Interview with Maurice Vellekoop, I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together: A Memoir

Maurice Vellekoop was born in Toronto in 1964. After graduating from Ontario College of Art (now OCADU) in 1986, Maurice Vellekoop joined Reactor Art and Design, an agency for illustrators. In a more than thirty-five year career, Maurice Vellekoop has worked for top international editorial and advertising clients, published numerous zines, comics and books, created art for animation, and participated in art shows around the world.

I had the opportunity to interview Maurice, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT!

Thanks, what a pleasure to talk to you!

What can you tell us about your new graphic novel, I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together: A Memoir? What inspired you to create this project?

My graphic memoir operates on two levels: on one it’s a fairly straightforward story of a queer person growing up in an intensely Protestant community, and the resulting rift between a son and a loving mother who can’t accept her son’s sexuality because of her beliefs. On another it’s about a lifelong love affair with making art and delighting in cinema, books, music and theatre. It’s about the intense joy that can be found in art, but also the pitfalls of sublimation. That is, trying to find sexual and emotional fulfilment in fantasy and culture, rather than actual human relationships.

I was inspired to create this book, to paraphrase Quentin Crisp, for three reasons: I needed the money, I felt I had something unique to say, and it was something to do to pass the time!

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, especially comics/graphic novels and memoir?

I was never a huge comics nerd as a child. I liked Mad magazine, and Illustrated Classics, but I was not into superheroes at all. In the 1980s I discovered RAW magazine and it blew my mind. I started drawing comics because of artists like Joost Swarte, Charles Burns, Sue Coe, Mark Beyer and Jerry Moriarty. 

How would you describe your artistic background?

I grew up in a house where art was revered. My parents had an art library that I grew up studying. I learned art history from a very young age by looking at picture books. Later I went to art school for illustration, inspired by older my sister, Ingrid. I idolized her. She wanted to be an illustrator, so I did too. Since graduating from Ontario College of Art (as it was known then) in 1986 I have worked mostly as an illustrator. I published short comics and zines in my spare time. The graphic memoir is my first full-length work.

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

I get inspiration from nearly everything! I love just walking down the street and observing how people present themselves visually. Beyond that I love and am inspired by the classic New Yorker cartoonists like Charles Addams, Mary Petty and Peter Arno. Classic Hollywood has always influenced me; everything from really cynical black and white film noir, to the saturated colours and high camp drama of 1950s Douglas Sirk ‘women’s pictures’. As a young man I gorged on world cinema from the 20th century in Toronto’s rep theatres. Fellini, Visconti, Renoir, Bunuel, Ray and Antonioni are my gods. I listen to a lot of opera while I’m working too, I love getting lost in long, dramatic music-narratives. I’m sure opera has informed my work. Figuring out how the composer tells the story in music is more exciting to me than the singing!

Maurice Vellekoop Photo Credit Lito Howse

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?

If you mean was there a lot of queer examples around, hmm, not really, you really had to dig to find them, and they weren’t usually very positive. What I did have were all the 1960s and 70s supernatural TV sitcoms, with their casts of freakish outsiders. Shows like The Addams Family, The Munsters, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie were inspirational because of all the outrageous situations, and the idea that the weirdos were the normal ones, and normal people were dull and boring. Oh, those fabulous character actors too! 

The first positive representation of a healthy, self-accepting gay man I encountered was Michael York’s character in Cabaret. My sister took me to see it when I was around sixteen and I still treasure everything about that film. Today we are so lucky to have so much great LGBTQ2S material, thriving despite all the book-banning.  

Besides your work, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

Ha! Audiences will find out plenty when they read the book!! Seriously though, I am a very dull, old, happily partnered person who is very fortunate to be able to go to my table every day and make art.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were (and the answer to that question)?

What’s with the colour in your book? Why are some of the chapters in a limited palette, and some in full colour?

“I’m So Glad” you asked me that! The limited palette refers to my childhood consumption of children’s books. I bitterly resented books that were printed in duotone because I thought the publishers were just being cheap, and I only wanted to experience the richness of full-colour printing. As a grownup I now love the look of those books, and so most of the chapters are in two-colour. Also, a large part of the book deals with depression, and the world can seem flatter and less colourful when you are depressed. The full-colour pages occur whenever something really great occurs, just like when Dorothy lands in Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz.

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Hmm, taste is so personal, and as someone intensely fascinated by history, I tend to skew to writers from the past. I reread Noel Coward’s and Tennessee Williams’s stories regularly. I love Christopher Isherwood, who wrote Goodbye to Berlin, which Cabaret is based on. Cecil Beaton is a personal hero, his diaries are wicked fun. More contemporarily, I love Edmund White, Alan Bennett and and Jeanette Winterson. Lauren Hough’s recent essay/memoir book made me laugh and cry. Oliver Sacks’s On The Move was fantastic. The writer Colm Toibin is a great favourite. In comics I love the incomparable Alison Bechdel, as well as Jillian and Mariko Tamaki.

I would strongly suggest to every queer person that they read a biography of Oscar Wilde. (I love the Richard Ellmann one.) Not only will you be entertained by Wilde’s wit and seduced by his charm, but you will discover the roots of modern queer activism. His sensational trial for sodomy, and his passionate, public defence of homosexuality shone a light on what was, in the late 19th century, an illegal and secretive world. His imprisonment and early death were the tragic consequences of the cost of his sacrifice. It would be decades before the sodomy laws would be abolished, in the UK and elsewhere, and many more gay men would suffer, but we all owe a great debt to Oscar. He was one of our first heroes.

Interview with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Author of Touching the Art

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author of three novels and a memoir, and the editor of five nonfiction anthologies. Her memoir, The End of San Francisco, won a Lambda Literary Award, and her anthology, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, was an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book. Her latest title, the novel Sketchtasy, was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2018. Her next book, The Freezer Door, debuted in November 2020. Maggie Nelson says it’s “a book about not belonging that made me feel deeply less alone.”

I had the opportunity to interview Mattilda, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m the kind of writer who thinks that writing means living, and living means writing, the two are intertwined so that every experience becomes part of the creative process, or that’s the goal, anyway.

What can you tell us about your latest book, Touching the Art? What inspired this project?

Touching the Art centers around my relationship with my late grandmother, an abstract artist from Baltimore. As a child, she nurtured everything that made me different—my femininity, creativity, empathy, introspection, softness, thoughtfulness—but when my work became unapologetically queer, suddenly she called it vulgar. “Why are you wasting your talent,” she would say to me, over and over again. The book circles around this abandonment.

Based on the description for this book, it appears Touching the Art explores the concept of Jewish assimilation and identity. As a queer Jewish person, I would like to hear your thoughts on exploring that in the book as well as any thoughts you might have on the intersection between your own Jewish and queer identities?

My grandmother grew up in Baltimore at a time when the city was rigidly segregated. Jews in Baltimore both enforced this segregation, and were victims of it. So I’m trying to explore this duality, how the Jews of Baltimore, for example, overwhelmingly sided with the Confederate South in the Civil War. There were even Jewish merchants that were smuggling goods to the South when Baltimore was under Union occupation. Most of the businesses in the one neighborhood where Black people were allowed to own property were owned by Jews, and they enforced the same racist Jim Crow policies as other businesses. My grandmother grew up two blocks from the line that separated white from Black, and I try to think about what that would have been like in the 1920s and 1930s. Billie Holiday, who also grew up in Baltimore at that time, says in her memoir, “A whorehouse was about the only place where black and white folks could meet in any natural way,” and I think that tells you everything.

Understanding this history, which I did not know about when I was growing up in DC, really helped me to understand the family I grew up in, which was a very assimilated Jewish family where upward mobility and class striving were intertwined with Jewishness. And so was racism, misogyny, homophobia. As a child I was very proud of my Jewish heritage, but after my bar mitzvah I decided I didn’t believe in God, and I wanted no part of this type of Jewishness. Of course, there’s a long history of radical atheist Jews, queers and misfits and weirdos and iconoclasts, but this was hidden from me due to the violence of assimilation.

What drew you to writing, particularly memoir? Were there any favorite writers or stories that sparked your own love and interest in storytelling?

Writing is what keeps me alive, it’s how I process the world and express myself and figure things out and connect with people too, I think more and more in this alienating world it’s about connection. I don’t write with genre in mind, I just write what I need to write, and then once it reaches a certain point I take a look at the whole thing and figure it all out.

How would you describe your general writing process?

I think I am always writing, but this could just be one sentence in a day. I write without any intention of plot or structure or form until eventually, usually once I have several hundred pages, sometimes after years, I realize what the writing is becoming and then eventually it becomes a book.

With Touching the Art, though, I started by touching my grandmother’s art and seeing what would come through. Then I moved to Baltimore to see what would come through there. And after that I went into research mode. So all of this is in the book.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or challenging? 

I’m an obsessive editor, so I love the editing process, that you can keep working and working and working with the same text until it becomes something else, and until you get to the kind of precision that you’re looking for, but at the same time you can keep a raw sense of searching. But then of course sometimes the editing process can be the most frustrating part, especially when you’re trying to get it right.

