Charlie Vázquez: Queer Latino Esoteric musings…
Posted: 08 Apr 2009 03:21 PM PDT
I first met Puerto Rican writer, scholar and performer Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes (a.k.a. Larry La Fountain) last summer, at the New York City reading for Los Otros Cuerpos, the first ever anthology of queer Puerto Rican literature, published by Editorial Tiempo Nuevo in 2007. About five years ago, I came across one of Larry’s stories, “My Name, Multitudinous Mass”, in Bésame Mucho (Painted Leaf Press, 1999), a groundbreaking collection of gay male fiction edited by Jaime Manrique with Jesse Doris. “My Name, Multitudinous Mass” also appears in Larry’s newest fiction collection, Blue Fingernails/Uñas pintadas de azul, which was just published by Bilingual Press. Blue Fingernails is a crazy amusement park ride through Santerian house parties, grimy bedrooms, gothic theater productions and The Museum of Natural History and features vampires, horny lesbians, neo-Dominicans, well-endowed Cubans and a rather loveable character named Demonio María Cienfuegos (Demon Mary Hundred Fires).
Larry was in New York recently as part of a panel assembled by the Audre Lorde Project in Brooklyn, which focused on queer Caribbean politics and activism. He gave me a copy of Blue Fingernails/Uñas pintadas de azul and I tore through it, so zany, well-written and bizarre are these stories. It’s refreshing to read literature that reflects our animalistic fantasies and darkest obsessions, as if they’re immune to condemnation. In these stories queerness is the standard, not the exception—at last! This stock of fearless fiction carries on in the queer warlord tradition of Baldwin, Rechy, Genet, Burroughs and Lorca. Mister La Fountain is an assistant professor of Queer Caribbean, Latino/a Studies and Latin American Literary and Cultural Studies—at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor—and took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his new book(s). He will also be a guest reader at the upcoming HISPANIC PANIC! II reading on Wednesday, May 27th (more on that to come soon).
Take a bow, Larry…
CV: So tell us a little about how these unusual stories came to be—they’re very different from one another and capture different moods, locations, obsessions, etc. Some, such as “Love is Intergalactic”, flirt with science-fiction and fantasy while others, such as “De un pájaro las dos alas” read as documentaries on personal experience. There is also some poetry.
LLFS: Yeah, they’re all over the place! They’re basically about me, or characters that sort of seem like me—gay, Puerto Rican, sex-crazed, lonely, idealist, mostly in New York City and New Jersey but also in other parts, with painted blue fingernails! They’re also about my gay and lesbian friends, and about the authors I like to read. I started writing them sporadically throughout the nineties, and they became a book after I took a creative writing class with Diamela Eltit at Columbia University in 1997. Angel Lozada was also in that workshop, and we became comrades in arms. Angel then went on to publish La patografía and No quiero quedarme sola y vacía, two landmark queer Puerto Rican novels.
I had been showing my stories over the years to Mayra Santos-Febres, a wonderful Puerto Rican author, and she was very supportive; she’s the one who kept insisting that I had to publish them. Basically, the stories were a different way for me to process my life—different, say, than what I write in my diaries. And the most amazing part was realizing that I did not have to limit myself to my experiences, that I could break through the straightjacket of autobiography and take a free flight of the imagination! That was really transformative. That’s how all the crazy cyborgs and vampires started to appear.
CV: What’s up with the vampires? Does it have anything to do with growing up in Puerto Rico where bats are plentiful? Or are vampires the ultimate archetype for dark sensuality and tribal taboo in your work? Are you reinterpreting classic Hollywood imagery and pop culture?
LLFS: Yes! Those are all good interpretations. We had fruit trees growing outside—nísperos and mangoes, especially—and the bats just loved them! And my mom kept insisting that they were pigeons! They only flew at dusk and you couldn’t really make them out. I think my mom was afraid they would get caught in our hair. But you know what, bats eat mosquitoes! Which is really good—there’s too many mosquitoes in Puerto Rico!
You’re also right that it has to do with sexuality and desire. I am really fascinated by winged, flying creatures: angels, demons, vampires. I thought, “What would happen if you had a lonely, horny drag queen who was also an angel and a vampire and a demon, all four things at the same time, making a gay porn film with Chi Chi LaRue?” That’s how “Rites of Devotion to the Cult” came about. Or rather, that’s how a boring story of going to sex clubs in the meatpacking district of Manhattan became something more interesting… (laughs)
CV: You noted in the introduction that the stories were written in New York and New Jersey during the 1990s, yet they’re set all over the world and shift locations with the speed of Web-pages. Do you write when you travel or take notes and how does traveling and the internet factor into your prose?
