Our current issue, Subjektiv part II, invites different artists, curators and thinkers to give us their recent critical perspectives on the issues at stake and on the status of the subjective as an artistic strategy in the current political climate. Today's statement from Brendan Embser: I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a faggot in rural France. But I know what’s like to grow up as a faggot in rural America. When I was in middle school, I was frequently taunted for my effeminate ways, called a fag, thrown up against a locker. I was ignored in gym class. Most of my friends were girls. (I preferred it that way. They were nicer.) I was lucky never to have been truly assaulted by any of my bullies, but I might have preferred a few sound beatings to the psychological stress, the verbal battering. A broken arm can be set. But words last forever. And if you’re identified as a fag before you know what a fag is, the threat of violence never really goes away. One night, when I was twenty-two, a few months after moving to New York and imagining I had escaped to the freedom of the metropolis, I was brazen enough to leave a nightclub holding hands with a young man I’d just met. As we crossed Broadway at 13th Street in the East Village, two guys called out to us You’re going to hell!
I use the italics here in the way Édouard Louis, in his novel The End of Eddy (2017), translated from the French by Michael Lucey, indicates speech. Instead of quotations or exchanges of dialogue, Louis deploys italics, and the effect is both confessional and forensic. Italics display the wounding power of speech, as if the words themselves had been pressed into a defensive hunch, but the statements also become subject to the kind of retrospective interrogation that is the fuel of this addictive and troubling short novel.
Just ten years old and new to his school, Eddy Bellegueule learns the blunt force of language, and its capacity to exclude, from two older boys who become his constant tormentors:
“There in the hallway they asked me who I was, if I was Bellegueule, the one everyone was talking about. They asked me the question that I would repeat to myself endlessly for months, for years,
You’re the faggot, right?
By saying it they inscribed it on me permanently like stigmata, those marks that the Greeks would carve with a red-hot iron or a knife into the bodies of deviant individuals, people who posed a threat to their community.”
The End of Eddy was published in French in 2014, when Louis, née Bellegueule—the novel is autobiographical—was twenty-two, and became a sensation, due in part to the author’s sear- ing depiction of poverty, racism, and class resentment in northern France. The direct transla- tion from the original title, En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, is “Finishing off Eddy Bellegueule,” a gesture to Louis’s desire to dispatch his former identity and the merciless manner in which he finishes off his homophobic parents and the village of his youth, the source of his misery.
But the English edition of The End of Eddy arrived in the United States on the heels of Donald J. Trump’s election to the American presidency, a moment of sudden liberal hand-wringing about how failure of “empathy” toward working-class Americans in the heartland brought to power an administration with its own, often cruel, inversion of the term. Liberal voters should have listened more to their fellow Americans, the argument goes, but is empathy a two-way street? If the blue states compromise on immigration reform, should the red states allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom of their choice?
With the auspicious timing a publisher can only dream of, The End of Eddy also arrived in English during fever-pitch coverage of the French presidential election, when the specter of Marine Le Pen in the Élysée, like the “impossible” victories of Brexit and Trump, no longer seemed like a plot point in a dystopian film. Shortly before the French elections, Louis wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, explaining why people like his father—homophobic, racist, bitter—voted for Le Pen. Their poverty had been ignored to the extent that towns like the one where Louis was raised were essentially absent from the French political imagination. One publisher passed on The End of Eddy because the poverty Louis wrote about “hadn’t existed in more than a century; no one would believe the story I had to tell.” Still, Louis put the onus of responsibility on the Left, and on the media, who had got the story wrong in the first place: “Today, writers, journalists, and liberals bear the weight of responsibility for the future. To persuade my family not to vote for Marine Le Pen, it’s not enough to show that she is racist and dangerous: Everyone knows that already.”
Into this atmosphere—Trump’s America, post-EU Britain, and the crumbling of the French political elite—arrived Barry Jenkins’s film Moonlight (2016), a lush and poetic portrait of a black gay boy in Miami, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Set in Liberty City, Miami, where both Jenkins and McCraney grew up, and unfolding in three acts, Moonlight, like The End of Eddy, follows a boy whose sexual confusion and identity formation is thrown into relief by the impoverished and violent backdrop of his childhood circumstances, namely his mother’s drug abuse and his bullying at school. But where Louis’s novel is a scorched-earth cri-de-coeur, Jenkins’s film is built up through subtlety and specificity, through the exquisite accumulation of gestures and expressions, and scenes lit in hues of purple and gold.
