First Review for SIN AGAINST THE RACE by Amos Lassen

Amos Lassen is a well-known member of the LGBT community. For many years, he has tirelessly reviewed hundreds of books and movies to, as he puts it, “spread the word about our literary heritage.” During the many years I toiled on Sin Against the Race, I hoped that Mr. Lassen would review my work. I’m happy to say that he has, my first review!

“McVey-Russell is an excellent writer who pulled me into the story from the first moment… There were moments that I had to stop and dry my eyes.”

Please read the entire review here.

A year ago, my country failed

A year ago, my country failed.

The failure started quite early. Rather than reject a man who began his campaign with these fateful words:

“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

The media went out of its way to cover every belch and every fart this man uttered for a year and a half. The media failed to highlight who he was and what he really stood for and for that matter why he ran in the first place. (Hint: To undo everything the black dude did.)

MSNBC had a diverse lineup of on-air talent that slowly, over the course of a year, became more white and more male. Those who did not disappear outright (Melissa Harris-Perry, Touré) appeared much less frequently (Rev. Sharpton, et al.).

Comedy Central had one of the most diverse shows on television: The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. Mr. Wilmore populated his show not only with a diverse cast, but also a diverse writing staff. It pushed envelopes. Unfortunately, Comedy Central seemed to have wanted a second Jon Stewart and instead it got a new Dick Cavett. Laughs, yes, but also thoughtful discussions on a variety of topics. A few months after Mr. Wilmore introduced the Unblackening as a means to describe the 2016 election, he himself was unblackened off the air.

Rather than embrace the diversity heralded by the Obama administration and keep it going, the media and society at large ran from it as fast as it could. Freaks with tiki torches took to the streets to “take back their country.” Hate crimes skyrocketed. Vile speech became the norm. An ugly, ugly id emerged. A grotesque manifestation of molten hatred oozed into the White House. It emboldened the freaks and their tiki torches and clubs and boots.

Nothing this administration has advocated or tried to carry out in any way benefits the people who voted for it. Trump hates poor people and disdains the middle class. He is a horrible president who has made the country less strong and less secure. He won their votes, far more likely than not, because he wasn’t the black guy or the woman.

So we failed. Instead of building upon a more diverse America, a more real America, an America that reflects the many faces that make up the country, we fell backwards into a land of make-believe, where everyone is white, straight, cis, and Christian. It’s a world that does not exist nor has ever existed. It can only be maintained with a great deal of effort—gerrymandering, voter suppression, foreign influence.

The ballot got us into this mess. And ultimately, the ballot will have to get us out. People have to vote these kooks out of office. This year’s elections seem to bring some hope. Hoboken, New Jersey elected its first Sikh mayor, Ravi Bhalla. Both New Jersey and Virginia elected black lieutenant governors, Sheila Oliver and Justin Fairfax, respectively. Danica Roem, a Democratic transgender activist, defeated Republican Delegate Bob Marshall, a vile man who tried to legislate discrimination against the transgender community. I love instant karma.

Real America, the one with lots of different people coexisting, came back with a vengeance in this year’s off-year election. Let’s hope that this trend continues into 2018. Otherwise, our failure of 2016 will compound, with interest.

Sin Against the Race: The Book Launch

I’m holding a book launch celebration for Sin Against the Race…and everyone is invited!

Date: Saturday, November 18, 2017

Time: 3:30 pm – 5:30 pm

Place: The Octopus Literary Salon, 2101 Webster Street, Oakland

Price: FREE

Sin Against The Race follows the coming out journey of Alfonso Rutherford Berry III, son of a city councilman and grandson of the state’s first African American legislator. All his life he believed that he would enter the “family business” and go into politics–forsaking his true first love, dancing. But after a series of tragedies, starting with the death of his fierce, out cousin Carlton, his assumptions explode in his face along with his closet door. In the process, he makes new friends, finds loves, and discovers his own voice.

Written in taut prose steeped in history and current events–and seasoned with the blues–Sin Against The Race follows the coming-of-age journey of a young black gay man as he progresses from an invisible councilman’s son to a formidable presence in his community.

Copies of the book will be available for purchase. I will read, take questions, and sign copies. Come and mingle in a haze of jazz and the delicious wine, beer, and food offered by Octopus Literary Salon.

