Debut novelist Joseph Cassara on the complexity of telling humane queer stories
The year is 2018 and the media landscape has been tinted by the seven colors of the rainbow. The spotlight placed on queer story lines has intensified since they’ve begun entering the awards conversation in a major way (Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name) and proving themselves as entertainment juggernauts (hallelo, RuPaul’s Drag Race!).
Enter Joseph Cassara’s debut novel, The House of Impossible Beauties, a tragic and beautiful story about the Harlem queer ball scene (as witnessed in the acclaimed 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning). Cassara tells the story of Venus, Daniel, Juanito, and Daniel, all Latin-LGBTQ characters based on real people, as they love, hurt, grow, and assert their identity during a fascinating, if also excruciating, time for queer culture: New York in the ’80s. Even as queer stories have emerged more robustly in pop culture, House of Impossible Beauties is rich, nuanced, and passionate in a way that feels impressively fresh.
In an intimate and frank conversation, Cassara spoke with EW about resurrecting the 1980s Harlem ball scene for The House of Impossible Beauties, exploring the harsh reality of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the responsibility of telling humane queer stories. Read on below, and pre-order the book ahead of its Feb. 6 release here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You didn’t experience the queer scene in ’80s New York, yet you manage to resurrect it with such vivid detail here — tell me about the process behind creating the world of House of Xtravaganza.
JOSEPH CASSARA: First it started with the documentary Paris is Burning: besides watching it a thousand times, trying to look for different things each time that I was watching it, sometimes I was looking for the setting, others I was looking at the clothes, other times I was just watching for the speech patterns in the characters. Outside of the documentary I just started creating an archive on my laptop, just a folder — I would add photos to it that I would find online or links to articles with interviews that people had done about their experiences at Paradise Garage, for example. I also listened to a lot of music of the time. I was trying to find as much information as I could and just steep myself in everything and just absorb it, so that when I went to the page later I felt comfortable enough with what things looked like and what things sounded like.
For many readers, the world in which your characters feel, love, and die is seemingly distant, but in reality, the book takes place only 30 or so years ago. Why was it important for you to highlight this specific time in queer history?
This felt like an important kind of turning point in queer history because there was a shift happening. HIV/AIDS sort of forced that shift. I just find that time period to be really fascinating [as well as] our relationship in the present day to that time period, because it still feels far enough in the past where there’s a distance, right? But it also feels close enough to us that it’s in our recent memory. A lot of people knew people who died of AIDS, but there are also a lot of people who were not alive in that time period. The way we talk about it or tell ourselves stories about it, we’re just trying to make sense of it as a society.
As it stands today queer culture and life is completely different than what you portray in your novel, but some of the themes you touch on — family, self-acceptance, violence, love, and tragedy — feel timely. Why is that?
Yeah, I keep thinking about Prep and the access of Prep and how that is changing queer culture. We’re seeing a resurgence in bathhouses and sex parties and things that were happening in the 1970s before AIDS. Things like that are coming back because of the pill. But I also feel that the pill itself represents access and privilege because if you don’t have health insurance the pill is unattainable. The characters in the book are like the people who don’t have access to Prep today. Statistically speaking, they are people of color, queer, sex workers and they live in urban centers. Hector’s diagnosed with HIV and he dies [in the novel], which wouldn’t necessarily happen today because of medication [and] the Medicaid system, but a lot of the harsh realities of the book, about privilege, access, money, acceptance, and family, still feel really relevant.
Angel, Venus, Juanito, and Daniel are all proud Latin characters — unlike any current queer figures, in literature or media that I can think of. It was refreshing to see that. Why did you choose to write specifically about Latin queer life?
Well I’m Latin and I’m queer and I feel like when I was growing up there was just no one. You would turn on the TV, watch a movie or read a book and I just did not have access to anyone that remotely looked like me, sounded like me, or had the same desires as me and that was really frustrating. When I started writing I was writing kind of really boring white narratives, like white suburban narratives, because that’s what I thought I needed to write — that’s what I thought was being published, right? Writing bad parodies of New Yorker stories, which is hilarious in hindsight. I was this 18-year-old writing about suburban couples who were getting divorced, and what do I know about that? Eventually I came to a point where I was just like, “I need to be true to the stories that I want to tell and the characters that feel emotionally connected to things that I’m hearing and seeing with my friends.”
