Trounced By Princess Puppy:
On The Difficulties of being a Gay Writer in Appalachia
Size queens would agree: the bigger the better. This might be true of the male appendáge, as my husband calls it, but it’s not always true of the writerly ego.
All my life I have dreamed of possessing inordinately large self-importance. Indeed, given the proper nourishment, my ego would wax obnoxious, swelling into as bloated a bulk as many I have encountered at writers’ conferences and book festivals. However, being both a regional and a gay author makes ego-food hard to come by. Such difficulties have kept my potential arrogance and bad behavior very nicely in check.
As a writer whose work most often focuses on both the gay male and the Appalachian experience, I get an unspoken message from many sources, that my literary labors do not in the long run count. From mainstream editors, publishers, and reviewers. From certain colleagues at Virginia Tech. From urban LGBT folks who regard rustic or regional identity with patronizing contempt. From Appalachian folks who regard gays with pious fear and loathing. Even from certain MFA students, many of whom are fascinated with the urbane and the faddish and have no respect for or interest in artists who speak for subcultures or minorities. To be both queer and regional, these sources tacitly insist, is to be doubly limited in scope, twice as dismissible. LGBT is not universal. Appalachian is not universal. Who, in other words, wants to read about hillbillies and queers? (In order to achieve a more respectable literary reputation, perhaps I should write distanced, obscure lyrics and witty postmodern narratives about heterosexual life in the DC suburbs, but I fear that might require more research than my impatience would permit.)
Many days, these facts make me bitter and disheartened (though the regular consumption of martinis helps lighten my mood). When I brood, I chew over my curmudgeon’s litany of disappointments. The public library in my hometown of Hinton, West Virginia, possesses, I am told, of my fourteen books only one. The state newspaper, The Charleston (WV) Gazette, entirely ignored my memoir Loving Mountains, Loving Men, the first book to deal with gay life in Appalachia. What recognition I’ve achieved I have scrabbled and fought for, while enviously watching fame come with ease to so many straight folks and city dwellers who successfully network within the literary mainstream. I am often wont to hum, along with Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Everything we got / we got the hard way.”
I am not alone in these frustrations, of course. So many of us writers—straight or gay, urban or country—have faced the same tsunamis of indifference and trudged through the same sloughs of self-doubt. We’ve continued writing as best we can in the face of neglect, obscurity, and the dwindling possibilities of publishing in a world where fewer and fewer people seem to read with any regularity (the seductions of text-messaging, television, and computer games apparently being too powerful to resist). Stubbornness gets us through, sheer orneriness and the inescapable urge to express what we must.
Humor also rescues us. When I want to make laughter out of how unwelcome and invisible I, as a gay author in Appalachia, sometimes feel (like that evil fairy not invited to Snow White’s christening), I tell the tale of Princess Puppy.
A straight friend of mine, Tiffany Trent—author of several popular young-adult fantasy novels from both Simon and Schuster and Mirrorstone Books—was invited to be part of the Second Annual Author Fair at the Pulaski County Public Library, in the very same Virginia town where my husband and I live. Tiffany encouraged the organizer of the event to invite me, since I’ve published a goodly number of books and live only a few blocks from the library. The invitation came via e-mail, asking for a description of what I published and a list of my book titles. I responded, honestly and in some detail. I received no reply. When, a few days before the event, I e-mailed the organizer again, she replied by withdrawing the invitation, telling me that the event had too many authors as it was.
Pulaski is, like many small mountain towns, infested with fundamentalist Christians. Was this a case of homophobia? I don’t know. I try not to assume the worst, despite my tendency toward paranoia. I do know, thanks to Tiffany’s breathless report afterward, that almost all the authors who were celebrated that afternoon were self-published. Tiffany and a poet from Radford University were the only exceptions. The most colorful presence at the author fair was a woman whose make-up rivaled Tammy Fay Bakker’s. She chided Tiffany for writing young adult dark fantasy. “Oh dear,” she said. “Why can’t people stop writing that nonsense and just write wholesome books with good Christian values like mine? You aren’t saved, are you?”
Her wholesome Christian books, it turns out, were a series of children’s books about Princess Puppy. Best of all, said princess was actually present at the library event. As Tiffany describes it, “a poodle lunged from a cavern of pink tulle piled under a book table. It wore a tutu and tiara and yipped so vociferously that the tiara slid down over its face.” Tiffany was later to note, upon closer examination, that the princess was a prince. Yes, here was “a Christian author who turned her dogs into ballet drag queens!”
Tiffany spent the remainder of the event being annoyed by the poodle’s manic yapping and listening to a clutch of other authors talk about the importance of letting Jesus into one’s life. She was, however, allowed some pleasure as she was packing to leave: “Without warning, the puppy drag princess lifted his leg and pissed all over his pink tulle bed.”
Ever since I heard Tiffany’s tales of this prissy canine, I’ve been joking that I need a T-shirt with the slogan “Trounced by Princess Puppy.” Part of being marginalized is being excluded—from literary journals, networking opportunities, chances for recognition and publicity—but sometimes being excluded is a blessing. It spares you many an irritation. If I am invited to participate in next year’s Pulaski author fair, I think I’ll pass.
All that said, snickered, and snarled, there are some sweet advantages to being a gay regionalist who’s stubbornly remained on native ground. First of all, filling a literary niche that hasn’t been previously occupied is bound to garner at least a little recognition. The fact that no one had ever before published a book about gay life in Appalachia certainly made it easier for me to wrangle a contract out of Ohio University Press for Loving Mountains, Loving Men. My very distinctive literary identity also got me a little attention when a certain much-talked-about film was released soon after Loving Mountains, Loving Men: The Roanoke Times christened me ”the Brokeback Professor.” Let’s just say that writing about the gay/Appalachian/leather/bear experience might limit my audience, but at least I’m unique.
Second of all, what audience I have wonderfully fuels my determination to keep going. E-mails and letters arrive, infrequently but regularly, thanking me for my publications about gay life in Appalachia. Those who read my work are starved for reflections of themselves and affirmations of their identities. They’re most often other gay men from rural backgrounds who don’t relate to the urban gay community, with its youth culture, its emphasis on consumerism, sleekness, and refinement. They’re pleased to find reading material that reminds them that openly gay and proudly Appalachian are not mutually exclusive states, that one can make a queer life far from gay meccas. Their letters to me are enthusiastic, grateful, and very kind. In moments of my deepest discouragement, their voices remind me that I’m not wasting my time writing about hillbillies and queers.
Responses from thankful readers are not entirely sufficient to quell my complaints. I still make bitter jokes. When will my hometown be erecting a statue in my honor? Why is my latest poetry reading not crowded with clamoring paparazzi? Where is that coterie of young, muscular, goateed groupies to dote on me and offer me their submissive sexual favors? I still quietly envy those writers whose paths have been easier and more conventionally successful. These are the sour feelings of that secretly bulky writer’s ego mentioned earlier, one denied the attention it has always believed it deserved.
Still, notes from my readers have led me to a position I never thought I’d inhabit. When I was younger, my father and I used to argue about art. He sided with Tolstoy: the greatest art should contribute to a sense of human unity. I was a firm advocate of aestheticism: beauty first, art-for-art’s-sake, and all that. Very Oscar Wilde, very fin de siècle. Since those long-ago arguments, my position has shifted. I’m not suggesting that writers are obligated to produce works that obey Tolstoy’s dicta—after all, we write according to our obsessions, not according to literary or aesthetic theory—and I’m still big on beauty, whether it’s literary—a well-turned phrase, a memorable metaphor, a moving image—or physical—a mountain range, a snowy pasture, a black beard, a hairy chest. But art that provides not only aesthetic pleasure but also social benefit achieves, it seems to me, the best of both worlds, an amalgam of which both Wilde and Tolstoy might approve.
Being a regional gay writer has limited and marginalized me, I have no doubt. Minority writers rarely have burgeoning majority audiences. The tutu-clad adventures of Princess Puppy, the angst-ridden lives of metropolitan heterosexuals are literary fare more palatable to many than my frank, occasionally erotic, often angry prose and poetry about mountaineer queers. But being doubly marginalized has cultivated a passion in me—much as certain hothouse conditions can force a bulb—for literature that insists not only on beauty but on justice. Frequent frustration such a writing life can be. It is also exhilarating unity—to stand with one’s clan, intractable queers past and present—and it is heady privilege—to be part of progress in whatever ways circumstances allow.
Jeff Mann has published five books of poetry, Bones Washed with Wine, On the Tongue, Ash, A Romantic Mann, and Rebels; two collections of personal essays, Edge: Travels of an Appalachian Leather Bear and Binding the God: Ursine Essays from the Mountain South; a book of poetry and memoir, Loving Mountains, Loving Men; four novels, Cub, Fog: A Novel of Desire and Reprisal, Purgatory: A Novel of the Civil War, and Salvation: A Novel of the Civil War; and two volumes of short fiction, Desire and Devour and A History of Barbed Wire, which won a Lambda Literary Award.