Please welcome Caitlin Alise Donovan to the site today to talk about In the Way of All Flesh, a paranormal f/f YA releasing on September 1, and how a book that didn’t begin queer sure ended up that way! First up, here’s a little more on the book:
Gloomy teenager Manee Srikwan wears long sleeves and keeps her hands to herself for a good reason–whenever she touches a person for the first time, she sees a vision of how they will die. Manee’s weird powers cause those around her nothing but misery and she’s long resigned herself to a life of loneliness. But her vivacious classmate, Stephanie Pierce, changes all that. She smashes through every wall Manee puts up and overturns every expectation. Much to Manee’s shock, Stephanie believes her about her powers. What’s more, she insists they can stop the deaths Manee sees from happening. When the two of them are together, it feels like they can do anything.
As the girls grow closer, Manee’s feelings for Stephanie blossom into love. She yearns to be more intimate but is anxious about breaking her all-important “hands-off ” rule. When she finally gives in to temptation, she sees a terrifying future where Stephanie is murdered—and Manee is her killer! Now Manee has a choice to make—will she fight this fate or let it rule her?
And here’s the post by author Caitlin Alise Donovan!
When talking about my book, In the Way of All Flesh, it often gives me a start to recall this was not originally a love story. Queer desire is the beating heart of the narrative and I can’t imagine the book without it, yet that story does exist. Its unfinished and clumsily scribbled in a beat-up journal, but it’s out there somewhere. A part of me longs to lay eyes on this strange, hollow shell of a story, but it’s unlikely I ever will. I wrote that draft when I was in high school, more than a decade ago. That scrappy little journal is lost to the ages.
When I look at things I wrote when I was younger, it jumps out to me that I always told queer stories. My stories were always centered on relationships between women and the token boyfriend for the protagonist was perfunctory at best. So when I got the idea “what if someone could see people’s future deaths and saw they would kill someone they loved?” I just automatically defaulted to the main character being a girl and her loved one being her female “best friend”. I would never for a second have thought to make her loved one a guy.
It never occurred to me to examine why I was so interested in writing intense relationships between women. It never occurred to me to make these characters anything but “best friends”. I was very removed from my own queerness and queerness in general in high school. If you had asked me about “gay subtext” in my stories back then, I would have goggled at you in confusion.
I revisited the idea for In the Way of All Flesh in college years later. By then, I had started to question my orientation and gotten more involved with the queer community. Now I looked at this story of a girl and her best friend and saw something I hadn’t before.
The relationship between the two girls, now called Stephanie and Manee, is intense and fraught. The main conflict of the story is that Manee can’t touch her friend for fear of seeing a gruesome vision of her death. And looking at this, I realized: Stephanie and Manee are obviously in love, aren’t they?
It blew my mind how much this simple idea improved the story; how much everything make sense now. I mean, doesn’t being in love make not being able to touch Stephanie way harder for Manee? Isn’t that more of a conflict, doesn’t her yearning make more sense that way? It was a very “duh” moment, this obviously always needed to be an element in a story, it was the story. You don’t really agonize over not being to touch a “friend”! But I didn’t see this at all when I was fourteen. That’s what heteronormativity will do to you. I’m glad I grew out of it.
Beta readers pointed out to me that there’s also a lot of queer subtext in the fantastical premise. Manee’s issues with physicality and her terror at the thought of touching the girl she loves parallel a young queer woman’s struggle with her sexuality. And even though I didn’t do it consciously, there’s lots of queer anxiety wrapped into the dramatic hook of the story. After all, isn’t the idea that entering a queer relationship is a death sentence (or at the very least a ticket to unhappiness) deeply ingrained in our media and culture? There’s entire lists dedicated to keeping track of all the gratuitous lesbian deaths in media. And Manee finds out a nebulous fate has decreed she’ll literally deliver death to the girl she loves if she crosses that line into a physical relationship. Can she fight that? That’s the question that drives the whole narrative.
It’s wild how this was clearly a queer story from the very beginning, but it took years for that to emerge. And once it did, so many things about the story made sense, retroactively.
But, hey, I guess you could say the same thing about the story’s author.
Caitlin Alise Donovan is a writer, teacher, blogger, poet and, above all, a huge geek for fiction (especially fantasy). Her dream of being an author began in the third grade when she started scribbling down stories about twin detectives and murderous ghosts in stray notebooks. Her passion only grew with age. Now she has a MFA in writing from Queens University in Charlotte and she has been published in several literary journals, including The Great Smokies Review. She has written professionally about fantasy, sci-fi and pop culture for several online companies, such as Epicstream.
When not creating novels, Caitlin works as an online ESL teacher and does freelance writing through her Patreon. She currently resides in North Carolina with her trouble-making cat.
Keep faith, in the broad sense of the word. It doesn’t have to be a religion, unless you want it to be. It doesn’t have to speak about the universe, unless you want it to. It doesn’t have to be about anyone but yourself. Keep faith, in other planets and other houses; be it in the face of danger, grief, or while you spread your arms and laugh. Keep faith the same way you keep hope, bright and shiny, ever present. Keep faith in all your queer, beautiful self. Because you deserve it.
This is an anthology of 14 short stories, by 14 queer authors, where faith and queerness intersect. Incidental, purposeful, we-exist-and-that’s-why queerness. And faith meaning whatever you want it to mean.
In “And I Entreated,” nonbinary trans kid Gil is preparing for their bar mitzvah on a cramped space station, while their mom Shoshana has turned into a houseplant. “And I Entreated” is a fun story, but it also tackles some serious issues, like how trans people can have different feelings about misgendering, how traditional Jewish observance interacts with nonbinary gender, and whether to keep the term “bar mitzvah” – which is gendered in itself.
I have been writing a lot of stories that are about Jewishness and growing up, in one way or another; and also incorporating trans and/or intersex aspects. And I confess I always wanted to write a story from the perspective of a houseplant! So this time I put the two together. While I was working on “And I Entreated,” our kid was also preparing for his bar mitzvah. Our household is very different – we are two trans parents, for instance –, but some aspects of Jewish family life are similar regardless. Including the endless practicing of the Torah reading: like Gil’s mom, I also know our kid’s Torah portion backwards, forwards, upside down… His bar mitzvah went great, and I have no doubt that Gil’s will too. With this story, I’d like to offer a bit of warmth and belonging to everyone around the world, regardless of religious affiliation.
“Bigger Than Us” by Megan Manzano
“Bigger Than Us” is about two teenaged girls, Jude and Mari, who have to face a reality they had been ignoring since they were children—Jude could be a Mage. In the country of Aurora, Mages are reincarnations of Gods and are immediately whisked away by the government to become servants of the people. Jude always believed she was meant for this path, but falling in love with Mari threw a rather large wrench in her future. She has to reconcile being a Mage with her love for Mari and if ultimately, either is worth keeping.
While we may not be in a fantasy world like Jude and Mari, it was important to show not every decision is black and white. As a teenager, and especially getting older, we tend to question systems in place and the responsibilities they’ve placed on our shoulders. My hugest motivator for “Bigger Than Us” was teasing out these nuances and making the reader ask what happens when your faith in something is shaken, especially by someone you love.
“Droplets Of Starlight” by Vanshika Prusty
“Droplets of Starlight” is a short story about Payal, a girl who is head over heels, struggling with her heart and her society. We follow her, an almost eighteen-year-old girl who is bisexual, and who struggles with understanding how she fits into her Indian society because of her sexuality.
Set in New Delhi during the monsoon, “Droplets of Starlight” will take you on a quiet journey of struggle, acceptance and love all under thunderous clouds and starry night skies.
“Godzilla” by Kate Brauning
I love this story because I love Halloween– I never got to trick-or-treat as a child (though I go every year with my nieces and nephews now!), so it was fun for me to write that into reality. I pretty quickly knew I wanted to write Emily’s story because while in some countries progress toward safety and acceptance has been made for queer kids, even in those places, adolescents find themselves dealing with really complex and difficult situations, often from lacking the relationship modeling cis-gendered, straight people their age often have. Churches meaning to be accepting and welcoming too so often hold their LGBTQ members up like mascots or poster children of their own progressiveness, and the spotlight is a hard place to be as you learn who you are and how to love. An anthology like this full of hard and transformative and hopeful moments about this intersection between faith and queerness is priceless, and I’m so honored to have been able to celebrate that through Emily.
“Golden Hue” by Mayara Barros
My story is about finding hope in the unknown and what happens when you die. It’s set in a fantasy world, where people have powers, but technology has also developed to about our current era. Even with all that, there are still mysteries that neither science nor magic can solve.
I lost my grandmother last year and it still hurts some times. She never knew about by queerness, so I guess I wrote this story to tell myself she still loves me wherever she is.
“How Not To Die (Again)” by Gabriela Martins
Do you ever just have a crush on someone and deny it so hard that you totally die? Because Margô can’t take all the dying anymore. Every single time she denies her feelings for Josie, the universe flips her off by killing her in a yet more ridiculous way.
