JV Portela

(Mirror) As the global movements for sexual and gender equality have intensified over the last 50 years, queer storytellers continue to hold an integral role. Queer stories connect us, and they can convey what queer utopian ideals look like in action. Storytellers help us remember what is at stake.

Earlier this year, moderator Dylan Barallobre convened a panel of queer writers at the Books & Books in Suniland to discuss what it’s like to be a queer author in South Florida in 2018. Christopher Alonso, Cathleen Chambless, JV Portela, and Freesia McKee shared lessons from their journeys in writing and publishing. Some of these responses are included below.

What has your experience been like writing and publishing as a queer author?

Christopher Alonso:Writing as a queer person has forced me to become hyperaware of how I read and engage with my own work and that of others. While in an MFA program, I was nervous to share my work as most of it dealt with queer characters and themes. As the only out queer person that I knew of in the workshop, I was afraid that my fiction would be critiqued differently than that of others. That wasn’t the case, except for one isolated incident. As a Cuban-American, I also write about Latinx people, all of them queer, so Spanglish dialogue and narration often made others uncomfortable and “pulled them out of the story.” However, after finally selling my first professional story, the editors of the magazine never once batted an eye at the queer characters or Spanglish. I realized that people are hungry for stories where they might see themselves reflected, stories that paint their world the way they see and live it. I think that’s the beauty of many online short fiction publications, and I can only hope this trend continues for others as it has for me.

What kind of feedback have you gotten regarding you and your work?

JV Portela:The heart of the suffering inherent to my poetic practice has been confusion about whether to write in Spanish, my native language, or English, my adopted language. If I choose English, there’s a stop/start process. I spend time thinking, “What’s that word in English?” when it’s coming to me only in Spanish. When I’m writing a poem in both, I don’t have to make those kinds of choices. The process is lubricated, to put it in queer terms.

Eventually, I resolved to write in both languages at once. I started sharing these poems because I was excited at the ease and the drive of moving between both. My mother’s rejection of these poems has more to do with migrant shame and fear of not understanding, but a lot of my peers, especially peers who did not speak Spanish, would share feedback like, “That part of your poem is alienating. I can’t connect. It seems like you don’t want me to understand.”

It’s ironic, considering that poems are not about being understood. You’re not picking up a phone to tell somebody something. My poems are centered on my experience. They are coming out of a personal language. The idea that I would be trying to entertain anything other than confusing someone was already funny, but also, my peers were replicating the colonial logic of English’s primacy. It’s not just a rejection of Spanish. It’s a rejection of poetry, which is a rejection of difference. They’re saying, “I’m uncomfortable with being uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable with not understanding.” That, to me, sounds like being uncomfortable with poetry. 

Who was your first LGBT literary inspiration?

Cathleen Chambless:My first LGBT literary inspiration was Michelle Tea. Her novel “Valencia” specifically inspired me. She wrote about being a young queer punk growing up in the Castro in the 90s. She was completely unapologetic in the way she wrote, so unapologetically queer. Michelle Tea gave me the permission I [needed] to write the way I wanted to, and still want to.

How, in your opinion, has LGBT literature evolved in your lifetime?

Freesia McKee: In society at large, there are more allies than there were 15 or 20 years ago, but I think that many of these allies are still reluctant to read queer authors. The types of queer narratives that enjoy more attention these days tend to remain limited. Sarah Schulman recently made the point in her Publishing Triangle Award speechthat there is little correlation between quality and reward. This is important to remember as we think about how queer lit will evolve in the future and as we make decisions as readers about what books to pick up. There’s also the question of who has the time and space to write stories in the first place, and who must devote all or most of their time and energy to surviving day-to-day. We need to face the fact that queer lit simply does not yet contain a full range of experiences, which is exacerbated by bias and gatekeeping in the business of publishing. This is why it’s important for writers to also be activists. I think that in some ways, the survival of our society depends on it.

What advice would you give to young, aspiring writers?

Cathleen Chambless: Write fearlessly. If anyone tries to stifle your voice, telling you to "tone it down," flat-out refuse. It's not your job to make your narrative "appropriate" for a mainstream/heteronormative audience. So many other queer folks are waiting to hear your voice. You never know who you will inspire, or what movement you can start just by unapologetically expressing yourself. Also, workshop with fellow queer writers. They will immediately understand what you are trying to express, and they will help you take your work to new levels because of this unique understanding. Community is everything, really. It's important for queer artists to support each other and get to know each other, even across artistic genres. I have done some really excellent collaborations this way, just by mixing genres with other queer artists. 


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