The Puerto Rican drag queen is a recognizable personification of New York in the 1980s, the neighbor (and opposite) of the white, Gordon Gekko-style master of the universe with his slicked-back hair. In The House of Impossible Beauties, debut novelist Joseph Cassara brings this stock character into the foreground in order to recognize her humanity and her history. Based on the figures associated with the real-life House of Xtravaganza, the first Latinx house in New York’s 1980s ballroom scene, the novel follows a family of queer characters of various ethnic backgrounds and sexual identities through the tumult and crises of that time and place. Cassara immerses us in a New York that we may think we know from countless other novels and films, but which is, in fact, significantly more complex (and more urgently relevant to us today) than previously imagined.
I met Cassara last winter at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was editing the final draft of the novel. He was kind enough to talk to me via email about the book’s origins, its political dimensions, and its composition process.
The Millions: What first drew you to this milieu? How does Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning fit into the development of the novel?
Joseph Cassara: I love the milieu of New York City in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. There was this perfect combination of grit and fabulousness. Like someone could spit in your face and you’d still be like, “Oh yeah baby, I’m in New Fucking York.” I love that as an aesthetic.
So I grew up in New Jersey—not far outside of the city—but most of what I know about NYC was, by proxy, through my family who all hail from the Bronx and Brooklyn. I’m Puerto Rican and Sicilian, and I was always a quiet kid, so for years, I was totally into the music, the sounds, the rich linguistic rhythms of New York and the stories I heard them tell about the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Then of course there’s the queer history aspect. I’m gay and I always feel sad when I realize how much of queer history is lost because it hasn’t been documented properly. Or it’s been purposefully erased. Now I realize that my modus operandi when writing is to try and resurrect queer stories and turn them into narratives that people can experience in a linear fashion, but when I first started writing this story, I didn’t realize it was going to be a novel. I had always loved Paris Is Burning and I thought I would write a short story that drew inspiration from the people we meet in the film. I was in my first semester of grad school at the time and I submitted the story for workshop. It was about 43 pages and my peers kept saying, much to my chagrin: no no no, this isn’t a story, it’s a novel, it clearly wants to be a novel.
The documentary served as a launching off point. Angel, Hector, and Dorian are based on real people. Paris Dupree and Pepper LaBeija were also real people who have minor appearances in the book. The artist Keith Haring is mentioned very briefly. On the other hand, Juanito and Daniel are completely fictionalized. Towards the beginning of Paris Is Burning there are two boys—one has his arm around the other’s shoulder. One has a purple spot on his neck, probably a hickey. They look so young to me now. When I was 18 and watching the movie for the first time, their youth didn’t startle me as much as it does now. I always imagined their faces when I was writing Juanito and Daniel.
TM: This is both a historical novel and a novel that takes a very specific subculture as its topic. What sort of research did you have to do to tap into the ball culture of 1980s New York?
JC: I watched the documentary about a million times. It felt like the ultimate treasure trove—not only do the subjects talk to the camera, but we also see them in scene. Sometimes they contradicted themselves, which is so beautiful and human. I was fascinated by how many levels of performance were taking place. My goal was to study these moments in the film as closely as possible so that I could render something similar on the page with precision. One of the novel’s main concerns is how queer people of color navigate the spaces around them, so it was important for me to see their bodies on screen, moving around the world.
Then there were the smaller things that came together to create the milieu. I curated an informal archive of photos. Some images had people from the documentary, while others showed the subway or the streets of NYC. For a while, I saturated myself in these images, sometimes as a way of justifying why I didn’t have to write that day. Like I could say, “Oh I’m technically not writing, but I’m being productive by looking at photos of telephone booths and people walking down the street in shoulder pads and this is research.” It sounds a little silly to say it that way, but I really think it helped allow my subconscious to run wild, which eventually helped my writing process. I’d also add small details to this collection, like what the Boy Bar matchbooks looked like, or the posters used to advertise parties at the Saint, or the comments people made about their experiences dancing at Paradise Garage. It was like a collection of primary sources that I used to inform my descriptions of the place and time.
I interviewed some people when I could. For example, one of the characters in the book has dreams of becoming a dancer. I know very little about dance. I took Ballet 101 in college to fulfill a physical education requirement, and I learned many things about myself in that class, none of which are related to grace or flexibility. So I have a friend who is a very talented dancer. He was trained in the Martha Graham method and was one of the cats in Cats: The Musical. I took him out for lunch one day and said, “Tell me everything you know about Martha Graham. Obsess about her. Just gush. Talk to me with dance jargon I won’t understand. Just talk.” And so he talked and I stored it all to memory so that I could tap into it later when writing.
TM: Did you have any reservations about writing transgender characters? It’s a community that has dealt with a lot of misrepresentation and misunderstanding, and we’re at a moment in the culture where there is an active discussion over who can tell whose stories.
JC: I think that the role of the novelist is to deeply inhabit the lives of characters who are different than ourselves, to practice a radical empathy and honestly represent that on the page for readers. (Unless, of course, the writer practices autofiction, then it’s a different set of rules, but that’s not your question here…) I’m not trans, so I knew that when I was writing a trans character, I would need to make sure I was being precise and truthful, and not exploitative. My hope is that by approaching it this way, clichés and stereotypes wouldn’t even become an issue, because my intent was to take each character and treat them as the beautiful, nuanced, complex human beings that they are. Within the larger context of the novel, I wanted to represent various shades of gender and sexual identity, so there are various queer characters whose expressions range from fem to butch. I thought it was important to show that there are many ways to be a person, and they are all beautiful and worthy of love.
In terms of the active discussion that’s taking place, I think it’s great that the dominant culture, which is generally composed of straight, white people, is starting to have this conversation. And acknowledge their, to be frank, lack of imagination. Because for too long, they have portrayed people of color and queer people as archetypes, or props, or servants, or non-existent. We were never really seen as human beings with the potential for complex and complete character arcs, so my goal with this novel was to actively combat that. Of course, I had to utilize certain tropes because I’m writing in a certain medium and in conversation with a specific literary tradition, but that didn’t stop me from trying to inhabit and represent my characters’ humanity. Each of the characters in this novel is a complex human being with hopes, dreams, desires, a sense of humor, and we see them struggle to survive in a white, straight world that simply refuses to welcome them.
TM: I was interested in how you handled gender in the novel. With characters like Angel and Venus, the narrator moves back and forth between male and female pronouns, depending on the circumstances. What was that decision process like?
JC: In regular day-to-day speech, queer people will code switch their pronouns, usually for comedic purposes. It’s like a form of irony because everyone in on the joke knows who uses what pronoun and that the shift is taking place. Like when a bossy gay guy walks into the room and people are like, “Who does she think she is?” or, “Oh boy, there she goes again.” For example, whenever I criticize Mike Pence, I use “she” as an ironic way to subvert power because he’s very homophobic and would never approve of the pronoun shift. So my point here is that when pronouns shift, there’s a lot of implicit work that is being communicated on a linguistic level.
In terms of craft, the pronomial shifts take place, for the most part, in the earlier sections of the novel, when Angel and Venus are respectively growing into their own. There’s a scene early on where Angel gets into a fight with her homophobic mother. Her mother demands that Angel take off the dress she’s wearing. When she complies, the pronoun shifts to “he.” I always thought of it as a moment where the form represents the content in a literal way. There’s an emotional shift that is also a shift in the language and it comes at a really distressing and heartbreaking scene. So much is contained in that pronoun shift. Later in the chapter, she’s talking to her brother, who she loves and feels comfortable around, and the pronoun shifts back. I think it’s a subtle and unspoken way of showing the reader what’s going on in her psyche in the moment.
TM: I was struck by the sort of grim pragmatism of the people in this world. There’s a lot of prostitution, for example. Dorian, who is a role model figure for Angel, actively encourages would-be queens to sell sexual favors in order to support themselves. You don’t shy away from depicting these scenes, which can be pretty upsetting. Did that give you pause, in the writing process?
JC: It didn’t give me any pause because I felt like those scenes were really important. So much of the book is concerned with the violence that is perpetrated against queer people of color. Those scenes were a chance for me to slow down and document it, to present the harsh reality of those situations for readers. There is no sugarcoating, just honesty about how these characters are treated in the world. For queer people of color, the statistics surrounding poverty, unemployment, HIV infection, drug use, murder, and suicide are so shockingly high. That enrages me because it’s not fair. But a statistic is a number, which feels distant, whereas a novel is a narrative that feels completely immersive. It’s much more upsetting to become attached to a character and then watch them deal with this shit because it feels more personal.
TM: I thought the narrative voice was really wonderfully done. It’s generally a close third for whatever character is the subject of the chapter, and adopts a lot of the slang and speech patterns of the characters, as well as their logic and decision-making processes. It’s so perfect for this project that I’m wondering what your prose would be like in a book about different people, in a different world. Was this a voice that took time to find, in the writing process? Is it a hard one to get out of your head, now that the book is done?
JC: I love voice on the page and I think a lot can be done on a craft level to inform our understanding of setting and characters by representing the cadences, musicality, and patterns of speech in the narratorial voice. What comes to mind are Toni Morrison’s Jazz, where the prose taps into the rhythms of jazz to evoke the sounds of Harlem in the early 20thcentury. Also, Junot Díaz’s Oscar Wao, whose narration has an energy that sizzles off the page and feels rooted in the speech patterns of the Dominican diaspora in New Jersey. I also love Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories, because, my gosh, the voice in those stories feels so utterly of a specific place, it tears my heart into pieces. I’m always really excited when I come across narration that is very much borne out of the story’s setting and characters. It makes a book feel like everything is tied together in a way that feels integral. Everything is working in tandem to create the fictional world for the reader.
It didn’t take me long to find the voice for this novel. It was actually one of the first things I discovered while writing. There was this explosive energy to it. It captivated me, but there were also moments where I needed to calm it down a bit because it was too much. I think I would eventually like to return to this voice in the future, maybe for a collection of stories, but right now I’m working on a novel that is set in a different time and place. It requires a completely different voice and tempo. I’m trying to challenge myself as a writer to see what I can do next, how I can grow.
TM: Even though it’s set primarily in the 1980s, this novel feels pretty relevant to today’s gender identity politics. I’m sure that was something you had on your mind during the composition. Do you think a historical novel has any didactic advantages that a novel set today does not?
JC: I didn’t really think about politics at all. When I was composing the book, I really was in a bubble. I was in graduate school in Iowa City, and anyone who has ever experienced winter in the Midwest can tell you that it’s frigid. There isn’t a whole lot to do there except write, so I was holed up inside my apartment or the library, in a literal and figurative bubble. I was very focused on the book and the characters and I felt like I had such a singular focus that I wasn’t exactly tuned into the regular world. As I describe that now, I realize that may not have been the healthiest approach, but that’s just how it happened. I tried not to let the outside world influence what I was writing. I say that about politics, but I also wasn’t thinking about the publishing world either. That would have stressed me out too much.
I will also say that I’m not really interested in books that feel didactic. Maybe this is a generality, but didactic books don’t strike me as sufficiently complex because they already have a pre-set goal or point they want to get across. For me, the most interesting stories are the ones that don’t have any goals or points, they just show readers what a particular kind of life is like. As if the book is saying to the reader, “Well would you look at that? Ain’t that a sight?” So I didn’t have a didactic goal. I just wanted to have living, breathing, complex human beings on the page. And I wanted those characters to break the reader’s heart because their stories were tragic and unfair.
Given our present political moment, with the new administration’s policies, which seem guided by Pence’s virulent homophobia and transmisogyny, I see our attitude towards, and relationship with, LGBT issues shifting. I also think that there’s been a progressive wave over the past decade to welcome our LGBT brothers and sisters into the mainstream and to acknowledge their humanity and stories. We’re at an interesting, if not anxious, point in time.
TM: I’m interested in the social novel as a genre. They kind of go in and out of fashion. Do you consider this a social novel?
JC: I kind of see this novel as fusion of two literary traditions: that of the American Family Novel, plus the lineage of 20th- and 21st-century queer narratives. This question about the social novel is a bit tricky to answer. It reminds me of a question I was once asked on a panel about politics and queer writing. The question was, “Are all queer stories inherently political? Is it possible to write a queer narrative that isn’t political?” Wow, goodness, I don’t know. I feel like—and forgive me for some of these academic terms—sometimes living life truthfully as a queer person of color in this predominantly white hetero-patriarchy feels like a radical political act in and of itself. Can any artistic work produced by queer people of color be apolitical, or is it by nature of its producer, infused with social critique? These are fascinating questions that I think about often, but I don’t think I have an answer for you.
It’s like when a cereal company, or fashion brand, or department store, or what have you, airs a television ad with a same-sex or interracial couple—which is just representative of actual people and relationships in our society—they are treated like bold, transgressive political statements. Like, it’s a Cheerios commercial that is finally acknowledging the presence of people who aren’t white and straight. Are these ads inherently political, or does it only feel that way because of the environment that it’s created and received within?
TM: Who were your influences on this project? What author, what novels?
JC: I really love the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. He writes and directs all of his films and his aesthetic is very queer, very extra, very vulgar, kind of gritty, usually dark, and sometimes absurd. He’s a master. His best films taught me a lot about how to deploy humor and tragedy, sometimes in close proximity to each other.
Then there were the writers whose work I fell in love with. In no particular order: Virginia Woolf, Michael Cunningham, Miranda July, Junot Díaz, Colm Tóibín, Justin Torres, Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Ann Beattie, Adam Haslett, Nicole Krauss, Joan Didion, Rivka Galchen, Jhumpa Lahiri, James Baldwin, Frank O’Hara.
Finally, the teachers who influenced the way I approach craft, and whose work I also return to in awe: Karen Russell, Stacey D’Erasmo, Ethan Canin, Lan Samantha Chang, Paul Harding, Margot Livesey, and Yiyun Li.
If any of those links were missing from the chain, I wouldn’t be the type of writer that I am today. And I look forward to a lifetime of discovering new voices and listening to the stories that I hear out in the world, when people open up and share their innermost secrets. I think that being a writer is so wonderful because we open ourselves up to the mysteries and wonders of the world. We can sit, observe, listen, and bring all of that into our fiction. It’s a beautiful way to live a life.