I wrote this short story because I think we all deserve some sapphic joy, especially romcom style. Especially ridiculous. Especially Brazilian. Especially trans. Anyway, there’s a lot we deserve! Faith in this story comes very much in the form of having faith in yourself. … because, don’t you doubt it. If you keep self-sabotaging (YOU. You know I’m talking about you!), the universe will find a way to teach you a lesson.
“Life Is A Story Of Change” by Elly Ha
Even when she didn’t know the terminology as a young teen, she knew she was ace and aro. Knowing she’ll always be ace, she never expected to doubt herself. Especially not when she gets to college and starts to fall in love with her best friend of almost a decade. What changed? Are her anti-depressants clearing her head so that she can focus on her own long-lost feelings? Is she simply maturing? Are her Korean parents right, and she’s finally found The One? The scarier question continues to gnaw at her: is she still ace if she feels attracted to him this way?
“Life is a Story of Change” is a semi-autobiographical story at the intersection of mental illness, sexuality, and personal faith. I wrote it from my personal experience with self-doubt in questioning my sexuality once I fell in love with who I can only describe as my ride-or-die partner. Despite that I am happily in love, I also endure occasional existential crises, always asking myself, “What am I, if not ace and aro?” For others who end up questioning their hearts, I hope that this story serves as a reminder that you are valid no matter where you land on the a-spectrum. You can be a little ace or entirely ace, or, like me, you can just be sure that you’re not not ace.
“Nothing Left Standing” by C. T. Callahan
“Nothing Left Standing” is the story of a queer teen, who—facing abuse and bigoted parents at home—decides to run away with his boyfriend for a chance to find his happily ever after. It’s a story about coming from trauma and pain and learning to put your faith in someone else. And essentially, it’s about that struggle of wanting to be optimistic and proactive, and the fear that that’s naive and you’re just going to get hurt again.
I have a very complicated relationship with religion and capital “F” Faith, so when I was asked to write a story about holding on to faith, I was instantly reminded of my life in high school. I went to a Catholic high school, and while my friends were all praying to God, I was constantly putting my faith in other things—music, people, fiction, etc. In the long run, it’s probably easier to have faith in religion because you aren’t looking at a flawed person who’s guaranteed to mess up, but I’d been so betrayed by it that my last resort was putting faith in people with the constant fear that it was only a matter of time before they let me down. And so I wrote this story to explore that fear, the feeling of sitting on a ledge and knowing it’s only a matter of time before you fall, but doing it anyway because that’s what faith is about, and when your life refuses to give you something to have faith in, sometimes you just have to make your own.
“On The Other Side” by Shenwei Chang
“On the Other Side” is a story that draws on my own experiences with Buddhism, which my mom’s side of the family practices. It’s not a very commonly portrayed religion, so I wanted to shine a little light on it. My story doesn’t dig super deep into the belief system, but it does touch on a some of the rituals (disclaimer: Buddhism is an extremely diverse religion/spiritual tradition, so I’m limited to portraying the ones I know).
I also wanted to depict the experience of having an ambivalent relationship with faith and religion that I haven’t seen very often when it comes to fiction. This story is dedicated those of us who are half-familiar and half-ignorant when it comes to our parents’ faiths, who have some exposure but not enough to feel entirely comfortable in a religious setting, who are receptive to immersing ourselves more in it but don’t know how or where to start. This story is also dedicated to all the queer people who wanted to come out to one or both of their parents but didn’t get the chance to because their parent(s) passed away before they could. It’s hard to cope with not knowing how your parent(s) would have reacted and not being able to share something so intimate and important with them. I want those people to know they’re not alone.
“Read The Room” by Sofia Soter
“Read the Room” features many of my favorite things: clueless teens, rituals, queerness and polyam crushes. It’s a short and sweet story, centered around Jo, a girl whose experiences with love and spirituality mirror my own in many ways; there’s specificity to her world and life that I sometimes shy away from writing, worrying about how (un)relatable it might be, but I hope it resonates with readers who are—like me, like Jo—looking for connection with others and themselves.
“Ten Steps To Becoming A Successful Blogger” by Julia Rios
I’ve been thinking about influencers a lot lately. It’s fascinating to me how and why certain people become cultural touchpoints, and what that means, both for them, and for their followers. In times of difficulty, we can look for messages all around us, and I wanted to think explicitly about the messages I give and the ones I listen to. It’s easy to dismiss Instagrammers and YouTubers as shallow and frivolous, but I think they can be doing good and important work, and I wanted to explore why and how that might happen for queer people who feel isolated in their daily lives. Also, I just really love the idea of a Bigfoot makeover. Glam Bigfoot!
