Facing The Homophobia In Our Families with Barrak Alzaid and Sarah Schulman

Welcome to our LGBT podcast!
In this episode, we meet Barrak Alzaid (he/him) and talk with him about Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences by Sarah SchulmanThis book invites us to understand familial homophobia as a cultural crisis, rather than a personal or an individual problem. Barrak shares with us, “What I think saved me is not just feeling seen in the book, but also feeling like I had a roadmap and a set of tools for reengaging with a family where I experienced scapegoating, shunning and cruelty.”

Plus, Sarah joins us to discuss writing Ties that Bind, the challenges of getting Lesbian fiction past publishing gatekeepers, and the interventions we need to make within families to stop homophobia.

Literary Lights
Join me on 2/7, as I’m in conversation with Taleen Voskuni about her novel Sorry, Bro
More info at armenianliterary.org and register here: https://us06web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZMvd-ivqzwrE93AmJg62886-Vs0b9os7W7N

Buy The Books We Discussed On This Episode!
Visit thisqueerbook.com/bookshop to purchase: Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences , Faltas : Letters to Everyone in my Town Who Is Not My Rapist (Cecilia Gentili), Army of Lovers (KM Soehnlein), Confessions of the Fox (Jordy Rosenberg), The World We Make (N.K. Jemisin), The White Album (Joan Didion).

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Credits
Host/Founder: J.P. Der Boghossian
Executive Producer: Jim Pounds
Associate Producers: Archie Arnold, Natalie Cruz, Paul Kaefer, Nicole Olila, Joe Perazzo, Bill Shay, and Sean Smith
Patreon Subscribers: Awen Briem, Stephen D., Thomas Michna, and Gary Nygaard.

Transcript

J.P. Der Boghossian: On February 7th, the International Armenian Literary Alliance, the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, and the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center bring you Literary Lights: featuring conversations with new works of literature by Armenian authors.

The inaugural event will feature Taleen Voskuni, author of Sorry, Bro. Voskuni will be in conversation with the founder of the Queer Armenian Library, J.P. Der Boghossian. Oh hey, that’s me! And listeners of our podcasts will remember Taleen from an earlier episode this season. Join us on Zoom on February 7, 2023 at 8:00 PM Eastern. Please register at Armenian literary.org Links in the show notes and on our website.

We also want to say hello to our friend on AM950: Gregory Rich. His show, Drink in the Style, is an hour of interior design and small business conversation all while enjoying cocktails created by their expert cocktologist Dan Newkirk. Listen every Saturday evening at 7pm and Sundays at 5pm or anytime on AM950.com.

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J.P. Der Boghossian: On today’s episode:

Barrak Alzaid: What I think saved me is not just feeling seen in the book, but also feeling like I had a roadmap and a set of tools for reengaging with a family where I experienced scapegoating, shunning and cruelty.

J.P. Der Boghossian: I’m talking with Barrak Alzaid AL ZAYD about the book the Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences by Sarah Schulman. Through her own lived experience, her research, Sarah writes about “familial homophobia,” a phenomenon that until she wrote the book didn’t have a name, but I’m sure all queer people will understand immediately.

Plus, Sarah joins us for the conversation and I say let’s just jump right in. My name is J.P. Der Boghossian and you’re listening to This Queer Book Saved My Life!

[theme music ends]

J.P. Der Boghossian: Hello everyone, welcome to our final episode of Season 2! I can’t believe we’re already at the finale and what a finale it’s going to be. And if you’re wondering when Season 3 will drop, which I hope you’re already craving, it will be March 7. AND until then, we’ll be having new episodes of 7 Minutes in Book Heaven as well as our Executive Producer Jim Pounds and I will sit down to reflect on this season and what we have coming up for you in Season 3.

As always a shout out to Quatrefoil Library in Minneapolis, MN for their on-going support. They have a special section of their e-library devoted to the books on our podcast. So, if you can’t buy the books, you can still read them! We’re including links in the show notes and on our website. For all of their upcoming events and LGTBQ resources, visit them at qlibrary.com

Ok, Barrak and Sarah! Let’s start with some introductions! Barrak why don’t we start with you, would you like to introduce yourself, your pronouns if you’d like to share them, tell us everything.

Barrak: I’m Barrak Alzaid and I am a Queer Kuwati and American writer who’s currently based in Frankfurt with my partner and our beautiful dog. I am a writer and formerly have been an art curator. I’m still an active member of an art collective that I co-founded almost ten years ago. I enjoy expressing myself in art in all its forms, but my primary project right now is a memoir I’m writing called Fabulous.

J.P.: Wonderful! And Sarah would you like to share your pronouns and a little bit about yourself?

Sarah: I’m Sarah Schulman. I’m a 64-year-old New Yorker. I’m a writer. I work primarily as a novelist, but I also write plays and screenplays and nonfiction.

J.P.: Thank you! A question I always ask folks because I’m always interested in is how the stories we learn about as kids or children impact us as we go along throughout our lives, so Barrak, what was your favorite stories or book when you were growing up?

Barrak: I have been really anxious about this question because I just read so much and growing up in the 80s and the 90s. In Kuwait, there just wasn’t that much of an outlet so books were really my pathway beyond. We obviously had the television, but at that point there wasn’t internet. There wasn’t a way to imagine myself outside of my context. I read a lot and I think that I can say I reread the two of the gayest books, or book series, that I read and reread were The Babysitters Club and The Hardy Boys. I think that that kind of gives you a sense of who I was as a kid and as a reader.

J.P. Yes, absolutely! We’re of the same generation! Sarah how about for you?

Sarah: Well, I was born in the 1950 s so in terms of my childhood, the books were very conservative and old school. Two books that I remember: So You Want to be an Airline Stewardess and I did read that and I wanted to be an airline stewardess.

J.P.: Oh, what?

Sarah: Because it was a book about women who got to do things and then I also had a book called What Do Daddies Do All Day and I remember one line was, “What do Daddies do all day? Daddy’s work, while children play!” So that’s how they tried to get me started, on those lines. It didn’t work out that way. Some books that I really related to: Harriet the Spy which was a very important book by Louise Fitzhugh about a girl who writes down truth about the world around her in a notebook. Of course, The Diary of Anne Frank in my generation. I think every girl had a diary because we all read The Diary of Anne Frank. It had this secondary message which was that girls could be writers. Then, of course, Nancy Drew because I don’t know if either of you guys have read Nancy Drew, but there’s a butch fem couple in it named George and Bess. George is a girl and they’re together all the time so that was very appealing; and then, of course, I was a Lesbian writer of course, so a little subtext in there. Those would be the early ones.

J.P.: As I’m looking over my questions, I can absolutely see how those books impacted maybe your career trajectory. But, I don’t want to project. What are you into reading these days? Are there any recommendations for folks?

Sarah: Oh god, I read so much. Let’s see, I just read Faltas by Cecilia Gentili. It’s the first book published by a new trans press called Little Puss Press.

I run a reading series and performance space in New York called First Mondays and she did the premiere reading from the book there and got a standing ovation. It was very exciting. Letters to Everyone in my Hometown who was Not my Rapist, that’s the subtitle and it’s really great. I enjoyed that. I just read Marty Duberman’s memoir volume about turning ninety with a lot of stuff about the history of Gay and Lesbian studies and all of the struggles he went through to try to create the Center for Lesbian and Gay studies at the City University. I’m currently reading KM Soehnlein’s novel about Act Up called Army of Lovers, but I’m just starting it.

J.P.: We’ll include links to all of those in the show notes! Barrak, how about for you?

Barrak: I am still a big reader and I’ve been alternating fiction and nonfiction. So, I only used to read one book at a time but now I found that my brain can handle both. So, I recently finished The White Album and that was really illuminating. I’ve also just finished N. K. Jemisin’s latest book. It’s part of her great cities series. It’s called The World We Make. It’s this fantastic speculative fiction novel and it’s a really superb analysis of race and racism in America today. It looks at a lot of racialized archetypes but through the lens of these very human characters. It’s a good romp and it’s really fun and made me really nostalgic for New York. I just started Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox which is awesome.

J.P.: We’ll include links to those as well! I guess I’m going to pitch another podcast, but I just heard an amazing interview with N.K. and Ezra Klein on The New York Times book podcast or Book Review. But y’all can check it out anyway! So. Barrak, what is the book that saved your life?

Barrak: The book that saved my life is Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences by Sarah Schulman

J.P.: How did it come to you?