There’s very little dialogue in Moonlight; words, when spoken, have a gravitational force. At the end of the first act, when Chiron, a small boy given the moniker “Little,” takes refuge at the home of Juan, a father figure and a drug dealer, Chiron searchingly tries to make sense of his exclusion at school. “What’s a faggot?” he asks Juan. The silence, which shifts, in its way, from tension to genuine empathy, is breathtaking. “A ‘faggot’ is a word used to make gay people feel bad,” Juan replies, gently. “How do I know?” Chiron says, visibly trying to make sense of himself in relation to these words. Unable to answer, Juan turns to his partner, Teresa, who says with steely calm, “You’ll know when you know.” With its open-ended con- clusion, its shattering of archetypes of masculinity, and its deft evocation of race and class, Moonlight ascended to the heights of American cinema and seemingly represented, amid the capricious disregard for queer people, blacks, and immigrants by the Trump Administration, a vision of a community otherwise unknown to the culture at large.
Moonlight, both timely and enduring, brings to mind the photographer Eric Gyamfi’s recent series Just Like Us (2016), a black-and-white documentary account of queer lives in Ghana, which debuted in the same season as Jenkins’s film and The End of Eddy. Gyamfi treats his photographic subjects as collaborators; the sense of a partnership between the photographer and his community is visible in his portraits of men and women in intimate spaces, sharing private moments. Homosexuality is still punishable by law in Ghana, but that hasn’t stopped Gyamfi’s friends from living their lives, dancing, and dressing in drag.
In Just Like Us, Gyamfi set out to produce an archive of queer life, to show, simply, that queer people exist in Ghanaian society, and to keep their records for the future. He lived with his col- laborators and immersed himself in their lives. And he knew what a visual record would signify. Gyamfi first heard the word gay when he was twelve, around the same age as Eddy in Louis’s nov- el and Chiron in Moonlight. “Abroad, men who like other men are called gay,” a classmate told Gyamfi. “I understood what he meant, literally, and could connect to it.” But being gay is some- times seen as “un-African”—people feel it’s foreign. “So, I wanted to find out how queer people are referred to in our individual local dialects and what kinds of imagery accompany these labels.”
The kinds of images Gyamfi made are both documents of private joy and public pain. In one cinematic portrait, a young man named Jay walks along a dusty street, his defensively hunched shoulders and checked shirt bearing uncanny resemblance to the teenage Chiron in Moonlight. “I was walking this young man home one afternoon,” Gyamfi said, “and he says to me, ‘Eric, eventually I will have to live as a straight man.’ This was a queer man who, as a result of social pressure, or familial pressure, could end up having to live as a straight man.” But Just Like Us is neither proscriptive nor celebratory, and the pictures, even the banal scenes of two men cooking or lounging, necessarily rely on the sense of fear or rejection queer people have to keep at bay. “His participants must contend with the fact that being recognized as gay means that their persons and bodies will be open to carceral punishment and social policing,” M. Neelika Jayawardane wrote of Gyamfi’s project in Aperture. “And while creating a record of the ordinary may not seem like a necessary act, given the incendiary rhetoric of the current moment, Gyamfi’s work is an act of survival.”
There’s a scene in Moonlight in which Chiron, having reached the breaking point, charges into a classroom and, in one fluid motion, crashes a chair over the head of his high-school bully, Terrel. It’s any fag’s delirious revenge fantasy. But there’s no revenge equal to reparation. And that’s why Moonlight and Gyamfi’s photographs and The End of Eddy are essential cultural objects, even if Louis’s novel turns back on its supposed class solidarity. Louis told The Paris Review last year that he was trying, in The End of Eddy, to portray the state’s violence upon the working classes and to give those classes a voice that doesn’t exist in literature. (He called books an “assault” on the working classes, who never find themselves in books and therefore reject them.) But I find this disingenuous. Louis eviscerates the working class, and it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone from the village picking up his book, which isn’t a plea for compassion but a chair shattering over his mother’s and father’s heads.
What drives The End of Eddy forward is the wish, ultimately fulfilled, for Eddy to escape. Would this novel have made it to print if, by some twisted dark turn, Eddy wasn’t admitted to theater school and subsequently a prestigious university? If, forced to attend the local lycée, he was delivered back into the claws of the two boys who spit in his face, and finally to some horrible job in a factory? That book might have represented working-class pain. But, having escaped, Eddy becomes Édouard; in his words, which are both his armor and his weapons, he has rejected his impoverished destiny. The plangent closing lines are a cry of relief for Eddy, and for the reader, but not for those back in the village, whose voices you never truly hear. They’ve been bullied, too.