“The Language Of Magic” by Adiba Jaigirdar
“The Language Of Magic” is the story of Asha, a Bangladeshi teen in Ireland, who wakes up in the early morning of the new year to a hint of magic in the air. The magic presents her with a vision of her grandmother back in Bangladesh. Motivated by her vision, Asha decides she has to find a way to travel back to Bangladesh, even though she knows it’s almost impossible. But maybe with the help of a stranger, the impossible can be possible.
I was motivated to write “The Language Of Magic” because when I was a kid and living in Saudi Arabia as an immigrant, my maternal grandfather (my nanabhai) suddenly passed away. My Mom was distraught and it was my first major experience with death. But we couldn’t go back to Bangladesh. We couldn’t attend the funeral. We couldn’t comfort my grandmother or the rest of our family. We were mourning but there was so much distance, and that distance created a strange boundary and a sort of emptiness to my sadness. After that experience, I moved to Ireland for good and over time I lost more members of my family. Every time I experienced the same lack of closure, the same kind of distance and emptiness. Unfortunately, this is simply a part of being an immigrant. I wanted to imagine a world where this wasn’t a part of being an immigrant. Where the universe, or magic, wanted to help us out and give us the closure that we need.
“The Messenger” by Mary Fan
“The Messenger” tells the story of a woman who transferred her consciousness into a probe in order to explore the multiverse. After years of dimension-hopping alone, she accidentally crash-lands near a pre-industrial civilization and is mistaken for a miracle — a prophesized messenger from the Infinite Spirit. At first, she goes along with it. But when she falls in love with a local girl, she realizes she can no longer keep up the charade.
I grew up atheist—not in a “God is dead” kind of way, but in that religion just wasn’t a thing in our household (probably a byproduct of my parents’ upbringing during the Chinese Cultural Revolution). Yet the studies of religion and faith always fascinated me. I spent years in church choirs both for the music and because I found the rituals fascinating (and was fortunate enough to have very accepting local churches that didn’t care whether their choristers were also worshipers). With “The Messenger,” I wanted to explore the question of just what faith is. And to depict a world where two women can fall in love, and it’s not a big deal.
“Whatever She Wants” by Kess Costales
“Whatever She Wants” is a queer fake-dating story about a Filipino teen named Theodora who is asexual and biromantic with a Catholic upbringing. She believes in God as a creator who loves and accepts all people, including those who are queer. The story shows her journey of discovering her sexuality along with her classmates. The story shows her journey toward self-acceptance as she discovers romantic love for her best friend, Magnolia, and for a boy named Alastor. After she and her best friend break up with their boyfriends, they agree to pretend to date each other to make their exes jealous. But the entire, Theodora hides that she’s in love with her. Spoiler: there’s a happy ending to it as they come out to each other and realize that they stopped pretending somewhere along the way.
When Gabhi approached me with this opportunity, I quickly realized the only thing I could write was something personal and similar to my own journey (except being in love with my best friend). I grew up Catholic like Theodora, attending Catholic schools and going to Mass on Sundays. And like Theodora, as I started understanding myself and my sexuality, I realized I couldn’t believe in a God who wouldn’t love all people, especially if He supposedly created us in His image. So I wrote about my doubts and emotions through Theodora and hoped to share a story that resonates with someone else. Plus, it’s always nice to have a chance to write something sweet and fluffy when life is dark and difficult.
If you read queer romance at all, there’s an excellent chance you’re already acquainted with Alexis Hall, whose Arden St. Ives series is coming to an end on September 3rd! And yes, we’ve got an exclusive excerpt from that very book, How to Belong with a Billionaire, so read on!
If you love someone, set them free…
I thought I’d be okay when Caspian Hart left. He was a brilliant, beautiful billionaire with a past he couldn’t escape. And I was . . . just me: an ordinary man lost in his own life. It would never have lasted. It should never have happened. Not outside a fairytale. And I am okay. I’ve got my job, my family, my friends, and everything Caspian taught me. Except it turns out he’s going to marry his ex-boyfriend. A man who doesn’t understand him. A man who almost broke him. And I’ve finally realized it’s not enough for me to be happy. I need Caspian to be happy too. Problem is, I’ve already done all I can to help him. I’ve followed his rules and broken his rules and learned his secrets. And he still won’t believe I can love him. So now it’s his turn. His turn to fight, and trust, and hope. It’s time for Caspian Hart to choose me.
I’d read somewhere that The Last Jedi was the longest Star Wars movie that had ever been released. Honestly, I wished it had been longer. A lot longer. But, eventually, Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren had faced off on the blood-colored soil of Crait and the credits had done their thing, and Caspian and I were alone again in the silence.
I still remembered what he’d said to me after The Force Awakens. “I wish my father could have seen that. But I’m so glad I got to watch it with you.” I think that was the moment I realised I’d fallen in love with him. How could I not have—with such a ridiculous, complicated, tender-hearted man?
“So,” I asked, hoping once again to share his Star Wars wonder, “how did you find it?”
He turned to me, frowning, his eyes dark. “I don’t think I cared for it very much.”
“What?” My mouth dropped open and hung there, gormlessly. I just hadn’t seen that coming. “Why? And if you say it had too many women in it or whatever I swear to God I’ll—”
“Of course I don’t care that there were women in it. What do you take me for?”
“I … I don’t know. It’s something people on the internet aren’t happy about.”
One of his eyebrows flicked impatiently upwards. “Star Wars is an adventure story about good and evil. I fail to see how the number of female characters is a pertinent metric against which to judge its success in that regard.”
“Then what didn’t you like about it? I mean, the pacing was a bit choppy but it seemed pretty adventure story-ey to me?”
“I didn’t like that they turned Luke Skywalker into a failure and a coward.”
I blinked at the passion in his voice. “I … don’t think he was any of those things, was he?”
“He spent three films trying to overthrow the Empire and rebuild the Jedi order. When we meet him here he is living alone in a cave having accomplished neither.”
“Caspian—” I gave him a somewhat bewildered look “—are you, like, cross with Luke Skywalker because he didn’t change the entire galaxy by himself?”
“If that was his original intent he should not have stopped until he achieved it.”
“You do realise,” I pointed out, “that you’re holding an imaginary space wizard to an impossible standard?”
He shrugged. “I just didn’t enjoy seeing a character we have been led to admire reduced to a broken ruin, his honour and heroism twisted into fear and selfishness.”
Oh. Oh. “I didn’t see it that way at all. I guess, for me, heroism isn’t about being perfect or untested. It’s about knowing what it is to fail and suffer and make mistakes, and still doing the right thing when it counts.”
“But—” Caspian’s foot was twitching “—he’d wasted so much time. And let down so many people.”
I pushed back the duvet and crawled out of it, kneeling next to him on the sofa instead, wanting him—for once—to hear me. “I think what Luke believed about himself, and what his friends believed about him, were very different things. He was living in a cave, as you put it, because he couldn’t forgive himself. Not because he’d done something unforgiveable.”
Caspian turned and, in my need to reach him, maybe I’d misjudged the distance because we were suddenly close. Very close. Close enough to feel his breath against my face when he spoke. “I know I’ve said this before but I wish I could see the world as you do.”
I lost myself in the paler fractals in his eyes. The faint tug and cling of his upper and lower lip between the words they shaped. The soft curls at his temples.
“You don’t have to,” I told him. “Just let me show you.”
One of his hands came up to cup my face, the edge of my jaw slipping into the soft cradle of his palm as if it belonged there. My eyes closed involuntarily—I wanted to look, dammit—surrendering me to the long-missed pleasure of his touch.
“Arden,” he murmured. “My Arden.”
Alexis Hall is a pile of threadbare hats and used teacups given a semblance of life by forbidden sorcery. He sometimes writes books.
Today on the site we’re welcoming back Alexander C. Eberhart, this time to reveal the cover for Ghosting You, his contemporary gay YA releasing from 7 Sisters Publishing on November 5, 2019! Check it out:
Tommy hears dead people. Okay, one dead person. His best friend, Chase. Since his death, Tommy can’t stop hearing his voice. They talk every day and Tommy even sends him texts, but it always ends the same. Message failed to send. Until one day, a stranger texts back.
Getting stuck in nowhere Georgia was not on Nick’s summer agenda, but a horoscope, a chance encounter, and a cute boy has things looking up. There’s just one problem, the boy hates him. When a broken phone leaves him with a new number, Nick is ready to write off the entire summer as a loss. But then he receives a strange text.
When Tommy and Nick’s worlds collide, the attraction is instant, but Tommy just can’t let Chase go. Can Nick use his status as Tommy’s anonymous stranger to break down his defenses or is Nick destined to live in a love triangle with a ghost?
Alexander C. Eberhart grew up in the Metro Atlanta Area his entire life, moving from suburb to suburb, just on the outskirts of the city. He’s always had a passion for writing, even from a young age. He still lives on the cusp of Atlanta, inching his way ever closer to finally becoming the City Dweller he’s always wanted to be.
In the meantime, he spends his days writing stories with queer characters and drinking an unfathomable amount of coffee. When he isn’t crafting quality queer fiction, you can find Alexander most likely curled up alongside his boyfriend, watching a movie or another equally lazy task.
Picking a spotlight book every month, when so much greatness keeps coming out, is a challenge, but every now and again I stumble upon a book I hadn’t even known was queer and am so completely walloped by it that I need to spread the gospel ASAP. There’s no pun intended, as this is in fact another one of YA’s rare “reliqueer” titles, i.e. books that explore the intersection of queerness and religion. In this case, Mormon Ellis is questioning whether she’s bisexual, and the way religion, questioning, sexuality, love, and mental health all come together in this sophomore novel, Let’s Call it a Doomsday by Katie Henry, just knocked me off my feet. If you’ve been seeking such a thing, I hope it does the same for you!
There are many ways the world could end. A fire. A catastrophic flood. A super eruption that spews lakes of lava. Ellis Kimball has made note of all possible scenarios, and she is prepared for each one.
What she doesn’t expect is meeting Hannah Marks in her therapist’s waiting room. Hannah calls their meeting fate. After all, Ellis is scared about the end of the world; Hannah knows when it’s going to happen.
Despite Ellis’s anxiety—about what others think of her, about what she’s doing wrong, about the safety of her loved ones—the two girls become friends. But time is ticking down, and as Ellis tries to help Hannah decipher the details of her doomsday premonition, their search for answers only raises more questions.
When does it happen? Who will believe them? And how do you prepare for the end of the world when it feels like your life is just getting started?
It’s tough to be a fan of queer lit or queer anything, really, and not admire the late, great Oscar Wilde. Today on the site I’m excited to introduce YA debut R. Zamora Linmark, who wrote an entire book based in that admiration, which releases today! Check out how Oscar Wilde influenced not just the main character of this novel, but the author himself, right after you check out The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart!
Words have always been more than enough for Ken Z, but when he meets Ran at the mall food court, everything changes. Beautiful, mysterious Ran opens the door to a number of firsts for Ken: first kiss, first love. But as quickly as he enters Ken’s life, Ran disappears, and Ken Z is left wondering: Why love at all, if this is where it leads?
Letting it end there would be tragic. So, with the help of his best friends, the comfort of his haikus and lists, and even strange, surreal appearances by his hero, Oscar Wilde, Ken will find that love is worth more than the price of heartbreak.
And here’s the guest post! (tw: suicide, bullying, abuse)
After reading The Picture of Dorian Gray in Mrs. Pang’s British Literature class, my admiration for the inimitable Oscar was cemented, earning him (and Dorian Gray) a in my growing altar of heroes, alongside The Smiths, David Bowie, Judy Blume, Donna Summer, and Holden Caulfield. I remember going to school, toting Oscar’s scandalous novel as if it were a sacred text. Dorian Gray was my new god dressed in a bowler’s hat and tweed suits. He was hip, devilish—a hedonist who made the seven deadly sins sexy. He flirted with danger, was a disciple of both male and female beauty, and sought pleasures to its murderous ends. I was a high school senior in Hawaii at the time. The year was 1986. My two friends and I sported punk/New Wave haircuts. We were a trio of anarchists-in-progress, “non-conformists”, as one of our teachers dubbed us because we spoke our minds and dared to be ourselves. One friend wore safety pins for earrings. Another had an Annabella-Lwin Bow-Wow-Wow-inspired mohawk, while I had bangs long enough to shield me from the hostile eyes of the world. We went to school dressed up like mods from 1950s or psychedelic hippies from the 60s, our wardrobe courtesy of Mother Rice, Goodwill, and Salvation Army thrift stores. We put on clothes that, to borrow Oscar Wilde’s term, were tailored for “bunburyists”—adventurous rebels who dressed up with impeccable style as themselves – or their alter egos. We listened to The Cure, Sex Pistols, The Cramps, Violent Femmes, The Smiths, Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, and Dead Can Dance, punk and New Wave bands who sang of doom and anarchy, love and disaster, death and loneliness. This was the decade when everyone either identified as “bi” or was soon-to-be, for it was the safest and closest to coming out. A guy could make out with as many guys as he wanted to, so long as he was open to the possibility of one day making out with the opposite sex.