Barrak: It really does feel like it was sent to me. I have a very strong memory in my mind’s eye of the first time that I saw it at Blue Stockings Feminist Bookstore in New York. It was sitting on a shelf facing the cash register and at the time I was in grad school and during my undergrad and grad school I had studied a lot of Queer theory. I was very familiar with structural analysis of how we know the things we know and what society’s role is in that so things that feel very natural to some people are constructed right? But I had never seen a text that addressed family and it was something that I really needed at that moment because I was very estranged from my family. I had come out to my mom in Fall of 2003 fully believing that they would accept me and embrace me because of our own family’s history with estrangement. My mom had eloped with my dad. He is Kuwaiti; my mom’s American. She and my dad eloped. She left the U.S. and moved to Kuwait, learned the language, converted to Islam, and didn’t speak to her family for 10 years. So, we held that generational trauma. We learned this lesson of families are the most important thing because they reconciled and that was the lesson that I’d always been raised with. Family is the most important thing because we heal together. We learn from each other. We grow. But that wasn’t my experience coming out.

Even though I had an understanding of homophobia on a societal level and of what happens when you walk down the street and why people react in a certain way. You know the construction of the Queer femme guy? I identify as a Cis Queer male. It’s sort of like an object of ridicule or just basically like a kid you know who could be bullied. Somebody who could be hurt or harmed because of how they presented themselves. They weren’t masculine enough. They weren’t fulfilling that societal role of male. I understood why that was happening in society. But I had no idea and no understanding of why that was happening to me within my family. Seeing those words together: “familial homophobia”, was just such a … it just leaped out at me. I bought it and so much of that book resonates so strongly with me at that time. Having reread it the last month or so, I feel like so much of the lessons and the experiences that Sarah shares in the volume still are really important to understand how we relate to each other today.

J.P.: I want to get more into that, but for our listeners, Sarah, could you describe Ties that Bind?

Sarah: Well, first of all, Barrak I feel like crying. I’m so moved by what you said. Thank you darling. This book was so hard to get into the world. You know my books. They take forever. Nobody wants them when they’re first written. They get rejected sometimes for a decade and then when they finally come out, sometimes it takes another decade before people are ready for them. It’s just my curse and my blessing. This was one of those books that was unpublishable for 10 years. It was rejected by everybody.

I remember this letter I got from Nan Graham at Scribner’s who was a big editor at the time and she said the reason we can’t publish this book is because half of the people who would read it already know this and the other half don’t care. And I was like thinking to myself, “No, you don’t care.” That’s the problem. Because that is false.

Then it came out from the New Press, which is a very small press, and I signed a deal with them that was hard/soft. And it came out in hardcover and then when it came to doing the soft cover which is necessary for a Queer book because the hard cover is so expensive, they reneged. They didn’t want to publish a soft cover. They broke the contract. So I had to pay $3000 to them to get the paperback to be published and it’s published on the worst paper. It’s like a terrible, cheesy edition. It never really got reviewed and it just floated around.

J.P.: What? No!

Sarah: In the last few months, ok this has been twenty years ago. I don’t even know how long ago it was published.

Barrak: 2009 is when it came out. That’s when I picked it up.

Sarah: Okay, fifteen years ago then and that’s 25 years after it was written. In the last few months I have seen the book cited on Twitter. And I’ve seen it reposted and reposted and reposted like thousands of times literally. Finally, you know people are ready for these ideas. But “familial homophobia” is the only experience that all Queer people have in common across cultures.

It’s something that Queer people communicate to each other with such ease because it’s so well understood. You can say two words to a Gay person you meet in the elevator and they know what you’re talking about, but there was no term for it. It was the most under theorized element of our lives because it’s so painful to confront and so I had to coin the term “familial homophobia” because there was no name for it. That’s how dire it was that there had not been any book that analyzed this phenomenon. Historically when I write books that are nonfiction books I always like to create a new idea. I never weigh in on a pre-existing argument so that’s one of the reasons that it’s so uphill because people just only want you to take one of two established sides that have already been constructed and you have an original idea. It’s much harder to get it going. I think Picasso said the originator makes it ugly and the derivator makes it beautiful and boy is that true!

