, but this film had something for everyone, from opera buffs to fans of hot naked men. What’s not to ‘get’?

Programming a festival isn’t just about curating the films, it’s about curating audiences as well. Sometimes that can be about creating an audience that isn’t yet there, through education, retrospectives, and discussions; sometimes it’s about linking up with an audience that feels it isn’t welcome or represented, and working to include them. I’m wondering if the LLGFF has got a bit too confident of its curated audiences in both senses: the 2008 and 2009 festivals have both made money, so there’s no reason for the programmers not to feel confident. As part of a national institution, and as a commercial venture, the LLGFF is trapped into the vicious circle of justifying their programming of mainstream films with the fact that they attract big audiences.
It’s just that, as a longtime attendee, I feel slowly excluded: not middle-class enough, too interested in experimental cinema – too committed, perhaps, to a belief that queer cinema should queer cinema, not just repackage Hollywood conventions with gay faces. The prestige features this year were a yawnfest of bourgeois lives: global travel, adoption, house-buying, and did I mention gratuitous femicide in the Mortal Desires shorts programme? The festival is competing, now, with digital television movies-on-demand, LoveFilm rental, YouTube streaming and a million other globalized platforms, but its policy seems to be to replicate what’s available on those platforms, right down to its racism, to get bums on seats.

The films that don’t replicate this, the documentaries, instead repeat Bill Nichols’ famous formulation of documentary: me talking to you about them. A two-tier queerness was thus spectacularly on evidence in this year’s programming. Most, if not all, of the documentaries concerned subjects marginalised in terms of class and ethnicity. Some were made collaboratively in the communities documented, but still ended up as fodder for middle-class audiences getting their liberal kicks. Most docs are programmed in mid-week matinee slots, making it hard for them to reach audiences who don’t have flexible schedules and afternoon leisure (to say nothing of £7.60 for a film ticket).
So, entre nous, I feel like the festival’s got a lot of rethinking to do. While it protests that it remains different from Outfest by not having to satisfy corporate sponsors, its self-presentation is all Giorgio Armani toiletries (in the prize draw for the online audience survey) and not enough OutRage. Check the ident and poster for proof: a red curtain leading up to a closed door between windows where hazy figures can be seen drinking cocktails (the female figures in skirts with femme hair). That’s not a welcome to me: it’s a statement of exclusion. Note to the LLGFF: see the no-one standing outside by the barriers along the red carpet? That’s the audience you’re slowly alienating, the audience who won’t come back. Have fun on the inside with the martinis and beautiful people. Some of us think queer means not having to hang around wanting to join the club.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Review: X by JD Glass

JD Glass

Published by Bold Strokes Books

Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson

X is a modern cyber-thriller from the massively talented author JD Glass. Expert coder Charli Riven is at the top of her game. Known as CharliX to the elite techie community, she’s a fiercely intelligent woman who heads a technology team that ensures financial transactions worth billions are securely handled. She’s also a passionate surfer, riding the waves in her spare time. She takes her sexual pleasure where she wants it, whether it be from her colleague Anna or a young man she picks up at a party. Charli and Anna’s liaison grows more serious with each sexual encounter they have. But their burgeoning love affair is disrupted when ChariX’s system is infiltrated by John, a man with an ingenious plot to steal a large amount of money. Someone in Charli’s team has betrayed her causing suspicion to abound. Anna is on a secret mission which could create an irreparable rift in her relationship with emotionally-guarded Charli. When Charli herself is kidnapped, John’s sinister motives come to light showing that he’s not simply after financial gain, but is aiming to instil a whole new world order.

JD Glass has written a clever tense story which tests the boundaries of trust for two high-flying women that develop a unique emotional and sexual bond. Memos and online conversations are interspersed with the story adding a realistic dimension to the text. There’s a sufficient amount of technical detail to make this tale seem very probable – without being too techie to alienate readers who might not understand the language. Glass writes about sexual scenes incredibly well. She manages to be graphic, emotional and erotic without slipping into the blatantly pornographic. As she did so well in her wonderful coming of age novel Punk Like Me, sexual encounters are a process of discovery for the participants where learning about each others’ bodies forms a tighter emotional bond and helps them achieve a greater amount of pleasure. X is a very entertaining read and I’m excited to see what this multi-talented author produces next.

