Stonewall, Before and After: An Interview with Samuel R. Delany




Author photo: Tom Kneller; art director: Spencer Singer

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SAMUEL R. DELANY (born April 1, 1942) is one of the most — if not the most — important science fiction writers and critics alive today. As documented in the feature-length documentary The Polymath (2008), Delany’s work as a teacher, thinker, and writer stretches the boundaries of literature and criticism. Over his long and generative career, Delany has not only written such classics of science fiction as Babel-17 (1966), Nova (1968) and Dhalgren (1975), but also such hybrid works of memoir and criticism as Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999). While he’s currently working on a new project to create an illustrated children’s book, Delany is also the author of what he calls in this interview “the last pre-Stonewall work of gay fiction,” Hogg, a novel so obscene that Maurice Girodias, the famous publisher of Lolita, said it was the only book he refused to publish solely because of its sexual content (drafted by 1969, Hogg was not published until 1995). Delany’s fiction and nonfiction has always been dedicated to defamiliarizing what his society takes to be “normal”: in his speculative fiction and memoir writing alike, Delany gave voice to dispossessed perspectives, charting previously unimagined territories of social relation through a queering of language, thought, subjectivity, and speculative world-building of all kinds. While Delany became celebrated at an early age by the science fiction community (winning his first Nebula Award at the age of 24), in the post-Stonewall period, as his writing became increasingly radical, he often found himself writing at the margins of the SF genre in his queering of the genre. In the new millennium, Delany is often celebrated as a godfather of the gay literary community, but his open and indefinite self-expressions likewise remain compartmentalized, separate from their deep connections with his lifelong investment in the science fiction genre.

When I first met Delany (informally known as Chip) over a year ago, he had only recently sold his archive and book collection to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. In the years prior, Chip had undergone not only a bout of prostate cancer but also four displacements and relocations, finally parting with his beloved apartment in the Gayborhood of Center City, Philadelphia, to settle with his partner, Dennis, in the Fairmount neighborhood, across the street from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. If leaving his longtime Upper West Side New York City apartment was difficult enough, the transition away from his regular Philly coffee shop, Greenstreet Coffee, was perhaps even harder. Downsizing and giving away the majority of his library, of course, was hardest of all for a writer who has lived in and through literature. Over the last year, I’ve gotten to know Chip at a pivotal period of his late career, at the age of 77, as he takes stock of his life from a new vantage point. While Chip might be expected to have one eye fixed on the future, and the other freighted with almost a century of memories, anyone who meets Chip can’t help but be struck by his presence, his openness and trust, the attention and generosity that he offers to strangers, acquaintances, and old friends alike. In our conversations, he has always been candid with me, maybe more revealing than he has been in many of his nonfiction writings, including his memoir The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village (1988), and his interviews (including those collected in Conversations with Samuel Delany [2009] and Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and the Politics of the Paraliterary [1999]).

The following conversation springs from Chip’s reflections on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in the summer of 1969, stirring up memories as diverse as his childhood summer camp, his most obscene novel, and his mother’s stroke. While this first interview may introduce as many questions as it gives answers, it is only the first in a series to be published by LARB, covering a wider range of subjects that concern Chip at this crucial time, not only in his life and writing, but in the politics of his country, and in the future of this planet. In the interview, Chip often answers questions indirectly, departing from my prompts in surprising and revealing ways. While this digressive style of narration and Chip’s slippery use of language produce roundabout answers, his style has always traced a spiral. If Chip’s parents appear in the background of his story at the start, by the end of the interview, Chip opens up about his relationship with his mother unlike he has before. Along the way, Chip gives substance to his lifelong artistic and scholarly interrogation of the politics of identity, bringing into relief the marvelous resistance of our lives and experiences to solidify themselves into anything as stable as a fixed self and a unified vision. For Delany, Stonewall was not a transformative moment, but a symptom of a larger metamorphosis in American culture, one deeply connected to his own childhood, when he met Stormé DeLarverie as a camp counselor, long before she became famous for allegedly throwing the first punch at Stonewall. Here, Delany reflects on his past mentors, his role models, and his own parents, as he reconsiders the subtle and complex ways his identity and his writing have transformed over time, before and after Stonewall.

