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John Waters talks about his debut novel, ‘Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance’

Nationwide book tour kicks off in D.C.



(Book cover image courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

John Waters has directed movies; written non-fiction; given spoken-word performances; made visual art; modeled for fashion designers, even lent his voice to a country music video. After reaching his 70s, he added a new occupation: Novelist.

The result, after three years of writing, is “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance,” published last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It follows Marsha Sprinkle, a woman who steals suitcases at the airport; her mother Adora, who performs plastic surgery on pets; Marsha’s daughter Poppy, the head of a band of renegade trampoline bouncers; Marsha’s partner-in-crime, Daryl, and Daryl’s talking penis, Richard.

Set in Baltimore and points north, Liarmouth is what fans of John Waters might expect from him and yet different from anything he’s done before. As the title implies, it’s filled with stories and situations that seem hard to believe but may be just a few years away from happening, such as facelifts on pets. It also gives Waters a chance to write about sexual kinks including erotic tickling and ear masturbation. 

To promote his debut novel, Waters, 76, launched a coast-to-coast book tour that began in Washington, D.C. at Politics and Prose Bookstore, where he was interviewed by Baltimore-based writer and columnist Marion Winik. The following transcript of their conversation has been condensed and edited.

Marion Winik: John, this is your debut novel, and the convention is that a debut novel is usually highly autographical, a version of the author’s coming of age. Is this true of Liarmouth?

John Waters: No. I think I am every character in it. When you write a novel, you live with those people. You become those people. I read it aloud to make sure I don’t say the same word over and over and everything.

Q: Is there one character you identify with more than the others?

A: Well, Marsha, only because I love to have villains that are the heroines in my book. I think Marsha Sprinkle would get along with Francine Fishpaw. She would get along with Serial Mom. She would get along with all of them. But she’s a loathsome person. She does terrible things. She loves to lie. Lying gives her power. It makes her feel prettier. She does even practice lies. You know, just to get in shape, like going to the gym. She’s a contemptible person, really. She only eats crackers because she never wants to defecate. She finds that repellent. She just shoots out little pellets. She doesn’t have to wipe, even.

Q:This leads to my next question. I picture a book group, for example, the book club at the Baltimore Museum of Art, which is mostly ladies from Guilford, discussing this book. And I picture them asking the question: Is poop really this funny? 

A: Well, she learns to have a proper bowel movement, later, through love. She has a fudge dragon. That’s one that won’t even flush. You asked me. But anyway, this is a tiny portion of the book.

Q: Not too tiny. 

A: And Anne Tyler read this book. That was my favorite. Anne’s my friend and I said to her, “Oh, you poor thing. You have to read this book.”

Q: In comparing your films to this novel, I realized that you’re in fact a magical realist much like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende. And while I suppose CGI [computer generated imagery] could create a film equivalent for Richard the Talking Penis, I would argue that Richard has a life on the page that he could not have in film. Do you agree? Did you find that you could do things in fiction that you can’t do in any other medium?

A: Certainly you can. Because I don’t have to worry about the budget. If this were a movie, it would be NC-17, which would make it not get made, and it would also have a huge special effects budget, because there’s all this insane trampolining going on and bouncing and everything, and Daryl does have a talking penis. Now, there are talking penises in a lot of books. But in mine, his penis turns gay while he’s straight and it’s a battle. So could that become a movie? Sure. But somebody has to buy the rights from me to make it. That’s even funnier.

Q: Maybe Pixar. Going into the fudge dragon situation.

A: I thought I was trying to get away from that.

Q: The entire group of people is heading up to Provincetown for something called The Analingus Festival.

A: She’s giving the plot away. But it’s not so hard to imagine that in Provincetown they would have an Analingus Festival. They have Gay Pilots’ Week. They have Lesbian Crafts Week. They have Gay Family Week. They have Bear Week.They have every kind of obscure thing. So Analingus Week, maybe this book will make that happen. They could have children with face-painting, like, anuses, and Rimmer Bingo. Make it a real theme.

Q: Back to trampolines: Marsha has a daughter that’s alienated from her and has gotten involved with a movement. It’s kind of an identity, sort of like LGBTQIA+, but this one is trampolines.

A: She’s been shut down, from a trampoline accident at her Bouncy-Bouncy place.

