James Hannaham

This is your first novel and according to an interview you did with Bookslut, a very early draft of it was your thesis. Is God Says No anything like what you envisioned for it in 2001? What sort of changes has it been through in that time frame?

It’s as if I turned the story inside out. Originally it was about the silent theater group the Gary joins in the middle of the book; but then his story took over and the group took a back seat. During the editing process, people kept telling me to shrink that part until it was almost gone; now there’s one chapter left and a reference to their fate a bit later but that’s all. Also, a great deal was done to make Gary’s voice consistent and convincing—it’s not easy for a guy from Yonkers, NY to write in a Southerner’s voice and make it seem authentic.

 

Tell me a little about the book’s reception in different parts of the country. Were there drastic differences based on region?

I don’t think the book has had widespread enough sales/distribution to really figure that out in a way that is at all meaningful. Unfortunately, it did not grab the attention of Texas high schools and get banned and condemned, as I had sort of hoped it would. I suppose there’s still time for that. But maybe they simply ignored it, which would actually be worse.

 

How much do you identify with your main character, Gary Gray? Other than being black and being gay, he was raised in a religious, southern environment and you were raised in a non-religious environment in New York.

I don’t really identify with Gary much, except in his appetites, to some degree. Since I have some family that made their way north from South Carolina somewhere back there, I think of Gary as someone I could have been a lot closer to becoming had I been raised in that environment. There are religious folks on both sides of my family, reverends and such—I think that’s where my writing/teaching/performance genes come from—so in a way when I created Gary I was tapping into something that felt familiar and strange at the same time.

 

To what extent have you experienced a sense of cultural alienation on the basis of your racial and sexual identities?

How is one supposed to answer a question like that? That’s like pushing a guy into a river and asking him what it feels like to drown. I wish there were some sort of cultural Geiger counter that I could wave over my black gay body and it would give you some kind of alienation readout. Suffice it to say that the more one looks for discrimination, the more one finds it, curiously, and at a certain point your perceptions all seem paranoid, although still deeply justifiable. My father has said a couple of wise things to me over the years, and one of the wisest was, w/r/t CA on the basis of R&/orSIs, “Just ignore it.” But it’s easy to see how it has affected certain of my life decisions. There are not so many places on the planet where one can feel comfortable making one’s interracial gay relationship known to the world, for example. Or where you can become domestic partners or spouses with your same-sex partner. There are not so many places in the corporate world where being openly gay is totally acceptable—let alone openly black. Not to say that people don’t fight that fight, and more power to them. Theater, art, writing, teaching; it’s easier to be myself in those worlds. But my actions can sometimes feel circumscribed. Sometimes because I don’t want to be bothered, sometimes because I’m afraid of discrimination, sometimes for no good reason at all. Which is why it’s better to just ignore it.

 

Lots of research must have gone into this. You joined a list-serv for ex-ex-gays and got some feedback on the reparative therapy section of the book there. Was any hands-on research involved? Did you spend any time in the south—in small town southern churches or megachurches or a religious southern environment?

Although it wasn’t research for this project until quite late, I did visit South Carolina a bunch of times. I’ve also got some relatives in the Atlanta area who I visited during the writing of the story. The freakiest thing that happened was that I had written a draft of the section in which there’s a rather large plot twist in Norcross, GA, where I’d never been, but guessed about, and Gary ends up at a restaurant called Valentine’s. Later I asked my uncle, who lives down there, to take me on a research drive up to Norcross, which I hadn’t known was a heavily Mexican area, and during the trip I spotted a restaurant called…La Valentina. I changed it to the real name in the next draft, but I was a little weirded out.

 

You said you were surprised by the reports on reparative therapy. That it was less punishing an environment than you imagined—perhaps more an issue of misguided love. Did this news change your conception of the book at all? Or just that section?

