June 2020 Pride Feature

The Library Is Open

There has never been a more exciting time for queer literature. We gathered four of the biggest and brightest names in the new wave for a roundtable discussion. (And yes, we stayed well over six feet apart.)

"Can you hear me?" Garth is the first to call into the Zoom Room, dialing in from Iowa City; we share a smile and wave into our webcams. Nicole, out in Brooklyn, shows up next, a huge bookcase displayed behind her; she tells us her wife built it for her. Then there's Akwaeke, down in New Orleans; Garth admires their gold-painted ceiling. Finally, a minute after call time, Naoise arrives, first with her camera turned off, then at last switched on. (Blame the time difference: She's in Ireland.)

We all chat a little about our new normal, then dive into the work.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Naoise, let's start with you, because you're the one in the process of launching a book right now, Exciting Times (out June 2). What has the experience been like for you?

NAOISE DOLAN: Surprisingly chill. If you're launching a book and you've never launched a previous book and you've never had any real involvement in publishing before then, you really just don't have anything to compare it to. I'm probably the least freaking-out or feeling any sense of missing out, compared to others.

For the rest of you, how are you occupying yourselves right now? Are you writing? Are you struggling right now?

NICOLE DENNIS-BENN (Patsy, in paperback May 26): Juggling different projects, just to take my mind off the reality of everything. I use writing as an escape sometimes, or most times, but at the same time, I realize that most times I'm watching Netflix or reading other people's works. I feel like that's even more calming.

AKWAEKE EMEZI (The Death of Vivek Oji, out Aug. 4): I tried writing at first and it went okay for a little bit, and then as this kind of progressed I stopped, and I switched over to working in my garden. It seemed like the only way I was going to be able to get myself out of the house. I should be like going for walks, but it's really easy to just be like, "Oh, I could just stay on the couch with the kitten and watch Netflix." Having to do the gardening helps a bit because then I'm out, I'm working with the plants, I'm growing things and so that's been a big help.

How are your reading habits right now?

DENNIS-BENN: I've been reading poetry, memoirs. I don't know why. I'm just drawn to memoirs. Placing myself in somebody else's shoes.

DOLAN: I've been rereading a lot. My brain hasn't been up to getting to grips with new plots and stuff. So just following blueprints I already know.

EMEZI: Same. I haven't been able to read new stuff. Poetry seemed easier, like I have been able to [read] the bits and pieces. I'm reading this poet, Romeo Oriogun — he's Nigerian, and I'm reading his new collection, Sacrament of Bodies.

GARTH GREENWELL (Cleanness, out now): He is in my queer aesthetic seminar! I'm teaching this semester and we talk about you a lot. So it will be nice to know that you are reading him as he is reading you.

EMEZI: Oh, that's lovely.

GREENWELL: Yeah, that's really nice. And I have been reading for my classes. But other than that, also a lot of poetry, and also literature from another pandemic. I mean, obviously the political and scientific differences between AIDS and [COVID-19] are vast. Like there's not a very meaningful comparison, but affectively they have felt kind of similar to me. There has been a feeling of recognition. And so reading Andrew Holleran's essay from the AIDS crisis and then reading the poems of James Merrill, those have both been sort of weirdly helpful in the last few weeks.

I've found that too: We have a history that bears a certain examination in light of this moment. What are you gaining, or seeing, from reading these works?

GREENWELL: I mean, one, just rage at an utterly inept governmental response. Then, to the uncertainty, these questions in the beginning, in the first week where it was like, "How can you get it? Is it in the air? Should you wear a mask? How long does it stay on surfaces?" All of that felt very familiar to me as a kid growing up queer in the AIDS era. And then also just seeing names of artists, and writers, and actors drift down my social media feed. The grief of that also felt quite familiar.

Holleran was really interesting to think about for that, because one of the big subjects of his wonderful book, Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited, was, "What do you do as a writer?" [He was] observing this very particular social world, which was the gay '70s in New York. How do you then become a writer of the apocalypse in a way, when the world seems to be ending? And can art have any purpose? There was a lot of comfort — not that he had answers, but [it was] the company of seeing another writer, another artist, think about those questions.

