Category Archives: A San Francisco of the Mind
I had only been in San Francisco a few months in 1981 when a doctor friend, who was doing research at the CDC, mailed me a photocopy of the first epidemiological report on “gay cancer.” He paper-clipped a note to the reprint: “Be careful.”
At one level, I understood what he was trying to say. For several years, before he went off to Atlanta, he’d been my doctor. During the late 1970s, he’d treated me for any number of STDs, and what he was hearing at the CDC was that people with “it” had a history of STDs. So: “Be careful.” But what did “careful” look like, exactly, if my past meant I was already infected?
When Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart aired on HBO last month—his 1985 play transformed, at long last, into a movie—I couldn’t help but remember receiving my friend’s note, a moment that now feels as though it took place in some distant, tramontane past.
Just like that note, The Normal Heart also seems like a dispatch from antiquity. And that’s one of its biggest weaknesses.
Full disclosure: there has never been a time when I wasn’t ambivalent about Larry Kramer. I am glad he exists and can’t imagine the 1980s and 1990s without him. But while Kramer was an enviable communicator, he was often a lousy source of information.
During the years when I was writing AIDS journalism for Spin, the Bay Area Reporter, QW, and other magazines and newspapers, I interviewed Kramer at least twice, very briefly. Sometimes, in journalism that makes some feint at objectivity, you need someone to represent the extreme position in order to provide the kind of contrast of opinions that allows you to write your way back to the point you actually want to make. Kramer was good for that, and I always knew exactly what he was going to say. You’d push a few buttons and there he’d be. “Say something outrageous, Larry.” And he would. If you accused me of smarm because of the way I used Kramer as a source, I wouldn’t defend myself. But I certainly wasn’t the only writer who did, and Kramer didn’t seem to object to the role. It was never hard to get him on the phone.
The Normal Heart was a bad play when I first saw it nearly 30 years ago, and it’s kind of a bad movie. It’s Larry Kramer settling scores and saying outrageous things, and whatever drama is in it takes a second seat.
The Normal Heart wasn’t, by the way, even the first “AIDS play.” Playwrights like Robert Chesley, Doug Holsclaw, and Rebecca Ranson, and theatres like Theatre Rhinoceros were presenting work about AIDS, living with AIDS, and the impact of AIDS on lesbians’ and gay men’s lives as early as 1983. But none of that work got the mileage that The Normal Heart did, a major portion of which is about Ned Weeks’ crusade to get gay men to stop having sex, spurred on by a woman doctor who tells him it’s the only way. A year earlier, meanwhile, Robert Chesley had set Night Sweat in a sex club for the terminally ill and argued that sex didn’t have to equal death.
I distrust The Normal Heart for other reasons, too. As history, it’s suspect because Larry Kramer wrote it after the fact, shaping events to make him seem more prescient than he likely was. Now, thirty more years have passed, and there’s been more opportunity for tinkering. When the film premiered last month (this is from the New York Times of 21 May 2014), “director Ryan Murphy led the thousand-member audience in a standing ovation for Mr. Kramer. ‘Larry, before we begin this film, I only have one thing to say,’ Mr. Murphy said. ‘You were right.’”
Well, slow down a sec, Ryan. Larry Kramer was indispensable, but he got a lot of things wrong.
In its 2014 incarnation, The Normal Heart has the shape of one of those WWII films from the 1950s: everybody fought hard, there were tremendous sacrifices, many decent people were lost. Those who died of AIDS were heroes. People who “responded” to the disease by forming organizations and collecting money and marching and educating the public were an army of gallant knights-errant in search of wrongs to right. And, in the end, it was all worth it. We fought the good fight and we won. Didn’t we?
The final moments of the film, when Ned Weeks attends Yale’s “Gay Week” dance (alone; his lover has just died) and sits tearfully on the edge of the stage watching male couples shuffle around the floor, are clearly supposed to represent progress. Ned suffered terribly for his convictions, but at least a bunch of cute Yalies got to put their arms around each other and slow-dance with other hot boys right out in front of God and everyone (there were apparently no lesbians at Yale).
But that moment didn’t make me tear up; it made me squirm. That isn’t how it happened at all, and Kramer and Murphy have crammed history into a terribly distorted shape.
I cringed at The Normal Heart’s portrayals of saintly gay men (all white, all upper middle class) who became saintly because they had AIDS. I am unconvinced by the idea that getting AIDS somehow touched people with wisdom and righteousness; I object to portrayals of the divine victim and the holy caregiver. (A lot of jerks got AIDS, too, and a lot of people dumped their friends and lovers and went running; I didn’t even always blame them, given the prevailing reign of psychological terror.) And I object to the implicit suggestion that AIDS singled out the best, the brightest, the most talented, the most beautiful and that that added to its tragedy. It’s an almost irresistibly romantic—even cinematic—notion, but it is not true.
If you think I’m exaggerating the false spin that The Normal Heart is getting, read what Patrick Healy said about Kramer in the Times:
In the 1980s, he was the most strident, scolding voice in New York City (in the world, really) on behalf of gay men infected with H.I.V.: men whose parents shunned them, whose doctors feared them, whose dignity disappeared as their corpses were stuffed into trash bags. Now, 33 years after Mr. Kramer helped found the advocacy group Gay Men’s Health Crisis, AIDS has just fallen out of the top 10 causes of death in New York for the first time since 1983. Epidemics of loneliness and isolation have given way to same-sex marriage and the Michael Sam kiss.
In other words, it got better. The arc of the universe does, indeed, bend toward justice.
Except that it doesn’t. There’s still no cure; there’s still no vaccine. Though the rate of new diagnoses of HIV infection has remained steady for nearly a decade in the U.S., there are still some 50,000 new HIV infections each year. The vast majority of them are among men who have sex with men. (And ONE-THIRD of them are in the south, which, don’t even get me started.)
AIDS may have “fallen out of the top 10 causes of death in New York for the first time since 1983,” but that’s in part because people with HIV are now living long enough to die from something else. You can give Larry Kramer full credit for that if you want; I won’t.
Equally alarming to me is the fact that we’ve made no recovery at all from three decades of propaganda that turned sex into something terrifying and bad. Conversations exactly like the ones in The Normal Heart are still going on, even among young gay men; when you hear terms like “Truvada whores,” you understand the degree to which sex continues to be demonized.
Meanwhile, it took Nick Rhoades five years and a state supreme court decision to overturn a conviction for criminal transmission of HIV in 2009. Rhoades had had sex—with a condom—with a man who did not know Rhoades had HIV. He didn’t infect the man with HIV; he didn’t even do anything that might have infected the man with HIV. But he still got convicted. Gay men (or “men who have sex with men,” as the federal government has it) are still prohibited from donating blood by the FDA and the Red Cross—under regulations that haven’t changed since 1983.
Even if you’re HIV-negative. Even if you’ve only had protected sex. For thirty-one fucking years.
And that’s because what is suspect is sex between men itself. When it comes to queers, there’s no such thing as “safe sex.” We’re all infected. Sex is the disease.
For years after we began to hear about gay cancer, GRID, ARC, HIV disease, AIDS (and I’ve probably left out some names along the way), no one had any better advice than my former doctor’s: “Be careful.” “Know your partner.” Lawrence Mass famously opined in a May 11, 1982 New York Times article entitled “New Homosexual Disorder” (different from the old disorder, which was just being homosexual), “gay people whose life style consists of anonymous sexual encounters are going to have to do some serious rethinking.”
Even once safe(r) sex had been “invented,” educational campaigns still made gay sex itself the problem. So-called “promiscuous” sex was re-pathologized by experts—even from within our “community”—who cheerfully opined that a gay man who wanted a lot of sex with a lot of different people must be suffering from “internalized homophobia” and self-hatred.
Our “leaders” had no willingness (or backbone) to say that so-called “anonymous sex” or “promiscuity” were not really the issue. And why would they? Who wanted to come out in favor of saying two guys who didn’t know each other’s names should be left alone if they wanted to butt-fuck in the backroom?
In the face of this, organizations like the well-intentioned Stop AIDS Project did their best to provide a sort of counter-propaganda but, at least in its San Francisco incarnation and at least for me, Stop AIDS’ cadres of vanilla boys patrolling the Castro with clipboards and a chirpy message of “sex positive” salvation were about as welcome as a Jehovah’s Witness at the door. Maybe there were people who still needed to hear that “safe sex can be hot,” but my feeling was that most of us could have used something a lot more nuanced.
Virtually no one could or would talk meaningfully (at least not in public) about harm reduction or about how to assess personal risk. When I published “Safe Sex Sucks: The Oral Sex Controversy” in 1994, I was assured I was murdering people.
Meanwhile, you could smoke all the cigarettes you wanted and expose everyone around you to scientifically verified harm from second-hand smoke, and no one proposed arresting or even shaming you for it. But if you wanted to fool around with guys, no matter how safely you did it, there were still people who thought your sex life was a matter for the state.