Stormé DeLarverie performing in drag as the Master of Ceremonies in “The Jewel Box Revue” in 1960s Harlem.

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ALEX WERMER-COLAN: In anticipation of the 50th anniversary, what do you remember of the Stonewall riots? What was the event’s significance to you?

SAMUEL R. DELANY: I was very happy. I heard that it happened; I was living in San Francisco, and I got a phone call, and, you know, there was a big to-do in New York.

Turns out there was a woman named Mary Davies, who was a summer camp counselor in this wonderful summer camp I went to called Camp Woodland. She was a friend of my family’s. Her mother had run a gift shop on Amsterdam Avenue right around where we lived. She and her mother didn’t get along very well.

Mary was my favorite counselor at summer camp when I was 11 or 12. And clearly she was a lesbian. We had a social dance scene, and all the girls were supposed to wear dresses, and Mary was just not a dress girl. I remember her saying, you know, when she finally consented and wore a dress, “I have the feeling I look very funny in this thing.” I remember thinking she did! She just looked more comfortable in jeans, and she had a very mannish haircut. On visiting day, my parents came up, and as I said, they knew her, they had known her as a little girl, and my father said: “Why did you cut all your hair off like that, young lady?” And she said, “Oh I was in the barber chair, and I fell asleep, and he went on cutting,” which, you know, was her standard response. People were always asking her such questions. Anyway, my father was very unhappy that she had gone through this sort of transition.

Then, when I was 17, I discovered there was something called “The Jewel Box Revue,” which was a drag show that used to travel around, and it used to play at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. It was the only drag show anybody ever talked about. My uncle and aunt had been to see it. In fact, they were the ones who came over and told my parents, told us all about it, and how great, how clever it was. “The Jewel Box Revue” did not use lip-synching — the performers all used their own voices, which was also quite new, although I didn’t know it at the time. It was the first drag show I’d ever seen, so I assumed they all weren’t lip-synched.

So I went to see the drag show. And the master of ceremonies of the drag show was presented as a man named Stormé DeLarverie. And then at the end, the master of ceremonies would take this thing off holding his hair back and shake his hair out and you’d realize he was a woman. And the gimmick for “The Jewel Box Revue” was, “We’re 25 men and a girl.” You’re supposed to figure out who is the real girl. And who is the real girl? The master of ceremonies, who had a nice baritone voice, was singing, was also an entertainer.

Years later, my mother and the downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Horn, whose kids had also gone to Camp Woodland, were talking about “The Jewel Box Revue,” which had returned to the Apollo Theater at 125th Street in New York. And my mother said, “You know, that’s Mary, that was Mary Davies, who was a counselor up at the summer camp.” And I realized I knew Stormé DeLarverie. And I suddenly realized this is not a person who is far away from me, this is somebody I sat next to on the piano bench, who helped me write a cantata and sat beside me at chorus rehearsal at Woodland — someone who had been very close to me.

Cut to Stonewall.

Stonewall happened when I was 27, so a decade later. And who was the person who was supposed to have thrown the first punch at Stonewall? Stormé DeLarverie!

Now if you look it up online, you can’t find the name Mary Davies. She just dropped that. I guess she just didn’t want to have anything to do with her family. Her mother told my mother it was an older female camp counselor who had corrupted her, and I gather Mary wasn’t having any of it. I used to go into her mother’s gift shop and buy little gifts for people. Her mother was a very tasteful, very feminine woman. The point, of course, is there are Wiki articles and interviews with Stormé online. But there’s no mention of Mary Davies. They mention that she was born in New Orleans, that her father was white, and her mother was, you know. Stormé was a fairly light-skinned black woman, like me, you know, but she definitely thought of herself as black. And she was one of the people who actually started “The Jewel Box.” It was a very different kind of thing. First of all, it had black and white entertainers! It was an integrated thing.

So when you think of Stonewall, do you think of Mary Davies and Stormé DeLarverie?

No, I didn’t know Stormé had anything to do with it, until five or six years after the fact, when I learned she was right there throwing the first punch! And I was very happy, you know.