Q: In the book, ‘trampoline’ is standing in for many, many different identities.  It gets to be the occasion to make many, many woke jokes, but the woke jokes are all about trampolines.

A: They have to bounce. Their car bounces when they’re in airports. They live on waterbeds so they can bounce. They only eat food that bounces.

Q: Where did this come from? Why trampolines?

A: I don’t know. I just thought of it. I read about trampoline parks and then I went to one. I know they get shut down because of accidents and stuff, so I tried to imagine a cult where it was like a speakeasy where she opens illegally, and these [trampoline people] — they call them Tramps – hang out and there are other Tramps and they see each other around. There are all these people that are going like this all the time and they can’t keep still, or they get depressed. So they keep bouncing more and more and they get higher and then they learn to do other things, like shake sideways and roll and all different spiritual things.

But once they learn these powers, they realize that there are drawbacks. There are side effects. So I believe, in a novel, once you set up this world, no matter how crazy it is, there are rules in that world and you have to respect it, no matter how crazy it is.  So even if there’s something that’s completely impossible to happen, as long as the logic of the novel that you set up follows it, it’s like having a continuity person in a movie. Copy editors do that. They go through with you and they say, ‘Well, how could this be?’ It doesn’t matter how could it be. Nobody jumps up in the air and stays up there. But still, if you believe in that happening, then there’s a certain logic that has to continue through the whole thing. Now, this book, I make fun of narrative. Like, 40 things happen in every sentence. If in four days, all this happened to any one person, they would be dead from exhaustion.

Q: But then they’d be at the Analingus Festival, so everything would be great. Back in the 1970s, Abbie Hoffman wrote Steal This Book and taught thousands of people how to make free long-distance phone calls and wring a profit from American Express travelers checks.

A: I did both of those things. You’d buy $500 worth of travelers checks. Your friend would go. They’d look the same. He’d report them stolen and I’d report them, and then we’d split it. You could cash them. One cashes the other’s.

Q: Aren’t you worried that your book is going to spawn a lookalike baggage claim theft [wave]?

A: Well, it is easy. To me, the security in airports after 9-11, it completely changed where you couldn’t do anything. Except the one thing they did was stop checking luggage tags. They used to [check tags], in every airport when you came in. Now they don’t. And it gave me the idea because I was with my friend Pat Moran once and we were leaving the airport and this man was chasing us up the escalator: “You’ve got my bag!” They do all look alike. So even if you get caught, you can say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought [it was mine].” And [Marsha] has a fake chauffeur with her so it even looks more real.

And there’s another thing. I know somebody that steals flight attendants’ pocketbooks when they get on a plane, because they’re always in the same place. So I do tell that. And my friend, when she did it, her friend was with her and she didn’t know and then they said, “All right. Someone took the flight attendant’s pocketbook. No one’s getting off this plane.” Like school. And she didn’t snitch, and the plane eventually took off. So I’ve heard of some of these things, but I exaggerated. I’m in a plane almost every day, touring with my shows and everything. So I’m doing research the whole time — how women always put their pocketbook in first and how you can get things when they come out of the X-ray.

An easy way to steal — the Baltimore airport has not done anything about this, but in the [bathroom] stalls, always, the hook for your coat, people reach right over and grab your bag and run. So, many airports have lowered it. Baltimore has not yet. You can still do that. When someone’s on the toilet, they just reach over and grab your coat or your bag when it’s on the hook. You’d have to pull your pants up to chase them. They’re out of there.

Q: You have to do a book-signing at BWI [airport.] As far as social commentary goes in this book, there’s plenty. It’s not just the trampolines. There’s Marsha’s mother. Tell us a little about Marsha’s mother. 

A: Her mother does facelifts on pets, illegally. Then the dog has a problem and thinks he’s a cat. So he’s trapped in a cat’s body. It like species change.

Q: He’s transitioning.\

A: It’s complicated. It is. But I don’t think animal plastic surgery is too far in the future. I can imagine it in Beverly Hills, I really can, where they try to get the cat to look like Joan Rivers, that wind tunnel look. But [Adora] has her own plastic surgery. She makes her belly button an outie, not an innie, because she’s repelled by nature catching things in her. She’s obsessed by nature’s garbage can, her belly button.

