Updated: Feb 6, 2021
At the book launch of my novel SWIM in August, I wasn’t going to read Chapter 1. Nope, not with my parents there.
I’ve been told by other writers, maybe even at least one writing teacher, that the first pages of a book need to grab the reader’s attention readily. Pack these pages with titillating contents. In the case of SWIM, the protagonist wakes up from a drug binge after a long night of meth-hazy sex only to find out his mother has died. Chapter 1 is for agents, publishers, and those readers who still wander bookstores and sample passages from new books, as unabashedly as Costco shoppers forage finger food on a Sunday morning.
Chapter 1 is not for parents.
A writer-friend once told me that her mentor advised her to write as if her parents were dead. Parents, I guess, are the ultimate panopticon in your head. I hadn’t done that for SWIM. (Killing off one parent as a premise for the novel is bad juju enough, I thought.) Instead, I wrote the first draft as if my book would never be published. It helped to think that so I could write about sex and drugs explicitly. I still like to think I had walked a fine balance between provocative and prurient. Sometimes, though, I was jolted by other people’s appetite for the subject. During the revision phase, for instance, my publisher suggested there was too much nipple in one chapter.
My first reaction was, I’ve been holding back on the nipple! (Well, here it is again.)
I don’t think of myself as an effective purveyor of sex, even though, in my scant publication history before SWIM, two of my short stories had found a home in erotica anthologies. It’s not so much that I gravitate towards sex, as sex is all around me. The meth epidemic in the gay community wouldn’t spread like wildfire if the drug wasn’t linked to sex. I was writing a story about a meth addict, so if sex wasn’t going to be front and center, it was center-adjacent. Touching elbows on one of those flimsy armrests between two coach seats on a plane kind of adjacent.
As I was awaiting the publication of SWIM, I started a new writing project, what I’m calling a community memoir of the AIDS movement in the Asian American communities in Los Angeles in roughly the first decade of the epidemic. For it, I interviewed over 30 activists and survivors.
I was more than a casual observer of those times. I was a teenager at the beginning of the epidemic, a budding gay man just figuring out his sexual attractions. AIDS scared the shit out of me. Sex education managed to be both boring and alarming. But the message was clear: If I had sex with another man, I probably would catch the virus and die. In college, a time of exploration for most, my fear stunted any potential intimacy. I sublimated all that sexual energy into school and activism in the early 1990s, including being a volunteer for the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team, the local AIDS service organization where I had met many of the activists I interviewed for this project.
Hearing their stories reminded me of my reticence to sex. AIDS activists had had to shout louder than what polite company would allow because their messages were falling on deaf and homophobic ears. They had to provoke, often with explicit images. Nice public health messages weren’t going to get people to practice safe sex. A poster of an erect penis the length of the city bus finally got people talking.
Think the iconic “Silence = Death” or the series of posters that played on George H.W. Bush’s words “Read My Lips” by artist Gran Fury. Or Marlon Riggs’ unapologetically documentary “Tongues Untied” about Black gay men. Or the words of poets and playwrights, like Essex Hemphill, Michael Callen, and Larry Kramer. Think Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. (Yes, even the orchids.) Consistent with the queer movement of that time (“We’re queer. We’re here”), these artists shoved their images and words in people’s faces, telling them the straight world is the one who had to “get used to it.”
It was no different in the Asian American communities. You couldn’t be thin-skinned when you had to talk about sex - not just any sex, but gay sex – in immigrant communities that were supposed to be averse to its discussion.
In Los Angeles, these AIDS activists came up with a social marketing campaign in 1992 called “Love Your Asian Body,” which includes a series of images of Asian men touching, kissing, and straddling each other, wearing nothing or close to nothing. At a time when the gay community was inundated with white male bodies, this campaign was the first time my young eyes saw images of people like me, feeling proud and having fun, in charge of their sexuality.
Part of destigmatizing AIDS was to destigmatize sex. No more demonstrations of putting a condom on a banana. It might have been funny, but it was never sexy. Instead, we talked about sadomasochism, bondage, roleplay, and other kinks, like thirty-seven different ways to make a man squeal with his nipples. (Seriously, what else is a nipple on a man good for?)
The message was clear: You don’t deserve to be sick, to be denied services, or to die, no matter who you choose to have sex with, or how you like your sex, from vanilla to hardcore.
The AIDS epidemic was a formative era for me as a writer, too. As I comb through these stories for my current project, I realize now that I do not write about explicit sex to titillate the reader. I write about sex this way so I can be seen.
I’m doing another reading at a local bookstore in November, and once again, I can’t read Chapter 1. This time, it’s not my parents who are holding me back. The reading area is adjacent to the children’s books section, elbow-to-elbow adjacent. Parents are so fragile, and the bookstore has guidelines.
Fine, no nipples. Some stuff is better under the book covers.