Writing: Background

“Landscape and Her Children,” Walter Spies

This is the page for folks, including students in my classes,  who want to know about my approach as a narrative journalist and about theoretical inquiries embedded in  “Imagining Gay Paradise” and in my previous book, “Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging.” 

I like the definition of narrative journalism that writers Mark Kramer and Wendy Call suggest in their preface to Telling True Stories. They say that such writing “mixes human content with academic theory and observed fact, allows specialized understanding of everyday events, and unscrambles and sorts the messages of a complex world.” Nick Lemann, dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, puts it more simply: “The marriage of narrative and analysis is the fundamental project of journalism.” He adds that “nearly all journalism is a promise to explain the world via narrative.”

So that, I think, is the path of a narrative journalist — to weave stories about individual lives and specific contexts (such as the geography and culture those characters find themselves in) with important inquiry about matters that affect all of us.

Science journalist Alan Weisman, in his book Countdown, says of the role: “Journalists rarely claim depth in any field: our job is to seek people who dedicate their careers to study — or who actually live — whatever it is we’re investigating and to ask them enough common sense questions so the rest of us might understand.”

As to how to do it, Annie Dillard had a good suggestion in her book, The Writing Life. She compared writing with fishing or mining or chiseling. “When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow.” Pretty soon you figure out whether you’ve hit a dead end or are being pulled further. She also had a good technique for finding worthwhile ideas. “To find a honey tree, first catch a bee” — preferably one with its “legs heavy with pollen” so it would be headed home.

That’s exactly how Imagining Gay Paradise began. I found a bee. On what was otherwise intended to be a break from some intense teaching duties (managing students around China and Tibet), I went to Bali and stumbled across amazing photographs and paintings in a tropically humid museum basement. They were by a gay artist who had died a half-century earlier and whom I had never heard of, Walter Spies, a German citizen born in Russia who had left for the Dutch East Indies. I’ve included one of them above, his remarkable “Landscape and Her Children.” Later that night, I attended an equally astonishing and fiery kecak dance by villagers, a dance that Walter had helped choreograph and introduce to the world.

Turned out, Walter had been headed home.

Later, I’ll add more on this page about how Walter’s struggles — against Nazi images of manhood then being promoted in his native Germany — began to fuse in my mind with  academic questions about the strategies gay men use to imagine their homes, particularly the techniques adopted from magical realism. Walter was one of the early practitioners of that particular artistic (and later literary) style. Marginalized and colonized groups have often used its particular communication strategy as a way to challenge and disrupt dominant narratives. Walter’s “beeline” led me to an architectural gay paradise in modern-day Bangkok, then to contemporary Singapore and its cyber-paradise, to a gay circuit party exiled to Phuket, and finally back in history to turn-of-the-century Siam and one of its most paradoxical kings.

All of us, like Odysseus, seek “home.” It’s a concept and a journey that has always been laden with challenges for us since we both enjoy and suffer migrations. It is an especially fascinating journey in these days of globalization.

Buy Imagining Gay Paradise from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Columbia University Press, Hong Kong University PressSilkworm Books, Kinokuniya Thailand, Kinokuniya Singapore, University of British Columbia Press, Eurospan

Add Imagining Gay Paradise to your Goodreads:

Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok, and Cyber-Singapore

Buy Gay Seattle from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, or University of Washington Press

Add Gay Seattle to your Goodreads:

Gay Seattle: Stories Of Exile And Belonging

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