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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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‘Queer Country’ explores origins of growing genre of music

Tracing an evolution, from k.d. lang to Lil Nas X

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(Book cover photo courtesy of University of Illinois Press)

Queer Country
By Shana Goldin-Perschbacher
c.2022, University of Illinois Press
$110 hardcover; $24.95 paperback/288 pages

Two steps.

This way, two more that way, tap your heels together, step-and-bow left, step-and-bow right, turn and again. Eventually, you’ll get the hang of doing this and you won’t bump into everybody on the dance floor. Also eventually, you’ll see that country music has a place for you even when, as in the new book “Queer Country” by Shana Goldin-Perschbacher, you never thought you had a place for it.

Usually, when one thinks about country music, rural living comes to mind: cowboys, pick-ups, Christian values, conservatism, heartbreak and honky tonks. Stereotypically, few of those things have seemed LGBTQ-inclusive and listeners might have felt unwelcome, were it not for today’s boundary-breakers and “queer country,” which, says Goldin-Perschbacher, is becoming more of a music category with fans. 

Goldin-Perschbacher is quick to say that “queer country” is not a genre on its own. Some out musicians might closer identify themselves with Americana or folk music; k.d. lang’s music is more countrypolitan, but with humor; and you can attend queer Bluegrass festivals, if you want. None of this defines the various artists: In many ways, LGBTQ artists have really had no other options than to embrace all labels. 

Then there’s the issue of how to do queer country: Goldin-Perschbacher refers often to Patrick Haggerty, who was the first gay artist to officially record the album “Lavender Country.” He recorded it in Seattle, shortly after Stonewall; at that time, Haggerty was especially determined that his album be honest and sincere in its reflection of gay life – things that continue to concern queer artists who use irony, drag, and camp in their work. 

And there’s that struggle to go mainstream. Goldin-Perschbacher writes about k.d. lang’s career and how it progressed. You’ll read about Chely Wright and Lil Nas X and how they used non-traditional ways to rise to stardom. And you’ll read about many artists who do what seems best for them, and count LGBTQ listeners and cis audience members among their fans.

There really is no way “Queer Country” could ever be considered a “beach read.”

This isn’t the relaxed, rangy kind of book you want to sunbathe with; instead, author Shana Goldin-Perschbacher speaks to the academic, rather than the casual listener, with language that seems to fit better in school, than in sand. The analyses border on the high brow just a bit, with some amount of repetition to underscore various points.

Even so, this is an important work. 

In writing about this almost-hidden branch of country music, Goldin-Perschbacher also tells of the efforts she’s made to help some artists to gain a wider audience. This lends more of an insider feel; the intimately extensive interviews with artists, and excerpts from other works, let readers know that they should keep their eyes (and ears!) open.

 Give yourself some room to absorb, if you tackle this book. It’s not for everyone, but C&W listeners and “queer country” fans may find it necessary. Step one is to find somewhere comfortable to sit. Reading “Queer Country” is step two.

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Books

Danica Roem’s new book is far from a typical politico’s story

‘Burn the Page’ an inspiring, gonzo page-turner

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(Book cover image courtesy of Viking)

Burn the Page
By Danica Roem
c.2022, Viking
$27/320 pages

Party drinking. Heavy metal gigs. People doing yoga to the soundtrack of “The Pursuit of Vikings” by the Swedish metal band Amon Amarth. Car breakdowns. Vivid descriptions of anxiety-induced vomit. More energy than a zillion shots of Red Bull. Inspiring and badass stories that will make you, no matter how cynical, want to tell your own story, be kind to people and work to help change what’s messed up in the world.

This isn’t what you’d find in most politicians’ memoirs. But “Burn the Page” by Danica Roem is far from a typical politico’s book.

Roem, 37, isn’t your usual politician. In 2017, Roem was elected as a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates. In 2018, she became the first out transgender seated state legislator in the country.

Roem was reelected in 2019 (becoming the first trans person to be reelected to state office). She was elected to another term in office in 2021.

On May 9, Roem announced that she is running in the 2023 election for Virginia’s state Senate, the Blade reported. If she wins then, she will become the country’s second out transgender state senator.

In “Burn The Page,” Roem lets us know that running for office, along with many other things in her life, wasn’t easy for her.

She grew up in Manassas, Virginia. After her father died by suicide when she was three; Roem was raised by her mother and her grandfather.

