The Spaces Between: Linking Queerness & Writing
GrubStreet's Program Coordinator Lauren Smith reflects on the relationship between her queerness and her love of language, and how the community she found at GrubStreet recognizes both.
In honor of Pride Month this June, Trident Booksellers & Cafe held the GrubStreet Pride Panel, featuring several LGBT authors. Sitting in the audience, I thought, not for the first time since finding GrubStreet, that I was surrounded by people who understood me and who I was.
I don’t want to say that my queerness and my love for language are inextricably linked, but there was certainly some magic in the way that I learned to twist sentences, seamlessly omit pronouns—and leave no one the wiser—for much of my adolescence. I could talk about “someone who I had feelings for,” or “my crush in Algebra class,” and watch my friends’ minds whir, picture some thirteen-year-old stud in cargo shorts and too much Axe body spray, while I imagined the way a necklace fell over the collarbone of the girl in my sixth-grade English class. Or, they’d wonder why I was trying so hard to impress our English teacher, and why I felt a twinge of jealousy when she got married and changed her name halfway through the year.
Language is power, and, when I was twelve, language was the power to be able to talk about my crushes and not get kicked off yet another lunch table, to watch as my friends projected boys into the spaces between the words I’d give them, to create characters that didn’t really exist. The boys they thought I was interested in were phantoms, and I was fascinated by watching my friends create characters in their heads. Sometimes there were no crushes at all. Sometimes the webs of omissions were so good that they convinced even me.
Even before I realized I was queer, I had been writing fiction about fantastical things I’d never seen, about worlds totally different from my experience. It wasn’t that much of a stretch to use language and leave space to create these characters to protect myself, so no one suspected what I thought I was. But it was when I started to let myself believe them—when I convinced myself that I really liked these boys, that I could be someone that I wasn’t—I was enabling my own denial. I wasn’t just letting my friends create crushes where they didn’t exist; I was creating an alternate version of me. Language was the power to create a fictional self—not only for the rest of the world, but also for myself. A self with fabricated feelings for people who didn’t really exist, or who could obscure those feelings that did exist. A self that she would convince even me that she was real enough to ward off self-hatred for a few more years.
I didn’t learn until years later, until I was out and talked to other queer people, that a lot of queer people do this. Much like Shel Silverstein’s masks, many of my closeted queer friends had been using language to protect and hide themselves—so effectively, that we all thought we were alone.
But language isn’t always a weapon I can wield. Sometimes, it is wielded against me. Common vernacular reminds LGBTQ people that they should be kept on the fringes: Love stories are “boy meets girl” tales. Children are asked, not if they have crushes of any kind, but if they yet “like” any children of the opposite sex. Our lovers or girlfriends or boyfriends or husbands or wives are dismissively referred to as our “friends.”
For many of us, the world assumes our sexuality and gender identity on sight, and because the language of our world is constructed around it, so do we. Until we wrestle with it for months, or years, or decades—and even then, we have to fight against a linguistic tradition that, until recently, hasn’t made space for anything other than a hetero- and cis-normative vocabulary.
I still choose to use words to protect myself because words are the very thing that try to erase me and people like me. I’ve traded “partner” for “girlfriend” because I want to take back the erasure that the world has forced on me.
At the Pride panel, when asked what particular challenges she faced as a queer artist, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Grub instructor and author of The Fact of a Body, said that she got used to silence after ten years in the closet, and writing involves breaking that silence.
For her, then, silence was no longer a shield. In order to write a memoir authentically, she had to refuse to be silent anymore. She told a story about how an agent had said that her queerness had no place in her memoir—even though the agent herself was queer. She, too, chose to use language as a weapon to assert herself, to not back down on her authenticity. Now, her queerness is present in the book, and Alexandria says that it hasn’t been an issue.
“Don’t fall for the pushback,” she said. “There is a queer mafia in publishing, and if you find your way to it, they will help you.”
Kelly J. Ford, GrubStreet instructor, Novel Incubator alum, and author of Cottonmouths, gave a message to all the “cute baby queer writers” in the audience: find your community. Start at GrubStreet. Even when she wasn’t in the closet anymore, she—as a Southern woman—didn’t talk about her queerness. She said that it took time for her to feel comfortable doing so, and emphasized the importance of having people who encouraged that.
It’s important to find other voices that have had to use language to protect themselves in the same way that you have. It’s also important to recognize that you can use your power over words to sculpt gorgeous sentences, not just ones that conceal things that you are not yet ready to admit.
This summer, GrubStreet ran a teen camp for LGBTQ teens. If my awkward teen self had had an opportunity for that community, had known that there were other people out there who would still like her if they knew the secret that she thought of as her deepest and darkest, those days may not have been so dark themselves. (If my peers would have still liked me during my simultaneous all-black and seashell necklace phase is another question entirely.) When you’re feeling isolated, community is everything.
If there’s one thing I wish I could tell my thirteen-year-old self, it’s that she isn’t alone, even if she feels that way right now. Finding community in a place that values me for all of my identity, as well as my writing, has changed my life. There are writers here who are openly queer and still have careers. It’s not going to be social suicide to say “woman” when I’m talking about someone that I’m in love with. I’ve realized, finally, that my queerness doesn’t preclude achieving the life that I want to have.
Ren C. Smith
Lauren Smith is a recent graduate of Northeastern University, where she studied English with a minor in writing. She has been writing since she knew how to read, and her first great work of fiction synthesized Big Bird, a pretty princess, and the Backstreet Boys. Since then, her work has appeared in Spectrum Literary Arts Magazine, 308 Press, and the Fenway News. In her free time, you can find her curled up reading, practicing martial arts or running around the streets of Boston--if you're fast enough to catch her.See other articles by Ren C. Smith