Interview by Lara Lillibridge
Dear Queer Self (Acre Books), is an unconventional memoir in which Jonathan Alexander addresses wry and affecting missives to a conflicted younger self. Focusing on three years—1989, 1993, and 1996—Dear Queer Self: An Experiment in Memoir follows the author through the homophobic heights of the AIDS epidemic, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of Bill Clinton, and the steady advancements in gay rights that followed. With humor and wit afforded by hindsight, Alexander relives his closeted college years, his experiments with his sexuality in graduate school, his first marriage to a woman, and his budding career as a college professor. (excerpted from jacket copy)
Jonathan Alexander (he/they) is a writer, literacy scholar, and cultural critic. He is Chancellor’s Professor of English and Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. He is also the YA editor and a frequent contributor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and checkout his website.
Hippocampus Magazine’s interviews editor Lara Lillibridge sat down with Jonathan to talk books, independent publishing, point of view, and more.
Lara Lillibridge: I looked you up and you have written, I think, a gazillion books.
Jonathan Alexander: Nothing like a gazillion, but I’m a professor of English at the University of California, Riverside. And next year will be my 30th year as an academic, so it’s just an occupational hazard to write books.
LL: This is your third memoir, is that right?
JA: Actually, Dear Queer Self is my fourth memoir—well, published creative nonfiction. It is the third in what I understand is a trilogy of books. But I also have a separate standalone memoir, called Stroke Book, The Diary of a Blind Spot, which is about a health crisis.
LL: I saw that one and I saw Creep.
JA: Creep is the first book in what I think of as the Creep Trilogy. It was followed up by a book called Bullied: the Story of an Abuse. Dear Queer Self is the is the concluding volume to that trilogy.
LL: I’m always interested in craft questions. And one of them is about writing multiple memoirs. Did you know from the beginning that you were going to write many different books, or was that you wrote one, and then found that you had more to say?
JA: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. So I didn’t set out to write a trilogy of memoirs, or to write even multiple memoirs, really, I didn’t even set out to write creative nonfiction much at all. I spent most of my professional life writing academic texts, research-oriented texts, research reports, some textbooks, scholarly monographs, and things of that nature.
And it wasn’t until much later in life that I turned towards writing creative nonfiction. A lot of the reason for that is I blame Hurricane Katrina. I grew up in the New Orleans area, and my family was very adversely affected by Katrina. I wasn’t living there at the time that the storm hit in 2005, I was living in Ohio, and working at the University of Cincinnati. But the storm was devastating for many members of my family, some of whom lost pretty much everything. And in fact, my own father died during the evacuation from the storm. So I had a friend at the time who said, Oh, my God, you’re going to be writing about this for the rest of your life. And at first, I didn’t really know what she was talking about, but she was right, I began writing about the experience of Katrina.
Half a year after the storm, I went down to the New Orleans area with a photo journalist, and we did a story together about the aftermath of a storm. And then that really was in some ways, a gateway towards thinking about how I grew up, what it was like to grow up in the very deep south, to grow up in a very religious household, to go to Catholic schools to grow up in a deeply conservative area, when I was, in the 70s, and the early 80s, moving myself towards more of a queer identification and wondering if I might be queer.
And then, of course, experiencing the mid 80s when I went off to college, and thought I might have the opportunity to maybe experiment or at least to explore a little bit of my own sexuality. But of course, that’s also the height of the AIDS epidemic, the mid to late 80s. So there was just a lot of things that prompted me in the wake of Katrina, to sort of sit back and explore a little bit about what it was like to grow up at that time in that area. And just think about how have I wound up in the way that I have, there could have been so many different paths.
But I think for me, Katrina was definitely a big moment. And specifically, in the sense that it showed me what happens to a part of our country if we don’t take proper care of it, if we don’t invest in it. The storm surge from a hurricane is one thing, but the flooding was in many ways preventable.
So that was a sort of a critical and creative wedge for me into thinking about my own life—what were the accidents? What were the inattentions? What were the traumas? What were the what are the things that could have been repaired ? So anyway, some interesting parallels. I’ll just leave it at that. If that makes sense.
