This is a brief talk I gave at the First Presbyterian Church of Beacon as part of their first Pride Service, June 26, 2022.
By Donna Minkowitz
Since I first felt the power of queerness in my life when I was 14, it has seemed to me like a kind of fierceness, a kind of fire, the sensation that radical joy is worth fighting for, that sex is worth fighting for, that the funky beautiful intoxicating overflowing life force inside yourself is a thing to defend, a thing to show, a thing to love, a thing to refuse to squash or strangle or imprison within gates of adamantine iron.
I’m here to speak on behalf of of that life force.
As a young adult in the 80s, I was part of the first generation of activists to reclaim the word QUEER for ourselves. Some of the stronghearted holy power of queerness comes across in these lines that the gay singing group The Flirtations used to sing, which were written by a black gay British man named Labi Siffre:
the higher you build your barriers
the taller I become
the more you refuse to hear my voice
the louder I will sing
“When they insist we’re just not good enough,” the song says, “just look em in the eye and say/We’re gonna do it anyway! We’re gonna do it anyway!
And that my friends, is the buoyant, ever-defiant power of queerness.
This fiery joy is also what our queer brother the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins had in mind when he spoke of Jesus metaphorically as a falcon:
“I caught this morning morning’s minion,
kingdom of daylight’s dauphin,
dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding of the rolling level underneath him steady air
, and striding high there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing in his ecstasy!
Then off, off forth on swing, as a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding/ Rebuffed the big wind…
Brute beauty and valor and act, oh air, pride, plume here/ Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion times told lovelier, more dangerous. Oh my chevalier!”
For that is queerness too, the wild life force that refuses to give in to narrow demands of propriety. Queerness is also the ecstasy Hopkins is invoking in this poem, and the willingness to embrace wild, unchained beauty even when it might be socially or politically dangerous, because all beauty and pleasure comes from God, in fact, as Hopkins is suggesting in this poem, it IS God.
Beyond this, queerness is the radical belief in the goodness and innocence of pleasure, and I am thinking of myself at 14, discovering kisses and affectionate touch, discovering hands shoulders long hair and bellybuttons in all their sweetness and goofiness.
The queer life force within me has saved me so many times, it saved me as a teenager when the enlivening, flowering beauty of puberty gave me a power to stand fast against the violence I was experiencing at home, as a young and as an older adult when the sunny queer force in my blood gave me hope and creative power that always let me sail past depression and obstacles.
Thank you very much for inviting me here today to your beautiful congregation to speak about the connection between queerness and holiness.
And thanks to the supremely alive, defiant queer life force inside me that keeps my blood flowing. Thank you.
Hey there! I thought I would describe to you what I’ve been working on since late fall of 2019. It’s a new book called DONNAVILLE, and it takes place in a city that is, yes… the city of my mind. You know how the poet Delmore Schwartz once wrote, “The mind is a city like London/Smoky and populous: it is a capital/Like Rome, ruined and eternal,/Marked by the monuments which no one/Now remembers”? This book imagines that city, er, my city — the little citystate of my mind.
You know how Sylvia Plath once wrote, “Is there no way out of the mind?” (Look it up, it’s a terrifying poem.) Well, sometimes Donnaville feels a little bit like that, because its central location is a prison, and one of the two main characters is the Jailer, who is also a janitor and torturer.
You know how Denise Levertov once wrote to a lover, “You invaded my country by accident/not knowing you had crossed the border./Vines that grew there touched you”? And then she tells him, “I invaded your country with all my/’passionate intensity,’/pontoons and parachutes of my blindness./But living now in the suburbs of the capital/incognito, my will to take the heart/ of the city has dwindled. I love its unsuspecting life,/its adolescents who come to tell me their dreams in the dusty park…”? Well, Donnaville is also about that, what happens when people approach the “countries” of other people’s minds, and try to have relationships with them. When different countries (or citystates), in other words, try to get together.
So, I have finished preliminary edits. It will be a long while before this book is out, but if you want to read some short excerpts, you can read them here, here, here , here, and here. Hope you like! 🙂
Edited on April 20: oh my God, I’m a finalist! Truly did not expect that. If you want to, please vote for me to advance further. For this readers’ choice award, people actually get to vote once a day!
Okay… For the very first time in my life, I get to say, “Vote for me!”
I’m thrilled to have been nominated for Chronogram Magazine’s annual award for the best author in the Hudson Valley 🙂 This is a readers’ choice award, and finalists and the winner are determined by whoever gets the highest number of votes. It’s the absolute truth to say I would be honored if I got yours.
Just to refresh you, I am the author of two award-winning and critically acclaimed memoirs. I am the founder of the Lit Lit series in the Hudson Valley, the winner of a GLAAD Media Award and Radcliffe College’s Exceptional Merit Media Award, and a writer who has gone undercover to write about white nationalists and the Christian right.
Everyone is allowed to vote, whether you live in the Hudson Valley or not.
You can vote for me at this link. (Please just scroll down slightly from the Artist category where this page begins, to the Author category where I am.) Many thanks, and if I win, I’m giving out pie!
Update: the next Lit Lit will be Friday, June 3 at 7 PM, at our regular location, the Howland Cultural Center. We are thrilled that Shaina Loew, author of Elegy for an Appetite and chef/owner of Café Mutton in Hudson, will be our featured reader this month and sign books!! Advance open mic signups are now closed. Proof of vaccination is required at the door.
This is excerpt number four of my memoir in progress, tentatively titled Jailbreak. “The jailer” and “the harlequin” are both parts of me. You can find out more about the jailer here and the harlequin here. In the quatrain that opens this piece, the harlequin is speaking.
I have a wave of power inside me
I have a wave of fruit
I think I can be 300 feet tall
And I’m wearing a kickass suit
This confidence inside me my old therapist thought was a liability, my craziness talking. A lying dodge. On the whole she seemed to prefer the jailer. She and the jailer would have long conversations together. She never addressed the harlequin because she did not like him.
Therapy session between me and Robin:
I always start with So because Robin makes me start the show each time. Neither of us will ever say anything, the whole time, unless I begin. I hate the responsibility, and the bleakness between us, this room in which we seem locked together for 45 minutes at a time, a dungeon I pay to enter. Robin looking at me dryly as if I still haven’t learned anything in the 20 years I’ve been coming to see her.
Sometimes she actually says it: How long have you been coming to me, Donna?
Me (variously): Five years. Nine years. 19 years. 20 years.
Robin: Then why are you still doing X bad thing?
Maybe the harlequin didn’t like Robin, either.
Me/Harlequin: “I sometimes wish our therapy were more playful.”
Robin: “Therapy isn’t play. It’s hard work!
“I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.”
Robin: “Yes you do!”
The harlequin ignores Robin, bides his time. Feeds me under the snow, through my root system, feeds me like birds at his many feeders, shines dazzling sunlight on me even in winter.
I’m sick of you wasting away without me, my love. I’m sick of you locking yourself in the dungeon to work. I miss you.
I will give you custard apples
and I will give you tajines warm with cinnamon
I will give you walks in the mountains
and I will give you a dog
Today I am not happy with everything E does and it makes me fear that my love is a farce. Would someone who really felt a lot of love be annoyed by her partner nervously going on about Trump when we’re having dinner at a new friend’s house? Be afraid that her partner sounded awkward and unconfident? Look at her partner’s face and think that she looked tired?
Why does E stir up the judge inside me? The judge rants, in my head, about E’s nervous boring chitchat. About something rude she said to Fred.
The jailer wants to break the house to bits, kick down the beautiful floorboards and mix them with dog shit, with peed-on papers from the doghouse, smash in the windows, sledgehammer the mirrors, destroy the furniture we built together and the art we put on the walls and shatter glass until it is so dangerous in here I have to leave.
The jailer resents E. He’ll be sitting there hammering more sheets of lead onto the cells and her voice will waft over and he will want to take his hammer to E’s lack of confidence and her belief she’s ugly. Put E in the deepest, dirtiest, most toxic dungeon cell, the saddest, scariest one and he will take his hammer to her and wipe out, wipe out all the awkwardness and the self-hate.
Did Bob invite us to dinner not because he likes us but just to get information on the outré sexual subculture that we have been involved in and he has not? Does he really enjoy our company? Does he think we’re cute? Does he think of us as boring?
This reminds me of the time I was eight and I thought my best friend Julie only liked me because I bought her bubblegum. She didn’t have any money, and I had some which I wanted to share. I liked her, and we hung out all the time, but I was afraid she only liked me for my money.
Now I realize Julie liked me for myself. But before the age of 12, I was certain that none of my friends liked me for me. I was sure they were with me only to get something from me. I often told them so and their feelings were hurt.
This is Part 3 of my memoir in progress, Jailbreak. It’s a memoir set almost entirely within my own mind, where all the different characters are parts of me. You can find parts one and two here and here.
