Saturday, August 15, 2009
Queer Ricans..à la Larry La Fountain
[Blogpost by Charlie Vázquez:
Queer Latino Musings on Literature…and more…]
Puerto Rican writer and scholar Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes’s latest tome Queer Ricans (University of Minnesota, 2009) takes a playful and critical look at the creative works of queer diasporic Puerto Ricans in the United States—New York to San Francisco, the 1960s to the 1990s, male and female, island-born and mainlander. This complex and fascinating study discusses homophobia, AIDS, feminism, sexism, racism, and a variety of other agents of marginalization, which although are scornful by nature, inspired the creation of that unique dimension from which queer Puerto Rican artists operate. Entrenched and seething island homophobia inspired migrations of queer Puerto Ricans to the mainland—and many were artists. And although the majority might have settled in New York—others found themselves in other locales such as Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco.
Beginning with a dissection of the writings of Manuel Ramos Otero (who succumbed to AIDS in 1990), La Fountain weaves a rich tapestry of art criticism that ultimately leads to a kind of “Oz”, a Nuyorican Oz, as interpreted by Boricua lesbian performance artist Elizabeth Marrero. The fanning out of Puerto Ricans on the mainland, as they both assimilated into and resisted white mainstream America, begat yet another wave of artistic output shaped by birthplace, gender, race, and dominant language (Spanish vs. English). From Manuel Ramos Otero’s fiction to Erika López’s punk-informed subversive imagery and writing, the queer Puerto Rican canon of literature and art in America is more diverse than I ever imagined. Applause for Larry’s La Fountain’s groundbreaking cultural breakthrough!
I had a few questions for him…
CV: So before we get serious—I had no idea that Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero were bisexual. Was this an openly discussed thing in Manhattan underground Latino culture, and how did their Lower East Side base abstract them from other Puerto Rican artists based in El Barrio or the Bronx?
LLFS: Wow, this is a complicated question—much more serious than you suggest! Let me clarify a couple of things. I can tell you for a fact that people currently discuss Miguel Piñero’s bisexuality (or his attraction to and relationships or encounters with men and women); León Ichaso portrays this in his biopic Piñero (2001), for example. I cannot tell you that Piñero himself used the word “bisexual” or considered himself to be one. Regardless of this, the word is useful to describe his life and his sexual activities.
In the case of Miguel Algarín (who is still alive), I can tell you that Algarín’s literature has been suggesting this since the 1970s, in classic works such as Mongo Affair (where he talks about loving, i.e., feeling intense feelings towards an elderly black man in Puerto Rico) and of course in his extraordinary Love Is Hard Work: Memorias de Loisaida (1997), where he engages his experiences as an HIV-positive man who has sex with men and women. But just as the case with Piñero, I don’t know that Algarín personally uses the label “bisexual” to describe himself; I have never asked him and quite frankly would feel a little bit shy about bringing up the topic with him.
My suspicion (and understanding) about this matter is that it was a tacit subject, un secreto a voces or open secret, in other words, something that people know but don’t discuss a lot, unless you prompt them (or in my case, tell them what my book is about!). Then people start to tell you all sorts of things.
CV: As a punk culture aficionado (and as a Latino) I was very moved by San Francisco artist Erika López’s work, especially “A Postcard from the Welfare Line” which is loaded with tons of political symbolism. How did you learn about her and what is she doing now?