LLFS: I tend to keep diaries when I travel, or to write right after I get back. In the case of “A Black Cat Called Malícia,” it’s actually a science-fiction story based on the time I spent in Brazil in the late eighties. I left my diary there by mistake and my former housemates never sent it to me, which was quite traumatic. Brazil was pretty intense—São Paulo is a city of 20 million, and I was 20 years old and had just come out of the closet a year before, and the university I was going to went on strike for three months! And the cops were beating the students! And there was hyperinflation, and there were homeless children everywhere, and everyone was obsessed with Blade Runner and kept talking about cyborgs! Writing fiction became a way to recreate (and distort) what I had lived before I forgot.
“De un pájaro las dos alas,” on the other hand, was my reaction to a trip to Cuba in May of 1998. I came back pretty shell-shocked—Cuba was nothing like what I expected. Everyone thought I was there for sex tourism. I was a broke grad student attending a theater conference! And American credit cards were no good! And there were no ATMs! I wanted to learn about gay life and socialist utopias and they wanted me to pay their neighbors and brothers and friends to go to bed. Talk about bursting my bubble… The rest of the stories are mostly set in NY/NJ and in Puerto Rico, which were my usual haunts back then, before I moved to Michigan.
I first started going online in 1995. At first it was just e-mail, and then my friend Marcial taught me how to use the IRC (Internet Relay Chat). We would make up different crazy drag queen names every time we went on! I don’t really think about the Internet too much, conceptually, that is—it just became a very integral part of my life, and that’s how it made it into the book. I think that, more than about the Internet, my writing is about latching onto an uncensored flow of consciousness. It’s about free-associations and about tapping into my unconscious and letting it all come out, unfiltered, sort of as if I were in a trance or altered state. That’s where all the connections get made. That’s why the writing can be a little hard to understand and might seem experimental. Editing helps me calm the wildest impulses and make it more accessible.
CV: Your stories are fearlessly queer. You bring up everything from extreme sexual fetishes to very visual lesbian pornography. Do you think general readers are in a more accepting position to explore this kind of literature nowadays, or do you think that the people who would buy your books are already tempered for such subjects?
LLFS: That’s funny! I think I’m crazy. This book was rejected by thirty presses before Bilingual picked it up. I was pretty convinced it was never going to come out. And remember—I wrote most of the stories in Spanish! The English translations came later. I wrote the stories for myself and for the few friends I would share them with. Most of my friends don’t like what I write. But you know what, that’s OK! You can still be my friend even if you don’t like my crazy stories! I think if I had worried about readers (or about my professional aspirations) I would have never written them, and certainly not published them! But yeah, definitely, I think there are some people who like stuff like this! That’s why I have a “disclaimer” of sorts on the back cover. I don’t want people buying the book by mistake and then freaking out when they start to read it!
CV: You have another book coming out this summer, which I’m really looking forward to reading also. Will you tell us a little about that?
LLFS: Sure! It’s called Queer Ricans: Cultures and Sexualities in the Diaspora, and it’s about Puerto Rican queer migration and culture. It’s being published by the University of Minnesota Press. I focus on how artists and writers and filmmakers such as Manuel Ramos Otero, Luz María Umpierre, Frances Negrón-Muntaner, Rose Troche and Erika López have discussed their experiences as queer Puerto Ricans in the United States in their short stories, poetry, cartoons, and films. I also have a chapter on Arthur Avilés and Elizabeth Marrero in the Bronx, and how they take classic stories like Cinderella and The Wizard of Oz and turn them into queer Nuyorican and New York-Rican stories in their performances, for example in Arturella and in Maéva de Oz. Basically, the central premise of the book is that LGBT people have been migrating from Puerto Rico to the U.S. for several decades because of their sexuality, and that once they arrive here (or are born here, if they are the children of immigrants), their sexuality is a factor that affects their lives. It’s going to be the first book of its kind. I’m really excited to see it come out!
CV: Thanks Larry!
LLFS: You’re welcome! Thanks for the great questions!
Visit Larry at: www.larrylafountain.com
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