Reader Meet Author: Personal Advice from Author Chavisa Woods
Author: William Johnson
January 21, 2015
Do you have problems with your love life? Do you hate your job? Is your social life lacking a certain zing? All of these questions and more can be answered through literature—or maybe at least by the people who create it. With that in mind, we here at the Lambda Literary Review have started our very own advice column called “Reader Meet Author.” Think of the column as a sort of a “Dear Abby” for the LGBTQ literary set. You can send “Reader Meet Author” questions for publication to ReaderMeetAuthor@lambdaliterary.org.
This month’s author is Chavisa Woods. Woods is the author of two books of fiction, The Albino Album (Seven Stories Press) and Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind (Fly by Night Press). Woods was the recipient of the 2013 Cobalt Prize for fiction and was a finalist (second nomination) for the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for fiction. Woods has appeared as a featured author at such notable venues as The Whitney Museum of American Art, City Lights Bookstore, Town Hall Seattle, The Brecht Forum, The Cervantes Institute, and St. Mark’s Poetry Project. Her writing has appeared in such publications as The Evergreen Review, New York Quarterly, The Brooklyn Rail, Cleaver Magazine, and Jadaliyya. Woods was the recipient of the 2009 Jerome Foundation Award for Emerging Authors, and is currently completing her third work of full-length fiction.
My husband and I are hoping to adopt a baby. We’ve filled out the paperwork and taken the classes. Our next step is to wait until we are matched with a child. Could you recommend some novels about gay men and parenting to read while we wait?
Bringing Up Baby.
Dear Bringing Up Baby,
First of all, congratulations on the incoming child, and kudos on the decision to adopt. How terrific.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure how to respond to your request, because a novel will not help you with it. Maybe you’re looking for a nonfiction reference book or a memoir. But the navel-gazing, artless experiential narratives that have unfortunately begun to define this generation’s idea of queer literature are not really, to put it lightly, my thing. I can’t think of any novels of literary merit that are about parenting, gay or otherwise. I’m going to make some recommendations though, as I do think it’s important that both of you raise this child with a more nuanced understanding of literary fiction and of text as an artistic medium. We need more intelligent audiences for future generations of writers. The fate of tomorrow’s literature, gentlemen, is now partly in your hands. The nature of your question leads me to believe that you may have a somewhat restricted palette, perhaps having only as of yet taken in genre and/or commercial fiction. I’m going to suggest some books that can serve simultaneously to expand your artistic horizons as readers and (as you seem to have fallen into the popular trend of needing to approach art as a mirror rather than a window) to satisfy the narcissistic urge to see yourself in the work.
I think you should read Alexis by Marguerite Yourcenar. First published and set in France in the late 1920s, this novella is written in the first person as a letter from a gay man to his female fiancé, explaining to her why he cannot marry her and have a “normal” life. This is one of my favorite books and contains some of the most gracefully written prose I’ve ever come across. Also, you may very much enjoy A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote, which is a beautifully rendered short story about his boyhood, when he was temporarily adopted by distant relatives and, in his lonesomeness, formed a strange and endearing bond with his weird old cousin, a woman in her sixties who was also a black sheep in the family. James Baldwin’s Another Country incisively illustrates the violence that subversive intimacies (heterosexual-interracial and homosexual relationships) are subjected to by society at large and the strength needed for love to endure and for family bonds to be formed in the face it. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, who was adopted as an infant, features a very unfortunate experience as a gay adoptee. Finally, I highly recommend A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews. This has nothing to do with being gay or adopted. It’s just a truly twisted, disturbing and terrific read. Anytime I’m asked for a recommendation, I have to cite this book, as I think it should become a household name.
I promise that although I’m recommending these works as serious pieces of literary art, they are every bit as entertaining as the genre fiction you were seeking, yet they are also well-crafted and creatively and intellectually uplifting, with a focus on the medium.
How long does it take to recover from a breakup? My best friend was dumped by her girlfriend over a year ago, and she is still depressed over it. They only dated for six months! I am empathetic up to a point, but this all seems a little excessive. I mean, her ex was great, pretty, smart and funny, and I understand it was a huge loss, but I worry that this sadness she is experiencing is related to a deeper underlying issue. She refuses to go out with any other dates when asked, and all she wants to do is talk about is her ex and how much she misses her, how her ex made a terrible mistake, how she wants her back, how hurt she is, etc., etc., etc. All she does with her life right now is talk about and process this one breakup. It’s getting tiresome. Do you have any ideas on how to help her get over it or at least take baby steps to “shaking it off”?
Friend in Need
Dear Friend in Need,
Edgar Allen Poe penned these lines in his 1849 poem “Annabel Lee”:
For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
In his novel Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov renders this poem as prose, rewriting the piece as the epitomic story of the narrator Humbert Humbert’s first love. He fell in love with a young girl named Annabel Leigh at the age of thirteen. The two had their first sexual relationship and a very intense romance, but within months, it was over when, as in the original poem, young Annabelle dies (of typhus).The narrator claims that shock from the premature loss of his first love shaped him for his entire life, setting his heart frozen in time, so that he was forever doomed to love girls of the same age Annabel was when she died. Nabokov (as Humbert) writes, “The poison was in the wound, and the wound was ever open.” This first love, he claims, was the precursor to his lifelong obsession with the titular nymphet.
I’m drawing a comparison here, not to imply that your friend may be on the verge of becoming a murderous pedophile, but because I think Nabokov beautifully illustrated a very universal truth about obsession, in that it’s not solely about the person one is obsessed with, but something that happened in the past, for which closure was never obtained. And yes, your friend is obsessed. While there’s no right amount of time for getting over a lost love, constantly processing the end of a six-month relationship for more than a year is neither normal nor healthy. There’s obviously some deeper wound, some past loss or failure attached to this. You need to be honest and let her know that you’re not comfortable being used as a therapist. (She needs a real therapist.) If she’s doing this with you, she’s also alienating many other people in her life. Be gentle, but let her know that her processing is excessive and tedious (but don’t say it like that), and that you miss her as a friend whom you used to be able to share with and discuss topics that were interesting to both of you, besides her ex. She may get mad at you, but if you don’t say something, who knows how this could end up? While unrequited love and unrelenting romantic obsession are mainstays of great literature, it doesn’t play out so glamorously in real life. I doubt she’ll actually toss herself into a cold sea glinted by haunting moonbeams, or end up wrecked in a muddy ditch, blood-spattered, gun in hand. But she may continue in this vein for years, subjecting her friends to one-sided brunch conversations and weepy happy hours, and delving into the rabbit hole of late night Facebook stalking. It’s not like hanging out with an epic, heart-wrenching tragedy of unrelenting passion and anguish, although it is painful. It’s more like hanging out with a bad open mic. It’s just sad and boring, and everyone is looking away, embarrassed, because she’s definitely running way over the time limit.
I just found out that my ex-boyfriend slept with my best friend; another mutual friend spilled the beans. I called my ex-boyfriend and confronted him about it, and he confirmed that it was true and that it was simply a drunken one night fling, and he apologized profusely. Well, I hung up on him and now refuse to take his calls; he has since left numerous messages apologizing. I am furious, I know we are not dating anymore, but it stills feels like a huge betrayal. I mean, of all the folks in the world he could have slept with, why my best friend? Now, my best friend is calling and leaving messages asking to talk. Ugh! I am just mad, mad, mad! I do love them both, but I am so enraged by all this. What should I do? Should I forgive and forget, or just cut them both off?
Feeling betrayed by both your best friend and an ex-lover is a big emotional hit. You ask me: should you forgive and forget, or cut them both off? Well, these are not the only two options. When decisions become dyadic, I find it’s best to allow yourself to be queer and blur the line to see what lies in the space between the two choices. There are many for whom this act in and of itself may not be that big of a deal. Personally, in the past, I slept with several friends’ exes, and even current lovers, and my friends slept with mine, but openly. It makes sense that two people you love might find themselves attracted to one another. If you tend to be drawn to people with similar values, senses of humor or aesthetic sensibilities, it’s not horribly surprising. How does it feel, even for a moment, to step back and consider that their attraction to one another is just that, and in no way lessens the love they have for you? That may offer some emotional relief, even briefly, if it’s the just the idea of someone you were involved with romantically having drunken sex with someone you’re close to that upsets you. But I’ll bet that’s not really the sticking point.
The truth is, we all need boundaries to establish trust (although some people’s boundaries are more traditional than others). From what you wrote, the fact they kept it a secret and the way they responded, I’m guessing that everyone involved knew that this would hurt you. They knew that this was a clear boundary that shouldn’t have been crossed, but they did cross it, anyway. They knew that crossing this boundary would hurt their relationships with you, and the fact that they chose to put your relationship in jeopardy shows that you’re less valuable to them than you thought you were. That is what hurts. Two people you were close to kept a secret from you. I definitely know the sting of bad triangulation—of thinking you’re an important part of a group, only to wake up to the startling reality that you’re being excluded, lied to and devalued. Also, other people in your circle of friends knew this had happened and knew you didn’t know. That is humiliating. It’s humiliating to find that people in your community are in on a secret kept from you by two people everyone is aware you trust and care for. And that doesn’t just hurt, that shapes you.
Being betrayed in this way by people you’re this close to will impact your ability to trust others in the future. This will impact your future romantic relationships and friendships. This will change the way you move through the world. The impact may be slight or large, but it will mark you. The way you decide to respond to them will also shape you, and I think it should shape them, as well. I can’t say if you should forgive them or cut them off, or perhaps keep one or both of them in your life, but at a distance for a while. You wrote, “Should I forgive and forget?” Forgiveness certainly does not imply forgetting. On the contrary, forgiveness needs to be earned if you’re going to keep them in your life. Some real reflection and atonement is necessary here, as well a longer-term rebuilding of trust. Everyone makes mistakes, especially when we’re drunk (although this is a pretty big one). Still, if they knew it was going to hurt you, they should have at least sucked it up and told you what happened themselves, instead of letting the rumors slowly trickle through your friends to you. Whatever you decide, I can say absolutely that you should answer their calls, at least one more time, and talk to them. Whatever you decide, you should let them know clearly (and calmly) why you made that decision. They need to hear you say that what they’ve done isn’t just some silly little incident, and they already knew that. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have hidden it from you.