So for the rest of you, is there a particular resonance, being a queer writer in this moment?

DOLAN: Yeah. One thing I've been thinking about a lot is how identity shapes whether you regard the world as safe from day one. The more that really isn't the case for you, the more crushingly different this will seem. But then there's that disjuncture where suddenly the things making the world unsafe in the immediate for everyone are so shared. There's that sense of being used to feeling less safe than those around you, but then if they seem to feel massively unsafe, is opposition still to the side of that? In which case, how do you do anything?

DENNIS-BENN: When you tell people to socially distance, you think, "What if they don't have the luxury of social distancing?" And we're seeing that now. We're seeing the results of that now. And as a writer who's actually writing these untold stories about the immigrant experience, and also about the queer immigrant experience, this is unfolding now. I can't help but think of people who are like my characters in reality, who are actually struggling, most of whom probably wouldn't have been surviving this crisis right now as we speak. I feel like this virus, this epidemic, is actually showing the world that we're not equal.

EMEZI: Like Naoise was saying, if your default is "the world is a safe place," it affects how you see situations like this. So for me, it was interesting because the first place my mind went to when all this started was how I grew up. Because I grew up in Nigeria in the '90s, and we were under military dictatorship for most of that. So we had a lot of military curfews. We had a lot of violence happening, and that was oddly what I was using to calm myself down. I was like, "You know what this is like. You know what it's like to have a curfew. You know what it's like to not be able to go outside." [Laughs] Which is a really messed up way of reassurance. It's been so much worse in your lifetime. But at the same time, the one thing that I have learned in, I think, trauma and grief, and when there's a lot of loss, and it's really loud in the world, is that the world actually doesn't stop. People are saying a lot that, "Oh, this thing has stopped the world." And I'm like, "It hasn't, because people are still doing things." And I think for anyone who's suffered a loss, it's something that we know intimately, is that even if your world has stopped, the rest of the world doesn't. And that's one of the most heartbreaking things about grief, is that everything just keeps moving on.

The kids who need queer books still need them. They probably need them actually more than they did before. And so that I think gave me a little bit of permission to be like, "Okay, this is still important." I think in any revolution, I suppose everyone has a particular role. And I think there's often a lot of guilt about not being more on the front lines, or being safe or all these different things. But I think as storytellers, one of the things that I try to keep in mind is, I can just find my pocket, and I can fight from that pocket, and do my job that I'm here to do.

Queer Author Roundtable
Credit: Picador; Riverhead Books; Liveright; Ecco

To that point, Nicole, last year when Jenna Bush Hager picked Patsy for her Today Show book club, I remember thinking it was sort of quietly remarkable that this Jamaican-American queer novel could get such a national platform. Can you talk a little bit about what that experience was like for you? And also what it has been like for your work inevitably to reach this new readership?

DENNIS-BENN: When I write, I don't even think that the book would have even gotten this far. When I write, I write for myself first, and always think about that young girl who never saw herself on the page, saw similar experience to hers on the page, period. My mom was the first one who told me. She screamed, and she started showing all of her friends Jenna Bush Hager's [Instagram] post about Patsy. And one of her friends said to me, "You know, Nicole, you put our stories out there. You put us on the map." And it meant a lot to me because for me, I felt like that's really what I set out to do as a writer, ultimately, to really unpack untold stories and to tell them in an honest, truthful way. And actually encouraged readers, challenge them to actually see outside of their own worlds. I feel like what fiction does is bring people, bring worlds, closer together, closer to each other, so they can actually see each other. When you crack open a book, we see their lives up close and personal.

You're all here because you've achieved some level of notoriety in the literary space. Akwaeke, I know you said that the success of your debut Freshwater took you by surprise. Can you talk a little bit about why that was, and what it showed you about how your work could touch readers?

EMEZI: Well with Freshwater, when I was writing it, it was quite frankly terrifying. I had many, many emotional breakdowns over it because I wasn't sure how it would be received in the U.S. I really wasn't sure how it would be received in general, because it is unconventional in narrative structure. As a debut author, it was just, you already just come with default terror about how your book is going to be received. So I kind of felt like I had set myself up. I was like, "Why did I have to make it difficult? I could have just written a linear narrative. It would have been a lot easier." But when it did come out, I was shocked by the reception, I really was. And it was very humbling because I feel like I had underestimated readers quite a bit. And I had underestimated the reader's willingness to step inside a world that may not be familiar to them, which I really should have known better because that's why I'm such a reader.