There was little recognition that sex was important in people’s lives for perfectly legitimate and defensible reasons (maybe especially in gay men’s lives? I’m not sure) and that telling them to “just say no” was never going to work.
More than that, there was total abandonment of a principle that ought to have been fundamental to gay politics: the radical notion that consenting adults had the right to do what they wanted with their bodies.
Larry Kramer helped make this transformation not just possible, but inevitable. He started with his novel, Faggots, in 1978 and, when AIDS came along, he wrote The Normal Heart as if to say, “See, I told you all that sex was bad for you.” The Normal Heart makes “just say no” seem like a reasonable message, but it wasn’t.
It still isn’t and, more to the point, it still isn’t working.
Making people feel ashamed of their sex lives encourages them not to get tested, not to raise the issue with partners, not to practice safe sex. Sure, homophobia is one reason the “down low” exists in the first place, but what holds it in place is shame about sex.
I doubt Ryan Murphy will be making a movie about that.
Unlike the New Yorkers in The Normal Heart, I lived the early plague years on the other coast in San Francisco, which was different in important ways from New York, but not entirely dissimilar. We looked to New York, to ACT-UP, to GMHC, especially in the beginning. Until San Francisco’s journalists got their act together, we, too, read the often hysterical New York Native and the loathsome, toadying Gina Kolata in the New York Times.
Here’s one thing Larry Kramer got right in The Normal Heart. In those years, gay men and lesbians and an awful lot of straight friends and relatives created an unprecedented and inspiring political and social response to a horrifying situation. Not unprecedented in human history, but certainly unprecedented for queers. It was nothing short of heroic.
Doing so gave us a sense of purpose and a way not to sit there like victims in the face of indifference and pure evil on the part of the government, the media, pharmaceutical companies. It was the closest thing to a sense of community that most of us had ever experienced. Of that, nothing remains. Not one shred.
And there is no moral to this story. There is no graceful skyward arc toward progress, uplift, wisdom. There is no saving grace. There is no redemption. It’s just what happened.
I can’t even remotely imagine that The Normal Heart will energize or inspire “a new generation,” which is what Kramer says he hopes. It depicts a reality that no longer exists and, in the end, it teleports into the present the worst message of “the AIDS years”: be wary of sex.
Kramer himself is still on message: “There’s something to me cowardly about taking Truvada instead of using a condom,” he told Patrick Healy. Other people’s sex lives are still Larry Kramer’s business.
Nestor Makhno hits it right on the head. The SF Mission Yuppie Eradication Project posters (below) are truly eloquent, and they deserve to be saved … and to be feared.
Before you look at them, let’s say a brief word about the “violence” he advocates: One of the most useful aspects of the MYEP posters is the opportunity they provide to reflect on what we actually mean when we say “violent.” Fuck up someone’s SUV, and you might go to jail. But evict a family from their apartment; force people to live in the terror of not being able to make ends meet; cause them to sacrifice their health care or drive an unsafe car so they can have enough money to pay the rent; make them send their kids to inferior schools; fail to make needed repairs or to provide adequate heat so a tenant will eventually move (allowing you to raise the rent on an “empty” unit beyond the 4% annual “rent control” limit); push people out of the neighborhood and out of the city so you can make room for those with better incomes – that is not considered violence, and no one sends you to jail for it.
Posters from the SF Mission Yuppie Eradication Project
I don’t miss San Francisco.
Ok. I miss decent Chinese food. I miss the burritos at El Farolito at Mission and Russia, which truly was a beacon on many an evening. I miss the nachos and margaritas at Taqueria Orale Orale, one of the only things that made it possible to survive two years of temping in the Financial District; and at Mom is Cooking in the Excelsior, when I got a craving closer to home. (Sadly, Mom’s apparently closed a few months after I left San Francisco; I wonder if I was the one keeping the place in business….)
I miss dim sum. I miss the giant burgers at Joe’s Cable Car Restaurant and the slightly suggestive slogan on their logo: “Joe grinds his own fresh chuck daily.”
Even though the burgers cost more than anyone should reasonably have been asking for them (a hallmark of SF restaurants), they were worth it because you could get them with such yummy chocolate shakes. Occasionally I even miss the 28-oz “lattes” that you could buy from cafés and street carts before Starbucks (burn in hell Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegel, Gordon Bowker, and Howard Schultz!) bankrupted small businesses and transformed coffee into yuppie food.
Which brings us to today’s topic. Other than eating, there is something else I miss about San Francisco: there are still radicals there.
