The literature of rejection

My book "The Penalty for Holding," a finalist in the 2018 Lambda Literary Awards

My book "The Penalty for Holding," a finalist in the 2018 Lambda Literary Awards

I tend to use this headline to write about young men who have a disproportionate rage at the world and take it out on others as mass murderers, assassins, terrorists and serial killers. I’ve also written about a number of literary works that deal with such young men – Homer’s “The Iliad,” John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights,” among them.

But I think it is also an appropriate title for a post about the Lambda Literary Awards, which I attended Monday night at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts as a nominee. My book “The Penalty for Holding,” published by Less Than Three Press, the second novel in the series “The Games Men Play” was a finalist in the Best Bisexual Fiction category. (When I got the news, I had two thoughts: This must be an email for somebody else. And, were any of the characters in my book bisexual? It goes to show that the readers sometimes know more than the authors do.)

As I sat there, I had a feeling of disassociation. I didn’t know anyone. My book, which looked great up there on the screen, received polite applause but not the whooping and hollering of other titles. And, as speaker after speaker rose, including special honorees Roxane Gay and Edmund White, I realized that their experience wasn’t my experience – that I was an outlier, an outsider.

And that’s when I had my epiphany: This is what it must be like for gay people in the everyday world. That became more apparent as the evening wore on. Several of the winners spoke about the rejection they had faced in their lives and the pain it had caused them. Despite their success, that pain was still visceral, palpable. Even someone like Gay – who said that she asked her agent to make her financially independent in five years and the agent did it in four – still reels from the quadruple whammy of being a bisexual black woman whose abundant flesh does not conform to societal standards. It’s a subject she explores in her nonfiction book “Hunger: A Memoir of My Body,” which was also honored.

It didn’t help that the awards coincided with the United States Supreme Court’s decision to favor the religious rights of a Colorado baker over the civil ones of a gay couple for whom he declined to bake a wedding cake.

Yet the Lambda Literary Award winners and nominees have been able to channel their pain into their writing. Would they have become writers without that suffering? It’s a good question. My answer is probably, but they would’ve been different writers.

I came away from the evening feeling enormously privileged – something I understood intellectually but never emotionally. Until now.

My newfound wokeness, to use the trending vernacular, owed something to the idea that it was a week of rejection. The Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles decided to skip the post-victory, pre-season White House photo op (mostly), so President Donald J. Trumpet decided to disinvite them, based on the false Fox News story (what a surprise) that had the Eagles among the players who were – horror of horrors – kneeling during the National Anthem last season. (Instead, the players who were pictured were kneeling in prayer before a game, no doubt begging God to save us from Trump, as one wag put it.)

Trump hasn’t yet mastered the art of rejection, which is based on the premise that being first counts. Otherwise, it’s like the man who decides to dump his wife after she’s already walked out on him, engendering a certain petulance. (I’m just going to hold my wittle bweath until all those mean football pwayers say they wove me.)

The transcendent person would’ve said, “You know what: Whoever wants to come to the White House, come. We’ll have a round table with sandwiches and kick around some ideas we can implement to help our inner cities.” That would’ve had a ripple effect of good PR that would’ve been priceless.

Instead, Trumpet sticks it to everyone. How to respond? Shrug and move on. As French President Emmanuel Macron said in response to the frosty reception the other G7 leaders were preparing for Trump over tariffs, “Nobody is forever.”

Recently, I attended my nephew’s commencement at the Flint Hill School in Oakton, Virginia, at which former journalist and now first lady of Panama Lorena Castillo de Varela (Class of 1988) remembered Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and his downfall.

“Evil doesn’t last,” she told the 133 graduates. “Those who build will prevail.”

I think, too, of Christiane Amanpour’s recent interview with the inspiring French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who said, “Thank God, America is so much taller, so much higher, with such a bigger memory and with so much a brighter future than President Trump. President Trump will have his time, and America will last.”

There you have it, all those of you who feel alienated and dispossessed. No one and nothing is forever.

Let me leave you with the words of one of the Lambda Literary winners, who quoted Winston Churchill:

“Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts."