Paul Mendez and Susannah Thompson: a conversation on Rainbow Milk
Paul Mendez is a British writer. His debut novel Rainbow Milk (Dialogue, 2020), an Observer Best Debuts choice, was shortlisted for the Polari First Novel Prize, the Gordon Burn Prize, the Jhalak Prize, the Lambda Literary Award in Gay Fiction and a British Book Award (Fiction Debut). He has written for Vogue, The Face, the London Review of Books, Poetry Foundation, the WritersMosaic and the BBC. He is currently adapting Rainbow Milk for television, while reading the MA in Black British Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Susannah Thompson is a Glasgow-based art historian and critic from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She is Head of Doctoral Studies and Professor of Contemporary Art and Criticism at The Glasgow School of Art. She spoke to Paul as part of the MLitt Art Writing event ‘Biographical Fictioning’ in April 2022.
ST: I’m very happy to introduce Paul Mendez who joins us today to talk about his debut novel Rainbow Milk and other projects. Rainbow Milk centres on the character of Jesse, a young, Black, working-class man living in the Black Country in the West Midlands who also happens to be a Jehovah’s Witness. Very broadly, the novel follows Jesse’s forced departure from his family, community and religion and his subsequent sexual, racial and intellectual reawakening. Before we start to discuss the novel in more depth, I’m going to invite Paul to read from the book.
PM: Thank you. I’m going to read from the first section of the novel. The first fifty pages are in the first-person voice of Norman, a landscape gardener in Jamaica who emigrates to Britain in the 1950s. The bit I’m going to read is just before he moves to England with his wife and children. [Paul reads an excerpt from the opening section of ‘Swan Village’, Norman’s narrative, which is written in Jamaican dialect and starts in July 1959].
PM: We then skip forward to Jesse’s narrative. Jesse, as was described at the outset, is a young Black man living in the West Midlands who is being raised in the Jehovah’s Witness community. He lives with his mother, his white adoptive father and his half-sisters. At the point that we enter his story, he’s nineteen years old and he’s been disfellowshipped from the Jehovah’s Witness community, which is the equivalent of excommunication in other Christian denominations. Jesse is basically an exile in the family home. [Paul reads from ‘Great Bridge’, Chapter 4, where we find Jesse alone in his bedroom on Christmas Day, ostracised and ignored by his family who are downstairs in the house. In his room, Jesse reads James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. The section ends with Jesse apologising to Graham, his stepfather, who responds by telling Jesse he must leave the family home].
ST: Thank you so much for your brilliant reading, Paul. Before we get to questions in more depth, I want to remind people who haven’t read Rainbow Milk, or who don’t know your work, that this is your debut novel. It has been a huge hit since it was published in 2020. It was an Observer Top Ten Debut in 2020, has been shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize, the Jhalak Prize and the Polari Prize. It was in the fiction debut category of the British Book Awards and was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2021. It has been extremely positively reviewed and is an enormous success—congratulations! In light of all of this, I wanted to ask you about your beginnings as a writer and how you started to develop a writing practice. How did it begin?
PM: Well, Rainbow Milk came out in 2020 but it was really twenty years in the making. I started writing in the summer of 2002, when I was twenty, by which time I had become estranged from my parents and from my Jehovah’s Witness background. For anybody who doesn’t know, Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that we’re living in ‘the last days’ and that only if we are one of them do we have the hope of surviving Armageddon and then inheriting the earth and turning it into a paradise. So, I knew I didn’t believe that anymore but I didn’t know what else to believe and I hadn’t yet developed a new centre of gravity. I was also still in the closet and trying to conceal any notions of femininity. As part of this, I was doing an engineering degree. But then I read an article in a magazine, and I wish I could remember the title of the magazine, but it was an article in praise of beautiful men. And it wasn’t even from a gay perspective—it was pitched at both men and women just to show that men could be beautiful. I just found that to be a really radical concept at the time, I guess, because when you’re raised in a strict religious environment, gender binaries are also extremely strict. Jehovah’s Witnesses are anti-LGBT and so I could never imagine acting out these deep desires, these same-sex desires that I had, or even considering another person of the same sex attractive. So, the magazine article really opened my mind. Then a flatmate gave me a copy of James Baldwin’s 1968 novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, which is one of his less well-known novels but it was my first encounter with his work. It was the first novel that I’d ever read by a Black person or a queer person, never mind both, so it was really enlightening for me. And then my flatmates and I watched a film called Amores Perros, in which, at the beginning, a cataclysmic and unexpected event takes place, changing the lives of all involved in an instant. That film, that story, really chimed with me, because that’s how my disfellowshipping felt. It felt like I was coasting along, and I was absolutely fine, with the hope of surviving Armageddon and living forever, according to the Jehovah’s Witness belief, and then, all of a sudden, cut off completely. And then it’s the rest of your life, so what do you do now? What do you believe? That [the disfellowshipping] was really my catalyst to start writing.
