In honor of Pride, we’re chatting with a queer member of our teaching community each week this June.
These conversations are a way to honor the artists and their art. After all, as Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.” And yet, these conversations also revealed a new thread: again and again, we heard that being part of a community has been a crucial step to creative self-expression.
And so, in the spirit of both individualism and community, of celebrating empathy and expression, we’re excited to share these conversations — and curated resources for the queer creative community — with you.
Rumaan Alam called himself a writer long before he had a book published.
As he shares with students in the introduction to his Skillshare class: “If you write, you’re a writer. It has nothing to do with publishing, it has nothing to do with having an MFA, it’s about your commitment to the practice.”
That commitment, of course, has led to many now-published works: He’s written three novels, is one of Slate’s parenting columnists, and has had work appear in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, New York Magazine, the New Republic, Buzzfeed, and more.
To him, though, the joy is still in the journey. Developing a writing practice, he explains, “means unlocking something that will make a lot of your life feel better. When you’re doing the work that you care most about, when you’re committing to yourself, my hope is that you’ll just feel happier and richer and more productive, both as a writer, and as a human being.”
But just as writing has made life better, his life holds experiences that have become superpowers in his writing, too; for example, perfecting the art of making himself “invisible” as a gay child allowed him to silently study those around him and then reflect nuances in behavior through his dialogue and characters.
Here, Rumaan shares more of what makes him the writer and person he is today.
You’ve written that your life as a gay boy, and man, granted you access in a way to the world of women, which informed your work on your first novel, Rich and Pretty. What are some ways that your identity has informed your new book, Leave the World Behind?
If my identity is not evident in the concerns of a book, it is imperative to the strategy behind creating it. As a kid, I perfected the art of making myself invisible. This vanishing act allowed me to watch, to learn — how people talk in odd non sequitur, the ways they move their bodies, the tiny things that may not always be apparent to themselves. That is how I learned to write dialogue and human motivation; it’s a skill I draw on to this day.
In 2016, in this piece, you compare the experience of white writers to those of brown writers, gay writers, immigrant writers, who are often “the only” in major literary circles and expected to “turn out fiction that engages with [others’] preconceptions about their lives.” Do you think the literary landscape has evolved since then? And what about you? Is representation still “a burden you choose to ignore” in your work?
If the landscape has changed (the same Black writer has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice in the four years since I published that piece), I think it’s imperative to acknowledge that true change takes time. So often the way institutions think to challenge status quo is to invite in one of those aforementioned “only” — so you have the one transgender writer on the panel, or the one Latinx writer in the pages of the anthology. If this is progress, what does what comes next look like? I’d like to get there.
In my work, I’m most interested in writing about race, and class, and power, and gender; I’m not interested, at the moment, in doing it the way I am “supposed to,” through the lens of personal identity or experience. Creating with those bigger themes in mind, beyond personal identity, feels transgressive to me, and it gives me a small, private thrill, like I’m getting away with something.
More generally speaking, how would you describe the current dialogue between your identity and creativity? Has your artwork evolved as you have understood and shaped your identity?
In many ways, my identity is so fixed at this point! Maybe that’s a failure of my imagination, but I’m mostly grown and my work has come to reflect that. Of course, your work is always the product of your sensibility, and that’s forged by identity, and socialization, and all these other factors, so many of which are outside your control. There’s beauty in that: it’s what makes you an individual, and it’s both precious and maddening.
When was the first time you experienced art that represented or spoke to you?
I think people are gifted at seeing their stories reflected in art. You see [art] through your own eyes, and if you’re not white, not straight, not able-bodied, or not conventional in whatever way you’d care to define that, you master the ability to reconfigure stories so that they mean something to you, or to find the art that does make you feel seen.
As a gay teen, for example, every narrative of masculine friendship seemed to me to be a gay romance. What a thrill! In my defense, A Separate Peace still seems like a gay romance to me.
How would you describe your creative journey in a metaphor or saying?
You start a book with no words, and end it 100,000 words later. That is always, always, always how it goes. In life, you put one foot in front of the other. That’s what we do.
What are you working on right now? Are there any specific themes you’re playing with or exploring?
I’m at the beginning stages of a novel, the delicate point where you want it to thrive, and then live, and fear talking about it out of superstition that if you say too much you’ll be the reason it fails to. It’s a different kind of book for me, but now that I think about it, I said the same about my second book and the third one, which I’ll publish later this year, and they are all different but they are also all connected. You can’t really outsmart yourself, I don’t think.
With lockdown, we are losing the physical connection and celebration of Pride month — what does that loss mean? How are you finding your community and building community during this time?
This is a great disappointment for so many even if it’s not wholly salient to my life, which is that of a homebody writer with two young kids who demand most of my free time. I lament this loss of connection for those who treasure it. I miss community and human contact of course, but I remind myself of my great good fortune to be healthy and try to remind myself to be patient and thoughtful.
I do think so many people have been very clever and creative at using technology to foster community and I applaud that, but I also understand nothing really competes with actual human communion. I cannot wait until we get back to that, but what can we do but wait?
What part does community play in queerness?
I think the moment queer kids realize they are not the only ones is so powerful, so genuinely shocking. Maybe that’s changed with time, or maybe it’s still the case that young queers realize they’re not alone and are forever changed, and thereafter rely on that knowledge, that they’re part of a larger thing, a big, messy, unpredictable, and wonderful swath of humanity where they will always belong.
In collaboration with our featured artists, we’ve curated a list of online resources and content for the queer creative community. Explore their recommendations here.
To learn with Rumaan, join him in his Skillshare Original Creative Writing for All: Develop a Regular & Rewarding Writing Practice.