LL: Yeah, it does. I saw that you can actually get your memoir Creep online for free or for a donation, which I think was really very generous of them.
JA: Creep was the first creative nonfiction book I wrote, and I published it with Punctum, which is self-described as a para-academic press. And I thought this will be this will be great for me, because I write primarily as an academic, I was experimenting and moving more into these creative nonfiction worlds. And while I wanted to write personally, I still also wanted to write from an analytic point, as well. I didn’t want to not reflect critically on some of the experiences that I’ve had. And so for me, Punctum, as a para-academic press was really perfect. And I will be forever grateful to them for giving me a start and helping me to publish work that, for me, was very experimental and very unusual. And so I’m a huge fan of independent publishing.
LL: I am too. So often it’s the only place that really has room for or interest in a lot of queer and marginalized voices. But the tone of Dear Queer Self is very different from Creep. And personally, I love second person. To me, it’s the most intimate. I know some people absolutely hate it, which I don’t understand. But how did you decide on the structure for this book—writing to your younger self? And did you try it in other points of view first?
JA: So you’ve asked a great question about craft. Some people asked me if the three books are sort of chronological in sequence. And they’re really not. There’s a way in which all three books deal with a similar timeframe within my life, just from different vantage points from different perspectives. So by the time I came to write Dear Queer Self, I had already written two books that deal with the experience of growing up in a homophobic environment and growing up during the height of the AIDS epidemic, and growing up in New Orleans, in particular.
I’d already written two books that dealt with those subjects from two different perspectives—Creep deals with it from the perspective of how I think a lot of queer and trans people are often invited to think of themselves as creepy—that’s been a long term way in which people have been invited to feel shame about themselves.
Bullied was much more analytical about the kinds of structures—whether they be educational systems or religious institutions, or even family units—the kinds of structures that vector homophobia through which queer and trans people are made to feel creepy. So there were already two different books with two different kinds of frames as it were. And I realized that I wanted to do yet one more book which dealt with again, very similar set of life narratives, similar kinds of stories, but actually talk to myself—not talk as an academic, not talk analytically, not talk from the perspective of somebody who has been invited to think of himself as a creep, but instead talk directly to myself.
At first, I thought this would be a sort of, it gets better narrative about me telling myself, ‘oh, you know, hang in there things do get better,’ but it ended up being much more of an ‘oh, wow, I didn’t realize that while I was a weird, nerdy kid, I was also interesting and creative and resilient.
It ended up being much more of a spirit of exploration of self-awareness. I ended up having a lot more respect for my younger self than I thought I did. Even when he made stupid choices. Even when he was deeply in the closet, or even deeply in denial, I just ended up feeling much more, much more care for that young person that I think arose out in part of the decision to write in the second person.
Since I knew I wanted this to be a letter to that younger self, the second person seemed appropriate—not just second person, but second person present tense as well. So those were those were stylistic choices. And since a lot of your readers are writers, they might resonate with the statement that I can’t really write any of these things until I know who’s talking—there needs to be a particular kind of voice. And I think what’s been so interesting about working with memoir is that I don’t think of us individual people as just one unitary separate consciousness. I think that there are within us, many different characters, many different possibilities we play even just in life, we play so many different roles, depending upon where we are, what we’re doing, and what we hope to accomplish, and how other people think of us.
We’re an intersection of many different kinds of forces and possibilities. And so I need to find that particular node with like, who is talking here, which character. One book can’t encompass everything that we are, but it can take a perspective. And so this was the perspective I wanted to take: me as an older, established, relatively well adjusted queer person writing back to my younger self. And so that second person became really important. But also, the present tense was important to me, because I think of the past is something that isn’t ever really fully set for us, which I know sounds counterintuitive, we think of the future as the open ended thing, but I think of the past is also fairly open ended.
