Reading: Alfonso’s Birthday

December 16 is the birthday of my fictional character Alfonso Rutherford Berry, III, protagonist for my novel Sin Against the Race. So to mark the occasion, I read parts of the book that reflect upon Alfonso’s 21st, which he spent in hospital. Earlier in the book, police beat him while he tabled at a needle exchange next to Huckleberry Park, putting him in a coma. His father, Ford Berry, never approved of the needle exchange, so as Alfonso lost consciousness, he thought his father had set the police on him as punishment for defying him. The reading deals with the aftermath of all that, and the regrets Ford experiences.

You can hear a little snippet of music during an early part of the reading, “Alleybird” by Anton Schwartz from his classic 2014 album Flash Mob. A slow, expressive blues, for me the tune captures all of the regrets and laments Ford experiences in light of what happened to his son. At this point, he finally starts to put two and two together and question what part he played in his son’s tragedy. Flash Mob was a mainstay for me while writing this book. Buy this great album!

Finally, some exciting news: Sin Against the Race appears on Out in Print‘s Best of 2018 list. I am humbled and honored for this recognition.  Here is the video of the reading. Enjoy!

Posted by Gar McVey-Russell on Sunday, December 16, 2018

World AIDS Day 2018 Reading

For World AIDS Day this past Saturday, December 1, I read an excerpt from my novel Sin Against the Race. The story involves Alfonso Rutherford Berry, III, a young black gay man coming into his own, mourning the loss of his cousin Carlton, a long term AIDS survivor. Here, taken from Chapter 20, Alfonso explains to his African-American Sociology class how Carlton actually died. Check it out!

Click here to learn where you can purchase a copy of the book.

I’m wearing my old ACT UP/East Bay t-shirt. The group started in 1989 in my apartment at that time. We addressed several issues related to AIDS in Oakland and Berkeley, including access to care and education about the disease. My involvement in ACT UP continues to inform much of my writing, including Sin Against the Race.

One of our co-founders, John Iversen, himself a long-term survivor, passed away in early October. John was a stalwart activist for AIDS, healthcare, Native American rights, and many other progressive issues. And he was a supportive friend. I dedicate this reading to him.

FIGHT AIDS! FIGHT BACK! ACT UP!

 





Reading Event: Perfectly Queer, Tuesday, Nov. 13

I’ll be reading with Rick and Wayne’s Perfectly Queer November event at Dog Eared Books, Castro next Tuesday, November 13 at 7pm. The date falls on Rick’s birthday and we’ll be celebrating. Join us for readings, wine, and cake! The theme of this reading is friendship. My novel Sin Against the Race is about the friendships my main character Alfonso develops during the story. So come check out my selection.

Other readers include Wayne Goodman, Michael Alenyikov, Genanne Walsh, Alvin Orloff, Rob Rosen, and Rick himself. Please come eat, drink, and by books!

Perfectly Queer “Rick’s Most Excellent Birthday Reading”
Tuesday, November 13 @ 7:00 PM
Dog Eared Books
489 Castro Street, SF





Doctor Who Meets Rosa Parks

Image: BBC

Doctor Who answered the challenge of Brexit and Trump in a big way with the third story of the current series, “Rosa,” cowritten by show-runner Chris Chibnall and children and young adult writer Malorie Blackman. The TARDIS crew set down in Montgomery, Alabama on November 30, 1955, one day before Mrs. Parks celebrated one-woman bus sit-in. Visiting historic figures and events is nothing new for Doctor Who. Indeed, in its original conception, Who was meant to be a semi-educational children’s show. But this visit was special, not just because of Rosa Parks, but also because the current TARDIS crew has never been more diverse. And their different backgrounds informed and enhanced the story.

Spoilers, sweetie.

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The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) currently travels with Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh), Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), and Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole). Imagine this group walking around together in the Jim Crow South: a white woman (wearing pants), an older white man, a South Asian woman, and a young black man.

Ryan immediately gets into trouble when he innocently picks up a dropped hankie and tries to give it back to its owner, a white woman. The woman’s husband responds violently by slapping him and threatening worse. You don’t molest a white woman, boy, he warns the stunned Ryan. Rosa Parks happens along and defuses the situation, acting obsequiously to the offended white man, as blacks had to at that time. She also assures him that the garment of his that she was working on will be ready on time. When the white couple leaves, she scolds Ryan, reminding him that Emmett Till had met his end for crossing a white woman just the year prior.

This tense opener beautifully captures the brutality of the era. Though no one drops the n-word, you’d swear that you heard it.

Later, the foursome retreat to a local bar to assess their situation. Oops. Oblivious to Jim Crow laws and mores, they instantly become the subject of suspicion and hatred. The folks in the bar take exception to Ryan the Colored Boy and Yasmin the “Mexican”—a wonderful touch. And Graham, who was married to Ryan’s black grandmother until her death, complicates things greatly by identifying Ryan as his grandson. And the only thing worse than a n****r is a n****r lover. Towns folk quickly label the group troublemakers and the police monitor their movements. 

Using her trusty sonic screwdriver, the Doctor ultimately discovers evidence that someone is trying to tamper with history. This leads her to Krasko, a foe from the future. After serving time for murder, he managed to get a wrist time-travel devise (of the type Capt. Jack Harkness wore), a ray-gun that blasts people to another time, and other temporal toys. He uses them with the expressed purpose of preventing Rosa Parks’s famous sit-in from happening on December 1.

I found Krasko a most disturbing villain, far more so than Daleks or Cybermen or even the Master/Missy. Because Kraskos really exist. A Krasko current sits in the White House. Kraskos bearing tiki torches and Nazi and Confederate flags marched through Charlottesville, Virginia to promote White Power. Kraskos made the Brexit campaign all about “us versus them.” Our world today has emboldened Kraskos and we continue to feel their wrath on an almost daily basis. Just a week after this episode aired, a man attempted to mail pipe bombs to various Democratic leaders and CNN, folks on Trump’s “enemies list.” And another man opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during service, murdering 11 and wounding 9 all while shouting “all Jews must die.”

The Krasko character painfully reminds us that people with his mindset remain with us, decades after the fall of the Third Reich. And that they will likely remain with us well into the future.

While hiding from the police behind a dumpster in an alley, Yasmin and Ryan share a wonderful scene where they discuss racism, comparing their lives to life in the Jim Crow South. Ryan wonders if what Rosa Parks did ultimately changed anything. The police stop me on the streets more than my mates, he complains. And Yasmin, a police officer herself, says that she does not receive as much respect as she would if she weren’t Pakistani-British. But she also believes that things are better than they had been. Case in point, a story like this would never have been made in 1955. And if it had, television stations in the South likely would have boycotted it—like they did the infamous Star Trek episode where Kirk and Uhura kissed.

I should also note how much I am enjoying Whittaker’s Doctor. She has an infectious spark of energy, the right amount of moral outrage—a key ingredient for any Doctor—and a strong sense of purpose. With her returns the unabashed do-good Doctor. And in these times, we really, really need that. We need a hero.

A Doctor Who story like “Rosa” could only come about because Chris Chibnall took risks. He hired the first female actor to play the Doctor. He gave her a very diverse group to travel with. And hiring Ms. Blackman, whose fiction explores racism in dystopian settings, brought diversity behind the camera as well as in front of it. We need this type of programming more than ever, with Kraskos trying to reverse generations of social justice history.

“Rosa” represents Doctor Who at its finest.





Queer Words Podcast Interview

Author Wayne Goodman has hosted singly and with his partner author Rick May various literary readings in the Bay Area. He has now launched a new venture: Queer Words Podcast. Premiering this month, the podcast features Wayne talking with queer writers about their work, their influences, and how their queer identity shapes what they write. He asked me if I would like to participate, and I was happy to say yes.

Here is a link to the episode featuring yours truly. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. You can also find Queer Words Podcast on iTunes and Google Play. Check out all of their episodes. The first features Rick and the second features Natasha Dennerstein. Look for new episodes in the coming weeks. Subscribe today!





