Above: “Abstraction in Pink,” Jonathan Alexander.
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“Dear Queer Self” author Jonathan Alexander:
“I wish I knew now what I knew then!“
And how we can all glean a little wisdom, insight and even love from our younger selves
“Dear Queer Self” Makes Lambda Literary’s “March’s Most Anticipated LGBTQIA+ Literature” List
Foreword Reviews calls “Dear Queer Self” “an intense, daring coming-of-age—and coming out—memoir.”
Forthcoming book events for “Dear Queer Self”
June 7: Book Soup, Los Angeles
June 14: The Frenchmen Art & Books, New Orleans
June 16: Bureau of General Services Queer Division, New York City
“What surprised me most,” says author Jonathan Alexander on completing “Dear Queer Self: An Experiment in Memoir” (March 15, 2022, Acre Books), “was my conclusion that it is not so much a matter of I wish I knew then what I know now, but I wish I knew now what I knew then! And, can I have some of that back, please?”
While no one can turn back time, we can all revisit our past and glean a little wisdom, insight and even love from our younger selves.
In writing “Dear Queer Self,” which is written in the second person and revisits the years 1989, 1993, and 1996, Alexander says, “I imagined striking up a conversation with my younger self who I discovered to be someone who needed far more care and concern than he got.
Can I provide it to him now? Obviously not, but I can shift how I feel about myself now by creating this ‘fictionalized’ situation in which I’m talking to my past self, encouraging him, loving him. In doing so, I tell my current self that I deserved the love I wasn’t always getting as a kid, as a young man. And that maybe it’s not too late after all to experience that love. No, I can’t go back in time and care for my younger self. But just talking to him reminds me how much he did deserve love. And that reminds me that I need–and deserve–it now too.”
It is “conversations” such as these with our past selves that open the door to a fuller understanding of who we are now, even if at first we are unable to immediately grasp the significance of these exchanges. For Alexander, it was only after writing The Creep Trilogy of memoirs (“Dear Queer Self,” is the third), plus an additional memoir, “and sitting with them for a while,” that he was able to hear what his younger self was telling him.
“My younger self was naive, as many younger selves are. There’s virtue in naivete,” he says. You’re more willing to take some risks if you don’t know the possible costs of risk-taking. I’m not advocating for being foolish, but maybe I am just a little bit? In small doses? But there I go again. The older self wants moderation. The younger self wasn’t always aware that moderation was the hallmark of maturity. And sometimes I’d like to forget that too!
Small example: I took up painting during the pandemic, even though I always told myself I can’t draw. Thinking and living so much with my younger self put me back in touch with the Jonathan who was willing to try things, even things he didn’t think he was any good at. That younger Jonathan didn’t have so many voices, so many voices in his head telling him who he was. Well, he heard some of those voices, but he was much more willing and able to ignore them than older Jonathan. I miss that about myself.”
So how can the rest of us conjure up our younger selves for a little heart-to-heart? In Alexander’s case, “I looked at old journals, old poems, some old writing I did about my father in my 20s,” he says. “Old pictures are so important. Even buying a bottle of cologne I wore in my 20s was eye, er, nose-opening. Memory is so triggered by smell. I spritzed some of that scent on me and was momentarily stunned by a flood of feeling from my 20s, from myself in my 20s.”
Once you’ve made contact, Alexander asks, by way of suggesting an exercise, “If your younger self could write a letter to you about you right now–a “life report card’ for your 2022 self–what would they say?”
For Alexander, “Dear Queer Self” is “an observation, a reflection on my life so far; my attempt to tell my younger self that I’m still working on it. We are all still working on life,” he says. “For queer people, it doesn’t necessarily ‘get better,’ but viewed through our experiences, it does get richer.”
“Dear Queer Self: An Experiment in Memoir” by Jonathan Alexander (March 15, 2022, Acre Books) is the third book in The Creep Trilogy, follwing Bullied: The Story of an Abuse” (November 4, 2021, Punctum Books), which followed “Creep: An Apology” (2017, Punctum Books). A related memoir, “Stroke Book: The Diary of a Blindspot” (Fordham University Press) was published in October 2021.
A fun bonus: “Dear Queer Self” is divided in to three sections, each with an accompanying YouTube Playlist for the year discussed (1989, 1993, and 1996). Chapters are named after pop songs from those years, such as “Giving You the Best that I Got” by Anita Baker (1989) and “Who Will Save Your Soul” by Jewel (1996).
- “Dear Queer Self” YouTube Playlists
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About Jonathan Alexander
Jonathan Alexander is a writer living in Southern California where he is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author, co-author, or editor of twenty-one books. His cultural journalism has been widely published, especially in the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) for which he is the Special Projects Editor. He is also the host of LARB’s “Writing Sex,” a YouTube series of short interviews with contemporary writers on sex and sexuality. (Previous guests include Garth Greenwell, Andre Aciman, and Dennis Cooper.) LARB founding editor Tom Lutz has called Alexander one of “our finest essayists.” He lives with his husband and cat, and when not writing, dabbles in watercolors and plays piano in a music ensemble with friends. For more about Jonathan Alexander and his books please visit www.thecreeptrilogy.com and www.the-blank-page.com.
Praise + Early Media Coverage for “Dear Queer Self”
Listen: Jonathan Alexander discusses “Dear Queer Self” and how “The Chronicle of Narnia” changed his life on Matt Baume‘s brilliant “The Sewers of Paris” podcast. Listen here.
“Dear Queer Self is an intense, daring coming-of-age—and coming out—memoir.” — Foreword Reviews. Read the full review here.
“I can’t recall the last time I was so moved as I was while reading Dear Queer Self. With unvarnished frankness, Jonathan Alexander pens these letters to his younger queer self about the messy borders that exist between love and obsession, loneliness and acceptance, during moments in history marked by uncertainty and upheaval. What emerges is a striking account of the ways we draw strength from tragedy and learn to face our past transgressions with equal parts humor and resilience.” — Alex Espinoza, author of “Still Water Saints,” “The Five Acts of Diego León,” and “Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime.”
Jonathan Alexander’s searing memoir, framed as an interrogation of his past self during crucial years of his life, offers a deeply honest portrait of life as a complicated young man in the eighties and nineties, and reaffirms the isolation queer people still feel in a world that gestures its acceptance while withholding its substance. The writing is deeply affecting, brutal in its self-evaluation, evocative in its mapping of Alexander’s search for self-acceptance. The book is most valuable for its refusal to adhere to simple categories; sexuality here is complicated, variable, quixotic, and tenacious. Much like the author’s vision. I am deeply grateful to have encountered this book. – Jim Grimsley, author of, among others, “Dream Boy,” “Boulevard,” and the forthcoming “The Dove in the Belly” (May 3, 2022).
“Dear Queer Self” Synopsis (via Acre Books)
“Dear Queer Self” is an unvarnished accounting of one man’ struggle toward sexual and emotional maturity. In this unconventional memoir, Alexander, who grew up in the Deep South during the 1970s and ’80s, addresses wry and affecting missives to a conflicted younger self. Focusing on three years—1989, 1993, and 1996—the book follows the author through the homophobic heights of the AIDS epidemic, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of Bill Clinton and the steady advancements in gay rights that followed. With humor and wit afforded by hindsight, Alexander relives his closeted college years, his experiments with his sexuality in graduate school, his first marriage (to a woman), and his budding career as a college professor.
As he moves from tortured self-denial to hard-won self-acceptance, the author confronts the deeply uncomfortable ways he’s implicated in his own story, grappling with the fact that he not only rejected his erotic interests but convinced himself (and others) that his uncle had sexually abused him, a lie that explained his attraction to men. More than a coming-out story, Dear Queer Self is both an intimate psychological exploration and a cultural examination, a meshing of inner and outer realities—and a personal reckoning of how we sometimes torture the truth to make a life. It’s also a love letter, an homage to a decade of rapid change, and a playlist of the sounds, sights, and feelings of a difficult—but ultimately transformative—time.
“A Boy’s Own Story” and “The Beautiful Room Is Empty” by Edmund White, “How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones, “In The Dream House” by Carmen Maria Machado.