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Catching up with ‘Rainbow Milk’ author Paul Mendez

Widely praised novel began as memoir

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‘Rainbow Milk’ by Paul Mendez is being adapted into a TV series.

In 2004, Black, gay writer Paul Mendez, then 22, was in London, studying acting. To pay for the acting classes, he was a sex worker.

Today, Mendez, now 39, is one of the hottest authors on the literary scene. His debut novel “Rainbow Milk,” published in the United Kingdom last year and released this month in the United States, has received wide praise.

The BBC, the Observer and other U.K. outlets put “Rainbow Milk” on their best books of 2020 lists.

Recently, Mendez spoke with the Blade on FaceTime about a range of topics.

Mendez grew up in a working class family as a Jehovah’s Witness in Dudley, a town in an industrial region called the Black Country in the West Midlands, a county in central England.

His grandparents came to the U.K. from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation.

The term “Windrush generation” refers to people from Caribbean countries who emigrated to the U.K. between 1948 and 1971. They were encouraged to come to the United Kingdom because of labor shortages after World War II. Yet, they encountered racism and hostility to immigration when they arrived in the U.K.  

Because of his sexual orientation, Mendez was “disfellowshipped” by his Jehovah’s Witness family and church. 

Now, Mendez lives in London with his partner Alan Hollinghurst. Hollinghurst, a novelist, was born in Stroud in Gloucestershire, England in 1954. He was awarded the Man Booker Prize for his novel “The Line of Beauty.”

“Rainbow Milk” begins in the 1950s. Norman and Claudette, middle-class newlyweds in Jamaica emigrate to England. They’re part of the Windrush generation. They hope their future will be better in the U.K.  But, on arriving there, they encounter racism and have trouble finding suitable work. When Norman starts to lose his eyesight, the family’s survival is at risk. Norman narrates this part of the novel in the first person. 

The rest of “Rainbow Milk” takes place 50 years later. Here, we meet the protagonist of the novel: Jesse McCarthy, a young Black, gay British man. Jesse is Norman’s grandson.

Jesse’s mother is Black and his stepfather is white. He’s never known his father who left the family when he was a baby. He and his working-class family, who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, live in the industrial region of the Black Country.

Nineteen-year-old Jesse is bright and a devout Jehovah’s Witness. He is considered to be a potential leader by members of the church. But Jesse begins to think he might be queer. He knows he needs to keep this a secret.

His attempt at secrecy fails. Jesse is disfellowshipped by Jehovah’s Witnesses after a church member outs him.

In 2002, Jesse escapes to London to create a life for himself as a queer, Black working-class man. Jesse becomes a sex worker to stay afloat and explores his sexuality. He reckons with race, class, sexuality, and spirituality in his search for self-discovery, freedom and the stability of a chosen family.

 “You’ve lost your center of gravity,” a friend says to Jesse, “so to survive, you’ll need to take steps to create another.”

In “Rainbow Milk,” Jesse evolves from a young man (not yet out of his teens) trying to navigate life in a strange city into an adult who’s a writer in a stable queer relationship.

There are some similarities between Jesse and Mendez. Both are Black, queer and were disfellowshipped by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They’re British with a Jamaican heritage, they both moved to London and became sex workers as well as writers.

“Rainbow Milk” is both “autobiographical and fictional,” Mendez said. Yet, though it has elements of autobiography, “It’s a work of fiction,” he said. “I’ve created unique scenes that I didn’t go through personally, but I went through, maybe, something similar, with other people.”

He created characters “with interiors,” Mendez added. One difference: Jesse moved to London at a different age and year (at 19 in 2002) than when Mendez moved to London (at age 22 in 2004).

Mendez researched what London was like then and created characters who didn’t share his story.

Jesse, for instance, has a white father. Mendez’s dad is Black and married to his mother.

“It became interesting for me to examine what it’s like to be raised as a Black person without any sense of [Black] heritage,” Mendez said.

It’s hard to answer the question of whether a novel is autobiographical, Mendez said.  Hollinghurst, for instance, went to boarding school, studied at Oxford, became an editor at a literary journal and then a novelist.

“That’s the kind of world, he writes about,” Mendez said, “but they’re not him.”

People should be able to tell the difference between a memoir and a work of fiction, he added.

“Rainbow Milk” began as a memoir but his publisher challenged Mendez. “She recognized that I wasn’t going all the way,” Mendez said, “I was protecting people. I was reticent when it came to discussing some of the most difficult moments that I’d been through.”

The novel began to flow when he switched to fiction and began writing in the third person. “I wasn’t reopening old wounds,” Mendez said.

