Creative Nonfiction: Family, a Queer History

IMAGE BY: TAZ, April 17, 2006
ISSUE 2.1

by Kathleen Gullion

I wish I could say I was the first queer thing to happen to my family, but I’d be lying.

The first queer thing to happen to my family happened in the 1970s, when a gay man and a gay woman fell in love. They tied the knot with a tasteful ceremony in their own backyard. Adopted 2 kids. Probably had a white picket fence. Definitely had a poodle named Sarah.

They were my aunt and uncle.

By day, they were the perfect couple. Probably attended PTO meetings together. Definitely spent hundreds of dollars on professional family photos that hung in the living room.

At night, they’d tuck the kids in, smooch their greasy foreheads, and saunter off to bed, arm in arm. They’d open the door to the bedroom, in which you’d find a king sized bed smack dab in the middle. Egyptian cotton sheets carefully tucked in around the mattress, hospital corners. Goose feather pillows, fluffed. A hand made quilt, folded up at the foot of the bed.

So perfect, you’d almost think they never used it.

That’s because they didn’t.

If you lifted up the sheets, you could see the price tags, right there. But no one ever bothered to look.

My aunt and uncle cross the threshold into their bedroom, and disentangle their arms from around the other’s waist. They give the other a courteous kiss on the cheek, and part ways. My uncle heads left; my aunt heads right.

What you didn’t see when you first walked in were two doors. One to the left, and one to the right.

At the same time, the hands turn the knobs, and the doors open. Before stepping through, my uncle looks over his right shoulder, my aunt over her left. They smile. “Good night.”

They each cross the threshold into a bedroom, which connects to a house in another world, not unlike our own.

Let’s start with my uncle. It’s now morning; he’s waking up. He sits up with a hot cup of black coffee in his hand, watered down with a single ice cube, just the way he likes it. His husband stirs beside him. People confuse them for twins, and my grandmother will still call my uncle’s husband his “friend” even though they got married in Canada years ago.

Their home is covered in expensive art. My uncle makes a lot of money listening to other people’s problems. He hires two women: one to clean the house and another to dust off the art. They come every day at 9:30am sharp.

Of all the privileges my uncle can afford, these are the most special to him: the art and the woman who cleans the art.

He and his husband travel the world. They go to France, Brazil, islands in the Pacific. In Brazil my uncle will meet his second husband, but don’t tell husband #1 that.

I imagine he is a passionate lover, but I don’t imagine it too much, because he is my uncle after all. All I know is he has a deep, velvety voice, and is an excellent dancer, and that’s all I really need to know, because again, he is my uncle after all.

It’s always spring here, my uncle is always in bloom. Sometimes when he closes his eyes, he sees my aunt, but she doesn’t exist in this world. So he pauses for a moment but doesn’t dwell on her. After all, she doesn’t exist here, so what is there to think about?

Sometimes he goes dancing. It doesn’t matter what music is playing, he will dance. Sometimes he goes with his husband, and sometimes he goes with his friends. My uncle seems to know a lot of scientists, and sometimes he goes with them. They dance better than you think they would. His 2nd husband turns out to be a scientist. An environmental kind.

My uncle laughs loudly here. Sometimes my aunt can hear it in her world, and she smiles, because she knows, and she’s laughing too.

If we rewind the tape, we can see my uncle stepping through his door- remember? Let’s pause, and shift the camera to the right. We see my aunt. If you want to imagine, you can imagine me. I’ve been told we look alike.

We can see her stepping through her door. She closes the door behind her, and sighs. But the sigh is really a deep breath in, because it’s morning here, and she’s taking her first breath of the day. She has a cup of coffee in hand, watered down with one ice cube, just the way she likes it.

My aunt and uncle have this in common, and it’s actually why they fell in love.

In sleep, her socks have fallen down around her ankles. She pulls them up back to her knees. Her feet get cold when she sleeps. She needs the socks to keep them warm. She hates the way tight socks feel against her leg hair, pulling the hairs in all directions. But she hates having cold feet more.

