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Junot Díaz interviews science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany about what it means to be an aging sex radical and why he wrote the essay “Ash Wednesday.”
This interview is published in dialogue with Samuel R. Delany’s short work of experimental memoir, “Ash Wednesday.”
Junot Díaz: Chip, “Ash Wednesday” is a wonderful essay. Jonathan Lethem once described you as a confessional “genius” and yet even by the standards of your extraordinary autobiographical work this essay stands out—it is so singularly guileless and free of judgment that after reading it I wanted to approach the world in a similar way. You mentioned before our conversation that you wished that I’d seen Charles Lum’s documentary Secret Santa Sex Party (2016). What specifically about that documentary were you struck with, given your own direct experience with the party in question? Which came first for you, the documentary or the party?
Samuel Delany: Lum has made two documentaries, actually. More accurately, he’s made two versions of one documentary: Secret Santa Sex Party is fifteen minutes and explicit. It’s very good. Why? Because it actually shows what these guys do at the party that I attended. It was the same men for the most part whom I went and played around with. Then there’s a seventy-minute version, Sex and the Silver Gays (2016), which contains all of Secret Santa Sex Party as well as a number of interviews with the guys. That I haven’t seen. But I want to. I suspect everyone should, if only to continue the normalization process.
Radicalism begins in the body. Being a sex radical means being willing to speak about it in places you ordinarily wouldn’t.
I went to the party first. Then on April 16, after having written the early draft of my essay, I saw the film in a showing of gay films at the Prince Theater, here in Philadelphia—Lum came down and took me and Dennis to dinner, and I went to the screening. The documentary was made three months before I went to the party. But that just made it seem I was involved in the same process. And I had had sex with maybe half a dozen of the guys I subsequently saw on the screen. That was certainly a first for me. (It was playing with an unbelievably clichéd film called Grinder (2016)—the only good thing you can say about it is that it had nothing to do with the gay hookup app Grindr. Would that it had!) Sitting in a movie theater and looking at the screen and thinking, yes, I’ve actually had sex with him, as you are watching him have sex with someone else (or pretend to), has got to be an experience pretty limited to the community of movie actors—perhaps the community of porn film actors. But when those communities shift radically, it means something—and not just approaching mortality.
Not all explicit sex is pornographic. It can be educational, and I expect that a room full of forty- to eighty-year-olds having sex and discussing their lives would be just that: educational. That’s certainly how I found it, both my single encounter with eighty-five-year-old Eric, my various encounters with older guys cruising on trains when I was in my forties, and these guys in the DoubleTree. They aren’t breaking any laws. They’re enjoying themselves and caring for their own community. And they’re talking honestly and intelligently.
JD: So will you be going back?
SD: It would be far easier if a similar institution were operating here in Philadelphia, even in the Gayborhood in which I live, and I could walk up the street and visit it, instead of having to get on a bus and ride two hours to New York, while I’m trying to get it all into one trip including my visit to my old fuck buddy Maison and his husband Fred, which was a different kind of experience, but finally the more satisfying one, I believe, as I hope I suggested in the essay.
JD: The sex party you describe is a kind of secret community in the middle of midtown Manhattan. On the other hand, everything within it is so transparent, so true, for lack of a better word. Is this a heterotopia?
SD: Heterotopia just means a “different place” or a place where different things can happen. It’s also a medical term, for moving an organ or even tissue from one part of the body to the other. Thus a skin graft or even a surgical sex reassignment can be called a heterotopia. The point, of course, is that it’s not secret. It’s not illegal. Bob does what he does out in the open, and he should. He approaches older men he thinks are good-looking on the street, just the way he did me, and is often successful. Bob’s right to do it—it is vouchsafed by law and he doesn’t annoy anyone so much that he gets punched for it. I talk about the false dichotomy between private and public in the long letter in The Mad Man (1994). There really are subcultures, and they are intra- as well as intercultural, since we all share so many chromosomes—not just human beings, but chimpanzees, gorillas, oak trees, algae. The range of cultural communication has turned around the wheels of social change far faster than ever before.
Not all explicit sex is pornographic. It can be educational. Eighty-year-olds having sex and discussing their lives is just that: educational.
There’s an irony in the term heterotopia that sometimes escapes. I used to sing with the husband of a high school friend, Ellen Kravet—his name was Nat Goldberg. Once he had a motorcycle accident and scraped all the skin off his palm, and had to have a skin graft from another part of his body. One day in the East Village near Gem Spa he showed me his hand—where he’d had a skin graft from his thigh or back. He had body hair all over the palm of his hand. That too is a heterotopia. We made the obligatory jokes about werewolves.
JD: People have called you a sex radical. What do you suppose they mean? What does it mean to you? Does it come with any political commitments?
SD: Intellectual radicals, rather than actual radicals, are people who say things where they are not usually said. And, yes, all true radicalism has to begin in the body—so being a sex radical means you have to be ready to act radically and be willing to speak about it in places you ordinarily wouldn’t—such as an interview about an activity you might otherwise confine to a journal. That’s how I started—and the world got started around me, as it were, when my mother found my secret writings, took them to my therapist, and they ended up in an article: Kenneth Clarke, who was the head of the Northside Center where I was going for child therapy, quoted them in an article in Harper's and again in his book, Prejudice and Your Child (1955), and I found myself published because of it. My first professional sale, as it were. I got a lot of attention for it, too. It is the source of most of my “radicalism.”
JD: You once said that “there were far more opportunities for sex among men before Stonewall than since.” Let’s expand that a little to the larger question of what generational differences among gay men strike you as most significant?
SD: You have to remember there’s always what’s said and then there’s what happens. And there’s always a discrepancy between them. Human beings are definitely tribal, as much as wolves and apes are. And the fact that only one sex carries the young to term immediately starts the separation into cultures. Do you want it in public, in private, or in a special space that’s socially marked out? Do you want pictures or reproductions (and if so, what sort) of those public or private or socially marked out space? That’s finally what my book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999) was about.
JD: Alright, crap question.
SD: I didn’t think it was a crap question. Rather it’s about how you want your sex mediated—or what you’re used to. Do you want it in a group, or in private, in a group who’re used to it that way; do you want it in private, in public, in a group mediated by hand and machine, or hand and genitals, or genitals and genitals, mouth, anus; what do you want the bodies, the genitals, to look like, feel like, reflect in terms of ethnicity and specificity.
What surprises me is how much I don’t miss the dead. But I feel diminished by the death of friends. It’s like losing a part of your library—a part of your brain.
JD: How do you see “Ash Wednesday” in the context of your other autobiographical work? What surprised you as you composed it?
Samuel Delany: Very little—other than the clumsiness I fell into while writing it, which—with reading after rereading—I had to strike out. (I still write that poorly? That’s the message I always hear from the critical part of my brain when I read over what I’ve put down.) I shouldn’t call that a surprise—on the contrary. But the mistakes are what flood over me every time I reread the last phrase, clause, sentence I’ve typed.
JD: Thou art hard, my friend. When I read “Ash Wednesday” what flooded over me is your excellence. The title is taken from the Catholic holiday that reminds believers of their mortality and demands humility and obligation. Is there any similar kind of devotion in the communities you describe? Or is this speaking to the fact that when one is older mortality stops being just a concept?
SD: As I’ve aged, I’ve seen people die: a brilliant young man, Robert Morales, whom I met when he was seventeen and I was thirty-two, was, for a number of years, slated to be my literary executor—of course he was going to outlive me. His sister Arlene had had leukemia, and he nursed her through her death at twenty-one. Later, his father came down with colon cancer, and a couple of times I met them in the halls of the AMC-25 Empire Theater on the New Forty-Second Street where you and I used to go to watch bad science fiction films—it was his father we were all expecting to eventually succumb. Only one day, our mutual friend, the artist Mia Wolfe, phoned me to say, “Chip, Robert died this morning!” Robert too had colon cancer—but didn’t know it—and what he’d thought was a three-day bout of indigestion had suddenly ruptured his lower intestine. Sitting on the commode he’d collapsed, one cheek flattened against the sink, and died. His father had called in to see if he wanted an orange juice and found him dead. So I lost a good friend, a wonderful editor and advisor, and had to find a new literary executor.
Robert’s parents had already lost one child to leukemia and I don’t know what losing another was like. His friends flew in to the funeral from all over the country. Robert was Puerto Rican, and very much a black Puerto Rican: he was perpetually late and perpetually people forgave him because he had so much else to offer. I don’t know if you ever met him, but he was one of the best literary advisors you could have, and he did innumerable small editing jobs for me—such as getting my Paris Review essay into shape, when Rachel returned her final version to me. And he was a good, good friend.