Mendez has been a performing member of two theater companies and worked as a voice actor, appearing on audio books by Andrea Levy, Paul Theroux and Ben Okri. He narrates the audio version of “Rainbow Milk.” Mendez has contributed to “Esquire,” “Vogue” and other publications. He is studying for an M.A. in Black British Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Because he’s so busy, Mendez is taking a year off from his studies. He’s thinking about his second novel and working with a production company to adapt “Rainbow Milk” into a TV series.

Adapting “Rainbow Milk” for TV has been different for Mendez from working on “Rainbow Milk” first as a memoir, then as a novel.

“In picking apart ‘Rainbow Milk’ to construct 10 episodes,” Mendez said, “you do see where the narrative thread could have been worked out a little bit better.” 

“It will be wonderful to see a visual Jesse,” Mendez added.

“Rainbow Milk” came out in the U.K. soon after George Floyd was murdered. In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, voices like his and other Black writers in the U.K. have been more sought after, Mendez said.

“It’s felt at times that I’m the name on everyone’s lips,” Mendez said. “We need a Black person. Let’s call Paul Mendez. We’ve heard of him.”

“I think only five books by five Black British men have been published over the last five years,” Mendez said.

There is hope that this will change. Mendez is a member of the Black Writers Guild, which was formed last June. “We’ve come together to hold the mainstream publishing industry to account,” he said.

The Guild wrote an open letter to the “big five” publishers in the U.K. calling upon the overwhelming white publishing industry to become more inclusive.

“They all vowed to work closely with me to help effect change,” Mendez said, “it’s what are we going to do in the long term to systematically include Black voices in the publishing industry?”

Books are the way to change people’s lives, he added.

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Books

Drew Pisarra’s ‘dangerously funny and queerly inventive brain’

‘You’re Pretty Gay’ shatters expectations and social mores

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Drew Pisarra’s ‘You’re Pretty Gay’ is just out from Chaffinch Press.

Is there anything more absurd than this, wondered gay poet and writer Drew Pisarra.  Pisarra, then, was an assistant to a paralegal at a toothpaste company.

Fiercely protective of the pattern on its toothpaste, they wrote letters to rivals who, they felt, were infringing on their copyright.

Even when their competitors were in countries in the middle of a civil war, “They would write back, ‘we can’t respond now, we’re in a war,’” Pisarra said.

But that didn’t soften the heart of the toothpaste company. They’d insist that “this most important matter be dealt with as soon as the war ends,” Pisarra said.

If you think that authors don’t encounter the absurdity and grit of everyday life or that all writers do is drink coffee (or sip stronger libations) while looking at the sunset, you haven’t met Pisarra.

Pisarra, 56, whose new short story collection “You’re Pretty Gay” is just out from Chaffinch Press, has worked at everything from ventriloquism to domestic work.

The word “unique” is so hackneyed that it’s a cliche to say it’s a cliche. But there’s no other way to describe “You’re Pretty Gay.”

This collection “is a prime example of Drew Pisarra’s dangerously funny and queerly inventive brain,” said Kevin Sampsell, author of “This Is Between Us.” “Each story is its own performance, its own shattering of expectations and social mores.”

Pisarra, who lives in Manhattan, gives readers a mosaic of wit, surrealism,  sex, queerness, memory, mortality and self-discovery.

In “You’re Pretty Gay,” there are gay bars in New York and New Orleans.

You’ll find everything from adolescent bullies fighting over a rare caterpillar to a character taking an AIDS test and, later, meeting up with Mrs. Claus.  

“Mrs. Claus I didn’t even know you were alive,” says the narrator of “Arctic Chill.” “I didn’t even know you were real. I haven’t received a gift from you or your husband in ten years.”

Another of Pisarra’s tales revolves around a trip to hell. “I love traveling,” says the narrator of “The Hat from Hell, “I got this hat when I was in Hell back in 1992.”

In “Granny,” siblings gather after their mother’s death. “All anyone could remember of her was that chair, how she sat in it for the last 40 years,” Pisarra writes, “immobile as ‘Jeopardy’ and the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ glared at her night after night.”

Pisarra’s characters yearn to find love, sex, and who they really are.

“In my quest to bed mankind, I tended to avoid perfection’s rejection,” says the narrator of “Every Man for Myself.”

Pisarra, whose first short story collection “Publick Spanking” was published in 1996, was born in Orange, N.J. When he was in the third grade, he moved to Maryland. There, except for living in Oxon Hill for a year, he grew up in Silver Spring.

When Pisarra was growing up, being gay wasn’t even remotely on the horizon. “There was such denial in the culture then,” Pisarra said.

From early on, he had feelings for men. “I had a crush on a boy in kindergarten,” Pisarra said.

He consulted books and a priest, which wasn’t helpful. They said he’d grow out of it.

“As a teenager, I recognized that I hadn’t outgrown it,” Pisarra said.

Pisarra was a college freshman when he came out. “I sobbed the night I came out,” he said.

He was out in college, Pisarra said, “but I wasn’t getting laid.” That changed when he moved to New Orleans after college.

Pisarra graduated from Hofstra University in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in theater.

In college, a professor had the students sit in a circle. Then, the teacher told them how she thought they’d be cast. 

“She told me, ‘you’re a grotesque,’”Pisarra said, “‘You won’t work until you’re in your fifties. Because your face and body don’t match.’”

Pisarra was relieved to hear this. His sense of relief was related to being a young gay man in the late 1980s.

“I wasn’t interested in being closeted,” Pisarra said, “I wrote. I wanted to perform.  I wasn’t interested in conforming.”

Since then, Pisarra has been creating – performing and writing his own material. Some of the stories in “You’re Pretty Gay” were originally created for the stage.

“I don’t write that often,” Pisarra said, “I started writing the stories in ‘You’re Pretty Gay’ 20 years ago.”

A prodigious reader, Pisarra has always “written to some degree,” he said.

Pisarra got turned on to writing poetry when he went to a meeting of a gay and lesbian writers group.

“There were, like, 10 people in this apartment,” Pisarra said, “there was a terrible woman sitting next to me.”

He would have dropped out of the group, if he hadn’t met writer Mare Davis, now his close friend.  

“I said to her, ‘I never want to see any of these people again except you,’” Pisarra said, “She inspired me to get into poetry.”

Davis wrote the introduction to Pisarra’s poetry collection “Infinity Standing Up” (Capturing Fire Press).

Released in 2019, the volume of sexy, playful sonnets received glowing reviews from the Washington Post, the Blade and other outlets.

“Devour me! Think me not some crazy nut!,” Pisarra writes in one of his sonnets.

With lines like these, he gives Shakespeare a run for his money.

Pisarra has held a variety of jobs – many of which have involved the arts. He has helped homeless people with mental health issues to find housing.

“I ran a writers group for them,” Pisarra said, “I encouraged a super-talented woman to send her work out.”

The woman and Pisarra submitted their work to the same magazine. “Her work was accepted. Mine wasn’t,” he said, “I was thrilled!”

In an unusual career twist, Pisarra, who received a literary grant from the Café Royal Cultural Foundation, toured a ventriloquist act entitled “Singularly Grotesque.” He created the act after the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art commissioned him to develop a new solo piece.

“I was wandering around the library aisles and I found two (self-help) pamphlets on talking with ‘multiple’ selves,’” Pisarra said, “and I thought this is ventriloquism in a nutshell.”

Pisarra hadn’t watched much TV.  But that didn’t keep him from interviewing with AMC to be its director of digital media.

“I thought why not,” Pisarra said, “it would be a chance to see what else is out there in the world.”

He worked on the websites for “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”  “It was a pleasure to be part of the online team for these cultural phenomena!” Pisarra said.

With Molly Gross, Pisarra co-founded Saint Flashlight. In this project, he and Gross find inventive ways to get poetry into public spaces.

One of the project’s most innovative efforts has been putting haiku on movie marquees.  It’s fun to see people, looking up, counting the syllables, Pisarra said. You sweat when you put the letters up on the marquee, he added.

“It’s part of the fun! It makes you feel like you’re making something matter,” Pisarra said.

He doesn’t want poetry to be confined to “The New Yorker.”  “It should push the envelope,” Pisarra said, “It’s not just for the upper crust.”

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‘The Guncle’ never wanted kids but now has two

Novel is as charming as they come with a surprise ending

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‘The Guncle’
By Steven Rowley
c.2021, Putnam
$27/326 pages

The situation you’re facing isn’t one you wanted.

You had no wish for it; in fact, it’s 100 percent the opposite. Not your circus, not your monkeys, as they say. So usually, you’d follow your instincts and run but this time, you surprise yourself by stepping up and taking ownership. Now it is your problem but, as in the new novel, “The Guncle” by Steven Rowley, that’s more than OK.

Sara had been his friend first.

Patrick wasn’t exactly happy when she married his brother, Greg, but she managed to make it work and he loved her for it. He loved her first, actually, and he never let her forget it.