Garth, you were nodding there. I feel like with your books, which have reached a pretty wide audience, especially the way you write about sex and desire and in a queer context, could be seen by some as a commercial barrier. But obviously that is not quite proven to be the case.

GREENWELL: My feeling is that as queer writers, I think you have to tell yourself a lie. And you have to believe the lie because otherwise you can't survive and make your work. But also, you have to know it's a lie. And the lie is that if what you make is good enough, and gorgeous enough, and committed enough to its own integrity, that it will be unignorable. We know that's a lie, because, of course, all kinds of structural material conditions determine who gets to make art, and whom that art reaches. But to not believe that lie, to think instead, "I'm going to take these stories, I'm going to take these lives, the value of which is not recognized by the mainstream, and I'm going to package that value in such a way that it will be immediately legible to that mainstream?" That's death. It's just death as an artist. It's always been a lie that if you center your stories on queer lives, you will not have an audience, you'll be sort of put in the gay ghetto. That's always been a lie. The Lord Won't Mind trilogy sold millions and millions of copies in 1970. It's a complete lie. I hope that it's a lie that's harder to tell young queer writers now. I hope that it's impossible in the age of Nicole Dennis-Benn to say queer books can't find an audience.

DENNIS-BENN: One point Garth reminded me of: My books also [reach] a Jamaican audience. And I remember being terrified of writing [all these] queer characters for them. My best friend and I were having brunch [one day], and I told her before I even started Patsy that the idea was in my head. And she was like, "Really, you're going to have more than one queer character in your book?" My heart fell through my chest. I was like, what am I doing? But I still wrote through it.

Naoise, you were just named Ireland's hottest young author. Being someone who is both very publicly queer and talks about queer issues, what is that like to balance the experience of suddenly getting this public recognition with putting your identity forward in that way?

DOLAN: With any facet of your identity that's underrepresented, you're aware that you're answering some really basic questions in the hope that the next queer author or the next autistic author, in my case, or potentially the next author from any other category that I can't speak to, won't have to answer them. And then they can have more interesting conversations. I wince a little at some of the questions I get asked still in Irish media, but you hope that you can at least forge the way. Because of course none of us can speak for everyone, but the more basic stuff gets out there, the more nuanced the public understanding can become.

Garth, I'm interested in your take on one thing that I've been thinking about a lot lately, which is the resistance, in some circles, to tragic queer narratives. I know with your debut What Belongs to You, there was sort of some talk about it being humorless and things like that. Is this a conversation you think about? What are your thoughts on it?

GREENWELL: I don't think anybody gets to tell artists what they make. I try to guard against that myself but I think none of us has any business telling a writer what they should write or how they should write or how they should represent a certain story. I want ever more queer stories. When people say things like, "Oh, but don't you think queer stories should have happy endings?" I'm like, "Well, there should be queer stories that have happy endings. There are queer stories that have happy endings. But no, I don't think anyone has an obligation to write queer stories that have happy endings."

In my weird world, Cleanness actually has quite a happy ending. I'm not sure anyone else would think it has a happy ending. But to me, like there's a real emotional uplift. And there is at the heart of it, and I did challenge myself because I was writing about these two characters who I love very much, and who in a lot of ways the book is quite hard on, this love relationship, and I wanted to write a story in which they could be happy. And a story in which I could explore something that, again, is not my natural bent to sort of just seize it, but the profundity of ordinary happiness. The idea that, in some way, the only work we can use is work that tells us a happy story about our lives? That's just wrong about art.

Looking back, is there art that taught you this, in some way?

