Monday, May 20, 2013

Time Traveling With Richard Bowes

Richard Bowes reading at Strange Loop Gallery, NYC

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Lately, I've been talking to students about the Lesbian Avengers. I stand up there like a figure of authority, and show a video and answer questions about this dyke activist group I was a part of, and it's all so weird because what's my life is their history.

Like a strange kind of time traveler, I'm not just their past, but their future, too. The Avengers may have been most active in the 1990's, but direct action and political organizing are never obsolete. And eventually, some of those kids I'm talking to will realize that the uncomfortable burning sensation in the pit of their stomachs is rage, and they'll also take to the streets.

One of our queer writers aware at just how life loops and intersects is Richard Bowes. The present is mixed up with the past and future. Good blends with evil, and also mediocrity. An Irish American writer who grew up in 1950's Boston, Bowes mostly does sci-fi and fantasy. As a young writer, he wrote literally about time travel. Lately, much of his work is "realistic" with just a slightly paranormal twist though it is still concerned with time.

Minions of the Moon, one of his most autobiographical books, is also one of his best. Originally published in 1999, and just re-issued, the Lambda Award-winning novel plays hard and fast with the details, though its author did grapple with his sexual identity, and ended up a New York rent boy with a bad drug habit. The twist is that Bowes turns his addiction into a doppelganger who also represents that part of himself that emerges whenever he's stressed out, or needs to get out of a jam. The narrator, Kevin Grierson, calls that double his Shadow, and it sticks with him, appearing periodically even when he thinks it's long gone.

Bowes reminds us that Shadow is something we all have, not just as individuals, but as a society. I was reminded again this weekend of how time doesn't move on an endless, upward trajectory with lessons learned, misery redeemed, and progress written in stone. Even as we celebrate small gains, like the right to marry, youngish queers like Mark Carson, who was murdered by a homophobe in the West Village a few days ago, still cannot walk safely even in our gayest neighborhoods. Everything that's good in the past could happen again. But what was horrible is waiting for us, too.

Beyond that, there's also the merely surprising and absurd. Last week, I had a brief conversation with Bowes about his work and life which he writes about more factually in his upcoming book of interconnected stories, Dust Devil On a Quiet Street. He called his survival "pure luck." He should have died during all his years on the street. There were the sexual predators, the drug violence, the drugs themselves, but he somehow escaped. He never even did time because in those days the police were Irish, and he'd get a break because he looked like every cop's youngest brother. In a miserable joke, he even avoided HIV because he got cancer and was out of sexual commission during the worst of the epidemic.

His surprise at lasting when so many around him didn't, keeps his books honest. They never turn into "How I got clean" stories, or "Redemption through art" fables, or some queer mythology of survival. If he rebelled at Stonewall, it was partly because he was hanging out with some druggie friends, and being East Village riot aficionados, they never passed up a chance to screw with the cops. And if the old Italian ladies started screaming at the police from the windows, it was less solidarity with queers, than a neighborhood hatred of the law. The big revelation: even when we have to fight hard to survive, we owe a fair amount to luck and sometimes the intervention of strangers.

In his books, gender also doesn't stay on its assigned track. As a gay man, when he takes on his life, the main figures are naturally men. Still, when he writes about the enforced masculinity of the military system, even the draft board, he has a strangely "female" sensibility when he reveals how he hated the way they owned your body, taking your clothes and shaving your head like convicts. Stripping you down to your underwear and staring and judging. They enforced their will with beatings and sometimes rape. It was worse than selling yourself on the street where you could at least pretend to have some control.

In another recent book, The Queen, the Cambion, and Seven Others, Bowes takes on fairy tales, plunging further into the ambiguities of time and gender. Here, he narrates most of the stories from a female point of view, and seemed a little puzzled telling me about a writer who asked him why, and how, he pulled it off. "There's no trick to it", he told them. "All the characters are still me."