Barrak: I would also add that the reason, and I think you may address this in the book as well in a perhaps tangential way, the reason that there wasn’t a language or a name for it was that it was so normalized. It really has to do with the way that the family is held in such high esteem and for me coming from Kuwait and growing up in a Muslim household but within a society that really prioritized family honor, family name and reputation.

These really made the family structure untouchable in a way. At least in the United States, I think there’s some norms around individuality and self-expression that at least there’s kind of like a way out. But there was no understanding that I had that the family could be wrong even though what I felt was that my experience of harm was wrong and I think that’s something that you really gave us with this book is the language to not only talk about the consequences of what you termed “familial homophobia” but also the way that it operated through cruelty, through shunning, through scapegoating and I think a lot of people who read something and see themselves in it discover the language that they didn’t have before.

That’s something that was so deeply affecting, even rereading the book now. Fourteen years later I have a very embodied reaction to. Some of the same passages that I had previously highlighted because that kind of experience lives in the body even though the family often tries to shut down our experiences or gaslight our experiences and make them invisible.

Sarah: One of the insights of the book that I’ve since developed into other books, but that I first got when I was writing it, is – so in the family – the family unites around their opposition to the Queer family member. They all agree that the Queer family member is the problem. And that bonds them. It’s a negative bond and it makes them feel better because they have each other, but the real problem is not the Queer family member. The problem is the family’s homophobia. This insight about negative bonds is something that I then carried into my book Conflict Is Not Abuse that I wrote ten years later, so that was a helpful insight.

Another thing is that because I was born in 1958 and I’m Jewish. I was born 13 years after the end of the Holocaust and I read Anne Frank and I had a Holocaust family. I’m very influenced by the Holocaust. In fact, my Palestine solidarity work is profoundly influenced by the Holocaust. My takeaway from gender genocide is that nationalism is wrong and that all human beings should be treated equally so that’s where I come from. This book was very influenced by holocaust studies. I had read a book by Daniel Goldhagen called Hitler’s Willing Executioners and it was totally denigrated at the time, but I thought it was an amazing book and he showed that Germans went far beyond the demands of their government in terms of their cruelty towards Jews and that over and over again they would be even more sadistic than they were required to be. This was actually the truth because the story was that people were forced to follow orders, but actually it’s the opposite and that they felt elevated by the joy and pleasure that they experienced in participating in Genocide. This really helped me understand that homophobia is not a phobia because I realized from reading that book that whenever I saw people, especially family members be homophobic, they were not afraid. They were elated. Homophobia is a pleasure system that makes people feel elevated and superior. That was a really important insight that I took from my historical studies.

J.P.: It’s reminding me of grad school when I had a professor who was researching child soldiers who were kidnapped and how their kidnappers were creating a bond through forcing them to rape and commit sexual assault against women. They understood that in doing that they would create a bond between an otherwise disparate group of child soldiers.

Sarah: But of course nobody is forced into “familial homophobia.” If you go against it, then you have to pay a price as Barrak was referencing. The family is theorized as untouchable. We don’t go into the family to challenge their cruelties. For most people, their initial experiences of violence or sexual abuse or denigration occur in the family. The family is the most dangerous place in people’s lives. But we don’t intervene. I was noticing through the epicenter of the AIDS crisis, you would have people who were revered, beloved community leaders whom hundreds of people felt had improved their lives and they would die of AIDS and their families would be shocked that anyone cared because they had conceptualized of them as alone you know and as pathetic and as meaningless. It’s because when we talk to each other about our homophobic families but we don’t intervene with the families.

So I suggest and I call it third party intervention and that’s an idea that I later used in Conflict Is Not Abuse. We should call each other’s families and say, “Listen! This person who you’re denigrating and isolating and projecting onto this is a revered beloved person that large numbers of people care about and you need that information.” You know because that’s the only thing that breaks down the supremacy ideology around “familial homophobia.”

Barrak: I have the book up on my Kindle and as I said I have so much highlighted, I might as well have the whole book highlighted. But as you were saying that I was looking at this and there’s so many pithy statements. I mean I love your writing Sarah. I’ve read everything that you’ve written and it really brings me such joy to also call you a friend and a mentor. I learned so much from you and statements like this I think really hit at home where you say, “Society will not intervene in the family. And the family will not intervene in society.”