“One book can’t encompass everything that we are, but it can take a perspective.” — Johnathan Alexander
Obviously, there are things that happened that change courses of history, either for people individually or for us to collectively as a community, or a nation or whatnot. And yet how we think about that past is always changing and shifting. And different attitudes that we have about the past—things we try to suppress or choose to forget, things we dwell on—those things can often shift and they change and in the changing of how we understand the past, we radically can change how it is that we live in the present.
And so for me, the present tenseness of the book, when I’m talking to my younger self about all these things in the past, is very much this recognition that everything in the past is in some ways, still open and that my attitude about it, what I understand of it, is still developing, still changing. And in writing all of these books, different parts of the past have come to mean differently for me, have come to mean in different ways.
And some things that I thought were really significant and awful, are maybe less significant than they once were, and other things that I didn’t pay much attention to have since come to mean a great deal more to me. I like that, and I want part of my writing to represent in my stylistic choices, that sort of living memory, if that makes sense.
LL: Absolutely. You have a wonderful line here. It’s the beginning of the “Love Is” chapter. And I think it’s interesting because it’s sort of the complicated double perspective of the older, wiser narrator and the present time narrator that you’re speaking to. So the line is:
I stop here, because I need to figure out how to talk about your memories of Laura, Laura, who as of this writing is very much alive, whom I still very much respect, who will not be around much after you divorce, but who will nonetheless help you change your life in ways for which you and I remain grateful.
That whole I/you—I liked the complications of it. So often in memoir have that double perspective, the older wiser narrator looking back, but here, it’s so obvious.
JA: I appreciate that. And I’ve been very happy that folks have commented on that section—that passage. Part of what’s important to me there is, I think for all of us who work with life writing or memoir, part of the challenge is that our culture’s regular narratives for what our lives are like, can sometimes be like a kind of pressure, and they can overtake our own stories.
I really resisted thinking about my marriage to a woman as a mistake. Some people say, ‘Oh, well, was that a mistake? Or were you hiding?’ Well, no, I wasn’t hiding. We were in love, and we needed each other at that point in our lives to help get out of Louisiana. I will always be immensely grateful, as I believe she is too, that we were able not only to help each other do that, while also recognizing each other’s sexual and emotional complexities.
And we loved one another enough to let each other go when the time was right. The narrative of ‘I was hiding, and I betrayed her and hid from her, and it was a mistake,’ that wasn’t my experience. This was a different kind of story. We’re often invited to tell specific kinds of narratives that fulfill our culture’s sense of how things are, and sometimes we have to resist that.
“We’re often invited to tell specific kinds of narratives that fulfill our culture’s sense of how things are, and sometimes we have to resist that.” — Johnathan Alexander
LL: You resisted also, when you wrote about, perhaps sexual abuse, that you maybe something happened, maybe it didn’t happen. And I have an essay of my own about sexual abuse with my father, that’s like, well, I don’t exactly remember, I have a bad feeling. Maybe it happened. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe there was nothing. And I like how you resisted giving in to the easy answer. You wrote about how, in some ways, this is the answer that makes everything in my life makes sense, however, I’m not going to swear that that is actually the truth. I liked that decision, which is something that many people struggle with—how do we write about things that we don’t entirely remember, or things that we’re not 100% sure on.
JA: Exactly. And I think that that was really important to me, because it was a sort of convenient story to tell. And within that context, and our highly homophobic culture, it made sense to sort of pathologize my own desires by saying this terrible thing had happened to me. And, you know, at this point in my life, I just can’t say that that actually happened. And I think part of that, again, is what I was saying earlier about changing the understanding of the past.
I know why I was attached to that story at the time. And at this point, I don’t need to be attached to that story. And I’m wondering if, you know, did I participate in the sort of cultural and social and even political pathologization of queer sexuality by latching on to that as a real possibility. And that’s difficult to talk about, because obviously there are people who are sexually abused, without a doubt. And those stories need to be told. And we need to extend compassion to people who have experienced sexual abuse.
I think my interest has been in saying that there’s a whole other kind of sexual abuse, which is happening when one lives in a culture that makes it really easy for me to blame my own desires on an instance of sexual abuse. And for me, that’s the next level memoir. It’s like, okay, can you get to that level where we’re talking about how our culture is so toxic about these issues, and we just don’t have a rich enough way to an open enough way to talk about them?
