Queen City LitAbout
A while ago I was talking to a couple of writers about how much I enjoyed this book called After Nirvana by Lee Williamsabout homeless kids working their way up and down I-5, a book I think of as being about the actual place we all live rather than the mystical pioneer stuff being foisted off as the real Northwest. The Pacific Northwest has the largest percentage of its population living in urban or suburban areas in the entire country. And yet, as a region, we cling to an image of ourselves as salmon eating, Gore-Tex wearing frontiersmen.
One writer said he liked the book because it was so gay. And I guess it is a gay book, but it wasn’t exactly the first categorical term that came to my mind when thinking about it. Now this writer wasn’t really talking about the book being just gay; he did mean homosexual, but he also meant something else. He meant gay in the way that kids say something is gay when it isn’t quite right. “Your pants are gay,” doesn’t necessarily mean the pants are homosexual pants. It means they deviate from the standard pant style; you know, they’re funny that way; they’re queer. Pacific Northwest literature is gay like that.
I realized that much of the writing I like from the Northwest is gay.
Books written by openly gay writers who have a strong sense of place in the Pacific Northwest are not concerned with the frontier narrative. Gay itself seems like a silly way to categorize a book – and yet we tend to. So, what are we even talking about when we’re talking about so-called Gay Literature? I would say up until very recently, a reader could assume that Gay Literature acted in opposition to dominant cultural narratives. In the past, it might identify itself using the coded language used by writers like Gertrude Stein or James Purdy. The very gayness of a work required it to be subversive and this subversivesness was expressed by dismantling language from the root up, because gayness was being suppressed from the root up.
Gay Literature in general had much in common with the subversive compulsion of other freak literatures. The deviant writer addresses taboo topics; they are in a practiced dialogue with their pre-conscious mind and have access to techniques that can dredge up prohibited desires and lay them out wiggling in language. Compared to the straight writer, the freak writer uses more readily apparent metaphor, such as allegory, metonymy, condensation and displacement. These figurative tropes do not actually achieve the objects of their desire. Matthew Stadler, for instance, does not sleep with little boys and Willie Smith does not fuck spiders; these authors suspend an object of desire in language. It’s this exhibition and articulation of the forbidden that makes their work so damn uncomfortable to most people.
This was essential work in defining an open cultural space — but once the space was open, the writing no longer had to be closeted in allegory and metaphor. It could just be gay. To open language in this way opens it at a cost to the richness of reference, the charged force behind the suppressed language that must convey both a straight front and a gay interior.
Straight writing doesn’t deal with taboo subjects, but relates to status and ratifying existing social norms. Any work that attempts to make a taboo topic into a mundane topic cannot help but work in a similar fashion. A gay writer, then, like Dan Savage, while he fits into Gay Literature (because he’s gay) doesn’t fit into a literature of deviance. His work is more about normalizing gay life and making it commonplace. Straight culture can eventually accommodate gay lives; what straight culture cannot accommodate is deviance.
When Gay Literature is no longer deviant just because it is gay, writers who were deviant and gay remain deviant. This is an unfortunate spot to be in, to suddenly find almost everyone else in your neighborhood moving uptown and you still have trouble making rent. It’s sort of like the way in which the African-American middle class is currently in the process of distancing itself from its working class and urban poor community. Republican African-Americans, like Republican Gays, also point out the crushing ability of straight American culture to homogenize and pasteurize just about anything, given twenty years.
The Pacific Northwest is a long way from the center of American culture. An amorphous destination at the end of Manifest Destiny, an edge along the continental margin of the United States, adjacent to East Asia, a disputed boarder along the 48th parallel, the Northwest doesn’t have a real defined center of its own. It is defined more in terms of what it borders and what passes through it. There is the Jet Stream, the Japanese Current, The Columbia and Fraser Rivers, there is the Pacific Ocean, and Interstate-90 and Interstate-Five. Seattle is the closest US port to Japan. And so on. And thus, it is less of a place and more a statement of position.
“Now, correlating this concentration of freaks with this territory,” Matthew Stadler said in an email interview, “well, it’s the West. It’s the toilet of the nation, toward which people thrown-away elsewhere drift. Its institutions are flimsy and young and so inadvertently make room for freaks who really ought to be locked up. More accurately, I think, institutions that in other regions effectively create cultural hierarchy (universities, publishers, the critical organs, etc.) have largely failed here, so the blips and blats of self-published, self-defining freakdom that are easily marginalized and neutralized in other cities here flash bright and clear as car-wrecks, appearing to be the actual culture.”
A counter-narrative of place has risen in the Pacific Northwest that is decidedly un-heroic. This myth is based on the Pacific Northwest not as a place but as emptiness. In this story, if Ellis Island is the front door to America, Seattle is the space under the sofa. Back in wagon train days, the wagon train came to a fork in a road. One way lead north into the big trees, the low clouds, and drizzle. This path was admittedly not very worn. The other, well-built road lead South to California and the sea, and was brightly lit and warm. The social outcasts who didn’t want to have to make small talk with anyone else on the trail headed north and everyone else headed south. While everyone who came West had a mix of optimism and independence, those who went to California wanted to celebrate it, and those who went North just wanted to be left alone to pursue their fetishes.
While the pioneer narrative still dominates the region’s perception of itself, this other literature and this other story has also always been there. This is an allegorical narrative, one that has roots in Honey in the Horn and continues through the work of Ken Kesey and Tim Robbins, and can still be found in the work of Gary Larson, Lynda Barry, Katherine Dunn, some of the films of Gus Van Sant, Chuck Palahniuk, and Lee Williams.
And so gay writers such as Matthew Stadler or Jody Aliesan co-exist in a deviant public space along side straight writers like Doug Nufer and John Olson. This seems to be part of the lumber camp and urban tradition of Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland. This regional myth allows us to embrace the unembraceable, accept the unacceptable, and in this climate, everyone can stand up and make noise.
Orginally appeared in “Queen City Lit, Misc #118, Spring 2002