Jendi Reiter is the author of the novel Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, 2016), the short story collection An Incomplete List of My Wishes (Sunshot Press, 2018), and four poetry books and chapbooks, most recently Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree, 2015). Awards include a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship for Poetry, the New Letters Prize for Fiction, the Wag’s Revue Poetry Prize, the Bayou Magazine Editor’s Prize in Fiction, and two awards from the Poetry Society of America. Two Natures won the Rainbow Award for Best Gay Contemporary Fiction and was a finalist for the Book Excellence Awards and the Lascaux Prize for Fiction. Reiter is the editor of WinningWriters.com, an online resource site with contests and markets for creative writers.
Jendi Reiter, it’s a great pleasure to learn more about the author of An Incomplete List of My Wishes, which I so enjoyed. Thank you for joining me.
We could have quite a discussion about Southern writing: what it is, who it is, even where it is. In my view, some of the stories in An Incomplete List can still be interestingly analysed as Southern even though, for example, they take place in New York. The characters and their author take their history with them. What’s your opinion?
That is a flattering testament to how thoroughly Julian has taken over my brain, since I am a lifelong Northeasterner – from Manhattan to Western Massachusetts. I suppose my work shares a certain lushness and eccentricity with the Southern gothic, as well as the inescapable weight of family and religious history on maverick individuals. ‘God-haunted’ as Flannery O’Connor might say.
Well, that’s thoroughly confounded my assumptions and expectations! When one thinks of the South, sooner or later one thinks of race, yet I don’t recall a single African American character in your Georgia stories. I recognize that you might not wish to write for others whose experience is their own to tell, but does that fully account for their absence? Can you say something about it?
That’s a very good point you make, and perhaps a failing on my part, whose causes are twofold. It reflects the unfortunate whiteness of Julian’s social circle, and of my own. I’ve been late to wake up to what isn’t represented. And, as you suggest, I’ve seen enough offensive errors by white authors to be cautious and do a lot of preparation before wading into those waters. The recent trend toward hiring sensitivity readers gives me confidence to take more risks in my next novel, knowing that there’ll be someone to edit out boneheaded mistakes before I go public.
The opening story, ‘Exodus’, is among your most moving and poignant. It refers, I take it, to the legions of young men lost to AIDS, ignorance and persecution and – to me, at least – links to the similarly fallen generation of men described in ‘Waiting for the Train to Fort Devens.’ How did these two stories come about and why did they take the form they have?
I like the connection you make here. ‘Doomed youth’ is kind of a theme of mine, I guess. ‘Fort Devens’ was based on a writing workshop prompt. Our local bank in Western Massachusetts puts out a complimentary calendar with historical photos from the region, which our writing teacher distributed to us for inspiration. My photo caption became the story’s title, and the rest just wrote itself as I described these men from seventy years ago. I grew up on Holocaust history as a New York City secular Jew – any image from the 1940s is haunted by its shadow.
‘Exodus’ was an early writing exercise to find Julian’s voice in Two Natures, hence the photography theme that recurs here. It was inspired by a prompt from The 3 A.M. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley, featuring the line ‘No one has ever loved me the way I loved him.’ Julian’s core conflict is between love and shame, the desire for human connection versus the spiritual yearning that he’s been told is incompatible with his homosexual nature.
The double meaning of the title, which no one has ever picked up on, is that ‘Exodus’ was the name of the largest organization then offering Christian ‘reparative therapy’ – a traumatic and completely bogus program to turn gay people straight. (See Garrard Conley’s memoir Boy Erased, now a hit movie, to understand the horrors of ex-gay therapy.)
As well as the sorrow and pain your work expresses, it also has a marvellous humour and joyfulness. I used C. S. Lewis’s phrase ‘surprised by joy’ in referring, for example, to Carla’s encounter with Ronnie in ‘House of Correction’ and the effect it has on the reader – love and happiness exist! How important is it for you to show this life-affirming joy?