Follow Kelly Cogswell on Twitter @kellyatlarge

Monday, May 06, 2013

Mothers' Day and the Queer Kitchen

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

One of the few times I've been back to Kentucky in the last zillion years, my mother offered to make lunch if I came over. The menu turned out to be frozen pizza and brownies made from a mix, and for which I was truly grateful. The woman's a rotten cook. Mostly because she hates to. And why not? It's a helluva lotta work, and absolutely poisonous in social terms.

You have to wonder why the kitchen was ever women's place at all. It's dangerous and a little brutal. You could even say it's butch. You hack at things with sharpened knives, heave around enormous pots of boiling liquids. I worked as a prep cook one summer during college, and scalded the crap out of myself when the forty pound pot I was lifting spilled over just a little and the hot water landed on my belly. When I tried to pull my pants away, half the skin came, too. That same summer a girl I knew lost her eyebrows lighting a stove and was lucky to keep her eyes.

Still, I got pleasure out of learning the craft. Not to mention getting the paycheck. But I'm puzzled by people that idealize any part of cooking, especially the "traditional" kind. Whenever I read about yuppie chicks starting to make their own jam and pickles, I imagine my grandmother or great-grandmother trapped in a kitchen in the middle of August with mounds of fruits and vegetables all around her, and no air conditioning in sight. It must've been like a stint in hell. But if she didn't do it, her whole family would starve. And if she screwed up, didn't boil those jars long enough, she'd poison them all by spring. If you want to get back to your roots, what you really need is a little heat stroke or botulism.

Women didn't need feminism's encouragement to flee the kitchen. On the contrary, idealized femininity demanded it of them. White women who could afford it already had black and brown women getting their surrogate hands dirty. That's tradition, too. And part of why my mother embraced middle-class magazine food when she finally left her secretarial job and got married.

It was not only quick, but arranged things so she wouldn't have to break a nail, or even a sweat. It was a sign she'd succeeded, lifted herself out of her working class origins, turned her back on parents who had been factory workers once they left failing farms. They spoke with seriously embarrassing twangs. Said warter, instead of water. Warshed their clothes. Yeah, a lot of cans were opened in my house. A lot of tuna and hamburger were helped. Though once a week, when my dad was home from his job on the road, she would roast something. A chicken. A hunk of beef.

On Thanksgiving, too, while she conceded to tradition and made the turkey, the stuffing still came out of a cellophane bag and the piece de resistance was the casserole of green beans slathered in canned cream of mushroom soup, topped with canned French's onions. It was chic and convenient, with French right there in the title. There were also "salads" consisting largely of JELL-O, canned fruit, and frozen whipped "cream." Half the meal needed quotes.

I think about her sometimes when I'm making dinner. What an irony it's her dyke daughter who ended up back in the kitchen, cooking from scratch. Though I'm not the only one. In my East Village neighborhood overpopulated with restaurants, when you see gaggles of people in checked pants and white aprons sneaking a quick smoke, there is usually a tattooed dyke among them. I've never seen any girls as prissy as the ones featured on cooking shows. No buxom motherly types. No sex pots. Just wiry white girls who like the pace and the competition.

I was startled to discover my Cuban girlfriend's mom cooks no better than mine. Before blood pressure issues put her on a low-sodium diet, her favorite meal was pretty much anything from the Chinese take-out down the block. She was a grade school teacher. Her husband an accountant. A teenaged girl fresh from the countryside would do most of the cooking.

When Faustina finally approached the kitchen, it had been transformed, not by revolution or scarcity, but by Nitza Villapol whose cookbook, Cocina Criolla (Creole Kitchen), was aimed at the modern cook in the modern kitchen. It had a few recipes for the traditional dishes like picadillo, arroz con pollo, and beans speeded up in a pressure cooker. But it also had Waldorf Salad, the same disgusting concoction of apples and walnuts and mayonnaise that my mother used to make when she bowed to tradition, and entered the room she hated.