Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A NEW CENTURY




(PARTLY AN EDITED  REPOST FROM 1-16-18)

A publisher/scout who specialized in controversy and racial provocation; who had engaged Alice Randall, the revisionist African-American author of “The Wind Done Gone”, and been hauled into court over it; who was the agent of Sherman Alexie; spotted the Barrus short story in Esquire and believed it could be expanded into a book.  What this developer didn’t know was that Barrus was white, flat on his back in a Florida hospital, barely alive and facing a lifetime of racking pain from avascular necrosis (bone death) triggered by the meds necessary to keep him breathing during a bout of pneumonia that would recur again and again because that’s one consequence of HIV.  Barrus needed a double hip replacement and this developing publisher offered enough money — in those days as an advance — to pay for them.  Otherwise, he would be in a wheelchair.

Newly realizing what HIV meant in those days, not quite past the holocaust stage, he was in a special program for HIV patients in North Carolina when this publisher caught up with him.  He was in no shape to be writing a book.  Luckily, Barrus has always written and written, sending out stories as every free-lancer does, using pseudonyms as writers have always done.  He had a trunk full of stories.  “The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams” is a collection from the trunk.  

One story specifically written for the editor was an attack on his father, who had abused him nearly to the point of death throughout his childhood.  It was an exaggeration of true things, which the editor pushed hard to make more vivid — this was his editing philosophy: extreme sells.  Many essays were from Barrus’ life on the Navajo rez while his wife taught there, but he didn’t pretend to be Navajo except for using the name Nasdijj, which he had used before, several times.  He just phrased things in a way that let the reader assume.  

The editor, evidently not registering the HIV clinic or the clearly Scots/Irish appearance of Barrus, took the manuscript to Sherman Alexie, hoping for a blurb praising it.  Sherman told the editor the author was not NA and recommended it not be published.  He had not yet claimed that it was plagiarized, an idea that was debunked by a special panel convened by Poets and Writers after comparing works.

“The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping” really was an expansion of the short story.  Journalists intent on exposing the “truth” went searching for the real “Tommy Nothing Fancy” but only found one of them.  There were several individual boys but usually there was a group of boys whom he taught to help each other, among other survival skills.  Barrus’ most propelling inner truth was the abuse from his father, whom he loved and admired for his vitality in spite of everything.  In this sequence of boys he loved (not sexually) and tried to save from death, he was trying to show his father what a father ought to be like.  

Former English teacher that I am, I ransacked the used book online stores for Barrus books and read them all, even “Mineshaft.”  (Eeeuuugggh.)  Then I read Jack Fritscher’s books, for whom Barrus had edited Drummer, a magazine celebration of men that Barrus called “Leather Lit,” meant to break up the stereotype of Nancy-boys, limp-wristed and effete.  Motorcycles were at the heart of Leather Lit, one step away from Hell’s Angels.  Barrus edited “Some Dance to Remember”, a novel by Fritscher and was much influenced by Fritscher’s academic and religious background. 

Geoff Mains, who had a doctoral degree in biochemistry, was the most eloquent spokesperson for this concept.  I’ve gone back to“Urban Aboriginals” repeatedly when thinking about addiction, serotonin, and the mixture of pain and pleasure.  While the editor at Knights Press, Barrus managed to get a finished copy of Geoff Mains’ 1989 novel, “Gentle Warriors”, into Geoff’s hands just before he died of AIDS.  (Barrus’ assistant was in the next room, also near death from AIDS.)  

Intellectual ferment, philosophical inquiry were a big part of the SF explosion.  There were readers in those beds.

Knights Press published two of his own books, “Genocide” which is another anthology which is the book Barrus thought was his best.  The other was “Anywhere, Anywhere” which has been presented as a play.  It’s about two veterans, one paraplegic, and was suggested by two men Barrus knew.  They are not father and son, but caretaking is key.  Barrus was never in the military and couldn’t be, never claimed to be, but had the claim projected onto him by critics who love to see hoaxes everywhere, thinking this makes them more perceptive.  Kevin Young has got it right: we love to be fooled and then for the trick to be revealed.  We ARE the tricks.

The critic that the NYTimes got to review “The Blood Runs through my Dreams” was a man who specialized in going to live in man-centered environments like prisons, trucking, train-hopping — then writing them up.  I never read the books so don’t know whether he wrote about the opportunities for MSM.  His praising review of Barrus' book was a little over-familiar.  Barrus, whose strategy in life is confrontation, wrote a rebuke.  The reviewer, evidently the last person in New York City literary circles who didn’t know Barrus, encouraged a recent graduate of his journalism classes to investigate and promote the idea of a hoax, which was shaping up as a cluster at the time, keying into “misery lit.”

As journalism goes, Fleischner’s article was pretty lazy.  He mentioned none of the above specifics and never talked to Barrus, only to a hostile former brother-in-law.  But he discovered Sherman Alexie, who was in LA making “Smoke Signals,” affronted all over again when Barrus was awarded the Poets and Writer’s “Beyond Margins” prize and quick to deploy the idea that white people writing about tribal people were raiding their intellectual capital.  Alexie had thought he would win this award and had the idea that it was specifically for Native Americans.

Legal notions of “intellectual property” and the exploitation of stories and concepts taken from tribal people were just taking hold.  No longer could one talk about Mickey Mouse without paying Disney.  This appeals greatly to all the displaced people who have been thrown out of both place and time.  Sympathy for them is deserved.  But there is no reason why they can’t write their own stories.  There is no quota.  Nor is it sensible for one demographic group to forbid another category of people to write about them, so long as it is real.  If it’s not, call it fiction.