But now all you read about Stormé DeLarverie is the Stonewall riots. Her involvement with “The Jewel Box Revue” is quite secondary. The other thing is she doesn’t want to take credit for what happened. She’s a fundamentally modest person. She said all she did was haul off and hit one policeman who hit her.

And I’ve been in contact with a guy who does a lot of work at Woodland, talking about Woodland; he doesn’t remember Mary Davies at all. But I always wondered how Woodland got ahold of her, or how she got to Woodland.

Woodland was the first time I got a chance to experiment with sex, you know, straight and gay, and discovered I was, you know. I mean, I knew I was gay from the time I was 10, but I did wonder whether I could, you know, perform heterosexually. And would it change me? Would I get to like it and become “normal”? Because you knew, you knew you were different.

When you were at camp did you feel like Mary Davies was aware, trying to be supportive of you because …

I’m sure she was. People used to tease me. I used to very much like dancing, and I had something called a dancer’s bounce, or at least that’s what my very good friend, Wendy Osserman, used to say, when we used to practice dancing together. She took ballet, and she would teach me all the ballet steps, and then I actually took ballet for a while, believe it or not. I wanted to be a dancer, and a choreographer, and do all those things, as well as be a singer, and an entertainer. But people used to tease me about my walking all the time. And Wendy would say male dancers all do that. So even then there was that … Anyway, I don’t think I have it anymore. I don’t know, and I don’t care, to be perfectly honest.

You were living in San Francisco when the riots broke out in New York City, and it wasn’t until five years later that you found out about Mary Davies’s connection to it. But when you first heard about the Stonewall riots, what was your reaction?

Well, my response … I call my novel Hogg, which was written just before the Stonewall riots — the first draft, a handwritten version, was completed in 1968 — I call Hogg the last pre-Stonewall gay novel written in the United States.

What do you mean by that?

I was very angry at the world for the way it treated gay men and women, and I did not have much hope for it. The way, even in places like New York and San Francisco, we let them walk all over us: I had been arrested two or three times in New York and once in London for indecent public exposure, which was what they got you for, if you used the public urinals for the bulk of your cruising — which I did.

I finished a handwritten version of Hogg, which more or less filled some five notebooks, when, a couple of days or possibly even a couple of hours after, I got a phone call that a riot had started in New York the night before at a place on Waverly called the Stonewall Inn. I had been to it two of three times the previous summer; it was about a block away from my doctor, Dr. Otaviano.

I had had a very easy life, living in Greenwich Village, but the gay bars were still being raided, with warnings for the steady customers. Much was made of the fact that Judy Garland’s funeral was held on the first night of the riots, inspiring a pretty feisty bunch of queens to fight back, when the police tried to herd them into the paddy wagon. For the next three or four days, the whole gay underclass of the country on both coasts heard about the riots that went on for several days in New York City.

I went back to San Francisco, stayed back and forth between Natoma Street and a commune on Oak Street, whose backyard looked into the San Francisco Buddhist Center. A friend of mine, Paul Caruso, who kept the Natoma Street flat, pointed out that there were five notebooks I’d left in a closet. When I took them out, I found they were the handwritten drafts of my novel, Hogg, which I had completed just before hearing about the Stonewall riots. I rewrote Hogg at the Albert Hotel while I was working on Dhalgren. Eventually Hogg and Dhalgren both went to London, and I finished both there — and also a first draft of Trouble on Triton — and returned with them to New York.

So what happens after Stonewall?

Well, when Stonewall happened, the Gay Liberation Front formed around it, and the Gay Activist Alliance formed out of that. That was when the big “come out of the closet” thing swept the country, you know, the notion that [coming out] was a political strategy. If we are all out of the closet, they cannot blackmail us anymore. So, you let everyone know.

Did you feel as if you’d already “come out” before Stonewall?

Well, yes, I’d certainly had my first sexual experience with a guy, which is the old meaning of “coming out.” I’d gotten married to Marilyn Hacker when she was 18 and I was 19. She knew I was gay. We’d been friends since the first day at Bronx High School of Science. We had experimented sexually, and she’d recently gotten pregnant. During the conversation we had when we decided we were really going to get married, standing at a subway station waiting for train, I said, “Well, you know I’m gay,” and she said, “Of course I do. You’ve taken me cruising with you.”

