Not every queer story needs to be a coming out story: An Interview with Miah Jeffra
Miah Jeffra’s new novel, American Gospel, explores Baltimore’s neighborhoods through the eyes of its narrators: Ruth Anne, Peter, and Thomas. By using these intimate first-person narratives, Jeffra takes an unflinching look at a city that has experienced the best and worst of urban culture. Domestic violence perpetuates much longer than the physical attack, and the history of racial inequality endures. Jeffra’s lyrical language cuts through the American psyche, revealing the cruel contradictions of the Catholic Church. And yet, his characters are resilient. They hope for a better future — from the margins, they search for love.
I met Jeffra a decade ago in grad school, before he published all four of his books, and I witnessed his brilliant ability to distill everything from art to identity to the nuances of the queer experience. I remember when he spoke in class, I took as many notes as I did with my professors. Jeffra now teaches writing and decolonial studies at Santa Clara University and Sonoma State University and is the co-founder of Whiting Award-winning queer and trans literary collaborative, Foglifter Press.
This interview took place at Hockey Haven, a dive bar in the Outer Sunset of San Francisco. We chatted about activism, being both fiction and nonfiction writers, and writing characters that haven’t existed before, over multiple sports teams neither of us cared about, and the sound of pool balls dropping onto an old wooden table.
The Rumpus: American Gospel takes place in Baltimore. Obviously, you must have lived there because it feels like you know the neighborhoods. How did you come up with the urban renewal theme park idea and what does it symbolize?
Miah Jeffra: I did live my high school years in Baltimore, but the theme park idea came to me while living in Los Angeles. LA constantly tore down and reconceived its urban spaces, in ways that obliterated the history that was present before. I marveled over this gross erasure. The more I thought about it, though, the more I saw connections between what LA was doing and so many urban renewal projects that specifically affected low-income residents across the country, in the name of progress. So many cities—with more and more young professionals returning to city cores to live—attempted to attract them with simulacra of idealized urban life, sort of like a Disney version of cities. I cranked the volume up for my novel’s scenario to underline the absurdity.
Rumpus: The novel is told from three different, first-person points of view. Ruth, a complex mother; Peter, her teenage son; and Thomas, a doubtful priest. Did you write each of these narratives first, then braid them together?
Jeffra: I wish I possessed such a straightforward methodology, haha. It was nothing so systematic. I wrote scenes here and there, thinking that the Peter character was going to be the main protagonist. But soon into writing I realized I wanted the novel to be a braided narrative instead of a focalized one. I wanted all three characters to bear similar emotional and conceptual weight in the novel. As I wrote them into scenes, I realized they all possessed characteristics of Baltimore itself, and together they crafted a fuller portrait of the city.
Rumpus: You and I both identify as fiction writers who love researching and embodying our characters. Are these characters based on people you know, or did you do research, or did you find yourself just able to channel their voices?
Jeffra: I feel all characters created by fiction writers pull from observations of people we know. Thomas is very loosely inspired by a clergyperson that I befriended while growing up. Peter fulfills a fantasy of mine, a version of me that was unashamed of their sexuality growing up. I wanted to write a teenager who was confident in who they were, because the only representations of queer teens I had read as a young person were maudlin, tortured types who succumbed to drugs or suicidal ideation. Those representations are obviously valid and significant, but I wanted to see a queer teenager secure in their sexuality. Everything else about Peter is a composite of people I’ve met. Ruth Anne is a redemption song for my mama. The woman is nothing like my mama, but her circumstances are, and I have Ruth Anne change my mama’s trajectory in a rather dynamic way. That character was very satisfying to write.
Rumpus: Your characters are very believable in the sense that they feel living and breathing on their own and the reader forgets completely about the author. How do you make characters separate from yourself that feel alive?
Jeffra: I have a couple of skill sets that I summon. One is my performance background. Even though dance doesn’t necessarily take on character like a stage actor would, one still embodies persona through physical gesture and physicality. It really helps inhabit characters beyond voice. I also have ethnographic training and utilize reflexivity and thick description in my observations of imagined characters.
If a writer was reading this interview, I would also say that the character that is experienced on the page is merely the tip of the iceberg for the development that you do. So, it behooves the writer to also experiment with the character through imposed prompts to get to know them better. Put your character in situations that have nothing to do with the plot of the story, just to see what they would do. That level of depth informs whatever eventually appears on the page.
Rumpus: Masculinity and violence are themes that come up in all of your work. In American Gospel, a big narrative drive is Ruth’s fear of her ex and his threats of domestic violence, and of course, the potential violence that Peter faces when his sexuality is discovered. What compels you to render such violence and what do you hope it will accomplish?