The harlequin moves through the quiet streets, body like an acrobat. Like a soft snake, like water, effortlessly, as if tumbling, unseen unless he wants to be. He moves through the tourist crowds around the plaza, he slips past cops, he slides into the jailer’s ugly living quarters to observe my hero:
Even lying in bed the jailer is rigid, his face is tensed and white. His ears are live for the threat, he cannot stop listening. His shoulders are taut as he tries to see if he can hear the whores outside the window, their possible cavorting. He projects his awareness out the window, wishing his ears were very long and he could stick them out into the night and have them reach, reach into iniquity and monitor it at every moment.
He hears nothing.
The harlequin pirouettes over to the jailer’s bony body and smiles at him, unseen. He straddles him on the iron bed and sweetly thumbs his nose.
I have no idea where the harlequin came from.
I can’t even say how long he’s been with me. From birth, I would have said, but I don’t know if I’ve been able to escape that long.
I remember at age 5 the yeshiva principal said on the PA system that one of us had done something terrible to the school bathroom and if we were the one who had done it, the school would know.
I was scared. Even though I hadn’t done anything to the school bathroom, I was afraid that somehow the school knew that I had.
I went home and asked my mother if the yeshiva had called.
Did the harlequin join me at age 8? At age 12?
When I’m on the cusp of changing, at age 12, I stand in the elevator of our apartment building in Coney Island with a magic marker, terrified by my own capacity to do evil. The elevator of our housing project is yellow and my marker is blue. And I make a mark with it on the elevator, because I am an evildoer.
The harlequin whirls through my brain, I can barely see him. He is lying to my mother, telling her he loves her beyond anyone, beyond anything, for all time. He tells her this because she forces him. But also because it’s better to lie, to turn colors, than to stand there and be punished and to suffer.
The jailer speaks:
Who was that?
I was being rubbed all over with oil. They were teasing me with long feathers.
So many of them were touching me. Then her big hands came and it was only her.
See the harlequin lying his head off. See him going through walls. See him getting me the hell out of there.
“Sit down RIGHT FUCKING NOW and write your book!”
Who is this part of me who orders all the other parts around like it was some kind of fucking monster?
Shut up and write.
The harlequin moves through the soft fields, lands empty of everything but alfalfa and barley. Wildflowers under his feet reminding him of the seeds he planted long ago, everywhere. Some things take a long long time to bloom. There is an abandoned gas station, a big oak, shanties and a hanging tree. He will go where he needs to go, anyplace that souls are caged. Bees move around the terrible little buildings where hundreds squeezed into the spaces meant for five.
He finds the children hiding in the crawlspace and sends them leaping over the field.
The jailer visits the harlequin in prison.
Now the harlequin is a tall young man with blonde hair down to his waist, vines curling around his neck and sliding down his whole sweet body. He is wearing a dress.
The jailer comes in with two guards and addresses his victim:
“You’re not impossible to look at.”
The harlequin says, “The god gave me my looks.”
The jailer: “You know what they say happens to effeminate men in jail.”
The harlequin: “Nothing will happen to me. I am in charge of whoever touches me.”
The jailer: “Your rot will not infect us!”
So, all that was more or less from The Bacchae, a play that has been performed many times in my own mind. But when The Bacchae‘s not playing, the harlequin has short dark hair or a shaved head, he wears pants or he is naked like the elves who help the shoemaker. He blends into his surroundings so well he’s hard to see. Or he is hard to see because he moves so quickly. Or his nude body is dark in the darkness. Or on a gray day he’s the color of water. Or if you see him in the sun, he’s colored like white light, all the colors together.
Who is the harlequin?
Let us spy on him at home, something no one else has done to date. His home is a black cave. There are no windows. The cave is round, like a nut. Huh, maybe the harlequin lives in a nut. It is also a Faraday cage.
A Faraday cage is an enclosure that prevents electromagnetic energy from getting in. It is not, properly speaking, a cage but a protected sphere. Nothing can hurt him here.
The harlequin speaks: I’m in my nut. The walls are beautiful and black, and I can see nothing. There is nothing to bother me. The black walls shine. There are no doors. Where I live is like a jewel.
In his round home, the harlequin lies gloriously naked and spreadeagled. There is just enough room in his shining black jewel to stretch out his arms and legs in every direction. He believes he draws energy into him from the universe, but in fact energy is precisely what cannot get inside these walls. There is also no food, there is no water, and there is not a soul to talk to. There is not even a bed. All it is is a round box.
When I’m in fifth grade, I have a recurring fantasy:
First my eyes pop off, then my nose. Then all my teeth pop out, softly and easily. There is no violence or sickness to any of this, only sweet relief.
Then my ears come off. It is so peaceful. Then I put my head under a hill, forever.
