Guest Post: Anne E. Johnson on the Queer and Loving World of “Braids”

Anne E. Johnson is my guest today, speaking about how she conceived and crafted her story in Resilience.  Tomorrow is the big day– come and see Anne, James, Emma, Bill, Eric and me at Word Up from 3-5 PM!

My story, “Braids,” is meant as a literary experiment. When you read it, you’ll notice something unusual: All of the characters are gay. Male, female, kids, adults. All of them. I did this for two reasons.

First, I’m fascinated (to put it kindly) by the many people in the world who like to pretend that LGBT people don’t exist. They look around them and see a completely straight world. They watch TV shows, go to movies, and (maybe) read books that help them sustain this fallacy.

So “Braids” is kind of a counter-attack, a world where everyone is queer, yet nobody is ignoring them, bullying them, or afraid of them. They’re living their lives within the usual spectrum of love, loss, happiness, and pain, just like characters in a story in which everyone’s straight.

Second, I wanted a level playing field. I wanted the focal point not to be the characters’ queerness and people’s reaction to it, but how they see themselves. Nobody makes a big deal about anyone being gay. Nevertheless, everyone in the story has self-doubt. The point is that it’s hard to stay confident as you navigate through life, no matter what your sexuality.

Likewise, problems of self-image don’t evaporate just because we grow up. We do have to keep working on how we view ourselves, continually convincing ourselves of our own worth. The character Lateesha learns that as she and her mother both question their value, their looks, and their potential to succeed in life and relationships.

I’d say that the central message of “Braids” is that it doesn’t matter who you love; what counts is how well you love yourself.

[Please visit me at my website,]

Resilience Reading and Open Mic

We’re looking forward to seeing you tomorrow, but if you can’t make and/or are far away, here’s how to get Resilience:


Guest Post: James R. Silvestri’s Unlikely Resilience and Unexpected Affinities

Today, I’m pleased to introduce James R. Silvestri, writing about his own relationship to resilience and his story in the book.  I bet you know where and when you can hear more from him– this Saturday, 3-5 PM, at Word Up Books!

In a lot of ways, I might be considered an unlikely choice for a project associated with resilience, with personal strength and inspirational perseverance.  I am an extremely private person, sometimes painfully so.  Ask me for my opinion on anything, be it my favorite TV show or the traits I look for in a partner, and prepare for a sliding scale of awkward shrugs and stammering.  This is part of the reason I became a writer; it’s a lot easier to express myself through well thought-out printed words and fictional characters then to simply speak what’s on my mind.  It’s always been that way.  For the record, I am no misunderstood teenaged wallflower.  I am 34 years-old.

And yet, the Resilience anthology spoke to a very vibrant, very vocal quadrant of my soul.  When the whole “It Gets Better” campaign started to make waves at the wake of several suicides and violent attacks among LGTB youth, I was skeptical at first.  I knew the intentions of all participants were good and pure, but I thought the message was off.  “It Gets Better” seemed to embrace what my favorite comic strip upstart Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes once referred to as “The Culture of Victimhood.”  In my mind, the campaign encouraged young people in these adverse situations to embrace their roles as victims of the cultural war, to acknowledge their current state of weakness and lean on the required guidance of school authorities and legal guardians, as well as the hope that if you hang in there and try to stay alive, things will magically fix themselves.  There was no talk of fighting back, of demanding self-respect, of creating a multi-step plan that would actually make one’s life better.  It all seemed so passive, so defeatist, this “It Gets Better” business.

But then, I came to realize a few things:

1) Young people, particularly those who grow up in small communities or ghettoized inner city neighborhoods, usually don’t have a model to work with.  When you’re gay or transgendered or any sort of ostracized minority, you usually don’t have access to this Great Life Plan that will drag you through and past the muck.  So, suddenly, “Just Get Through Today, Then Tomorrow, Then The Next Day” suddenly seems like a more valid plan of action.

2) Sometimes, a young person who has just had enough of the torture, the name-calling, the abuse and the cyber-gossip and what have you, will in fact take action.  Columbine taught many of us this lesson in 1999, and Chardon gave us a refresher course in 2012.  Adolescence is a time of extreme emotion, and extreme emotions can lead to extreme actions, be it suicide or murder.  So once again, telling someone in this situation to chill out, take stock and keep hope sounds like a pretty wise plan of action.

3) And really, who the hell am I kidding?  I was a fucking mess when I was a teenager.  I barely spoke a dozen words during my four years in an all-boys Catholic school.  The only way I survived was to make myself invisible, and the few times I was forced into human interaction, some sort of teasing or nastiness was directed towards me.  Nobody can stay invisible forever, not even me.

And you know what?  If my 34 year-old self could go back and time and meet my 15 year-old self, you’re damn right that I would tell Mini-Me that It Gets Better.  Because it does–it did.  Yes, I am still a socially awkward oaf, but in the adult world I live in now, it’s okay to be that.   In fact, in a era where people can’t seem to shut the hell up, it’s actually a sort of commodity that I actually possess the ability to listen, to assess.  And on occasion, I can even break through that shell.  For a few hours a day, I in fact must do this professionally as an English teacher.  Lecturing has become a new way to harness my nervous energy and my over-arching quest for connection, and I am much better off for it.