Her lover stirs beside her in bed. They share a twin bed, because they’re college students at Smith.

The women of Smith are not allowed to have men in their dorm rooms after hours, 8pm to be exact. At 8pm every night, a woman in tweed knocks on my aunt’s door to make sure she is complying. My aunt always complies.

That morning, my aunt has taken all of her bras and put them in a cardboard box. She’s carefully wrapped them up in tissue paper, and written a note that says, “I won’t be needing these anymore.” She spent an hour perfecting the penmanship. She seals up the box, and addresses it to her mother. She thought about burning them instead, as some of her friends have suggested, but this was more her style.

In class, my aunt listens carefully to the professor and stares hard at her notes, perfecting her penmanship, not because she cares about Robert Frost, but because her lover sits across the room from her, and if my aunt looks up for even a split second, they’ll lock eyes and she will not be able to look away, and that wouldn’t be very good for her studies.

That afternoon, my aunt and her lover sit in a secluded place and share pickles, long dill spears. They lock eyes and now, there is no reason to look away. They have all afternoon, and their studies can wait until later.

I imagine she is a thoughtful lover, but I don’t imagine it much, because she is my aunt after all. All I know is she folds her dirty laundry before she washes it, and when you tell a joke, she laughs, even if the joke wasn’t funny, and that’s all I really need to know, because again, she is my aunt after all.

She calls my grandmother on the phone that evening. My grandmother tells my aunt about the green bean casserole she made for supper and then hangs up. This is the conversation they have every night. My mom is off somewhere, practicing the flute.

It’s always fall here, and my aunt is always surrounded by an autumnal, golden glow. She doesn’t think about my uncle, because she hasn’t met him yet. If she thinks about the future, she thinks about it for a moment, but doesn’t dwell on it. After all, the future is so far from now, so why think about it?

Her eyelids start to grow heavy, and she knows it’s almost time. She kisses her lover on the temple, and carefully steps out of bed. She pauses at the door, looks over her left shoulder, and whispers, “Good night.”

She steps through the door, and sees my uncle doing the same on the other side of the room. It’s morning. They both feel as if they’ve slept eight hours, and they haven’t even had a cup of watered down coffee yet. They smile at each other because they know, and they don’t need to talk about it.

They brew the coffee, they fry the eggs, they toast the bread. The kids come running down the stairs. They all tousle each other’s hair, and lick their lips in anticipation of breakfast.

I wish I could say I was the first queer thing to happen to my family, but I’d be lying.

My eyelids are growing heavy, and I know it’s almost time.

Good night.


Kathleen Gullion is a writer, director, performer, and theatre maker living in Chicago. Her work focuses on themes of  gender and sexuality, and she strives to create interdisciplinary work that transcends genre. She has directed and acted in numerous productions, and her original performance art has been featured around Chicago. She is currently working on adapting this essay into a short play that will be featured in Rhino Fest, a new works festival in Chicago.

Fiction: Looking at Pictures

Issue 1.2

by Janet Mason

(May, 1926)

Tina looked at the image in front of her and wished she still had her camera.

She was walking along the deepwater port looking into the hold of a ship that had backed up to the cement pier. She could see both levels. Initially she assumed that first class was on the top and that steerage was down below.  Then she noticed that the people below were almost all women and children.  They looked like immigrants from Europe wrapped in their drab shawls and holding their squalling infants.  None of them looked up.

On the top level, in what looked like first class, men in their bowler hats waited for the sailors to open the gang plank that in a few minutes would be secured on the dock.  To the left a man with a banded panama hat bent forward over the rope railing. He looked like he was lighting a pipe or cigar. He was going to smoke while he waited.  The top of his white straw hat against the brim formed a circle within a circle.