Influences: Music and Family

[Part of a series of posts previewing the novel Sin Against the Race.]

Sin Against the Race did not start life as a “jazz novel.” When I first started this journey, I listened mostly to classical. Dvořák, Chopin, Mozart, Brahms, the usual suspects. My music habits changed after my mother died. Miles, Coltrane, and of course Ellington & Strayhorn eventually worked their way into the story. I have my parents to thanks for my initial jazz education. And KCSM, Jazz 91 to thank for furthering it. As noted in an earlier post, Sammy plays jazz in his store constantly. Sammy influenced Carlton, who in turn influenced Alfonso.

I first learned early on in my jazz journey that Billy Strayhorn was gay, and not particularly closeted, for his time. That blew me away. His influence comes early in the story, indeed the very first scene.

Sirens broke Alfonso’s sleep, but when he awoke they’d gone. His mind switched on, he again found himself in the desert of another sleepless night. Disasters stirred in the dimly lit alleys of his mind. Sweat sopped his forehead. Closed eyes longed for sleep. Weariness eventually drifted him into what his cousin Carlton described as a halfway to dawn state, neither dark nor light, neither asleep nor awake. He wanted to linger in that state for as long as possible and cocoon himself in its ambiguities.

Halfway to day is a Billy Strayhorn expression, Carlton explained.

Alfonso wasn’t familiar with the jazz legend. Who is Billy Strayhorn? he asked. His cousin scowled and said, You better get an education, young man! That night, they listened to ‘Lush Life,’ ‘Chelsea Bridge,’ and other wonders.
-from p. 1, SIN AGAINST THE RACE

Lady Day’s powerful, intense blues seemed to best match Carlton’s story, so she became his heroine.

“‘Gloomy Sunday’ had filled Alfonso’s head during the service while the organist played anonymous dirges, dreck that failed to capture the complexities of Carlton’s life. His cousin often sought salvation from Billie’s bruised singing, ‘Gloomy Sunday,’ ‘Some Other Spring,’ ‘Good Morning Heartache,’ others.”
-from p. 10, SIN AGAINST THE RACE

Later we hear how Ahmad Jamal and McCoy Tyner influenced Sammy’s life.

Alfonso the dancer also likes electronic music–an influence of my sister Tania. When she was a kid, Mom called her Terpsichore. So it seems natural that Alfonso would listen to folks like Mocean Worker.

Music lived in my household growing up. All music. Jazz, classical, rock, folk, Indian, soul, R&B. My brother JK has a great love of prog rock, and introduced me to some of the genre. My brothers Louis and Robert play soul, jazz, and R&B. Tania sings as well as dances. Mom had a lovely voice. My father bought an LP with a Pt. Chatur Lal tabla solo on it long before I was born, much less started studying the instrument. He loved music, too, though did not perform any. Also, his penchant for quoting queer authors, like Isherwood, inspired my writing. In his understated way, he was letting me know that he was cool with me.

I wouldn’t be who I am today without these wonderful, eclectic people in my life. They made me who am I. So Sin Against the Race is a family effort, because my family is so a part me. I dedicate the book to all of them, and in particular to those who did not see the journey’s end.

Alfonso’s Companions: Bill and Roy

[Part of a series of posts previewing the novel Sin Against the Race.]

In addition to meeting his late cousin’s friends, Alfonso meets two folks closer to his age: Bill Hawk and Roy Prince.

Before there was Alfonso R. Berry III, there was Bill Hawk, an 18-year-old freshman. In early drafts of Sin Against the Race, Bill was my major protagonist. SATR, in fact, started life as a short story where Bill, just coming to terms with his sexuality, witnesses a vicious gay bashing in the large park across from his family’s apartment. In that story, I wanted to contrast his joy at coming out with the fear he has that his new identity will mean new oppressions. One could say, accurately, that Bill’s experiences, as I first envisioned them, mirrored my own at that stage in my life.

Bill comes from a small town and moves to the big city to go to college. He goes to Alfonso’s family church as well as the same college. That’s how they meet, on the main drag on campus where student groups table.