My story in Resilience is called “What Happened to Mona Shalesky?”, and like all of my published works, it’s fiction.  I am not a small-town lesbian waitress, nor am I a drifter transman.  Although I’ve come to meet a few people in this life who are undergoing various stages of transgenderism, it is not a condition I can immediately relate to.  While almost everything else about my life feels murky and (at worst) lost at sea, my gender identity has been pretty secure.  So, naturally, I am gravitated towards people and stories about this type of journey.  While I don’t identify with the specifics, I can relate to the universal truth that life can be difficult, and people will not always understand what you’re going through.  And while it does in fact Get Better, it never Gets Perfect.  That’s what keeps life interesting.

Resilience Reading and Open Mic

Since now I’m sure you would love to know what happened to Mona Shalesky, mosey on over to the buy link for Resilience:

Guest Post: Emma Eden Ramos on Endurance, Resilience, and the Search for (Literary) Selfhood

My guest today is Emma Eden Ramos, here with a story of her own journeys through adolescence and literature, and the queer resilience that can arise out of both of these strange categories.  She’ll be reading at Word Up this Saturday, from 3-5 PM!

Adolescence is, for many of us, a time of pain, endurance and discovery. Pain, not only because our bodies and psyches are changing–our emotions in a constant state of flux– but because we are surrounded by others who are experiencing the same turbulent transformations. So much of adolescence is about being able not only to handle our own inner battles but to endure the fallout of others’.  When I look back on my own high school experience, I feel proud to have survived. My peers were cruel. I was called freak, ugly, bitch, loser. The most painful, however, was in the middle of my freshman year of high school when a boy I’d been friends with in middle school told the entire grade that I was a lesbian. At that time (2002), even in New York City, being labeled “gay” in some high schools could be dodgy. In my case it was like walking around with an “A” pinned to my shirt. People stopped talking to me, sent me cruel messages on AIM, badgered me with prying questions — “Are you a lesbian? Huh? Huh? Can’t you just tell us?”– In the end, I had to find a new high school. It wasn’t, at least for me, the accusation itself that was so hurtful. What I struggled with most was that other people were labeling me at a time when I was unable to label myself. This was my period of self-discovery, and it was being taken away from me.

Fast forward to the spring of 2009 when I am, thankfully, a good six years past my early high school days. While studying Psychology at Marymount Manhattan College, I decide to balance out my required Statistics course with a class in Contemporary Literature. I’d always been a voracious reader, but there were certain genres I had yet to discover. Well, by the end of that semester, I was left feeling both awakened and jipped. Andrew Holleran, Sarah Waters, Leslie Feinberg, Shamim Sarif, how had I managed to miss these authors, and during those years of relentless questioning and insecurity?

The novels we read in the Gay and Lesbian Literature course at Marymount inspired me to write my first story, “Where the Children Play.” As a teen I’d read about Cathy and Heathcliff (Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights) and Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). But characters such as Kitty and Nancy (Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet) or Maurice and Alec (E.M. Forrester’ Maurice) had eluded my radar. I wanted to write a modern coming-of-age story in which the teen protagonist is able to overcome the convictions of his family and society.

“Where the Children Play” isn’t just a story about self-discovery. It’s a story about tolerance and even acceptance. Adolescence, for everyone, is a time of both struggle and revelation. To make it through these trying years, one must have endurance. The process of enduring the journey toward self-respect and awareness requires resilience, especially for those whose preferences and lifestyles aren’t yet respected by society at large. With the recent number of teen suicides, it is clear that society has some serious growing up to do. In the meantime, young people need to know, whether it’s through the literature they read, the television they watch, or the music they listen to, that there are many of us who have come through on the other side. But it takes endurance. Endurance and resilience.

Resilience Reading and Open Mic

Emma’s website is here:  Please go visit her, and, if you want even more lovely writing, here’s the link to purchase Resilience:

Guest Post: Bill Elenbark on Running, Writing, and Resilience

Today I’m pleased to welcome fellow Resilience writer Bill Elenbark, with his thoughts on the piece he wrote for the book and his writing-journey through coming out.  Come see him and the rest of us at Word Up this Saturday from 3-5 PM!  Here’s Bill’s story:

My first class in graduate school for writing required a multi-genre piece featuring pictures or music or poetry interspersed with prose and I chose to write a story about my running career, such as it was at the time, inspired by a piece in Runners’ World and thinking that I had a story to tell about the way I hated running despite being an athlete all my life but how I came to love the sport after multiple knee injuries derailed all my other athletic involvements.  At the time I wrote this story, a band called Wolf Parade had a song called “You Are a Runner and I Am My Father’s Son” on their debut album and I thought that could be the backdrop for this story, the multi-genre interspersing of the lyrics of the song with the story of my first 5K race and my knee pain and how I’d gone from hate to love of the sport of running.  The song featured references to the singer’s father, though, which proved difficult to incorporate into my story, particularly since my father wasn’t a runner himself and our relationship through sports was often contentious.  I wasn’t prepared to reveal so much in my first class back in college and I certainly wasn’t ready to talk about my sexuality, not to strangers, so I largely glossed over the difficulties between my father and myself growing up and I didn’t mention that I was gay.  The story focused mainly on running and was adequate enough to garner praise from my professor.  But it felt incomplete.

