‘Who’s Yer Daddy? Gay Writers Celebrate Their Mentors and Forerunners’ edited by Jim Elledge and David Groff
Author: Lewis DeSimone
December 16, 2012
Writing may be one of the loneliest professions, but as Velma said to Roxie, we simply cannot do it alone. That’s the premise of Jim Elledge and David Groff’s eclectic anthology, Who’s Yer Daddy? Gay Writers Celebrate Their Mentors and Forerunners (Terrace Books). The editors have collected essays from a diverse group of gay writers on the people who have inspired them, from literary heroes to those closer to home—including, in more than one case, an actual daddy.
The sweep of the volume demonstrates the breadth and depth of gay literary history, as one writer after another lays the groundwork for the next generation. From Mark Doty discussing the influence of Walt Whitman on his work, to James Allen Hall noting his own debt to Doty, we see a literary legacy forming and continuing through the decades. But the legacy is seldom strictly linear, as influences overlap in what has so quickly become the rich history of gay literature.
The editors have allowed for a wide variety of approaches to the subject, leaving it up to each writer to define “daddy” for himself. Charles Rice-González writes evocatively of falling in love with books and using them to find his way as both a writer and a gay man. Randall Mann shares his admiration for Thom Gunn’s remarkable ability to write boldly about sex and death within classic poetic form. Rigoberto González traces the influence upon his work of gay Chicano writers and the unapologetic sexuality of John Rechy. And we are reminded that literary daddies needn’t always be male, as Paul Lisicky and Aaron Hamburger demonstrate through their essays on Joy Williams and Janet Frame, respectively.
Among my favorite essays is Thomas Glave’s powerful tribute to the courage and brilliance of his quartet of influences: Nadine Gordimer, Audre Lord, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison. And, in a particularly moving piece, Raymond Luczak, writing of the power of books to combat a childhood defined by rejection, sums up the volume beautifully: “I am the son of many fathers who’ve inspired me with their words.”
Then there are the writers who choose to write about their literal (as opposed to literary) fathers: among them, Jeff Mann, who traces how his father taught him something about being a writer and something more about being a man; and Richard McCann, whose own writing becomes a kind of fulfillment of his father’s latent ambition.
Although the contributors are all gay writers, many of the essays emphasize the writer over the gay, opening a quiet argument over the role that sexual identity plays in art. While most find a strong link between their work and their sexuality, for others gayness is fairly coincidental. That suggests perhaps that “gay writer” is fading as an established identity, that the sexual orientation of the author and of his subject matter are now less important than the work itself. But not all would agree. In an energetic essay, poet Justin Chin throws down the gauntlet: “Know that you’d be called [a gay writer] for all the years of your writing career. … Perhaps what it means to say is: This is a writer, and this writer is gay. Or is this another one of those cases where the parts don’t add up to the whole? When it comes to people, in all their dizzying flaws and glory, when do the parts ever add up to the whole?”
Not every contributor writes with Chin’s passion. The collection bogs down occasionally with a few self-indulgent pieces that are more about name-dropping than a deep examination of influence, and the occasional drily academic essay (complete with references). It’s the personal essays that really resonate for the reader. If the patron saint of the book is Walt Whitman (cited more than any other single writer), it’s well to remember that his own work was unabashedly personal.
It is perhaps best to end as the editors chose to conclude their book—with K.M. Soehnlein’s astute and moving essay, which ranges from thoughts of his own father to his literary influences, and becomes a meditation on gay literary tradition and the writing life itself: “I could list the writers who became important to me,” Soehnlein says, “though the point is not any single author’s influence but the collective understanding that we had our own literature, that we were accountable to each other, not to authority.”
As this volume strongly demonstrates, today’s gay writers have a vital tradition to look back upon, and the potential to pave the way for others who will take our legacy in directions we can yet barely imagine.
Who’s Yer Daddy? Gay Writers Celebrateir Mentors and Forerunners
Edited by Jim Elledge and David Groff
Paperback, 9780299289409, 312 pp.