Starring as Dionysus in The Bacchae, the harlequin spends less than 15 minutes in the jailer’s cell. The prison crumbles from the ground up, earthquake splits the stone floor and the walls tumble. The harlequin elegantly steps out of the mess
I’m just seven hours old
Truly beautiful to behold
And somebody should be told
My libido hasn’t been controlled
You know nothing about me, Minkowitz. Or you do know but you’ve forgotten: it’s a long time since you were 12, or 15.
I am delicious
I am seditious
I have diamond hoops in my ears and I’m 7 feet tall.
I’m just a sweet transvestite from Donna’s brain, and I am the motherlode, baby.
I have always been here feeding you.
He has been here, a wall of fruit and water, a rising wave of wine, since I turned 15. He has shown me storehouses and greenhouses, he has been the corn secretly growing, the peach and walnut trees rising up to take care of me, he has been the milk and honey.
What, are you afraid you’ve wandered into the wrong narrative? Are you afraid I’m talking about religion now?
The god inside me is part of me.
I have a wave of power inside me
I have a wave of fruit
I think I can be 300 feet tall
And I’m wearing a kickass suit.
Hi there. This is from my new work in progress, Jailbreak, a memoir where all the fighting, contending characters are parts of me. For Part 1, see here.
The jailer is not over-fond of food, but he does like to threaten prisoners with cutting a little flap of meat from them and eating it himself. He believes most will do whatever he wants to avoid becoming part of him. When he has me on the table next, he pops out a very sharp, pearlhandled knife, a beautiful thing, and moans as he shaves it gently across my cheek, as though I were a black truffle he had just been given. “Don’t you want to be inside me?” he asks. “Wouldn’t you like to make me vomit?”
I don’t know whether I want to make the jailer vomit.
I don’t know whether I want to be inside him.
He is inside me, that’s all I know. But I have to be truthful here: part of me *is* attracted to the jailer. On one level I would like to penetrate him, make him cry out in rapture, force him to drop his weapons out of too much joy. I could see us loving each other, could see us married and living together peacefully, blissfully in a willow bed of trust like Bert and Ernie. Would that solve things?
The jailer speaks:
Just putting one foot in front of the other foot is so hard. It hurts, and it’s slow. But it is not my job to complain about hurt or slow or hard or cold cold cold, it is my job to test, and to make sure, and to do right. It is my job to calibrate my negative reinforcements precisely to the work at hand. It is my job to look into everywhere, and to fight evil, and act.
It is my job to hold myself straight so that Donna will not fail.
Without me, everything sinks.
I have always been afraid that I would fall into the trash heap. Become oozy garbage, fall away and rot, and join — me, personally, Donna Minkowitz, join — what medieval people called a midden: the town’s heap of bones and animal carcasses, food waste, human dung they lived right next to. To become slime and fall away — sad — to fail while still alive. The reason I am afraid of this is that my mother thought my sisters and me were all right kind of I mean maybe but my father was a human turd. A poor human-shaped piece of shit with arms and legs, having the audacity to talk and think, and I was afraid that if my mother stopped liking me even a little more than she liked turds I would become one, too.
The jailer is a hero. He guards me against the filth that will corrode me from within, the evil impulse, and the blows I cannot take that attack me from without. He hurts me so the others will leave me alone.
He hurts me so the others will leave me alone.
I dreamed I was in my cell and the jailer kicked the door down. He hadn’t come to check on me in a long time. I stood in the corner and refused to look at him or speak to him, so he kicked me savagely in the stomach but I pulled him down on the floor, grabbing his legs, and we fought grappling head to toe, I bit him all over and sometimes I kissed him, bites and kisses full of saliva like a second-grader’s. But when I realized he was down and the door was open I ran out past him through it, leaving him lying there. I was free.
For years I have had an obsidian arrowhead on or around my desk. It freaks me out, but I keep it because of its power. I run my hands along its sharp edges — three sharp edges, plus the point — and know that it is the jailer’s weapon. It has always been here to help me do what I must. It is scary, a shiny black sharp thing like a priestess’s knife, made of lava flow.
The arrowhead is a form of volcanic glass, and it is meant to hurt. What they call “its energies” are scary.
It looks like the knife the priestess hefts to cut the animal’s throat or to slash a human victim across the neck. The victim is bound to the altar, and perhaps at the beginning the priestess’s hands were bound as well: maybe she cuts her own bonds with it first, but then she does what she has to do and slides it along the other woman’s throat.
The arrowhead has helped me do what I must but it frightens me inside. This piece of glass is about sacrifice, of the self or of another, take your pick. It is about dying imagined as the most needful, the most necessary thing — someone’s dying, anyhow.