JD: I knew Robert’s work well but never got a chance to meet him. His death was a terrible loss.
SD: Then there was the time I woke up and learned that my closest friend in the SF community, David Hartwell, had fallen when moving a bookshelf in his home and had suffered a brain bleed; he was already brain dead, and was pronounced officially dead the next day. What surprises me is how much I don’t miss the dead. But I feel regularly diminished by the death of good friends. It’s like losing a part of your library—a part of your own brain. It’s as rupturing and as hurtful—but is not sad. They had incredible amounts of knowledge and skill with which they were wonderfully generous. Both were great editors. Both were no slouches as writers, either. Robert wrote the classic Marvel series, Truth (2003), about the black Captain America—the onle that Kyle Baker drew—and it’s still a wonderful comic. I worked for David at least twice, once at Cosmos Magazine and once as his assistant at Arbor House. Not a lot of people knew David had a PhD in late medieval literature from Columbia University. I remember him working on it; his thesis was an edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And he was as supportive an editor to Marilyn Hacker, my ex-wife, as he was to me, publishing her novel in sonnets (modeled on George Meredith’s Modern Love, which we’d both read and marveled at), which I feel proud to have suggested a title for, from Robert Graves: Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (1986).
Losing good friends at my age is like losing your own resources. “Any man’s death diminishes me. . . .” John Donne’s line has a much realer meaning as you yourself age.
The technology I use is often beautiful. But more and more it bewilders me. When I can’t use it and I need to that scares me, and I think scares others my age.
My father’s death in October 1960, when I was eighteen, freed me, I think. Though it perhaps robbed me and my sister of a chance for a certain later coming to terms with him personally. It had not been a happy relationship. I was lucky that the naturalness and community nature of death were parts of my life quite early. My father had been a funeral director in Harlem, where I grew up. Before writing the essay we’re talking about, I reread T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” which, I suppose, is very much a poem of release and the contemplation of loss. It didn’t give me much—but that’s how I’ve felt about Eliot’s more devotional efforts for decades. That’s a literary fact that has to be accepted.
Mortality is, of course, the defining human concept. We are mortals. We are told that from the day we can speak, and we come to learn more and more what mortality means and doesn’t mean, according to tribal traditions. We are creatures who will die and know it. Such things change over time—but when they change within a lifetime, the earliest things are still there. And they include all the ignorance one was brought up on. Ash Wednesday is not an important Episcopalian holiday in the same way as it is in the Catholic Church. It was always what other people did. Even in the essay, it serves as a sign of what others do or do not do.
When I was twenty, I simply didn’t know that there could be organized sex parties among older men or sixty, seventy, or eighty. I’ve always liked older men. But I was very surprised when I realized I could find older men who could give me a good time. In the first weeks I was in the apartment I still live in, here in Philadelphia, I was at the gay bookstore Giovanni’s Room and met a young fellow in his late twenties who liked older guys and wanted to go home with me and have sex in the shower. The community sketched in the essay is devoted to its older men. And people such as Bob Woof, who organizes the sex parties, really are devoted in that way.
In “Ash Wednesday” I write about Lige, whom I met when he was a rambunctious five-year-old at a Memorial Day barbecue. A decade later, I remember him as a sensitive sixteen-year-old living in a trailer park. His cat had died that afternoon, and he was too depressed to go out for pizza with Maison and me, so we went without him; at nineteen he had a child and a wife two years his senior who’d brought two earlier children to the marriage; they were still in the trailer park, and seven years later, he was dead from a incorrectly administered dose of Plavex for the heart condition he’d developed. He never reached thirty, and that’s the aspect of mortality that bothers me. I think of all the black kids, the disabled kids, the Asian kids who are luckier that he was, simply because he was poor and white and had had appalling medical care all his life and no education, and even worse luck in his acquaintances and family.
Dennis is pretty devoted to me—that I know.
JD: To switch gears a little: back when you were writing science fiction regularly you were never a hardware person, though some of the hardware you did devise—I’m thinking of the Scorpions in Dhalgren—is simply marvelous. But in “Ash Wednesday” there is an awareness of technology that I’ve not seen in your previous work. What’s going on?
I think the people you are comfortable seeing in person are finally the ones who offer you the most help.
SD: Technology is a problem. It’s a problem for me. The speed with which it has changed—and is still changing—is dazzling. When I got my first Apple, I signed up for a hundred dollars worth of lessons—and never took them. That remains one of the stupidest things I ever did. If I had, possibly the last third of my career would have been different. In the same way I never learned to touch type with two hands—that’s completely stymied my writing and added the problem, on top of my dyslexia, of clumsy typing as soon as I try to go faster than twenty words a minute. And I’m the guy who built a computer in his sophomore year of high school and got an honorable mention for it in the annual science fair. But I’ve never learned the simplest basics of how to use my computer to do more than type and send simple emails. I can do math on my iPhone but not on my computer, because I have a calculator app. I’m only learning now how to maneuver with the address bar. There are things you can do with the yellow minimize button that I’d never thought about before.
It really does take me three to five times as long to learn anything as it once did. There are things that Dennis, my partner, and Bill, my assistant, find easier to do for me than to let me do. But I have to badger Bill again and again to spend time drilling me on what I need to know—even at seventy-five. The technology I use is often beautiful. But more and more it bewilders me—even the primitive voice technology we have with something like Siri, which at this point could certainly not pass a Turing test, is something I can only use to set a timer to cook my morning oatmeal. When I can’t use it and I need to—which is more and more pretty much everyday—that scares me, and I think scares others my age. My landlord, who is a year my senior, doesn’t even do emails! My bank just announced it’s going to go to voice recognition technology. Is this going to replace passwords or be on top of them? My voice is not the same as it was ten years ago; I know that because I’m very close to it. It’s part of my body—as is my ability to type, which is the interface with so much of our phone and laptop and computer technology.
JD: You are an inveterate Facebook user, though.
SD: That’s right; it presents an illusion of managed relationships, extended and virtual neighborhoods, as we find ourselves enmeshed in more and more of them, with our taxes, our health insurance, our banking, our education all mediated through keyboards, monitors, and microphones, which take over the body more and more. Think of the immensity of the porn industry, as it disperses in time and space.
Illiteracies are as fascinating as literacies—and I think that’s important. And I’ve always tried to write about them too. As far as technology is concerned, I feel far closer to an illiterate than a literate member of the computer age. Others on Facebook have told me the same thing. My friend Maison doesn’t read or write; he doesn’t type. Fred can use a computer, but they rarely do. They have two, I believe. They have a younger friend who comes by and helps them with banking and insurance. And also to see what I’m doing in Facebook.
JD: You go into this trip with some anxieties related to aging: about worsening ADD, and about the worry that the world is passing you by. Did the trip help relieve either of these? What does writing about them do for you?
SD: Well, it’s a way to help me think about them clearly, and a way to remember them. Napoleon rather famously used to write himself notes, then tear them up. Just the writing itself was an aid to memory. Well, it is, but if you are a writer, often you have to do even more than that.
For every book I’ve written there were thirty that I wanted to write, started to write—then petered out or gave up.
I don’t feel the world is passing me by as long as I can relate to real people in person. Take you and me—we started in the same city, New York, a bus ride apart. We could get together and go off for wonderful cooked-at-your-table Korean food in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Then, suddenly, you and Marjorie are four states to the north, in Cambridge, and, with a couple more orbits around the sun, Dennis and I are in Pennsylvania, first in Wynnewood, then back in Philadelphia. And with each further separation, the possibility of communication is attenuated. But no single trip is going to do it for anyone. I think the people you are comfortable seeing in person are finally the ones who offer you the most help.
JD: You are, in my opinion, one of the greatest living American writers. Your books fill up two complete shelves on my wall and that’s not including the volumes that have been produced about your work. Do you feel as though you have written what you wished to write? Did anything slip away from you? What’s next for you?
SD: For every book I’ve written there were thirty that I wanted to write, started to write, got halfway or three-quarters of the way through or maybe only four or five pages through—then petered out or gave up. I have always had to do lots of rewriting. And I’ve been told some of it’s good, and some of it’s bad. Two of those starts got pretty far along—and I wanted to see if I could salvage something from them. Right now it feels as if I can’t go draft any more complete novels. But the final part of your question slid across two others to get there.
—First, have you written what you wished to write?
Does anyone? What you wish to write changes, day to day, hour to hour sometimes, and is braided with all the things you have to do to be able to write at all—from self-care to physical and technical skills. How much control do you have over your own focus and energy? From the time I was a child, I wanted to weave my works into larger works—and they were always coming apart and falling to pieces.
—Second, did anything slip away from you?
