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Guest Post: Malin James on Stereotypes, Identity and Roadhouse Blues

Today I get to host the lovely Malin James. Malin’s writing style has always made me a bit weak in the knees. She can convey more power and sex in 5 words in a minimalist, gorgeous voice. Her story The Green Lady was one of my favorites in Under the Mistletoe. Today she’s here to talk about her new book Roadhouse Blues.

First of all, thank you for having me, Delilah. It’s wonderful to be here.

One of the most unexpected things about promoting Roadhouse Blues is keeping track of what I talk about, when and with whom. Between interviews, conversations, emails, social media and posts, I have the constant, nagging worry that I’ve already said whatever it is that I’m going to say. One thing does seem to keep coming up though, so I figured it was worth going into in a little more depth.

One of the best pieces of feedback Roadhouse Blues has gotten so far is that it subverts certain stereotypes. My writing process is pretty organic, so I rarely go into a project with a specific mission in mind. That said, there was something that I knew I wanted to do very early on—I wanted the stories to be about characters whose inner lives don’t necessarily match their outward appearances.

I’ve already talked a bit about the fact that Styx, the town the collection is set in, creates an external pressure that binds the stories together. It’s a socially conservative place in the middle of nowhere—the kind of place where it’s often easier to just do what’s expected of you. It’s the kind of community that is so small that the consequences of challenging the status quo can be huge. So, with a few major exceptions, most of the characters don’t openly challenge it…but that doesn’t mean that they privately conform.

That’s where I go Joe, the good ol’ boy mechanic whose marriage is quietly and lovingly non-monogamous; and Liz, his boss and long term lover; and Luke, the high school football star turned diner owner who plays his private life extremely close to the vest; and Maybelline, the stripper whose relationship to sex is complicated and deeply internalized, despite the fact that it’s her job to perform an exaggerated portrait of female sexuality. In fact, that notion of performance is at the center of it all—how do we identify, and do we choose to perform that identity or keep it hidden?

That’s where stereotypes get interesting. For some characters, like Liz in “Down & Dirty”, stereotypes are a burden—something she actively chooses to defy. She owns a garage at a time when women don’t even pump gas, and she takes a deep, carnal pleasure in her body’s raw strength. She takes the stereotypical idea of what it is to be feminine, balls it up and eats it for lunch without ever compromising the complexity of her identity and sexual needs.

Other characters, like Luke in “Truck Stop”, use stereotypes like a mask. Of all the characters in the book, Luke is the one who is most conscious of the bifurcation between his public image and his private life. Because of that, he deliberately plays up the stereotype of the ex-athlete, business owning, pillar-of-the-community to shield aspects of himself, specifically that he is a gay black man in a “shit-kicking Christian town”.

Unfortunately, choosing to remain closeted is nothing new, especially since the reality is that being openly gay is still dangerous in parts of this (and other) countries. Given where he lives, Luke is instinctively aware of the danger that his sexuality could put him in, so he chooses to remain closeted…but not so deeply closeted that he doesn’t know himself.

There’s nothing delusional or stereotypically tortured about Luke’s relationship to his own sexuality. He owns his attraction to men. He’s at ease with the fact that he’s had gay sex, and that he misses it. He misses that part of himself. And yet, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what acting on it could cost him, so, unlike Liz, he uses a stereotype to protect himself. But that doesn’t mean that he owns his identity any less than Liz. He just owns it privately, which is why, every now and then, he allows himself to indulge. That’s what “Truck Stop” is about—Luke setting aside the safety of the stereotype to engage in truly hot, authentic sex with another man.

I’m not trying to imply that stereotypes can’t be dangerous, because they can, especially when we don’t question them. Stereotypes are why we have hate crimes, misogyny, profiling and pretty much every cultural phobia you can think of. Stereotypes are the illusion that we have even the first clue about a person based on how they look, and they are very often wrong.

And yet, stereotypes persist, and because they persist, they pose an even more insidious threat, because if a person buys into the stereotype that describes them, it can flatten the glorious individuality that is every person’s right, and twist them away from their far more complicated, authentic self. Self-awareness is the answer to that—self-awareness and autonomous self-ownership, regardless of how a person defies, or uses, any given stereotype.