I really needed to write to think in a deep and structured way about what had happened to me and why, and where I was going. The writing was about ordering my thoughts, memories, expressing my anger and frustration. I sent what I had written to some publishers and didn’t get much feedback, if anything at all, so I abandoned it. But over the next fifteen years or so, working various jobs, I just wrote whenever I could, with no real structure in mind. I often wrote as a way to deal with immediate issues as I was growing up and changing, and starting to realise certain things about myself and about the way people see me in the world. As I was coming to terms with all of that, writing was my first means of being able to explain all of these things to myself. But it wasn’t until I got a book deal that my publisher challenged me to find the fiction in that material. By that point, I’d been narrating audiobooks and acting in amateur theatre so I had ideas as to how to create characters using certain methods. I was able to develop their voices. With Norman, for example, I could do enough research and thinking about that character to be able to speak in his voice and dictate a monologue. And that’s what ended up being transcribed into the first section of the novel. I very rarely read the Norman section out loud. I’ve done a lot of readings of Rainbow Milk but this is only the third time I’ve read in Norman’s voice.
ST: It’s a real treat for us to hear it. I am interested in what you were saying about your experience of narrating audiobooks and how it influenced the voice and the register of some of the characters in the novel. I’d like to come back to it, especially in the context of this workshop which centres on biographical fictioning. Could you tell us some more about some of the decisions you made? I know that you were responding to your editor’s [Sharmaine Lovegrove] suggestion to turn the novel from a memoir into fiction, but apart from this change, there are other, quite particular, decisions that you made. For instance, the character of Graham is a clear split from your real life. There are autobiographical elements that you’ve quite deliberately changed. I’m also interested in the structure of the novel in terms of the split between Norman’s story and Jesse’s story. Can you tell us about how you came to the decisions around what was going to be changed, what you decided was not going to be identifiable as you? What was your decision-making process in this regard?
PM: It was random. It was written in the first person for a long time and I had submitted several drafts to my publisher, the latest of which was three months before the original publication date. Obviously, the publication date had to be pushed back but even then, once it was submitted, I emailed my editor three days later and said ‘throw it in the bin, I can’t do it. That’s not what I want to put out. I need the opportunity to switch to the third-person voice’. When you’re working with material that’s so close to your own it doesn’t matter how much you try to change little details and combine characters. When you’re writing in first-person, you’re still in your own head. It’s very difficult to get out of that, especially when you’re dealing with trauma. You’re just reopening old wounds all the time and trying to make them sound better, trying to make them more poetic. I felt like I was being strangled by this material and that I didn’t want to work with it in that way anymore.
It was a very tight, almost congealed text that I had submitted, so I retracted it. Switching to third-person detached Jesse from me and I was able to tell his story. I am a Gemini—Jesse and I are the same but at some point our lives diverge. The character of Robert, Jesse’s father, and his story and background basically links Jesse’s and Norman’s stories. He teaches Jesse something new about art, the world of art and the world of 1980s gay life. And Graham, the adoptive father of Jesse, just came out of nowhere, but I really liked him as a character. I felt like using him as Jesse’s adoptive father was a really good way of demonstrating how white patriarchy and notions of white supremacy are so active in all of our lives. Unlike Jesse, I was raised by a black father, but I feel like I was also raised by white supremacy because of the way it infiltrates everything. I felt like creating this character Graham as a white man raising Jesse would demonstrate that much more clearly, and hopefully it did.
