In this post, J. Sumerau reflects on the process of outlining, composing, and publishing Cigarettes & Wine, a southern bisexual and non-binary coming of age story set in the 1990’s and based on zir experiences as a bisexual non-binary person and researcher collecting stories of other sexual and gender minorities over the past couple decades.
Yesterday, my first novel – Cigarettes & Wine – was officially released. The novel is a southern bisexual and non-binary coming of age story set in the 1990’s 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 bisexual and non-binary 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 many colleagues and friends have asked about its origins over the past few months. For more information about the novel or to purchase it, see here.
I was sitting in a hotel lobby with a colleague I deeply admire and appreciate. We were talking about all kinds of things related to life, relationships, research, activism, teaching, and the world, and my colleague asked a question about the novels I completed in the preceding months. The topic was especially relevant at the time since I had just submitted my first novel – Cigarettes & Wine – for consideration for the Social Fictions book series, and since my colleague had done me the favor of being the first person outside my little chosen family / inner circle to read the drafts of the first two novels I had composed. My colleague’s interest and support and feedback on Cigarettes & Wine at the time was and remains invaluable, but I also enjoyed just how hard I laughed when my colleague asked, “So, this was so real, I gotta know, is this you, your life, it is, isn’t it?”
I laughed because though I had not thought much about it at the time, I understood the question. The narrator of the novel is a non-binary, bisexual raised in a small town in South Carolina. So am I. The novel is set in the same geographic area where I grew up, and in a fictional town similar to the one that I grew up in. The events in the novel are all things that – both from my personal experiences, from interviews I’ve done over the years, and from a lot of the people who read drafts along the way – have happened to people and / or are familiar to people, and thus, they are real events. The novel is also written in first person more like a diary of sorts. I laughed because it was a reasonable conclusion that I could understand, but not one I thought much about while writing the book. I laughed because my colleague was incorrect, but not entirely incorrect.
My colleague was incorrect because the novel is entirely fictional – none of the characters in the novel are actual people and none of them are me. Each one of them are composites of many people I have met, observed, interviewed, had relationships with, and otherwise encountered throughout my life. Desperate for information on and experiences of bisexual (across the spectrum), transgender (across the spectrum), and poly (across the spectrum) people like me, and for even more information on lesbian, gay, asexual, intersex, kink, aromantic, and otherwise Queer people I admired, I began collecting the stories of everyone I could meet when I was a teenager. Like the narrator, I would fill up journals with fictional versions of my own life (i.e., how it might be in other contexts) and fill journals up even further with all these stories of sexual and gender diverse experience, lives, and realities that were hidden just out of sight all around me. Later in life, this actually ended up being incredibly useful training for life as an ethnographic, autoethnographic, content analysis, and interview-based researcher, and to this day, twenty years later, I still collect these stories every chance I get though now I do it both professionally and in my personal time. My colleague was incorrect because the novel is not a retelling of my own story on its own, but rather, it’s more like a mix tape created by integrating the stories of hundreds of sexual and gender diverse / Queer people I have been lucky enough to meet, learn from, and become inspired by over the years.
At the same time, my colleague was not entirely incorrect. While I do not exist in full in any of the characters or events, some of the events in the book are ones that I experienced as well. Similarly, I remember very well living two distinct, separate lives as a younger person wherein almost all my straight friends and most of my family had no clue (to my knowledge, though I learned last year I was wrong in at least one case) about half of my life, and wherein my Queer friends knew more about the rest of my life but were never part of interactions I had with the straight, cis, mono world at the time (except secretly on rare occasions). Further, there are little pieces of my personality, experience, and feelings as a teenager scattered throughout the book (i.e., a joke I like here, a place I hung out there, a conversation I had with someone here, emotions I felt in a tough or wonderful moment there, etc.), and in each of the main characters in the novel. As someone very close to me put it after reading an early draft of the novel, “You’re everywhere and nowhere in this story.” Put another way, the story is a mix tape of so many people’s stories, lives, experiences, and emotions, but I show up along the way as the curator of the collection hidden or embedded in this or that character or moment.
All these thoughts went running through my head as I sat in the hotel lobby with my colleague. When I finished laughing, I simply said, “No, it’s not my story or the story of me, but it is one of what are likely millions of possible stories of people like me or like us.” My colleague smiled, and asked what I meant. I said, “Well, I basically took all the stories of people like us – mine and yours included – and put them together the best I could into a collective narrative illustrated through the lives of a group of kids in the 1990’s.” My colleague laughed, and simply said, “How did you do that?”
Data and Methods
Integrating a wide variety of experiences is not easy, but luckily, it is what I do for a living as a researcher collecting and analyzing data sets of various sizes. I began writing the stories that would become Cigarettes & Wine in my twenties, but I failed over and over again to accomplish whatever I wanted at the time (I’m still not sure). I tried to write my own story, but I was never as good at that since I found other people more fascinating. I tried to write it as a mix tape like I finally did last year, but I don’t think I had the skill set for that kind of writing before years of doing research for a living. I tried to write it as a collection of disconnected journal entries from various people across the south, but it never seemed to work or flow well. I gave up on it and pushed it aside when I got the chance to go to graduate school and try to develop a career as a scholar, researcher, activist, and teacher. For eight years, while I published research, it sat there, a forgotten dream in the back of my mind.
When I decided to try it again last year with the support and encouragement of my life partner and best friend and after so many students suggested I should write a novel about all the stories I’d collected over the years, I approached the book as a research study and the stories I collected over the years – as well as my own experiences – as data for analysis. Though I was only beginning to learn about it at the time, this approach is actually a rather common one in arts based research movements and traditions. Despite the fact that, like the narrator in the story, I generally destroy my journals when I’m done with them because for some reason that feels good to me and they’re all made up fictional versions of life anyhow, I kept so many of the stories I collected from other people over the years and so I began to start reading back through them and thinking about remembering other ones and thinking about and making notes on my own experiences and those of other people. Like I do with research papers, I began looking for patterns in the stories, and setting aside things that multiple people had experienced, dealt with, witnessed, or otherwise felt or known as part of their lives. From this approach, I came up with a list of common events and experiences that appeared repeatedly in stories from people of varied sexualities, genders, locations in the south, religious backgrounds, family backgrounds, races, and other social characteristics.
Armed with these events as an outline for a narrative, I began creating characters based on integrating aspects of real people (say five or ten different people) into one whole character with thoughts, hopes, loves, fears, dreams, and personality quirks. Although they changed a lot by the end of the composition process, these character profiles allowed me to start narrating the events that were common in the stories. I initially tried telling the story from two other characters’ points of view before I finally got it to work with the narrator in the published version. I also initially started telling a story that spanned from the 1990’s to now, but this proved to be way too much ground to cover so instead I broke it up into two and then three outlined novels (the second is now composed and the third is in progress of composition at present). Once I had these raw materials (as I call them when I write research papers), I was ready to write the first rough draft of the story.
In the end, I wanted to accomplish three things with Cigarettes & Wine. First, I wanted a bisexual and non-binary focused story after spending so many years wishing I could find one – much less one set in the world I grew up in – as a kid. Second, I wanted a story where almost all of the character were Queer in one way or another and in different ways to illustrate the diversity of the amazing people I’ve met over the years who identify and live in so many different ways within the various umbrella terms we use. Third and finally, I wanted a real story that captured experiences of Queerness in the south, and as a result, I only used events in the novel that showed up in multiple people’s lives over the years and explicitly sought to capture beautiful and ugly, wonderful and terrible things that Queer people experience in our world.
Whether I’m thinking about my journalism, my blogging, my research publications, my short stories, or any other kinds of writing I have done over the years, I tend to agree with the perspective that only audiences can judge the results of a given work. Personally, I feel like I accomplished the three things I set out to do with this novel, but now that it’s out, I believe that it will be up to readers to figure such things out.
Thinking about the responses and feedback of the people who were kind enough to do me the priceless favor of reading drafts of this work before now, I feel happy with the novel and I look forward to whatever comes next. There were some that fully praised the work, and others who did not like it much at all. There were some who thought it was too positive considering LGBTQIAP politics in America at present, and others who thought it was too negative in relation to the same. There were some who thought the novel should have ended five chapters or so earlier, and others who thought it should have gone on for a few more chapters to offer more detail, resolution, or other bits of wrapping up. For me, the fact that the reactions have spanned a diversity of opinions even among the relatively small pool of readers thus far suggests I may have got what I wanted – a real, complex portrait of the good, bad, and everywhere in between Queer people in the south experience. I don’t know if this is correct or how others will interpret the work, but I’m happy with it and that counts for something in my mind.
Instead of trying to ascertain any concrete result or metric, when I think about Cigarettes & Wine 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.
I think about talking with people in different states about things like burner phones, secret notes and mixtapes, and stolen kisses in the shadows where no one would see alongside so many other ways people found / find to live their Queerness in spaces that try to erase it from possible options. I think about laughing with people of different races, ages, sexualities, and genders about awkward and sweet and sometimes scary moments when we first learned this term, that sexual practice, this type of toy or other material, or that type of intimacy. I think about listening to stories about first loves who are still together – sometimes openly now and sometimes still secretive for many reasons – 30 years later, first loves that died way too soon, first loves that fizzled for any of a million reasons, first loves who were “such a mistake” and others who were “exactly what I needed.” I think about violence that was explicitly directed at people for being sexual or gender diverse / Queer, violence that was simply tied to living in the south where guns and fights and poverty are often so visible and normal, violence that people heard about that shifted the ways they lived or felt in the moment, and violence that people were grateful for avoiding even when some felt guilty that they avoided it when others could not. I think about discussions of accidents related to coming out or being outed by others, related to four wheelers, related to the friend who died when a gun went off or when the three wheeler flipped in the field, related to cars on highways and alcohol from plastic cups, related to lack of sexual education, and all kinds of other accidents that occurred as people tried to figure out who they were and tried to figure out how to manage rural and small town cultures. I think about the conversations about the beauty of religion alongside the horror of religion alongside the fear and shame of religion alongside the liberation of religion depending on what religion, what location, and whether or not one’s Queerness was known to the religious. I think about the conversations about hateful families alongside the conversations about supportive families alongside the conversations about chosen families. I think about the conversations with so many more people who are out and open and relatively safe nowadays alongside the conversations with so many more who are still in hiding for one of a million understandable reasons who may or may not ever want to or be able to come out and live openly.
I think about all these stories and so many more, and for me, that’s what the book is about. For me, Cigarettes & Wine is simply the first of a series of novels I am writing seeking to honor, celebrate, mourn, and embrace all the different forms and experiences of sexual and gender Queerness I’ve seen in my travels throughout the south. For me, it is an attempt to share the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, and in short, the complex wonder of the many different ways sexual and gender diversity play out and survive and even thrive even in places – like the Deep South – where we don’t often expect it or see it as openly displayed. For me, it is also an attempt to say to Queer people in the south – and especially the bi and trans and poly folk like me who rarely see ourselves in even LGBT academic and mainstream media coverage – that you are not alone, that there is at least as much beauty as however much pain you might be facing, that the pain you may face is real and not your fault, that the beauty and wonder you find in you and your friends and lovers is also real and worth celebrating and fighting for, and that in the both the best and worst moments of your life you are part of a much larger population, story, and tradition that has and will continue to survive and fight with and for you.