In this post, J. Sumerau reflects on the process of composing and publishing Homecoming Queens, a southern gothic bi+, poly, and trans love story set in the south and based on their experiences as a bi+ poly trans person and researcher collecting stories of other sexual and gender minorities throughout the past couple decades.
Earlier this month, my third novel and second book in the Social Fictions Series of sociological based novels – Homecoming Queens – was officially released. The novel is a southern gothic bi+, poly, and trans love story based on hundreds of formal and informal interviews with sexual and gender minorities throughout the southeast I’ve collected over the past couple decades as, first, a curious bi+ trans and poly kid and later, as a researcher focused on sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the lives of sexual, gender, and religious minorities. In this post, I elaborate on the background and creation of the novel after doing so with Cigarettes & Wine, my first research based novel, has been useful both for readers interested in my work and fellow teachers using my stories to teach sexualities, sociology, gender, LGBTQIA studies, and Southern studies in classrooms to date. For more information about the novel or to purchase it, see here.
Like many aspiring novelists I have met in my life, I dreamed of writing the next great American novel around the same time I was finishing college a decade ago. The seeds for Homecoming Queens emerged in early failed attempts to do this back then, and in fact, the scene in the diner between four of the main characters near the end of the book comes from an experience between four people I witnessed – including being in the diner scene of real life I recreated in the novel – over a decade ago. Like many other writers across genres, I have my favorites, and the southern gothic traditions of the likes of Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner have always spoken to me via the use of real world complexities, the ways the past shapes and becomes active in the present, and the fine lines between the darkest and brightest moments of love, pain, and life itself. Homecoming Queens began as an entire handwritten journal in 2007 wherein I sought to translate small town life in Georgia through the eyes of a brilliant, older African American neighbor I had who told me so many stories about the world at the time in what was, in hindsight, a poor attempt at writing like other southern gothic writers – especially Toni Morrison – I worshiped then and now without the skills to do it myself in my own voice at the time. It was a learning experience that got put in the background of so many other failed novel attempts in my life at the time.
Fast forward to the year 2016, and the completion of my first novel, Cigarettes & Wine, and I found myself thirsty for trying to write more novels without any clue if I could do that well or publish the first one. I was celebrating the legalization of my primary life partnership, and began asking about the idea of Homecoming Queens in conversations with my spouse and my best friend. For some reason I still can’t explain though I’m beginning to agree with now, neither of them had any questions or doubts about my ability to write more novels, and both thought I should try it out since I had just resurrected my first novel from an earlier failed attempt in college and was well enough situated in academic and public writing credits to have the time and space to commit some time to fictional endeavors without other parts of my career falling behind. This led to priceless patience on both of their parts as I talked and ran through scenarios and data I had for the next novel relentlessly on late night walks, phone conversations, and over lunches and dinners for a while. I was more than a little fixated and obsessed in hindsight, and I was lucky enough that they were okay with that and supportive of it at the same time.
I was also repeatedly listening to the newest album by one of my favorite – and in my opinion, one of the most talented ever – songwriters. The entire album, Brandy Clark’s Big Day in a Small Town, was about small town adventures and experiences with a mixture of humor and heart. I kept coming back to the song “Homecoming Queen” and the memory of the former homecoming queen friend who moved back to her small town with her two spouses, and things that happened to them, good, bad and in between, in the process. I also kept talking about this one story, and how it related to so many other stories from my own life and the lives of others I had spoken to in the south with my patient supporters. I also thought about what it would look like to illustrate my own primary romantic relationship structure in terms of how it worked, how our rules were set up for each of us to always get what we want together and individually, and how other mono, poly, and fluid (sometimes mono, sometimes poly) unions operated. Finally, I started thinking about both how many things from the past are prevalent in the nation today, and my experiences (on both sides of mentor / mentee relationships over time now) of the different ways trans and other queer kids find community, support, rejection, and / or struggle in the world as they try to be themselves. These were the threads that I would weave together to create the novel.
Data and Methods
I began crafting character profiles and a small town that could be any southern small town, and looking at all these things as homecomings of a sort that happen in between the various connections and disconnections we each experience throughout our lives. I followed the same process I do in many qualitative and quantitative studies and outlined in relation to Cigarettes & Wine in a previous blog post. The data points from real people’s lives and stories – and my own lives and stories to date – became the ingredients for the town, the characters, the conflicts, the tensions, and the narrative arcs of the story itself. Even more than in Cigarettes & Wine – or my independently published novel Essence – I crafted a tale that could be anyone or anywhere in the places I have seen, lived in, and visited in the south over the years, and created a story where, as friends have said about each of my books, I was both everywhere and nowhere in the book at the same time. As I’ve done in other works, maybe it’s the researcher inside me, I once again also only used events and experiences that had happened to a wide variety of people in different ways, at different times, and in different settings to capture an overall set of common – or as we say in scholarship, generic – experiences anyone could potentially relate to, experience, or know of in the lives of other people to demonstrate both possibilities and probabilities in the world.
As I’ve noted with the first two novels in conversations individually, in classrooms or at conferences where I’ve been invited to talk about such things, or otherwise, I do not believe it is ever up to the writer to gauge the results of the composition. I feel the same way – as many people know from other speeches related to my academic, journalistic, public, and other writing – about everything I write. It is up to the audience to decide what the book means in terms of messages, merits, and ideas, and I leave it up to audiences to figure such things out. I know what I sought to do. I sought to, as always, offer a realistic portrait of some of the many ways – good, bad, and everywhere in between – queer life takes place in the south, thrives and continues in the face of support and opposition, and speaks to broader norms and patterns in cultural notions of sexualities, romance, gender, family, history, relationships, and lives. I don’t know or want to decide what others will think of the work, but I feel confident that I accomplished what I wanted to do with the book and early responses to it (both good and bad) have suggested as much.
Instead of trying to ascertain any concrete result or metric, when I think about Homecoming Queens as a now published work available for purchase by anyone, I think about the stories that have and continue to inspire me, that others have kindly shared with me so many times over the past couple decades, that resonate with me in cases of both similarity and difference, and that speak to a much wider, more complex, and more varied Queer existence then I can usually find in academic or mainstream media portraits and publications.
If those last couple of lines sound familiar, it is because they are copied directly from my thoughts on Cigarettes & Wine right as it was published, and you could continue down that set of paragraphs in that blog with Homecoming Queens as well because, for me, the goal is the same. For me, these stories I write – like any other research or art or writing that blurs (or Queers) such distinctions – is about the same thing, revealing the beauty, complexity, pleasure, pain, and wonder of Queer experience in its many forms, places, and continuations for as many of us and as many others as possible in ways people can relate to, think about, and consider as they navigate the complexity and possibility of the world in their own lives and their treatment of others they may encounter.