Pride & Joy Day 7: Bookish

[Today’s donation was made to Committee to Protect Journalists. Click here to see my Pride & Joy Project 2020 Daily Donations List.]

I was obsessed with books. Past tense because I’m not reading as much long-form writing as I’d like to.

My love for reading lead me to my love for writing, which lead me to getting my MFA in creative writing, which lead me to writing my thesis about drag queens and cross-gender traditional performers in Indonesia, which lead me to being a fellow of Lambda Literary, which lead me to publishing my debut nonfiction Gentlemen Prefer Asians: Tales of Gay Indonesians and Green Card Marriages.

Here are some of the books that have helped shape my own writing and my life as a queer person of color and first-generation immigrant to this currently fucked-up country we call the US.

How do books, especially these ones relate to fashion? Well, they don’t, and yet they do.

The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp. Crisp wrote about the treatment of gay people in the UK when homosexuality was a crime. There’s an astounding amount of self-awareness, which was something I had problems with my own writing. Too bad some of his views later in his life are surprisingly homophobic and misogynistic.

Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution by Linda Hirshman. This book offers a historical perspective of the stages of the gay rights movements on the road to marriage equality. Although flawed, it remains a fascinating read to find out what works and what doesn’t in activism.

The Male Nude by David Leddick. This thick (no pun intended) book of photos explore (again, no pun intended) the way the men’s body is photographed throughout the centuries. This book has helped me in my life as a photographer to comprehend posing and making sure my subjects (a lot of times non-models) are feeling comfortable.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Oh, where do I begin? There’s the perverse pleasure of trying to dissect my literature hero’s personal life, to understand her genius and madness, and hopefully, miraculously, have some rub off on me. But there’s also some words of wisdom to live by, and it’s truly devastating to see how she started with glossy naivete and ended with a more bitter, disillusioned view of life.

I remember sitting at a cafe in The Castro in SF, waiting for the guy I dated at that time to come get me. He was hanging out with his friends at a bar, and I didn’t have my ID, so I couldn’t get in. The cafe didn’t have wi-fi, but I had Plath’s Journals with me and I just read and read and read. He didn’t show up when the cafe staff was putting the last chair up and closed the cafe, so I went home. That night, I found this gem in the book, and it’s stayed with me ever since:

When you give someone your whole heart and he doesn’t want it, you cannot take it back. It’s gone forever.

Sylvia Plath

Bruce! by Bruce Vilanch. Yes, Mr. Vilanch’s collection of essays are just amazing as his graphic tees (he must’ve had hundreds of them). They’re funny, poignant, and insightful (especially to the Hollywood entertainment industry).

States of Desire: Travels in Gay America by Edmund White. One day, I wish to relive White’s travels in this witty (although sometimes heartbreaking) travelogue. Set just at the cusp of the AIDS epidemic, this book reminds me of simpler times when all gays had to worry about was not being thought of as sexy and dying from an overdose.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. The amount of research that went into the writing of cinematic nonfiction crime novel book was massive (with a lot of help from Capote’s friend, the legendary writer Harper Lee). Research remains the best part of writing, although it can become overwhelming once you have a mountain of data to sift through. But with In Cold Blood, Capote makes a compelling case that it can be done, no matter how long it takes (it took him six years to finish the book).

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel. This graphic memoir offers a refreshing, funny, and heartbreaking glimpse into arguably the modern world’s most prominent lesbian artist/writer.

Wonder Woman: Ambassador of Truth by Signe Bergstrom. For those interested in learning about the history and many incarnations of the most iconic female hero of all times, this book is a must. To me, it’s like a gateway to the world of Wonder Woman, a queer, immigrant superhero, who, for a time, is unable to go home and see her mother and Amazon friends in Themyscira. And in this dark, dark world, she’s reminds me to believe in love and magic.

Both Naked Civil Servant and States of Desire were assigned readings for a one-on-one class I took with Wesley Gibson, the professor I worked with at Saint Mary’s College of California when I was writing my thesis about drag queens and cross-gender performers in Indonesia. In Cold Blood was assigned to us in his class about literary journalism. The class changed my life. I remember being on bus and BART rides with him, talking about being gay and my life in Indonesia, about RuPaul’s Drag Race and our love for Jinkx Monsoon. Wesley died on December 4, 2016. There’re no words to describe how much I owe him for helping me find my voice in writing. Marilyn Abildskov, his colleague and my wonderful nonfiction writing professor, writes about Wesley in this moving piece.

Photography by Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta.