Reading can be a lonely affair and so I attempt to turn text into a conversation. I need every book to be a discussion. For me, time spent with the written word is about agreeing and arguing. At this point in time, I have found myself returning to the syntactic arms of my best friend, Marcel Proust. We became good friends about six years ago, and after taking a bit of a break from him, I have found myself returning to him. We are back together again, which he loves but won’t admit. I refuse to believe this love is unrequited although, much like him, I do love to pine away. We like to drag the longing out to its greatest possible lengths.
In the fourth book, Sodom and Gomorrah, Proust is at his best. The friendship we had in Swann’s Way and further developed in Within a Budding Grove was a bit strained in Guermantes’ Way, but he is back. This volume is a triumph. Now, granted perhaps I know him well, having spent time with his poetry as well as his letters, I do honestly believe this is his best work so far. Swann’s Way was a shock to my system when I read it, but it lacks some of the depth that this volume has, and it avoids the rude bits that I want from a study in realism. If you haven’t read any Proust, here’s where you have the chance to fall in love with my favorite love. I’ll let us have an open relationship. I’m not the jealous type. This book explores the wide world of queerness in his particular circle of society. It is an amazing look at the hidden segments of the city. Proust talks about cross-dressing, gay men kissing, lesbians, and even gaydar.
Yet, like a bestie, occasionally we argue. I mean, Albertine is the love of your life, buddy, don’t be a prick. Men, I tell you. There are passages in this book where the male gaze is in overdrive and he goes out of his way to really tear down the attractiveness of Albertine in comparison to other women. He is perhaps calling her butch and maybe he is into that but he is hesitant to admit it. Nonetheless, if you can get past that, this is a great work of queer prose. Marcel is so acute in his observations that you are willing to read the same stories over and over again. He is part psychologist, part philosopher, part poet, part goth and totally willing to tell you all about it if you’re willing to listen. If you like to brood, muse, and drift away, Proust is the guy for you.
Moving away from the world of Marcel and back to here and now, I have read two chaps from Essay Press. The first is Cram by Danielle Pafunda. It is an epistolary memoir. This is an excerpt from a longer manuscript, Scab, and it is an odd but perfect companion to Proust. In Search of Lost Time might be marketed as a novel but I want to take it in as an autobiography. Cram on the other hand is true or truish. It is what I call speculative non-fiction and what she calls, “ . . . ahistorical. This is perverse presentism.” I am rarely swept away by memoir but this one just works for me. It lets me get carried away in its deep reflection and daydreaminess. And, Pafunda is just funny, or her life is. I can relate at times, and other times I fall into a much welcomed shock, like when I read “Love? You know where we’re headed. Any floor can be the killing floor . . . ” or “I’m so lonely, I can’t stop reading books about alien abduction.”
The other chap I read was On Poetics, Identity and Latinidad: Canto Mundo Poets Speak Out. This chap was curated by Rosebud Ben-Oni with an afterword by Celeste Guzmán Mendoza. Included in this collection of conversations are David Tomas Martinez, Ruben Quesada, Millicent Borges Accardi, Amy Sayre Baptista, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, and Darrell Alejandro Holnes. To start towards the end, there is a lyric conversation or Pecha Kucha which is intriguing in both its form and content. Preceding that is an interesting take on traveling to/within Portugal as a person of Portuguese descent. Furthermore, there is an exploration of connecting not only to the place and people but with a language that is a part of your heritage but is not your first language. And, to begin, we have a discussion about Latinx in the literary/academic field. I found myself nodding in agreement with most of this chapbook, especially the first part. Although, Nuyorican, I felt an affinity for the larger Latinx experience. That is to say, at times, I wonder if the word ‘Latinx’ encompasses too many folks and too many differences but at such times as reading these words, I know otherwise. We are similar in so much of our experience. The only minor argument I had with this text was (and it was minor, as I initially totally agreed with Martinez on this point), “ . . . better or for worse, Latina/os must be well-versed in the canon.” I understand Martinez’s point about building a poetic foundation and learning the fundamentals. The only thing I would add is that writers today should be looking towards a larger canon. I really urge writers to look outside of America. For me, I have a particular love of French, Spanish and the larger Mediterranean world along with Middle Eastern poetry. If you want to begin looking at the Middle Eastern canon, I suggest Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East (Words Without Borders) edited by Reza Aslan.
I am lucky enough to be writing this during Pride month and in addition to Proust, I am reading Ariel Goldberg’s The Estrangement Principle. This book is a look at queer art and what that means or could mean. Goldberg draws lots of connections between the New Narrative and queer writing and definitely includes lots of people of color but I am always sad seeing Jean Toomer’s name followed by the notions of him being “race traitor.” Of all the writers mentioned in this book, Toomer is the only one I have any real connection to, who has influenced my approach to queer writing. But that is neither here nor there as this book may well contain my upcoming reading list. This book might contain the seeds of queer canon, which is sorely needed. Certainly any canon can be expanded but let’s start somewhere. Let’s start here. Ariel understands the limits and demands of definitions and refuses to be a spokesperson, and what felt a bit policing in the beginning feels much less so by the end. This is a book of exploration of both the subject and the self. It took a little while for it to grow on me due to my own queer feelings, my non-whiteness, and my own notions of ‘queer’ but I really am walking away from this book with a real appreciation for what was written and for the writer.
The last book I am reading is David F. Walker’s Shaft: Imitation of Life. This collection of four issues is the follow-up to Shaft: A Complicated Man. I knew when the individual comics came out that I would wait until they were released as a trade paperback to read all four issues in one sitting. I am fan of David Walker, who wrote for Nighthawk and Cyborg so when I saw that he was going to write another batch of Shaft comics, I was more than excited. This collection gives us the Shaft we all know: he is a private eye with a bad attitude and serious sexual appeal. This book is mostly about looking for a young gay man who got caught up in a bad scene, but it gets very meta. The side story is about the making of a Shaft movie, which is what the title of the collection is referring to. Walker moves seamlessly between the two plots and playfully pokes fun at blaxploitation while also carefully speaking to race, racism, sex, sexuality and homophobia. And as somebody who started this column by writing about a novel based on real life and then moving into memoir, then conversation, then an almost documentary-style book about art, it seems suiting to end this with a quote from a piece of fiction that speaks to reality and its relationship to art: “Art is a lie we want to believe, because life’s truths are too hard to live with.”