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Brandon Taylor does not want to be 2020’s token queer black writer.
He is vigilant and persistent about how his work is framed and talked about – with his agent, with his editor, with his publicist, with me.
He hates when his work is called “raw” and “visceral”. Mostly because the work of black writers often receives these coded, confining labels, much as rap music is often called “urban” and black fashion is called “streetwear”. One reviewer called Taylor’s novel, which takes place entirely on an unnamed midwestern university campus, a “heartbreaking tale of southern childhood trauma”.
“There’s this way black art is talked about,” he says, “that is invisible to white people.” These loaded comments show up when Taylor is compared to James Baldwin more frequently than contemporary writers such as Sally Rooney and Rachel Cusk, who also mine the lives of messy, overeducated twentysomethings. “I’m like, what Baldwin novel is this book in conversation with?” Taylor shouts, exasperated.
Taylor has spent the past few years quietly and steadily building up a name for himself. He attended the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and harnessed the power of Twitter to create a distinctive brand for himself.
There he seamlessly bounces between highbrow and lowbrow. You can discover Taylor discussing everything from the craft of writing to the pros and cons of literary genres, and also going viral with a quote from Amy Adams thirsting over her fellow Miss Pettigrew actor Lee Pace.
Real Life has received praise from Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist; the poet Garth Greenwell, and the writer Danielle Evans. In his glowing review, Jeremy O Harris, the author of Slave Play, who is also queer and black, wrote that Taylor excavated “the profound from the mundane”.
So how does Taylor want to be seen and talked about as a writer?
Real Life is a campus novel, Taylor asserts. An expansion of the kind of novels he loves to read, but rarely sees himself in.
“So many of my queer, black friends were like, ‘We’re here on college campuses and yet none of these stories represent us in any sort of substantive way.’ So I told myself, I’m going to imagine myself at the center of this space.”
Drawn from Taylor’s own experiences, the queer black protagonist of Real Life, Wallace, struggles to navigate the prejudgments and biases of the white cohorts in his PhD program. The quiet, nuanced novel examines the complicated ways race works within academia: a white classmate suggests admissions officers accepted Wallace despite his “challenging background” and “deficiencies”; a white female lab partner lashes out at Wallace and shouts that gay men hog the conversation on oppression. Real Life poignantly illustrates the dissonance of not feeling accepted or understood at an institution that aggressively markets itself as immaculately progressive – and is populated with white students and teachers who buy into the utopian ideal.
Over the course of the novel, Wallace struggles to grapple with this question: “If I don’t fit in here, where can I fit in?”
Taylor wrote the novel in under five weeks. “Really quickly,” he says with a laugh. “I was like, I’m going to sit down and knock this out so I can get on with my life.” He didn’t want to soak in the ripe emotions of his past for too long. “Writing a novel ruins your life in really specific ways. Because you have to live inside of it. It’s just this sustained exercise in being miserable.”
Writing Real Life was a breeze for Taylor. But writing free of self-doubt took a lot of internal work, learning over the years how to trust his instincts and experiences in a world that tells him to do otherwise. He reflects on the early, shoddy criticism he received from those totally unfamiliar with his lived experiences: “When white people and straight people would read my work, they would fail to see what was going on. Anyone who comes of age in this country and is not a straight white man automatically gets devalued. We’re made to feel like, ‘I’m not Dostoevsky. My story is small and niche.’ That it doesn’t have all the great drama of human life. Eventually, it was this matter of centering my own experiences and pursuing with a really intense focus and conviction the stuff that spoke to me. Because I could have written this book to be more sympathetic to the white gaze, but it would’ve been a worse book.”
The similarities between Wallace and Taylor are strong. They are both from the south, queer, black, and felt deeply unhappy with the PhD programs they completed in the midwest. One day, fed up, Taylor decided to drop out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and commit himself to becoming a writer.
Taylor holds sharp, bad memories from that turbulent period of his life, when he was still figuring out how to exist in the midwest as a queer black man after growing up in the south. He calls dating in Wisconsin a “singularly horrifying experience”. There were microaggressions, fetishizations, misunderstandings. Overall, it left Taylor feeling “strange” and “unhappy”.
Things are a little better in Iowa City, Taylor says, where he still lives after his stint at the workshop. Just a little bit.
“In Iowa, I have quite a different relationship to dating and my sex life,” Taylor explains. “I’m just not interested in that space of my life right now and, in some sense, it’s easier that way. I have several other queer black friends who are men, and they are finding it harder. Because they are trying to date. It’s difficult doing that in a state like Iowa as a gay black man. For a whole host of reasons.”
Taylor touches on how queer black men must fight off preconceived notions constantly. “You grow up feeling defensive. You’re always thinking, ‘When is harm going to reach me?’”
For marginalized writers, this kind of internal conversation is exacerbated by publishing’s well-noted diversity problems. A recent study found that 73% of publishing employees were white. February saw a slew of controversies in the industry. Macmillan, one of America’s largest publishers, came under fire for releasing the controversial immigrant experience novel American Dirt. The retailer Barnes and Noble announced limited-edition, race-swapped covers of classics such as Romeo and Juliet and Frankenstein to celebrate Black History Month. The promotion was abruptly cancelled less than 24 hours after being announced, when authors of color pointed out the campaign did more harm than good.
I ask Taylor, who has fought tooth and nail to ensure his novel is not tokenized or pigeonholed, if he thinks a lot about improving diversity in publishing.
He pushes out a heavy sigh.
“I think it’s incredibly boring how we keep having to have this diversity conversation,” he responds. “We’re just talking about how there are so many white people in publishing, but we aren’t talking about any strategies to change it.” He references his time spent as the token black student in his PhD program. “I was once a person brought into a white field to make it more diverse without any interrogation of what made it so white in the first place. All you’re doing is bringing in people who don’t have the same safety net as their white peers.” For Taylor, the solution goes beyond simply hiring and publishing more people of color. “It’s impossible to stay because of larger, systemic factors.”
At the end of the day, Taylor hopes Real Life makes black readers feel seen.
“I’ve read stories about black life that to me make my life feel simple and small,” he says, striving to introduce new nuances to the black experience. “I’m like, ‘It’s not that easy, it’s not that straightforward.’ People are complicated, people are conflicted all the time about stuff they say and do and feel. I want to see more of that on the page, especially when it comes to black characters. I want black people to feel fully human.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘I didn’t write this book for the white gaze’: black queer author Brandon Taylor on his debut novel | Books