Between the two levels of steerage and first class, a plank ran diagonally through the scene.  Behind the plank, a wide metal chimney came up from the floor of the ship bottom in steerage behind a woman huddled with two children. The effect of the line of the chimney cutting behind the plank made a triangular space in the upper part of the ship where the men and their bowler hats stood.  To the right, the plank and the chimney framed the women and children in the bottom of the boat.  The horizontal line of the second floor and the stairs on the low right leading to the second floor of the ship further divided the image into another triangular space.

Tina recognized that the scene in front of her was as cubist as a Picasso or Braque. It was as mesmerizing as Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”  It was the perfect image.  The women in steerage, with shawls wrapped around their heads and shoulders, looked like they were from the old world.  Even the young ones stooped slightly.  They were probably Germans — maybe from Bavaria.  The men too – in their dark caps and bowler hats – looked German. They were European immigrants who had come to Mexico to flee persecution, to be with family (for there were so many Germans living here), to find work.  Tina grimaced.  If they were coming to find work, they were in for a surprise.

Maybe instead they would find the Mexican Communist Party – like she had, like Diego and Frida had, like everyone Tina was fleeing.  She wouldn’t miss them though – Frida and Diego.  She wanted to put them as far out of her mind as possible.  She would miss the Party.  It had become her life. She never thought about leaving her beloved Mexico, her sunny country filled with romance and tropical fruits.

But then she had met Peggy and she convinced Tina to return with her to Europe.  So Tina sold her camera and bought her passage on the RMS Alcantara.

Peggy was right.  Tina would find more opportunities for her photography in Europe.  But she would miss the land, the people, the Mexican Communist Party.  She would miss Frida. No!  Frida was the reason she was leaving.  The thought made her look away from the scene she had been hungering for.  It wouldn’t be right anyway.  The men in the caps and bowler hats looked indifferent.  They were just waiting to come to a new country.  They wouldn’t care if they were photographed.  But the women were different.  Most had shawls wrapped around their heads but not all.  One had her fuzzy head exposed.  They probably had been at sea for weeks — and Tina knew how women felt about fixing their hair. Plus, they had children with them.  The women would most likely not want to be photographed.

Tina ran down the walkway and reached the gangplank at the end of the dock to the liner, just as Peggy called to her from aboard the ship.

“I thought I had lost you,” she yelled to Tina.

“I’ll wait for you up here and then we can find our rooms.”

Tina threw back her shoulders as she stepped up her walk.


Janet Mason is an award-winning creative writer, teacher, and blogger for The Huffington Post. Her radio commentary airs worldwide on This Way Out, the LGBT news syndicated based in Los Angeles. Her book, Tea Leaves: a Memoir of Mothers and Daughters (Bella Books, 2012), was chosen by the American Library Association for its 2013 Over the Rainbow List and also received a Goldie Award. Janet’s short stories have appeared in many literary journals including the Brooklyn Review, Sinister Wisdom, and Aaduna. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Creative Theft

“Imitation is the sincerest of flattery.”

-Colton

 Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

-Eliot

“I get a lot of big ideas, and occasionally I even come up with one myself.”

-Bauvard

 

I’m not recommending plagiarism.  Before we go any farther, know that.  So how can we reconcile the above sentiments by really cool writers with our modern fear and loathing of plagiarism?  (By the way, if you think that the above quotes are the only ones relating to a glorification of creative theft, you’re wrong; there are thousands—I just picked some of the more famous ones.)  I think that we can reconcile the two concepts by saying that there are acceptable ways of copying the work of others.

Did I just say that?  Yes.

Imitation is one of the best ways to learn craft that I know of, and I heartily recommend it (forgetting for a moment that Eliot disapproves of it).  As another famous (if older) writer, Oliver Goldsmith, has said, “People seldom improve when they have no model but themselves to copy after.”  We want to succeed.  We succeed by learning.  We learn by imitation.

Now, when I say let’s copy the work of others, I’m not talking about their exact words, passing off theirs as our own.  I’m talking about a tried-and-true method of learning craft that many famous writers have done for years.  Literally copying stories you love.  Yes.  Type them up.  Absorb them into your skulls.  Separate the paragraphs and sentences and take notes on what the hell your favorite writers are doing and where they are doing it.  Basically, dissect the story.  (Does that mean kill it?  It depends.)

Words are nothing.  Words are cheap.  Words are to writers as paint is to painters—the work is not about the tool itself, it’s about the technique behind it.  So when we copy other writers that we admire, we’re not looking to copy their words—any lazy college freshman can do that—we’re looking to copy their structure and voice.

When we look at a story’s structure, we’re pulling back the curtain, so to speak, and finding what’s causing the metaphorical Wizard to appear.  (But doesn’t that mean we’re killing it?  It depends!  I’ll tell you later!)  When we look at structure, we’re also examining a story’s parts closely to see when certain elements need to appear, how they have to operate, and, maybe more tellingly, what elements don’t need to be in the story.  What better way to learn about crafting a well-told tale than to learn from your favorite writer?

Another benefit to copying a story and breaking it down is that we get an insight into voice.  Let’s be honest, a lot of the charm of stories lies in the narrative voice, and voice is one of the hardest things to get right.  (Here’s a quick for-instance: does your methhead trailer park dweller of a character know the word “salubrious”?  If not, why the hell are you using the word “salubrious” in your story?  And will someone please tell me what “salubrious” means?)

Now, voice is not something that can be simply copied.  If you’re writing a satirical piece, I can see the point, but if you’re trying to write a piece that’s truly your own, you’re going to have to change it.  I love Ernest Hemingway’s writing style.  I love the cut-the-crap mentality and the sparseness and the way he uses ands instead of commas and the way that that speeds up the sentences and makes you all breathless and makes you keep reading in spite of yourself… but I don’t want to write like him.  I use far too many commas, first of all, and I enjoy the added rhythm that a well-placed comma can give to a sentence.  I also feel that I can’t out-Hemingway Hemingway, so why try?

You have to make the voice your own by adding your own ideas to it—but you don’t truly know what goes into a voice until you have learned the voice deeply and thought about what you would change and keep about a certain style.  If we truly find our own writing voices, I believe we find them by synthesis.

Now, to get to whether or not we are killing a story by dissecting it and pulling the curtain away to expose the Wizard… I don’t think we are.

A young writer friend of mine (who’s entering an MFA program in the fall at a very good school) told me that he hates theory because it takes away from the “magic” of reading a work and being “carried away” by it.  To him, and you, I would respond—do you want to be a writer or do you want to be a reader?  Of course, to be writers we have to be readers, but what I’m talking about is a mentality.  Are we there to be entertained or are we there to entertain?

Let’s stick with the metaphor of magic, or, more properly, illusion.  Say you’re a Vegas magician and this other Vegas magician has an amazing trick that’s pulling in the crowds every night.  So you go to see him.  And let’s say that this other Vegas magician has a great presence on the stage—he really captivates the audience and keeps them enthralled, you included.  But does that mean that you, as a fellow magician—errm, illusionist—are not also watching to see how he pulls off his trick?  Are you not analyzing the crap out of his performance and seeing what could work for you and what couldn’t work?  Just because we love being entertained does not also mean that we aren’t trying to learn everything possible from what is entertaining us.  It’s part of being a professional, or a would-be professional.

Let me tell you something sad now.  If we are going to be writers, there are certain things we can never experience again.  We will never again be able to look at a book we loved as fourth graders and love it in the same way we did back then.  This is a blessing and a curse, because, though we might never be enraptured by books in that simple-minded way again (though it might not be impossible if the book is good enough), we gain the ability to actually see what’s going on behind the curtain.  We learn how to replicate it, synthesize it, make it our own.  We learn how to enthrall others, rather than simply be enthralled.

So yes, I advocate theft.  I advocate that you do it immediately.