LL: I was talking with another queer writer about how in some ways, you don’t want to write about abuse, because that validates people saying, ‘well, that’s why you’re queer,’ and not wanting to feed into this toxic narrative, and yet also understanding that bad things happened, and you’re allowed to talk about them.
I think that’s one of the things I love about your book—this tenderness that you have, it’s like you are your own elder—the elder that your younger self needed.
JA: I think that’s a very astute insight. It was so difficult for people to be out at that time. That uncle that I wrote so much about actually died when I was 12. There’s a kind of really weird loss for me, because while he psychologically appeared later in my young adulthood as the possible villain, there’s a weird way in which if he had lived, could he have been a sort of queer older brother? There’s just multiple layers of loss that are a part of that relationship. I just did not know another openly queer adult or authority figure for the next decade plus, until I really until I left Louisiana. They were there, but they were all hiding.
LL: Right. I wanted to ask you another craft question. This book, without spoilers, you end it in a sort of hopeful but unresolved place. But you have these little sentences of foreshadowing throughout. There’s one where you say that someday your mother is going to be is going to live with you and is going to bake you a ton of cookies. You don’t take us all the way through that relationship and how she changed from how we see her in this book, but you let us know that that change is coming. I thought that was interesting—you’re giving us little hopeful glimpses into the future. Was that intentional? Or did it just sort of pop out that way?
JA: Yeah, I mean, as with everything I was writing, some things just pop out, other times, it’s intentional. Most writing I find somewhere in-between—that I have an inkling but then I realized, oh, yeah, this is a good idea. Let me keep working on this. And sometimes you go back and backfill a little bit, but I did want to make some careful and pointed foreshadowings, telling the reader that there are things coming up that are not part of this book, they’re not part of this history, however alive this history is.
Part of that has to do with reasons of the craft of memoir writing in particular—I think a lot about, Mary Karr in her book The Art of Memoir, and the idea that when we tell our stories, we’re also inevitably telling other people’s stories as well. I’ve had to be really careful about how much of other people’s stories I’m willing to tell. Because there’s some things I can’t talk about, they’re not really my stories to tell. And the few decisions I’ve made, in which I have told something, which is maybe not as flattering about somebody else, I have done so only because it is so intrinsically part of my story, that I couldn’t tell my story without doing that.
At the same time, I have masked things in a couple of cases, so that people are not recognizable, or I have dropped other hints that things are okay. So for instance, if I talk about the difficulty that I had with my mother and her not wanting to accept me and my boyfriend at the time, I recognize I’m saying something that is potentially hurtful, or is just negative about her, and I don’t want to leave it there because that is not where we are—it’s not the reality of our relationship anymore.
I think in dropping that little foreshadowing bit about how she now lives with us. I’m sort of in my own mind resolving having had to say something that’s not necessarily flattering about her, if that makes sense. But I can’t tell her story, right? I only tell I can only tell that little bit, because it’s so vital to my story. I want the reader to walk away saying there’s so much more to this story.
LL: There’s like a whole backstory and a story of redemption in this one sentence.
JA: And you’re not going to see the full story—it’s not in the book. But it’s there. It may be the case that at some point, I write more about that. But I don’t feel like I can right now.
LL: And if you don’t, you’ve left us with this warm feeling, which is really all that we need from the story at this point anyway. I think that was really well done.
Now, every chapter in this book is a song title, or sometimes two song titles. How did that come about?
JA: When I was thinking back about all this history for me, I think like many people of our generation, it’s hard not to look back without also thinking about your life in terms of the pop music of the time. And since I had begun this trilogy, with Creep, which of course is also a famous song by Radiohead, I thought, maybe I can stylistically lean into that a little bit more.
