Excerpted from the review titled “Loving Portraits Of Gay Black Men Cruising In Prospect Park” by Pete Brook — Vantage
The books’ essay of introduction, by G. Winston James, is a joy. I aborted my ﬁrst reading to return to the beginning so that I could read it aloud to my partner. It’s too good not to share.
At one point, reading James’ words there in the kitchen, my partner interrupted, “What’s the point in writing a review when this essay says it all so well?” I nodded. She had a fair point. Still, I’ll try for the sake of honoring a wonderful portrait project.
Text is critical to a photobook. A photobook’s essay says much more than the author’s argument. The choice of author says a lot about the photographer’s relationship to her or his work and the ways in which she or he thinks about it. Roma clearly wants to position his work in solidarity and in deep understanding of these gay men and their purposefully shared environment.
James, an author of ﬁction, essays and poetry about sexual identity, LGBT and African American experiences among many other topics, delivers a masterful and readable history of gay cruising and gay life in New York. He explains how the emotions, the risks and the consequences of inhabiting the Vale have changed over the decades. He is an expert on the behaviours, policing and attitudes associated with the social spaces of gay male sex. James has also sought out sexual and sensual encounters in the Vale of Cashmere. Authoritatively, James delivers both an emotional and an intellectual reading of the issues at stake in Roma’s work.
The best photobook essays, in my opinion, are those written by nonphotography people; people who may have an extremely keen eye and sophisticated reading of photography, but who are not blindly devoted to the medium. The best essays are those which talk about the issue that the photographs point to, as opposed to direct commentary on—or worse still, description of—the photographs themselves.
G. Winston James comments upon Roma’s technique only to back up his own arguments, and in so doing he provides a fuller and intimately-informed context for Roma’s portraits. For example, James tells us that Roma focused on African American and Caribbean men, the demographic that dominates the Vale due to patterns of immigration, but not the only group.
“Those who frequent the Vale of Cashmere in search of community and sexual gratiﬁcation have been as diverse and demographically mutable as the communities (near and far) that surround the park,” writes James.
Standing on the shoulders of thinker Morgan Shaw, James reminds us that sex is an activity designated for private spaces, namely the domestic space of the home. But for gay men living in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, homosexual sex could not be expressed at home so it became a public act in public space. Crucially though, gay cruising and meeting spots only function as such at designated times.
“The most deﬁning characteristic of queer space is its temporality. Queer space is not a permanent ﬁxture of the urban landscape, but a sudden transformation that brieﬂy renders traditional public spaces as something more dynamic,” Shaw once wrote.
James adds, “It is precisely this process of transformation (witnessed by a relative few), this dynamism, this history, that Thomas Roma has photographed.”
HOLLYWOOD, Florida (March 19, 2010) – In February 2009 Top Pen Press introduced the collected fiction of noted poet, author, editor G. Winston James, and thereby set as its mission to establish itself alongside other noteworthy presses at “the pinnacle of POC Queer Publishing.” Just over one year later, James’ collection of twelve fundamentally human, thought-provoking and at times viscerally disturbing stories, evoking comparisons to Greek Tragedy and to the writing of notable authors as diverse as James Baldwin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison has been selected as a Finalist in a number of prestigious national literary competitions, thereby setting the bar high for future Top Pen Press titles.
Shaming the Devil: Collected Short Stories was selected from more than thirty nominated titles from a variety of presses, including University of Wisconsin, St. Martin’s, Harper Collins and the renowned literary publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux to become one of the top five Debut Fiction titles in the 22nd Annual Lambda Literary Awards. Similarly, the collection was selected as one of six outstanding titles vying for the prestigious Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, which was created in 1988 to honor culture-driving fiction from LGBT points of view. The title was also named a Finalist in the category of Gay/Lesbian Fiction for ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Awards which were designed to discover distinctive books from independent publishers.
Reviewed By Stanley Bennett Clay, July 3, 2009
Poet G. Winston James makes a remarkable fiction debut with SHAMING THE DEVIL, a collection of short stories that examine black, predominantly homoerotic experiences with beauty, passion and a boldness that renders it both transcendental and deeply personal. One need not be gay or black to enjoy these well-honed nuggets of literary art that twist, turn, enthrall, and provoke in ways that only a poet can. Mr. James is not merely a fantastic storyteller and thinker but a wordsmith Michelangelo whose nearly every sentence is painstakingly crafted into well-cut diamonds. Forgive the hyperbole, but I am simply overwhelmed.
The collection opens with UNCLE, innocently, even sweetly, narrated by a little boy celebrating his sixth birthday while his body celebrates feelings for his uncle that he does not understand. An empathy-inducing reminiscence of new and uninformed sensations, desires and longings, it will take many a reader back to those first frightening and fantastic pre-pubescent shivers engendered by the very presence of a hero-worshipped same sex relative.
