'What Belongs to You' Is a Brilliant Novel About Public Sex and the Queer Body

We caught up with the author to talk about his debut novel 'What Belongs to You' and the scary, but necessary process of writing about queer sex in America today.

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Jul 4 2016, 5:00pm

Garth Greenwell. Photo by Max Freeman/courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This spring North Carolina's governor, Pat McCrory, signed HB2, the controversial "bathroom bill" that requires residents to use the same bathroom that corresponds to the gender noted on their birth certificate. The law—which critics have called the most anti-LGBTQ legislation in the US—caused other states to issue travel bans to North Carolina and entertainers like Bruce Springsteen and Itzhak Perlman to cancel their performances in the state.

Debut novelist Garth Greenwell took a different tack to protest HB2. The author of the highly acclaimed novel What Belongs to You read at independent bookstores across North Carolina with author Garrard Conley, whose memoir, Boy Erased, chronicles his time in "ex-gay" therapy. Along the way, the two provided moving updates from the tour on Twitter and Lit Hub.

"HB2 is meant to humiliate queer people, as are all of the laws like it across the United States," Greenwell and Conley wrote. "Where humiliation is the law of the land, queer literature offers a necessary, lifesaving correction: a vision of queer lives imbued with dignity, by which we mean a full measure of humanity."

Greenwell's new novel provides exactly that kind of correction. It's a gorgeous, unsettling book narrated by an American high school teacher in Bulgaria who meets—and perhaps falls in love with—a hustler named Mitko. I started reading What Belongs to You right before I had to go to the dentist, and for once I was grateful to be kept waiting. On the way home, I read the book while walking, keeping one eye on downtown crowds and the other on Greenwell's long, questing sentences.

Greenwell lives in Iowa, but when he was in New York borrowing a friend's apartment, we spoke on the phone about cruising, thinking during sex, and how his work as a poet influenced his fearless novel.

VICE: Were there any surprises on the North Carolina part of your book tour? From the updates you posted, it sounded as though you mostly came across a lot of book-loving, HB2-opposed allies.
Garth Greenwell: We were definitely reading for friendly audiences: Our hope was to help support the bookstores that are working against HB2 (and that have been hurt by boycotts in response to the law). But we drove from place to place, and it was fascinating to watch how both Garrard and I would code-switch depending on the atmosphere of wherever we stopped. My feelings about the South [where I am from] are unbearably complicated, a knot of longing and anger and disgust and wonder. Which means it's a place I'll have to keep writing about.

When I heard you read in San Francisco, I remember you said that while you're aware there are people who find the gay body disgusting, you're not writing for them. You won't edit yourself for them; you won't sanitize anything. You're writing for the rest of us. Is this a conviction you've always had, that you don't have to write to persuade anyone?
I think the fact that I spent so many years as a poet really insulated me from feeling beholden to a marketplace. Poetry never makes any money, and so there's no pressure to appeal to an audience. That makes a lot of things about being a poet difficult, but it also means freedom to write whatever you want to write, however you want to write it. I think that freedom carried over to the writing of this novel: I wasn't thinking about persuading anyone of anything, I was just trying to write about a place and characters as truly as I could.

I think that HB2 in North Carolina (and other laws like it), and the massacre in Orlando underscore how vulnerable and targeted queer bodies remain. Writing about those bodies in a way that doesn't argue for but declares their value feels like urgent work, however inadequate.

It's a scary thing to write the queer body in this moment. I think it's a very necessary thing to do.

What took you to prose from poetry?
In my first semester of teaching in Bulgaria, when I had finished a manuscript of poems, I started hearing sentences that weren't broken into lines. I wrote them in a different way, too. I had always written poems on the computer, but for some reason I had to write the prose by hand.

There was something about writing in my little apartment, in an area that was full of old Soviet-style apartments, and writing in a language different from the one I was speaking in every day—it became this extraordinary experience of privacy. Since I had never taken any sort of prose workshop, there were none of the voices in my head that I had with poetry. I had a feeling of discovery, much more than what I had while writing poems.

A writer friend said to me that novels depicting gay sex don't win literary awards. But, of course, What Belongs to You is nothing if not deeply literary, and is being recognized as such.
It's a scary thing to write the queer body in this moment. I think it's a very necessary thing to do. One reason I had a space of complete privacy while writing was that I had no conception whatsoever of publication, or that I was writing a book. After a lifetime in poetry, I had no idea what fiction writers even did when they were finished. I went for months, sometimes more than a year, without showing anyone a word of what I had written. That really did create some distance.

I don't think that there is the same difficulty in reconciling explicit gay sex with poetry. I wasn't thinking as I was writing, "Oh, am I going to be able to publish this?" I was just trying to write these scenes as honestly as I could, and in a way that would be as revelatory as it could be of the experience of these two men.

The reception of this novel up to this point has been bewildering, because it is true that novels depicting gay life don't get that much attention, and struggle to be considered in a serious way. But I think that sex is really a unique tool for a writer.

Sex has always been a kind of philosophy for me.

In what way?
So much of my sexual experience has been with cruising, and within anonymous encounters that have a very marginal status. One thing I really wanted to do in this book was to write about these communities in a way that was true to how rich and diverse they are. There are experiences in these places that feel very dehumanizing, where the other person is entirely instrumentalized. There are also moments of the most intense intimacy I have ever known. Even when I didn't know a man's name or didn't know if I would see him again, there was no question in my mind that it was an experience that was profoundly affirming, respectful, and loving. I wanted to write about these places in a way that covers that whole spectrum of possibilities.

I also wanted to convey an experience of sex in which your consciousness is always working. A comment I always got in workshops, both as a poet and fiction writer, was that "you can't have thinking like this in sex."

Whoa.
There's a romanticized notion of sex as the little death in which you lose all sense of consciousness of yourself, but that's never really been my experience of sex. Mine has always been one of hyper-attunement to another person and to my own inner experience.

Sex has always been a kind of philosophy for me. It seems to be the place where the physical and the metaphysical meet. It's an experience that promises us a release from ourselves, an oceanic experience of something larger than ourselves that always seems to be both true and false at once. It's an incredibly rich human experience that is such a gift to artists and it's where so much of the energy of art resides.

To me, it's important to write the queer body and queer sex in explicit ways because writing about something with the full weight of a literary tradition behind it is a way of cherishing that thing, and asserting the sacredness of that thing. The queer body is an incredibly despised and vulnerable thing in our culture, and to write about it in that way feels, to me, like a way to affirm its value, to try to care for it.

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell is available to purchase in bookstores and online.

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