That’s why I wanted my characters to move seamlessly through the world they live in, while remaining aware of, and faithful to, their private realities. Sometimes, that reality manifests internally, as it does for Maybelline in “Marlboro Man”. Sometimes it’s flagrantly displayed, like it is for Liz. And sometimes it lands on a halfway point between the two, and that’s where Luke sits.

Stereotypes, identity, performance, authenticity. These are some of the basic human factors we all confront as we find our way in the world. If there’s one thing I’m proud of in this collection, it’s letting my characters navigate what the people around them think and expect, and then decide for themselves how they want to respond.

And now, here’s a snippet from Luke’s story, “Truck Stop”.

Excerpt:

Luke didn’t really think he’d see Jim again. Between the fluster and the blushing and the chemistry, it was pretty damn clear that trucker Jim was into guys. It was also pretty damn clear that he didn’t know what to do about it. Once upon a time, Luke had been the same. All red-faced awkwardness and bright, shiny eyes. He knew how rough it could be. Sometimes moving on was easier. At least, that’s what he’d told himself.

Luke spent the rest of the afternoon taking orders and fixing food. Jack was off his game, over-salting chili and under-cooking fries. Too many doubles, Luke figured. He’d have to make him cut back, but, in the meantime, it kept Luke busy, which helped him forget about sexy, bright-eyed truckers. He did a fine job too…until Jim came back a few minutes before close.

“Hey,” Jim said, shoving his hands in his pockets. He looked like a sheepish kid. “Ran out pretty fast this afternoon. Sorry about that.”

“No worries,” Luke said, ignoring everything south of his hips. “Here. I owe you some change.”

Luke opened the register, but Jim shook his head. “No, keep it. Call it a tip.”

“Okay….” Luke slipped the money back and quietly shut the till. “So, what brings you back?” His voice felt strong and deep in his chest, like all of him was there. That should’ve worried him, but the worry didn’t make it through the good.

Jim took a deep breath, like people do when they’re going to be brave or very stupid. “I came back to see you.”

He took off his hat, a gentleman come a-courtin’ with rumpled hair, like he’d just rolled out of bed. Luke’s pulse jumped. He was standing in a room with a fine-looking man, and the room was full of windows. Anyone could see.

Luke cleared his throat. “How about some pie?”

Their eyes met. Thick, caramel silence.

“Yeah,” Jim said. “I’d like some pie.”

Luke flipped the closed sign and locked the door. It was pretty goddamn clear they weren’t talking about pie. His hands shook as he lowered the blinds. He never lowered the blinds. He was too wary of being set up. Trucker comes in, makes sexy eyes…next thing you know, you’re getting punched in the head. Jim could be fucking with him, or trying to steal his till, or just looking to bash gay guys in the act of being gay, but Luke didn’t think so—not with the way he ran out and came back. Luke didn’t think so, and he was willing to take the risk.

By the time he got back to the counter, Jim had taken off his jacket and was sitting at the counter, tight and sharp as a wire. Luke got the coffee pot and brought over a mug. Jim touched his hand.

“Better not,” he said and smiled. “Haven’t been lucky with coffee.” His hand stayed on Luke’s, pale and rough, clean beneath the nails, as his eyes filled with a soft, silent pleading. Luke thought about all the good, wholesome, down-home sex he never got to have, and the last of his caution slip away. He leaned in, drawn by those pretty, pleading eyes, but Jim got there first.

Jim kissed him, hard on the mouth, like he making an important point. Luke stiffened—not turned off, just surprised—but Jim hesitated and started to pull away. Luke put his hands on the other man’s back and pulled him back in. They didn’t talk. They barely breathed. They mauled each other right out of words and the mind to speak.

Jim dropped to his knees. Luke tried to pull him up, but the younger man stopped him with those big, bright eyes full of let me and please. Luke let him go and leaned back against the counter. Jim unbuckled his belt like a kid on Christmas day. He had no idea if the guy had even seen another man’s dick, but there was something sweet about finding out.

 

Author Bio:

Malin James is an essayist, blogger, and short story writer. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Bust, MUTHA, Queen Mob’s Tea House and Medium, as well as in podcasts and anthologies for Cleis Press, Sweetmeats Press and Stupid Fish Productions. Her first collection, Roadhouse Blues, is now out with Go Deeper Press. Find out more at malinjames.com.

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