Matt Ortile charts a course of unlearning in The Groom Will Keep His Name
"There's something at stake when you start an essay."
No one knows this better than Matt Ortile. As a writer — and the managing editor of Catapult — he has used the format to share pieces about his own life with purpose. Now, he's created a personal collection of essays that make up The Groom Will Keep His Name: And Other Vows I've Made About Race, Resistance, and Romance.
Weaving stories together about his life and the history of the marginalized communities he belongs to, Ortile seamlessly brings readers into the intersections of his experiences. "For me, an essay has a clear thesis, takeaway, argument," Ortile tells EW, and with that understanding, he takes an in-depth look at himself and continues to unpack. Whether it's the model minority myth, maneuvering through the world as a queer person of color, or one's relationship with their cultural identity, Ortile charts his course through life — one where the reader may see their experience on one page and learn something new on the next.
For the first-time author, the timing of The Groom Will Keep His Name (out June 2) was serendipitous. Ortile started his work at Catapult in August 2018, which was the same month he sold the book, aligning his dream of publishing a book and getting to help others tell essential stories in a form his loves.
He does admit publishing and promoting a book while in the middle of a pandemic is a strange experience. "I wrote this in 2019 when we could still go out of our homes, but I was shuttered in my apartment for much of it, just writing it. So now it feels like a sick twist,” he shares.
EW spoke with Ortile about balancing the complexities of multiple identities on the page at once, sharing the specifics of his sex life, getting meta by incorporating the writing process into the story, and much more below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Give us the elevator pitch. Why this book?
MATT ORTILE: One of the things that we're realizing right now, at least in the United States, is that this pandemic is not a great equalizer. This pandemic is hitting certain communities or demographics much harder than it is others. It's done a lot of work in exposing the inequalities in America, and a lot of that I break down in this book while also making it accessible. It's also really fun.
A reason that I wrote this book about power, sex, and the model minority myth, among many other things, is because sex and relationships are fun to read about, but also, there's a lot at stake for the person who's writing it, who's reading it and seeing themselves reflected in certain relationships or sexual whatever ships. I was doing the audiobook a couple of weeks ago, and I was reading some of the parts where I'm in a steam room or hooking up with men. It's fun and sexy. I realized I wrote a really sexy book that I'm so excited about.
Why was it important to include the historical context of the Philippines and the queer community when telling your story?
That was something that I felt really committed to when writing. For example, the people power revolution in the Philippines and the concept of kapwa, or thinking about chosen families versus families of origin, or the colorism embedded in the Philippines' history and how that reflects the remnants of colonialism and imperialism on a global context. I dug deep into these things because I thought it gives the book a richer depth. I thought it made it a more connected book. If you just give a quick definition and then suddenly you want to return to that, you do yourself a disservice by not paying attention to that thing early on. So I wanted to be able to have something to latch back on from chapter 3 while I'm in chapter 9. There's not enough work out there that revels in the intersections.
Throughout the book, you chart your relationship with the model minority myth. Where are you on that journey now?
I can see it for what it is now. I can spot it more easily and be more critical of it with confidence. When Andrew Yang put out that op-ed, it was from The Washington Post, where he was talking about how Asian-Americans need to prove to America that we are not the virus, we are part of the cure. It was just a poisonous, but perfect, encapsulation of what the model minority myth is. It’s so much about bending to white supremacy and seeking the approval of whiteness while sacrificing everything else. Sacrificing solidarity with other people of color and even within Asian communities, there's a competition to fight for seats or prove worthiness and it was really frustrating to see that.
I remember when an Asian author once said that she was frustrated that she still has to keep talking about the model minority myth. I'm like, "I hear you," but also, it is something that we still need to talk about because it still exists and people still believe in this kind of system. That has to be an ongoing conversation.
What has exploring your identity, specifically as a queer person of color, through essays and this book been like?