“A young brother with a baby face came and stood at the table. He wore blue jeans and a black hoodie with a green shirt peeking from beneath. Alfonso thought he looked shorted than himself, but he had a stockier build, broader shoulders padded with muscles. The brother seemed particularly interested in the brochure about the tutorial program [the African Students Association] cosponsored with the Beacon Hill First Baptist Church.”
-from p. 24, SIN AGAINST THE RACE

Bill has some history. Early on, we find out that he had a boyfriend in high school, Gabriel. They had adventures of the sort I wish I had had in high school. Any crushes I had in high school I kept quite to myself, and never seemed destined to be reciprocated. Bill and Gabriel met in the locker room showers—a detail I had in earlier drafts, but does not appear in the final book. They were the only ones in the showers and Gabriel was clearly putting on a display, slowly rinsing himself off under the stream of water for Bill’s benefit. Gabriel gave Bill permission to pursue him, and Bill leapt at the chance, willingly allowing Gabriel “to guide them wherever imagination saw fit.”

Bill lives on the periphery of the closet—out to himself and a few select others. Alfonso finds a lot to admire in him.

Roy Prince doesn’t know what a closet is, other than a place to hold his fabulous wardrobe. We meet him when Alfonso sees him sitting on the bus.

“He looked taller, still skinny, still dressed sharp. He accented his outfit with a red vest, a silver feather earring on his left lobe, and a smallish black trilby cocked back, revealing his short red hair. Carlton described Roy as coming out of the womb with zero fucks to give, his first word likely a high-flung snap with lips pursed. He began hanging at Sammy’s as a precocious 10-year-old, with his mother’s blessing. He’d go with her shopping, then just stay there. She died when he was in middle school. With his father often away on long hauls in his truck, the whole village stepped in to raise this child of Carver Street.”
-from p. 17, SIN AGAINST THE RACE

An 18-year-old freshman like Bill, Roy is a theater major, having already done Shakespeare in high school. For Alfonso, the frustrated, wannabe dancer, who viewed Roy only from a distance, the thespian is a beacon of what his life could be. Alfonso sees Roy living life on his own terms, despite having a seemingly indifferent father who doesn’t appear to understand him. A condition Alfonso knows all too well.

Sammy Turner: The Mother of Carver Street

[Part of a series of posts previewing the novel Sin Against the Race.]

Sammy Turner can be a nag. Some might call Sammy Turner a busybody, because he knows everybody’s business. All that know him, however, will eventually admit that Sammy Turner is their rock. His corner grocery story is the kitchen of Carver Street, the place where folks come to hang out, catch up, shoot the shit. Sammy knows everybody’s business because everybody confides in him, not because he asks, but because he listens.

I wish I had had a Sammy in my life, someone to come out to, to confide in, someone to tell me, Yes, you’re OK. Someone who had already traveled the path I was just beginning to set foot upon. Who wouldn’t want such a mentor in their life?

An older gay man who has seen many things, who discarded the closet long ago, a warrior who hitchhiked to the 1963 March on Washington as a teen, Sammy has many battle scars. Or, to use his own parlance, he would describe himself as a cup of blues coffee. Sammy makes his morning cup in an old tin drip pot, the kind with the water chamber that drips into a metal filter filled with coffee grounds and then drains into a bottom chamber. It sits directly on the burner and chars the coffee. My grandmother used one way back to make her Hill’s Brothers.

“It ain’t blues coffee unless it’s been bruised a bit, to get some attitude. The trick, though, is not to bruise it too much or it will get bitter.”
– from p. 8, SIN AGAINST THE RACE

Sammy has seen the best and worst of what humanity has to offer and still he maintains his place in the world. He maintains hope. Bitterness lingers just to the side of his personality.

Anyone who compares coffee to the blues has to be a musician. Sammy played drums in his youth. I always had a feeling that Sammy was a musician, but it took a while for me to explore that side of him. Music always plays in his store, usually jazz. And he has a habit of exclaiming “Great Dizzy!” when something surprises or annoys him. Sammy has a history, though, a reason he’s not playing when the story begins. Alfonso brings it out of him, his reasons for leaving music aside, in a way no one else ever had.

As the neighborhood den mother, Sammy has lots of friends and regulars at his store. Alfonso’s late cousin, Carlton, hung out at the store, sought out Sammy when he got thrown out of the house by his parents, Alfonso’s aunt and uncle. Carlton, already dead when the story begins, continues to guide Alfonso from beyond. Many of the people Alfonso encounters all knew and loved his cousin. They formed Carlton’s real family, since his blood relatives, other than Alfonso, shunned him.

“More than anything, his cousin wanted his immediate family to enter an empty apartment after he died, so that they would receive exactly what they had given. Nothing.”
– from p. 11, SIN AGAINST THE RACE

On Alfonso, though, Carlton lavished much affection. For the longest time, Alfonso was only out to his flamboyant cousin. Only after Carlton’s death does Alfonso begin exploring the world Carlton left behind.

Carlton represents the generation of gay men lost to AIDS, that first wild bunch to burst out of the closet after Stonewall. When I came out, I met many from that generation, particularly in ACT-UP/LA. We’re losing many of those pioneers to other ailments now, ALS, cancer. Theirs is a great generation for which I have much respect.

Sammy’s blues coffee companion is community activist and organizer Charlotte Hunter. She once worked for Councilman James Larkin, the predecessor on the City Council to Ford Berry, Alfonso’s father. And she ran for the job herself, only to lose to Berry. It was a nasty race that left scars for many, including Alfonso. And yet, when he meets her at Sammy Store…,

“He switched his embrace to Charlotte somewhat self-consciously—mindful of a history not his, yet a part of him—but felt only sympathy from her. Carlton always told him that Charlotte was the real deal, always straight, always fair.”
– from p. 8, SIN AGAINST THE RACE

During his first visit to the store, Alfonso also sees Mrs. Parker, Carlton’s favorite nurse. She, too, likes to drop in on Sammy from time to time to sample some of his coffee, “the best in the Huck.” Mrs. Parker is a firebrand, a feisty 80-something who refuses to slow down or go down. The neighborhood historian, she has earned a few scars of her own. Thus, she is the one that den mother Sammy turns to whenever he needs someone to talk to. She’s part Alberta Hunter and part my own grandmother, Julia McVey, the one who used the old tin drip pot to make her Hills Brothers coffee.

Enter The Huck: Sin Against the Race

I wanted an area where black and queer intersected, overlapped. My friend and former college roommate Pete recommended that I create my own neighborhood—from this suggestion The Huck was born.

In its center lies Huckleberry Park, a large urban patch of green that spans several long blocks. A largely African American neighborhood, straight folks live mostly on the south side of the park. Queer folks live around Carver Street, which juts out from the north side. (The name is no accident.) Further along in the book, we learn that Carver Street has a long history as a gathering place for those on the fringes of society. So many urban queer neighborhoods start out this way, a refuge for the forgotten or forlorn.

I imagine Carver Street as a cross between Polk Street and the Castro. Gay life in San Francisco centered around Polk Street in days of old; the Castro, originally called Eureka Valley, was an old Portuguese neighborhood. (Ironically, Provincetown is historically an old Portuguese fishing village.) By the time I moved to the Bay Area in 1989, Polk Street had largely faded. Only a few clubs remained, a couple of leather stores—I bought my first leather pants at one of them. But Polk Gulch had a grittier reputation and older history, an inspiration for Carver Street.

Huckleberry Park itself came from my early childhood. My mother used to take me to concerts and festivals at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, just west of downtown. At one of these festivals, I saw a poster, a cluster of lines and color, and asked my mother why was the woman crying. Mom was stunned: it was a reproduction of Picasso’s The Weeping Woman. My queer, artistic eye blossomed early, I guess. MacArthur Park was a cultural meeting place where folks of all colors and communities met and hung out. And then, as I grew older, it faded, blighted by crime, decay, and neglect. Huckleberry Park had gone through a similar transition by the time of the story.

“Mrs. Parker kept her eyes forward, silently noting, as she always did, the further deterioration of the park—the graffiti, the broken pavement, the crumbling band shell surrounded by a dilapidated chain-link fence. She normally eulogized its yesteryears whenever she walked through it with someone, but uttered none of her familiar verses during their long walk…”
– from p. 14, SIN AGAINST THE RACE

Alfonso, the novel’s protagonist, also has memories of better days in the park. In particular, he remembers playing baseball in the park with his father.

“In the not too long ago, he and his father rushed furtively out of the house together and came to this grassy field to play baseball. The early hours of a steamy summer morning required that they do nothing less. They snuck out to avoid his mother’s disapproving stare. She hated that they played with a hardball, even if Alfonso wore protective gear. Take the softball, she’d say if she caught them leaving. They did, but only for show. During game time, they always kept the ball small, round, tightly wound, regulation down to the last stitch.

“Walking through the middle of the field, he could picture his father’s tall, imposing frame clad in black shorts and a gray tank top striking a familiar pose: body in profile, head turned toward his objective, the ball clasped close to his chest. Alfonso, in deep concentration, held his bat at the ready. When his father played in college, they called him the Wizard, because he made balls disappear. No one saw them as they whizzed by. The years had changed nothing. His father still had a mean fastball. Whenever Alfonso connected, they set their eyes skyward, following the ball like Charlie Brown followed his kite, with hope that they’d be able to track and retrieve it so that they could send it soaring again.”
-from p. 3, SIN AGAINST THE RACE

The Huck has a reputation as a “rough” area. To the east of Carver Street lies Beacon Hills, a place where well-to-do blacks with saditty attitudes live.

Hills folks usually distanced themselves from the grit of the flatlands, even though the distance wasn’t that great. The old rhyme went through [Alfonso’s] head. 9-1-1 don’t mean a fuck, if you’re living in The Huck.”
-from p. 74, SIN AGAINST THE RACE

Alfonso’s family lives on Beacon Hill and has represented The Huck for decades, first by his grandfather Al Berry, Sr. in the state legislature and then by his father, Ford “Al, Jr.” Berry, on the City Council. Both Ford and Al Berry, Sr. have long dissed queer Carver Street, as many on the south side have. Alfonso, black and gay, falls in the middle of this, his personal conflicts melding with the historic ones of his neighborhood.

Sin Against the Race–Look! It’s a Book!

Get ready, folks!

My first novel Sin Against the Race drops Sunday, October 29. Am I excited? Hell yeah, I’m excited! This day has been a Long Time Coming. Indeed, the genesis of this book dates back to my own coming out nearly 30 years ago. Upon coming into the life, I became entranced by the intersectionality of race and sexuality, particularly what it meant to be black and gay.

So, what’s it really about? Glad you asked!

Alfonso Rutherford Berry III—son of a city councilman, grandson of the state’s first African American legislator—believes that history has ordained for him but one life, and it ain’t his first love: dancing. But after a series of tragedies, starting with the death of his fierce, out cousin Carlton, his assumptions explode in his face along with his closet door.

Alfonso emerges into the life on a blanket of the jazz and blues he shared with Carlton. He hangs on Carver Street, the queer Northside of his largely black neighborhood. There, he is befriended by Carlton’s familiars: Sammy, a local storekeeper and neighborhood den mother, Bingo, a leather queen and nurse practitioner, Vera, a transgender activist and photographer, and Charlotte, his father’s political rival. At college, he becomes tight with two freshmen: Roy, an aspiring actor and acquaintance from high school and Bill, a new member of his church. He also finds love (and peril) in the form of Jameel, a long-time crush. His new life sets him on a collision course with his father, his church, and the family legacy established by his revered late grandfather.

Written in taut prose steeped in history and current events—and seasoned with the blues—Sin Against the Race follows the coming-of-age journey of a young black gay man as he progresses from an invisible councilman’s son to a formidable presence in his community.

An ebook version is already available for preorder via Kobo. The paperback version will be available via Amazon and in bookstores on the publication date (Oct. 29, remember the date). Go to your favorite bookstore and ask them to order it! The paperback ISBN is:

978-0-9993815-0-2

Like my page on Facebook and follow me on Twitter for more info, including updates about readings, etc.

I received a proofing copy (WOO HOO!!!) last week. Look! It’s a book!

Want more? Good! Here is a preview of the first two pages:

SIN AGAINST THE RACE, (c) 2017 Gar McVey-Russell. Published by gamr books

 

SIN AGAINST THE RACE, (c) 2017 Gar McVey-Russell. Published by gamr books

Cassini, The Lord of the Rings

When the Cassini probe launched in 1997, some controversy followed it for the first part of its voyage. Probes heading to the outer solar system need a speed boost. Big chemical rockets are too impractical and expensive. Ion rockets, though promising, can’t provide the power needed at this time. So for decades, rocket scientists have used gravity boosts from planets. They slingshot a craft around a planet, and it comes out the other side going quite a bit faster. A unique alignment of the planets allowed the Voyager probes to slingshot their way all the way to Neptune and beyond.