I was talking about Norman earlier. When I first got my book deal in November 2017, it was just a month before the Windrush scandal broke in The Guardian. My grandparents are Jamaican but this was the first time I’d ever heard of the Windrush generation. I’d never thought of them as part of it, one of the most important and consequential migration waves of the 20th century. And my paternal grandfather, very much like Norman, was fit and healthy when he arrived in England in the 1950s, but soon began to suffer migraine headaches and sight loss. Jamaican men don’t go to doctors until it’s almost the end, but he went to a doctor when he was almost blind and the English doctor told him ‘it’s because you’re so tall, you’re so much closer to the sun than the rest of us and the light is very different here than in Jamaica so try to stay out of it.’ I don’t know whether that’s true but everyone in my family said that is what happened, and that’s all I know about him. And because my grandmother couldn’t care for him while raising their two children and working he was sent back to Jamaica to be cared for by family and died sometime later. My dad hadn’t seen him since he was two years old and obviously, at that age, you have no memory. So, when the Windrush scandal broke I started to think about that generation, what their lives would have been like, and what Norman’s life specifically would have been like. And that was how I was able to create that narrative, in terms of creating the character and embodying him and recording him. I used fiction to give him a voice and to reclaim my family and heritage. And I’ve been asked before why I didn’t intersect their stories, but I think it’s much more poignant to have them completely separate. They didn’t know each other, their lives are completely different, and I didn’t have the privilege of knowing my family history until I was in my 30s. But there is a huge generational disconnect, and a huge paternal disconnect in terms of the lines being broken constantly and I was really mindful of that in structuring the novel.
ST: There is a point at which the stories converge, but we can’t discuss this without spoiler alerts!
To go back to thinking about narrative voice and your choice to write in the third-person for Rainbow Milk, I was interested to read ‘The Earth We Inherit’ in the 2021 Daunt Books anthology In the Garden: Essays on Nature and Growing, which is written in first-person but covers some of the same thematic territory as Norman’s story in Rainbow Milk. The essay was published after Rainbow Milk—do you think that having written the novel and seeing it out in the world then allowed you to tell the story directly, in your own voice?
PM: Yes, I think so. I was commissioned to write that essay about two months after the novel came out. It was a really strange one because I was suddenly getting loads of commissions and I didn’t know anything about gardening, really. The other contributors were people like Nigel Slater, Jamaica Kincaid—all of these amazing food and gardening writers. And then me. But I did feel like it was it was something that I could do, because I had already done the research and I’d already thought a lot about my grandparents’ generation and how their gardens were a way of demonstrating their Englishness, a way of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. To anybody walking past their house and looking at the garden, they’d just think it was an English family living there. And this was a world in which, if we’re talking about the 60s, was still a ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ era. It was an era and a region in which Enoch Powell was active—his constituency was down the road from my grandparents. And up the road in the other direction was a Tory MP who ran for the 1964 General Election with the slogan ‘If you want an n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour’. That’s the kind of environment my parents experienced as children. And so, for me, it was a privilege to be able to write and give them a voice, and because I’d already done the research into the flora and fauna of that period for Rainbow Milk it just came easily.
ST: How did you do that research?
PM: I spent a lot of time at the British Library. The day that I recorded the first Norman monologue I spent a whole day at the British Library. It’s such an incredible resource. I found this book of illustrated flowers of Jamaica in the 1950s which was just perfect, so I learned a lot from that.
ST: I’d like to return to an earlier point we discussed. I recently read Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s 2015 novel The Shape of the Ruins which has been described as autofiction. In it, Vásquez writes ‘the true reason why writers write about the places of their childhood and adolescence and even early youth: you don’t write about what you know and understand, but because you understand that all of your knowledge and comprehension are false, like a mirage and an allusion […] All that I thought was so clear, you then think, now turns out to be full of duplicities and hidden intentions, like a friend who betrays us.’1 In relation to this, do you feel that you had a compulsion to write Rainbow Milk as a way to try and make sense of things? In the final chapter of the book Jesse plans to turn up unannounced at his parents’ house ‘to reprogramme his memories’. As we’ve discussed, your life mirrors Jesse’s in some ways. You were subjected to such strict boundaries and surveillance as a Jehovah’s Witness, including self-surveillance, but after being disfellowshipped you were, very abruptly, suddenly free of all those restrictions. Do you feel that writing the book was a way of trying to address this sense of disorientation—a way to fix it in time or anchor it somehow, rather than an attempt to resolve it?
PM: Yes. The Witnesses are anti-LGBT, anti-abortion, anti-feminist, anti-birthdays, anti-Christmas… you know. They indoctrinate their followers into believing that all other religions are false and evil. And they foster a mentality where you’re taught that you’re only safe as a member of their flock, and you’re actually not to associate with anyone outside the organisation beyond what’s necessary in the workplace or at school. You’re discouraged from pursuing further or higher education, and persuaded that all your intellectual needs and questions can be met in the pages of the Bible, and Jehovah’s Witness publications. You’re taught that God created the heavens and the earth in seven days, and that we’re descended from literal Adam and Eve. Witnesses believe that the three main races of white, brown, and black are descended from Shem, Ham and Japhet, that humans have only been on the planet for a few thousand years and lots of things like that. And I believed it, I believed all of that. I wasn’t born into the organisation but my mum got baptised when I was four so I accompanied her when she was being given her Bible studies for at least two years before that and then I was going to the meetings for three evenings a week from the age of four to seventeen. I was totally indoctrinated…
ST: And in addition to the meetings you’d also be knocking on doors trying to recruit people. All of these activities take up a lot of time and leave you with very little space and time of your own to think things through.
PM: Exactly. You put your head in this cauldron and you don’t take it out. During school holidays I’d devote sixty hours a month to preaching door to door, and I loved it, and it was a great community. I defended those beliefs for years, even after I left, because that’s who you are, that’s kind of what defines you. Engaging in sex work was the first thing that really kind of cut through all of that for me. I could really shake myself out of my moral complacency. At that point I still believed that anyone who wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness was evil and that you [gestures to the audience] were all going to die because you don’t worship Jehovah, you don’t pray to Jehovah through Jesus Christ. And I got to the point that I just couldn’t live with that because the people who should have been there to support me and give me unconditional love weren’t doing that, while many of the people I’d come into contact with outside of the organisation were lovely and wanted me to do better and to have a good life.
Writing was the other thing that helped me to move past it because I was able to acknowledge that just because I wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness anymore didn’t mean that I was suddenly free of those restrictions or boundaries. I realised that they were still tripping me up all the time because everything that I learned or did or thought had to measure up against that doctrine. And when you’ve built up this complex of knowledge, to de-indoctrinate yourself is very, very, very difficult. I sort of think of it, indoctrination, as like receiving an electric shock—it’s instant, it’s there. But the healing afterwards, or de-indoctrination is a long, long, long, long process and something you won’t ever get over. So, writing for me has been therapeutic but it’s also where I can be angry. It’s where I can organise my thoughts and give myself something to replace the centre of gravity that I lost.
ST: Thank you for sharing that, Paul. In terms of losing your centre of gravity, this is particularly the case with a religion like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Because they are a relatively small, niche religion, it’s very difficult to meet other people who’ve been through anything near the same experience. If you’re a lapsed Catholic, for example, there are lots of other people you could meet that have had similar experiences but for a former Jehovah’s Witness it can be an incredibly isolating experience.
You’ve just been talking about Jesse’s journey, and your own, from Jehovah’s Witness to sex worker, so clearly the central themes of the novel concern race, gender and sexuality. But what’s been discussed less in the reviews that I’ve read is your focus on class or the sense of being from the Black Country, from outside the metropolitan centre. So, as well as all of these other key themes, there is a regional or parochial voice at play. At the end of the book Jesse seems to finally be flourishing, to feel comfortable in the more middle-class milieu he now inhabits. What I found interesting were the moments where this new confidence is disrupted. In one passage Jesse and his partner go to visit wealthy friends in the countryside and Jesse has a moment of self-consciousness when he tries to speak about the art displayed in the house and he becomes acutely aware of his relative lack of cultural capital in those surroundings. You also also write a lot about Jesse’s changing accent and use of dialect. I wondered how you navigated this as a writer and as a commentator on Black British literature?
PM: Well, I am from a working-class background, but I think there’s a certain expectation attached to becoming a writer and becoming a published author that sort of transcends class in many people’s minds. So, if you’re a published author, you can’t necessarily be working class anymore. I find that very difficult to navigate in my life because now I am known as a writer in certain circles, and as a reviewer and critic. So, in those circles I do have cultural capital, but when I’m in spaces where nobody knows who I am, when I’m just sort of going about my day doing my shopping, etc., I’m just another black guy in a world that fears black male presence.