Jeffra: Forgive such a Marxist statement, but I am fascinated by violence’s role in catalyzing change. I see it functioning as a kind of deus ex machina for societies. At the same time, I am deeply troubled by acts of violence, and find it inconceivable to commit an act of violence. I do not have a temper, at all. I have other faults, haha, but roiling anger is not one of them. I have only fantasized about killing one person in my whole life (a certain populist figure in our country’s recent political history…ahem), and even that thought upsets me deeply, that I am capable of imagining such a thing. My acute aversion to violence, coupled with my observations that violence often expedites change, has me write it in my stories. Don’t we often write about what we struggle to understand? With that said, I’m not sure what such investigations will accomplish. Perhaps getting closer to some type of personal realization?
Rumpus: As a life-long recovering Catholic, you nail the Catholic church. Are you Catholic?
Jeffra: I didn’t grow up religious. I come from Sufi and Catholic heritages, but my family didn’t practice religion. My mama was already a recovering Catholic when I popped out of the womb. I’m sure some of that rubbed off on me. I will say that I am obsessed with ritual, its regularity, its gestural, embodied way of keeping alive the ideologies related to a faith system. It’s powerful. Similar to writing narratives, embodied ritual functions as a representation of reality, and in many ways is a more potent one. It tells stories with the body.
Rumpus: The novel illustrates a lot of the problems with acceptance within the church. Was it your intention to show how unfair it is?
Jeffra: Not at all. I don’t see the Church as being an adversary in the novel, at all. I see it as being a rather immovable institution, that focuses more on preserving history than serving its community, that functions as a contrast to the swift and sweeping momentum of economic forces. I position the two as a sort of tug-o-war, with people being the rope.
Rumpus: How did you decide to write from the point of view of a priest?
Jeffra: When I was thinking about the novel being a love story to Baltimore, I was thinking of all the elements that seem to entrench the city and its inability to progress and one of them is the Catholic church. I didn’t want to demonize the Catholic church. I wanted someone who represented the church to go through a discovery because that is also important in all my writing. Redemption has to be there. I don’t write characters who don’t have a redemptive realization; it doesn’t have to be an action. I’m not going to just criticize it, and I’m going to go on a journey and form a sense of empathy with someone who represents it. I am not Catholic in any way and you see Catholicism all over Baltimore. In many cases, it harks back to an antiquated Baltimore.
Rumpus: How did you decide to write a coming-of-age character who is mixed-race?
Jeffra: Baltimore is my subject, and it is a majority Black city. The neighborhood that the story is set in is a Black neighborhood so to not have any characters that were central to that community seemed wrong. Also, Peter represents one of the conundrums of Baltimore, its Black-white dialectic, and so I thought that was really important to include. I first had to ask myself, do I need to write across difference for the sake of the story? Ultimately, I took Rebecca Makkai’s advice. She said—concerning her writing of queer characters in her The Great Believers, “I don’t need to apologize for a writing across difference. I need to apologize if I get it wrong.” I’m not writing Peter’s experience of being a mixed-race kid in American Gospel. I’m representing his experience as a teenager. I’m representing his experience as queer, and as a child of a single mother, who does not have a father figure, who lives in this neighborhood. I never have him ruminate on his experience of being mixed-race in the novel, and I don’t believe I have the right to. There are plenty of other people who have lived that experience—they can write that story.
Rumpus: Some of the fun of being a writer is that we can revise our own narratives with a character who has more agency than we did at the time. Were you thinking of those readers when you were writing this?
Jeffra: One hundred percent. Not every kid who is reading this is struggling with coming out. And not every queer story needs to be a coming out story. My character is sexually confident; he has other issues to contend with. Is he arrogant? Yes. Is he precocious? Yes. His struggles exist beyond his queerness. I want young readers to encounter a complex character, not just one who struggles with their sexuality, that they can relate to and perhaps be inspired by.
Rumpus: You’ve written essays, short stories, and now a novel. What is next for you?
Jeffra: Two projects! I am working on a novel about those first deep friendships experienced in our pubescence, set against the backdrop of white poverty, specifically exploring how boys’ masculinities in this environment are socialized. The second project is a book of poetry that experiments with established forms—the ghazal, the pantoum, the villanelle—and explores niche topics within the queer community: internalized queerphobia, gender mimicry, queer fabulism and fantasy, the particular brands of misogyny and racism resonant in the queer community. Cis-het folx can read it if they want—if it gets published, that is—but it’s being written for queers.
Author photo by Jennifer Lewis