While RAHEN (my personal favorite) boldly tackles gay bashing and rivets until the heartbreaking end, CONFINING ROOM flips the script on homie-sexuality. And take note of this beautifully written phrase from THE SPACE BETWEEN: “He opens her with four fingers. He speaks rivers inside her. She does not know what to do with her hands. The rest of her body. Or the thoughts, like famine and harvest, roiling in her head.”
UNDER AN EARLY AUTUMN MOON is the tale of a late night tryst with a surprising twist set in the fuckable landscape of a public park. PATH and SICK DAYS are thematically linked both in tone and content; tracking the light hearted—-in fact downright hysterical—escapades of a metrosexual homosexual’s quest for transient trade and the attended consequences of infidelity.
JOHN poignantly examines a self-loather’s confrontation with his demons via a therapist and a hustler, and although I’m not much of a fan of sadomasochism, I found SOMEWHERE NEARBY brilliant in its mix of cruel sex, brutal assault, intellectualism and the power of brooding self-examination at death’s door.
A seventeen-year-old boy weathers a violent physical and psychological storm in his native Jamaica as his older gay brother, banished years earlier by a now-absent father, lays dying of AIDS in the brief but powerful STORM. And CHURCH returns a prodigal world traveler to his hometown congregation where his moving revelation restores faith in a true and loving God.
This twelve-story collection ends with THE EMBRACE, a bright and buoyant story of three friends and their sexual fantasies that slowly turns erotically haunting when one of them introduces another to a mysterious lothario. THE EMBRACE is sure to leave you breathless.
As in any story collection, some are better than others. But there is not a weak one in this bunch, as the author gives each narrator a unique voice, each story its own fascinating twist, and writing as appealingly grandiose and artful as Morrison and Baldwin.
Indeed, Baldwin and Thomas Glave are the only BGM writers to win the prestigious O. Henry Prize for Short Fiction. Based on a couple of the best stories in SHAMING THE DEVIL, it would not surprise me one bit if G. Winston James was chosen to make this a literary trinity.
Book Marks by Richard Labonte, May 18, 2009
Shaming the Devil, by G. Winston James. Top Pen Press, 160 pages, $14.95 paper.
James, with two poetry collections to his credit, brings a poet’s ear for resonance, a poet’s eye for detail and a poet’s voice for characters to his first book of fiction, a dozen powerful, unflinching stories depicting a black gay cultural and sexual landscape. In Rahen,” a desperately lovelorn schoolboy lusts for both a star athlete and a best friend; in “The Embrace,” a hesitant young man opens himself to gay sexual variety; in “Sick Days,” a 42-year-old man with a graduate degree and a Fortune 100 day job finds himself in a holding cell when he’s charged with public lewdness for subway sexual pickups; and in “Confining Rooms” – crafted with rhythmic Southern black dialect: “I on’t go to school no more…on’t nobody wanna hire you if you black” – a high school dropout with a devoted girlfriend is enthralled by a boy whose sexual suggestiveness both arouses and terrifies him. On one level a collection of same-sex loving erotica, James’ stunning, vulnerable stories also consider issues of racism, class and violence with clear-eyed candor.
Minutes and men’ by Grady Harp, February 28, 2009
G. Winston James explodes on the literary scene with a collection of short stories SHAMING THE DEVIL that introduces him as not only a writer of some of the most erotically charged fiction in the manner of Jean Genet, but also a writer so skilled in his craft that no matter the topic he is able to suffuse his stories with intelligence, challenging concepts, sophisticated imagery, and a way with idiomatic dialogue that is as fine as any being written today. Born in Jamaica and schooled in Brooklyn, James has the courage to take the African American experience into challenging territories – the particular milieu of the gay black male – and succeeds in not only sculpting very fine short stories that cover many aspects of his chosen subject but also in maintaining a high quality of craftsmanship in his mastery of the English language.
SHAMING THE DEVIL surveys the many dynamics of the African American male in the ‘forbidden zone’ of male sexual preference from childhood to adulthood. He skillfully opens his collection with ‘Uncle’, a subtle tale of awakening desires in a young child who focuses his safety of nebulous choice on a loving uncle: avoiding anything approaching inappropriate behavior between curious young Jake and his kind Uncle Paul, James allows us to feel the isolation of a child with different proclivities responding to a family unaccepting of anything but the established norm of behavior. It is a very tender and very intuitive examination of the sexual awakening of a small child. And from this beginning James moves us through the stages of growth that include abuse by peers, experimentation, arrests for seeking gratification in public areas and the humiliation associated with dropping the daytime successful role type to joining the low life in a jail and in addiction therapy (‘Paraphilic behavior. …what you do in here is tell the truth and shame the devil. Victimization starts and ends with abusing someone’s trust. You want to build trust again. This is as good a place as any to start if you want to avoid recidivism. That’s the only way you’ll get your lives back on track.’), desire for dangerous liaisons that clouds the judgment of even the most stalwart men, and even the spectre of AIDS and the associated need to return to the family in the days before dying.
