Censorship

Pressure of Concealment

If you don’t already, I recommend following Lit Hub. Today they featured an interview with Dani Shapiro in which the author muses on whether or not she would have written her memoir if she’d had the instant gratification of social media at the time.

Most interesting to me was her theory on the origin of powerful writing:

Dani Shapiro: “Adrienne Rich once said that it is that which is under the pressure of concealment that explodes into poetry. So if you’re on Twitter and Facebook and sharing there, there’s no pressure of concealment. And I think good memoir comes out of that place, it comes out of it can’t be said, it can’t be said, it can’t be said, so now I want to try to say it.”

Adrienne Rich’s observation struck me as another version of Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Does the pressure of concealment fuel all art? Probably not, but it can be a powerful engine.

Banned by My Boyfriend: A Memory of The Unbearable Lightness of Being

“The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.”-Milan Kundera, The Unbearble Lightness of Being

Way Back Wednesday is a Book Meme created by A Well Read Woman with the aim to write mini book reviews on books read in the past, that left a lasting impression.

Unbearable_lightness_of_being_posterThe first author to really pique my imagination as an adult reader was Milan Kundera.  In high school I had devoured Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and looking back, although they have very different styles, I think the experience of both of these writers was formative. A reader recently described my signature style as “vivid use of words, wry humor, and spot-on observations about humanity.”  The wry humor must have been informed by my love of Adams and observations about humanity are the literary offspring of my devotion to Kundera in my early twenties.

Most of the story-telling I had experienced as a young reader was heavily plot driven. You read (or watched TV) to find out who done it or how the hero will get to the happy end. What attracted me to Kundera was how the author used characters as a jumping off point to explore philosophical questions; to talk about human nature and society.

I still remember the passage from The Unbearable Lightness of Being that made me want to read everything Kundera had written.

A year or two after emigrating, she happened to be in Paris on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of her country. A protest march had been scheduled, and she felt driven to take part. Fists raised high, the young Frenchmen shouted out slogans, but to her surprise she found herself unable to shout along with them. She lasted no more than a few minutes in the parade. When she told her French friends about it, they were amazed. “You mean you don’t want to fight the occupation of your country?” She would have liked to tell them that  behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison. But she knew she would never be able to make them understand.

Thinking back to the period when I immersed myself in Kundera’s novels, I remember that I had a live-in boyfriend for a time who was prone to jealousy and insecurity. He was suspicious of my interest in Milan Kundera. (Come to that, he was suspicious of my interest in anything besides him.) All that he knew about The Unbearable Lightness of Being came from the film adaptation of the novel. I don’t know if he had seen the film or not. What he knew about it, what most people knew about it, was that it was sexy and pushed the boundaries of acceptability at that time. The most talked about scene was a homoerotic photo shoot between the two main female characters which, as I recall, was not in the book. One of the things I loved about Kundera’s novels is that they do not lend themselves to film adaptation as the main interest in them is the philosophical musings not the plot point. I have always preferred novels that do not read like a movie. It means the author used his medium well.

My then-boyfriend, however, believed Kundera wrote dirty books. He was deeply threatened by the notion that I might have an interest in sex. He preferred the old notion that women do not like sex and therefore if one consents to have sex with you (at great cost to herself) she is making something of a sacrifice and that proves the depths of her love and devotion. If sex didn’t prove that she was entirely devoted, then what proof did you have of love? Women, of course, have had to navigate the ambiguities of what a particular act of intimacy means in context for years as we have not had the mythology that men would only want sex if they were devoted at the soul level, but for this particular man, the idea that he might have to navigate a sea of ambiguities was all quite unsettling.   (This aspect of my relationship, incidentally, found its way into my first novel Angel as the jealousy of the main character, Paul.) He was so anxious about Kundera that during the time I was with him, I could not enjoy reading it.

And so a novel that had been politically censored in the author’s home country, and a film that was at the center of discussions about depictions of sexuality in film, led to a bit of censorship at home.

Political Message on Church Sign Controversy

From KENS News San Antonio:
LEAKEY, Texas — A controversy regarding a political sign prominently displayed outside a church is playing out in a small town west of San Antonio. Is it protected speech or political hate? And does it have a place on a church marquee? The sign reads, “Vote for the Mormon, not the Muslim! The capitalist, not the communist!” That marquee standing outside a non-denominational church has become the talk of the town in Leakey — about 90 miles northwest of San Antonio.

OK, first thought.  “Is it protected speech or political hate?” The reporter asks.  It does not have to be one or the other.  They are not opposites.  Political hate is protected speech.  No one needs to go out of his way to protect kind, loving speech.

Does it have a place on a church marquee?  I guess, if you think that is what your faith stands for, why not advertise it?  The church marquee is an opportunity to communicate what you’re about to outsiders.  Is this a stirring religious message?  Not in my opinion, no.  For some reason I find myself humming that Culture Club song “The Church of the Poison Mind.”

