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Speak, Memory

In his new memoir, author James Morrison explores the roots of gay identity

The work of Raleigh author and N.C. State University English professor James Morrison has been cited in both Best American Short Stories 2000 and Best American Essays 2000. It has been compared to that of Gore Vidal and Edmund White. Allan Gurganus has called Morrison's prose style "measured, funny and extremely elegant." His new book, Broken Fever: Reflections of Gay Boyhood, has this year cracked the Top 10 on Amazon.com's Gay and Lesbian Literature best seller list. But despite all of this, Broken Fever has been buried on the "gay studies" shelves at most bookstores. What does a literary gay writer have to do to get some respect?

Morrison's memoir of growing up gay in a suburban Detroit neighborhood is an anomolous book, functioning in ways you don't expect from gay nonfiction. Broken Fever is a hybrid work that combines essay, fiction and memoir to explore the way that one boy's identity was formed. It is consciously provisional and sparing in conclusions, while manifesting its own kind of rigor through an abiding concern with fluctuating possibilities.

It has been said that the creation of an artwork requires an inhumanity that the memoirist sidesteps through mere autobiography. Morrison himself has cited the "impersonality" of his memoir, which makes continual reference to experience while calling attention to itself as a vehicle for meaning. In the end, however, he achieves what critic Roger Shattuck has said of Proust--that in his work, Proust "outgrows involuntary memory in a way that allows him, against all odds and expectations, to find himself and his vocation."

One of Morrison's favorite writers, Vladimir Nabokov, has called us "the possessor and victim of our memories." A reading of Morrison's book, however, calls to mind lines by poet Robert Hass: "I've watched memory wound you. I felt nothing but envy."

James Morrison sat down with The Independent recently to discuss his work.

The Independent: In talking to other gay artists about their position in our culture today, I've come up against a lot of resistance to the term "gay artist." In a number of cases, there's been an immediate assumption of a defensive posture when confronted with the term, and an unwillingness to engage the question of gay identity. I find it puzzling, since it seems important for gay people to talk about how gay identity is formed, and who forms it.

James Morrison: I'm not surprised. That's the old Susan Sontag position, that's why she says she doesn't accept the labels. It's a kind of aestheticized disposition that implies an essential attitude toward identity: I am this, I am not an adjective-this, let's get to the core and stay there. Social constructions produce identity, not the other way around. These artists make this standard distinction between an essential self that is not produced by social circumstance and condition and an understanding of one's place in a social environment. It's a very false distinction. To think about the way in which everything about you is pretty much a function of your place in a social environment doesn't mean you can't have the same kinds of experience you'd have if you thought of yourself as this kind of essential being that can traverse place and time, which only an insane person thinks anyway. It's kind of a naive disposition. I wanted my book to reflect that disposition, but I also think it's an extremely naive understanding of one's sexual identity, and I wanted it to reflect that too. So there's stuff in my book about how the kid thinks that's he's having these transcendent experiences, but the reader is supposed to see that they're actually very delimited and very much a part of this place and time, and the transcendences are actually pitiful little experiences, even though they will have florid language attached to them.

The reaction of these gay artists might have something to do with fears about marketing, however. I'm unhappy that my book gets shelved in gay studies, not because I think there's something wrong with it being in gay studies, but it should be in the memoir or nonfiction or even gay literature section as well, because it's really literature first. The only reviews my book has received so far, except for Publishers Weekly, have been in the gay press.

That's odd, because it's a great opportunity for someone to write an interesting piece, because you're doing something unique in the book, in displacing issues of gay identity and gay desire onto other, more local things.

What I was trying to do is both telescope the distance between a child's thoughts and the adult's reports of the child's thoughts, and at the same time collapse that distance. So it became necessary to think about lots of different ways to do that, so that the book would seem to have a consistent style without being totally monotonous.

In the context of my writing as a whole, my writing a memoir is a very surprising thing. I don't think of my writing as being particularly personal, and I think this book has a quality of impersonality to it, because basically what I set for myself as a challenge was to construct a style. Because it seemed to me I was trying not to re-enter the sphere of childhood, but to construct the sphere of childhood in some way that encompassed childlike patterns of thought and kind of stylized ways of expressing it. So one of the basic stylistic things that the book does is to constantly juxtapose elevated kinds of language with more colloquial language. A lot of my writing is about gay identity, but that other writing approaches it from a kind of academic vantage point. It's funny: Because on the book it says I'm an academic, a lot of the reviews say things like, "If you're afraid to read another academic's confessions, get over it," or something like that.

So is "academic" a worse label than "gay"?

I think it is, at least in terms of selling books. There was this article recently in The New York Times about crossover books, and in terms of sales, these so-called crossover books don't sell as well as things that are squarely placed in the gay market niche, so that's kind of frustrating.

