Memorizing You is a beautiful book, from an LGBT generation that could not expect happiness in their lives
Sometimes it is really difficult to put in words what you feel, or how you would like to express those emotions. Recommended by fellow author Phetra H. Novak, I decided to read Dan Skinner’s Memorizing You. In fact, it was even a gift from her (thank you). I started reading it weeks ago, but couldn’t get drawn in, or differently put, I was afraid to let myself go. Too many other things were pulling at me, plus – the beginning – read like an old sweater. It was all too familiar. I was so much alike my own childhood and youth. It scared me. I was afraid of what might come.
Yet, turns out there is a difference. When Ryan and David are in high school, they watch the moon landing. It’s 1969. I was two. Yeah, I’ve been told I watched it, too, I couldn’t remember. Now I just wrote a major piece on gay culture, and how much we owe to the men and women who came before us, and this Wednesday I will review another great novel from a similar time frame. Mr. Skinner’s novel is a very important piece in that puzzle.
Gay life in the late sixties seemed to finally bloom, or as one endearing character in the book puts it: “I mean this is the time of Peace and Free Love; Age of Aquarius and all.” So at the time, it seemed as if the seventies would promise us more equality. Now I don’t know if the conservative backlash of the eighties is due to the rise of the Reagan conservatives or HIV. Both maybe?
But I am convinced that the real danger of an HIV epidemic spreading beyond “men who have sex with men” got people to question the way they looked at “the gays” and here we are, living in the age of marriage equality… Memorizing You isn’t an HIV novel. But it is a gay novel from a previous generation. I would never write a book like this. Because Memorizing You ends just the way the book I’ll review in two days does: [no disclosures, no spoilers] Now, that’s not a bad thing.
When you look at the “classic” gay writers, that first generation of Thomas Mann (who had to die before his gay novel could be published) or Christopher Isherwood. They made sure all their characters died. Love? Yeah, they might find that, but they couldn’t be happy in the long run. Death meant to be free. Family? Happiness? No can do. You were acknowledged. It was the first step toward our liberation. It was what I grew up with. To be gay was sorta okay, you couldn’t really help it, but you kept to yourself and didn’t ask for anything much. That’s how things were. Not anymore. We have finally broken through that wall of silence and we’re here, we’re queer and we’re not going away!
That is important, and it is an integral part of my writing. I am not apologizing for being gay, and I want the generations growing up today to read stories about gays in space, gays who are parents and have children, married and happy. There is literally nothing we can’t do: ex-Pope, President of Russia (albeit both still closet cases), kings and prime ministers (ex-Iceland and now Luxembourg) etc. If you want to.
Mr. Skinner’s generation didn’t get that. And while that is an incredibly important reminder, and an explanation why stories like his feel a bit “dated”, almost like time capsules, they are an important look at a time not that far back. When I was through, about four hours out of touching down in New York, where I’d attend the Rainbow Book Fair, and about which I wanted to write today, I wept, for a good half hour, alone, in the lavatory, twelve kilometers above the Atlantic Ocean. Like a child. I was despaired about the fact that a couple as much in love as David and Ryan, as cute, as perfect for each other (as unlikely as that is for high school sweethearts) to not get that Happy Ending. It physically hurt me. Watching their straight friends all get married, have children, grand-children even. Now I’m not going to give away the ending. It is worth reading and absolutely beautiful, and hopeful. However, Memorizing You is so very different from e.g. my ending in Jonathan’s Hope. Forty years here, sixty years there. If you’ve read both, you’ll realize the difference between the promise of and the realization of!
Memorizing you is Dan Skinner’s story. I couldn’t have written it. I wouldn’t. But I’m glad he has, and it is one hell of a book! Just be prepared to have your innards torn out, twisted and left to rot… It’s all good, as gory as it sounds. I wish more straight people, more of our straight allies would read books like this, because maybe then they’d understand what we’ve fought for, what we’ve been through, all of us, to get to where we are, and that the struggle continues, every day, be it for anti-discrimination legislation (get married yes, but get fired at work for doing so, you never read that in Bride’s Magazines!), better healthcare for LGBT, protection of LGBT youth, and last not least, trans rights.
We’re far from done, and I hope we won’t have to get up the remains of what makes us gay, to be allowed to be gay.
From a literary perspective, Mr. Skinner’s book stands out as well. The writing I admire, I love it, and I’m envious as hell. I’m nowhere near as accomplished a writer. And I’m pained that a novel like his couldn’t end happier. I see why, I even understand why, but it left me even more convinced that we need more happy stories in fiction for the LGBT community, and this morning, I wear my badge, that of the Queen of Unconventional Happy Endings, with renewed honor, and I will fight harder than ever before to make sure that I provide stories of hope, and light, to my LGBT siblings. I want them to be able to read the books I never had.
Have a wonderful week!