GREENWELL: The thing that saved my life when I was 14 years old in pre-internet Kentucky was pulling James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room down off the shelf. Giovanni's Room is not a happy book. Giovanni's Room did not suggest to me that being gay was going to be fun. In fact, I think Giovanni's Room is in a lot of ways a pretty homophobic book, a book that sort of says there is a logic and queer desire that says love is not possible. And one of the beautiful things I would learn decades later about James Baldwin is you read his novels in order and you see him climbing his way out of the pit of homophobia. Giovanni's Room is a book in which homosexuality is only ever a closed door. How is it that reading that book when I was 14 years old in Kentucky, for me, opened every door? I like the way that we use art, the way that that book made my life possible, the way that that book utterly was a revolution in the sense of what my relationship to dignity might be, the relationship of my life to dignity. No one can trace a one-to-one relation between what happens to David and Giovanni and how that book helped me live my life. The way art is useful to us is really mysterious.

I would love to open the floor on this one. Is the idea of queer pain something you consider in your work? How much to depict it, and if so, with a certain sensitivity?

DENNIS-BENN: You know, that's something that I get asked over and over again, especially after the first novel, for sure. Here Comes the Sun, people are like, "I'm so angry at you for writing that ending."

GREENWELL: I hear that.

DOLAN: Yeah. If I [had] to read a queer Irish book that had no pain in it, I wouldn't be able to. I would find it so frustratingly inaccurate. It needs to be there, to be speaking to us, not to people who want to erase our struggle.

DENNIS-BENN: I always find with this, I'm not a fairytale writer. It's one thing to say you're going to write a children's novel. I love children's books. I love reading to my nephews and seeing their faces light up. But for my works, if the ending doesn't make any sense and I'm going to sit there and say, "Okay, let me force a happy ending because, oh, people are asking, where's the happy ending in a queer novel?" It's not going to ring true to me. I think I'd lose a lot, especially my sense of pride. And also for my art, in itself, it would take a lot away from my art if I'm there, sitting, focusing on what's going to make readers happy. I always wanted to stay true to the characters and their process.

To be honest with you guys, that's actually something that was crippling me for the past couple of weeks, actually. Because after Patsy, I still saw the same people like, how is it that you always leave your endings so open and so loose? And where is the happily ever after? I'm like, "Well, what if that's not me?"

EMEZI: Yeah. I think that's definitely some pressure with my book coming out in August. It's literally called The Death of Vivek Oji. I was really worried about it because I was like, "Okay, so now I've written a queer character who dies. Am I going to get dragged for this?" I tried to wonder if there was a way around that. And there really wasn't because the whole point of the book was that he was dead and it's in the title. I was talking to a friend about it recently because I was worried that it would [fit into] the trope of the queer character dying and all of that. And they reminded me that my YA novel Pet exists. And they were like, no one who reads your work can think that you don't know how to create possibility and how to create these worlds for queer and trans characters where they are loved and they are cherished.

I was going to ask you about Pet because I think it's such an extraordinary book. Did you feel pressure in that regard, because it is a YA novel?

EMEZI: Not really. [In] Pet, the trans character, she's loved, she's cherished. She lives in a community where transphobia is not a thing. And I wanted to write that into existence because to a certain extent, especially for black trans kids, I was like, black trans people already know what this world is like in terms of the violence. My hope for Pet was that a black trans kid would read it and see that this is what a world should be, even if it isn't that now. And these are how parents should be. Because I think for so many queer characters and — I think for so many queer characters and queer people — there's this whole thing of chosen family. There's a whole thing of having to reorganize your world into what you want it to be. But if you can't imagine this in the first place, then you can't do it. And so I was like, "Okay, let me create these books. Let me create these characters, where you can imagine communities in which you're loved and cherished, and that way it can start to create a bit of a map to making that in real-time."

There's so much in the book that I think is especially pertinent to queer readers, whether it's a moment of separating from your parents and a moment of deciding what your life is going to be like and what your values are going to be like, or splitting away from what your parents have taught you. In my experience, for a lot of black immigrant families, that doesn't actually happen until your 20s!