But now she was gone and Greg had asked the impossible: would Patrick – gay man, former TV star, Palm Springs fixture, no-responsibilities Patrick – take Greg and Sara’s kids, nine-year-old Maisie and six-year-old Grant, for the summer so Greg could go to rehab while grieving the death of his wife? Could the kids’ GUP (Gay Uncle Patrick) step up?

No. There was no way that Patrick was taking temporary custody of two kids – but then his older sister, Clara, copped an attitude, rolled her eyes, and told him he was “off the hook.”

PfftRight.

And so Greg headed to rehab after the funeral and the kids went home with Patrick to Palm Springs. It would be a long 90 days.

Grant was cute but full of questions; Patrick learned to make things up. Maisie was nobody’s fool and Patrick learned to hide his passwords. He gave them “Guncle” Rules (gay + uncle = guncle), life lessons, and stories about their mother – but past that, what does a gay man who never wanted kids do when he suddenly has two of them?

He takes them to the museum way too often, that’s what. He takes them to five-star restaurants and cringes when they order kid food. He lounges with them in the pool, gets them a dog, lets them put up a Christmas tree in July, hugs them, and throws a party.

And he loves them.

There are four words that best describe “The Guncle”: A. Dor. A. Bull.

That’s it. This novel is simply as charming as they come and don’t be surprised if you can almost hear your favorite actors as any of the characters here. Don’t be surprised, either, if you spend your vacation racing to reach the ending you think’s coming and you’re wrong.

Indeed, author Steven Rowley offers the perfect mix of snorts and sobs here, snarky fun one minute and pathos the next but neither emotion is belabored or forced. That gives readers room to enjoy the tale as it unfolds and grows like an inflating pool toy, and to watch the characters twisting wistfully in irresistible, concentric circles.

Your ticket’s in your hand, your suitcase is packed, your destination is close, but you need a book to get you there. If you’d love to immerse yourself inside a sweet novel like “The Guncle,” then step right up.

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Books

¡Hola Papi! works as memoir, advice column

Laughs and sighs abound in Brammer’s new book

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‘¡Hola Papi! How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons’
By John Paul Brammer
c.2021, Simon & Schuster
$26.00/224 pages

Your best friend definitely has an opinion.

You need advice and she offers an answer, though it might not be the one you seek. You may get sound counsel but at the wrong time, with sentiments directly opposing what you were thinking. And yet, you have to be grateful. As in the new book “¡Hola Papi!” by John Paul Brammer, the words come from the heart.

Growing up in the small Oklahoma town of Cache, John Paul Brammer knew nothing about being gay. He had little relationship experience, in fact, and he didn’t learn about hookup apps until he was a junior in college.

Once he found those apps, though, he was “instantly hooked.”

Much to his amusement, “some white guy” said “Hola papi” in greeting on an app one day and Brammer, “a mixed-race Mexican American with noodle arms” never forgot it – because hey, wouldn’t that be a great name for an advice column? He pitched it, landed a gig in conjunction with Grindr and it was a landslide hit with users, even though Brammer felt like an imposter sometimes. Was he really qualified to do this? He wondered, then he remembered what he’d want if he needed advice.

When asked what one can do to let go of past hurts, Brammer answers with a tale of his middle-school years, of bullying, inadequacies, and teen angst, and of coming out, growing up, and not letting someone be defined by the worst of the past.

He writes of puppy love with a girl when he was kinda sure he was attracted to boys, and how the experience wasn’t a waste. He remembers co-workers at a nearby taco stand who taught him to speak Spanish, to belong, and that “Lo siento” isn’t always necessary. He tells readers about releasing the love he thought was “the one”; about the oh-so-awkward night a childhood bully approached him on a dating app; and how to let go of a dream, and a nightmare situation.

You know this: Dear Emmy and Dear Posey can always be relied upon to present some poor schlub with drama worse than yours. You know they’ll offer snappy, sometimes snarky, maybe dismissive advice – but that might not be as applicable as what’s in “¡Hola Papi!”.

Agony Aunties don’t normally insert themselves into their answers quite like author John Paul Brammer does; nope, he makes his advice into a memoir that resonates. Each mini-chapter here begins with a question, followed by what feels like a personal answer written specifically to the forlorn rather than to the world — in a story, really, but one that’s relatable. It’s fun to read but, more importantly, it wraps advice-seekers (and not just the writer) in a comfortable tale that might make them laugh but definitely makes them feel they’re not alone.

Another nice thing: this book is by a gay man, but the advice he offers is for anyone, of any age. If you can remember that there are some eyebrow-raisers snuggled amidst laughs and sighs, of “¡Hola Papi!”, you’ll have a high opinion.

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