As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

I love going on walks, which sounds ridiculously cheesy, but it is what clears my head, especially leaning against trees, and I love dancing, but this has been very hard during the pandemic because I definitely don’t want to dance inside, and of course I get inspiration from reading, and from other writers, but you already know that. And sometimes there isn’t any inspiration, but I write anyway.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

No one has yet asked how all the different threads in the book came together, and so I would say it was through the writing itself. Like with some of these parts, I had no idea what I was doing while I was doing it, but then suddenly, at the end, something would come back into the book, and I would realize oh.

Aside from your work, what are other things you would want readers to know about you?

What else do you need to know? I mean it’s all there, really, in my work. That’s the type of writing I do.

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

Yes, I have a new novel called Terry Dactyl, which is out in the world on submission now… Wish me luck! And then after that I have a new hybrid nonfiction book called Social Distancing. I’m on my fifth draft of that one.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

Just keep writing. Don’t worry about how much or how little. Don’t worry about whether you hate it, just get it down on the page. Even a sentence a day, that’s plenty. Once you have it there, you can make it into what you need.

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Honestly there are so many that I don’t even know where to start. I would say that reading David Wojnarowicz’s work was the first time I felt my entire sense of the world reflected in print, especially Close to the Knives and Memories That Smell Like Gasoline, but that second one is probably out of print. Another book I will always treasure is Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown. A recent book that I loved is Borealis by Aisha Sabatini Sloan. Oh and Miss Major Speaks by Toshio Meronek and Miss Major offers him a great informal history lesson.

Interview with Christine Suggs

Christine Suggs is an illustrator, designer, and comic artist. Their work explores the intersection of their identities, namely being a queer, fat, Latinx feminist who loves all things cute. They’re also way too into Pokémon and cats. They’re currently living in Dallas, TX with their super rad husband and insanely adorable pets.

I had the opportunity to interview Christine, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome back to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Hello! I’m a cartoonist living in Dallas, TX with my cool husband, 2 cats and a dog. I am a little obsessed with the cats and I have the camera roll to prove it. I mostly make work about identity, particularly my experience as a fat, queer, Latinx person.

What can you tell us about your debut book, ¡Ay, Mija! (a Graphic Novel): My Bilingual Summer in Mexico? What was the inspiration for this story?

I’m half-Mexican, and with that comes a lot of experiences that make you feel like you don’t quite fit in with either world. I’m also not fluent in Spanish, which only increases that feeling of not being “Mexican enough.” This book is about the time I went to visit my grandparents and my tía in Mexico City for a month as a teenager. It’s really a love letter to Mexico, language, the biracial experience, and my mother.

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically within the graphic novel medium?

I started with webcomics! I was super into Questionable Content by Brian Jaques; Girls with Slingshots by Danielle Corsetto; and the autobiographical work of Dustin Harbin, Lucy Knisley, Erika Moen, and Kate Beaton. I started making my own autobio comics in high school and college to process my feelings. Eventually I started posting them online and I really appreciated the connection I’d feel when sharing these stories.

How would you describe your writing process?

Oh gosh, it’s a lot of sitting around in a bathrobe, listening to moody music, and staring into space. I start with what I call “word vomit” which is just getting it all out on a doc, usually with bullet points. For this book, I also interviewed my mom to jog my memory on a few things. I fiddled around with the order of events to create a detailed outline – memory is a funny thing, so the book is kind of an amalgam of a few different trips – then got to scripting! I’m very flexible about page count and paneling at this stage just because I know once I get to drawing, I’ll have to make 100 little decisions, so the layout is bound to change. But I do take notes on what I generally picture happening, like expressions or actions.

Many authors would say one of the most challenging parts of writing a book is finishing one. What strategies would you say helped you accomplish this??

I’m an organization nut. I have a “Chalkboard of Doom” in my office where I divvy up the work week by week. I give myself padding before my deadline in case an emergency comes up. I also listen to my mind and body! Some days are gonna be really productive and I’ll go over my page count. Some days, not so much.

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?

This is kind of why I made the book! In the 90s I wasn’t seeing anyone who looked like me on the cartoons I loved so much. This was the age of “heroin chic” and I was a chubby half-Mexican kid. I did love the Lioness Quartet series by Tamora Pierce. I still read it every few years for those great gender feels. Nowadays I love a quirky and soapy comedy, like Jane the Virgin, Ugly Betty, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative/artistic influences and/or sources of inspiration in general? 

I have a degree in graphic design, so I think that informs a lot of my decision making in comics, like limited color palettes. Miyazaki was another influence; I tried to capture a lot of small, quiet moments in the book. Finally, I’m lucky enough to have a great online community of artists that I follow and engage with regularly. I love my internet friends and am constantly in awe of their work! Liz Yerby, E. Joy Mehr, Kate Wheeler, and Rose Bousmara to name a few.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing/ illustrating? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or challenging? 

