james

God Says No is James Hannaham’s funny, sad, and very touching debut novel.

God Says No tells the tale of Gary Gray, an over-weight, fervently-Christian, unmistakably-homosexual, black man from Charleston, NC. In his quest to rid himself of the “sin” of homosexuality, Gray hurtles through a 1980’s era southern landscape looking for solace, redemption and the occasional hot piece of trade.

Gary tries everything to quiet his torment and his conflicting man-on-man desires: exorcism, heterosexual marriage, reparative therapy, indulgence, prayer, avant-garde silent theater, and even multiple trips to Disney Land.

“From revival meetings to out life in Atlanta to a pray-away-the-gay ministry in Memphis,” God Says No takes the reader through one young man’s warped journey through Americana in hopes of finding self and salvation.

James Hannaham has written for the Village Voice, Spin, Blender, Out, Us, New York Magazine. His fiction has appeared in The Literary Review, Nerve.com, Open City and several anthologies. He currently teaches creative writing at Pratt Institute.

Mr. Hannaham was kind enough to grace MARY with an interview:

Who are some writers that you love and why?

Southern American writers have a lot of great raw material to grapple with, so I find myself really drawn to them, especially the ones with a wicked sense of humor. Flannery O’Connor, John Kennedy Toole, Richard Wright, Truman Capote, Ralph Ellison, Ellen Gilchrist, etc. Lately I’ve been enjoying Faulkner. But my North Star right now is Sherwood Anderson, the writer who mentored a lot of the more frequently read Modernists like Hemingway and Faulkner, and who they kept trying to imitate (and sometimes parodied). I also like great writing in translation—Yukio Mishima, Halldór Laxness, and I just read Five Spice Street by Can Xue—she’s one of China’s heavyweights—that I found really unusual and extremely funny. The kind of eccentric book an American probably wouldn’t write and would have trouble getting published. And my pals: Susan Steinberg, Anthony Tognazzini, Susan Briante, Jennifer Egan, Jim Lewis, Joshua Furst, Martha Southgate, Matthew Aaron Goodman, etc. And my students. And a ton of non-fiction writers. And anonymous people who write bad advertising copy. I never know where to stop with this question.

There is some very evocative and beautiful writing in your book; at the same time, the story is realistically told in Gary’s voice. No easy feat. How tricky was balancing the beauty of the word with the truth of the character?

Thanks for that compliment. One of the things writing a novel for such a long time does is that it teaches you how to write that novel. Gary’s voice is very particular and peculiar, it does things I wouldn’t normally do, and he often simplifies ideas I would ordinarily take more time and maybe larger words to say. You could say that Gary’s voice is a kind of a restraint that curbs some of my bad habits. A lot of the process of editing the book consisted of removing my own voice and doing something I called “Bill Clintonizing”—taking a complicated concept and distilling it into something simple and down-home. I didn’t think much about it being difficult work because it was fun to see the world the way Gary does, with his weird brand of innocence and wonder.

There is a genre of “coming out” books, like the memoir The Best Little Boy in the World, where the tracts seem to be pretty much the same: Attractive Boy comes from an attractive, prominent family; family has great expectations for Boy; Boy is full of self-loathing; Boy is depressed; Boy eventually finds his own voice and place in gay culture; Boy finds attractive boyfriend; and finally, Boy finds happy ending. But with this novel you upend that narrative. Do you feel you were offering a correction on the “traditional” coming out story?

I wouldn’t call it a correction, exactly, I’d call it a “new spin.” It seemed like the right moment for a book about making it through the Tunnel of Self-Hatred all gay people have to crawl through, but not one that necessarily emphasized political empowerment, positive images, or the healing feelings of self-acceptance; I meant to create something a sort of complicated and tragicomic, that had, perhaps, the ungainly texture, desperation, and tackiness of a real American life, where no one decision you make results in a completely satisfying and fulfilling “answer” to your problems, although you’ve hoped for that in an almost insane way.

As a writer born in Yonkers and now living in NYC, why was it important to make Gary Gray a Southerner? Do you feel a story like Gary’s can happen in a city like NYC?

I felt that he should be from Charleston, specifically, because of that city’s gorgeous and intense repression. The repression there is so strong that it’s architectural. This is a beautiful city where everyone downtown has a back garden filled with flowers, but keeps it hidden from public view with a high wall. The buildings themselves are turned away from the street. It’s a marvel of sensuality and denial; the two are locked in a fierce cage-match. There are many other reasons, though—sadly, I only have space here to name a few. A branch of my family comes from South Carolina, but the generation ahead of me has largely avoided too much direct discussion of family history there, so that has created a fascination for me. There’s actually a town outside Charleston called Hanahan (my last name was transformed by my grandfather, supposedly because we were children of Ham), and I haven’t found the connection yet, but I’m sure it has something to do with my last name, and I suspect that there’s a bitter slave tale to go with it. And here’s another reason: As I was growing up in Yonkers and going to its public schools, the Federal Government and the NAACP sued the school system for segregation and the City of Yonkers lost the case. This was in the 80s. My mother was a reporter who covered the story for a Westchester radio station, and every night I would hear her playing back tapes of black politicians describing Yonkers as “up South.” So the thought that the racism and discrimination people associate with the South couldn’t occur in the North was always kind of silly to me. Especially with the famous incidents that occurred in Bensonhurst and Howard Beach during my adolescence. So to make a long story short, a lot of the things that happen to Gary are based on things I heard or experienced from gay life in the North, but as fiction, they seemed more at home in the South.

Gary Gray loves Disney! Any ideas why Disney resonates with so many in the gay community? It does not seem to be a camp apperception or ironic.

At base I think it’s about attempting to return to innocence, being able to go, physically, but also mentally, to a place where you didn’t know how to be repressed, or that people might hate you for being who you are. There’s a sort of utopian atmosphere there. Years ago I wrote a piece for the Village Voice about going to Gay Day at Disney, the second or third year they did it, and it made a huge impression on me. It was like a massive Queer Nation demonstration done in a totally middlebrow, mainstream context. I found it utterly fascinating how everything took on a campier aspect just because of the context.

I read a review in which the writer mentions that she was skeptical about reading the novel because she had heard it was about a man on the “Down Low.” Is there a distinction between a man on the D.L. and Gary Gray—a man who struggles with the “sin” of homosexuality and actively tries to convert to heterosexuality?

Gary isn’t the sort of guy who would use that expression. He’s not enough in touch with hip things like African American slang to realize that he’s technically on the “down low.” He’s the kind of GBM who even other GBMs can’t quite clock because he’s mainstreamed himself out of visibility, on purpose. I thought that this was another very interesting paradox for him to have to face—how can you be a “normal guy” in America when you’re black and gay? Does “normal” need redefinition? Yet I feel like I’ve met black gay men who have done that, at least on the surface.

There is whole line of fiction/memoirs, some more nuanced then others, concerning the so called “DL” phenomena. You could say E. Lynn Harris popularized the form. These books are immensely popular with both men and women. (I saw a woman at book fair this year selling a novel called I Got Pregnant from a DL Thug!, which is probably the apotheosis of the genre.) Do you have any ideas why these books strike such a particular chord with in the culture?

Black people love paranoia, don’t we? We have a lot to thank paranoia for. Paranoia, I would wager, is a big part of the reason we’ve managed to survive some of the more gothic aspects of black history. We’ve needed to imagine some really horrible scenarios in order to avoid having them happen to us. We have a tradition of paranoiac thinking to thank for getting us through many struggles, but fortunately paranoia can provide entertainment and education at the same time. So I guess these books serve the same purpose those Betty Wright songs from the 70s, you know, in which Betty tells her girlfriends to beware of “The Babysitter,” and “The Clean-Up Woman,”—they’ll get your man, so don’t sleep, ladies. They’re saying the same thing, only now it’s “The Clean-Up Man.” They’re cautionary tales—they allow us to revel in the scandalous story but also make us hip to something that could devastate our own lives if it takes us by surprise.

In your research for the novel, did you get a chance to visit any of the places that offer reparative/conversion therapy?

I decided not to do that, although I came close to going to a chapter in New Hampshire. I didn’t want to go under false pretenses, mostly because I knew that I’d be like Miquel in that last scene, cutting up and making lewd comments, and I didn’t think I could convince anyone that I was struggling with my feelings about homosexuality—unless that meant how I could get laid. So instead I found a listserv of guys who referred to themselves as “ex-ex-gays”—and after I wrote a draft of that section, I convinced one of the guys on the listserv to read it and give me notes.

Reparative/Conversion therapy has been in the news a lot lately with The American Psychological Association (APA) denouncing reparative therapy and James Dobson’s anti-gay Focus on the Family organization selling off its ex-gay therapy program called “Love Won Out” because of lack of funds. Do you feel the conversion movement is losing steam?

For the moment, it would seem so, but there could always be a backlash. Those of us with progressive politics often have a tendency to presume that progress goes in one direction only, but I have my doubts. (There’s that black paranoia coming in, eh?) Look at what’s happening with gay rights around the world—the U.S. is not perfect, but it’s certainly one of the safest places on earth to be gay. “Love Won Out” could open chapters in Iraq or Nigeria or Jamaica and revive their whole enterprise—not that I care to give them any ideas. But as far as their target audience, with all the information out there, especially on the Internet, it is much easier to find out that you are not alone as a gay man and that there are gay men who live perfectly happy lives and some of them are even religious. So as the general public becomes less ignorant about what gay people’s lives actually consist of, organizations like “Love Won Out” may find themselves drying up.

