Queerness, Blackness and Memory

Often compared to James Baldwin, award-winning Jamaican author Thomas Glave writes the unofficial stories.

By LaVon Rice Dec 15, 2006

It is a fall evening in Washington, D.C., the proverbial belly of the beast, and Thomas Glave is reading at Howard University, poking at that belly for being so full and self-satisfied. The acclaimed “Jamerican” writer has just started touring with his new book Words To Our Now: Imagination and Dissent, an experimental essay collection that explores U.S. imperialism, state-sanctioned homophobia and the power of language to resist and witness atrocity. Michelle Cliff, his literal and figurative countrywoman, called Words To Our Now “the work of a revolutionary mind.” But when asked by an audience member about the efficacy of literature to dismantle oppression, he rejects the prescriptive, the easy polemic that leaves no room for what we might imagine—only tells us what we must oppose.

Glave’s stories and essays examine heterosexism in the United States and Jamaica, and take aim at repressive governments, often nameless because they are legion. He does name U.S. imperialism, particularly drawing notice to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Glave dives under "official" histories and insists on the radical project of memory, from remembering the torture at Abu Ghraib to memorializing Brian Williamson, who was murdered in Jamaica quite possibly because he was gay and activist. Later, in a phone interview, Glave says that he aims to be a "writer of conscience" who "tells stories that often get buried."

The assistant professor of English at SUNY Binghamton has been showered with accolades for imagining other, less excavated lives in his fiction and nonfiction. Glave was dubbed "Writer on the Verge" by the Village Voice in 2000 and has received fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Center in Provincetown. Words to Our Now won the 2006 Lambda Literary Award for Nonfiction. His short-story collection Whose Song? was praised by the likes of Harry Belafonte and Nadine Gordimer. One of the stories, "The Final Inning," was honored with the O. Henry Award. Glave, 41, is the first Black gay writer to receive the award since James Baldwin.  

Although some have compared Glave to his predecessor, his more contemporary political and literary kin might be the celebrated Indian writer-activist Arundhati Roy. Like Roy, if anything surpasses his formidable wordcraft, it would be his rage against injustice. "All writing in one way or another is political," he insists. "If you speak out against things, that’s directly political, and if you don’t speak out against them, then that’s also political. You’re making a political decision not to be political." 

The purpose of his work, according to Glave, is to "re-member," to tenderly reunite the body parts that have been blown apart by war, torture and private acts of violence. "The language of dissent can then become the language of memory," he asserts. "To remember these things happened–people were murdered here, torture happened here." That language of memory is evidenced in the chilling, matter-of-fact beginning of his story "The Pit," where he writes: "The killing of children in our town has become quite common now, ordinary as the bread we bake each day." And then there’s "The Real Place," the story that begins with "how many are swinging" and goes on to witness: "…the televised executions and bayonets tearing inside   things you cannot remember   things you must must not remember   the stench of flesh burning on the hillside   the ashes of hands in the earth   and the smoke   and the screams   always the screams."

A viligant memory is not just the writer’s responsibility, Glave is quick to add. "Language has to be carefully monitored by the citizens also," he maintains. "It can be a destructive, obfuscating force in the hands of repressive governments."

Raised in the Bronx and Kingston, Jamaica, Glave was a founding member of the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG), the first human rights organization in Jamaica for people throughout the sexual continuum. Glave happened to be in Jamaica as a Fulbright scholar when it was formed in 1998. He had established working relationships with others in the LGBT community there during previous stays and had also gotten involved in AIDS advocacy work. The trust was there, and the time was right, Glave recalls, and J-FLAG made history. But not without some risk, as testified by its still undisclosed office location. However, Glave is rooted in his love of the place from which his parents emigrated. "It is my ancestral home," he says. "I certainly know that I am not prepared to live without Jamaica in spite of all the homophobia and difficulties we hear about."  

Critics may challenge his authority to speak to the violent heterosexism in Jamaica because of his hyphenated identity, but Glave says that Jamaica is his home as much as the United States, if not more so. It is an issue of human rights, he claims, that transcends space and time: "As a Black male who is also gay, I and my brothers and our Black lesbian sisters are considered ‘disposables’ throughout the world, throughout time past and present, in our own Black communities and in white ones. This is clearly the case in Jamaica and most other Caribbean nations, and it is certainly true in the supposedly more ‘progressive’ United States. What will the force of this virulent hatred mean for our futures, and who will decide once again which of us is disposable? And: will we stand together when the time comes for us to face that machine-gun fire? All of us? Beyond our prejudices?"

Although Glave acknowledges that "powerful things" are happening in the "so-called mainstream gay movement" in the United States, he criticizes its focus on electoral politics and gay marriage to the exclusion of issues like welfare reform, immigrant rights and capital punishment. Glave contends that this strategy ignores those who are "less moneyed, who don’t have access to education, who do not have U.S. citizenship and are struggling in sweatshop situations. All of these people fall off the map in that single-issue approach." After all, he adds, "No one has ever led a single-issue life."

Someone who definitely didn’t lead a single-issue life was Steen Fenrich, a Black, gay man murdered by his white stepfather because of his race and sexual orientation. Fenrich’s remains were discovered in Queens six years ago, with "gay nigger number one" scrawled on his skull. Despite the horror of the crime, according to Glave, the 19-year-old Fenrich was never a "candidate for Matthew Shepardhood." Black, gay, and not rich, and therefore Glave writes, "unimportant, uninteresting, unworthy of remark" to too many.

In his essay "Regarding a Black Male Monica Lewinsky, Anal Penetration, and Bill Clinton’s Sacred White Anus," Glave presents a provocative what-if: what would have happened if Monica Lewinsky had been a Black, gay man? Glave first put this "unthinkable" question before his mostly white students at SUNY in an African-American queer writing class, and the reactions–ranging from nervous laughter to disgust and incredulity–spoke volumes about widely held assumptions about race, power and desire. "I guess you could say that the essay was a form of dissent," he acknowledges. "I was looking at white male heterosexual power in the United States–what the actual body of the president really means." The president is "consistently heterosexualized by the media," writes Glave. "[H]ow would the U.S. public feel about the possibility of a black penis entering President Clinton’s (or president George W. Bush’s, or any president’s) white, presumably exclusively heterosexual anus? How would the nation feel about its elected Chief wrapping his lips in full-fledged desire, in secret or otherwise, about a tumescent black penis?"

Glave is known for writing what is often called "creative nonfiction," or combining traditional fictional elements with the supposedly standard "just-the-facts-ma’am" elements of nonfiction. In "Panic, Despair: When the Words Do Not Come (But Then an Unexpected Journey)," he enters the longings of a fictional, yet very close-to-flesh, suicide bomber’s mother. In his "Abu Ghraib: Fragments Against Forgetting," his prose is arranged like poetry, with line-breaks, italics, ghostly paragraphs, haunting repetitions and statistics that say it all:

Glave seems to ask: What consequence imagination? What wild forms can our dreams of social change take on paper and off? He believes "moral imagination" is not a self-indulgent retreat from reality, but an impassioned engagement with what is and what could be, needing to be "intellectually vigilant, never slipshod; politically agile and astute, never complacent; vulnerable and receptive to, aware of, the wider world at large: that world, out there and in here; beyond the smallness of my personal geography yet intrinsically part of it, attached to it; and always, without exception, compassionate."