I did a talk at a university in London a couple months ago and I met the tutor/host outside and when he tried to bring me into the building with his pass the security guards told us that we had to go around the other side. So, I ran to the other side, and we tried to get in and another security guard stopped us and said ‘who is this person? Where’s his pass?’ But five minutes before the same tutor had walked through the same entrance with another author who I’d been talking a few minutes earlier and they walked straight in. No pass, no questions. The other author was a white woman, another debut author. So, it seems very clear to me that because of my black masculinity, or what they think is black masculinity, I am being treated differently. That’s always a really difficult thing to manage, that as a black person, I would literally have to be Beyoncé before people like that could take me seriously for who I am, and that’s not gonna happen. But the other thing I’ll say is that I suffered with impostor syndrome really badly, and that’s partly down to my identity as a black working-class, gay man and not having many kinds of literary forebears but also because my novel came out in the spring of 2020, during lockdown, so it of got a lot of attention very quickly. And then George Floyd was murdered and I was suddenly being targeted all the time by people asking questions, asking to be to be educated on certain issues which I was still working out for myself, like my place in the world—I’m still working on all of these things. Rainbow Milk was my way of starting a conversation, not my way of saying, ‘oh, I have all of this knowledge and experience. And I’ve put it into a book. There you go’. Rainbow Milk is me saying, ‘I need to start something and this is my proof of entry’. I’ve been extremely lucky to have some great gigs come my way since I was published because I proved what I could do in the novel, but fulfilling them has usually been really difficult, because I’m still learning—I’m still at Uni doing my MA at Goldsmiths [in Black British Literature], but I’m also a reviewer at the LRB [London Review of Books]; it’s just really weird.
This country still has a big problem with accent bias. I realised from my late teens/early twenties that I would have to change my accent in order to be taken seriously, being from the very un-literary Black Country. I’ve also seen reader reviews lamenting my choice to render Norman’s monologue in Jamaican patois, as if Literature can only be sold wrapped in standard English. My use of dialects in the novel is my way of reclaiming agency for myself and other voices not usually seen at the cultural centre, but whose lives and experiences are no less interesting or poetic.
ST: I’d like to ask a question about audience. You’ve spoken about your first encounter with the work of James Baldwin, which is reenacted by Jesse in Rainbow Milk, and how transformative that discovery was for you as a young man, and through your work as a novelist, student and critic, you’ve demonstrated a deep commitment to Black literature. Did you have an intention to try to reach beyond the typical literary fiction readership with Rainbow Milk?
PM: I didn’t think of an audience when I was writing the book but I did think of certain individuals that I hoped would appreciate my writing. I didn’t think of marketing myself towards any specific group, but since the book has been published the feedback has been that people from all walks of life have read the book. A lot of ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, a lot of people who’ve never read a book like this before, and then people who were reading more during lockdown and heard of Rainbow Milk, picked it up and had no expectation that they’d be confronted with a story or characters like that. Writers just starting out should hope to be surprised by the audience they attract but I think with future work there are certainly people in the world I’d would like to communicate with or slot alongside. There are people with whom I’d like to be in sibling-hood and open up certain conversations.
I don’t just want to talk about identity, but it is really important when you’re still kind of experiencing racism or gender dysphoria. And we still live in a world in which LGBTQ+ issues are still coming into question such as the recent news and decision in Parliament to uphold certain forms of conversion therapy for trans people, etc. Also, growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness and always having the idea of another world in your head, I want to sort of discover what the new version of that would be for me. You know, are we talking about black queer utopias? Are we talking about Afro Futurism and things like that? Things that I’ve admired from afar, but never really discovered. I’m really looking forward to this next kind of tranche of reading for me: Audre Lorde, Octavia E. Butler, Samuel R. Delany, various theoretical authors. I’ve never given myself the opportunity to examine the peripherals of my experience, or to theorise, or communicate with other people who are doing that so I think my future work will be more specific on some of those things.
ST: I’m interested in your pursuit of an alternative ‘other world’ which might replace the paradise you’d been promised as a Jehovah’s Witness, as detailed in the essay ‘The Earth I Inherit’, which we discussed earlier. The obstacles and the challenges of being brought up a Jehovah’s Witness are really clearly and very devastatingly articulated in Rainbow Milk. Do you think those experiences have had any positive impact on your life and career as a writer? Is there anything that you’ve been able to take from a negative experience and use in a constructive way?
PM: The only thing I would say is, I was taught rhetorical skills from a very young age. I was giving public bible readings from the age of nine and that gave me a special kind of confidence in terms of being able to speak to a large audience and be convinced of my own argument, and sell that rapport. I mean you’re nine years old, and you’re looking at 120 people who are looking back at you. You give your little introduction, then you read your fifteen verses, and then you present a conclusion that’s appropriate to the needs of the congregation. Beyond that, it just gave me something to rail against.