San Francisco Lit Crawl 2018 – Musical Muses

Crawl on over to San Francisco this coming Saturday, October 20 and check out Lit Crawl 2018. Lots of folks will be reading at various venues, including yours truly.

I will read in the session Musical Muses: BARtab’s Tenth Lit Crawl Event from 5pm – 6pm at Martuni’s, 4 Valencia St. Organized by Jim Provenzano, this event features works that include music. I’ll be reading from Sin Against the Race, which features a lot of music. After we read, pianist Suzanne Beignet Ramsey, aka Kitten on the Keys, will send us off with an appropriate musical selection. This should be a lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to it.

Other authors reading in this session are Bud Gundy, Trebor Healey, Kathy Knowles, and K.R. Morrison.

Come join us for an evening of jazz and cocktails!

Musical Muses: BARtab’s Tenth Lit Crawl Event
Saturday, October 20, at 5pm
Martuni’s, 4 Valencia Street





IMAGINE THE PRIVILEGE

IMAGINE SCREAMING AT YOUR JOB INTERVIEW IN ANGER.

IMAGINE BERATING THE HIRING PANEL WITH SHOCK AND AWE FOR NOT GIVING YOU THE JOB IMMEDIATELY, FOR DELAYING YOUR CORONATION, FOR NOT RECOGNIZING YOUR BRILLIANCE AND WORTH BY YOUR MERE PRESENCE. IMAGINE TELLING THEM THAT YOU DID THEM A FAVOR BY DEIGNING TO AGREE TO AN INTERVIEW.

IMAGINE TAUNTING YOUR HIRING PANEL WITH PASSAGES FROM SCRIPTURE, SUMMONING FIRE AND BRIMSTONE, REAL WRATH OF GOD STUFF, WARNING THAT THEY WILL RUE THE DAY THAT THEY FAILED TO RECOGNIZE THE GREATNESS SITTING BEFORE THEM. IMAGINE WARNING THE PANEL THAT GOD ALMIGHTY HIMSELF ENDORSES THIS HIRING.

IMAGINE TAKING UMBRAGE FOR THE MERE SUGGESTION OF MALFEASANCE, WHILE FAILING TO SHOW ANY SYMPATHY OR CONCERN FOR THAT MALFEASANCE. IMAGINE WEEPING IN ADDITION TO SCREAMING, DECLARING THAT YOUR VICTIMHOOD IS THE ONLY LEGITIMATE ONE.

IMAGINE LAUNCHING THROUGH A LITANY OF ACCOMPLISHMENTS, COLLEGES ATTENDED, DEGREES EARNED, POSITIONS HELD, WAVING THEM LIKE A BLUDGEON TO SMITE UNBELIEVERS. IMAGINE A SHORTER, CONCISER VERSION OF THAT LITANY, WHERE YOU SCREAM: PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE!  PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! PRIVILEGE! UNTIL THE HIRING PANEL BEGS FOR MERCY.

IMAGINE DOING THIS NOT AS A TODDLER, OR A PRETEEN, OR A TEENAGER, OR EVEN A YOUNG ADULT, BUT AS A MIDDLE AGED MAN.

NOW, IMAGINE IF CLARENCE THOMAS HAD DONE THE SAME THING 27 YEARS EARLIER WHEN HE SAT IN THE SAME CHAIR. IMAGINE THE OUTRAGE:

ANGRY NEGRO!

DANGEROUS!

UNCIVILIZED!

A THREAT TO ALL THAT IS HOLY AND PURE ABOUT AMERICA!

AND THEN, IMAGINE IF THE ROLES HAD BEEN REVERSED, AND DR. CHRISTINE BEASLEY FORD HAD NOT SPOKEN WITH INTELLIGENCE, COMPOSURE, AND DECORUM ABOUT ONE OF THE MOST PAINFUL EPISODES IN HER LIFE, BUT HAD YELLED, SCREAMED, AND WEPT DURING HER TESTIMONY. IMAGINE THE OUTRAGE:

HARPY!

BANSHEE!

HYSTERICAL!

SHRILL!

MANIC!

SHE’S ON THE RAG!

IMAGINE? IMAGINE? IMAGINE!

Sadly, we don’t have to imagine. For it happens too frequently. From Senate Committees to street corners, from board rooms to boarding houses, from Wall Street to Walmart, a woman’s personhood takes a subordinate position to the ambitions, wants, needs, and vainglory of men. 

Brett Kavanaugh has no business sitting on any court bench, much less on the Supreme Court. His intemperance is a danger to the country. He should be impeached and stripped of his current appointment, not given a promotion. Only his wealth and privilege as a cis, white, heterosexual male has allowed him to get by this far. Now imagine if his cruelty and arrogance finally catches up to him and he has to answer for the things he has done.

Imagine that.





Queer Muppets: Representation Matters

Every few years, it seems, rumors swirl around about Bert and Ernie. Are they roommates, just good friends, or something more? Whenever such rumors come around, the Sesame Workshop, producers of Sesame Street, quickly issues a statement: they are just good friends.

In the latest round of this “controversy,” Mark Saltzman, who wrote for Sesame Street in the 80s and 90s, stated that he always thought of the pair as a loving couple. Without an agenda, no pink triangles or rainbow flags, not even so much as a show tune soundtrack in their apartment. Just a couple living their lives.

NOPE!

Once again, Sesame Workshop issued a statement saying that they were just “best friends.”

Let’s study this statement. “Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics…they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.” (Emphasis added.) So they have gender, but no sexual orientation. I fail to see how they can present gender and “many human traits and characteristics,” except the one, the unspeakable one.

I grew up watching Sesame Street. It premiered when I was four. I remember other couples on the show, some human, some muppets. They all presented as heterosexual without a qualm. But sadly, as always, non-heterosexual orientations need not apply. This, despite the fact that Mr. Saltzman is not the only gay person to have worked on the show. Others have. At least one has died of AIDS.

It all comes from a failure to have intelligent, age appropriate conversations with kids about other sexualities and genders and other coupling possibilities. I did not wake up on my 18th birthday and “decide” BOING! I’m GAY! No. That’s not how it works. I had my first gay impulses when I was six or seven. These were the same sort of yearnings that many kids have at that age. But when a boy longs for Patrick instead of Patricia, the so-called adults in the room have a fit. That’s where the problems begin.

Representation matters. Ernie presents as black while Bert presents as white. And they live together in peace. Seeing as the show is a child of the 60s, it makes sense that it would portray racial harmony among the muppets. I’m sure Sesame Workshop would have no problem with this interpretation. So it saddens me greatly that they continue to put up a barrier when it comes to non-heterosexual identities and couplings. Pretending that Bert and Ernie have no sexual orientation, just because the subject is “taboo,” is silly and wrong. It’s time to lift this taboo once and for all.

Imagine all the good it would do for a show like Sesame Street to have a gay couple or lesbian couple or  a transgender character. I could hear one of the kids on the show saying offhandedly something like “That’s Bert and Ernie. They’re married.” Or, “That’s Joe. He likes to play with trucks.” One need not go into anything deep about sex lives or the like. After all, do we know what Susan and Gordon do behind closed doors? No. But we know that they are married.

I wrote a few years ago how Grover was one of my queer icons. A part of me identified with him on that level, as a child, because it felt comfortable and natural for me to do so. I’m sure the then-Children’s Television Workshop would have poo-poohed me. But as Grover himself would say, with a bitchy cadence, “I do not care!”

One day, I hope Sesame Workshop will care, and will stop hiding behind societal pressure to maintain a straight face. Let a character “come out.” Let one have an innocent relationship, the way children do at that age. All kids do. I had plenty of crushes when I was six or seven. And they were all boys. And that’s OK. Just do it. It would have done me a world of good to have seen positive role models at so young an age. Representation matters.





Wild Fires and Asthma

Red skies over Oakland.

Just over a week ago, my weather app reported an air quality index reading of 158: Unhealthy. A pit formed in my stomach fed by flashbacks of last year. Once again, California was on fire. I looked out the window and the sun took on familiar colors as it moved toward the west. It began as an orangish yellow, turning more orange as it descended. Finally, as it parsed though a thick swath of smokey atmosphere, its hues tinted red.

Here we go again, I moan.

October 2017 saw the worst fire season on record at that time for much of the west coast, including California. Harsh winds blew the night the Napa fire ignited. The smell of smoke alarmed me, got me out of bed. I wondered if we had a fire in our bucolic neighborhood, lovely trees that would make good fuel. Noticing nothing unusual outside, I searched online. Twitter revealed that the smoke I smelled came from Napa, 46 miles away. It had a rancid smell, like someone burning garbage. Turns out, the fire started in a dump. The wild winds that night transmitted those noxious fumes with the speed of an electric current traveling down a wire.

Last year was the year of the N95 respirator. Regular dust masks do not keep out the particles created by wild fires. By the time we learned we needed N95s, the hardware stores had already sold out. Friends gave me some that they had. I also kept my asthma inhaler handy.

As a kid, I had asthma really badly. Attacks lasted not hours or days but weeks. I can remember staying out of school for at least 2 weeks behind an attack. I simply couldn’t breath. The proverbial elephant sat on my chest and stayed there. My little, 8-year-old lungs could not get enough air inside of me. I had to take medication, a sickly yellow syrup that tasted horrible. They tried to mask the taste of the medication with sweetness, but no amount of sugar made that medicine go down without a grimace on my face. Still, I took it. I gulped the nasty mess dutifully every four hours, hoping, praying that it would liberate my lungs, get them to function properly again, so that I didn’t have to think about breathing anymore. 

That was the thing. I felt like I had to consciously think about breathing in order to make it happen. After several days, that became very exhausting. Sometimes I wondered if I would just stop breathing. I spent many hours staring at the ceiling wondering about that what if.

As I got older, my lungs growing to adult size, the bad attacks ended. Only occasional flare ups come and go, brought on by such things as cat dander or smoke. 

My husband and I went camping once at Lassen Volcanic National Park. For some god-unknown reason, the park was doing a controlled burn not too far from the campsite. Yes, it was smoky. Very smoky. At night, I could not sleep. Whenever I nodded off, I’d wake up almost instantly, gasping for air. The elephant had returned. I felt as if I had regressed and my lungs returned to their former, diminutive, vulnerable state. My husband didn’t like the sound of my gasping. At the break of dawn, he packed us up, threw me in the car and barreled us out of there. Once we cleared the smoke, and got to a lower elevation, my breathing returned to normal. Back home I slept well that night.

This year’s fire in Mendocino was declared the largest in California’s history. Families lost homes. Some lost their lives. Scientists tell us that this is the new normal, due to climate change. Hotter, drier weather feeds the fire storms. Last year the bad fire season came in October. This year it came in August. We have longer, deadlier seasons to look forward to as our climate changes. I remember Santa Ana winds as a kid growing up in LA. Now Northern California has an equivalent. They whip through fast, carrying dry danger with them.

I look at the red sunsets and worry. I don’t want to gasp anymore, forced to think about my breathing in order to make it happen. I don’t want to suffocate on someone else’s misery, the fine particles that used to be their homes.

When I became a teenager, I no longer had to take the sickly yellow syrup for asthma flare ups. I “graduated” to inhalers and flavorless pills. But for years, I couldn’t look at a tablespoon and not have the taste of the nasty yellow syrup return to my tastebuds.





A Reading at Laurel Books

I’ll be reading with Perfectly Queer at their last event at Laurel Books, Oakland this coming Wednesday, August 22 at 7pm. Laurel Books will be closing at the end of August, a great loss for the East Bay’s literary community. However, we’ll be celebrating the Oakland landmark in the event “Queer Authors read other Queer Authors.”

I’ll be reading from Joe Okonkwo’s award winning first novel Jazz Moon. Info below and click here for more details. Come join us raise a glass to queer lit and Laurel Books!