The Queer Syllabus: The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers

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The Queer Syllabus is a joint project from The Rumpus and Foglifter Press that allows writers to nominate works for a new canon of queer literature. When we identify our roots, when we point to the work that shaped us as writers and as people, we demonstrate that our stories are timeless, essential, and important—and so are we. New entries will run on Thursday, September through December, and then will be collected as a living document on the Foglifter website. The Queer Syllabus is edited by Wesley O. Cohen and Marisa Siegel.

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When I was married, I sweet-talked my white wife into making a pilgrimage with me. We drove across America so that I could, like a Peeping Tom, press my face against profoundly significant literary windows and fog them with envy. Behind those panes, a quasi-shut-in who Sarah Schulman once described as “a pale, sickly writer from the mid-twentieth century,” one “who smoked and drank herself to death by the age of fifty,” both languished and thrived.

Into wet spots I panted onto glass, I could’ve fingered the Southern genius’s name: C-A-R-S-O-N.

Yes, my favorite queer writer, my favorite American writer period, was a shriveled white lady from a Georgia mill town.

It’s appropriate that queer lust brought me to McCullers in the first place. You see, as a teenager, I hung out at the mall a lot and at the mall, I hung out at an Emersonian place: Walden Books.

A moth, or Mexican goth, managed the bookstore, and I tumbled into heavy romantic infatuation with her. She was the only moth in town, and I saved up my allowance in order to have an excuse to speak to Her Highness. At Walden’s counter, I handed her a copy of Spin, opened my coin purse, and asked her name. I also asked her the stupidest question I could think of:

“Do you like to read?”

“Obviously,” she answered, and she rattled off what she was currently digging. Among these books was one with the word sad in its title, and since I’m queer, female, and not quite white, that became the book I sought out to impress her. Walden was too provincial to carry the title so I sweet-talked my dad into taking me on an hour-long pilgrimage to a soap opera: Santa Barbara.

There, my lonely heart hunted for The Ballad of the Sad Café and I found the paperback sitting on a shelf in a bookshop across the street from the art museum. Its cover featured Keith Carradine in a wool fedora and red button down shirt. A rural butch wearing overalls, chambray, and a newsboy cap eclipsed his handsome presence. A stern yet protective expression hardened her stare.

You can absolutely judge a book by its cover when a masc groomed Vanessa Redgrave tops you from it.

As I read The Ballad of the Sad Café, it braided my sensibilities to the moth’s, its Southern gothic love story dusting my nonexistent soul with weird, bittersweet pollen. The novella isn’t a love story involving two people; it’s a love story that truly involves a village, a village populated by folks whose genders are everything but whose genders are also so beside the point that they aren’t told. They’re shown.

The novella is also a horror show, a grotesque portrait of human hearts rendered in regional vernacular, and it aims a microscope at human attraction, magnifying elements many often ignore:

The beloved can… be of any description. The most outlandish people can be the stimulus for love… A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp.

Don’t let these lines fool you into believing the novella is a celebration of love. The Ballad of the Sad Café is cautionary, and it warned me not to pursue the moth, not to bring her flowers, smoothies, rhinestones, or roadkill because

…the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is always trying to strip bare his beloved.

The Ballad of the Sad Café exposes romance as a perverse endeavor, as a doomed exercise in violence, and the novella takes a turn toward blood sport when butch Miss Amelia’s heart is threatened by competing masculinity. I can’t tell you who gets pushed against the ropes or how. You’ll have to read the book yourself and let it break your heart.

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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Foglifter is a queer journal and press showcasing powerful, intersectional writing that fosters queer writers and galvanizes the queer community through literary events and programming.


Myriam Gurba lives in Long Beach, California. She's the author of Mean, a memoir-true crime hybrid selected as a New York Times editor's choice. She teaches economics and government and her favorite things include cash, wildflower, and compliments. More from this author →