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Posts Tagged ‘sexuality’

The Witch and the Poet: Part 2

November 22, 2012 | by

The story so far: the author and a friend visit a local witch for an assignment and, unexpectedly, the witch informs Pamela that her destiny is to be a poet.

Things went downhill pretty quickly after our visit to the witch. I wrote the story for our college paper and naively sent it to the witch for verification. Trying to imitate the brutal truthiness of the New Journalists I was reading, I’d described her as “somewhere between middle aged plump and any age fat.” I didn’t expect she’d be pleased, but I did believe that Truth was inescapable and we all had to accept it, in print or in the mirror. The witch didn’t see it that way. Eschewing magic, she threatened to call down a different but equally powerful set of spells on me—the legal kind. She said she’d sue my ass if I ever printed a word of it.

I regret calling her fat. What a churlish thing to do. (How often does that word come up? It’s a good one, and a rare one, especially in memoir—especially if you use it about yourself.) I thought I needed to tell the truth as I saw it. It never occurred to me I could edit out the bits that might be hurtful.

I often wonder about the witch: what did she edit? Did she see the train wreck that would almost kill me seven years later, but think better of bringing it up and ruining my night? Maybe the cards aren’t that specific. Surely, though, a massive Amtrak wreck with sixteen dead and hundreds injured, a crushed jaw, broken ribs, and slashed lung and spleen would contribute to one of the “down” times ahead?

Did she see that I was gay? Again, alternative sexuality certainly brings its share of ups and downs, as she put it. But if that’s what she intuited, the witch didn’t call a spade a spade. Would she, like me, not have had the vocabulary to identify something she might have glimpsed in my future or in my soul? Or would she just call me a “poet,” in the way people used to say Oscar Wilde and his set were “artistic?” How far outside our own experience can we—dare we—tread when mapping the lives of others? Or did she exercise the judgment I lacked and edit out information that might have been too deterministic? Or too negative? Who can say how the witch’s socio-political belief system broke on the issue of homosexuality.

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Michael Cunningham

October 14, 2010 | by

Photograph by Richard Phibbs.

By Nightfall, the sixth novel by Pulitzer Prize–winning Michael Cunningham, tells the story of Peter Harris, a gallery owner in Manhattan whose comfortable marriage is interrupted by the arrival of Mizzy (short for “the Mistake”), the younger brother of his wife, Rebecca. Peter—a straight man—finds Mizzy’s youth intoxicating and seductive. Soon, Peter is questioning his life, his marriage, even his sexuality, and wondering if it’s worth throwing it all away. Earlier this week, Cunningham answered my questions about his book over e-mail.

You write, “History favors the tragic lovers, the Gatsbys and the Anna K.s, it forgives them, even as it grinds them down. But Peter, a small figure on an undistinguished corner of Manhattan, will have to forgive himself, he’ll have to grind himself down because it seems no one is going to do it for him.” Why create someone like Peter and not … well, a Gatsby?

A Peter as opposed to a Gatsby. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from reading the modernists, particularly Woolf and Joyce, who insisted that fiction depict the 99.9 percent of the population who are not Gatsby or Nostromo or David Copperfield; who insisted that part of the novelist’s job is to ferret out the epic story of outwardly unextraordinary people, who are of course extraordinary to themselves. I just don’t feel much interested in the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

At one point, Peter says, “I don’t know. I mean, how could I love another guy and not be gay?” “Easy,” says Uta. Why is it easy?

Human sexuality is tremendously complicated, so much so that the designations “gay,” “straight,” and “bisexual” are all but meaningless. How many of us have had crushes, and even sexual experiences, with people who fall outside our official “erotic category”? Okay, not everyone, but many of us. I’m interested in sexuality that falls outside the official lines of demarcation. As is Uta.

The seed of By Nightfall was really Mann’s Death in Venice. Although I didn’t want to rewrite Death in Venice, I’ve always been fascinated by Aschenbach’s fascination with Tadzio, which is eroticized but not exactly sexual; it’s more about Aschenbach’s love of youth and beauty and ephemerality. If it was just a book about an old letch hungering for a young boy, what good would it be? I wanted to write about an essentially straight guy who finds himself powerfully drawn not only to a boy but to what the boy represents. If Peter had simply become obsessed with a girl, the story would have been too conventional. Read More »

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