Each chapter does begin with at least the title of one pop song, those are all pop songs that were in the top 100 for the years, 1989 1983, and 1996, which are the three primary years that the book covers. And so I wanted to choose those songs that that would have been circulating at the time, that, would have been part of part of the narrative of our lives at the time. I think that pop songs are some of our culture’s most insistent propaganda—this language that is floating around all the time. You go shopping, pop songs are there—you’re just surrounded by this music, by this by these verses, these lyrics that are talking to you about what love is like, or this is what being in the world is like, this is what living is like right now.
Part of the intent is to recognize the impact that that kind of language, those lyrics have on our lives, but also, at times to kind of resist a little bit, you know, to push back and say, ‘Well, maybe love is like that for you, but it’s not always like that, for us or for me.’ And I think pop songs, especially for young people, it’s how we understood ourselves. It’s some of the early language that we use to identify ourselves and to talk about our lives. And yet, it’s also important to recognize—I won’t say we grow out of that, but we develop more complex relationships with that material as time goes on.
And that’s what I wanted to do, just as I had done with the idea of being a creep— you know, that’s a complicated thing. And I loved that Radiohead could produce a song that is about honoring the creep in all of us in some ways. I thought, this is I wanted to do with those pop songs as well. It was also just damn fun, to recover memory by listening to those songs again.
I actually made YouTube playlists, which you can access through my YouTube channel. I have a Dear Queer Self 1989, 1993, and 1996 YouTube playlists that have all of those songs for the for the titles in order. I would actually listen to those songs as a way to kind of help me generate memories.
LL: We’re about the same age and so I just started singing them in my head, and it definitely cemented the time period for me. I know a lot of people write to music, but I can’t personally.
JA: Technically, I don’t write to music. But like many writers, I spend a lot of time pacing, and I’ll often pace in my room with a glass of wine while listening. I’m constantly going to my phone or to my laptop and taking notes, but the actual writing, like when I’m drafting, I don’t want music around—it’s really distracting. I was a musician when I was in my 20s, and so it’s very hard for me to concentrate if there’s music playing because I want to listen to it.
LL: My last question—is there something that was unexpected from the writing of this book? Like, did you have any takeaways after writing the book that you were surprised by?
JA: A lot of people ask me if this kind of writing is healing, and I often tell them that I don’t know that I would call it healing, which isn’t to say that it’s not valuable. I think it’s very valuable. It certainly helps one reframe and understand differently one’s own life. I think that a big takeaway for me, and this might be very counterintuitive for a lot of people who read memoir, is that the writing of a lot of this stuff is not really about resolving the past, as much as it is about trying to find a way to live right now. I’m trying to figure out what that actually means.
When I say that I don’t want to fix the past, what I want to do is actually maybe think better and more richly about my life right now by understanding my past a little bit differently. So this is less about healing, less about resolution, and more about an ability to set aside preoccupations. The touchstone moments for good or for bad, they never go away, but you can adjust the kind of prominence that they have.
I think for me, that was that’s been the surprising thing that I intuited might happen, but I don’t think you know exactly how that’s going to pan out until you experience it. And that’s been especially true in reading from the book. I mean, in the last four months or so, I’ve gotten to go to all of the places that I’ve lived in the country. I just came back from readings in New Orleans, but I also did readings in Colorado and in Ohio. And I think the thing that is really unexpected was how amazingly powerful it has been to read from this book in those places.
In the book, I write a lot about Colorado and Louisiana, and so to read in those places, and to experience my past and my newer understanding of it, but more importantly, to experience my present—to experience myself in places that were so crucial in shaping me.
LL: That’s really multifaceted—to do a reading about the past in the actual location and have it give you joy now is a new dimension on the whole experience.
JA: It really is. If you write just to set the record straight, you’re only doing part of it. I write just to know how to live better. And so for me, that’s, to use your word, a multifaceted experience. It’s thinking about the writing, doing the writing, revising the writing, publishing the writing, and then experiencing the writing new when you read it.
It’s all of that, which is really just about how do I understand my own richness and share that with people and hopefully, in the process, provide them opportunities for sharing the richness of their lives as well.
LL: Well, that’s wonderful. And that’s, I think, a perfect stopping point, so thank you.
JA: Thank you so much for your interest. These are fantastic questions. Absolutely loved the conversation.