For the start of its mission, then, Cassini slingshot around Venus twice and then the Earth once. It was the Earth slingshot that got it into trouble. Cassini, like all deep space probes, derives its electrical power from radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). It had three. Solar arrays, like those at the International Space Station and probes orbiting Venus or Mars, were not practical at the time of Cassini’s construction. The Juno probe, currently orbiting Jupiter, does have solar arrays, the technology having advanced to where this is possible.

But Cassini had to do it old school. And when folks found out that it was about to buzz past the Earth, panic struck. What if it crashed into the atmosphere? Where would it hit? Who would get harmed by it? Would it go off like a thermonuclear device?

Well, no. The greatest risk of contamination from the RTGs was during launch. It thankfully survived its launch. By the time the craft came back for a flyby, the risk of an accident plummeted to 1 in 1,000,000. I remember writing to NASA in support of the probe and its mission. Someone sent back a very appreciative note with pictures. (This was back in the snail-mail days.)

But all of that is long ago and largely forgotten. By the time you read this, Cassini will have finished its historic 13-year run orbiting Saturn and crashed into the Ringed World. It’s a protective measure, the controlled crash. While spacecrafts undergo stringent decontamination procedures, there is still enough of a chance that a craft may carry terrestrial microbes that scientists prefer not to take any chances. Rather than risk contaminating one of Saturn’s fascinating moons, some of which may harbor its own indigenous life, they will sacrifice the probe.

I’m rather saddened by this. By any measure, the Cassini-Huygens missions has been one of NASA’s greatest success stories. When it arrived in 2004, Cassini sent off the Huygens probe for Titan. It cruised through the thick atmosphere of the giant moon and then successfully soft-landed on its surface, the first time a probe has landed on a moon other than Earth’s. It survived this harsh environment long enough to send photos from the surface, another first.

Surface of Titan.

Saturn has a collection of wonderfully weird moons. Cassini’s first port-of-call was the moon Phoebe (FEE-bee), one of the outer most moons.

Phoebe, the gatekeeper to the Saturn system.

Hyperion looks just plain bizarre, like a sponge.

The giant sponge, Hyperion.

And Enceladus surprised everyone with its “tiger stripes” that spout geysers high into space. Turns out that Enceladus has water under its smooth, icy surface, a vast ocean.

Jet-setting Enceladus.

Of course, when talking Saturn, one has to talk about the rings. Cassini showed them off in the most fascinating light possible. For thirteen years, we received photos like this:

 

The Lord of the Rings.

Saturn itself provided endless fascination, with its turbulent, storm-ridden atmosphere. It has hexagon-shaped jets at its polar latitudes, along with large, permanent hurricanes. It has storms and lightening. These features have fascinated the space-watching public and enthralled planetary scientists.

Saturn, getting its stop sign on.

Thirteen years is just a few years shy of half a year on Saturn. Thus, Cassini observed seasonal changes. The blue hues over the northern hemisphere moved south over the course of the mission. I’ve never seen such gorgeous space photos before. How wonderful that we received a treasure trove of them.

The pale blue dot, Earth, as seen from Saturn.

A few times during its mission, Cassini took a photo of home. There it is, that pale blue dot. We aren’t even a tiny speck in the cosmos. Among the stars, our own sun gets lost in the glare of greater, larger stars. But from Saturn, we shine, meekly, dimly, beautifully. I so value the perspective we gain from sending probes out far away. I love the things we learn about those far away places, because they make our home even more precious, if not to the cosmos, then certainly to us. If only we could realize, remember, and retain the knowledge that all way have in the cosmos is that pale blue dot, and each other.

Thanks, Cassini. I’m going to miss you.

Reading at Octopus Literary Salon, 9/2/17 (video)

Here is my reading from this past Saturday. I read as part of Perfectly Queer East Bay @ Beast Crawl in Oakland, CA. This was filmed at Octopus Literary Salon. Video produced and compiled by Friend and Videographer Michael Guleff. (Thanks, Misha!)