Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Story Behind the Story

There is no doubt that Kamal Al-Solaylee’s new book “Intolerable – A Memoir of Extremes” has all the elements of a fascinating biographical and socio-historical epic: a young boy growing up in an Arabic family in Yemen, Egypt, and Lebanon that gets caught up in the economic, religious, and political upheavals of the region over the past fifty years; his fascination with the allure of western pop and artistic culture that is denigrated by family members and his society; a dawning sense of his gay sexual identify and his desperate struggle to liberate himself from the strictures of his upbringing so as to carve for himself a life in a different part of the world where he can pursue freely his intellectual and emotional aspirations. 

“Intolerable” hopefully will be adapted for the screen some day. It would make a great film.

But I found myself drawn not so much to the dramatic narrative as to—I’m not sure what to call it—the backstory or the subtext or the metastory. I was profoundly moved by Al-Solaylee’s on-going internal monologue as he struggles to understand what is happening to him and his world, grapples mightily with the limited options available to him to escape from what he finds so intolerable, and then, most poignantly, deals with the consequences of his decisions as they relate to his self-induced separation from his family and cultural roots.

This on-going personal reflection by Al-Solaylee about the psychological and ethical dimensions of his life choices is often heart wrenching for us as readers to witness. While he is thrilled with the life that he eventually creates for himself in his new adopted home of Toronto, his enthusiasm is overlaid by two dampeners: firstly, a persistent melancholy because of the suffering that his displacement has caused to his family, particularly his mother and his sisters, that is compounded by a deterioration in his family’s quality of life as a result of the political upheavals in the region; and secondly, an existential insecurity linked to his self-identity as Arabic and his feelings about Arabic culture which fluctuate dramatically over the course of the story.

To bear one’s soul in public like Al-Solaylee has done requires a great deal of guts. It can also be cathartic.

I speak from experience. After my long-term partner died suddenly from cancer, I wrote a memoir “August Farewell” in which I detailed the sixteen days between Bill’s diagnosis and his death and integrated into the chronology vignettes from our thirty-three years together as a gay couple. Writing, for those of us who feel drawn to it, can help us make sense of the vicissitudes of life. But of even more consequence, at least for me, are the intimate conversations and depth of relationships with readers who respond to our soul-bearing.

My fondest wish for Kamal Al-Solaylee is that he will find in having written and published “Intolerable” some measure of this gratification at both the personal and relational levels.

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For information on Kamal Al-Solaylee’s “Intolerable – A Memoir of Extremes” see

For information on my memoir “August Farewell” see my website



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An Awesome Privilege

It is an awesome privilege to belong to the gay artistic community. 

I’ve just finished reading Christopher Bram’s “Eminent Outlaws – The Gay Writers Who Changed America.” I’m an inveterate highlighter when reading a well-written book with thought-provoking material. Almost every page of my copy of “Eminent Outlaws” has phrases, sentences, and on occasion whole paragraphs that are highlighted.

“Eminent Outlaws ” provides wonderful biographies of the authors that Bram argues laid the foundation for gay liberation including Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Christopher Isherwood, Allen Ginsberg, Edward Albee, Edmund White, Armistead Maupin, Mart Crowley, and Tony Kushner. (He acknowledges and explains in the introduction why he is only treating gay male literature.)

Bram describes how these writers interacted with each other (sometimes not a pretty picture) and provides literary critiques of their works. He talks about the social reaction to these writers including the responses from the straight and in later years gay press. The book is wonderfully researched and replete with insightful analysis. Even though I knew these authors, I learned a great deal more about them.

Much more though than the intellectual stimulation, what moved me so deeply about “Eminent Outlaws” was the emotional sense of being linked to a community of gay authors that stretches over time and whose work has provoked responses from gay (and straight) readers that have contributed to the creation of community and to political, human rights, and artistic progress.

I have only recently begun writing gay-themed books. For many years during my professional career, I wrote books on environmental ethics.

Then my lover died suddenly of cancer and I felt compelled to write a memoir “August Farewell” about the two weeks between his diagnosis and his death and to integrate vignettes from our thirty-three years together as a gay couple. It was an artistic and cathartic experience. But still roiling with issues of love and loss in my head and heart, I decided to tackle them through the medium of writing my first piece of fiction. The novel “Searching for Gilead” is the product.

It is an awesome privilege to be able to dialogue with other gay authors about our challenges and joys in writing and to converse with readers who have felt moved to share their reactions to my books. The relationships that have been fostered with these writers and readers are occurring in real time, now in the second decade of the twenty-first century. But somehow, reading “Eminent Outlaws” has linked me to gay artistic predecessors who laid the foundation on which we now build.

What a thrill.

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Information on my memoir “August Farewell” and my novel “Searching for Gilead”, including short YouTube video book trailers, is available on my website at

See “Eminent Outlaws – The Gay Writers Who Changed America” at  


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Melancholia – Tóibín’s, Pamuk’s, and Mine

Reading Colm Tóibín’s collection of short stories “The Empty Family”, I was reminded of Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk’s poignant evocation of his hometown in his part-history part-memoir entitled “Istanbul – Memories and the City.”  The pervasive ethos throughout “Istanbul” is melancholy—for a lost childhood innocence, for a family diminished in its once prominent social standing, and for a city whose culture is but a shadow of its former grandeur.

There are certainly contrasts between the two books. Pamuk maintains a consistency of despairing tone from the first to last pages of “Istanbul” that is relentless. Tóibín’s “The Empty Family” on the other hand has a wide variety of characters, settings, and tonal fluctuations. But they are just that, fluctuations, around that similar emotional state of melancholy.

“The Empty Family”, as the title suggests, is more micro-focused than “Istanbul.” Each of Tóibín’s exquisitely crafted short stories focuses around some dynamic of family. There is regret about the loss of a loved one, guilt about one’s self-imposed inaccessibility as a parent is dying, anxious hope for a relationship or at least companionship or at a minimum sex in a context of social and cultural repression.

Tóibín is not writing stories with happy endings, for the most part, in “The Empty Family.” On occasion, a story will conclude with some hope. But the predominating tenor in all of them is one of sadness, regret, frustration, and guilt.

I resonate with the melancholy in “The Empty Family” and “Istanbul”. I should say that I resonate it with it now. Over the past three years while I was writing my memoir “August Farewell” and my novel “Searching for Gilead”, I was in a far different universe than that of melancholia. While working on the memoir and novel I was raging, frothing at the mouth, tearing into my memory stocks and mining my artistic imagination to try and make sense of the tragedies and multiple griefs that threatened to overwhelm me.

Melancholy suggests to me a certain despairing resignation to the vicissitudes of life. I read that in “The Empty Family”, in “Istanbul”, and in my own life at this point.

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Information on my memoir “August Farewell” and my novel “Searching for Gilead”, including short YouTube video book trailers, is available on my website at

For information on Colm Tóibín’s “The Empty Family”, see:

For information on Orhan Pamuk’s “Istanbul – Memories and the City”, see:


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