I guess people actually like labels, despite their protestations to the opposite.

Well yes, I guess people really like labels! You see, that's why labels should be "deified" and not "defied"! It just speaks to the overall crassness of the culture.

How is your book positioned in relation to other books in the "gay memoir" genre it might be lumped together with?

The precedents for this are things like Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story, but those are coming out stories, and this is not. It seems in a way that my book is a post-coming out story that is about pre-coming out stories. So I needed to come up with something that had a quality of artificiality to it, partly because of wanting to have a distanced sensibility to it. What distinguishes this book when thinking about this in terms of the work of a gay writer is that I'm 40, and I've basically thought of myself as consciously gay for half of that time, but I've been gay for most of it. Five years ago it would have struck me as monumentally improbable that I would have written a memoir. And I certainly wasn't going to write about my sexual awakening, or something like that. I was more interested in writing about pre-conscious ideas about sexuality and trying to find a style in which to do that, and also thinking about the way that certain kinds of subjects are played out in that.

Your family members feel like "characters" in the book.

That's interesting because I was worried that they were going to get really pissed off about it, and they didn't. First of all, I didn't put them in it much, and that was a conscious decision because I wanted to respect their privacy, and secondly, I was afraid that if I did, it would turn into a kind of bad childhood memoir or something--not that my family is this awful group of people or anything. But they're kind of sketched, and the characters are mostly composite characters. About four of the chapters are arranged around these relationships with other boys, and except for one, they're all composites. I had a new boy every year.

The characters in your book are sketches and composites, and yet in most memoirs the author pretends to be pulling scenes fully formed right out of memory.

A memoir is supposed to be about remembering things, but I actually didn't want mine to be, I wanted mine to be about the process of remembering things and reconstructing them, not about the actual things remembered. Each chapter will have a couple of suggestive little nodal points from childhood--like Pinocchio and Bambi--and that will become the crux of the chapter, so it didn't require total recall. I'm interested in how people remember and what they think it means to remember, but I'm not necessarily interested in what they're remembering, because memory has this reconstructive force of its own. It isn't really attached to its objects. If you're remembering something, you're not doing something to that thing, you're practicing this completely insular mental activity on it. So that's why the process is fascinating, but the content is of no particular consequence.

But when you're reconstructing a memory, you are doing something to it. People have the illusion that "Oh, it's just coming back to me now," but no--you are making it come back in a particular form.

Well, that's a symptom of what happens when you think of memory as this interactive thing, rather than an insular mental process. Say you remember an event. You are certainly reconstructing it, and its naive to think that it's kind of coming back and being relived, but I think that is a way that a lot of people experience memory, this sense that it's a kind of transparent thing where you get it back and it's there again.

But don't people pretty much treat childhood as a kind of landscape of meaning, and any time a memory comes back from childhood it's thought of in those terms?

Yeah, and in fact, in addition to trying to evoke some of the processes of memory and some of the silliness that surrounds that, I actually wanted there to be as much of a sense as possible of the kid being a kind of self-pitying little child diva, as if the adult is reconstructing the kid to have certain kinds of deficencies. I was thinking of it as, yes, OK, it's me writing, but what I'm really doing is constructing this voice that's reconstructing these events, and so I was very interested in the process of there being this kind of infinite regression, which has a lot to do with the experience of coming into a sexuality that you're not yet aware of and might never be aware of. It could have gone either way, I suppose. I could have been not gay and I could still have had a gay boyhood. It seems inconceivable to think of my boyhood as anything but gay, but I could have turned out straight, I suppose. I didn't want it to seem as if the book is setting up this kind of essential route where you have this kind of childhood and you are gay, and that's it.

Someone recently put it to me that either you're gay or you're not gay, which I thought was an interesting position.

How old was that person?

In her 20s.

That seems like a very contemporary attitude--I would say in the last five years--because in the early to mid '90s, when people were talking about "queer" as being the new model of non-normative identity, there was all sorts of fluidity. The standard way that "queerness" is thought of is that any avowed habitation of sexuality that refuses the norms is considered "queer." So you can be straight and still be "queer" if you want to be, if you just feel like you want to be. It's a form of identification with gay and lesbian and transgendered people if you're straight, but if you're bi, it's your way of not wanting to be distinguished from other non-normative sexualities. But now there's a kind of post-queer thing going on, where there seems to be a much more essential sense of things and either you're gay or you're not, either you're straight or you're not and if you're other things, you're just messing around. On NPR they did this program on gay kids, and all the kids said something to the effect of, "Well, my friends and I, we're just gay, and we would have been like this no matter whether we were born 30 years ago or 50 years ago, and we don't care what anyone thinks of us, we're just out, and that's the way it is." One of the things I'm doing in my book is that I wanted it to seem very historically grounded. I think if those kids really did grow up 30 years ago, they wouldn't be what they are now. Of course, to say that if I were magically transported to 30 years ago I would be just what I am right now is just not true.

Your book seems to employ a version of what Keats called "negative capability"--by which he meant the poet's power to live simultaneously in the real and imaginary worlds.

Well, I guess I would call it "the ability to experience something intensely while observing it from a distance at the same time." So it's very basic to writing. Obviously, if you never feel the need to look at something from a distance, you would never write.

But it seems rather rare these days. There are a great number of writers who want to pretend to not be looking at things from a distance.

Yeah, that sense of the transparent aesthetic is what I really hate in contemporary fiction. I think it's so prevalent, the sense that we're being whisked back into this specific thing. The kind of writing I'm drawn to always sets up some kind of dialectic. One thing I'm doing in the book is that I'm obviously reconstructing colloquial speech of the '70s--like one of the kids calls another kid a shot-wad, and that's a made-up thing, but it's supposed to sound like a kind of '70s locution. So sometimes there's a play between the speech of the characters that has one kind of stylized quality--the stylized kid talk, versus the "sophisticated seeming" voice of the narrator.

One possible criticism of the book is its wish to detach questions of gayness from questions of sexuality.

Yes, there are no sex scenes in the book. If it's being reviewed in Instinct magazine, where there are 10 naked hunks on every page, they're going to say, "While there are no overt scenes of sexuality in the book... . "

So it sounds like you believe in a "gay aesthetic."

Yeah, I very much do. I think it has something to do with a wish to inhabit intensity but not to leave distance behind, not to lose a sense of detachment, which I think has to do with gay people's feelings about reproduction. There's a way in which if you're not having reproductive sex, you can't have that quality of detachment because you're thinking about outcomes. Even people who have it lose it when they have kids. The experience of having kids is basically being so much in your life that you can't always see past that. There's something in my chapter on Laurel and Hardy in which the kid says that the people around him don't seem to love one another, and what's told to him is that the presence of these children means that these people who are all around him love each other, that's the evidence. They love each other and you know it because these kids exist, so it doesn't have to come out another way. And that was just very basic in the neighborhood I grew up in.

And having kids enables that.

Oh yeah, it's like, ah, get out of here, we don't have time for that inner life crap, we've got our lives to lead and our work to do. And then there's also the stuff in the book about Pinocchio being a fantasy of procreation without straight sexuality. So yeah, I think the whole dialectic of intensity and distanciation plays out in that way. That's probably the ultimate formuation of it, but it plays out in other ways. Like I was 10 years old and had this camp sensibility, very much so, but it wasn't because I thought, well, I'm never having kids, so I can afford to have a sort of wittily detached relation to experiences. I didn't think that.

One of the things the book chronicles is the experience of self-pity, but it comes out as a kind of spectacle.

I really set myself as an agenda that when this kid came out, it would be a triumph, it would not be some kind of tragic thing. I didn't want to have the actual coming out scene. One of the ways I did that was that one chapter will end with overtones of sadness and the next ends with triumph and that leads to the end of the book, which is a kind of putting away of childhood that looks forward to a kind of triumphant adulthood. It has all of the rhetoric of triumph but once again is placed in the book in such a way that it gets complicated.

Speaking of rhetoric, in the book you're fetishizing certain words, such as "tender" and "shame."

My sense of memory is that it's basically a cluster of words. That's what it is. So that's why there's meant to be an intense emphasis on language as the thing that mediates experience. It's when you don't have a sense of that that you think of experience as this bastion of intensity.

"Shame" is probably the most fetishized word in the book. In fact, your writing has been compared in some ways to that of David Sedaris, whose stories almost always revolve around feelings of shame.

Yeah, except that he wants to write about shame in a way that is so direct that it stops seeming to be about that. I think that's really an interesting thing that he does.

Except that he never uses the word.

Exactly, and that's part of it. I use the word a lot. I wrote the introduction to my book last, and had just a glimmer of that moment in the book when I'm tape-recording my family as a little boy, and listening to my voice, and thought that I was able to hear this quality of joy in it, but was also ashamed of the way it sounded. And that's where that sentence comes from in the book that "shame and joy are not opposites." I remember having that experience very directly, and I thought, that's what this book is about, how shame and joy are not opposites. For example, early experiences of sex for gay boys are both shameful and joyous, and that translates into other alleyways of experience.

Hegel said that "when turning to the past the first thing we see is ruins," but it didn't seem as though you were treating your childhood in that way.

Childhood, it seems to me, is a kind of intermingling of loss and happiness. So I think that quote does apply to the book, actually. EndBlock

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