Granted, there aren’t many left; and, granted, whatever energy they have is often dissipated by the lack of grass-roots structures that could focus their efforts and, more importantly, by the day-to-day struggle to survive in a city that’s both as expensive and as merciless as New York but with fewer museums and with nary a decent corned beef on rye to be found.
From somewhere or other (I’m now signed up for so many lists and websites that people send me things I never even imagined existed) I recently received “A Critical Re-Examination of an Ultra-Left Effort Against the Gentrification of San Francisco in the Late 1990s,” written by “the artist formerly known as Nestor Makhno,” an activist in the ad hoc SF Mission Yuppie Eradication Project (see their posters below).
You may find it interesting reading. Granted, Makhno’s “Critical Re-Examination” is a rant, it’s in some ways unbalanced and, in others, it’s wacky as hell. But make no mistake. It is also spot-on and authentic, and attention must be paid.
As a stylistic matter, Makhno’s tract leaves me both irritated and nostalgic for those many hours (mis)spent in Crit/Self-Crit, in dissecting movements and protests and actions, in debating strategy and banging each other over the head with schisms and isms and the great, grand, regal hierarchies of visible, invisible, claimed, or earned oppression.
For me, the zenith-moment of those years occurred indisputably in October 1987 at the “Pre-Action Meeting” held at All Soul’s Church in Washington, DC, on the day prior to a massive civil disobedience at the Supreme Court. (The action was planned for the SC as part of the 1987 March on Washington — this was a year after the Hardwick decision, keep in mind, and only a few months after the Supreme Court ruled that the US Olympic Committee had the authority to bar the “Gay Olympics” from using the word “olympics” in the name of its athletic games; the Games’ founder, Tom Waddell, had died the July before the MOW.)
The meeting dragged on for hours and hours, extending into the wee hours of the morning, as we haggled and voted and shouted over every last detail of the “action.” The “consensus” model, I learned during the chew-the-hair-off-your-arms frustration of that long afternoon and evening, essentially meant: If you exhaust people sufficiently, they will eventually give you their consensus.
And yet. We woke up the next day, if we had slept, and created a Civil Disobedience that was a flawless, ingenious, and righteous thing. It had never been done before—not the way we did it—and nothing that came after or that is yet to come can duplicate that first time. I “filed this report” (as the saying goes) from Washington for the Bay Area Reporter, having locked myself in a hotel room with a borrowed Olivetti manual typewriter for an entire day in order to make my deadline, only to find out later that the news editor chose not to print my article.
My final four years in San Francisco — prior to the Great Intercontinental Leap –were spent in the Excelsior District, a neighborhood at the southernmost border of the city that no tourist ever visits. The Excelsior is one of the last working-class areas in San Francisco, a fragile and (alas) temporary holdout against gentrification and real-estate speculation. I lived in a “space” (not quite an apartment) that had been reclaimed from the site of an old Pacific Bell switching station and which was owned and managed by a true bastard: Victor Makras of Makras Realty. We’d need a modern Dante to determine the circle of hell to which Victor deserves to be consigned, but I’m personally partial to the one where they use the meat hooks and acetylene torches.
My studio, which cost $900 a month without utilities (roughly half my monthly earnings at the time), was the most affordable apartment I could find in San Francisco in the years after the dot.com boom – and the dot.com bomb that followed.
When I moved from San Francisco in 1997 to go to New Mexico, I left an apartment (a bit of a hole — though it had character) on Fifth Street that had been built in the 1920s to house the workers who labored in the once-numerous factories in the South of Market area. It cost $450. When I came back four years later, I phoned my ex-landlord to see if anything was available in the building. There was; the rent was now $1,100. SOMA, I learned, had become trendy.
And this is where Nestor Makhno hits it right on the head. The SF Mission Yuppie Eradication Project posters (below) are truly eloquent, and they deserve to be saved … and to be feared.
I can’t add much to what Makhno says other than a hearty “Bravo!” I shared (and share) his sense of appalling rage and consuming disappointment.
I feel, though, that I should comment briefly about the “violence” he advocates: One of the most useful aspects of the MYEP posters is the opportunity they provide to reflect on what we actually mean when we say “violent.” Fuck up someone’s SUV, and you might go to jail. But evict a family from their apartment; force people to live in the terror of not being able to make ends meet; cause them to sacrifice their health care or drive an unsafe car so they can be sure to have enough money to pay the rent; make them send their kids toinferior schools; fail to make needed repairs or to provide adequate heat so a tenant will eventually move (allowing you to raise the rent on an “empty” unit beyond the 4% annual “rent control” limit); push people out of the neighborhood and out of the city so you can make room for those with better incomes – that is not considered violence, and no one sends you to jail for it.
Actually, I wouldn’t really send you to jail, either. I’d take you to meet my friend, Dante.
Posters from the SF Mission Yuppie Eradication Project
The people who were with me when this story took place made me swear I would tell it without real names.
Except for my own.
This is a tale of what happens when poetry falls in with the wrong crowd.
The story is set in Berkeley, California, which explains a certain amount, but perhaps less than you might think.
Not all clichés are true, but in this story many of them are.
I cannot be responsible for everything
I was responsible for this: I accepted the invitation to attend a poetry reading on a Sunday evening, which is the traditional day for them: like football on Mondays and Catholic funerals on Fridays.
The reading was in an upstairs room at a celebrated independent bookstore in Berkeley. On Telegraph Avenue. I hope I am being sufficiently vague.
Everyone arrived late, especially the two poets. The audience sat in the kind of uncomfortable folding chairs that they use at AA meetings: brown plastic seats the exact shade of nothing matters anymore.
What shall I describe first. It’s hard to be linear. There were the cell phones that rang constantly during the reading and which their owners leapt up to answer. Because: how cool is it to be able to whisper into the receiver, “I’m at a poetry reading”? Or because: any excuse for escape began to seem attractive.
R. said he heard phones go off eight or nine times, but I didn’t count that many. Still, I think we would agree that one woman’s rang twice. Both times she scuttled out sideways, like a fiddler crab, a small cyclone in a huipil, gaudy scarves, and dangling peasant jewelry: white-people ethnic. LatinetteWear®.
It was that kind of audience.
They’d come to hear poets of color. The colors were black and brown. (I could be more specific, but we’re trying to protect the guilty here.)
In any case, a person had to dress. Otherwise: how would anyone know that you were multicultural?
The poets had their roles to play, too. Ethnic poet. Chicana poet. African American Poet. Caribeña poet. Activist poet. Woman poet. Poets of Diaspora and Dislocation. Voices of Their People Poets.
I emphasize that the people do not pick their poets.
One poet was merely uninteresting. The other poet was actively dangerous.
Because. She had stopped caring about poetry. She had turned into a persona instead: Eccentric. Angry. Aggrieved. Oppressed. Latina. Poet.
Poet at the end.
If you deploy your persona well enough, no one notices when your work is bad. Or, if they do, they will not tell you.
I am not allowed to say her name.
The poet had brought along her son, a fidgety, nondescript, and over-praised child, the kind that neurotic, guilty, yuppie parents are raising from coast to coast.
Ethnicity is no barrier.
The poet invited her son to accompany her as she read her poems.
On his didgeridoo.
Which he had made at school. From PVC pipe.
Imagine the kind of school where precocious ten-year-old boys make didgeridoos out of PVC pipe and then paint them in versions of the authentic aboriginal designs that the teacher has downloaded from the Internet and printed out on the full-color laser jets in the computer lab. Imagine what a marvel of a school.
I wonder if it is public.
I wonder if his teachers mentioned that “didgeridoo” is a word in no aboriginal language but was invented by the English or the Irish, depending upon whose history you believe. I wonder whether the poet knows the native words—ngarrriralkpwina, ilpirra, yirtakki, garnbak, yiraka, wuyimba, artawirr, djibolu, martba, kurmur, ngaribi, paampu, bambu—which even now I must write in the colonizer’s script.
The poet’s son came to the front, smirking and mugging for the crowd, loving the spotlight shamelessly—no less than the poet, but he was allowed to show it. He took up his didgeridoo and with it he dutifully produced the noise that didgeridoos produce when they are made at school of PVC pipe and played by children who are neither aborigines nor especially musical: a long, stuttering bass tone of unvarying pitch. A bleat. A fart. A sound connected to no tradition and no culture and which meant precisely nothing.
This was an important motif.
Anyone could imagine what went on between the two of them. How she wanted to nurture his artistic nature. How that reflected on her. How no one had every told him that he was not, in his every living gesture, brilliant and flawless. How art in the face of relentless criticism is stillborn, but art that faces no criticism whatsoever becomes the deafening roar of a monstrous, ravening ego.
How neither of these is good.
The poet did not read her poems. She declaimed them. She sang. She hollered. She shook a rattle shaped like Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, Cuauhtli, Wakinyan, Huitzilopochitli, Cuauhtlaxayauh, Quilaztli, Thunderbird, Weywot, Oshadagea, the eagle of the huelga. Or maybe just the good old American eagle, like the one on the dollar bill.