Across the Boulevard of Rebel Hearts were morality-driven censors and conservatives like Mrs. Pang, who had purposefully left out Oscar’s magnetic and, at times, scandalous personality that made him larger than Art. Thank god I had friends and club-dancing partners like Shirley who worked as a bookseller at Jelly’s Comics & Records—the hippest and coolest store in Hawaii. She was the one who filled me in on the intrigue-ridden life of the dandy playwright known for his witty sayings as much as for his comedies; quoting him became a trend among the artsy-fartsy wannabe’s, like wearing trench coat in a ninety-degree weather. From Shirley, I also learned that Oscar was married with two sons. That he had carried on a volatile relationship with a younger man, the handsome Lord Alfred Douglas, a.k.a. “Bosie.” That he was persecuted and imprisoned for engaging in sexual acts with other men. His personal history was enough to pique my curiosity, for prior to Oscar, I didn’t know any writers who were gay, famous or not. It was very comforting, mind-blowing, that there existed a writer who was highly visible and very vocal about his love for the same sex. I wasn’t so alone anymore. I had someone to read—a role model to look up to, if not emulate. It gave me a feeling of security and self-affirmation akin to a few years later, when I first got my hands on Dangerous Music, a collection of prose and poetry by Jessica Hagedorn who, like myself, was from the Philippines and migrated to the United States in her teens. It was very empowering and inspiring: to know that there were writers from my immediate community who were only a library or a bookstore away. Reading them was like reuniting with long-lost friends, comrades, extended family members.
After The Picture of Dorian Gray, I read Oscar’s masterpiece “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Then his fairy tales. Then The Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde. As a graduation gift, Shirley gave me an Oscar Wilde journal with a cover of Oscar wearing his trademark accessory: a green carnation in his buttonhole coat; below his headshot was one of his gazillion immortal quotes: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.” I even wore an Oscar T-shirt, a gift from a friend who’d purchased it during a family vacation to Chicago. I wore that shirt as if I was wearing a work of Art. I wore it until Oscar’s face faded and the collar, stretched. It was my sartorial way of coming out.
In 1988, when I was a junior at the University of Hawaii, majoring in Lit and Creative Writing, Richard Ellman’s much-awaited biography of Oscar was published. I lugged that doorstopper around campus as if I had all the time in the world to read a 700-page book, in addition to Milton’s Paradise Lost and James Joyce’s Ulysses. I never got a chance to read it in its entirety; I think I went as far as the first hundred pages because I was too busy preparing an itinerary for my next uncertain life.
Fast Forward to 2010.
I picked up Ellman’s biography again. This time, I was determined to read it from cover to cover. I placed myself under self-imposed house arrest. Reading it renewed my relationship with Oscar, and revived heartbreaking memories of my teenage years.
From Ellman’s extensively-researched biography, I uncovered more surprises about my Renaissance man and early literary hero. Oscar was not only a poet, playwright, and an essayist, but was also a leading member of an aesthetic movement that espoused an artificial, yet beautiful lifestyle. To Oscar and his cohort of elegantly-dressed dandies, life was already shallow and meaningless, so might as well be stylish and beautiful. A man of flamboyant taste in fashion, Oscar wore what he preached: “Be a work of art, or wear a work of art.” He was both. He was also a speed-reader who spewed wit at a lightning speed, wrote fairy tales, was chief editor of a women’s magazine, fought for prison reform, and traveled around the United States, delivering lectures, including to coal miners in Colorado where he gave a discourse on Italian Renaissance sculptor Cellini.
During his infamous trials, his wife and children fled the country to avoid public shaming and, shortly after Oscar’s conviction, had changed their name to “Holland.” Oscar was not afraid to defend himself and others who shared his love that “dared not speak its name.” And for this, he was vilified, ostracized, and persecuted by the very same people who lined up to see his plays and celebrated his brilliance. In the end, he was sentenced to prison to two years with hard labor, then, upon release, left for Paris where homosexuality was more tolerated. What I didn’t know until then was that Oscar was also a victim of bullying and multiple forms of abuse—from a classmate in Oxford, to Bosie’s father, to Bosie himself. Bosie’s father was so incensed by Oscar’s and Bosie’s relationship that he threatened to disown his son and publicly humiliated Oscar by calling him a “sodomite.” Oscar, at the insistence of Bosie, struck back, with a libel suit that quickly backfired. Forced to dismiss his suit, Oscar now had to defend himself not only from Bosie’s father but from a bloodthirsty public who wanted him convicted for “gross indecency.” Bosie, who had a temper as explosive as his father, abused Oscar. He constantly picked fights with Oscar, taunting him, tormenting him, when he was not spending Oscar’s money from royalties from his plays. I found it odd, however, that Oscar didn’t fight back, or ended the volatile relationship. He tried but he was too forgiving. Why? Why did a genius like Oscar who had everything—fame, fortune, a supportive family—allow someone to control, manipulate, and take him away from what he loved the most—his two sons and his writing? And even after he was released from prison, why did he, now an outcast in Paris, take Bosie back, as if two years in prison weren’t hell enough? Was it madness? Obsession? Despair? Questions like these gnawed at me. It forced me to re-evaluate my relationship with my role model. It made me rethink of my definition of a hero. Did it now mean separating the genius from the deeply-flawed man who tormented himself over love?