By the time of the Stonewall riots, did you feel as if you had written as a public figure and published books that were openly gay?

I was always dropping in little coded things, and that became stronger and stronger as time went on, you know, in stories like “Aye, and Gomorrah,” which was my first published story for Dangerous Visions (1967) (which was supposed to be, you know, something about something dangerous). And then “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” (December 1968) was a story that hinges on an S&M gay relationship, although the words are not said. But you figure that’s what’s got to be going on, what must have had to have happened between the narrator and the young singer Hawk, who has all these scars on him.

Is Dhalgren your first published science fiction book that has explicit sex that the reader couldn’t avoid interpreting as queer?

Yes, it was my first novel. My first science fiction novel in which you have a hero who is having sex with men.

When it was published in 1975, did it change your perception of yourself as a public writer?

Well, yeah. It was a very controversial novel. People were saying Bantam will go out of business if they publish more novels like this. Harlan Ellison famously got to page 350 and threw the book across the room.

On the other hand, the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, who although he had about five children, was as bisexual as I was … I don’t think of myself, I never thought of myself as bisexual. I thought of myself as gay. But I eventually realized that’s what you want: you want a gay relationship. And it had to do with safety. I could perform with women. But I didn’t feel … you know, men made me feel safe.

Since we first started talking, you’ve said over and over that what you fear most for your work is queer erasure.

Yes, exactly, the science fiction community is not, and was not especially back then, a gay-friendly organization.

Paul Di Filippo, who is a science fiction reviewer, shared with me a recent French article on sex and science fiction, and I said: “It’s all very good, but there’s no mention of Joanna Russ, and they don’t make anything of the early stuff by Sturgeon, you know, the famous story for which he was blacklisted, and almost thrown out of the science fiction community, called ‘The World Well Lost.’”

There was an editor who, when Sturgeon submitted it to him, started a phone call campaign, saying, “We must not publish any Sturgeon ever again, this is immoral, blah blah blah.” A feisty little guy, an editor named Ray Palmer in the SF magazine, Universe — I never met Ray, and I don’t know what his sexuality was — took it upon himself to publish this story anyway. He did pride himself for publishing things nobody else would publish.

It became an instant classic, because it was the first time someone had done a story — this was well before Stonewall, in 1950, when I was eight years old — that was sympathetic to gay people, to gay men. I broke out crying when I read it at age 12. And I just thought, that is the most wonderful story I’ve ever read. There’s hope.

How have you felt it’s changed since your writing?

I don’t know. Now there is such a thing as gay science fiction.

Do you still fear queer erasure though?

Well, yeah. I don’t fear it. I see it happening.

You’ve also talked to me about how you never told your parents about your sexuality. Was that difficult for you? Or was it freeing?

Yes, I never had the chance to tell my parents. My father died, was dead, by that time. I was writing The Motion of Light in Water, a memoir about my life until the time of Stonewall, and I literally said to myself, “Well, if you’re going to write this, you’re going to need to sit down and have the conversation with your mom.”

I was pretty sure by that time that my mother knew I was gay. I mean, she knew I had already lived for seven and a half years with another guy named Frank Romeo. And she would have us up for dinner, or to Sunday morning breakfast. And as I have said many times, the problem with my mother was, when we broke up, my mother’s thing was like, she still wanted to keep him coming over: “Well, we can still have him over even if you’re not living together. He’s still a nice guy.” [Laughs, imitating a kid complaining:] “Mom!”

There was this Broadway play, a very powerful Broadway play, called As Is (1985), which was one of the first gay plays about a gay couple. My mother thought it was impressive, so she took me to see it and I thought it was really interesting. We talked about it without talking about how it related to me personally, which was kind of how she wanted to deal with it.

So anyway, with Motion of Light in Water, while I was in the midst of writing the first version, my mother had a major stroke, and she lost all her language, all her speech. All she could say — and it was not complete — was: “I know, I know, I know” [in a reassuring voice]. For the next eight years, that’s all she ever said.