Q: I feel like the whole country is full of people who can’t make a joke about anything. I mean, God forbid we would talk about a dog who wants to transition to being a cat, or the people with the trampoline not being able to express their identity. I am wondering, how are you getting to make these jokes?

A: Well, because I don’t think they’re mean. I make fun of the rules in my own community that I live in, the community I love. I’m a bleeding-heart liberal. I say I’m an Antifa sympathizer who’s too old to run from the tear gas. But we made fun of ourselves, with Abbie Hoffman and that crowd. That’s the only thing the trigger-warning crowd doesn’t [do.] They don’t make fun of themselves, and they need to a little, you know? So I’m making fun of something I love, but I don’t think I’m mean-spirited.

I did a show this week and the first question that really threw me was: How did you avoid cancer? I quit smoking. But what they really said was: How did you avoid getting cancelled?… If I fear censorship today, it would not be from the right. It would be from maybe the left. A rich kid in school. I agree with what they’re saying. I just don’t agree with the self-righteousness about it. Make fun of yourself. I made fun of everything. Johnny Depp made of himself. That’s why he was in Cry-Baby. Patty Hearst made fun of being a victim by being in a movie. Traci Lords made fun of being in porn by playing a bad girl. If you make fun of what you’re trying to do, then you can work, because humor is what works. Humor is what gets people to listen, not standing up and badgering, saying you can’t do this.

Q: I think you are cancel-proof.

A: No, I don’t think I am. And I think you have to be very careful. There is now a sensitivity editor, a word I can barely say out loud, [in publishing.] My friend Bruce Wagner’s whole book stopped because of sensitivity editors. They go through the book. We sent [Liarmouth] to a sensitivity editor and they refused to call back. Even my editor didn’t know what to do with that, so we just went on. I did read through it with my editor, my agent, and I have three really smart women who work for me who are three generations and are really good copy editors and we went through it. And if anything was touchy today, we went even further liberal the other way to make it funnier.

Q: What’s an example of that?

A: Well, in the first part, there’s this bus accident and this one couple is trapped in their seats but they were Asians. Which was fine, but then during [the writing], there was Asian violence, so we can’t have that. Marsha is proud that all of her victims are diverse. And whenever I introduce a character, I say ‘a white man,’ because I read once that all writers, if someone is white they never say that but if it’s a black person, the first time it comes up they say ‘a black person.’ So I try to put, if it’s a white person, I say that. I get that race is the most touchy thing. But I wanted to have every race in the book. The Asian couple we changed to Italian American and that wasn’t offensive. Why? Because it’s the news. So I tried to make fun of that but embracing it by trying to be even overly politically correct while making fun of it.

Q: I think it’s inspiring and leading the way, to show that we can still laugh about these things and there still can be jokes about them.

A: Racism isn’t funny. I say that in my [spoken word] show, that basically Black Lives Matter is the most effective [movement] since Martin Luther King. But I wish Jet magazine, which I used to get and love, would come back and have it be a hip kind of magazine for [black readers[ that makes fun of white reaction to it. This black friend in Baltimore told me that a guy at work said to her, what’s your tracking number, your bank? She said, “For what?” He said, “I want to send you something.” He sent her $50. She said, “What’s this for?” He said, “You know.” Slavery? No wonder there’s rage out there. Fifty bucks? Like that’s going to make up for it. I thought thatJet magazine could be like Spy magazine, only to make fun of white liberals’ reactions to Black Lives Matter.

Q: That’s a really good idea. Are you going to write another novel?

A: I hope so…The reviews so far have been good. But I don’t know yet…The best thing that could happen to this book is if the Florida governor bans it.

Question from the audience: Why a novel now, at 76?

A: Well, it’s not that big a stretch because I’ve written15 movies. They’re fiction. In Carsick, the book where I hitchhiked across the country, the first two thirds of the book I made up as the worst rides I could get and the best, like in fiction. And then I wrote about the real way it happened. That was easy. I was in it. But [why now?] To do it. To challenge myself. The same reason I hitchhiked across the country at 66, why I took LSD when I was 70, for the first time in 50 years. Just to challenge myself. I don’t know. What am I going to do when I’m 80? Turn straight? That’d be a stunt. Old chickens make good soup.