That’s essential for me. ‘The House of Correction’ is the most recent story in the book, and I think it represents a more upbeat turn in my work, reflecting the liberation and healing I’ve worked toward in my personal life. Like Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, I feel compelled to bear witness to the dark side of life – not to wallow in bleakness but to offer empathy and seek justice. Humor is a time-honored queer and Jewish survival skill, in the midst of all that!
Many of the stories in An Incomplete List portray the encounter between Jewishness and gay culture – an uneasy combination. How does living in a Jewish household complicate a young person’s growing awareness of their emergent sexual identity? Is there a connection between the secrecy, or at least privacy, about an aspect of oneself one fears will be condemned, and the impulse to invent stories?
American Judaism, even the Orthodox branches of it, hasn’t targeted homosexuality in the obsessive way of the Christian Right. Reform and Reconstructionist Jews are mainly affirming nowadays, I believe. As a minority group with a strong social justice tradition, Jews tend to be liberal on social issues regardless of theological traditionalism in other areas.
However, the centrality of tribal connections and procreative families is pretty hard-wired into Jewish life. Someone who falls outside of that structure can feel really alienated (speaking from personal experience) even though there is no religious condemnation of queerness. Ronnie and Carla bond over this shared minority-within-a-minority experience in ‘The House of Correction’. On the other hand, American Jewish culture and queer culture have some flavors in common – rebellion, urbanity, self-deprecating wit, the perpetual question of assimilation.
For me, ‘Memories of the Snow Queen’ is the hardest story to understand, and I still don’t get it. It’s like looking at a thousand narrative shards or mythic possibilities. Can you help me to grasp what is going on here?
It’s a fable about repressed memories, and the many different ways we can tell a story about children in peril, either to expose or to occlude the sins of adults.
I shall rush back to the story and read it in that light. I’m intrigued by the connections between ‘Two Natures’, ‘Julian’s Yearbook’, ‘Today You Are a Man’, ‘Five Assignments and a Mistake’ and your novel, Two Natures, all of which share some of the same characters. Were the short stories leftovers, so to speak, from when the novel was written, or did you wish to investigate these characters further?
All of the Julian-universe stories were written before the novel was finished, as character sketches to understand their back story and motivations. Putting shorter pieces of the project out into the world as self-contained stories rewarded me with some praise and money to sustain the longer-term effort. My characters became more real to me, the more I shared them with other people. (When my friends saw me, they would ask ‘How are you? And how’s Julian?’)
Humanity faces climatic catastrophe. We have two years to prevent our own extinction. If someone says to you we don’t need made-up stories when the world is in such desperate trouble, how will you reply?
I would say ‘start where you are, with what you have.’ Storytelling is my skill; political organzing is not. We all have a role to play in changing the culture – or helping people survive its collapse. I see myself as Frederick in Leo Lionni’s classic picture book of the same name. Stories keep hope alive in dark times and help us imagine the world we want to fight for. That’s why every totalitarian state has tried to destroy art and silence artists.
What can we expect from you next?
I’m working on Origin Story, the sequel to Two Natures, which is told from the viewpoint of Peter from the story ‘Today You Are a Man’. While co-authoring a gay superhero comic book, Peter recovers traumatic memories that threaten his budding love affair with Julian, who meanwhile is struggling with the emotional legacy of his alcoholic family. The book is about the revelatory power of making art, and how to build healthy relationships as a survivor of both personal and political trauma.
During the 2018 election cycle, I also wrote a poetry chapbook titled American Eclipse that is currently making the rounds of contests. Combining humor, outrage, and quirky travel anecdotes, American Eclipse touches on subjects such as gender transition, the #MeToo movement, and our symbolic and symbiotic relationships with other species on this fragile planet.
I am a part-time dandy, so I have left the most important question till last. I expect full disclosure and the absolute truth. Where do you get your bow ties?
Dandies of the world unite! I get most of my colorful clip-on ties from craft fairs. My two nicest purple silk patterned ones are Guuniee and Dan Smith brands. Some of my favorite online clothing vendors for female-bodied gents are Dapper Boi, Haute Butch, and Androgynous Fox. I’m also branching out into bolo ties from CalinY.
You have inspired me! Good luck with the projects you’ve mentioned and don’t forget to send one or two of them this way.
Thank you. I shall.