DENNIS-BENN: Yep. [Laughs]

DOLAN: [In my writing], this links back to a pink-washed, international understanding of queerness in Ireland, which doesn't make sense to me. Because first of all, it's just obviously true that all homophobia didn't disappear overnight after the 2015 marriage referendum, not least because a third of the country voted no. And I was born before 2015! [Laughs] I still have quite a lot of lived experience that would still shape my perception of myself going forward. I think it can be frustrating then, to see the government's success story, not only wheeled out but used to excuse its many other failings. That's not to say that I sat down writing a political novel to directly answer that, but I think making space for those shaded queer experiences where it's not all pain, but it's also not what international media might portray.

Garth gave such a great answer on James Baldwin, but for the rest of you, is there a queer book or author that was foundational for you and showed you what could be possible on the page as you got into writing?

DENNIS-BENN: Zami by Audre Lorde. That definitely did for me because it was a time when I was just coming to America. This was the new millennium, I was coming into myself and I never saw myself on the page. [So] in terms of seeing a lesbian author, Audre Lorde was that for me. And so she gave me the possibilities. I always say she gave me the license to write all my identities on the page. And so that to me, [I] always treasure her books for that.

EMEZI: One of my favorite books is Oreo by Fran Ross, who's this queer black woman who wrote it in the '70s. The book has scientific formulas in it. [Laughs] It's such an odd experimental book. And when I read it, for me, it was this moment of realization where I was like, "Oh, I didn't realize that you could be queer and black and publish something like this, and something like this would actually get published in an industry like this." And not even now, but what, 40 years ago? When I read it, it really helped me not be afraid of playing with structure and playing with form and writing with a certain kind of freedom — when I first started out, I didn't think I would be allowed to do [that]. And that ties into why I was so nervous about Freshwater. It's that lie that Garth talks about where it's like, well if you just write it gorgeous enough, it'll be fine.

DENNIS-BENN: I need to read that.

EMEZI: You should. It's wild.

DENNIS-BENN: Okay, I'm ordering it now.

You made a great case for it, I will say.

EMEZI: Thank you. [Laughs]

What about you, Naoise?

DOLAN: I really liked Life Mask by Emma Donoghue when I was in my teens. Like my debut, it's about a bisexual love triangle, but it's set in 18th-century London. I just loved that she took real historical figures and made it gay. [Laughs] I think once you've seen someone do that, it almost doesn't matter what they do with that particular story. It's a general permit to do that in any area where there's potential to see yourself.

I feel like we are in a really exciting moment for queer literature and for range and different kinds of storytelling. Do you feel excited about this moment? Where would you like to see it go from here?

GREENWELL: I feel really lucky to be writing right now, to be part of the conversation of queer literature right now, which I think is hugely exciting. Something that I'm really excited about is what I hope will continue to be an increasing number of books, queer books coming into English from other languages. There's a real sort of wealth of voices coming in from other cultures, other literary traditions, and that's something I feel really excited about.

DENNIS-BENN: Now when I walk into the bookstore, I'm seeing more queer literature than at any other time. I remember when I first came to America, it was just Bluestockings in [Manhattan]. I used to live in Long Island, and so I would take the Long Island Rail Road, then the subway just to get to that one bookstore to get my lesbian books. It was a secret thing.

Now a 17-year-old girl won't have to go through all that to get to a queer book. She could walk into Barnes and Noble and it'd be right there. It's no longer at the back of the store. I see all of our books, all of us here in this conversation, I've seen all your books on display.

DOLAN: Yeah, I'm feeling so optimistic about our ability to be particular to our experiences or just to the stories we want to tell that might be very different from our experiences without being perceived as speaking for everyone. The more representation there is, the more we can invite but not command other queers to identify. I'm really interested in neuro queer experiences because I feel like so much of staying cultivated and hiding the fact that you're autistic is inextricable because it's all acting according to the correct gender roles. So the idea a decade ago of going, "I want to write about Irish female neuro queer experience"? Absolutely unthinkable at a marketing level, and at an artistic level.

Akwaeke, the last word to you.

EMEZI: I'm incredibly excited. Especially as a Nigerian writer, we've got such a canon of our own, and I'm seeing all these queer writers joining it. Back home, it's still illegal to be queer in the first place. So I feel like I am part of a cohort that's making really powerful work.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

For more from Entertainment Weekly's celebration of LGBTQ pop culture, order the June issue now. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.