I was just writing these exercises imagining fictional characters meeting actual people from the documentary and I realized I wanted to extend that into a novel. As I was writing it felt important to represent lives that the media really doesn’t focus on very much. I’ve been surprised with the reception of the book in the past couple of months, because, I mean, it’s a novel about queer people, about Latin people, about people who live in poverty, and I think that each of these categories have been historically ignored by New York publishing. So for all three of them together to get this kind of attention is surprising to me, in a very delightful way. It gives me hope that other stories will get attention also in the future.
I specifically want to talk about Juanito and Daniel. I fell in love with their young love and dreams, but they suffered so much. How complicated was it to achieve that balance?
In the documentary, the very beginning before everything starts, there are these two boys — they must be 12 or 13, they’re super young. One has his arm around the other one, it kind of looks like they’re lovers or best friends. I kind of always envisioned their face when I was writing; I was sort of haunted by them. I knew that the documentary was filmed at a time when a lot of the characters didn’t realize they were HIV-positive. So I imagined those boys, are they still alive today? Is one of them still alive? They were so cute, so adorable, and so free. When I started writing I didn’t realize their love story was going to be part of [the book], but then I started writing those early scenes and they’re flirting, then it clicked. I wrote more scenes with just them together and those scenes were a lot of fun to write because they were slow and it was just the two of them and I got to concentrate on their bodies and how they were relating to each other. It was really emotional and intimate for me to write because I was directing the process of them falling in love.
Despite all the tragedy and travesties the characters endure — family violence, sex work, etc. — there is an underlying theme of humanity that connects their lives, and their need for love and family.
Absolutely, I felt that focusing on their humanity was really important. First of all, there are so many harrowing things that happen to them that if the book didn’t take breaks to focus on them eating ice cream with each other or eating cheesecake together and feeling like breathing human beings who are also enjoying their moments together — I wanted to show their full range of experience of life. I didn’t want it to just be tragedy porn. I didn’t want it to feel exploitative. I really wanted the novel to feel deeply human, and how do you do that? You show them falling in love, laughing, you explore their dreams and we understand why they have those dreams and what those dreams mean to them, especially how they feel if they’re denied those dreams. When I think about the lives of the actual people involved, the people that the book is based on, they died so young and that feels so unfair to me. A lot of the book is still speculation because there are a lot of gaps in history, but I wanted to, in a fictional way, pay tribute to them by capturing their lives because I don’t want any part of Queer history to ever be lost or erased.
Tell me about the book cover, which is stunning.
Sara Wood did the cover and the first image that was shown to me was just the face with no rainbow filter over it. It was just kind of dark and so I asked if there was something they could do to the photo to make it less dark. Then they added the diamonds and the shimmer, which if you catch it in certain light the filter literally shimmers. But what makes this cover for me is the androgynous face, you don’t know if this is a cis-gendered man who is dressing as a woman or if this is a transgender person; that kind of captures the complexity of all the characters in the book, which I love. She’s looking up kind of into the distance, she’s not focusing on anything. It’s such a great photo.
What do you hope readers, specifically queer readers, take away from The House of Impossible Beauties?
I would love for queer readers to just have access to stories about queer people. Unfortunately the book ends in a sad way, which is not really a hopeful message to send to young readers, but … these characters are authentically themselves. They fight to be themselves even when they live in a society that is pushing up against them. I want young queer readers to laugh at the funny moments, fall in love, and be really heartbroken when the sad things happen, so that these queer kids can have access to a full experience of human emotion with queer characters. Oftentimes, queer characters in Hollywood or publishing are just accessories and feel like stereotypes and don’t feel like fully drawn humans. In a social sense it would be nice for a queer kid to imagine how they might want to take part in a larger community.