It was hard for Roem to sort out her sexual and gender identity at a time when many queers weren’t out. Heavy metal became a safe place for her (you could wear make-up in a heavy metal band).

Roem graduated from St. Bonaventure University with a bachelor’s degree. Before entering politics, she was a journalist. Because Roem wrote for local papers, she was not paid a livable wage.

“Picture it: a five-foot-eleven, long-haired brunette metalhead trans lady reporter wearing a rainbow bandanna, an A-line skirt, and a black hoodie,” Roem writes about herself as she was in 2016 just before she thought about becoming a candidate for office.

Then, though she had been a reporter for a decade and interviewed governors, Roem had to work two jobs.

She drove a 1992 Dodge Shadow America and worked at a kebab shop for $5 an hour.

Along with the kebab gig, Roem worked part-time for a local paper. When she interviewed for the job, the editor, Roem writes, asked her why “the fuck” she wanted to work there. She had no health insurance.

Roem feels bad, she writes, about behaving like a “lady dick” then, because she was so exhausted. For good measure, a “transgender rights organization in need of a storyteller,” she writes with sardonic humor of her 2016 life, “passed her over…for another transgender storyteller with flashier credentials.”

As if things didn’t suck enough, Roem hardly ever got to see her partner or step-daughter because she was commuting so much for her jobs. 

But, despite those hardships, “Burn the Page” isn’t a pity party. It’s a kick-ass account of how Roem has reclaimed her story and got things done.

When members of the anti-queer Westboro Baptist Church protested Roem, the heavy metal band Lamb of God led some 200 protesters with kazoos in a counter demonstration. 

As a legislator, Roem has worked not only on LGBTQ issues, but on traffic congestion, Medicaid expansion and other issues that impact her constituents.

“This is a book about both the importance of the stories we tell one another,” Roem writes, “and the power in setting fire to the stories you don’t want to be in anymore.”

As the anti-LGBTQ laws being passed nationwide make all too clear, transphobia still exists. But there is power in shaping the narrative about your life. “Everytime you share your own story,” Roem writes, “you do something to counteract another narrative that sometimes lurks in the shadows and other times is not so subtle.”

 “Burn the Page” is an inspiring, fun gonzo page-turner. It’s a must-read.

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Books

Two lively, entertaining new books from Deaf creators

DiMarco’s memoir and Novic’s ‘True Biz’ give visibility to oft-ignored community

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(Book covers via Amazon)

‘Deaf Utopia: A Memoir–and a Love Letter to a Way of Life’
By Nyle DiMarco
c.2022, William Morrow
$22.99/336 pages

‘True Biz’
By Sara Novic
c.2022, Random House
$27/388 pages

In the 1970s, while riding the T in Boston, a man tried to get my attention. He seemed to be talking animatedly with his hands. Knowing nothing about sign language, I thought he might be drunk. I ignored him, unfolded my white cane and got off at my stop. I’m legally blind, but have some vision. But, I don’t always recognize people whom I’ve met.

Later that day, I learned that the fellow on the T’s name was Fred and that he was Deaf. He’d seen me at a party and was signing hi to me. Fred, I’m so sorry for my rudeness! 

Then, aside from the sad-sack Deaf character in the novel and movie of the same title “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” Deaf people, like queer people, largely, weren’t present in books, movies, TV – anywhere in pop culture. Except as victims, villains or metaphors for loneliness or deviance.

Thankfully, after decades. this is changing. As Troy Kotsur, said of “the Deaf community, the CODA [children of Deaf adults] community and the disabled community,” when he became the first male Deaf actor to win an Oscar, “This is our moment.”

Today, Deaf and disabled people, queer and non-queer, from models to artists to filmmakers to authors are pop culture creators and icons. Two of the most lively, entertaining, moving books out now are by Deaf creators.

“Deaf Utopia” is a fascinating memoir by Nyle DiMarco with Robert Siebert. DiMarco, 32, is proudly Deaf and queer. His parents and grandparents are Deaf. He knows how to keep your attention. His stories range from his first kiss with a man to auditions with reality show execs (who want him, a Deaf guy whose native language is American Sign Language to “use his voice”) to harrowing accounts of being abused by his father.DiMarco is an activist, producer, actor, and model. In 2014, he became the second male winner and first Deaf contestant on cycle 22 of “America’s Next Top Model.”

In 2015, DiMarco, with his professional dance partner Peta Murgatroyd won the Mirrorball Trophy on season 22 of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.” His acting credits include roles on “Difficult People,” and “Switched at Birth.” DiMarco, a Gallaudet University graduate and Washington, D.C. resident, was executive producer of the Netflix docuseries “Deaf U.”

Growing up, he and his twin brother Nico had “gotten a taste of the cruelty of hearing people toward the Deaf when childhood bullies mocked our signing,” DiMarco writes.

As with queer people who are mocked as children, DiMarco as he got older came to see that bullying could “take more harmful and sinister forms: blatant oppression and discrimination.”

He learned from his mother that in 1995, five years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, his grandfather was denied an interpreter when he was in the hospital. When he went into surgery, his family didn’t know if his “life was in danger,” DiMarco writes.

The Deaf community isn’t immune to homophobia. As a youth, DiMarco was told the story of an acclaimed, handsome Deaf track sprinter. After marrying a woman, having two children and living the life of the “picture-perfect” family man, he killed himself.

Years later, DiMarco discovered that the legendary athlete was gay, when he met the sprinter’s Deaf European out male lover. The athlete told his lover that he couldn’t come out.

“I wondered how long it would be before I saw him again,” the athlete’s lover told DiMarco, “I never did. Soon after that, he took his own life.”

Despite these sad stories, “Deaf Utopia” is far from a downer. It is filled with moments of pride and exuberance from DiMarco’s mom being there when he and Murgatroyd were awarded the Mirrorball Trophy to when he was asked to be an executive producer of “Deaf U.” 

Coming out, DiMarco had to deal with homophobia and being excluded from the queer community because he’s Deaf. He met a lot of “cool” gay people at LGBTQ events and he spoke in American Sign Language at the 2016 Human Rights Campaign annual dinner. 

Yet, “my new gay acquaintances were hearing and didn’t know ASL,” DiMarco writes.

But he didn’t give up. With time and patience, DiMarco taught hearing queer people ASL, and hearing LGBTQ people began to include him in their conversations.

“Deaf Utopia” has entertaining dish about what it’s like behind the scenes of reality shows. But it’s not a celeb tell-all.

The memoir is an exhilarating mix of stories of DiMarco’s life and intriguing narratives of Deaf culture. Take just one thing “Deaf Utopia” made me get for the first time: silent movies, with no spoken dialogue, were accessible to Deaf people.

If you’re hearing, you’ll likely be surprised by one sobering story of Deaf history: Alexander Graham Bell was instrumental in having sign language, the native language of Deaf people, banned from schools for the Deaf.  

If you like reality shows, dancing and parties laced with queerness and Deaf culture, “Deaf Utopia” is the book for you.

“True Biz” is the dazzling new novel by Sara Novic, a brilliant Deaf writer. Like DiMarco, Novic, author of “Girl at War” and “America Is Immigrants,” is proud of being Deaf.

“To be a member of the Deaf community has been a great source of joy in my life,” she writes in an “author’s note,” “it has made me a better writer, thinker, parent, and friend.”

Schools for Deaf people have been vitally important for Deaf culture, language and community.

“True Biz” is set at the fictional River Valley School for the Deaf. Riverdale is facing closure. The novel’s main characters are February Waters, the headmistress, and two teenage students Austin and Charlie.

February is a CODA (child of Deaf adults). She and her hearing wife Melanie love each other. But like many marriages, their marriage has its strains. February must deal with everything from teen sex to Riverdale’s impending closure. 

Austin is a proud Deaf teen. His family has been Deaf for generations. Nothing shakes up his life until he meets up with Charlie, a new student.

Novic is a master of creating characters that burn themselves into your heart. Charlie, who is Deaf, will tug at your heart the most. Her divorced parents are hearing. Her folks won’t let Charlie communicate in American Sign Language. Charlie attends mainstream schools where she meets no Deaf people. Her mom insists that she have a cochlear implant.

When she fails academically, Charlie is sent to Riverdale. Adjusting is hard for her  because the Riverdale students communicate with ASL. She has to quickly learn to sign. February asks Austin to help her fit in.

You’ll miss and root for these characters after reading this page-turning novel. You’ll want February and her wife to stay together and good things to happen to Austin and Charlie.

“True Biz” is an American Sign Language idiom. In English, it means “seriously” or “for sure.”

Seriously, read “True Biz.”

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