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Fascinating mystery novel features gay private eye in 1947 Philly

‘Knock off the Hat’ explores a world before LGBTQ rights advances



(Book cover image courtesy of Amble Press)

‘Knock Off the Hat: A Clifford Waterman Gay Philly Mystery’
By Richard Stevenson
c.2022, Amble Press
$18.95/200 pages

The Horn & Hardart automat is a great place to meet friends and eat (on the cheap) delicious meatloaf and coconut cream pie.

People wonder when Connie Mack, the Philadelphia Athletics’ manager, will retire and have a ballpark named after him.

If you’re queer, you dance, drink and hook-up in gay bars.

Life is good. Even on summer nights when few places are air conditioned. Except that if you’re queer, you can be  arrested if you’re in a gay bar that’s raided by the police. If you’re arrested, your name will likely appear in the Philadelphia Inquirer on a list of “deviants.”

This is the world of Clifford Waterman, a gay private eye, the protagonist of “Knock Off the Hat,” the fascinating new mystery by Richard Stevenson.

The novel is set in 1947 in Philadelphia. During World War II, Clifford, a former police detective, was in the Army. He was an Army MP in Cairo, where he jokes, “I was working with US Army unintelligence.”

Clifford was dishonorably discharged from the Army for being gay. Though ironically, his job in the service was to round up “drunks,” “dope fiends” and “perverts.”

An officer found him one night, “enjoying the company of a nice man named Idriss, who normally cleaned the latrines,” Clifford says. “On this particular occasion, this pleasant chappie was cleaning my latrine.” 

The era in which Clifford lives is repressive. The House Un-American Activities Committee is going after queer people and suspected Communists. If you’re LGBTQ and arrested in a bar raid, you’ll lose your job if your employer reads about it in the paper. 

Yet Clifford respects himself. He proudly hangs his dishonorable discharge on his office wall. 

In “Knock Off the Hat,” Clifford is called upon to use his detective skills, street-smarts and connections in the queer community, to solve a terrifying, puzzling mystery.

Usually, queer people who are arrested in a gay bar raid for “disorderly conduct,” can pay off Judge Harold Stetson. (Stetson is called “the Hat” because his surname is the name of a type of hat.) If they pay the judge $50 (a lot of money, but, with some belt-tightening, doable), they’ll avoid “public humiliation along with a hefty fine or even jail time,” Stevenson writes.

But now, the judge and his clerk have gone bonkers. They’re requiring queer people to pay Judge Stetson $500. If they don’t pay up, their professional and personal life will be ruined.

Scarcely anyone can afford this sum. A gay man, who’s proud to be a salesperson in the shoe department of the glam department store Wanamakers, is comparatively lucky. After he’s arrested in a bar raid, he sells his car to get the $500 to pay off the judge. Other queer people end up working at gas stations or even kill themselves because they don’t have that kind of money.

“Knock Off the Hat” takes place at a time when queer lives were, largely, devalued. Yet it’s far from grim.

The novel is filled with dark humor and engaging characters from an actress who pretends to be a deceased gay man’s fiancee to a left-wing queer farmer. In one scene, after Lauren Bacall drops into a dinner party, it’s revealed that her “dick” is “bigger than Bogie’s.”

Richard Stevenson is the pen name of the groundbreaking mystery writer Richard Lipez. “Knock Off the Hat,” was published after Lipez, who was openly gay, died at 83 in March 2022. Lipez envisioned “Knock Off the Hat” as being the first in a series featuring Clifford Waterman.

Also, under the pseudonym Richard Stevenson, Lipez over four decades (beginning in 1981 with “Death Trick”) wrote 17 mysteries featuring the queer detective Donald Strachey. “Chasing Rembrandt,” the last of the Donald Strachey series, will be released by ReQueered Tales in fall 2022.

The Strachey mysteries, set in Albany, N.Y., in the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, are less dark than “Knock Off the Hat.” Donald Strachey, his lover Timmy and many of the other queer characters dance, cruise, and indulge in camp humor. Yet without being preachy, the Strachey mysteries address AIDS and other serious issues.

“Knock Off the Hat” is as riveting as the best of Raymond Chandler. Though it’s highly entertaining, reading it in this “Don’t Say Gay” era, is sobering. The novel with its depiction of a time when queers had no rights is a chilling reminder that we can’t afford to be complacent.

This isn’t meant to be a downer. Libation in hand, treat yourself this summer. Check out “Knock Off the Hat.”   