Over the decades Barrus had written on sensational topics: HIV/AIDS, gayness, prostitution, porn, boys at risk, drugs, S/M, and more.  But the subject that caused outrage was supposedly claiming to be Navajo, when in fact he simply failed to prevent others from claiming he was Navajo — then condemning him for NOT being Navajo.  In America all indigenous peoples are sacred.  In a split way.


When the sensation-generating idea of grouping writers as hoaxers happened in the mid-2000’s, four of them were thrown together:  James Frey, who pretended to have served more jail time for more serious offences than he actually had; Laura Albert, who pretended to be a transgender truckstop prostitute; Ward LeRoy Churchill, an author, political activist, and professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder from 1990 until 2007; and Tim Barrus, who was known as “Nasdijj” and wrote three books under that name.  (He had used the pseudonym for many previous articles.)  He and Churchill were the only ones whose offences were Native American related.  Churchill at least looked like a movie “Indian” and had a courtesy membership in “his” tribe so he could sell art work as “Indian made,” since there was a law that non-members couldn’t do that.

Entirely ignoring the many well-known, respected, and admitted white people who over the years have written about tribal people, people frothed at the mouth over Nasdijj — even gatekeeper whites.  Partly it was that his background as a “porn” writer had made him vulnerable.  More than that was the enflamed suspicion that “low quantum” and unenrolled mixed-blood people were making lots of money by stealing the intellectual cultural property of tribal people.  This generated lots of money for lawyers but it eventually snuffed what had been promoted as a Renaissance of Native American writers, because publishers don't like lawsuits.

NA writers most harshly attacked were those with college degrees, arguably assimilated.  Also, there was a covert element of anti-intellectual politics, the suspicion that those people thought they were “better” than the others.  It would have been more helpful for the critics to simply sign up to earn degrees.  The main reason white writers could so easily sell writing about indigenous people was that the latter didn’t write or attempt to publish about themselves because of structural reasons (access) and because of the taboo on individuals becoming too important as the expense of the group.  Then there was the idea that there were secrets, possibly “witchy”, that should not be revealed in spite of all the avid New Age seekers.  And a concern that “Indians” should maintain a front of respectability as learned from missionaries.

Everyone skipped over “The Education of Little Tree,” “a memoir-style novel written by Asa Earl Carter under the pseudonym Forrest Carter. . . . He had been a Ku Klux Klan member and segregationist political figure in Alabama who wrote speeches for George Wallace."  No one minded that and the book, published by the U of New Mexico Press, still generates a nice income.  (For the University — Carter is dead.)  The book became a movie.  Tantoo Cardinal and Graham Greene are in it.

The difference is that “The Education of Little Tree” fits all the idealistic stereotypes, including German nature mysticism, but both Churchill and Barrus were bitingly political.  The "identity wars" over who is entitled to write about indigenous peoples continued in the US until two prominent and admired NA authors, who had been attacked as not entitled, committed suicide.  That stunned everyone and called a halt.  These days the wars are starting up again in Canada.  They have not recurred in the States, probably because no publisher wants bad publicity and law suits.

None of the four “hoaxers”accused of the crime of being middle-class white made much money by best seller standards.  Barrus, who had been in a wheelchair, could finally afford the replacement of both hips.  Small, steely, Sicilian Tina, his wife, guarded him through the search for the best replacement program, drove him through a labyrinth of highway construction to the hospital (she was a novice driver who had special training because of one bad eye), and stayed at his side while he recovered in a borrowed cabin.  It was her full-time job for a while.  

The opioids T. was taking included fentanyl suckers, which wrecked his mouth.  As soon as he took the first dose he was instantly hooked again, so the first task of his wife was to watch for the slight overdose of narcotic that would stop his breathing and the second was to stay by him through the despair of kicking the addiction into submission again, a process of nausea, diarrhea, delusion, aching, and impossible desire for more drugs.  

Meds for the pain, to prevent tissue rejection from the foreign objects that were now his hips, for HIV (still multiple drugs), and so on amounted to a whole tabletop of little bottles, each with a schedule that had to be carefully observed in order for them to be effective.  The meds cost thousands of dollars a month.  When the operation was paid for, there was no money for food.  The stigma from the evil of pretending to be tribal prevented loans and advances.  His family was estranged, but one relative sent a credit card.  

The photo often used for publicity was taken by Tina at the cabin.  T. is sitting on their woodpile — they were heating with wood.  He is painfully thin but Navajo is getting a little tubby for lack of long walks.  Still, the dog was as faithful as Tina.  Pretty soon T. was walking again.  But he was a pariah.

Dark before the dawn.

One of T’s closest friends, maybe the “Bobby Coyote” who urged him into walking to the Bosque Redondo, as described in one of the essays of “The Blood Runs Like a River Through my Dreams”, was a brilliant and celebrated artist.  As a youngster he had been part of the SF sexual explosion, a beautiful and elegant demimondaine.  Now AIDS had caught up with him and he needed to deal with his estate before he died.  He gave T. $100,000 and a newly available small video camera.  He was keenly aware of T’s photography.  “Go to Paris,” he said.  “No one there cares about these issues.

This turned out to be true.  Attending a demonstration demanding action against homelessness by putting up hundreds of small red camp tents along the Seine, he ran into a group of boys, sexworkers cruising for tricks.  He cost them money that night because they ended up in a tent, laughing their butts off, sharing stories, and bonding with each other.  This was the core group that became Cinematheque.  Those still living are now grown men, potent and resourceful.  


T. had become aware of the power of the internet to simply ignore traditional publishing by using blogs, which he invented by the dozens.  He wanted to fill them with stories and photos — then when the technology expanded — with videos.  The boys were wary, accustomed to guard their safety through secrecy, but arts demand publicity.  Beyond that, T. felt that their lives were defensible if unconventional and that public admission of that would come from knowing the reality.  The construction of postings were a group effort, which demanded thought and focus, pushing growth and insight.

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