Around the same time that I was engrossed with Oscar’s larger-than-Art life, teens across America were committing suicides. Four of them took place in September, just days apart from each other. Racially different, these teens had one commonality: they were victims of bullying because they were gay, openly or closeted. Damn if you do, damn if you don’t. Two had hung themselves, one on the rafters of the family barn, the other from a tree branch. The third shot himself in the head, while the fourth jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge. Of the four, three died instantly, but one hung on for ten days, on life support. Their ages ranged from thirteen to Freshmen in college. Unable to keep fighting, these lone warriors decided to end a struggle that once held meaning. Their tragic deaths made headline news, went viral on the Internet, played in a loop on CNN, grazed the cover of People magazine. CBS produced a special segment on bullying-related deaths; they were among the main features, which included an eleven-year-old who killed himself because he was bullied for being short. I was enraged, yet in awe of their guts. My heart broke. I felt hopeless, was helpless. I wanted to punch the world in the face. It brought me back to that time in the 80s when the AIDS virus was killing thousands of people, and boys my age who knew they were gay were so terrified to come out, to love ourselves and others, because of the stigma it bore, and the fear and anxiety that we were next in the toe tag line.
A year later—more teen suicides. One of them was Jamey Rodemeyer who, on September 18, 2011, had hung himself. An openly gay activist who fought homophobia via YouTube videos he helped thousands who, like him, were victims of bullying. He was a fan of Lady Gaga who paid tribute to him at her concerts. She called him her “little monster.” In his videos, he reassured his viewers that things would get better, so hang on—advice that he believed in and lived by, until the bullying got too unbearable. He was fourteen
years old. So what happens when you, as a role model for others, feel defeated? Where and who do you go to refuel and help you extend your faith in, and love for, yourself and others? What happens when love and hope are overpowered by hatred and cruelty?
Reading about a literary genius who was persecuted over a century ago, and the suicides of American kids simultaneously was no accident. It was a loud blast call to action. I had no choice but to let rage fuel the words. I knew right there and then that the only way to deal with the violence and hatred and unbearable sadness that were metastasizing across the country like stage-4 cancer was to write about it. A book for young adults. It would be my way of remembering and honoring them for their courage to look hatred in the eye because they dared to be themselves. It would also be my small offering of hope that, though the book might not save lives, it could, perhaps, delay the tragedy, lessen the pain. I had never written a book for young adults, or with a targeted audience in mind, for that matter. It was new, terrifying, even constricting (or what I thought of then as constricting). It would be like writing my very first book. And to an extent, it was. Like my first novel Rolling The R’s, it was an invitation to create and dare myself. And to double the dare: I chose a subject matter that courted clichés the most. It would be
about love. Love of sorts. Love between two boys. Love among outcasts who, tired of being alone and picked on, create their own trio-of-a-community where they do not need the approval of the majority because, in their small world, belonging is not defined by numbers but by that shared space where they can thrive as individuals, voice their differences while continuing to encourage and strengthen each other. To them, this is how empowerment begins. And in this small community of three outcasts, Oscar, their literary hero, would play a role in shaping their minds, dropping in on them as he used to drop into mine. What better hero, flaws and all, than this larger-than-Art figure to guide seventeen-year-olds through the rocky pathways of this difficult world? A man of endless wit who never stopped preaching about love, despite the hatred and cruelty of many who had wished him misfortune? A fantabulous individual who, tragic as the last chapter of his life was, believed until the very end that “The world had shut its gates, but the door of Love remains open”? Who else but the indomitable Oscar Wilde?
R. Zamora Linmark is the author of The Importance of Being Wilde at Heart, his first novel for young adults from Delacorte/Random House. He has also published two novels, Rolling the R’s which he’d adapted for the stage, and Leche, as well as four poetry collections, most recently, Pop Vérité, all from Hanging Loose Press. He lives in Honolulu, Hawaii, and Baguio, Philippines.