LLFS: Erika Lopez is an absolutely amazing artist! I first learned about her in 1997 when her first novel Flaming Iguanas and her book of comics Lap Dancing for Mommy came out. My friend Celinés Pimentel bought a copy at St. Mark’s Bookstore in New York City and both of us got hooked. Erika quickly came out with the sequel to her novel, They Call Me Mad Dog! in 1998. We just could not believe a queer Boricua was publishing this stuff and that it was illustrated to boot! I’ve been a fan of Erika’s ever since. You’re absolutely right that there is a fascinating political slant to her work. I think people sometimes don’t notice that right away because of her humor and allegiance to pop culture and to cartoons. For me, she’s as invested in social change and social justice as anyone else, particularly when compared to dour, serious artists. As to what Erika’s up to nowadays, I can tell you she’s working on making a film and she also writes a cartoon blog that she calls a clog! You can check her out at http://clog.erikalopez.com/ and at http://www.erikalopez.com/
CV: Queer Ricans covers a diverse range of work and personalities—from the prolific filmmaker Frances Negrón-Muntaner to modern dancer Arthur Avilés, who is based at the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (BAAD). You apparently know many of the subjects of whom you write. Was this book a result of your own fascination as a queer Puerto Rican scholar and writer, and did you feel a conscious need to unify in one book the stories and works of these agents of Puerto Rican queer art history?
LLFS: At the very, very, very beginning, I thought I was going to write an exhaustive encyclopedia on homosexual literature and culture from all of Latin America and the Caribbean! As you can imagine, the prospect was so overwhelming that I was basically paralyzed. My dissertation advisor, the feminist scholar Jean Franco, suggested I focus on Puerto Rico and Cuba. Even that seemed like too much for me. I narrowed it down to Puerto Rico, and settled on the issue of queer migration. I also had to give up my initial impulse to write about every single LGBT Puerto Rican artist and writer—it was just too much. I started writing Queer Ricans in 1995 and did not really get finished until 2007 (or 2009, if you count the months I spent earlier this year indexing the book).
It really started out as an exploration of queer Puerto Rican literature, and morphed as it went along, in part because of the recurrent themes that kept coming up, especially migration, but also because I was living in New York City, and I was immersed in an environment that was exploding with queer Puerto Rican artists and writers and filmmakers and activists as well as with queer Puerto Rican scholars who were presenting very pioneering, groundbreaking research on queer Puerto Rican, U.S. Latina/o, and Latin American culture. The mid 1990s were just an incredible moment in terms of Latina/o queer culture in the U.S., and New York City just seemed to be the epicenter of it all. It all clicked together when I got a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council and got to spend several weeks during the summer of 1997 in North Carolina discussing issues of international migration.
But to answer your question: some of the people I knew, or met along the way, like Luis Rafael Sánchez, Luz María Umpierre, Frances Negrón-Muntaner, Rose Troche, Erika López, Elizabeth Marrero, and Arthur Avilés; some were already dead, like Manuel Ramos Otero (but were so present in my mind and in my readings and in people’s stories that it’s as if they were still alive). There are a lot of additional artists that I met (or would like to meet) that I did not have a chance to write about in this book, such as Rane Arroyo and yourself, and that I look forward to writing about more extensively in the future.
Applause. To purchase this book go here (I’m still pissed at Amazon): http://www.powells.com/biblio?isbn=9780816640928
I’d like to thank Larry for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions and want you all to know that on Tuesday, August 18th, Queer Latino Musings on Literature will be hosting Cuban-American author Raul Ramos y Sanchez for the third Virtual Latino Book Tour. Raul’s new book America Libre was published by Grand Central Publishing and we’ll discuss his forging of a new popular genre: the Latino thriller.
America Libre fuses speculative politics, rioting, and cultural upheaval and takes a scary look at the oppression of Latinos, set in a near-future America, where a dangerous and new right-wing government combats angry Latinos, who have become a second-class citizenry by law. We will also be giving a free copy away! All you need to do is comment on the interview—the winner will be chosen randomly by me and mailed a copy by Raul. If you’d like him to sign it, please request this and be clear as to whom you want it signed to.
As for me, I’ve been doing different readings around town and hammering away at my new short story collection Island Stories, which should be ready to submit to publishers by year’s end. I read a new story in Astoria on August 13th, for a benefit for Green City Council candidate Lynne Serpe (thanks Brandon Lacy Campos!). The new story is called “The Fruit Vendor” and pits the political and cultural frustrations of an islander and a stateside Puerto Rican, albeit with a very erotic subtext. Coming soon! (Did I just say that?)
Watch this short clip of me reading in NYC, courtesy of WepaTV:
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