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Celebrating Arab and Muslim heritage, art, gastronomy

Three new books open a window to influential cultures



‘Portugal: The Cookbook’ explores the Arab roots of Portuguese cooking.

As a college student, I hungered for Arab and Muslim representation. Prejudice against our communities was mainstream and demoralizing. Things, however, can sometimes change sooner than we expect. 

Although Muslims and Arabs are still maligned, it is no longer as widespread and is often counterbalanced by allyship and, crucially, Muslim and Arab representation. From Hulu’s “Remy,” Netflix’s “Master of None,” HBO Max’s “Sort Of,” to the upcoming premiere of Disney+’s “Ms. Marvel” to Muslim characters on “Love Victor,” “Never Have I Ever,” and “Genera+ion,” Muslim characters and creators are now common. And these creators are diverse, proud, and often queer. 

Mahersalah Ali is a two-time Oscar winner (one for the Black queer Best Picture winner “Moonlight”) and Riz Ahmed is the first Muslim to be nominated for Best Actor; he won an Oscar this year for a short film taking on British xenophobia, and spearheading an initiative to boost Muslim representation in Hollywood from screenwriters to actors. 

From starving to satisfied, it has been quite a transformation in American culture. And it’s not only TV and film. Political representation isn’t novel anymore. I still remember when former Rep. Keith Ellison was asked on CNN to prove his loyalty by the conservative host Glenn Beck. Today, Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are progressive trailblazers. Irvine, Calif., has a Muslim mayor in Farrah Khan. Joe Biden has nominated the first Muslims to the federal judiciary, one has been confirmed and the other, civil rights lawyer Nusrat Choudhury, awaits Senate confirmation. And Biden, lest we forget, said “inshallah” (God willing) on the presidential debate stage. “We’ve made it,” I want to shout. But I know we’re still fighting for full normalization in American life.

Hence my excitement over three new books (two cookbooks and one art text) that feature Arab and Muslim heritage, art, and gastronomy. 

Arab roots of Portuguese cooking 

“To these new rulers [the Moors], cuisine was an art, and food a gift from God that should be consumed in moderation and shared with those in need,” writes Leandro Carreira, the author of “Portugal: The Cookbook.” It’s not surprising to learn that Arabs and Berbers shaped the evolution of Portuguese cuisine, but what’s striking is the nature of its legacy. In this cookbook of 700 recipes, half draw from the Moors. 

When Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain) they brought with them not only warriors and administrators but architects, astronomers, poets, and, inter alia, cooks along with cookbooks, such as the Medieval “Kitab al Tabikh.” 

The Moors introduced hydraulics that irrigated the farmland (along with orchards and leafy gardens) and beautified the land by planting citrus trees both for the fruit and scent. The list of crops introduced by Moors includes eggplant, artichoke, carrot, lentils, cucumber, and lettuce. The latter would later christen the residents of Lisbon, who are colloquially known as Alfachinhas (“little lettuces”). Moors popularized sour oranges, apricots, dates, melons, and watermelons; spices such as pepper and ginger; pickling of olives and nuts; sour marinade to preserve fish; rose water and orange blossom. The Moors’ vinegary salads were the precursor to gazpacho. The introduction of sugarcane later severed Portuguese colonization and fueled the slave trade, and transformed sugar from luxury to staple. 

Naturally, the North African rulers brought couscous, the main consumed wheat until the late 16th century. To this day, northwestern Portuguese villagers prepare couscous using the methods and utensils introduced by Berbers 900 years ago. 

The Moors cultivated hospitality and conviviality at the table along with the order in which food is served: soups followed by fish or meat and concluding with sweets. The Arabs’ cousins, the Jews played their part in shaping Portuguese cooking, too. Jews prepared their post-Sabbath meal by laying aside a slow-burning stew of meat, chickpeas, collard greens, hard-boiled eggs, and vegetables; today, the Portuguese call it Adafina. Jews introduced deep-fried vegetables and Portuguese missionaries later brought them to Japan and (voilà!) tempura. 

In its history, “Portugal” evokes our interwoven humanity. 

Arabiyya: Cooking as an Arab in America

The past few years have seen cookbooks with narratives of culture and personal journeys foregrounding recipes — many focused on Arab culture. “The Gaza Kitchen” by Laila el-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt and “The Palestinian Table” and “The Arabesque Table” by Reem Kassis, for example. To this list, we can add “Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora” by the James Beard finalist Reem Assil. 

