LJ Talks to Joseph Cassara | Debut Spotlight

Photo by Amanda Kallis

“You can never get it perfect, but the goal of writing is to describe as closely as possible what something feels like,” says Joseph Cassara, in conversation at his publisher’s office about his forthcoming The House of Impossible Beauties (Ecco: HarperCollins; LJ 8/17). In fact, the great gift of Cassara’s debut is his describing so acutely a little-portrayed community—queer people of color—in luxurious, gorgeously inflected language embodying gracefully intercut portraits to illuminating effect.

Angel, who feels trapped in her boy body; her beloved Hector, an early victim of AIDS; Barbie-hugging Thomas, who as Venus is both saved by and saves runaway Daniel—all are among the indelible characters whose unfolding lives limn the House of Xtravaganza, founded in 1982 as the first all-Latino house in the Harlem Ball circuit.

Cassara, whose work originated as a short story at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, didn’t initially intend to address the House of Xtravaganza. But as he explains, “I discovered the structure and shape of the story while writing, and I realized that the founding of the house was a natural place to start the book.” An opening scene about Angel and Venus’s first meeting, now deeper in the narrative, gave way to crucial backstory leading to Xtravaganza’s emergence with the help of Angel, Venus, and Hector, all real-life characters deftly reenvisioned by Cassara.

Cassara offers two good reasons for beginning with a look back. “You can start in the immediate story, then later give backstory, or work in linear fashion,” he says, explaining that he opted for the latter because it allows for a slow building of tension. More important, he wanted to detail his characters’ abusive upbringings: “One of the central goals of the novel was to explore the trauma inflicted on queer people of color, to show the various ways that violence is perpetrated against their bodies.” In a key scene, Juanito, sorely beaten by his father as a child, can’t even look at Daniel when they make love because of what he had suffered.

Inevitably, sex enters the story, but as Cassara notes, “Sex is never just about sex, it’s about relationships.” As with Juanito and Daniel, the sex scenes are often layered with past pain and a present hunger for acceptance, and Cassara doesn’t find them particularly erotic. Instead, he focuses on love. “Writing about love was about showing the characters being vulnerable and the way they would talk to each other, falling in love for the first time. It’s so innocent and so relatable.”

From lovers swaying on the dance floor to Angel enjoying the crush of crowds on the subways, the body also emerges as a central theme. “We are our bodies,” notes Cassara, “and one of the realities of queer identity is how society views bodies and dictates what is appropriate and what is not.” As with sex, it’s not just the body for the body’s sake. “My aim is to capture soul or consciousness and how that relates to the body. When our body goes away, our consciousness goes away”—a chilling thought as the novel discloses several heartrending instances of death.

The body as consciousness is best captured by Hector, who as a dancer finds his very means of expression destroyed by AIDS. In a letter to Alvin Ailey, he says of dancing, “you have to get past that stage of thinking and let your body take over.” A second letter to Martha Graham, which forms the anguished core of the narrative, ponders what the world would be like if we could communicate only with movement. Hector then delivers what is truly a coup de grâce: “The nurse at the clinic told me that I tested positive for the virus and I got no words for it.” He’s so overwhelmed that discourse simply isn’t sufficient to express what he feels.

This, of course, is where the writer comes in. Imaginatively blending voice and plot, Cassara moves us closer to such untouchable realities. His language, at once baroque and richly, sometimes wittily vernacular, “is stylized, but it’s how the characters would speak,” and the stepped-up energy pushes readers forward. Though he is constrained by the facts—Angel’s family had 15 children, unmanageable for a novel—writing the book required reinvention, as so much queer history is oral or simply lost. “When you go to history, you find gaps, and you have to fill them,” he advises.

You must also fill them thoughtfully. Initially, he observes, “it would have been a burden to focus on being a voice for a community without voice, but while revising, I thought about the importance of getting it as right as I could.” Much of the text comes from stories he had heard and internalized, whether about a closeted cousin who died of AIDS or from a medical school date involved with treating AIDS patients early on. His aim: not facts but the emotional heart of things.

Cassara was not yet born when AIDS emerged and the House of Xtravaganza first decked the stage, which makes his care in hearing and crafting these experiences especially important. Why revisit this era now? “The social reality of the book is still relevant today,” he insists. “The virus is still around, but it disproportionately affects people of color and the gay, urban, and poor.” Finally, the narrative is infused with a longing for belonging important to many in the gay community and indeed to everyone. Through the magic of his storytelling, Cassara shows us some impossible beauties and brings us all home.—Barbara Hoffert


This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

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