Performative Marriages and the American Dream: On “The Marriage Act”

April 7, 2014   •   By Aaron Shulman

IT SOUNDS like the premise of a subversive romantic comedy that would probably never get made: Soon after 9/11, a recent college grad, adrift in her early 20s, marries her gay best friend (who’s from a violently homophobic country in the Middle East) to help him get a green card. The catch: they have to hide their marriage from the young woman’s mother, who works as a specialist in anti-immigration fraud for the INS.

As it happens, this is not fiction but fact, culled straight from the life of writer Liza Monroy, who chronicles her topsy-turvy time married to “Emir” in the memoir The Marriage Act: The Risk I Took to Keep My Best Friend in America, and What It Taught Us About Love. While full of set pieces that run from light and fun (getting their marriage license in time for an Elvis wedding in Vegas) to tense and disastrous (an immigration officer asks the unprepared Monroy if Emir is circumcised), the book reaches beyond the drama of events to probe what marriage truly is. Monroy deconstructs the idea that her union was a “sham,” even if Emir himself seems to sometimes disagree, as in this argument, one of many jousting battles between the two:

“We can’t tell anyone except our closest friends,” Emir said. “We can’t risk getting caught.”

“Still with the ‘getting caught?’ Who’s to say we don’t ‘count’ as ‘legitimate’? Why should I have to keep the nature of the most important relationship in my life a secret?”

Emir shrugged. “That’s how gay people feel all the time,” he said.

Monroy recently launched her memoir at Book Soup, here in Los Angeles (where much of the book is set), with an after-party at the Abbey (where she proposed to Emir). A cross between confessional memoir, family history, coming-of-age tale, political polemic, and a story about love and friendship, The Marriage Act gave Monroy and me plenty to talk about.


AARON SHULMAN: This book is such an interesting mash-up of hot-button issues — immigration, gay marriage, and post-9/11 life in the US. These issues have all evolved so much during the last decade, both in terms of political developments and shifting attitudes. How did these changes affect the writing of the book?

LIZA MONROY: It made what seemed like a curse at the time — not being able to place the book with a publisher for some years — into a blessing in disguise. It meant I kept going back to rewrite and then rewrite some more, incorporating new information, new facts and feelings. I started writing it in 2006, so the cultural landscape was very different. Now DOMA is gone, and more states are challenging same-sex marriage bans as unconstitutional. It’s going to be a federal victory, eventually, I hope. I did worry, though the book did find a publisher at a very good time, that it would be considered no longer timely. But really it’s a time capsule; it shows how we learn from history, and how much evolution and progress there’s been in just one decade.

I think one of the most intriguing aspects of the book is how you analyze your decisions through an almost psychoanalytic lens, looking at how your family models may have influenced your decisions, or how you sought out things missing from earlier formative periods of your life. How did this reflection occur — while you were writing, or through lots of thought before writing?

I love that you picked up on this first, since I was trying out Jungian analysis at the time I was writing the book. Once a week, for an hour, I’d hash out all the psychological stuff. I ended up weaving some of that stuff in, for instance the Jung quote that really jumped out at me, “What is not brought to consciousness comes to us as fate.” There were so many strange coincidental points in my story, I couldn’t help but examine their meaning: the “mirroring” of my parents’ marriage (my mother married my father because he was denied a tourist visa when they were first together), that my mother went on to prevent immigration fraud for a living, and my involvement with Emir, a gay man from the Middle East who needed a green card ...

When I initially tried to write the book as a novel, to get an utmost of identity protection, early readers told me the premise was simply not believable. There were too many coincidences. I feel like that calls for deeper examination. I went to the Jungian analyst to work out some of the heavier stuff related to my father; his alcohol-related eviction and subsequent death were things I needed to include, though they had nothing to do with marriage to Emir. My father was an immigrant who couldn’t make the “American dream” happen. He wanted to make more of his life, but being severely alcoholic, he simply couldn’t. From that, I drew a desire to see the people around me live out their ambitions. Emir needed a green card to do that. On a subconscious level, I’m sure I was motivated to help not only because he was a dear friend in need, but because I was powerless to help my father.

