Living La Vida 'Loca'
Few Latino writers have challenged homophobia and machismo as fiercely as Jaime Manrique. The Colombian-born, New York City-based novelist, poet and essayist caused a furor in his homeland with his 1978 novella El Cadáver de Papá. The story's protagonist, Santiago, who is loosely based on Manrique himself, murders his hated father, a landowner and member of Colombia's reactionary political elite. Later, disguised in drag, Santiago tries to seduce his drunken, macho father-in-law.
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With the smoke still rising from the fallen twin towers of the World Trade Center, it seemed like an opportune time to throw some faggots on the fire. Or so thought Jerry Falwell, when, on Pat Robertson's 700 Club program, he proclaimed that God permitted the terrorist attacks because He was pissed off at those who have "tried to secularize America"-- civil libertarians, abortionists, pagans and, his favorite bêtes noires, gays and lesbians.
Falwell's demagoguery, though disgusting, was predictable. But then something surprising happened. The rabid reverend was immediately engulfed by a tidal wave of denunciation, from virtually every segment of society outside the insular world of American fundamentalism. Not only mainstream and liberal voices weighed in; even fellow conservative Rush Limbaugh and the National Review and Weekly Standard added their reproaches.
Falwell wasn't the only right-winger to use the WTC catastrophe to bash gays. Groups like the Traditional Values Coalition and The Family Research Council have deplored as "antifamily" efforts to provide benefits to gay partners of people killed in the towers on September 11. The Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition commented that "this is just another example of how the gay agenda is seeking to overturn the one man, one woman relationship from center stage in America." But their meanspiritedness was rejected by public officials such as New York Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer and the state's Republican governor, George Pataki, all of whom have supported such assistance.
You could say that the distaste for Falwell's rant was one sign of a post-September 11 truce--at least momentarily--in the culture wars that had raged until the Islamist faith-based initiative brought us all together in one big patriotic group hug. I prefer to think that three decades of struggle since the Stonewall uprising have given gays and lesbians social visibility and, to a lesser degree, political clout, such that brazen appeals to bigotry don't go down as smoothly as they used to.
The homophobic rhetoric from America's Taliban and the general repudiation of same make a neat metaphor for the current status of gays and lesbians, and they illustrate one of the key arguments of Suzanna Danuta Walters in All the Rage. So many years after Stonewall, homophobes still attack homosexuals, often scapegoating them for the purported decadence of society. But the greater public profile of gay people has changed in the interim, along with the context in which such attacks are made. Not so long ago, few outside the gay community or liberal activist circles would have denounced Falwell, and certainly not his comrades on the right.
Walters, a sociologist and member of the Research Advisory Board of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), sees both opportunities and dangers in the new, heightened visibility of gay people. "Visibility is, of course, necessary for equality. It is part of the trajectory of any movement for inclusion and social change.... There is nothing worse than to live in a society in which the traces of your own existence have been erased or squeezed into a narrow and humiliating set of stereotypes." But, she cautions, "visibility does not erase stereotypes nor guarantee liberation."
Walters asks, "If the problem once was perceived as invisibility itself, then how is the problem defined in an era of increased visibility? If the closet was the defining metaphor for gay life in earlier eras, then what do we make of the swinging door that is gay life in the nineties and beyond?"
Today's is a best of times/worst of times situation: "Never have we had so many openly gay elected officials, or so many antigay initiatives." Pop culture may be replete with images of gay life, but hate crimes are increasing, discharges of gays and lesbians from the military have risen precipitately since Don't Ask, Don't Tell was enacted and state legislatures all over the country are rushing to pass laws banning same-sex marriage.
Walters's argument is similar to that advanced by cultural critic Michael Bronski, who, in his excellent 1998 book, The Pleasure Principle, described a tension between "heterosexual fear of homosexuality (and the pleasure it represents) and the equally strong envy of and desire to enjoy that freedom and pleasure." In Bronski's analysis, heterosexuals try to mitigate their own conflicts over their desire for freedom and pleasure versus their longing for an ordered world built on "traditional values" by refusing to grant homosexuals full citizenship, basic civil liberties or minimal respect for their person and sexual integrity. Says Walters: "The paradoxes we are witnessing now (the simultaneous embrace and rejection) are reflections, if you will, of a culture terrified of the potential disruption that full inclusion and integration would provoke."
Although some commentators have described a paradoxical situation in which gay cultural progress unfolds in a retrogressive political environment, Walters claims that both politics and culture abound in contradictions. "The cultural moment is not wholly embracing, nor the political moment wholly rejecting: both realms coexist and interact in an uneasy mix of opportunity and opposition, inclusion and exclusion."
Walters, attentive to confusing contradictions and to the possibilities for progressive change they present, offers a dialectical reading of the current situation. Cultural visibility, she notes, can be "synonymous with commercial exploitation." But sometimes it "can really push the envelope, bringing complicated and substantive gay identities into public view," with the effect that intolerance, if not eradicated, is at least undermined. She sets out to identify "these disparate moves of visibility so we are better able to understand which forms...are the ones that shake up the world and which ones just shake us down."
Walters focuses her pop culture criticism on the "Gay Nineties," a decade in which depictions of homosexuality flourished on television and in the movies, theater, pop music and advertising. She emphasizes the tube because it "has become our national cultural meeting place, a site of profound social meaning and effect," and because the "story of gays on TV is a more complicated, fractured, and ultimately interesting one than its filmic counterpart."
Perhaps it's just as well that Walters develops this TV-centric approach, for her film criticism tends toward the obvious. Hollywood produces compromised representations that offer a safe, liberal view of gay life, in which homosexuals (usually white males) are either just like straight people or are colorful but harmless eccentrics. In these films--Philadelphia, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything!, Julie Newmar, In & Out and numerous others--homophobia is easily overcome because it is, after all, just a matter of mistaken attitudes, not a deeply entrenched social prejudice. Independent and foreign films, not under the same commercial constraints of having to reach the largest possible audience, are more realistic and challenging. The late Vito Russo made the same observation two decades ago in his landmark The Celluloid Closet.
Walters notes that it was not until the 1970s that "any substantive depiction of gays occurred on entertainment, 'fiction' TV...." The subsequent decade saw some timid efforts, mostly "one-shots," in which a sitcom or drama presented a discrete gay episode. The 1980s, however, began to open the doors for what became, in her view, "the boom in gay representations of the nineties."
Sometimes Walters's TV criticism leaves the impression that it's propaganda she really wants. She scolds The West Wing for an episode in which a gay Republican rationalizes his support for an antigay bill by claiming that the GOP's agenda is more important to him than sexual politics. But gay Republicans really do say such things! Presenting a member of this strange species accurately doesn't legitimize his views, which is what Walters charges. And given the thoroughgoing liberalism of The West Wing, it's evident (though not to Walters) that the show doesn't endorse those views, either.
But she can also be right on target. The most successful gay-themed show, NBC's Will & Grace, is "a puzzle. Dabbling in double standards [Grace gets to have a sex life; Will doesn't] yet indubitably gay. Apolitical yet surreptitiously aware. Familial yet hedonistic. Gay male centered yet with two of the strongest female characters on TV. Devoid of larger community yet assuredly not tokenized."
She singles out for particular scrutiny--and commendation--the 1994 "lesbian kiss" episode of Roseanne and the very funny and subversive episode of The Simpsons directed by gay filmmaker John Waters. Both are notable because they "are not out to make homosexuality accessible and assimilable, they are not designed to make heterosexuals feel less threatened and to make gays feel more 'accepted.'" Both shows "deal hilariously with the strange mix of fear and fascination, desire and disgust that marks heterosexual engagement with the vision of the homosexual." "The gay characters are not the problems to be solved here, nor is homophobia the vaguely vile emotions of outside agitators. Heterosexual leads are here the problems: it is their discomfort, homophobia, bigotry that must be confronted."
Walters sees this more radical approach as both the strength of the canceled sitcom Ellen and its undoing. Ellen DeGeneres's character, Ellen Morgan, "was not solely seen and understood through the eyes of heterosexuals eager to counter their own fears. The series implicated Ellen in a larger world of gay people, with other gay characters, lovers, gay spaces, and even gay in-jokes. In other words, the series decentered heterosexuality and centered homosexuality, now no longer satisfied with being the object of heterosexual curiosity."