It’s a dialogic relationship of oppression which I’m pulling out of context but I think it gives you a sense of how pointed the writing in this book is that it really gets to the heart of the matter. What I think saved me is not just feeling seen in the book, but also feeling like I had a roadmap and a set of tools for reengaging with a family where I experienced scapegoating, shunning and cruelty. By people who are not you know, they’re very loving, they’re very caring and what I find really fantastic about your work in general and I think the link you made between this book and Conflict Is Not Abuse is really resonant is, it’s about dialogue and engaging people and of course there are boundaries that you have to set around that. I think we have to be smart and safe and have compassion for ourselves when we engage with people who harm us. But that’s also where third-party intervention comes into play.

So, for me I wanted a relationship with my family, but I didn’t know how to escape the cycle of abuse that they were subjecting me to; and, luckily, this idea that you could engage in a way, protect yourself, maintain your sense of self-worth, your identity, and stand up for yourself in the face of these kinds of things was really powerful. I just want to say that I have an amazing relationship with my mom and I really attribute that healing process that I went through to a lot of therapy but also to Sarah and the ethics in her work.

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J.P. Der Boghossian: Welcome back. I’m talking with writer, poet, and art critic Barrak Alzaid, who is currently at work on his memoir Fabulous, which relates his queer coming of age in Kuwait and depicts a story of family fracture and healing. Also with us is Sarah Schulman, co-director of the ACT Up Oral History Project and a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Fulbright award.

Barrak, you said earlier that you had an expectation that when you came out you would be supported. I’m curious how you were navigating your queerness before coming out to your parents?

Barrak: You know the idea of…well we didn’t have Queer then, “back in those days!” We didn’t have Queerness. I definitely identify Queer now. But I had feelings, I had sensations in my body, and growing up in Kuwaiti society, you didn’t really have conversations about sexuality in any sense. There wasn’t people dating. There were, but it was all very subterranean. It was all very submerged, but I understood that being Gay was … I was taught that it was wrong. It was Haram. It was against Islam.

We were socialized. It was very normalized that we were on this path of heterosexuality so part of maintaining the family honor was so that you could get married to a man or a woman and build the wealth and the status of the family through those relationships and by having children. All that is very prescriptive heterosexuality. So, my experience of queerness was all around desire and desire that I couldn’t name which created that self-silencing, created a lot of anxiety, stress, depression, and at the same time I had this parallel story of my parents who had healed their relationship with my American grandparents. So it was like only love I was only raised around love. And even when I was experiencing this anxiety and depression around suppressing my identity, my parents gave me a lot of care at a time and in a place where there wasn’t a lot of attention given to mental health they were taking me to a therapist. They were supporting me in all of my pursuits. You know it didn’t matter to them that I wasn’t playing soccer with boys. They’re like you do theater you do you. It was very clear that I was not a typical boy I played with barbies I also played with Thundercats I um read.

J.P.: Thundercats!

Barrak: Yes, exactly! I read all The Babysitter Club books several times. You know it’s just like come on, it’s pretty clear. I was raised in a family that wasn’t normal. But we were in a society that was normalizing everything, so it felt like we were special. It felt like we were exceptional and the pressure of society was so significant and I think sort of challenging a little bit what Sarah said earlier around the immense amount of pleasure that homophobia gives people. I think at least in the society that I grew up in, there was a lot of fear. We may not need to call it homophobia but there was a fear of the consequences of a son, of an oldest son being Gay.

J.P.: I want to be mindful of this. I feel that sometimes southwest Asian and Middle Eastern cultures get unfairly stigmatized, more so than European and western cultures when it comes to homophobia. So I want to be mindful of that. Where I’m going with this is that I have found as an Armenian American, there were differences in the “familial homophobia” between my Armenian side and my American side. The Armenian side was much more existential right? There was a Genocide and how dare you not have an Armenian wife and have Armenian children right? Because that’s your obligation to the family that survived and to those that didn’t survive. The American side had a different faith tradition. But how they and this book [Ties that Bind], even just in prepping for this, I’m like oh my goodness, the ways that they bonded, that I can see now around their Wesleyan faith tradition, as it related to me. but long way of setting up this question for you Barrak. Did you find differences in the type of “familial homophobia” that you’re experiencing between your Kuwaiti family and your American family?