Another symbol without a point of reference.
The poet began a long and ragged poem that included references to multinational corporations terrorism foreign policies destabilized economies third-world exploitation machetes genocide military-industrial complex police states nazis imperialism the CIA.
You have heard this poem before.
It is a litany exactly as unspecific as the Catholic one and likewise never meant to be questioned.
The poet was speaking of the murder of innocent Mayans in Acteal, Mexico three days before Christmas in 1997. They were killed for protesting/resisting/being in the wrong place at the wrong time/existing. Their murders were or were not the work of the Party of Institutionalized Revolution/the Zapatistas/outside agitators/counterinsurgents/angry neighbors/members of a drug cartel.
Nothing was clear because, to this date, the incident is not clear. All that is certain are the ideologies, the propaganda value of violent death. The gruesome pornography of human cruelty. But the poem’s intention was not reportage. The poem’s intention was indictment. Accusation. The poet was outraged.
At you, in particular, because you are not outraged. Or you never were. Or not outraged enough.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
In this massacre, the murdered numbered forty-five. The poet read their names.
Like a random page from the Chiapas phone book.
What an angry voice she used!
How she enunciated each syllable, rolling her Rs and rasping her jotas!
Every Spanish morpheme rang out in perfect pocho purity!
The dead must cringe when they hear their names pronounced as though they are being called into the ring at El Mundo de Boxeo. They never have a moment’s rest.
¡Pobre Mejico! So far from God, so near to the poets!
“Compassion is an unstable emotion,” Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others. “It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.”
The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing “we” can do—but who is that “we”?—and nothing “they” can do either—and who are “they”?—then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic. [….] [But the] states described as apathy, moral or emotional anesthesia, are full of feelings; the feelings are rage and frustration…. The imaginary proximity to the suffering inflicted on others … suggests a link between the faraway sufferers … and the privileged viewer that is simply untrue, that is yet one more mystification of our real relations to power…. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. (101-102)
This is what it means to make use of an ethnicity to which you feel entitled and it is different from making use of an ethnicity to which you are not entitled.
Do not ask me what constitutes entitlement.
Apparently you know it if you have it.
All I can tell you is that the poet was Authentic.
No, there’s a better way to say it. The poet performed Authenticity.
She is not a poor Tzotzil facing the careless murderous guns of coked-up thugs enacting vengeance for some untraceable roadblock in someone’s political ambitions.
She is a tenured university professor with frequent-flyer miles and a child in a school where they can afford PVC pipe and an arts program.
How long do we have to wait for the people who are changing the system from the inside to show their work?
I don’t have conclusions to draw, only questions to raise.
About what it means to write with one foot pressed against the sostenuto pedal of other people’s oppression.
I want to ask how far away from America it is ever possible to travel.
When you throw the tossed salad into the melting pot, would you eat what comes out?
Here is what else made the poet Authentic: her Poetry Voice. Which has become the standard-issue-urban-ethnic-poet voice, the bastard creature of poetry slams Jerry Springer plagiarized black Baptist ministers and the wholesale creation for mass consumption of a hiphopiverse in which anyone can sound aggrieved and colored and hip.
The voice is breathless and singsong and unnatural, exaggerated and insistent. No one talks like this, not even black Baptist ministers. No one except poets.
You would know this voice if you heard it. I wish I could reproduce it in writing, but it is a strictly oral fixation. When I am alone, I amuse myself by using this voice to recite the Gettysburg Address and I make Lincoln sound down, o my brothas and sistahs, mis compañeros, my people.
Whoever you are.
It is the voice that accompanies the Difference and Diversity Dance.
and the dancers go round, they go round and around, to
the squeal and the blare and the tweedle of bagpipes.
Or of the didgeridoo.
It is the voice of the characters on the Saturday-morning multicultural cartoon.
This is the way they perform in the twenty-first-century minstrel show.
Because, if you borrow a little ethnicity here and a little ethnicity there, pretty soon you cobble together something that you can ram down the throats of people whom you have terrorized into never speaking about race.
You can claim to be living in the freefall of the borderlands. But that doesn’t mean you don’t patrol them.
You can shake the stick of racism because once you were beaten with it. Or your grandmother was. Or someone who looks like you. Or someone whose pain is available on CNN.
You can talk of revolution, knowing full well that there has never been a revolution in the history of the world in which innocent people did not die.
I mean to speak heresy, the kind that can strand you permanently on the wrong side of the word racist. It is this: In the small, small pond of contemporary American literature, it helps to wear your ethnicity on the outside.
In plain view.
Because editors and the givers of grants are fundamentally scared, powerful, and stupid.
Red and yellow black and white we are precious in their sight.
But what if some of us are not?
My heart is breaking, Gloria A., but I must tell you that mestizaje has come to mean this: that everything is up for grabs in the endless cafeteria line of American ethnic splendor.
I can no longer tell the difference between white boys with Hawaiian tattoos and Chicana poets with didgeridoos.
It is no one’s fault but mine that my vision is so cloudy.
I remember a conversation I overheard in a café in the late 1980s. Two heterosexual couples were talking. They had just been to see Sarafina, the Mbongeni Ngema/Hugh Masekela musical about student resistance to apartheid in South Africa. Another friend, absent from the café, had seen it as well. “Ingrid says it’s the best thing she’s ever seen,” declared the woman with the meaningful haircut. “She says it was better than Lay Miz” (because this is the way a certain kind of San Franciscan referred to Les Misérables in the late 1980s).
“Oh, that’s crazy!” said another man’s wife. “She’s just being PC. There’s no way it was better than Lay Miz!”
To pronounce “Lay Miz” put you in one group. To maintain that Sarafina was the better show put you in another.
I do not want to live between these choices.
What I am left with is this. Suppose we insist that the quality of our work is the only criterion that matters. Do we believe that artists of color will then always be left behind?
We behave as if we do.
I need to be reminded who it is who sees our work as inferior.
When we colonize our ethnic and subcultural niches, are we not begging editors and readers and audiences and holders-of-the-purse-strings-of-important grants to look at our work second?
When we are forced into unnatural postures, do we admit that we are in pain, or do we claim that we have decided to take up yoga?
I ask these questions of myself first. But only first.
The SF Public Library has their “Friends of the Library” sale every year in the Fall, and since I don’t have a car anymore I conned my friend, Jeannie, into taking me last October. They hold the Big Book Sale, as they call it, at Ft. Mason—the wharf-and-warehouse area that was “reclaimed” many years ago and transformed into theatre complexes and small, community museums and which, except for being sort of at the ass-end of nowhere, is a lovely place. One entire hangar is turned over the library sale, which is of a truly impressive dimension. They say they have 135,000 books. When you go in, they give you a nifty little printed map that tells you where things are. Loosely speaking. Actually, by the second day of the sale, the map is rather subjunctive, because people have pawed over the books and moved them and hid them for later and dug into the boxes that are holding up the tables and have otherwise created havoc like a mad pack of human gerbils.
Like a mad pack of unwashed human gerbils, I might say, since second-hand-book buyers strike one as an especially unwholesome lot. Of course, I was there, too, and you know what they say about people who live in glass casas. In any case, since the sale takes place in a draughty, frigid room that could hold the pearl of the Cunard line, that’s a dramatic amount of havoc. Basically, by the time Jeannie and I got there, you more-or-less had to drift about, hoping for random treasures.
Anyway, I didn’t find much, though I picked up some old issues of Granta, which make excellent commute reading. I’ve had a love/hate thing with Granta for years. I used to subscribe, but it’s not cheap, and I always found the quality of the writing to be genuinely patchy. The problem is that it’s sometimes so fucking British that you can hardly stand it. And when the Brits get up to being all literary and post-modern, why, it’ll take the skin off your palms if you’re not careful.
One of the issues I got for a buck was called “Unbelievable,” and its theme (because they all have a theme) was “unlikely ends, fateful escapes, and the fascism of flowers.” Okay, so it seems pretentious, but as I say: It’s just British. “Unbelievable” included an Aimee Bender piece and another called “The Scrimshaw Violin” by Jonathan Levi that I turned out to like quite a lot, and an article by a woman dealing with her Alzheimer’s-addled mother. So I pulled “Unbelievable” out of a bin and dusted it off. The story goes faster from here if you know that the date of this particular number was Winter 1997.
Months after the book sale, I had finally made my way through the whole issue, which was entirely believable, if that was really what they were trying to work out, and I was feeling generally underwhelmed and slightly cross, but I was also coming back to San Francisco on the ferry from working all day in Kentfield, and it was already dark outside though the hour wasn’t late, and I was tired and I hadn’t quite managed to stretch the reading out to match the length of the ferry ride, and that’s the sort of thing that leaves me feeling strangely and suddenly bereft. Just like when I was a child and would stand in the doorway of the kitchen, the world in shards at my feet, and sob to my poor mother, “But I don’t have anything to do!” So the fillip of thrill I experienced, when I realized I’d inadvertently skipped over the first article in the issue, “Those Who Felt Differently,” is perhaps understandable.