For connoisseurs of Arab food in America, Reem is no stranger. Reem’s California, a bakery in Oakland and San Francisco, has acquired temple status for its use of California’s ingredients in the service of Arab dishes. A few years ago, the New York Times praised Reem’s as an “Arab Bakery in Oakland Full of California Love.” (The bakery was, sadly, the target of vulgar anti-Palestinian prejudice for its mural of Palestinian activist Rasmeah Odeh.) 

Food was Reem’s saving grace. Facing a debilitating digestive disorder, and the wreck of familial stress, Reem left college and headed to the Bay Area live with her Arab uncle and Jewish aunt. Soothed by California’s climate, nature, and ingredients, she found mental and physical healing — and roots and purpose. 

“Arabiyya” is a guide to California-based, Arab-rooted recipes alongside tales of Reem’s journey and her family’s. Her grandparents fled the Nakba — the 1948 “catastrophe” of the forced exile of roughly 750,000 Palestinians at the hands of Israeli troops — and the Naksa, the 1967 War that forced her family to decamp once more for Lebanon. The Lebanese Civil War led to one more flight to Greece, and finally, California.

Growing up American, Reem knew little of her grandmother’s resilience. After her sitty’s (colloquial Arabic for grandmother) passing, she pasted together tales from relatives of her grandmother’s determination to uphold Arab hospitality no matter where she landed. Her identity as a Palestinian was threatening both in Lebanon and America — but she walked with dignity. Arab hospitality meant that home was a safe comfort no matter the headwinds outside, and, at times, her grandmother went lengths to survive. A tale of sneaking out during a pause in fighting in Beirut became family lore: sitty couldn’t forget her lemons (who would serve fish without lemons?!) even after a rocket attack knocked her down. 

Food’s healing and grounding became the thread uniting Reem with sitty. “I’ve come to realize that my grandmother, who loaded the table to its edges with tasty morsels of my favorite foods, lives through me,” Reem relates. 

Reem’s journey to cook and bake as love and spontaneity opened a window to heritage — a family’s history and Arab pride. Her recipes (like the California Fattoush Salad where traditional tomatoes are swapped for oranges and citrus and fried sunchokes) overflow with love. “Arabiyya” is destined to be a classic among Arab-Americans. 

Arab artists in their prime 

Artists from the Arab world exhibiting in the West face a challenge: Our culture is ubiquitous in Western depictions but poorly understood; a dilemma for the artist who must inevitably “interrogate the stereotypes that spectators bring to the practice of looking at mythologized places,” in the words of critic Omar Kholeif in his review of the Abu Dhabi-born and NYC and Dubai-based Farah Al Qasimi. 

Al Qasimi is one of five Arab artists featured in the new collection on “art’s next generation” entitled “Prime.” In “After Dinner 2” (2018), Al Qasimi captures the pressures of domestic life in her native UAE and the misconceptions westerners have about Arab domesticity. A mother stands behind her daughter kneeling on the couch while looking out at the window. The mother’s stance is recognizable to any child raised by an Arab mother: head tilted up and her arms stretched out — a plea for God’s mercy in the face of a stubborn child. The pink and white staging of the drapes and couch suggest the mother-daughter dispute is about marriage, the daughter having sights on another admirer. Neither the daughter’s nor the mother’s face is visible. The mother’s face overflows out of frame while the daughter’s rests behind the drapes. Al Qasimi’s photograph turns on its head the Western conception that Arab women are hidden “behind the veil;” their life is plain to see if one discards their preconceived notions and recognizes that mothers and daughters differ universally. 

Gulf Arab states, soaked in oil and gas money, however, pander to Western standards. Alia Farid scrutinizes the imitation. Urbanization has upended life in the Gulf, including in the official representation of culture. Seeking to parade heritage, Gulf states are crafting historical narratives that embody less the realization of culture and more a contrived display that weaves together disparate artifacts, as Farid displays in a mock-museum exhibition titled “Vault” (2019). These exhibitions stand as staid advertisements — a defensive declaration: “We, too, have culture!” — placing together all manners of ancient and modern objects without telling a coherent story or inspiring new creativity. 