In one of the many exceptional stories, ‘Church’, James takes a character into a return to home situation that is planned to include a calling out of the Church atmosphere for the irresponsible handling and castigation of young black men who have ‘strayed’ into same sex lifestyles. The manner in which he paints the atmosphere of this church together with the decisions he makes in communicating his emerging end of life loathing of a world that has not supported him, altered by the presence of the congregation and the spirit of the sanctuary is one of the finer portraits of the importance of the Church in the African American life. ‘The Church was a venue where you could witness the Black family defining itself: the faithful wife, the obedient young children, the disappearing older children and the often-absent husband.’
SHAMING THE DEVIL, then, introduces a very powerful writer who is capable of creating all of the aspects of same sex eroticism with equal amounts of desire and danger while using his rich vocabulary and polished skills as a writer to make his subject go far beyond simply sensationalized tales. G. Winston James is a multitalented artist, a man who understands raw visceral grit as well as he defines elegant prose. He is a writer who will become better known in time. This is a very fine introduction publication. Highly recommended. Grady Harp, February 09
Award-winning author Trebor Healey writes: This story collection offers profound meditations on desire and longing and the courage required of each of us to bring forth what is in us. James pulls out all the stops in this stunning collection, examining with an unflinching moral vision issues of not only sexuality and gender, but religion and community, race, violence, HIV/AIDS, intergenerational sex/eroticism, class and the life and death struggle at the center of every human heart.
In a world increasingly filled with unchallenging, feel-good fiction and film, James reminds us that being alive is to be in the heat of battle—a battle we are often losing. For James, survivors are those who are paying attention, looking at the struggle with a clear eye and an open heart. They are the heroes who—if they survive when the smoke clears—have a worthwhile story to bring back to us.
G. Winston James is not afraid to question the self-destructiveness of one’s sexuality or the consolation found in religious communities, even when they are far from perfect. This is the most refreshing gay fiction I’ve read in years.
The poetry of “The Space Between” is unrivaled in any erotica I’ve read to date, impressive in its insight and language. Through precise imagery, masterfully concise narrative, suspense and moral ambiguity, James establishes the skewed intimacy that sheds a devastatingly uncomfortable light upon pedophilia, rape and sexual exploitation. I’ve never read a story of this type that left me feeling like I suddenly knew what it was like to be such a victim. Profound.
“Storm,” reminiscent of Faulkner, is a tour de force of poetic family narrative: surreal, succinct and heart-breakingly tragic.
“Church” is so beautifully affirming a human story in its examination of one’s religious upbringing, moving beyond the usual focus on bigotry and schism to discover the underlying power and consolation of one’s spiritual community of origin.
“Rahen” examines the complexities of a gay bashing—from the implicit approval underlying even the most severe condemnation of the perpetrators to the self-preserving betrayals among the terrified gay kids and the urge to silence even among the most just authority figures. In “Rahen,” the best gay-bashing story I’ve ever read, James raises the moral stakes to the level of Greek tragedy.
“The Embrace” presents all the excitement, anxiety, promise and dread of allowing yourself to take a chance and fall or jump into a romance that will either liberate or destroy you. A classic story of the only way to find some things out is to put aside one’s fear, trust one’s heart and go for it.
Treading on territory many writers today avoid like the plague, James is fearless in his exposure of men on the ‘down-low’ and the dangerously skewed paranoia around child sexuality and eroticism. So, you want to know what’s really going on? Read G. Winston James.
A book full of ideas, James re-examines and sheds light upon issues that are far too often glossed over—for instance, the paradox of what we desire; the eroticism of being a child; the tenderness inside violence; the sexual intimacy of siblings; the madness of the human heart.
James explores in vivid, raw, disturbing detail the gritty realities of gay black life. These are stories that need to be heard, and that shockingly even 40 years into the gay movement are still being silenced, ignored or overlooked. I’ve been waiting for someone like James to tell me these essential stories of gay life.
James presents moral truths and their ambiguity, which makes their exploration so vital. Raising all kinds of questions, I don’t want to hear. Oh, but I do, we do.
The big issues in a queer life are still religion, race, class, courage and insight—all the parts that the inane, superficial and consumerist media more or less ignore. James’ stories are not stories of victims, but rather of individuals grappling with violence, oppression, negligence and their own courage to be who they are at whatever the cost. James’ voice is a mature voice, a voice too little heard in gay fiction these days, or in fiction generally, a genre that has grown so tepid in the past few decades that it borders on irrelevant. With these stories, James breathes new life into American fiction. Recommending his work to readers is too weak a statement—rather I implore readers: you need to hear this man’s voice. You’ll walk away a larger human being—and that, my friends, is the time-honored point of literature. James is the real thing and then some.
Trebor Healey is the Ferro-Grumley and Violet Quill award-winning author of the novel Through It Came Bright Colors, as well as the short story collection, A Perfect Scar and Other Stories.