There was less of what they call “aversion therapy” than I expected, and something I found far more complicated in abundance. It sounded a lot more like drowning in the drool of well-meaning puppies to me, living among people who claim to want what God and/or Jesus want for you, even though your instincts are telling you the opposite. Their explanations for the “causes” and suggestions for the “cures” of homosexuality were so ridiculous and oversimplified, and few of them appear to have figured out how to convincingly act like masculine guys (except the lesbians), which you’d think would be Job #1, right? Child abuse is always the cause, and playing football is the cure? WTF? And then I was also fascinated by the parallel between “reparative” therapy and 12-step programs, and rehabs—it’s the ultimate in pathologizing sexuality, really. Pity Foucault isn’t alive to write about it.

 

Do you see differences in black homophobia and white homophobia?

Generally, although I don’t like this question, I think there’s ultimately more tolerance on the black side. I credit MLK’s tradition of nonviolence; black folks have said some dumbass, insensitive things about homosexuality in public—this means you, Tracey Morgan!—but there’s far less of a sense among black homophobes that the solution to the “problem” is to shoot someone in the head.

 

What do you think creates homophobia? How do you think it is best combated/destroyed? Or do you think it can be?

Ignorance, gay invisibility, straight insecurity, and I suppose also extraordinarily narrow definitions of acceptable masculine and feminine behavior. It must suck to be a straight man; there’s such a small number of things you’re allowed to feel in public, and so few acceptable ways to behave in relation to men and women, so few things you can be interested in without everyone scrutinizing you and questioning the depth of your masculinity. Because if you’re not completely utterly masculine, you are a flaming queen; it’s very binary in our culture. In order to be yourself as a straight man and not some emotionless money-making robot you have to go to Burning Man or do some Robert Bly wolf nature crap upstate or paint horses or some shit. What a fucking drag that must be.

 

To switch gears a little bit, what are you working on now?

I’m working on a Microsoft Word document.

 

You don’t talk about your work in progress?

I guess that was a little glib of me. I’m trying to finish a story collection, and a collection of short shorts, and a draft of a longer thing which is the Microsoft Word document in question. I’m trying to get a few more of the stories from the collection published, which is always a tough prospect because I have a habit of thinking that I can hide my radical ideas inside “normal” looking stories so that the 3 mainstream magazines that publish fiction and pay decently will accept them. But I fear that they usually see through me—I’m shopping a baseball story right now that I wrote because I hate baseball stories, but it’s about a family of black umpires, and a kid who wants to be an ump but doesn’t havethe verve and his mom, who wanted to play baseball professionally but ended up in jail instead. I daydream that the largely SWM editors of the mainstream magazines will like this story merely because it’s a baseball story, and won’t notice that it’s pretty much about people who are not allowed to play baseball—but this seems foolish on my part. Even so, those are my people, the ones who aren’t allowed to play.

 

Your website says you are a performer as well as a writer. What kind of performing do you do?

Not much anymore, but I co-founded the performance group Elevator Repair Service in 1991 and worked with them for 12 years. I left the group in part because I realized that writing novels is a little like staging plays, and I wanted autonomy, not to have to collaborate with 15 brilliant people only to have most of my contributions scrapped. Interestingly, around the time I left to write my first novel, the group started staging novels (most famously a 7-hour staging of the entire text of The Great Gatsby, aka Gatz, which they’ve performed all over the world to ecstatic acclaim, and also part 1 of The Sound & The Fury and currently at NYTW, a wonderful reworking of The Sun Also Rises called The Select). These days I only do something if it is a one- or two-day thing and doesn’t involve very much in terms of memorization, which I’ve always been horrible at. So I read a part in a friend’s play reading, I’ve got a small role in a former student’s movie, stuff like that. And of course, giving public readings is a type of performance.

 

Why do you write?

I come from a family of artsy smart alecs, most notably my cousin Kara [Walker], but also my mom studied fashion design and then became a journalist, Kara’s dad, Larry (the aforementioned uncle) is a pretty successful painter and educator, my sister writes poetry in Russian, etc. etc. Unlike many households, in my home I got a lot of encouragement  to do creative things, so I tried a whole bunch and realized after way too long that I was strongest in writing, and that writing brought together a lot of skills from other artistic disciplines. Of course, interest and technical proficiency are the least interesting part of the battle; the other part is the desire to say something worthwhile. I was going to say that I write because I believe I have something to say, but it feels much more like Something To Say has me.

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