A year later in a fiction class, I wanted to share a novel that I was working on at the time, a semi-autobiographical screed that really wasn’t very good but was highly personal, about a not-so-young man who’d hidden his sexuality all his life and the difficulties he’d faced in his quest to stay hidden.  I knew if I shared an excerpt of the novel the parallels between the narrator and the author would be easily seen and these strangers in school would know some of my truth, a truth at the time that remained largely hidden.  But the writing was too important to me not to share it, to have someone else read it – finally – and not some edited version like the runner story that failed to show any real truth.

On the day that my story was being work-shopped, another student’s work was shared, and by odd coincidence or some stroke of fate, his story also dealt with gay characters, gay high school students who were trying to stay hidden.  I freaked a bit when I read his story – cursing my luck that someone else would have the same theme – but I was comforted to know that I wouldn’t be alone.  It’s always tougher to believe you’re all alone.

When we got to class, the professor made a comment about the night having a “theme” and a few students laughed, uncomfortable laughs, while I sank down in my seat.  The other student’s story went first in the workshop and although I thought it was pretty good, the professor had some harsh words about the way he’d tried to trick the reader, the way he’d hidden the reveal that the characters were both male in an obvious way with neutral pronouns and choice phrases that she felt were cheap and unnecessary, a common device that needed to be removed to elevate his writing.  Then we took a break and while half the students left the room and I tried to brace for an evaluation of my story – fearing the worst – the professor called the other student up to her desk and asked him flat-out if he was gay.

I felt my head spin around and my eyes dart to hers – I couldn’t believe what she asked him.  And I wanted to hear his answer.  It hadn’t occurred to me that he might not be gay.  But he told her he wasn’t.  And she told him she didn’t think so, not with the way he was writing the characters, and that she has some close gay friends who would probably be a little offended by a straight male writing this way about these characters.  I don’t know what she meant exactly but she turned to me, still hiding in my seat, and said those fateful words no one had dared asked me straight out before:  “Bill – are you gay?”

I nodded.  She asked if his story offended me and I said it hadn’t and I’m not entirely certain why it would but he left the room and she maybe smiled at me but I tried not to look at her, or at anyone, for I’d just been outed for the first time in my life.  And it scared the shit out of me.

The class returned to hear my story.  We had to read the opening page or two and then the other students gave their opinions followed by the professor’s opinion while the author remained silent, not responding to any criticism but merely taking notes and taking it all in.  I don’t remember the other students’ comments, but none were really negative, and I don’t remember the professor’s comments, but hers were rather positive but I do remember the end of the class, this fear that I had, that all these strangers suddenly knew something about me that many of my closest friends still didn’t know.  I grabbed my bag and I waited, I didn’t want to walk out with any others, I needed to be alone.  But I didn’t time it right – the professor stopped me for a quick chat about nothing – and I ended up walking out with the other student whose story was read and another kid in the class, also male.  They complained about the professor and I joined in but they both said they liked my story and left it at that.  Then I think we talked about the Phillies.  They didn’t mention my sexuality, it didn’t matter to them.  And for the first time in my life, I started to realize maybe it didn’t have to matter so much to me.  I finished the rest of the semester without any comments from anyone about my sexuality and a semester later, a girl from that class befriended me and eventually shared her sexuality – coming out to me at a restaurant on campus, one of the first people she’d ever told.  She was a lot younger than me and assumed I’d been through all the horror of coming-out but we ended up becoming friends and going through it together.  Which never would have happened if I hadn’t shared that story in fiction class.

A couple years later, still in grad school (with a full-time job it took a long time for my writing degree) I decided to revise “You a Runner” for a memoir class my last semester at school.  All my friends knew about me by then – at least the ones at school and many of the ones from outside – and I decided to truly tell the story of my athletic career and its relation to my father and how our relationship was strained for so long until the moment I came out to him, and from then on we never fought again.  This was the story I wanted to tell, the story that mattered to me, the one about a difficult childhood and adolescence steeped in sports and my father’s belligerent coaching, the one in which I could never be myself, where I could only survive by staying hidden, but when I finally gathered the courage, after years and years of waiting, the act of being true to myself changed the love my father had for me in a positive way and for everyone else, it didn’t really matter, it didn’t have to mean everything.  So it does get better.  Sometimes it takes a long time.  In my life it took a hell of a long time.  But it does get better.  And at some point you forget why it all seemed to matter so much.

Resilience Reading and Open Mic

For more from Bill Elenbark, check out his website here:   And if you can’t come to the reading, you can still get Resilience here: