Saturday, March 14, 2009

Review: In the Life: a Black Gay Anthology & Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men

In the Life: a Black Gay Anthology
Edited by Joseph Beam

Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men
Edited by Essex Hemphill and conceived by Joseph Beam

Published by RedBone Press

Reviewed by Richard Canning

These are timely reissues of two groundbreaking anthologies from 1986 and 1991 respectively. Redbone Press has done an excellent job of each, updating contributors’ biographies and adding new introductions. The one by James Earl Hardy, in In the Life, is refreshingly accessible, poignant and draws neatly on the impact that the book had on him as a college student. Jafaire Sinclair Allen’s portentous introduction to Brother to Brother is rather heavy-going. There’s a hint of this in the title – ‘Rereading Brother to Brother: Crucial Palimpsest’ – but the heart sinks further with the first line, where the anthology is celebrated for ‘indexing our collective injuries in blood, cum, fire and tears.’ Happily, this doesn’t get near the straightforward aesthetic pleasures offered by so much of the best writing here, which have little to do with any compulsion to complain about ‘injury’ alone, and everything to do with narrating the diversity of black gay male lives from original and winning perspectives. (The term ‘black’ is used advisedly, over African-American, since, though the genesis of both was in the US, their contributors include a good number of non-American voices, such as the British film-maker Isaac Julien). Nevertheless, a page later, Allen is warning how the stories told by and about gay men are ‘endangered by our own complacency, poor reading, self-appointed Divadom and lack of vision.’ Does he speak for himself? The self-lacerating tone and doom-laden pronouncements of this opening risk alienating the reader who – lest we forget – has taken an interest, is keeping the faith. In a context in which there are few serious readers left of any kind, it seems perverse to turn on those who are present and correct.

An interview with Essex Hemphill from 1990 has also been added to Brother to Brother, a project Hemphill took up by way of direct tribute to Beam’s achievement with In the Life. Beam outlived his book by just two years; Hemphill too would die of AIDS-related causes in 1995. The epidemic, needless to say, cut a swath through the authors featured in both books; gone are Assoto Saint, Melvin Dixon, Craig Harris and Donald Woods (all featured in In the Life), as well as Rory Buchanan, Charles Harpe, Walter Rico Burrell and Marlon Riggs (from Brother to Brother). As a subject it only appeared intermittently in In the Life, many of the pieces in which date back a decade or more. In Brother to Brother, it is a constant presence, implicit or explicit.

Inevitably, today some of this writing feels a little period-bound – written to the concerns of a moment, that is, and feeling rather historical today. But the best of it hasn’t aged a bit. Craig Harris’s ‘Cut Off From Among Their People’ – from In the Life – is a finely-rendered early portrait of the family politics attending an AIDS funeral, a subject later much embellished by Thomas Glave’s fine story ‘The Final Inning’ (Glave is too young to feature here, however). Harris was, moreover, an arresting poet, as ‘Hope against Hope’ in Brother to Brother reveals. Walter Burrell’s ‘The Scarlet Letter Revisited’ (from BTB) is a moving journal account of his deteriorating health, again a piece which seems to point forwards – to, say, the notebooks of Gary Fisher. Marlon Riggs’s striking poem ‘Tongues Untied’ is also in the later volume. Of In the Life, I particularly enjoyed the discursive self-account given by Samuel Delany, and Brad Johnson’s poetry is winningly ludic.

African-American gay writing in particular has developed extraordinarily since these seeds were planted. There are so many talented successors to what is really the snapshot (or two snapshots) of a particular generation of black authors here: Glave, certainly, but also Darieck Scott, Randall Kenan, Larry Duplechan, to name just three who appeared in Avon’s equally impressive 1996 anthology, Shade: An Anthology of Fiction by Gay Men of African Descent, edited by Bruce Morrow and Charles Rowell. E. Lynn Harris, of course, has shown too that there is no ceiling to the appeal of black gay literature.

If neither In the Life nor Brother to Brother is precisely the same as the original books, that is not the fault of their new publisher. Anthologies are a legally complex business in the first place. Revisiting them a couple of decades later must have been a thankless task. Two authors - Sidney Brinkley and Daniel Garrett - declined to have their work reproduced in the new version of In the Life. One poet, ‘Wrath’, likewise, is missing from this Brother to Brother. It’s worth adding, however, that Redbone have produced books which are both more attractive and reader-friendly than the Alyson originals. It’s a huge commercial leap of faith to reprint these titles, if only because the internet has made it infinitely easier and cheaper to find second-hand copies of pretty much any title. Still, with a wide and attractive further list – including implicit successor volumes to these, such as G Winston James and Other Countries’ Voices Rising: Celebrating 20 Years of Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Writing and G Winston James and Lisa C Moore’s Spirited: Affirming the Soul and Black Gay/Lesbian Identity – Redbone is to be praised not only for disinterring these important titles, but for building on them so tangibly in furthering the presence of important and influential black gay writing in all genres.

Richard Canning is author of Gay Fiction Speaks and Hear Us Out (Columbia University Press, 2001 and 2004), two collections of conversations with gay male novelists, as well as Oscar Wilde (Hesperus, 2008) and E. M. Forster (Hesperus, 2009), two short biographies. He has edited Between Men (Carroll & Graf, 2007) and Between Men 2 (Alyson, 2009), as well as a collection of American AIDS fiction, Vital Signs (Carroll & Graf, 2007). Forthcoming is another anthology, 50 Gay and Lesbian Titles Everyone Should Read (Alyson, 2009). He teaches at Sheffield University, England, where he can be contacted.

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