In the beginning of the novel, you mention the concept of simultaneously hating one thing/person more than loving another: “Russ hates me more than he loves Christ.” The central tension in your novel is seemingly that—one kind of love or one kind of hate trumping/fighting another. (And even in popular discourse this concept seems to surface: some people seem to hate abortion more than they love life.) Do you see a parallel with that concept and way some people view the world?

For some reason I was thinking today about the heady brew of confusion that incident sets off in Gary’s life. Because the problem isn’t simply that Russ hates Gary more than Christ, right, it’s that Gary also loves Russ and Christ. As I think about it now, I suppose it was a way of suggesting that Christ isn’t so much of an Old Testament guy, and that his messages of tolerance and admonitions against hypocrisy should really preclude hating people because of who they fall in love with. So what gives? Is nobody listening?

Most all of the characters’ sexual encounters occur in Parks or Bathroom stalls. I often wonder if the internet is killing off the culture of ‘Tea room’ and ‘Park’ encounters. In my head it’s an end of a historic outdoor cruising era. How would a character like Gary Gray interact in the age of cyberspace cruising?

Honey, the only way to test that theory out is to do some field research. Start with www.cruisingforsex.com, I’m sure you’ll have some wonderful sexual encounters in parks, in backrooms, and in bathroom stalls that will prove to you that gay public sex is still alive and well. You’ll probably find half the U.S. Senate in there—maybe you could get them to take a vote on repealing DOMA and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

In response to your article on Salon.com about the arrest of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, one reader wrote: “Personally I think Gates was hiding something (drug dealer or gay lover) and that’s why he started to act up.” How would you respond to this?

I would say, “Jackass.”

In a TimeOut New York review, you told writer Sean Kennedy that you had friends who were “rewriting their novels in order to please their agents, surrendering completely their artistic merit in order to get published.” What advice would you give to a yet-to-be published writer who wants to maintain some artistic merit?

Maybe I’d tell her to go off someplace far from New York and work on her drafts and read writers who aren’t writing books whose stories sound like movie plots. I’d tell her not to worry about who got how much money for what book, or who went to school where or got what job or prize or publication. I’d say to her, the only real competition a writer is involved in is between herself and the grave. I’d tell her to consider her work in relation to what’s happening in other art forms—visual art, foreign cinema, architecture—and to know things, and to talk and think hard about current events and politics and the world, and have and cultivate opinions, to always have some kind of axe to grind, and to worry about writing good sentences and making good art of the sort that may not enrich you now, but will enrich others in the future. One of the most wonderful qualities of literature is that it gives the dead a voice in the present. Try to say something with your work, I’d advise this aspiring writer, that people will need to hear even after you’re dead.

Did you have to give up anything editorially to get this book published?

Not sure what this means, exactly. God Says No was edited very thoroughly, but the main elements remained in place. Nobody said, “Maybe Gary should be straight, or white, so we can sell this book to Hollywood,” and if they had, I would have gone elsewhere.

How did you get hooked up with McSweeney’s, a publishing house not known for showcasing gay themed literature?

Well first of all, I guess, by not looking for a publisher based on the thematic content of the book…? But seriously, my friend and den mother, the novelist Jennifer Egan, was instrumental in getting the manuscript to the three small-yet-reputable publishers we decided to send it to. At the time, I didn’t have an agent and we had become frustrated in our search, so we decided to cut out the middle man, as it were, and McSweeney’s expressed interest (as did the other two, to our delight) so we didn’t question their gay-theme track record. Or we figured it was something they wanted to try, or I guess we assumed they didn’t care if the book was gay—they loved it for who it was.

I went on Amazon.com and checked out what the people who bought your book were also buying. They bought Grizzly’s Bear’s album “Veckatimest”, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, and The Evolution of God by Robert Wright. All wildly disparate picks, but the one that interested me the most was The Evolution of God. In the book, game theorist Robert Wright maps the continual transformation of faith from the Stone Age to the Information Age. Wright finds that over time, religions in general are becoming more compassionate, more moral, more humane. He feels religions are getting “better” with each passing eon. “The march of history challenges people to expand their range of sympathy and understanding, to enlarge their moral imaginations, to share the perspective of people ever farther away,” he argues. Heady stuff.What are your thoughts on the evolution of religion within the last couple of decades, or even years? Are our religions really becoming more evolved?

I like the Grizzly Bear record, and I’m certainly flattered to be mentioned alongside Pynchon. The Robert Wright book sounds very interesting as well. Maybe I’ll become one of those also-buyers myself—though I have the Grizzly Bear album already, and quite enough copies of my own book. The biggest leap religion could possibly take would be the worldwide abolition of the monotheistic belief in one true faith. One of the worst ideas in the history of man. Sure, it’s good marketing, but you don’t have to be a Tutsi listening to a radio broadcast directed at Hutus to know to what evil purposes people can use marketing. It creates more converts to claim that your religion is the only real one, but it also brings people to a point where the only way to continue a conversation about faith is to kill each other. Religion could use a big leap or two right about now.

Support the arts and sodomy in one fell swoop, buy this book.

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