She could write endless letters, but she couldn’t make words out of them. And she would write with her left hand, and she was right-handed. Or the other way around, I can’t remember exactly. But she would write endless strings of letters under the impression that she was writing something we could understand, or that she could still write, with just one capital letter after another, ABAQS … and so on. She couldn’t think in language anymore. So that was very hard, very hard. The doctor told us she had lost as much of her brain as you could lose and still be alive. She was diagnosed with both aphasia and apraxia. She was completely paralyzed on one side. She couldn’t understand anything. Literally she could not, there was the inability … you would say, “Tap once for yes, and two for no.” And she would go: [Chip taps at random]. She knew she was supposed to tap, but had no notion of what it meant. She had no command of meaning. That was very frustrating.

Was it more difficult because of what you were going to tell her?

Well, yeah, I was going to say, “Mom, look, I’m going to be writing about some of this, and…” — now it couldn’t happen. Everyone was talking about “the conversation with mom or dad” because, by this time, it was after Stonewall, in, oh I don’t know, ’87 or so.

Did you think she would take it well?

At one point, Marilyn tried to do that. When Marilyn and I broke up, she was now suddenly gay and living with another woman, to my total surprise. She tried to tell my mother she was gay, but my mother told her: “I don’t want to hear about this.” And Marilyn was very surprised.

Marilyn’s attempt to tell my mother didn’t work. There was a lesbian couple living down the hall, two women who used to have these yelling and screaming matches, and my mother and I would talk about them. You know, she’d say, “I hope one of them isn’t getting hurt!” Again, with no acknowledgment that there was perhaps anything else going on.

So your mother said that she didn’t want to know, but when you went to tell her, her only words were, over and over for eight years, “I know, I know, I know.” Was that a strange irony for you?

Well, I never before now made that connection. What I’m sure she meant was, “I know how difficult this all must be for you.” But those were the only two words she ever said.

In the end, my mother’s death was not such a big transition point — her stroke in July 1987, when she basically ceased to be someone who could take in information about the world and put it out in any but the most basic way, is the real transition point.

And my most intellectually complex project, Return to Nevèrÿon, overlaps that (with Trouble on Triton as its prologue).

How does Return to Nevèrÿon touch on that moment in your life? Is there any way in which you felt freed in the 1990s to write in new ways, not only after Stonewall, but also after your mother’s stroke? 

While I think of the stories as social and having to do with my immediate life, they don’t have much to do with my family per se. That was something that my sister shouldered, which left me free to write about what I was writing about, which was my own personal life that my mother was, if anything, no longer a part of. I saw her when she’d been transferred from the nursing home to the hospital, where it was fairly clear she was going to die soon.

But, again, I don’t have a sense of her death impinging on my writing in any way. When my sister and I were leaving the cemetery after the funeral, my sister commented, “Sam, that is the end of eight awful, awful years,” and I remember thinking, yes, she was right, and I had been unfair for shoving so much of it off on her, even though she seemed willing to accept the burden, and it made it possible for me to go on writing during that period. In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, there is one sequence where I took my friend Arlie to visit my mom in the nursing home. (I can’t even remember the name of the nursing home, though I used to try to go out and visit her every two, three, five weeks. It was at the very end of the Canarsie Line, and after that, you had to walk another six blocks.) Her room was up on the eighth, ninth, or 10th floor, where people in her condition were kept. Arlie and I took her for a walk in her wheelchair, we all sang together, and got ice cream. And she did like music and ice cream.

That’s, at this point, about as much as I can say.

You mention during an interview in The Polymath that you felt very angry with your father throughout much of your life, and that when you approached him to speak your mind, he died shortly thereafter. You said in the documentary that you still felt repressed in some ways about your anger. How do your feelings about your father compare to your feelings about your mother and yourself?

I think when I got together with Frank Romeo, I got together with someone who was very similar to my dad. And when I got together with Dennis, after seven and a half years with Frank — and another few years because I noted that children didn’t do well when their parents took partners when they were between eight and 14 — I got someone who was still anxious the way my dad was, but not anywhere nearly as strong. And that’s worked out well.

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Alex Wermer-Colan is a writer, editor, and translator. His work has appeared in Twentieth Century Literature, The Conversant, and Lost & Found.


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