Hot on the heels of an expanded second edition of That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is back on the scene with a new novel. Alma Cork joins the dots.
Imagine the scene: you're taking part in a huge Pride march, an occasion where LGBT people can take to the streets, wave their rainbow flags, and celebrate being out and proud - a glorious gathering of gayness. Only, all of a sudden, the march is confronted with a roadblock made out of sofas and what appears to be a seven foot tall can of Budweiser that invites you inside it with the slogan "Vomit Out Budweiser Pride and the Selling of Queer Identities". Yes, you've just stumbled across Gay Shame, and if you can't make it to the Budweiser vomitorium then there are handy Gay Shame vomit bags being given out.
You might wonder what is going on, but Gay Shame is a response to the over-commercialisation and 'safe' agenda that Pride has come to embody, and it questions the politics of assimilation and the loss of LGBT culture that goes with it. Gay Shame has come along to challenge the climate that says you can be gay - just as long as you’re not one of those scary gays. It challenges a world where your sexuality comes with corporate sponsors, a world where LGBT means assimilating and making yourself 'unthreatening', a world that only allows representation by the likes of Will & Grace and The L Word. Here's your culture! Is that bland enough?
One of the notable people behind Gay Shame's creation is Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. She's an author, editor, activist, sex worker, and gender radical extraordinaire, who describes herself as "an insomniac with dreams". So far, she's edited four pioneering anthologies, beginning with Tricks and Treats: Sex Workers Write About their Clients. Following this, Dangerous Families: Queer Writing on Surviving was billed as "brutal, raw, cathartic and redemptive" by the San Francisco Chronicle. Then, That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation came as a suckerpunch wake-up call to the corporate face of mainstream gay politics and a call to arms for those who are 'outsiders'. And Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity is a beautifully vibrant collection of essays that explores the idea of belonging, with the cultural intersections and issues that we all have to face as we strive to 'pass'.
Mattilda has also published two novels, Pulling Taffy and her latest, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly. The latter is a blistering rollercoaster through one individual's experiences and dreams, set against the backdrop of queer San Francisco in the early part of this decade. It was written in two-paragraph bursts when fibromyalgia made typing, or even holding a pen, a painful task for Mattilda. The novel careens along with a fragmentary zest - never coming apart completely even though thoughts, interactions and stories speed past in a blur of racing, disjointed narrative. Seemingly endless encounters with tricks, phone calls from friends that offer occasionally bittersweet insight into their lives, open relationships that seem like they should work even as they drift away, addictions to hooking up for sex over Craigslist, dancing to pounding beats, sex, sex, and more sex, coping with rebellious bodies and constant pain and the memories of sexual abuse, and random moments of shared understanding with strangers on the bus: they all flow over each other. All the while, we're treated to a contemporary landscape of fragmentation: the spectre of war post-9/11 and the futility of the peace demos; a 'gay community' that seems to be absent outside a collection of friends; and meanwhile the narrator’s apartment is taken over by mice, pigeons, rats, and a collection of cockroaches that seem to be fond of the electric toothbrush. Like life, the novel never seems to know where it's going, but keeps on pulsing forward, always bustling, although its consistent narrative style makes it feel more like swimming against the stream.
But then only dead fish go with the flow.
Mattilda has taken a snapshot from the start of this decade, straight from the voices of queer realities in San Francisco, and distilled it into a glorious rant about surviving and dealing with life. With all this said, the book is never depressing. The narrator never dips into self-pity and even though the book is certainly shocking, it is also at times extremely touching, and often hilarious.
By the way, you wouldn't have been directly confronted with those sofas or the giant Budweiser vomitorium can. Volunteer Pride marshalls wound up shoving Mattilda and company, eventually instigating the police against them. Two people were arrested. At another protest, LGBT centre staff called the police against a demonstration that Mattilda was part of, and then watched while the police beat them up. Meanwhile, in the Castro, wealthy gay residents protest the queer youth shelter, because it might affect their property values.
Still, it's nice to know that somebody is keeping us safe from the scary queers, isn't it? Vomit bag, anyone?
Out 1 Oct 2008, published by City Lights, cover price £11.99 paperback.http://www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.com