Jonathan Alexander says he has been “privileged to be a writing teacher for a very long time.” He always tells his students to be honest and frank – and found the process of writing his latest book with that advice in mind liberating. Dear Queer Self: An Experiment in Memoir examines how people in his life and institutions have failed him, and he also addresses his own particular failings. According to Alexander, “It is good to be able to acknowledge these things, put them on the table – and yet, still experience oneself as creative and interesting and to maybe recognize one’s fabulousness, finally.”
Through his classes and various activities on campus, and through his books, Alexander tries to encourage people to take advantage of every opportunity they can to engage in the expressive arts – writing, recording, documenting, painting, drawing, music, dancing, really all types of creating. “Those are ways in which we connect with ourselves, create ourselves and open up spaces to love ourselves,” he says.
In this episode of the UCI Podcast, the Chancellor’s Professor of English and informatics talks with Cara Capuano about the genre of creative nonfiction and the role each book in The Creep Trilogy held on his personal journey, with a special focus on the latest installment, Dear Queer Self. He also shares advice for others who may find themselves on the outside looking in, and details why he finds Pride Month both aspirational and hopeful.
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UCI Podcast/Cara Capuano:
From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Cara Capuano. You’re listening to the UCI Podcast.
Jonathan Alexander wears many hats at UCI. Notably, he’s a Chancellor’s Professor of English and informatics, and associate dean for the division of undergraduate education. Alexander also recently took over the position of director of the prestigious Humanities Core course. Amid all of that, he published another book, titled Dear Queer Self: An Experiment in Memoir. Jonathan, thank you for joining us today.
Thank you for having me.
With this latest addition. How many books are you at now?
Okay. So, hmm, actually I think Dear Queer Self was my 19th published book.
Incredible. And it’s been a very prolific period for you as Dear Queer Self is the fourth work of creative nonfiction that you’ve published since 2017. Before we get to the book, can you help me and describe the genre that is creative nonfiction?
Well, I wish that I could. I was actually hoping that you, as a journalist, would be able to help me with this because it’s a term that actually comes, I think, from a lot of journalistic writing. Creative nonfiction covers that large body of work that is primarily nonfictional. Right? So, it’s asking us to accept that what we’re reading in it is based in fact or grounded in perceived realities. But it’s creative in the sense that it borrows from literature, borrows literary techniques. Amongst the first books that could be called creative nonfiction was probably Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which is called a nonfiction novel – a book that purported to be about a particular event, a set of crimes that occurred in Kansas, but it was written like it could be read as though were a novel. So that’s creative nonfiction in a nutshell.
Dear Queer Self is the third book in a trilogy of memoirs, which you have collectively titled “The Creep Trilogy.” Why do you refer to these three memoirs that way?
I love the question because people always ask me, “Huh? Why ‘creep’”? And it’s a good question. The first memoir that I wrote actually is called Creep: A Life, A Theory, An Apology and it was the first book of creative nonfiction that I wrote. I was really thinking about, you know, what else did I want to do? How else did I want to understand myself as a writer?
I was also grappling with a number of personal dramas. I had been very impacted by Katrina, the hurricane. My family had been very impacted by it, as well. As a native New Orleanian, I had many friends who lost homes, family who lost homes. And in fact, my father died in the aftermath of Katrina in the evacuation from the storm. So, I had been thinking about that event for quite some time and had written a little bit about it in the aftermath of the storm.
And it wasn’t until the 10th year anniversary of Katrina in 2015 that a number of things started to really click for me. I began to meditate a lot about not only the storm and its effect on my family, but also what it was like to grow up in the Deep South at the time that I did – in the late sixties, seventies, eighties. What it was like not only to grow up in the Deep South, but what it was like to grow up in Louisiana as a queer kid.
And the reminiscences on the 10th year anniversary of the storm sort of propelled me to write again, not only about the storm, but about just my life, the ways in which I had grown up and had survived, Thinking about so many family and friends who either directly did not survive the storm or who had to completely reconstruct their lives after the storm, I took as an opportunity for me to think about, “what have I survived?”
And so I started this work in creative nonfiction and Creep, in particular, was a book that really tried to grapple with what it was like to grow up in the Deep South as a very shy, very painfully backwards sort of kid – a proto-queer – who felt incredibly rejected, who was essentially invited to imagine himself to think of himself as a little creep and how that damage, that initial damage, that shaping of my own sense of self stayed with me and I was never able fully to shake it. And yet here I am sitting in a lovely office in Southern California, on the University of California, Irvine campus, with all of the outward markings of success – publishing numerous books, being awarded as a teacher, et cetera, et cetera, but still feeling deep inside a little creepy.
How do I contend with that? How do I work that, how do I understand it? What have I survived? What sense of self do I have now to offer the world? And so that’s how I started writing this stuff. So, long convoluted answer to your question, but it’s been a long and convoluted process for me.
I’m assuming then that the second book in “The Creep Trilogy,” titled Bullied: The Story of an Abuse, is the continuation of that journey and retrospection of you as a young person that went through what you’ve already described as some pretty harrowing incidents.
Absolutely. So, if Creep is the book that is a very personal meditation on how I was invited to think of myself, you know, like many queer kids at the time in the seventies and the eighties, particularly with the advent of the AIDS epidemic, – you know, there’s so much pathologization around queerness, around homosexuality. You know, we thought of ourselves as diseased in some ways, even if we didn’t have HIV, you know, our psyches were somehow diseased. So, we thought of ourselves, we internalized this sense of our own creepiness.
Creep, the book, talks about what that feels like inside. Bullied, the sequel, talks very much about the institutions, which include schools, educational systems, but also religious institutions – notably for me, the Catholic church – governmental institutions, this whole media, the whole panoply of things that surround us and how they contributed to those feelings of creepiness.
So, I talk a lot about the ways in which people are sexually abused, the ways in which they are bullied, the ways in which they are harassed either through particular schooling experiences, through religious intolerance that’s justified in the name of religion, in the name of God, or through government indifference to the plights of marginalized peoples… all the way to more recent struggles, such as the “Me Too” movement for women to just get more justice – not even justice, just to be heard that they have been in positions, they have been in situations, they’ve experienced structures that have themselves been abusive and that have allowed abusive people to operate. So, that’s what Bullied is about. Creep: a very personal interior meditation. Bullied: the more social, structural accounting of how homophobia and sexism get vectored into different people’s lives.
And you’re answering the earlier question about why it’s creative nonfiction. As you relate to yourself and then you’re starting to examine all of these bigger systemic issues – I understand now more what creative nonfiction means. And that brings us to the third in the trilogy, Dear Queer Self: An Experiment in Memoir. I’m very intrigued by this subtitle. Why is this book an “experiment?”
Well, it’s an experiment in a couple of different ways and it, of the three books, it probably is the one that comes closest to the genre of creative nonfiction in that it’s the most narratively driven. It reads, I think, novelistically, although it really is a memoir. It also is an epistolary memoir. It’s a memoir that I write to someone else. I actually write it to myself. So, the entire thing is in the second person. So, I’m addressing my younger self and what I wanted to do after Creep and Bullied, which are full of autobiographical moments and memoir moments, but also various kinds of cultural media, political analysis. I wanted, after the experience of those two books to write a book that was, I don’t know, for lack of a better way of putting it, almost like a love letter to myself.
That must sound strange to folks, but I wanted to write to my younger self about all of the various things that I had learned that that young man had actually ended up teaching me because he survived all of the experiences that I recounted in both Creep and in Bullied. And I wanted to create this document, this letter, this epistolary memoir written to myself, to my younger self, as a way to honor not only his having survived, but in some ways having been a fabulous young man and someone whose fabulousness I really couldn’t appreciate until much later in my life.
And so, that’s what that book really is. It’s an experiment in that I am trying to connect back to my younger self – not so much to tell him, “Oh, I wish you knew then what I know now,” because I don’t think this is an “it gets better” narrative. This is very much a narrative about, very much a letter about saying, “Wow, you were kind of extraordinary. I wish I knew that at the time. And in fact, what I wish, I wish that now my older self had some of your resilience, some of your ingenuity, your creativity, your survivorhood in the face of so much difficulty, so much homophobic violence. I just wish I had more of that sense of myself now.” And I think that was the best way not only to honor that younger person that I was, but to try to connect back and, hopefully, maybe heal a little bit through my own writing.
You say it’s a love letter to yourself. And it reads like a love letter. And I mean that in a way that love letters are not always flowy and complimentary and loving and just, “Oh, this is why you’re the greatest!” They can also be, “Hey, there was this thing about you that I want to reexamine.” That’s also featured in love letters and the reader gets that. And the reviews for Dear Queer Self are incredible. There’s one that I especially like, by Foreward Reviews, that says, “The narration is a triumph establishing instant intimacy.” For me, the reader, how do you do that? How do you establish intimacy that I, as someone who has read it, felt?
Oh, wow. You know, if I could answer that, I could probably sell the answer and make a ton of money. But I think one of the things that I have learned as I have turned to creative nonfiction, as I have written this work, is that one has to lean into the difficulty. I think it’s been important for me to not just be honest, but to also recognize those moments when I am my own unreliable narrator. It’s very hard to look back at your life and tell complicated stories, tell the truth about those complicated stories – understand not only where you may have taken a wrong turn, but where you’ve deluded yourself, where you’ve actually bought into some of your own illusions, some of your own fantasies about what your life was like. And I think these books try to do that.
All three of them tell very similar stories about my life, but in each case, I’m trying to get at something which is a little bit, you know, a little bit different or a little bit unique or another way of understanding them. I don’t think that the past is static. I mean, I think just like the future, the past is always changing. How we understand the past, how we understand it is always transforming in some way, and it needs to transform. We often tell very bad stories about the past. We often get it wrong. And I think even with our own histories, our own personal histories, sometimes we need to go back and revisit some of the things that we thought were most true about ourselves. I mean, in writing this book, as I said, one of the things that I was revisiting was, “Oh, I was such a creepy kid. I was such a bullied kid.” Well, that’s the story of the first two books.
The story of Dear Queer Self is that queer self was actually really dear to me, if I can pun on my own title. That there’s something dear, precious about that young man that I wanted to recover. And that’s the story I wanted to tell now. So, I’m not sure if this is actually answering your question, but I think that what readers experience in that kind of work is they see the writer struggling to actually make good on telling the truth about oneself. And that is a struggle and that the witnessing of that struggle, a reader witnessing that struggle, is actually what creates intimacy.
Another thing that created the intimacy for me was a structure that you’ve used – the way that you’ve written the book. Not only this interesting putting yourself in the second person and talking back to yourself, which I think is a really wonderful tool, but I love that you’ve chosen three particular timeframes to kind of feature different vignettes of your life. And then each of the chapters begins with a song title. So, to your point, you’ll break the reader’s heart and give them something really serious to think about as a chapter ends. And then the reader turns the page, and they’ll see something like “’Straight Up’ by Paula Abdul” and you realize, “Okay.” And so, as the reader – I mean, we’re similarly aged – and I found myself reading your song titles thinking, “huh? I wonder why he chose that?” and then remembering my own personal history with that music. What motivated that choice? Both to tell the story in the three timeframes, but then also to associate the songs?
So, the three times – 1989, 1993 and 1996 were pivotal moments and so, they formed the structure of the book. Those were key moments in my own life and my own grappling with my identity, with my sense of self and community. There were also three key political moments globally. 1989, of course, the fall of the Berlin wall and the demise of the Soviet Union and the opening up of freedoms for many people in Europe. 1993, the election of Bill Clinton and the move away, at least we thought at the time, from an American imperialism to a different kind of world, a different world. Also, we were right on the cusp of the worldwide web. So, more information – more freedom of information. 1996, very particular to where I was living at the time, the state of Colorado. It’s when the Supreme Court overturned Colorado’s Amendment 2, which legislated against slated against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people being able to claim any form of discrimination.
That was a terrible amendment that Colorado voters passed in the early nineties. And eventually, as I said, it was overturned by the Supreme Court, right at the moment when I myself was really fully embracing my queerness and coming out as a queer-identified individual. So, what I try to do in the book is key personal moments to these larger social, political, even global events and show that we’re never really not impacted by – even at a deeply personal level – all of the political things that are surrounding us. And that we’re always thinking about ourselves, even if we’re not doing it consciously, we can’t help but be impacted and influenced by events surrounding us.
I think it’s not surprising to me that I wrote this book mostly during the pandemic, which was another global event that really forced us to grapple – many of us – with very personal situations. Not only was it a time of lockdown, which imposed, I think for many of us, moments of self-reflection, but just because of the nature of the pandemic itself, recognizing our connection to one another and how – you know, it may sound strange – but how disease spreads is maybe one of the most potent reminders of how we actually are all connected in some ways and how we need to begin to take care of each other. So, I think that throughout all of this writing, you know, certainly I think the pandemic influenced my sense that I could use key moments in my life, but also tie them to these global events.
The song titles, I think, are just another version of that. I mean, who isn’t influenced by the pop music of their teen years, their young adulthood shaped in some ways, even, by the music that you listen to, by the music that surrounds you. And so many of those tunes, right? From Paula Abdul to, oh my God, there’s just so many of them.
I mean, you open with 38 Special “Second Chance,” which if there’s not a human in our age range that doesn’t have a person that they immediately think of when they see “38 Special ‘Second chance’” …
Yeah. So, what I wanted to do is definitely create some tension. I wanted to invite the reader in. Like, if you are of an age where you know this material, you can connect to it. But then also put some of this into tension, into a little bit of tension, with events that happen in our lives. Pop tunes are some of the primary ways in which we learn about love, in which we learn about what our culture thinks about love. And I think sometimes it’s important to measure the sort of cultural propaganda surrounding love versus what that actually looks like in your own life. So those song titles much like the political and global events of 1989, ‘93 and ‘96 are designed to set up some nice tensions that hopefully a reader can think about. It’s like, “Well, what are the stories we tell about ourselves? And what are the things we’re really experiencing?”
You said that you don’t know that anything in your nearly 30-year career as a higher educator has been more important to you than these three books. That is a very strong emotional statement. Where does it come from?
I think that comes from finally reaching a place in my life where I think I’m good with who I am. I think that we don’t always register in our lives – particularly those of us who have suffered any kind of homophobic abuse, or any kind of trauma related to who we are deeply as people – I don’t think we always recognize or even know how to deal with the lasting damage that that can do.
And for me, that damage often manifests as a sense that I will never be good enough. I will never have enough. I will never have enough success to compensate for the damage done to me. I will never be able to recover my childhood. I will never be able to have the youth that I wish I had had. And I realized that as much as I absolutely love being a higher educator – next year will be my 30th year in this profession – and I love teaching. I love the research I do. So much of that has been driven by a need to compensate a need to make good. To see, “No, I am good. I’m okay. I’m worthy.”
And I think these three books have offered me the opportunity to say, “You know, as much as I’ve loved all of the other work that I’ve done, all of the other writing I’ve done, all of the teaching I’ve done, these are the three books that I hope people will take to heart, that they will read, that they will learn from.” Hopefully, they will be inspiring. I don’t know, hopefully they’ll anger some people and things might change. You know, they might frustrate and aggravate people sufficiently to think about these things a little bit more carefully, and to think about the kind of world that we’re building together and the kind of lives that we’re leading. I think they just get even more directly at the things that are important to me. And finally, in being able to, as I’ve said about Dear Queer Self, to write that love letter to myself, to finally be okay with myself and to realize, “All right, I’m good enough. I’m just good enough. And that’s good.”
That’s actually excellent. As we approach Pride Month, always celebrated in June, what is something that you would like to impart perhaps to other people who find themselves feeling like they’re on the outside looking in, for whatever reason?
You know, I think that there will always be part of me that feels like I’m on the outside. I think that what one learns, and certainly what I am coming into realization of, is that maybe that outside is not such a bad place to be. (laughs) I think that some clarity about how insides and outsides are created, and, for me, that’s largely what these books have been about, like really understanding what are the mechanisms through which we exclude other people, through which we allow people to be excluded, through which we are complicit in ostracization, shaming. That’s just made me far more comfortable being on the outside. And I don’t think I have nearly the desire to be with the “in crowd” that I might once have had. And that’s hard fought for, and that’s very hard won, and it’s a difficult thing to invite people to, to think about.
I know we want to tell people that it gets better. I’ll say this, depending upon the development of your professional career, the money can be better. That can certainly help. But I don’t know that it gets better just because you get older. I think you develop skills to help make it better. That’s absolutely crucial. Nothing is going to get better on its own. You need to constantly be working at the skills, at developing the habits, at finding your people, at developing the relationships, forging the community that will actually help you make it better.
Pride Month is wonderful. I love Pride Month, but I still think Pride Month is aspirational. I don’t think that there are magical communities that you just find and all of a sudden everything is hunky-dory and your life is perfect. I think our lives are constant efforts to create those communities, to find those people that can nurture us and that can help us build not just survivable but thriving lives. Those things take effort and what I would hope people would get out of, not just my books, but also just the experience of Pride Month is the reminder that that’s where the effort of life really should be, in making those communities that that can sustain us, that can nurture us and through which we can nurture other people.
Final and very important question, where can we get your books?
(laughs) You can get them at all of the usual places that people buy books. I won’t name any particular distributors – large corporate distributors – but I’m certain you can get the books at Powell’s, which is a large independent bookstore. You can also get them locally if you’re here in Southern California at Page Against the Machine in Long Beach, which is an absolutely lovely independent bookstore.
It does not surprise me that you went the way of the independent bookstore. That was exactly where I wanted you to go. Jonathan, thank you so much for this conversation.
The UCI Podcast is a production of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the University of California, Irvine. Please subscribe to the UCI Podcast wherever you listen.