But now we have to jump back to early September 1997—my second semester in the Creative Writing program at the University of New Mexico, and my friend, Jim’s, first as a professor there. One evening early in the term, we go out after fiction workshop to eat. Well, to drink, actually, but we call it eating. There are six or so of us—me, Jim, Ada ____, and several other students from the program whose faces and names I can no longer conjure up. But the thing is, the evening is memorable because Jim and I nearly cause Ada to run from the restaurant weeping.
It happens, in those days, that all Ada (and most of the world) can talk about is the tragic death of Princess Diana in a car wreck in a tunnel in Paris on August 31. As we sit around the table and listen to Ada run on about this in funereal and operatic tones, Jim is having none of it. In fact, this is the first time I realize that I adore him because he’s saying it exactly right: Why must we turn ourselves over to this national orgy of mourning for a woman whom (a) we didn’t know and who (b) volunteered with eyes wide open to marry into one of the most murderous, venal, and despotic traditions in the history of western civilization? In other words, while one might feel sorry for the personal tragedy, how is it possible not to feel ambivalence about the system that underpins it all? How to avoid reflecting that such an outpouring of sympathy seems misplaced with respect to a family whose practice for three hundred years has been to feel sorry for nobody?
Ada is not trying to hear a word against the British, but colonialism is one of my best topics: Lord Jeffrey Amherst and the smallpox blankets in 1763. The missionaries in Hawaii. The British in India. ‘Nuff said. (At this point, recuerda, we’re all mercifully unaware of the kind of imperialism that four years is going to bring us.) But even if all that’s true, Ada doesn’t see the connection, and anyway it’s all far, far in the past.
Which brings up all sorts of interesting questions about how long people are allowed to feel aggrieved, and isn’t it awfully easy for those who have no stake in the matter to tell other people that they ought to just get over it. Like black folks ought to get over slavery, and Jews ought to get over the Holocaust. Because, like, how long does history last anyway?
I don’t specifically remember saying these things, but somehow I’m quite sure I did.
When I was in Italy last December I visited the Cappella dei Martiri, a church in Otranto where the apse is stacked high with the skulls of 800 Catholic martyrs murdered by the Turks in 1480. Since it was one of the incidents that led to the creation of the Inquisition, it’s safe to say that people took it fairly seriously—and they’re still pissed off about it, using the Sack of Otranto as the jumping-off place for harangues about the dangers that Islam and Muslims pose to the world even today. So that’s some evidence for the proposition that you’re allowed to take things personally for at least 500 years.
Though the Italian writer, Oriana Fallaci, doesn’t specifically mention Otranto in her brilliant and terrifyingly unbalanced, “La rabbia e l’orgoglio,” written after the September 11 attacks in New York (, an indigenous mistrust of Muslims unmistakably undergirds her impassioned, delirious cri de coeur. For her, the Holy War has become strangely secular, but is no less a war; the wellspring of her rage is history.
And here is where the threads come together at last. The thing about the issue of Granta is this: “Those Who Felt Differently” turns out to be a collection of brief interviews with Brits who were fed up with the national bacchanal of grief following Diana’s death. You haven’t heard much about them. And the “fascism of flowers” refers to the compulsory mourning that so many people (one now learns) chafed against in the UK, the flowers representing the obligation not just to mourn, but to be seen mourning.
After reading the article, I could only admire the image. Within the masses of vegetation on the steps of Kensington Palace, the temperature reached 180 degrees Fahrenheit. The public had created the world’s largest compost heap.
In this country, of course, we also know a little something about mandatory public displays of allegiance: the American flags that appeared everywhere after September 11th (someone pinned one to the outside of my cubicle at work and kept putting it back, every time I took it down, for nearly two weeks); the belligerent, ubiquitous “I Support Our Troops” bumper stickers. In the BART lot where I used to park, some guy had taped a hand-lettered cardboard sign to the back window of his pickup: “Osama! Yo mama!”
In other words, the desire to be seen making a statement isn’t sophisticated, but it’s fervent. One of the women interviewed in the Granta article points out that Hitler was so effective not because people were afraid of Hitler, but because they were afraid of their neighbors.
Looking back on it now, I feel sorry about Ada, who never really spoke to me again. I was a scary neighbor. But I also think it wasn’t bad for her to have her world shaken and stirred a little. And now, eight years later, neither Jim nor I know where Ada is or what she’s doing, but he and I are still friends, and when I need the company of someone who feels differently, I know where to find him.