Eric Karl Anderson is author of the novel
Enough and has published work in various publications such as The Ontario Review, Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly, Blithe House Quarterly and the anthologies From Boys to Men and Between Men 2.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Review: City of Night by John Rechy

City of Night
John Rechy

Published by Souvenir Press

Reviewed by Justin Gowers

‘City of Night’, an instant bestseller when it was first published in 1963, has just been brought back into print by the independent publisher Souvenir Press. The landmark first novel about male prostitution by John Rechy has remained continuously in print in America for almost half a century, but the gay Mexican-American author has been largely neglected by British publishers. Over twenty years have passed since ‘City of Night’ was last published in the UK.

New readers to Rechy may already be familiar with ‘City of Night’. Rechy might not have been on publishers’ radar, but ‘City of Night’ has seeped into popular culture. The novel was certainly in the forefront of Jim Morrison’s mind when he came to write the lyrics of L.A. Woman (‘Are you a lucky little lady in the City of Light/ Or just another lost angel...City of Night City of Night, City of Night, City of Night, woo, c'mon’).

Musical influences, such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino shaped Rechy’s writing style. This may explain why musicians like Tom Waits have found inspiration in his books. The Velvet Underground (named after a paperback by journalist Michael Leigh that reported on the sexual underground in the USA) and Marc Almond were drawn to ‘City of Night’ because it is a book about the seedier side of life. Shining a light on the previously unseen world of hustlers, drag queens and clients, Rechy was inviting readers to take a walk on the wild side. Soft Cell acknowledged their debt to Rechy when they released ‘Numbers’ whose title was taken from a novel of the same name by Rechy. It’s easy to see the influence Rechy had on the snyth-pop duo in the lyrics ‘Feeling sleazy. In seedy sin city. Sleazy city.’ David Bowie, the godfather of glam, has cited ‘City of Night’ as one of his favourite novels.

Rechy’s influence extends beyond pop music. David Hockney first visited Los Angeles in search of the seedy nightlife in Rechy’s novel. Rechy inspired Andy Warhol and his right-hand-man Gerard Malanga. Malanga asked Rechy to collaborate on a book on Warhol. Unfortunately, Rechy was repelled by Malanga's overweening ego. Leee Black Childers, rock and punk scene photographer and Warhol's assistant at The Factory, has said, ‘It was from the denizens of Times Square, Pershing Square, Piccadilly Circus, and the Tenderloin that I formulated my philosophy as so perfectly outlined by John Rechy in ‘City Of Night’'.

‘City of Night’ paved the way for films like the Oscar-garlanded ‘Midnight Cowboy’ starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, Paul Morrissey’s ‘Flesh’, and Gus Van Sant’s ‘Drugstore Cowboy’. Van Sant has long wanted to make a feature film of ‘City of Night’ and pressed copies of the book into the hands of Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix on the set of ‘My Private Idaho’.

When minorities and marginalized voices become co-opted by the mainstream, some of their radicalism is often diluted. Rechy was one of the first novelists to give voice to drag queens. The outlandish and in-yer-face drag queens like Miss Destiny, Chi Chi and Darling Dolly Dane strutting their stuff in ‘City of Night’ belonged to the gay demimonde. Drag queens were the shock troops for the gay community. They kick-started the Stonewall Riots in 1969. Today, drag queens are everywhere. Jason Donovan and Graham Norton have trowled on the slap for the stage musicals ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ and ‘La Cage aux Folles’. Miss Destiny, with her dreams of a fabulous wedding, would see the current mainstreaming of drag as progress. As the old Virginia Slims ad said, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’.