There are hours when it seems as if everything did! Both fiction and nonfiction! The unfairness of finding oneself a writer who can’t hold onto the spelling of words! (The dyslexia.) To have a nervous system that, as you try to touch type your way through a sentence, is as likely to hit a letter with the third finger of the right hand as with the left, or is as likely to type an l as a w. In my journals I have perhaps four and a half different kinds of handwriting, and am likely to slip from one to another—now using a version of print, now a version of cursive, or something in between.
Modesty and moderation are what produce art, I think.
I’ve gotten up ten times in the midst of this paragraph to see what Dennis is doing in the other room, but not disturb him at it, and that’s a habit established over a year back in this flat, which is very similar to something that used to happen in the large apartment in New York we had, but was all but impossible to do in the back rooms off the kitchen when we lived in Wynnewood, with the kitchen between the library and my office; and when we move again, it will be different still. These patterns have to contain sex and food and food preparation, and conversation and the hours when my assistant comes. That anything gets done, much less something that seems to a few people worth reading, seems miraculous.
What’s next for you? That was the final part of your last question.
Hey, I hope I get to the last sentence of this interview more or less able to write another, and get through the various tasks the rest of the day presents me, some of which will concern writing and some of which will not.
I don’t know if you saw a credo of mine I restated recently on Facebook; I throw it in here: The violation of reproductive rights is not the only problem women have. First, not all women reproduce. Second, not all women reproduce their entire lives long. Third, the discrimination that women face starts when they are born and continues through till they are dead—and, in terms of historical presentation of their achievements and struggles or just their ordinary lives, often beyond. Fourth, the patterns of prejudice and discrimination against women are the model, adjusted, for all other forms: racial, religious, and all the others. The infantilizing, the devaluation of experience, the stigmatizing, the economic punishment is all learned with women and applied to the others. Although the group I tend to concentrate on and have for the last thirty-five-odd years is gay men, because it is the one I belong to, I have been aware since my teens that prejudice against women is the main source of our political dilemma. Fix that, in terms of transgender women, gay women, black women, Asian women, poor women, and cisgender white women, and you go a long way toward fixing the whole machine. And fixing any male group's problem (or individual's) has to be done with an awareness of the whole.
In the eighties, to get a passport all you needed to do was show up at the office with someone who would swear to knowing you for two years.
My partner Dennis's problem right now—because he was homeless for six years—is getting a picture ID, but I spent a month last November standing in lines of the homeless several hundreds long, and learned that there were more homeless women with his problem than men (and more black women than white), which, bluntly, is one reason the problem is as hard to fix for him as it is.
JD: Too many people in this country in similar plights. Far too many.
SD: Yes, and in Canada as well. We had a talented young journalist, Megan Marrelli, come see us about a month ago. She had already done an article on a friend of mine named Danny McLaughlan, whom I’ve known thirty years, since he was a working stiff (an old slang term for a hustler) in New York. Now in his fifties, he’s working in Toronto, but has never had any ID. The article mentions Dennis and me in passing. It’s a good article, too. After she finished it, she came to Philly to do an audio piece just on Dennis and me. I tried to put her in touch with our lawyer, but that didn’t work out. But the point is, Dan and Dennis, a country apart, are both in the same position as far as ID is concerned. Neither one of them has it. Neither one seems to be able to get it. Apparently you can’t get a picture ID or get into any of the loops that will get you one without already having one from somewhere.
In the mid-eighties, to get someone a passport who didn’t have one, all you needed to do was show up at the passport office, which in New York City used to be on the second floor of the Rockefeller Center, with someone who had known you for two years or more and swear in front of the agent and sign the form. I know, because that’s how I got one for my first long-term lover, Frank Romeo, who had also had periods of homelessness, less severe than Dennis’s, but which had still cost him his ID. But by the time I got together with Dennis, it was being handled so differently that it was practically impossible, and once 9/11 occurred, it became more difficult still.
From one afternoon standing in a line of a hundred homeless men and women, seeking help, I saw, as I stood there trying to help Dennis, that the largest group that has this problem is clearly black homeless women, gay and transgender, followed by black gay men. Dennis, the one white guy, was exhausted with fighting and so had sent his black gay partner to stand in his place!
I hope Megan's next piece reflects this reality that the problem is mostly faced by homeless black women. And it is all but insoluble precisely because it is largely a homeless gay woman’s problem. The rest only share that difficulty. It’s not so different from the avant-propos of Les Misérables:
So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.
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