Barrak: I think it’s strange. For me, it’s a strange dichotomy. Because we are at a state of acceptance and so even though my relationship with my dad is not really great, I fought to have my partner over and to spend the night in our house which is in Kuwait. It’s separated like apartments. So I have a kind of separate entrance to my part of the house. Kuwait is a very wealthy and privileged society and so there’s also a way in which the family is oriented around each other and they continue to share space long after people get married. It’s changed quite a bit. There’s still people who orient their families in that way. I didn’t really have an opportunity to come out to my American side of the family because my parents had instilled so much fear in me. So that for many years even though they knew I was gay, I didn’t have the opportunity to talk about it. I was in college and I was producing The Vagina Monologues and stage managing a Queer homeless youth theater production and talking to them about all this stuff because it felt possible to talk about things like academic achievements and extracurricular activities, but also because my grandparents were very radical. My grandmother was part of second wave Feminism. She’s 98 now and a huge influence on my life. She’s always been a very vocal part of what was then the women’s lib or women’s rights movements. My grandfather was always very much a Feminist, supporting and encouraging her to be the person that she wanted to be by pursuing her education and advancing her career. I don’t know if I mentioned it earlier, but my mom’s side of the family is Jewish and so there is also that history in that lineage that my mom in converting to Islam turned her back on. It wasn’t just as simple as, “Oh I’m cutting my family out of my life.” It was really, I think in certain circles of a Jewish phase that can be constituted as a devastating loss in the wake of what Sarah was talking about with regards to the Holocaust.

Sarah: I mean my family were liberal New Yorkers. My mother was a social worker and that did not change them in any way. They were viciously homophobic and sexist. As the oldest girl, that was clear. My brother was like a king of Israel and I was just supposed to be second rate. In my extended family, I’m the only gay person in my family. No one has ever intervened on my behalf. No cousins. Nobody. No one has ever called me and said I can’t believe you weren’t invited to your brother’s wedding. That’s ridiculous. I’m going to talk to the other people in the family and change that. Or you know, I can’t believe you weren’t allowed at your niece’s baby shower. I’m not going to go.

The reasons were not religious reasons. It was because I had been constructed as the bad person who could not be part of the family. They will tell you now that the homosexuality had nothing to do with it. But it can’t be that the only gay person in the family is the only problem in the family. There’s a great film by the black lesbian filmmaker Yvonne Welbon called Monique and it’s about the fact that she had this girl in her kindergarten class who she hated named Monique and they used to fight all the time. They would hit each other and punch each other and they hated each other. Then she pulls back and shows you the picture of the class and they’re the only two black kids in the class you know?

We often make up these fake stories about how somebody is threatening or endangering us when actually it’s our own anxieties and we want to exclude them and get rid of them. So being a New York liberal or Jewish or whatever, it has nothing to do with it. It’s about people’s own inability to love. It’s about a profound sense of conformity and because I have a family that was on my mother’s side of the family, decimated by the Holocaust. I do think that my parents had great fear of difference and really wanted to be safe in terms of their assimilation. But you have to overcome that. Many people do. Some people who really love their children, even if they’re like you know Holy Roller Evangelicals, they welcome their children into the family and people who don’t have the love, and try to transcend that, they don’t.

Barrak: To kind of add to that about how you know identity or religion or political positioning doesn’t really impact your response or reaction to a Queer family member. My parents fully believed that despite all of these progressive values that my grandparents had, and even my own Kuwaiti grandmother who I would never even say, “oh I’m dating a girl,” you know it was just that you don’t talk about those things. I had always experienced a very radical openness and radical love from all those grandparents, but my parents convinced me that despite their liberal ways, they would not accept me. That was a negative fantasy that they projected. I think that’s similar language to what Sarah uses either in this book or in Conflict Is Not Abuse where to perpetuate their own beliefs they assert a negative fantasy. I got a phone call from my grandfather two weeks before he passed away and he challenged me. He said, “Barrak you need to come out of the closet.” I was still so embedded in my fear of rejection and this negative fantasy, this fiction that that my parents had told me that I dissembled. I could not take that incredible act of generosity that he extended to me. I could not even respond or react and that told me that they always had that capacity, but that channel was never opened.