Inking, hands down. It’s when your work really starts to look real. And the satisfying swoosh of when a line turns out just right…there’s nothing better. Writing always takes it out of me, especially with autobiographical work. I mean at the end of the day, you’re digging through a lot of emotions and even trauma and that can be rough!

Aside from your work, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

Well, since this is a geeky place, let’s talk about Dungeons & Dragons! I’ve been playing with a dear group of friends for about 5 years now and it’s the highlight of my week. Right now, we’re in a space campaign and I play an agender robotic monk who accidentally became a druid even though they don’t believe in magic. I used to DM and I’d definitely recommend that as a way to practice writing and acting. And it’s a great way to make your friends practice using different pronouns!

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

What do music you listen to when you work? It changes depending on what part of the process I’m in. For writing I curate a playlist based on that time period: ¡Ay, Mija! was a lot of broody Mexican music like Chavela Vargas, Vincente Fernandez and Jose Jose. Once I get to thumbnails and pencils, I switch to musical theater – Phantom of the Opera is particular fave. And then later in the process I can turn my brain off and listen to comedy podcasts like MBMBAM or The Adventure Zone.

What advice might you have to give for other aspiring writers?

Indulge yourself! Write fanfiction, read “trashy” novels, do whatever it is that fills your cup. Nobody wants to read a book that even the author didn’t like. Same goes for drawing: if you love drawing cats, keep drawing cats! Yeah, you’ll eventually have to learn how to draw backgrounds and it sucks, but it’s the fun stuff that keeps you going.

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

I was fortunate enough to get a 2-book deal with Little Brown Ink, so I’m already thumbnailing my next book! It’s based on my life but is slightly fictionalized. It’s about queerness, finding your community, and financial barriers to art education.

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT? 

Well, I can’t recommend Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe enough. I know Maia is going through the ringer right now with book bans, but that book completely “cracked my egg” as far as gender goes. Trung Le Ngueyen’s The Magic Fish made me cry with its queer immigrant story, and Pslam for the Wild Built by Becky Chambers may be the most beautiful novella I’ve read in my life. Incredible world-building and two nonbinary main characters!

Interview with Author Joy Ladin

Joy Ladin is the author of a memoir of gender transition, National Jewish Book Award finalist Through the Door of Life; Lambda Literary and Triangle Award finalist, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective; and ten books of poetry, including her new collection, Shekhinah Speaks (Selva Oscura Press), National Jewish Book Award winner The Book of Anna, and Lambda Literary Award finalists Transmigration and Impersonation. Her work has been recognized with a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Fulbright Scholarship, an American Council of Learned Societies Research Fellowship, and a Hadassah Brandeis Institute Research Fellowship, among other honors.

I had the opportunity to interview Joy, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you! I grew up white, lower middle class (my father was a social worker), assimilated Jewish, terrified, marginalized, annoying, and hyperverbal (in schoolyard sports, I played announcer) in the 1960s and 70s Rochester, NY. Though I knew nothing about anything, I spoke as though I were an expert on anything I talked about (this continues to be useful as a poet), particularly on Star Trek, which was having its first brief run on our black-and-white TV. When I wrote on freshly painted walls in magic marker, I was punished by not being allowed to watch Star Trek. 

Though I hid my trans identity, it wasn’t safe at home when I was an adolescent, and I more or less left after graduating from high school at 16, though I continued to see my family and get financial support through college. I was very interested in math until a college calc class I took when I was a high school sophomore taught me that, unlike poetry, you couldn’t just make things up in math.

I had started writing what I thought of poetry as soon as I learned to write, took my first writing workshop in junior high school and continued straight through till I graduated as a creative writing and social sciences major from Sarah Lawrence College. Instead of going to graduate school, I decided to focus on writing poetry, supporting my habit with what was at first my only marketable skill, typing. That decision led to ten years as an administrative assistant at The State Bar of California, during which writing piles of poetry, most of which never got published, while writing memos, managing budgets, and thinking about great writers like Kafka who were also office workers. 

I left to get an MFA I hoped would jump-start the career as a poet which, despite my hard work (I wrote constantly) and occasional publications, had remained a daydream. The MFA program I got into – Umass Amherst – didn’t teach me much about writing or help with my career, but it did lead me to what became my second vocation, teaching. I fell in love with teaching during the first class I taught (ironically, on “Man and Woman in Literature”) and never fell out of love with it, though illness forced me to leave the classroom a couple of years ago.