Justin Gowers is the administrator of The John Betjeman Young Person's Poetry Competition.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Review: If I Could Write This in Fire by Michelle Cliff

If I Could Write This
Michelle Cliff

Published by University of Minnesota Press

Reviewed by Aundi Howerton

You might open this book at any page and begin reading. You might read it back to front. You might not ever finish. Any of these options will grant you some sort of reader reward; but I suggest you do finish If I Could Write This in Fire in its entirety, and if you read nothing else, read the brilliant preface to the book. As a cohesive piece, this patchwork travel memoir, cut with snippets of personal history and poetics (although this description falls far short of what this multi-genre of writing potentially accomplishes), sets forth as a series of geographical journeys, a blueprint of criss-crossing DNAs, not unlike the body of the author herself, at whose accumulation of destinations we find a genius piece of social theory in her preface, “A Journey into Speech.”

The preface could be the summary and vice versa, and this seems to be the exact trajectory of the journey into identity that Cliff takes, both in this manifesto-esque text as well as in previous novels. Cliff’s genre-bending and mixing in If I Could Write This in Fire” might echo the posed questions of her contemporaries in the visual and multi-media arts, whose focus on collage and composition rather than on narrative or form offer hope of renaming a self which feels the tug of the constant state of being externally named. Like Mark Boulos’ “All that is Solid Melts into Air” or any number of DJ Spooky’s (Paul D. Miller) digital “accidents,” Cliff creates a petabyte-type parable in attempting to write into the cleft that is, what she calls, the “split consciousness” of the Jamaican. “It would be as dishonest for me to write it entirely in patois as it would be to write it entirely in the King’s English,” she writes. Also from the preface:

“One of the effects of indoctrination, of passing into the anglo-centrism of British West Indian, is that you believe absolutely in the hegemony of the King’s English and in the proper forms of expression. Or else your writing is not literature; it is folklore, or worse. And folklore can never be art … The reader has to dissect anglican stanza after anglican stanza for Caribbean truth, and may never find it.”
Not only is Cliff a Jamaican, she is also a queer. She is harboring and protecting an ancient expression -- one woven with the occupation of others -- while fighting at the avant garde of an ever-exploding identity. As the quote above indicates, If I Could Write This in Fire, ripe with rage and questioning and “Sites of Memory,” reads like a databank being plotted into a fractal generator. The overall shape of it is yet to settle in me. I can’t tell exactly what the story is saying. Perhaps this is because it is part of a larger story, like the Petabyte, still compiling. Shoving it into some old form will just not work. It is bound to take its own form. Cliff is successful here. She infuses the classical with something new, and a hybridizing occurs. We get a conclusion, not at the end but at the book’s golden ratio. At two-thirds of the read, Cliff writes:

“I am not a metaphor. My place of origin is not a metaphor. I inhabit my language, my imagination, more and more completely. It becomes me. I do not exist as text. I am spoken into being… I use this speech to craft fiction, which is not a record of myself, which is self-consciously – self-confidently – political. I do believe in the word, that a new world may be spoken into being.”

And then the story continues.


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Review: Best Gay Poetry 2008

Best Gay Poetry 2008
Edited by Lawrence Schimel

Published by A Midsummer Night’s Press

Reviewed by Jonathan Statham

Poetry is something of a hit and miss affair. It is near impossible to know with any immediacy what significances a poem will have, even for ourselves never mind our culture. A poem is a strike in the dark, a reaching out for something more solid than the slick, greasy sides of daily life. But it is that very life which seeks to make poetry a part of itself, that we might come to make sense of our experiences. In this, as readers, we are always seeking out the poems that prove themselves adequate to our experience, that can give it a shape and a form which far from limiting our lives, rather expands them by evolving new dimensions of feeling. For any who find themselves in a minority, in a life neither served nor represented by the hegemony, for all, that is, who find themselves queer (in its broadest sense), this search takes on a special importance – and, indeed, Schimel tells us in his introduction that it his need ‘first and foremost as a reader’ that led to the creation of this anthology.

The particular significance of this anthology is in its illumination of the diverse ways in which contemporary writers are seeking to conjugate a desire for ‘gay poetry’. Indeed, there is a full spectrum of poetries here, from a twenty page poetic dialogue in iambic pentameters (by Billy Merrill) to a compact composition in pentasyllabic lines (by David Bergman). Whether these are the ‘best’ poetries strikes me as beside the point: they indicate something of the trajectories of gay poetry, they allow us to see what gay poetry is doing and where it is or might be going, a journey which must include both successes and failures. If this anthology is to prove the first of a series, as Schimel intends, it seems to me that its significance ought to lie in precisely this capacity to illuminate, from ground level, the historical development of gay poetry. (It is in this light, at least, that I am reviewing it.)

Much of the poetry here suffers from the modern malaise of being, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti identifies, prose dressed up in verse. In particular, there is a tendency toward a use of colloquial verse in order to describe of gay lives: to ‘keep this morning like a photograph’ (as Chip Livingston puts it in his contribution, a superbly evocative example of an otherwise limited poetic mode). Descriptive poetry serves the function of making gay life recognisable, of making it familiar. Much of our cinema also follows this pattern: it shows us the lives we live, in their diversity and in their specificity. This is a comforting art certainly but it is also a palliative for the withering of experience itself under the dire aegis of capitalist regimentation. In practice, this representative modality drains gay experience of its queer dimension, its dissidence. By normalising gay life, it can be assimilated to the vernacular of the heterocentric mainstream, aspiring to nothing more than what already is.

There is, however, another kind of poem in this anthology: expressive, metaphorical, allusive, aspirational, resistant to rather than representative of the way things are. Description tells us what is there but passionate ‘poetic’ expressiveness is the means humanity has invented precisely to give form to what is not all there, what is half in shadow. The grandeur of poetry lies in not destroying the shadow, in maintaining the difference of experience while giving it form, in evolving our sense that we are always capable of something else, of something more. At the heart of such poetry lies the metaphorical image: the image which does not depict what we see but rather challenges us to transform ourselves ever more intensively, to recreate the world in ever new formations – in the words of Ezra Pound, to ‘make it new’.

These two trends in gay poetry, as revealed in this anthology, illustrate a moment of cultural divergence. On the one hand, there is our assimilation to the descriptive phase, to the monodimensional plane of capitalist heterocentric life, to what is plain to see. On the other, there is escape into uncertainity, ambiguity, elusiveness and risk but also, therefore, vision and ecstasy and the vertigo of the free. Harry Hay saw this and declared the need for new ‘working models, a whole new mathematics, perhaps a new poetry – allegories – metaphors – a music – a new way of dancing’. Thus in our current historical moment, witness to the foreclosure of gay liberation in favour of assimilation, the poetry of passionate expression becomes not only more improbable but more necessary than ever before. What gay liberation, in its revolutionary conception, realised, was that gay experience, for historical reasons, has the power to liberate all sexualities. In the process of sexual liberation, gay experience is the path to a transversal queerness which transforms all sexualities into their free states, into the communism of desires. This work is cultural as much as it is political – but it cannot be accomplished by a descriptive poetry.

Where then is this poetry capable of escaping heterocentric formations to carve instead new territories of poetic form adequate to the territories of gay experience opened up by gay liberation? There are numerous echoes of it in this volume: I would give you a list of names but it seems more important to me that each reader find their own way, freely making their own affinities. For as readers, it is we who play the last part in the creation of a vital gay culture that has its beginning in poetic vision – and Schimel’s series will be an invaluable tool in such a task. As an annual publication, each volume will in itself be a transient cultural object (poetry does not have vintage years) but perhaps the series might come to form a ground for the construction of larger, more historically ambitious anthologies as gay poetry continues to develop, perhaps flowering into a rejuvenated gay cultural and political movement. It would be the task of an expressive, non-descriptive poetry to invent and envision this culture-to-come. The very desire to anthologise poetry under the name ‘gay’ already, intentionally or otherwise, gives to poetry a task: that there be a ‘gay’ movement in poetry. This movement does not yet exist. This series will show if it rises or founders. If it is to be hoped that the poets come who can take up the opportunity for poetic community that this anthology implies, it is to be hoped too that the readers come who can find affinity with that community. That is your cue.