The sign was intended to say something about politics.  What it really tells you is something about this church and what it stands for.  It is a church that has no tolerance for its neighbor faiths (what would be wrong with being a Muslim if the president actually were one?) and that believes in a capitalist Jesus.  They do have faith though.  They are clinging to the idea that the President is a Muslim no matter what the facts are.  Who am I to say this is a strange form of Christianity?  We have freedom of religion in this country.  You can worship whatever kind of God you want. If you think God is judgmental and concerned with our petty politics, then you go write the stirring capitalist hymn.  I know I wouldn’t walk through that church door.  So if the pastor’s mission was to keep away anyone with a different point of view, job well done.  If the objective was to be featured in the news, job well done again.

How to Write Dirty Books Without Even Trying

“By taking communion, he was acknowledging the divine nature of his immortal soul. His inner and outer beauty merged and became one, inviolate, complete. Of course, a person’s soul can never truly be possessed either. But unlike physical beauty, it can be shared: a pair of souls in holy, holy communion.”

Is this erotica? Amazon believes it is. So does Google Books. So do a lot of book selling sites.

My novel, Angel, is the story of a Christian minister whose assumptions are challenged when he finds himself falling in love with another man. Not only does Amazon categorize it under “gay erotica” it sometimes comes up with the tag “gay sex” even though the only sexual activity described on the page is kissing.

It never occurred to me that this was what constituted “erotica.” I admit that I don’t have first hand experience of gay male sex, which explains my confusion. In the straight world, for a book to be considered erotic, it has to contain descriptions of actual sex. I had assumed that the same principle would apply when the protagonists were two men. I didn’t know that it was considered explicit sexual content when two men’s lips touch.

Every time I turn around I find another site calling Angel “erotica,” so it must be true. Book sellers are in the book categorizing business, after all. They must know what they are doing.

“Paul leaned in again, and this time their lips touched, tentatively at first. Ian responded, gently teasing Paul’s lips with his own. An invitation and an answer.”  

Erotica.

I have not yet figured out how to capitalize on my salacious infamy. Some friends have suggested that now that it has been explained to me that I am a writer of erotica, I should embrace it—- go all “Fifty Shades of Gay” and make a million dollars. I should build up a following of avid erotica fans and churn out volumes of hot man-on-man action like:

“So they unfolded the futon, pulled out the afghan, and curled up to watch whatever was on TV. Ian rested his head on Paul’s right shoulder with his arm draped across Paul’s chest. Paul lazily ran the fingers of his right hand through Ian’s hair.”

I have been trying to decide what my porn name should be. My name is already Laura Lee. What can I come up with that is better than that? The thing is, I’m just not sure I can handle a gay porn writing career. Why?

Because frankly, gay men, I’m disappointed. All my life I’ve heard so much about your promiscuous sex lives, your freaky three-ways, your glory holes, bondage dens and anonymous encounters in the baths. Who knew that all it takes to get you off is resting your head on another man’s shoulder while you flip through the channels on TV?

You guys are boring! The straights get steamier in the Biblical epics on the Family Channel.

So a career writing gay erotica is not for me.  So let me take one more stab at getting your juices flowing before I retire from my pornography career:

“My personal feeling about why the church tries to promote sex
only within marriage is that ideally it preserves the real life-affirming
kind of sexuality. It’s not just about sensation and your own pleasure, it’s
about connecting to someone else on a deep and serious level. Maybe
churches are clumsy in how they express that sometimes.”
“Clumsy, like saying only straight people can have that.”
“Yeah, clumsy like that.”
“You think two men can have ‘life-affirming’ sex?”
“Yeah, I do. Of course they can.”

Are you breathing heavy?

Now it occurs to me that maybe I am not being fair.  It is possible that it’s not you, gay men, it’s me.

I read an article today on Indie Reader in which author Pavarti K. Tyler discusses the steamy texts of Anais Nin and Henry Miller.

“It isn’t surprising that Nin found it necessary to self publish. Art which challenges peoples’ notions of sexuality is always difficult to find funding for, especially the type which deals with women’s sexuality,” Tyler writes. “Historically in the US, erotica has had tremendous difficulty finding an audience… When she moved to America with her second husband, she found her titles had almost no market and were unavailable to the general public. Meanwhile, Henry Miller’s infamous works ‘Tropic of Cancer’ and ‘Tropic of Capricorn’ (also initially self-published) were achieving critical and financial success. What is interesting is that as crass as Miller’s prose can be, it was always considered ‘literature’, while Nin’s much more poetic style carried the less commercial label: ‘erotica’.”

A couple of years ago I read a novel by a male author.  It was the story of a gay male divinity student.  I can’t recall the author’s name or the title any longer, but what I do remember is that the book opened with the protagonist waking up in the morning after a particularly successful night cruising, and unable to remove his cock ring, still on from the previous night, he wears it to devotion under his robe.  I learned about that book through a review in the gay press.  It was reviewed there, in exactly the way “erotica” is generally not.  It was labeled as LGBT fiction.

So maybe it all comes down to that porn name of mine.  Angel by someone named Laura Lee just sounds like erotica.  So it must be.