Ultimately, my goal when I write is to create community, to create connections, to create reflections because that's what I have found most affirming when I read other folks. In my experience, I found great release or affirmation, catharsis, in seeing even just small parts of me reflected in other people's experiences. That's something that we have had to deal with as queer people. Watching much of popular media have only snippets of us and very, very rarely were they exact reflections or truly three-dimensional reflections of who we feel we are.
One of my great friends, Meredith Talusan — whose book Fairest comes out the Tuesday before mine — and I have been talking a lot in the lead-up to the publication of our books because we're both queer Filipino immigrants to the U.S. who were seeking belonging and kind of found it in similar spaces. She went to Harvard, I went to Vassar... so very ivy-covered, brick buildings kind of fantasy. We read each other's books already, and it was really fantastic to see, even though we're this close to each other's experiences, we've gone through completely different things. She was a child star in the Philippines, I was not. I wanted to be one. It was cool to be able to talk to someone who was coming from a very similar background, and yet we came out with such different books, books that complement each other. Reading others and writing alongside others has been, honestly, so cool. I'm really thankful for the opportunity.
There are instances where you get specific about your sex life. What was putting that part of your experience on the page like for you?
I loved it. I think the most sexually explicit scene in the book is at the start of the chapter about steam rooms where I literally talk about [laughs] — it's in the book and I can say it aloud — coming in one man's mouth while I was kissing someone else. It was really liberating. Another chapter opens up with me literally holding onto a headboard for dear life while I was getting railed.
It's fun because it was in these moments that I really felt, in hindsight, what I was going through. Holding onto that headboard, for example, I was with a wealthy man, and I wanted his sheets, I wanted his balcony, I wanted his watch, I wanted his robe. I thought about what it was that I really wanted. Is it the sex? Yes and... It was important to me to have these scenes because I want there to be a trust between the reader and me. I'm here baring all, and I want you to know that it's fine. I think so many people are scared of those moments, whether or not it's related to sex. Emotionally too.
I'm still working on unlearning. I'm still developing my relationship to America and to who I am as a queer Filipino American, and I think those moments are what build that vulnerability. Choosing to write those scenes was very important to me because I'm bringing you into my life. I don't want to censor any part of that.
You incorporated your feelings about writing the book throughout the essays. Why did you choose to include that in the book?
In the book, you can tell I'm processing what it is to be writing a book, to be writing a story about yourself when you're still trying to figure out the stories that you've told yourself on a personal level. One of the things that was most helpful to me in writing was admitting that these things are in progress, that this story is still being told for me personally. There's a chapter to come and that unlearning is not just a one and done thing, decolonizing is not a one and done thing, critiquing the structures of power in America is not a one and done thing. It's an ongoing process.
I like to say that this book is really what it is because of specific encouragement that my publisher gave me because Bold Type Books has a mission-focused, politically driven kind of house mission. They really encouraged me to get into the weeds, get into the cultural criticism, get into the history, as well as giving equal weight to the personal and the romantic and the sexual.
Pulling from your experience working at Catapult and writing this book, what makes a good essay?
I want to be entertained, and I want to learn something new. Or I want you to challenge a preconception, an idea, a topic, or a conversation. To push it. One thing I tell my writers at work is, "How is this pushing the conversation? How is this developing the nuance of x, y, and z?" I find I'm most excited to read an essay when there's a combination of just a great writing style, a great voice, as well as something at stake for the reader.
People are very often afraid to blend the personal and the reported. I think that makes it so much better. We want to lean into these ideas. We want to say, "I'm writing about this story, I'm reporting this out, I'm critiquing this because it affects my life in this way." None of us are unique, terribly unique at least. There will be someone in a similar position where they could look at your piece and say, "Oh, I see, that's how that affects that person. Is that how it affects me, too?"
That's what we do at Catapult with personal essays. We want to challenge what people think and tell stories from the margins and give people who are very often traditionally shut out of the very white and very, very American world that is publishing. The very coastal road that is publishing, too. So, I love the idea of blending these kinds of approaches, the memoiristic, the personal, the reported, the critical.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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