Jonathan Statham lives and writes in Manchester.


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Review: Lake Overturn by Vestal McIntyre

Vestal McIntyre
Lake Overturn

Published by HarperCollins

Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson

Many liberal Americans and citizens of the wider world might view the rural Pacific Northwest as a cultural wasteland, politically red states to fly over on your way to California. This is reflected in literature and films which often focus exclusively on the anxieties and tribulations of people who live in the coastal regions. Yet, Vestal McIntyre writes about a group of superficially-ordinary people from one such fictional town ‘Eula, Idaho’ in a way that is vivid, exciting and profoundly moving. The novel follows their lives over the course of a year in the mid-80s. The author shows impressive versatility writing about the perspectives of male and female Eula citizens from a variety of races, ages, religions and social classes. Central to the book are Lina, a Catholic housecleaner and single mother who tentatively begins an affair with a married man; her two sons Jesus, a teenager who mostly grew up in a wealthy white foster family, and Enrique; Connie, another single mother who is a devoted Christian that struggles to form a bond with her eccentric special son Gene; and Wanda, a young woman with an occasional drug habit who is determined to become a birth mother to a couple who can’t conceive a child. Each of the characters encounters a number of personal challenges which cause their perspectives of the world to shift over the course of the novel.

Enrique is the character who probably grows and changes the most throughout the story. A cerebral adolescent boy of Mexican heritage, he navigates his emerging homosexual feelings in a way that feels original and real. The author writes intelligently about this period of a boy’s life when developmental changes occur so rapidly that he turns from a persecuted “faggot” to a bitter solitary individual to a handsome socially-ambitious teenager who plays a sexual prank on a girl he would rather befriend. His erotic fantasies also quickly shift as he shares a perplexing intimate moment with his friend, is beaten up by a bully and encounters men in a bus station’s public bathroom. The descriptions of his slow sexual maturation speak honestly about the complex way our sexuality evolves and changes with the interplay of fantasy and reality. Enrique also maintains a dialogue with an unusual imaginary friend and is quick to eschew his closest friends as his values and desires adjust in line with his evolving understanding of himself.

But equally compelling are the bitter struggles Connie experiences in her literal interpretation of the bible. Rather than fall into using caricature or making judgements about this character, the author treats her beliefs with a great deal of respect and puts forth a number of compelling theological arguments concerning dilemmas in Christian beliefs. We are able to see through the eyes of Connie and the wider community who dismiss Wanda. Yet, we are also given a sharp look at her strong inner life as she optimistically hopes to abandon her drug use. We are shown how she wishes to assist in the propagation of a child as a way of completing a family that has a chance at happiness denied to her own. Her struggle is bitterly heart-felt. There are also a host of minor characters whose lives are sensitively explored in passages which may be briefer, but are equally compelling and meaningful. These characters are above all individuals who defy being moulded into stereotypes.

The novel is structured like a scientific experiment as Enrique is working on a science project focusing on a deathly natural phenomenon called Lake Overturn for an annual fair. This is a natural disaster that killed all the inhabitants of an African village by suddenly blanketing them in carbon dioxide and instantly suffocating them. Though the event occurred across the globe, it looms over the novel ominously pointing to the fragility of the lives of these characters. The Idaho environment, rural and ragged as it is, is described in beautifully refined prose that show how the identities of the individuals who inhabit it are entwined in its landscape. In chapter after chapter, McIntyre saturates you with an engrossing amount of detail and is able to end sections of the book on a note so startling and poignant that it feels as if the breath has been knocked out of you.

Eric Karl Anderson is author of the novel Enough and has published work in various publications such as The Ontario Review, Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly, Blithe House Quarterly and the anthologies From Boys to Men and Between Men 2.