Sarah: I want to get back to the point that Barrak made about the dialogic relationship between society and family and how this hits us. Normally, you have a terrible family you get away from them and you go into the world and the things that your family was doing to you are not in the world. Or you have a great family and you go into the world and there’s all these prejudices and arbitrary punishments, but your family is there for you. But when it comes to “familial homophobia” the society and the family are mirrors of each other. I’m a Lesbian and I also write books from a Lesbian perspective and boy is that not okay. You’re constantly dealing with the publishing industry that has a very high ick factor around Lesbian stuff and won’t allow it to be in the world in the way that it needs to be. It’s very, very controlled about what’s allowed to come through. And there are a lot of constant humiliations and denigrations. I mean I’ve just experienced something today along those lines where people don’t acknowledge that that’s why they won’t treat you with respect or take you seriously. So when you have the world doing it and your family’s doing it, that is the moment you know that’s the crunch.

That’s why we have to have some kind of consciousness or awareness or understanding of what it is that we are experiencing. Because what they are telling us about ourselves is false and they’re only doing it to elevate themselves. It’s a supremacy ideology masquerading as reality. And that’s what we have to understand. And that’s why texts that expose that are also repressed. That’s why we have these underground discussions about literatures that the apparatus will not support.

J.P.: I had a question written down here about publishing. I’m curious have you seen, I feel like folks think that everything’s so much better in 2022 and there’s this false narrative around that. Sarah have you seen any changes over the past fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years in how your writing is received by publishers and agents?

Sarah: I would say that in terms of the Lesbian novel, I think things are worse now. And I had a very interesting experience which is that I just published a book about men for the first time. And boy was that book well received. I got access to all kinds of things that my previous nineteen books could not get access to and when you write about men, people are like “Wow, you’re so smart. Oh, you’re such a good writer.” Right? Then they want to talk to you about all this stuff.

J.P.: Wow.

Sarah: But then my next book is a Lesbian novel that is highly engaged. It’s very experimental and it’s also sexually explicit. And not only can I not find a publisher, I can’t find an editor to have a conversation with me about the book. In the rejection letters, no one says the word Lesbian. They’ll say, “This is so interesting,” “This is so well written,” “It’s not going to fly here,” but they don’t say why and because they won’t speak to you, they don’t have to say why. So, you know, it’s so frustrating. The same thing is true in film and television and theater. I had a play this summer called The Lady Hamlet at the Provincetown Theater directed by David Drake. And it’s a play that could not get a production for seventeen years. It was like a massive success. And I was sitting there every night watching the audience love it and the problem is it’s about Lesbian adults. Think about it. There are no plays in the American canon about Lesbian adults. It’s always sort of like butchy girls, you know, tomboys. That’s something that’s been acceptable from Harper Lee to Carson Mccullars to Dorothy Allison to Allison Bechdel. But Lesbian adults? How we talk to each other and think about each other? That is absolutely not allowed to be seen on the American stage. So, all those obstructions are there, but you can’t get in to discuss them. That’s always the biggest weapon, the silence around the structures.

J.P.: I read from a previous interview of yours when you were querying and shopping Ties That Bind that there was a young agent who identified as Lesbian who sent you a note saying don’t show this to anyone. Has there been any changes in how Queer folks within the publishing industry have been reacting to your work and engaging?

Sarah: They would love for me to write another book about men I think. They don’t know that that’s what they want. I mean let’s look at Conflict is Not Abuse. This is a been a fascinating publishing story. That book was rejected by every publisher in the United States from the corporate presses to the university presses to the feminist press to verso to the leftist press to Semiotexte to the most experimental, everybody rejected it. I had to publish it in Canada. I published it with a small Queer press, Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver, Canada.

I thought okay, this book is going to go down the rabbit hole like no one is ever going to see this book and in fact, Publishers Weekly didn’t even review it. They have reviewed almost all of my books in prepublication. And then this weird thing happened which is that people started discussing it on the internet. This grassroots conversation grew and the sales started to spark and I did a book tour across Canada because they had money from Canada council for Canadian events. It’s like this odd thing. I started on the East Coast with like 40 people, by the time I got to Seattle I had 400 people. So the audience had just totally grown by word of mouth and Publishers Weekly had to review it five months after publication because so many people were discussing it now.

We’ve sold 45,000 copies in English and it’s been translated to French, Italian and Spanish. Let me tell you the phrase Conflict Is Not Abuse is used every single day. I mean it was said in the British parliament. It’s become something in the public. This just shows you how behind the gatekeepers are and the fact that they won’t have a conversation. Even my own editor and publisher at FSG who did the book on Act Up, neither of them would have a conversation with me about my next Lesbian novel. They won’t talk and because they won’t talk, they cannot open their minds. And that’s why books that are ahead of them are subjected to these roundabout things. If you’re lucky, they ultimately do surface because of the people. But you know this is where it’s at.

J.P.: Can I ask? How do you deal with that as a writer, but also as a human being?

Sarah:  It’s such a weird reality that I live in because every single day somebody out there lets me know that something I wrote is meaningful to them. Every day. Whether it’s in person or a note or something. And, every day a gatekeeper or a person who controls the apparatus dismisses me or marginalizes me or denigrates me. So I’m having this totally crazy simultaneous experience of being a person in the world. Now that I’m sixty-four and I’ve been publishing since I was since I was twenty-four, I see that these books are ahead of their time. It takes ten, twenty, thirty years for people to catch up to them. But you know I don’t have thirty more years.

The things that I want to do in my life are, I want to work in film and television. I want these books to go to screen. A number of my books are very appropriate to screen. The CosmopolitansShimmer. But I don’t know how to get in and I keep trying, but then you always come up against this kind of idiot. It’s usually a guy who’s a gatekeeper or a woman who’s afraid who doesn’t know how to go out with the material. And you can get to a certain point and then they stop it. I need help getting past that point. So that’s where I’m at.

J.P.: What would that help look like to you?

Sarah: I need somebody to help me develop some of my more exciting, episodic books into television and film. Somebody who’s willing to do the work with me. I’m a good writer and I know how do that. I recently had a really interesting experience. I have a film that I wrote about the writer Carson McCullers and it’s called Lonely Hunter. A straight woman producer really wanted to develop it. We worked on it for two years. But she couldn’t get her packaging people to give it money and she didn’t know how to go around them. All the work that I’ve made and I’ve been involved in four films, lots of plays and all kinds of stuff yet I’m always having to go around everybody. And we know how to make things happen. She had no idea how to make something happen when the machine was hostile to it. She finally just dropped it because she didn’t even know how to try. I need somebody to help me negotiate through all of that. I have the material.

Barrak: I think what your work does Sarah is it not only gives us permission to engage in a dialogue to negotiate to call people in, but it also reminds us and you taught us this in a writing workshop I took with you that other people are real and that was one of the most valuable lessons for how to engage with difference both on the page and in real life is that we have to understand that fundamentally. And also ask that others hail us in that way that we are real, just as they are real.

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J.P. Der Boghossian: I want to thank Barrak and Sarah for joining us on today’s episode.

Barrak is currently querying the manuscript for his memoir Fabulous. I’m very impatient for this book, so I hope it’s picked up and published soon. Barrak is starting a new project that is tentatively called Are We Then Yet? It is a multi-generational, post-apocalyptic, post-oil, post-water, climate catastrophe novel set in the Gulf.

You can read his work on his website barrakalzaid.com. He also has a great newsletter there you can subscribe to. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram. He is @barrakstar

Sarah’s novel Shimmer is being reissued by Fordham University Press. The book is about the period after World War II and before the black list, in New York City. Sarah looks at the postwar period from the points of view of a straight black man and a gay white girl, making them the emblematic Americans. It comes out in Spring 2023.

You can follow her on Twitter. She is @sarahschulman3

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J.P. Der Boghossian: Cheers for listening today. All of our episodes are Executive Produced by Jim Pounds. Our Associate Producers are Archie Arnold, Natalie Cruz, Paul Kaefer, Nicole Olila, Joe Perazzo, Bill Shay, and Sean Smith. If you haven’t subscribed to our show, you should! Give us a 5 star rating too! The algorithm gods look at those numbers to help queer folks who are looking for new podcasts to find this one!

Don’t forget to listen to Season 1 of our podcast every Saturday morning on AM950 the Progressive Voice of Minnesota.

And in the meantime, Season 3 drops March 7th. But stay tuned to this space every Tuesday for new episodes of 7 Minutes in Book Heaven and our Season 2 recap, with Jim and I.

Until then, see you Queers and allies in the bookstores!