In order to become marketable, as they say, for a tenure-track job in teaching, after I finished the MFA thesis that eventually grew into my first book of poetry, Alternatives to History, I got a Ph.D. in American Literature from Princeton, which, after a few years on the market, helped me land the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University, the flagship school of modern Orthodox Judaism. I loved the students there, and the university’s support helped me write most of the work I’ve published. But it’s hard to mix openly trans identity with Orthodox Jewish culture, and uncomfortable to be the one and only openly trans person doing the mixing, and, over the twelve years following my gender transition, it got harder and harder to work at Yeshiva University. 

Despite the discomfort, my experiences on the border of contemporary secular and traditional religious culture launched me on what became a third career as a speaker and writer about gender identity, particularly about the intersections and collisions between trans and nonbinary identities and traditional religions. Much of the non-literary work of which I’m proudest wouldn’t have been possible without what I learned – was forced to learn – by teaching in an Orthodox environment, and Yeshiva University’s support enabled me to write dozens of essays, a memoir of gender transition, a book of trans theology, and numerous books of poetry. 

Unfortunately, over those very productive years, I was also getting sicker and sicker from ME/CFS, and in 2021 finally had to go on disability. These days, I’m mostly housebound, though still writing (I’ve just finished a collection of selected essays) and doing speaking events via (what else?) Zoom.

What can you tell us about your most recent book, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective? What inspired this project?

Actually, my most recent book is Shekhinah Speaks, a collection of poems intended to give voice to the Shekhinah, Jewish mysticism’s name for the immanent, female aspect of the divine. But I couldn’t have written it without first having written The Soul of the Stranger, a book of intimate theology that grew out of a lifetime of thinking about and talking with God. I don’t think it’s unusual for children to have a sense of divine or other presence beyond the human, and from what others have told me that sense is often particularly keen for LGBTQ+ kids and others who, as I did, grow up feeling isolated by their differences from those around them. It wasn’t the easiest relationship – when you’re a lonely child, God is not the kind of companion you are longing for – but I don’t think I would have survived my childhood if I hadn’t felt God there with me. Without God, I wouldn’t have anyone to talk with who didn’t mistake me for the boy I was pretending to be and knew who I really was. 

A lot of children have that sense of God’s presence educated or beaten out of them, or displaced by institutionalized religious ideas, worship, and community. But my family wasn’t religious, and my relationship with God has continued throughout my adult life. Though it took place outside institutionalized Judaism, my relationship with God was still connected to Jewish tradition, primarily through my independent reading of the Hebrew Bible, texts I saw as portraying God as someone who, like me, was isolated and often heartbroken because, like me, God doesn’t have a body that would enable the people God loves to see that God is there. 

I didn’t start publicly talking and writing about my relationship with God until after my gender transition. At first, I did so as part of explaining how I grew up as a trans kid. But to my surprise, many people seemed as interested in the idea of having a personal relationship with God as they were in what I said about trans identity. 

The Soul of the Stranger is a response to that interest, an effort to think through what I learned about God and the portrayal of God in the Bible from experiencing them from a transgender perspective – that is, experiencing them in the context and through the lens of my experiences as a person who doesn’t fit binary gender categories. I wanted the book to demonstrate that, contrary to what many think, trans experience is not opposed to religious experience or even religious tradition, that, as in my life, each could sustain and illuminate the other. I hoped it would help bridge the often bitter gulf between trans and nonbinary and religious communities, help trans and nonbinary people see themselves as inherently entitled to religious traditions, and help people inside and outside religious communities recognize and explore the possibility of having their own relationships with God.

Speaking as a queer Jewish person myself, I know there’s often been some tension between the queer community and the concept of religion. What are your thoughts on this and how would you describe your relationship with Judaism?

I think the opposition between religious traditions and queer identities is too often taken as a given by people in both kinds of communities. There are and have always been deeply religious LGBTQ+ people who adhere to traditional forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and I have heard many of those people tell me that they feel marginalized on both sides of the divide: marginalized by LGBTQ+ identity in their religious communities, and by their religious identification in queer circles, sometimes so much that they feel they have to “closet” their religious affinities. 

The fact that there are so many people like this shows us that there is no necessary opposition between being traditionally religious and LGBTQ+ identities, that those identities are not, as we often assume, inherently secular and opposed to or incompatible with being traditionally religious. So where does this assumption come from? 

