Edmund White and Rakesh Satyal Headline First Kessler Conversation of the Year

On the evening of September 27, 2011, CLAGS launched a year-long series of Kessler Conversations to celebrate our 20th anniversary as a leader in the field of LGBTQ intellectual and cultural inquiry. These events not only mark a milestone for CLAGS but also commemorate the longstanding support of David Kessler, whose generosity has enabled CLAGS to honor leaders in queer scholarship, art, and activism with the prestigious Kessler Award for the past two decades. The Kessler Conversations bring together past Kessler awardees in conversation with each other and with emerging researchers and practitioners in Queer Studies. The inaugural event welcomed novelist, essayist, playwright, and 1993 Kessler winner Edmund White and award-winning novelist Rakesh Satyal for a wide-ranging discussion about the changing face of gay fiction.

Much beloved by generations of readers, Edmund White has been an invaluable American writer for four decades. His 25 books include the unforgettable fi rst novel, Forgetting Elena; the now-canonical gay coming-of-age novel, A Boy’s Own Story; the acclaimed winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Genet: A Biography; the autobiographical My Lives and City Boy; and his most recent novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend. In his work and life, White has been a true advocate for LGBTQ people. In 1982 he helped found the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, and in Paris in 1984 he was closely involved in the foundation of the French HIV/AIDS NGO AIDES. White is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is full professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University.

Rakesh Satyal is the author of the novel Blue Boy, winner of the 2009 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Debut Fiction and the 2009 prize in prose and poetry from the Association of Asian American Studies. Among Satyal’s other awards are a 2010 fellowship in fi ction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Ward Mathis Prize for best short story at Princeton University, where he graduated in 2002 with a B.A. in Comparative Literature and Creative Writing. In addition to publishing widely, Satyal has worked as a book editor with many well-known authors, including Armistead Maupin, Paul Rudnick , and Terry Castle. He is also on the advisory committee of the PEN World Voices Festival and speaks frequently at writers’ conferences. He teaches in the publishing program at New York University.

Speaking to a packed house at the The Graduate Center, CUNY, White and Satyal opened the event by reading from their latest novels. White’s Jack Holmes and His Friend is a novel of friendship between two men, one straight and one gay, set in the second of half of the 20th century in New York. Satyal followed by reading from his forthcoming novel, They Couldn’t Pronounce Our Names, the story of two Indian immigrants in their forties in New Jersey who fall in love but have no idea how to go about dating because they’re Indian.

Both readings prompted questions about a gay writer’s decision to make gay content primary or not. Though his work is a cornerstone of gay literature, White argued for the writer’s freedom to pursue an idea down whatever paths seem most intriguing. He noted that Jack Holmes explores a kind of relationship that certainly does exist yet about which there is very little written.

The meaning of sexuality in straight/gay male relationships, White remarked, is both ever present and indefinite, and that nuance is what he wanted to explore in the novel. Similarly, in his 2010 novel Hotel de Dream, White thematized the complicated way gay stories get told, untold, and retold within and around heterosexual frameworks. Satyal responded that while he was aware of stepping away from a chiefly gay plotline in his second novel, he didn’t feel that to be a terribly fraught decision, especially given the opportunities for queering “straight” narratives and characters. The cultural dissonances of Indian life in America, he suggested, offer a rich interpretive fray in which many meanings, including the erotic, are up for grabs. Both authors agreed that while publishing opportunities and marketing strategies for queer literature have been changed by mass conglomerations in the publishing world, writers must continue to tell the stories that compel and challenge them.

Once opened to the audience, the conversation turned to matters of literary influence and geography. White pointed to Christopher Isherwood as an important model and to his classic novel A Single Man (which was at the time receiving renewed attention thanks to a fi lm adaptation) as a touchstone. Satyal took the opportunity to honor White himself, who had been the younger writer’s teacher at Princeton University. As they spoke, several surprising coincidences between the two writers emerged. Early in their careers, both chose to write novels about gay children. As for their own upbringing, they share the childhood hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, a fact that has inevitably shaded their work in a number of ways. Satyal chose the Midwest suburbs as the setting for Blue Boy to better evoke his main character’s sense of cultural and sexual estrangement. Twelve-year old Indian American Kiran Sharma is both proto-gay and proto-god, and the novel follows him as he becomes both a figuratively and literally blue boy in a story of self-invention as survival strategy. White, an important chronicler of New York life and a long-time figure in New York queer literary circles, nevertheless continues to identify in part as a Midwest transplant. His fi ction often draws its vision precisely from that outsider’s perspective.

CLAGS is happy to have another opportunity to thank Edmund White and Rakesh Satyal for their moving readings, lively conversation, and generosity in making our inaugural Kessler Conversation a resounding success.