Walters is adamant that ABC canceled the show because it was "too gay." Ellen DeGeneres was "an acceptable homo when she promised tearfully (in interview after interview) that she just wanted to be the girl next door, and that the series would never foreground her gayness, quite to the contrary she repeatedly stated. But the show did become a gay sitcom and that was clearly unacceptable." Walters says although homophobia was the culprit, it was a "quite specific form" of bias. DeGeneres's show "was not cancelled simply because she depicted homosexuality, but because she refused to be then re-closeted, to relegate her gayness to the 'been there, done that' realm." (Walters's book was completed before DeGeneres's recovery at CBS in The Ellen Show, which has her playing a small-town dyke. The network has so far been a big booster, ordering additional episodes and changing her time slot to put the series in the vicinity of the megahit Everybody Loves Raymond.)
Walters detects a new kind of liberal homophobia underlying ostensibly sympathetic programs. A 1993 NBC documentary hosted by Maria Shriver "constructs a very particular narrative" about gays and AIDS in which gay men, under the threat of disease and death, abandoned their wanton, reckless behavior to become sober citizens. "The implication here is not that gay people rallied around each other to deal with AIDS, but rather that gays themselves needed saving as gays, and that it was the disease that made us 'clean up our act.'" Other well-meaning journalistic attempts include a Bill Moyers documentary that exemplified the mainstream media tendency to distinguish good gays--in committed relationships, churchgoing, wanting to parent, craving acceptance--from bad queers who wear leather, have sex with more than one person and otherwise don't want to be normalized or assimilated. Noting that both the Shriver and Moyers shows presented gay and lesbian couples doing wholesome domestic things, Walters exasperatedly wonders, "How many scenes of cooking and gardening do we need to see to prove the point that gays are human too?" Such depictions, she aptly notes, represent "a failure of imagination...where equality can only be posited as sameness."
It is refreshing, Walters observes, to see gay characters as "decent, loving human beings who are not homicidal serial killers, suicidal losers, or angst-ridden closet cases." Yet she contends that the introduction of the "good gay" often depends on a desexualization and loss of community. Heterosexual characters, after all, "can be valorous, brave, noble, without being stripped of passion and desire." In other words, "the emergence of the new good gay reveals to us both how far we have come...and how steadfastly double standards still prevail."
But breaking down sexual double standards doesn't necessarily result in verisimilitude. Turning to the Showtime cable series Queer as Folk, Walters recognizes "the breakthrough quality of its depiction of sexuality" while indicting the show for "substitut[ing] sexuality for community" and for implying "that gay sexual expression means an absolute erasure of everything else," including work and friendship. Moreover, as she astutely observes, the "Queer" sex doesn't even seem all that pleasurable.
Walters's attenuated discussion of cable TV, limited to Queer as Folk and the woman-centric If These Walls Could Talk films on HBO, overlooks the most in-your-face depiction of homosexuality on the small screen--the prison melodrama Oz, also on HBO. In the pressure-cooker, hyperviolent world of the Oswald maximum-security prison, virtually all inmates except Muslims engage in gay sex--some because women aren't available, or to exert power over other men, or because they discover, to their surprise, that they like the sex. Some inmates, including previously straight men, even fall in love with each other. OK, so they're mostly convicted killers. But this show at its best leaps right into Genet territory, with powerful images of passion and betrayal. (Not to mention that it features the most male nudity you're likely to encounter outside of a porn film or an off-Broadway show.) I'd rather spend time with the anguished, violent, complex same-sexers of Oz than with boring über-guppie Will Truman and his buddy, the shrill stereotype "Just Jack."
The latter chapters of All the Rage largely leave pop-culture criticism behind to focus on the social and political realities that media images often distort. Walters wades into the controversies over gay marriage and parenting, saying that these issues "will, I am convinced, be the last holdout in the battle for gay and lesbian rights." As a leftist, she unsurprisingly urges gays and lesbians not to mimic heterosexual patterns, instead endorsing "a utopian construction of 'families of choice' that is not bound by definitions of blood, of law, of sex, of gender." In other words, she wants homosexuals not only to challenge "traditional values" but also to replace them with more fluid and creative constructs. Walters makes a persuasive argument, but it's also a familiar and predictable one.
More interesting are her observations about one of the most notable aspects of the new visibility--the constitution of gays and lesbians as a "niche market" catered to by both straight and gay commercial interests. Walters acknowledges that gays and lesbians "can no more be outside the commodity machine than any other group: to turn difference into an object of barter is perhaps the quintessentially American experience." If all social movements and subcultures eventually become commodified, then the fundamental question facing gays and lesbians isn't assimilation into "mainstream" heterosexual, capitalist society versus subcultural identity and resistance. Such formulations, argues Walters, fail to capture the complexity of the moment, in which assimilationist and radical impulses both clash and coexist. Yes, "the rainbow world is a food court and shopping mall"; but it is also "filled with righteous young queers, whose insistence on the absolute right to visibility has spawned a tidal wave of teen trouble for heterosexual business-as-usual."
Walters views the story of gay visibility as one of "simultaneous containment and display, progress and regress, shattering of old ways and their reassertion." Refusing prognostication, she says we can't see how the still unfolding narrative will play out. "The space beyond visibility may be filled with commodified queens and buttoned-down wannabes, but it is also filled with possibilities unimaginable in previous eras. As the gaying of American culture continues on its uneven path, heterosexuals will--I am convinced--come to know themselves differently, to see their sexuality in less finite and tandem ways, opening up their sense of family, of place, of intimacy." This is essentially the same point historian John D'Emilio made in his 1983 book Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: "As the life cycle of heterosexuals exhibits greater variety and less predictability, they have come to face many of the choices and experiences that gay men and women confront."
But in the almost twenty years since D'Emilio's book was published, antigay sentiment has not only endured but, as Michael Bronski has argued, in some ways seems even more entrenched. (One of the consequences of being visible is that it makes it easier to be stigmatized.) So what will it take to move beyond this contradictory and confusing moment and achieve what Walters wants--"a kind of conscious, conscientious integration, where lesbians and gays are full citizens in a society that is fundamentally altered by their inclusion"? She doesn't say, exactly. But it's hard to argue with her insistence that a critical consciousness of both the pitfalls and possibilities presented by today's increased visibility is essential to advancing the gay agenda in the new millennium.
"Throughout my life, I have been searching for a way to connect with other human beings," writes Tobias Schneebaum. That search for human connection has led him--a New Yorker born on the Lower East Side to Orthodox Jews from Poland; a painter and a gay man--to live among people who couldn't have been more different from himself: cannibal and headhunting tribes in the jungles of South America and New Guinea.
Schneebaum is best known for his first book, Keep the River on Your Right (1969), an engrossing, often astonishing account of his experiences among a tribe living a Stone Age existence deep in the Madre de Dios rainforest of eastern Peru. In 1956, Schneebaum, a successful painter, was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study art in Peru. But once he arrived there, he abandoned his studies to venture, alone and unarmed, into the jungle. A knapsack on his back, sneakers on his feet and the admonition to "keep the river on your right" to guide him as he walked, he was unprepared for what he might encounter yet open to whatever might come his way.
Seven months after Schneebaum went into the vast equatorial forest, the US State Department presumed that he was dead. Back in New York, newspapers reported the mysterious story of the prominent local artist who had vanished in the Amazon. But after a year Schneebaum emerged, naked and covered in body paint. He had found the settlement of the Amarakaire, a tribal people who ended up adopting him and initiating him into their culture, which, to his surprise and delight, sanctioned same-sex relations among men. Schneebaum spent many a happy night in the Amarakaire communal lodge, entwined with his comrades in the all-male sleeping piles.
For much of the book, the recounting of his experiences reads like a combination boy's adventure story (albeit a particularly strange one) and an amateur anthropologist's report. But the tale eventually takes a very dark turn. The Amarakaire were hunters, and on occasion their prey included other human beings, as Schneebaum found out to his horror when he unwittingly accompanied them on a raid of a nearby village. He witnessed young Amarakaire warriors, with whom he had enjoyed friendship and sex, efficiently and remorselessly slaughter the male villagers and butcher the bodies for a feast in which he partook, eating a piece of a heart.
This horrific episode constituted only a brief moment of his time among the Amarakaire, and it takes up only a little more than a page of the book. But it was surely the most shocking and sensationalistic of his experiences, and it has haunted him ever since. Indeed, it took him nearly fourteen years, from his return to New York till the publication of Keep the River on Your Right, to disclose what happened. (In a 1988 interview with the London Sunday Telegraph, he said that he wrote the book to "exorcize those demons.")
Traumatized though he was by his encounter with cannibalism, he never lost his appetite for traveling to and living in distant places, always preferring to take the isolated and unknown path, often discovering his destination along the way. His wanderlust has carried him through South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, and he has related his experiences in several books. It's not a large oeuvre. Since River--a countercultural classic, also popular with gay readers, that has never gone out of print--he has published Wild Man (1979) and Where the Spirits Dwell (1988), and he is the author or co-author of several volumes about the art and culture of the Asmat people of Irian Jaya (West New Guinea). Now, nearly 80, Schneebaum has a new book, Secret Places: My Life in New York and New Guinea, in which he reflects on his amazing life. He is also the subject of a first-rate new documentary, Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale. The film, by the siblings David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro, has been winning awards at film festivals and has footage from Peru and Irian Java. (More on the doc, hereafter referred to as KRYR, later.)
In Secret Places, Schneebaum writes that he has lived two lives, one in New York City, the place where he was born and grew up and from which "I made forays into distant parts of the world," and New Guinea, "a place to which I have now been going for more than 25 years." His two lives "are completely separate from each other, each lived intensely and fully," he says. Yet, despite their distinctness, the two worlds, and his experiences in them, do illuminate each other. In a series of related essays, he examines several decades (from the early seventies to the late nineties) of his search for human connection, in the jungles and villages of Irian Jaya, among sexually polymorphous tribesmen, and in Manhattan, among his largely gay circle of writers and artists.
Schneebaum confides that his intense need for fellowship and acceptance has always coexisted with a contradictory impulse toward anonymity and independence. He traces this to his unhappiness as a child over the atmosphere of intense religiosity and discipline (including physical punishment) imposed by his immigrant father. "I was obsessed with drawing and with my need to lose myself, willing myself into another world where my father could not wallop me." The young Tobias had glimpsed a vision of another world during a family trip to Coney Island, where he saw a sideshow poster promoting the appearance of the "Wild Man of Borneo."
The startling image of this creature, human yet wild, undomesticated, captivated the timid and introverted boy. Many years later, after his discharge from the Army at the end of World War II, the adult Schneebaum traveled to Mexico, making the first of his forays into remote places. There, wandering in the depths of a forest, he encountered a tribe known as the Lacandón. At that moment, the repressed memory of the Wild Man returned:
The combination of my recollection of the Wild Man of Borneo and the Lacandón meant the beginning of a new life for me. The intensity of that experience marked the path I would follow for the next fifty years. I became obsessed with looking for a people who would accept me, teach me how to live without a feeling of aloneness, teach me love and allow for my sexuality.
It was in West New Guinea, Irian Jaya, among the Asmat people, that he found what he was looking for. He was determined to go from the moment in 1961 when he heard of the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in Asmat territory. Schneebaum was not fazed by the possibility, widely believed at the time, that Rockefeller had been captured, killed and eaten by the Asmat. (In the documentary KRYR, Norman Mailer, Schneebaum's East Village neighbor when they were young, speaks admiringly and with amazement of Schneebaum's fearlessness: "When he went on to have his extraordinary experiences, I thought, Toby has so much to him. What kind of a novelist am I that I didn't see it?") The artist had been awe-struck by the Asmat carvings that Rockefeller had collected and put on display in the Museum of Modern Art. "That exhibition alone would have been enough to incite me into going to Asmat," he recalls. "The power and ferocity of the carvings, in fact, invaded my dreams and kept me from sleeping for the next several days."
It took Schneebaum ten years to finally get to Irian Jaya and Asmat territory. When he arrived, in 1973, he was determined to find a way to stay. Catholic missionaries from the Crosier order had established the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress in the provincial capital of Agats. The missionaries did not insist that the Asmat forsake their culture in order to adopt Christianity. They instead were intent on helping the Asmat preserve their traditions. (Up to a point, of course. Rather than kill and devour their enemies, the Asmat were convinced to partake in the symbolic flesh-eating of the Eucharist.) Schneebaum offered to catalogue the museum's extensive collection of Asmat carvings and other artifacts.
The Asmat had almost entirely given up headhunting and cannibalism by the time Schneebaum arrived. But they retained their animistic belief in the power of spirits, benign and malevolent, to affect human affairs. Schneebaum is particularly good on the spiritual aspect of Asmat art: "Every cut in wood with knife of bamboo, shell or steel used to produce a carving that embodies the spirit of an ancestor is one more step toward the appeasement of the dead, all of whom remain alert.... Until the carving is complete and is being used in ritual life, the spirit is doomed to wander the earth."
Schneebaum devotes one chapter of Secret Places to the 1991 visit by some Asmat to the American Museum of Natural History for a demonstration of their carving and traditional dances. Footage of the event appears in KRYR, but Schneebaum provides some additional, wonderful details. Before arriving in New York, where the Asmat were put up at a Hasidic-owned hotel, they enjoyed staying up all night to watch porn videos. "When they dressed at the hotel for performances," Schneebaum reports, "they painted themselves, put feathers in their hair, added necklaces and wrist- and leg bands, and then went out looking marvelously wild. New Yorkers appeared indifferent, barely giving them a cursory glance as they went by."
But before long the blasé New Yorkers were captivated, hanging around the hotel, where, in the lobby, "there was always a curious juxtaposition of the decorated Asmat rubbing shoulders with Hasidic men in black hats and long black coats, with ringlets dripping from their temples."
In Irian Jaya, four separate strands of Schneebaum's life came together--art, in the superb, magical carvings of the Asmat and his own drawings of their artifacts; the world of writing (the books Wild Man and Where the Spirits Dwell); anthropology (the ethnographic information captured in his journals); and "the world of sexual excitement." Of the Asmat men and their response to his overtures, he reports, "there was never any violent reaction to my touch, never any sense of shock. There was only acceptance and pleasure at my approach."
In the chapter "Marriage," Schneebaum compares two of his lovers, Douglas, a young New Yorker who is a gifted dancer, and Aipit, an Asmat with two wives. It's one of the best parts of the book, rich with lyricism and tenderness, as well as astute cross-cultural analysis of male same-sex relations. Douglas improvises a wedding ceremony between himself and Schneebaum while they are sitting on a park bench in the East Village; Aipit, in his remote village, tells his American friend of mbai, the Asmat tradition of ritual male partnership, a lifelong arrangement that coexists with the partners' marriages. Of his lovers Schneebaum writes, "I cherish them both. I am wedded to them both."
Schneebaum wrote the chapter before he returned to Irian Jaya in 1998 with the KRYR film crew. He had feared that Aipit was dead, but the grizzled old fellow turned out to be very much alive. The camera captures their mutual joy in being reunited after many years, providing one of the film's most poignant and delightful moments.
Personal needs, especially sexuality, clearly motivated Schneebaum's explorations. Does that make him guilty of a kind of sexual tourism? Has "going native" been a way for him to relieve himself of the white man's burden, in this case the strictures of Judeo-Christian sexual morality? Schneebaum's candor about his motivations and his willingness to show his own vulnerability "balances the inevitable privilege of his position," as David Bergman observes in his perceptive foreword. Traditional anthropologists profess objectivity but often bring their personal baggage to the study of so-called primitive peoples. Schneebaum, it should be noted, has never called himself an anthropologist. He did acquire a master's degree in the field some twenty years ago, believing that formal training would benefit his study and cataloguing of Asmat art. (His most systematic observations in Secret Places concern Asmat art and culture.) If not exactly anthropology, the book offers an original and idiosyncratic amalgam of travel writing, memoir, ethnography and art history.
There remains, however, the question of the unequal relationship between foreign observers and the observed, and how the very presence of outsiders inevitably produces change. Schneebaum acknowledges his own role in this regard:
As the years went by, however, it became more and more obvious that change not only was inevitable, but had long since begun and was rapidly accelerating. It was also obvious that I was part of the change, was even one of the main media through which it was taking place. I had brought change simply by my presence, by wearing clothes; by bringing tobacco, steel axes, and knives as trade goods; by the very fact of my skin color.
After he completed cataloguing Asmat art in 1983, his work for the Agats museum was completed. With no other way to continue visiting Irian Jaya, he accepted invitations to lecture on Asmat art and culture to tourists visiting the area on cruise ships. The Asmat, he reports, have tailored their culture to the tourist market. Their welcoming ceremonies are self-conscious performances ("Well, then? Is that enough?" an Asmat man asks Schneebaum after a lively session of drumming and dancing staged for cruise-ship passengers), and their carvings, now made for foreign markets, lack "the spirituality and intensity" of artifacts formerly created for traditional rituals.
But the worst transformations actually preceded Schneebaum's arrival. When Indonesia took control of Irian Jaya from the Dutch in 1963, it sealed the territory from the outside world and conducted a policy of mass killing that resulted in the deaths of thousands. The massacres were followed by a campaign to "civilize" the indigenous peoples, including the Asmat, by attempting to eradicate their traditional culture. Since then, logging has destroyed much of the forest that sustains the Asmat. Many Asmat are now logging on the traditional lands they have lost, receiving a pittance for each tree they fell. Neither the film KRYR nor Secret Places explores this history or the resistance of the inhabitants to Indonesian oppression, a serious omission.
The political turmoil has changed the face of tourism in Irian Jaya; the cruise ships have ceased going there, at least for the time being. For Tobias Schneebaum, elderly, frail and suffering from Parkinson's disease, there may never be another return to the land that "bewitched" him decades ago. But in his Greenwich Village apartment, filled with Asmat artifacts, he feels the spirits of the world in which he lived and loved. "When I open the door and enter, I am again in Asmat, leaving the outside world behind."
"Perhaps," he considers, "it is the spirits who write my stories."
Denounced and acclaimed, El Cadáver became a bestseller in Colombia and made a name for its author. Manrique's novel Colombian Gold, also written in Spanish and published in English translation in 1983, was a reworking of his succès de scandale and a further elaboration of the themes of patriarchal oppression and political corruption. But it wasn't until the publication in 1992 of his second novel, Latin Moon in Manhattan, that Manrique made his mark outside Colombia.
Set in a pre-Disneyfied Times Square and in the Colombian immigrant enclave of Jackson Heights, Queens, and full of memorably flamboyant characters, Latin Moon is hilarious, poignant and thoroughly engaging, a Pedro Almodóvar film in the guise of an English-language novel. It is also Manrique's first completely uncloseted book. Santiago Martinez, the protagonist, is, like his creator, an openly gay Latino writer trying to find his place in the world.
Next came My Night with Federico García Lorca, a book of poems, and the novel Twilight at the Equator. Manrique's new nonfiction collection, Eminent Maricones, continues his autobiographical explorations but from a different angle. In this short but substantive book, he examines his life in relation to those of the three great, gay Latino writers who inspired him: Manuel Puig, the Argentine novelist whose militant effeminacy made him persona non grata in his homeland; Reinaldo Arenas, the Cuban exile haunted until his death by the persecution he'd endured under Castro's regime; and Federico García Lorca, the Spanish poet and dramatist murdered by Franco's Falangists.
The book's title alludes to Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians; by coupling "maricón" (faggot) with "eminent," Manrique destigmatizes the pejorative and makes the point that the outcast sexuality of his beloved writers is inextricable from their greatness as men and artists. "Their lives," he writes, "are a history of the evolution of the homosexual condition in the twentieth century, just as the subjects of Lytton Strachey's book are a compendium of the imperialism of the Victorian age."
Though Manrique's subjects come to bad ends, he never depicts them as exemplars of gay victimhood. They are brilliant, groundbreaking artists who live outsized, even epic, lives. Each is heroic in his own way, and each experiences triumph as well as tragedy. Manrique brings to their stories a novelist's eye for the telling detail and a poet's gift for metaphor and condensation. He also offers the unique perspective of a bilingual, bicultural writer shaped by Bogotá and Greenwich Village, the sensibility of a dweller in the cultural interzone that Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldua and others term la frontera. His double vision yields insights into Puig, Arenas and Lorca unavailable to a writer less attuned to the complex interplay of culture and sexuality, as well as that of race and class in Latino and Anglo societies.