One source is obviously the explicitly phobic elements in religious traditions and their expression and magnification in some contemporary religious communities – elements that have harmed generations of LGBTQ+ people, and driven many of us to reject religion and embrace secularism. But, at least in terms of Judaism, these phobic elements are fragmentary, intermittent, go in and out of mainstream fashion, and center on male homosexuality rather than general opposition to sexual or gender difference. (There’s barely enough awareness of lesbians in Jewish tradition to generate prohibitions, much less hatred.) When I came out as trans at Yeshiva University, there was no general anti-trans discourse in Orthodox Judaism (there is more now), no tradition of hating on trans people. That discourse grew in response to the increasing visibility of trans and other queer people, but, except for homophobia, this is not traditional or central to Jewish tradition.

Another thing that feeds this assumption is the historical fact that our language of sexual and gender difference is secular, a mishmash developed first by scientists (more or less) interested in describing behaviors and biological and psychological types, and more recently by activists interested in asserting and defending individual identities and rights. The assertion of individual identity as the most important aspect of our humanity is indeed a secular idea, a response to both democracy and capitalism, and it stands in opposition (as the early standard-bearers of Enlightenment knew) to not only traditional religions but to traditional modes of community, which tend to define people first in terms of their roles and relations to others and secondarily in terms of individuality. 

But even in those kinds of traditional communities, people are recognized as individuals as well as who they are to others, and even in LGBTQ+ communities, people are recognized in terms of relations to others as well as individual identity. While secular and traditional societies ascribe different priorities to each, both are necessary aspects of both community and humanity. In other words, they are complementary, not contradictory – which makes queer discourses that value only individual identity limiting and damaging in ways that are analogues to the limitations and damage caused by traditional religious discourses that value only whether we fit assigned roles and categories.

Because I grew up in isolation as a trans-Jew, I managed to avoid all of this growing up. Judaism was mine, I was told, because I was born Jewish, and in the absence of teachers who promoted a strong idea of what Judaism was, I made up my own version, a version centered, as I talk about in The Soul of the Stranger, on a relationship with God and reading of the Torah based on my trans experiences of not fitting human categories. I never accepted others’ versions of Judaism, though I have learned a lot from them and participated in them, and so I never experienced a tension between being trans or queer and being a religious (though non-Orthodox) Jew. It can be lonely to have a Judaism made for one – I have never fully felt at home in any Jewish community, and Jewish community central to much of Judaism. But I have accepted that loneliness as the price for practicing a Judaism that fits and embraces both my trans identity and my idiosyncratic relationship with God.

What inspired you to get into writing? Were there any favorite writers or stories that sparked your own love and interest in storytelling?

I don’t know why I started writing poetry – I just did, even though our family didn’t read or have books of poetry around. Most of my non-school reading was science fiction, one of the few things I could really share with my father, who grew up idolizing Isaac Asimov, a writer who came from a similar background. There were boxes of SF magazines from 40s and 50s in a room in our basement, and I read my way through them, as well as experimenting with then-up-and-coming writers like Harlan Ellison, who I adored for his snarkiness, his anguish, and his overwriting, qualities I shared. 

But aside from a failed (ie, unpublished) fantasy novel, I have always seen poetry, mostly lyric poetry, as the focus of my reading and writing life. The poets in my personal pantheon – the ones who keep teaching me what great poetry is and what poetry can be – include Emily Dickinson, Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Basho, and Issa, among others. I have written some narrative poems – it’s something that interests me and that I can at least sometimes do, and my most ambitious literary work is The Book of Anna, a sort of novel made out of the diary entries and poems of a fictional concentration camp survivor trying to make sense of what she has survived. But my interest in storytelling was truly kindled after my gender transition when publicity in the New York Post led to my giving scores of talks about trans identity. At first, most of what I knew about trans identity was my own life story. As I told stories of my growing up hiding my identity, gender transition in middle age, and then creating a life as myself in different ways to different audiences, I learned to love storytelling, to see it as a way of not only communicating but of understanding myself and the profound questions of gender and identity that have shaped me. That love deepened as I wrote my memoir of gender transition, and though I doubt I will ever write prose fiction again, I expect that storytelling will remain central to my teaching, my thinking, and even my spiritual life. 

As a poet and non-fiction writer, how would you describe your creative process within both mediums?

For me, poetry (at least good poetry) either starts somewhere other than my conscious intentions or quickly grows beyond them. A good example of the latter is Shekhinah Speaks, which started with a conscious intention to write in the voice of the Shekhinah, but only became something worth doing when I recognized that what I really wanted was not to masquerade as a divine being, but put words together in ways that would enable divinity to speak through them. The Book of Anna was even less conscious in origin – it began when I heard a voice in my head suggesting I write about Anna, a fictional character I had not yet imagined. (I don’t understand that either.) But most of my poems start just by throwing words on the page and seeing what happens – which is probably why most of my poems end up falling short of poetry. However, when the words I’ve thrown down engage my unconscious imagination and feel like they are coming from or pointing beyond me, that’s when I know a draft might grow into real poetry.

All my non-fiction prose, even my academic writing, also has an element of unconscious impulse and imagination, and the best stuff always goes beyond what I think I know, but for me, that kind of writing always starts with conscious intention. The Soul of the Stranger grew out of my desire to develop a Jewish trans theology based on Biblical texts and informed by my own experience; my memoir of transition, Through the Door of Life, started with the intention of articulating aspects of gender transition that, as far as I could tell, no one had yet written about.  Both of them grew in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I had those intentions, but both of them remained driven by those original conscious intentions in ways that isn’t true of my poetry.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing/ research? What are some of the most challenging?

Even in my most conscious prose, the part of writing I have always loved most is thinking on paper, free-writing, getting high on the feeling of words and sentences coming together and of new meaning finding its way into the world through me. But I love the feeling of discovery and revelation at every stage in the writing process, including the often difficult process of revision – and I love when I discover something by editing or cutting a sentence. Even though it’s often hard work, and even though that work often leads to writing I end up cutting or abandoning, I love writing. I never want to live without it.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

I’m not sure what the question would be (good thing I’m not on Jeopardy!), but one of the big shifts in my life as an openly trans – and thus openly queer – person was from seeing myself as a deviation or an exception to humanity, as a problem to be accommodated or explained, to seeing them as simply ways of being human. Rather than assuming, as I did most of my life, that the ways I am different were inherently marginalizing and problematic, I realized that they not only need no justification or defense but that they are sources of insight and wisdom, that they offer me perspective on the common dynamics and challenges of being human. In other words, I started thinking and talking and writing about how what makes me seem different can enable those who see me that way to understand aspects of themselves and their own lives. That shifts the incentives for inclusion of those who seem different. In addition, being something we owe people who have been excluded or marginalized, inclusion becomes a way of expanding our understanding of our own humanity. This shift, I’ve found, reduces resistance to inclusion (self-interest is a more reliable motivator than high ideals), and makes it more likely that people who are seen as different are listened to and valued rather than simply tolerated or treated as virtue-signifying tokens. 

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

I don’t know how good a source I am for that kind of advice, since most of my life I received little recognition, and even now, after publishing 12 books, rarely get reviewed or receive mainstream attention. But here are some things I’ve learned that has helped me. 

I don’t need anyone else’s permission or recognition to be a writer – being a writer just (just!) means making writing central to my life. To do that, I need to write what delights and matters and is true to me. I also have to do the hard work of revising my writing so that it delights and matters and is true not only to me but to others. I have to simultaneously be tirelessly committed to the work of writing, and compassionate to myself when my human vulnerability (or just the need to have a life!) get in the way of it. In my life as a writer, I need to strive for greatness (by which I mean, strive for writing that is bigger, better, truer, more honest, smarter, wiser, more insightful than I am) rather than praise or recognition, because when I do that, the work is worth doing no matter what the rest of the world makes of what I write. 

Most importantly: always make writing sure that in addition to working hard, you write for pleasure, that you do writing that just feels good to you, because it’s the pleasure of writing that gets us through the sometimes brutal cycles of revision and rejection and so on.

Besides your work, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

I don’t know how much is interesting about me outside my work. That’s especially true now that my life is circumscribed by illness and disability, but I have always tried to put the best of myself into my writing, and the other aspects of life I value most – loving and being loved, friendship, conversation, reading poetry, trying to be a better, more curious, more understanding, more generous, more grateful person – are pretty common. 

But I do want readers to know that even though, as someone who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust and the cold war nuclear threat and who obliviously contributed to the cascading catastrophes of climate change, I am afraid of and for humanity, I love our species. I believe that we can learn to stop destroying ourselves and one another, and that our best is still to come.

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

I’m going to leave out the usual (and great) suspects like Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich and Allen Ginsberg, and recommend a couple of less-read authors I admire. In poetry, I strongly recommend the now-neglected W.H. Auden, as well as contemporary poets such as Trace Peterson (and check out her magazine EOAGH for great LGBTQ+ writing), Cam Awkward-Rich, Taylor Johnson, and Chen Chen. In terms of academic writing, I’m a big fan of Talia Bettcher‘s well-thought-out and clearly written philosophical examinations of trans identity and the issues surrounding it. Max Strassfeld‘s work on trans-Talmud is everything I think public scholarship should be, and Finn Enke is a less-known but wonderfully thoughtful and reader-writer on trans history.

Interview with Author Jesse Leon

Jesse Leon is a social-impact consultant to foundations, impact investors, non-profits, and real estate developers on ways to address issues of substance abuse, affordable housing, and educational opportunities for at-risk youth. Since receiving a master’s degree from the Harvard Kennedy School, Jesse has managed multi-million dollar philanthropic grantmaking for various foundations and banking institutions, managed over $1B in public sector investments for affordable housing, and built thousands of units of mixed-income housing as a real estate developer for Bank of America. Jesse recently moved back to San Diego to be closer to his mother and to pursue his dream of publishing this book. He is a native Spanish speaker and fluent in English and Portuguese.

I had the opportunity to interview Jesse, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

I am an openly gay Latino author living in San Diego with almost 30 years in recovery. I work in the field of philanthropy as a consultant to foundations, impact investors, non-profits, and real estate developers on ways to address issues of affordable housing, substance abuse, sex trafficking, and educational opportunities for at-risk youth. I am fluent in English, Spanish, and proficient in Portuguese. 

What can you tell us about your book, I’m Not Broken? Where did the inspiration for this book come from?

I’m Not Broken is the story of the journey I took to win back my life. A story of resilience and moving from surviving to thriving after spending a childhood devastated by sex abuse, street life, and substance abuse. 

I wrote my book without the intention of ever publishing it. I was inspired to write in order to document not only my life, but the lives of the women in my family to inspire the next generation to not give up. Then it morphed. My inspiration would come from my volunteer work in juvenile hall and in speaking at recovery conventions across the country where people would ask me, “So, when are you writing your book?” In seeing so many others struggling with addiction, mental health, and depression, I wanted to do something about it from a place of my lived experience. As a teenager, I wasn’t sure I’d graduate high school—let alone attend Harvard, or write a book. I was homeless and sleeping in Balboa Park, doing anything and everything to support a drug habit that was my only escape from reality and the violent, traumatic abuse that drastically changed my life. It wasn’t until I heard stories from people with experiences similar to mine that I realized that I wasn’t alone. So I write to help others not feel so alone in this world. 

How would you describe your general writing process?

Cathartic. At times painful. Overall – healing. My process was to just write. I knew my beginning and my ending but had no clue how to structure it in between. I tried an outline and then tried post-its to capture ideas, but in the end, I just started writing. I’d spend countless hours at coffee shops after work writing. Once I knew I was done, then I began editing.  

What drew you to writing? Were there any books or authors who you believe inspired you and/or influenced your own personal style?

There are so many authors who have inspired me. I love reading. The ones that come to mind who inspired me to write are: Reyna Grande’s The Distance Between Us, Victor Villasenor’s Rain of Gold, Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Viola Davis’ Finding Me, Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. In terms of authors who help me escape reality: Keri Arthur’s Riley Jenson Guardian Series, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicle, and Frank Herbert’s Dune and all the books in the Dune Universe.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading I’m Not Broken?

In sharing my story, I hope to remind others that they are not alone and that there is hope. I write for anyone who struggles with circumstances similar to mine, so they know they don’t have to resort to suicide or substance abuse. And I write for our families so that they can see that in spite of the horrors of addiction, sexual abuse, and the painful experiences we undergo, we can accomplish anything. That we can move from surviving to thriving in this life. 

What advice would you have to give to aspiring writers?

Just start writing, don’t listen to the noise, and don’t give up! I wrote without being concerned about editing. I just wrote. When I reached out to so many agents and authors for guidance and very few, maybe three, responded, I felt like a failure instead of focusing on the positive – that three actually did reach out and I am eternally grateful to them. At times, I felt like a failure and had to go back to my original purpose for writing the book. Then one day – it happened. It all came together. Someone introduced me to my agent when I least expected it. 

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)? 

No one has asked me if I’d want to do audiobooks for other authors’ books or voice-over projects. The answer is yes. I really enjoyed recording the audiobook. There is a major lack of diversity in that space and it irritates me when people butcher the Spanish and Nahuatl languages. So, yes, if anyone needs me to read their book or voice-over projects once they hear my voice in both English and Spanish – then please reach out! 

Are there any other projects you are currently working on (professional or personal) that you feel free to speak about?

My hope is that my book gets picked up to be a book-to-series or book-to-film project. 

What books/authors (LGBTQIA+ or otherwise) would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Aside from the ones I mentioned above, James Baldwin (all of his books), Gloria Anzaldúa (all of her books), Benjamin Alire Saenz (all of his books), Vickie Vertiz (all her works), Emanuel Xavier’s Pier Queen, and Antonio Salas’ Operación Princesa (even though it is not LGBT and only written in Spanish but writes extraordinarily well about sex trafficking.)

Header Photo Credit Martin Mann