I just wish I’d been indoctrinated with the truth, not with all of the things I outlined earlier. And the irony is, the witnesses call themselves ‘the truth’. Are you in ‘the truth’? Is she in ‘the truth’? And it’s not. Not for me. And who’s to know what a child’s truth is, until the child is old enough to grow up and figure that out for themselves? To grow in pursuit of your own philosophies, to paraphrase Stuart Hall. So, I guess if great art comes out of the friction of being indoctrinated in one way and having to deconstruct that and rebuild myself in a new image, then yes, that’s a privilege that I have.
ST: My last question is about art. We have a lot of artists and writers in the audience and many of us are connected to The Glasgow School of Art as part of the studio-based Art Writing programme who arranged this event. Your use of visual description in Rainbow Milk is really striking, from descriptions of Norman’s garden to the sex scenes, working in restaurants, interiors and so on. I was particularly interested in the character of Robert Alonso who only appears in the novel indirectly through Jesse’s encounter with one of his paintings. Jesse discovers that Alonso was a black, gay painter who had been active in the 1980s and was associated with the Blk Art Group in the West Midlands. Was the character based on a particular artist or work? Can you tell us more about your interest in art?
PM: I grew up in the Black Country and Wolverhampton School of Art is where the Blk Art Group was founded in 1979. I didn’t find out about them until about five years ago even though I’d known Keith Piper, one of the members, for quite a long time. He was teaching Fine Art at Middlesex and a schoolfriend was doing an MA there, so I met him through her. I had left the Midlands assuming there was no culture there so it was fascinating to me to discover that there had been a group of artists working there in the late 70s and early 80s who would go on to become key figures in the Black Arts Movement. To discover that the epicentre of black cultural artistic heritage in the UK was down the road from me. Through the character of Robert Alonso, I wanted to think about what it might have been like to be a queer person during that time, because black radicalism and queer radicalism don’t always meet in a particularly easy way. There are a lot of conversations that aren’t really being had between the two, and it can feel like there are two separate camps rather than one enmeshed group. I didn’t base Robert on anyone in particular but I took a little bit of some of the Blk Art Group artists and also thought a lot about Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Ajamu, both black gay male artists working in the medium of a black male body. The painting I imagined—that was ascribed to Robert Alonso—was called Nude with Othello and it’s a self-portrait of a black, gay, nude man holding a rose. It’s a genus of rose called Othello, which was developed in Wolverhampton, so there a nice kind of circularity there. I don’t know why I wanted Robert to be a painter—that’s just where my research went. It was as though I was doing the research and then found a character to embody it. I wasn’t able to do much in the pages of the novel, but Rainbow Milk is being adapted for television, by me, and I will get the opportunity to flesh out his character a lot more—to actually see him in the process of making this piece of work.
I once read a quote ‘the better you look, the more you see.’ It was on the cover of FHM Collections, a men’s fashion biannual, and was meant to be ironic, but I took its literal sense to heart with my lingering visual descriptions. Because of Jesse’s class, race, religious background and work choices, most of the audience will be unfamiliar with some, if not all, of his experiences. So, it felt necessary to allow Jesse to show us life from his point of view; hidden in the minutiae should be the real story of who he is, where he came from and where he is going.
Paul Mendez’s Ideal Syllabus
Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings: like The Godfather but set in 1970s Jamaica. A revolutionary, post-punk, dub-reggae riot.
Alan Hollinghurst – The Line of Beauty: the first gay novel to win the Booker Prize did so during my first few months living in London as an out gay man, and I sought refuge in it.
Bernardine Evaristo – The Emperor’s Babe (or Girl, Woman, Other). Both are perfectly-pitched experiments in form that are funny, moving, and clever.
Hazel V. Carby – Imperial Intimacies | A Tale of Two Islands: riveting and instructive examination of both sides of the biracial author’s family, tracing all the way back to the Jamaican plantocracy of the eighteenth century.
Jeremy Atherton Lin – Gay Bar: one of the best books of any kind published in the last five years; scholarly and conversational, like someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of queer history holding court over a pint.
Ed. Amelia Abraham – We Can Do Better Than This: writers and cultural icons from across the queer spectrum speak out on where our radicalism should go next—even more relevant post-Roe v. Wade.
James Baldwin – Notes of a Native Son: the book that taught me that everything I complacently accepted as truth had to be refiltered through my own Black, queer, agnostic subjectivity.
Stuart Hall with Bill Schwartz – Familiar Stranger: the most accessible and revealing of Stuart Hall’s texts, his politics and theories are seamlessly weaved through his autobiography. I can’t imagine a more generous, humane and brilliant person.
Biographical Fictioning Proceedings, April 2022