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Stories that Liberate

Stonewall Inn – Jun 21, 2019. Photo by John J Kelley

Fifty years ago, when I was but a toddler in a bayou town along the Florida Panhandle, an uprising at a nondescript Manhattan bar changed my life. On Jun 28, 1969, patrons of Stonewall Inn, a hangout for some of the city’s most marginalized populations did the unexpected, striking back rather than complying when police raided the establishment. For reasons even participants could never fully explain, frustration and anger from years of ongoing harassment suddenly erupted. Over the course of several hours, what began as a clumsy operation to clear the bar grew into an open rebellion, drawing hundreds to the streets of Greenwich Village in protest. When the dust settled two days later, the queer community found an instant rallying point which would propel its members from the closet to the front lines of an ongoing civil rights movement.

But public incidents, no matter how epic they may feel in retrospect, rarely change any given individual’s mind or touch one’s heart. As a child of the Deep South, I wouldn’t even hear of Stonewall until two decades later. So while I am grateful for their act of defiance all those years ago, and for the many struggles – and successes – that followed, stories from Stonewall were not key to my personal evolution as a gay man, at least not emotionally. That I owe to the talents of a writer on the opposite coast a few years after the events of 1969. That man is Armistead Maupin, and the weekly serial he crafted for readers of the Pacific Sun and later the San Francisco Chronicle became the beloved Tales of the City [1] book series.

CC BY-SA 3.0 [2]Stonewall Inn 1969 [3], Diana Davies, copyright owned by New York Public Library

Coming to terms with my sexuality while serving as an Air Force officer, Tales offered a glimpse of a world in which being gay need not define me, dictate some hopeless fate or dominate my thoughts as it so often did at the time (the closet can be like that). Maupin’s characters were funny and flawed and imminently human, living their fullest lives with zeal. And though the narrative was as breezy as a beach read, when it dove into deep emotion, the words rang true, offering profound insights on the human condition. In ways I didn’t realize at the time, his stories gave me a blueprint for how life could operate if I opened my heart and let myself breathe. In essence, his writings gave me the freedom to be myself.

Great stories can do that. They open a window to a broader world and provide a microscope for examining our innermost feelings. Now that I am a writer as well, one still striving to achieve Maupin’s skill at developing a compelling cast of characters with tightly woven arcs, I have a theory that every writer has an “origin source,” the read that first opened their eyes to who they are or aspire to be, and which act as touchstones through the years. To explore my premise for this post. I asked other writers about the reads that stick with them, the stories they feel reflect something fundamental about who they are, as individuals and as writers. Here is what a couple of them had to say.

G.G. Wynter

Author G.G. Wynter [4], author of the romance novel Free Falling [5], explains that as a woman born in Jamaica yet growing up in a predominantly white school district, none of her early reads for leisure or school centered around black, immigrant women. That changed when her first real job allowed her to purchase her own books. It was then, on a discount rack, that she stumbled upon the novel Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. Though relatively short, the book explored the experience of a young woman who leaves her Caribbean island and must learn to navigate America on her own terms. G.G. saw herself in the pages, knowing all too well the conflicting emotions of leaving behind the dangers of a former home while still missing it. She cites this passage from the novel –

What a surprise this was to me, that I longed to be back in the place that I came from, that I longed to sleep in a bed I had outgrown, that I longed to be with people whose smallest, most natural gesture would call up in me such rage that I longed to see them all dead at my feet.”

The thing that sticks most with her, however, is something even deeper. As she explains, “My biggest takeaway from reading Jamaica Kincaid’s work and Lucy specifically was that here was this Caribbean-American author writing a complete, whole Caribbean woman character who was allowed to have a variety of experiences, including romance and sexuality, and to feel every emotion – including anger. Kincaid was one of my earliest literary memories of a black woman living out loud – and on some level, I knew I wanted to have the courage to live like that someday and to write characters who did as well.”

Elizabeth A. Havey 

Literature has always guided Elizabeth A. Havey [6], author of the short story collection A Mother’s Time Capsule. [7] The tales she devoured as a child – books like Jane Eyre and Cry, The Beloved Country – took her to distant lands and encouraged her to craft her own worlds. Later, works exploring the mysteries of the human body from writers such as Berton Roueché, Oliver Sacks, and Atul Gawande inspired her to become a maternal-fetal nurse, which further fueled her fiction. But when it comes to seeing herself in writing, a clear image stands out, one that doesn’t beckon to a distant land or a new life but instead harkens back to an era of comfort and safety, and the freedom that comes from feeling secure. The passage that speaks to her comes from the short story “Araby,” by James Joyce –

When the short days of winter came, dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown somber. The space of sky above us was the color of ever-changing violet and toward it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns.”

The words move her because they speak to a place she knows intimately, her first childhood home. As she explains, “Joyce’s image will forever contain me, a young woman walking home, skies darkening above the street lights, my steps eager, because soon I will be home reading or writing.”

These are the stories in which G.G, Elizabeth and me first saw ourselves. But what is your origin source? What books or writings most reflect you, or speak to you on some fundamental level? Are the emotions those works engender reflected in your past writings? Are there threads within them that might benefit your current WIP? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments. We all have stories to share, not simply the ones we write but also the ones that shaped us. I would love to hear about yours.

About John J Kelley [8]

John J Kelley [9] crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow [10], about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.