In a juxtaposition, “At the Time of the Ebb” (2019) is a video installation documenting the celebration of Nowruz Sayadeen (Fisherman’s New Year) on the island of Qeshm, Iran. “We are brought close to culture at its grassroots level — the suggestion being that cultural life is built in communities as opposed to something to represent within the entanglements of a global museum industry, one that willfully neglects the culture it seeks to validate,” observe critics Hana Noorali and Lynton Talbot. 

The Middle East’s wars and rivalries inform the work of Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet, who works in Beirut and San Francisco. “Steel Rings” (2013) is a recreation of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline that was abandoned due to political upheaval but not before hundreds of miles of pipes were laid (and remain) underground. In Tabet’s exhibition, steel rings laid on the floor stand in for the pipeline’s route with engravings on the rings marking the locations passed underneath. The uncompleted pipeline is the only material project to exist between five regional nations. It is a sad statement on the region’s divisions that the only thing crossing that many borders is abandoned and buried steel. Humanization of the region’s troubles comes into relief in “Cyprus” (2015). The installation consists of a 1,800-pound wooden boat suspended from the ceiling. The boat was deployed by the artist’s father to flee Lebanon’s civil war but was unable to complete the journey to the neighboring island. Years later, the family found it on the coastline. Suspended in midair, solitary, the boat speaks to the anguish burdening people in the face of conflict — a hardship that is often insurmountable, like the boat drawback by the current. “Cyprus” centers our thoughts beyond the headlines — obscuring the human toil — and toward people struggling in their wake. 

It is refreshing to see Arab artists creating thought-provoking art on their own terms. And so, the wheels of American life roll on as we crave our hearts on its road.

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New book explores history of Fire Island

Scholarly memoir recounts 1938 hurricane and its aftermath



(Book cover image courtesy of Hanover Square Press)

‘Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise’
By Jack Parlett
c.2022, Hanover Square Press
$27.99/272 pages

Ugh, it’s been a week.

Two hours into Monday and your brain was already screaming for something fun, something far removed from work, a getaway that lets you play. You need to dance this weekend. You need to feel the sun on your face and sand between your toes. And you may need to bring “Fire Island” by Jack Parlett with you, too.

Geographically speaking, Manhattan and Fire Island are a mere 60 miles apart.

Sixty miles – and half a world. Stretched out and  narrow but walkable, the island is home to several vacation communities. Two of them, Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, both located in about the middle of the island, feature prominently in LGBTQ history.

Parlett says that Native Americans sold Fire Island to white Europeans for a pittance, after which activities there were shifty and possibly illegal. By the 1820s, conversely, it was a hot vacation spot for the elite; in certain places, it was the place for finding romance, too, which Parlett says was a sign of the future. Famous men like poet Walt Whitman were big fans of Fire Island and over the next century, a then-quiet queer subculture began to grow.

Sometimes, it grew with families and children in the picture, the latter raised by nonconformists and theater people.

Even so, despite these many changes, Parlett says that Fire Island wouldn’t be what it is today, were it not for a hurricane that hit the island on the afternoon of Sept. 21, 1938. It devastated Fire Island and resulted in a real-estate bust. Cottage prices fell significantly, and vacationing there suddenly became affordable for gay New Yorkers.

Throughout the 20th century, Fire Island became a playground for performers, thinkers, and writers such as James Baldwin and W. H. Auden. It was a source of controversy for locals who objected to nude bathing. It was a source of embarrassment for Noel Coward. It allowed everyday gay men and women to dance, drink, and party freely.

And later on, it was a place to mourn.

Considering that this is a book about a getaway destination, “Fire Island” isn’t much of a vacation-y read. It’s actually pretty dry, in fact, and filled with people that were once very famous but aren’t exactly household names anymore. Their drama and the love triangles they struggled with are mildly interesting, in the way that you might perceive great-grandma’s old Confidential magazines in the attic.

And yet – the history. Author Jack Parlett offers a lot of solid information beyond those tired scandals to further show how Fire Island came to be a gay hot-spot and why that was important. These tales envelope the rest of the island, as well as current events in America, as a whole, and the impact those outside influences had on LGBTQ life, even today.

More scholarly than not, this book also includes a fair bit of memoir for readers who are looking for something less frivolous. If you want a book for fun, though, “Fire Island” is weak.

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