For the family material, I sought to explore interesting parallels and mirrors, the way family influences and affects us. It’s contrary to my instincts to blame or judge. One reviewer didn’t like that I asked a lot of questions that I couldn’t answer. But that was purposeful. It’s not about finding answers, but asking better questions.

The process occurred entirely through drafting. My first draft of The Marriage Act was a “Will & Grace on steroids” adventure with lots of pink martinis and shopping scenes. It was a light, frothy, fun take on the material — and, when I read back over it, deeply unsatisfying. I wasn’t getting at the point, what was important about the story, the larger questions and deeper examinations. Jung helped. Graduate school workshops helped. It was there one of my favorite professors, Patricia O’Toole, who is actually a presidential biographer, told me: “Humor is your thing but this is also a serious story, don’t be afraid to get serious.” I wrote a lot and threw a lot away. In the end, I salvaged exactly 12 lines from the original 400-page draft. When I look back at it now, I’m so glad I did. It took a lot of time and much excavating, and was worth an extra six years. Takes a lot of effort to seem effortless! And I was able to salvage several funny scenes by adding more context.

Speaking of formative periods, one of the things I loved most about this book was revisiting that messy period so many of us go through in our early to mid-20s. What could be a banal period to narrate — your time of crappy jobs, little money, partying too much, feeling lost — ends up being elevated, both in stakes and meaning, by taking the huge risk of marrying Emir. At the time, did you have a sense of adding difficulty to an already by-definition difficult time, or did this only become clear later?

Thank you so much. I was often worried about that material coming off as banal, because living it certainly is! But it’s also absurd — I focused on that ... and tried to “elevate” it. I felt adrift; marrying Emir was something of consequence in a time when I felt little meaning. At the time, I didn’t think I was adding more challenge to an already challenging period. I would have said the opposite at age 21, 22. I thought by having a married partner, someone who would not leave me, I was actually going to make life easier. At times it did — having that unconditional devotion. We were very close friends. It was only a year and a half or so into it, when INS interviews started coming up, the same time we were having other problems, that I realized I had taken on something much larger than I initially imagined in the days of the Elvis impersonator wedding and being an aspiring Hunter S. Thompsonette. I used my writing ambitions to justify a lot of things I did in my early 20s, running amok in LA.

When Emir and I went through a rough patch — in many ways our union mirrored a more “conventional” one — I realized the heft of what I’d taken on — but even then, not completely. It was the grad school workshop again. One of my colleagues said, “Do you realize that when you were doing this, most other people our age hadn’t even graduated college yet?” She was right, and that struck me and stayed with me. I started school a year early, then doubled up on credits to graduate college early because I wanted to be out in the world already, so I was especially young. But you never feel young; you look back later and go, “Oh, I was so young!” At the time, you feel like the wisest thing in the world, especially in those early-20s days.

You mention in the book that you discussed the approach to telling the story with Emir, so I imagine you had more than his “blessing” to write it. That said, if Emir were to write his own version, what do you think would be different? Or what topics/incidents/feelings would be given more or less emphasis?

That question actually prompted me to email Emir. He’d written to me about being stressed out by his workload, and maybe not being able to make it to my reading in New York. I’d sent a kind of “it’s okay if you can’t” response but realized I didn’t really mean it, so I sent another response saying that instead ... There is so much nuanced complexity to any close friendship, any close human relationship. His blessing for me to write the book was layered. He gave me excellent story notes, filled in gaps in my memory, helped me decide what to leave in and what to put out, and ultimately said he loved the book. That said, if I asked for his truest feelings, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have wanted me to write it. I think he knew how much it meant to me to tell this story, that my hope was not to write a scandalous confession piece but to provoke thought that — if successful — creates change. Our relationship was both complicated and strengthened by being married but not traditionally so. You’ve got the American who wants to be outspoken and shout from rooftops for change, and a Middle Easterner who had to spend much of his life hiding a big part of who he was from those closest to him, preferring privacy and anonymity as a result, whether by nature or conditioning.

So, though he “gave his blessing” for the writing, he won’t show his face, and he gets stressed about photographs being out there. I agree to disagree with him that if he were willing to “come out” too, it would add so much to the surrounding discussion. But we respect each other’s wishes. That’s one of the ways we’ve managed to stay close. I took everything out of the book that he asked me to, and that involved some sacrifices.

If he were to write his own, it would focus less on the “what is marriage” question. To him it’s more cut-and-dry: he doesn’t see the same gray area. He still thinks it would be considered illegal, end of story. His version would probably be more about moving to the States and being able to live openly for the first time, and the terrifying experience of possibly having to go back. I’m sure we would have overlap with writing funny scenes about Elvis. We share a sense of humor.

Could you talk a bit about the legal issues surrounding the book? Did you have a lawyer weigh in? Did your publisher have any requests? Were there concerns from the people who appear in the book? How did the legal issues affect the whole process, from the creative side to the business side?

For starters, Emir was terrified — unnecessarily, I think. I had to reassure him often that it was going to be okay. My mother said, “If you get arrested it will be great publicity for your book,” so there was that. A lawyer didn’t review the book, as far as I know, because Counterpoint/Soft Skull is a small press, so I’m thinking they might not do the legal review thing. Random House did with my first novel, and that was fiction. So there was probably some risk involved in publishing this, but no legal ramifications (knock on wood) because Emir and I had an ironclad situation. For all intents and purposes, we really were college sweethearts. I’m really happy that a lot of readers have gotten that. It means we’re willing to see marriage for what it is: fluid, more than just one thing, not limited by gender or orientation.

I published an essay in The New York Times Modern Love column that a publishing lawyer did review. He seemed to think there wouldn’t be a problem and he was in charge of Business Affairs at the William Morris Agency East Coast office, so I trusted his word; and so far, it’s been right.

People who appear in the book are a different story! I only cleared it with Emir, since he’s the co-protagonist, and I cared about him being happy with it and not revealing anything he wasn’t comfortable with. Other than him vetting it, I just wrote what was important to the story.

I can’t help but ask: How does your mom feel about your marriage to Emir now? How has your relationship with her changed or evolved because of what you did?

It’s changed a lot — at first she was livid. She responded with anger and took it as a personal affront, an insult to everything she did in her career. Now, over a decade later, she accepts it. She considers him family. What changed was that over time I interviewed her for the book, beginning with the mundane, like “How can a young filmmaker get sponsored for an H-1B work visa?,” and leading to bigger questions, such as “Why do you think the marriage was illegal? What is marriage?” Through this process and ensuing conversation, we came to a new place of understanding, meeting in the middle. She accepts what I did and understands why I did it. I try to see her point, too — it was a huge secret I kept from her for years.

Your first book was a novel, and it sounds like you tried telling your and Emir’s story in fiction first. Now that you’ve surrendered to the memoir, would you like to write another, or was this the one big story you had to get out for the time being and now you can happily return to the novel?

I just finished a new novel, The Profiler’s Daughter. It’s the final book in my first-person, mother-daughter trilogy — Mexican High, The Marriage Act, and this. In Mexican High the daughter is a teenager who moves to Mexico City with her diplomat mother. In Marriage Act, “she” is me, but there are a few definite similarities, and the memoir spans my/her 20s. In The Profiler’s Daughter, a novel based on a seed from real life, the unnamed protagonist is divorced, single, and inching toward her mid-30s. Since the daughter has always made poor decisions in love, her mother, a professional profiler for the State Department, steps in. She tries to use her job techniques to help her daughter find The One. It’s basically all true with the exception that in the fictional version the mother and daughter end up on a reality show. That’s more of a metaphor, since my life felt like a reality show at the time. And by that I mean, we applied this “project” to my life, which made for some not-very-organic dating and a real rom-com twist at the end. Everything I write is based in reality — it’s just the meaning of the term has some flexibility.

My next book, in the planning stages, is also a novel. All I have is the title, but it’s a title I am absolutely in love with. I’ve never started from a title before. And there are no mothers in the book.

So, it looks like I’m into fiction for the foreseeable future. Eventually I want to write one more memoir: 33, the story of three marriages by 33, what I learned and what I didn’t.


Aaron Shulman is a freelance journalist who has written for The New RepublicNew Statesman, and The Awl, among other publications.