Finding a New Language for the History of Queer Culture

‘The House of Impossible Beauties’ pays homage to storied drag queens, and brings their culture to literature’s center stage

Today, drag culture has its rightful place in the mainstream, but no so long ago, it existed largely on the fringes. Joseph Cassara’s debut novel is set in the era right before the shift, in the late 1980s and early 1990s At that time, drag queens in New York City formed houses that competed in “walks” at various ballrooms. The events were super-amped up, fabulously elaborate fashion shows But beyond those nights, the members of the participating houses became families for young men and women who had been shunned by the one they were born into. Cassara uses real icons from the city’s ball scenes — namely the House of Xtravaganza members — to create a look into the domestic lives of these characters.

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In The House of Impossible Beauties, we follow four main characters as they go from strangers, to cohorts, to family. Angel is based on the real life Angie Xtravaganza; she realizes early on that she doesn’t identify as male, she goes on to form her storied eponymous house. She meets a trans girl looking for a better life named Venus, a fashion obsessed boy named Jaunito, and a butch queen named Daniel.

Cassara’s book explores how these real-life figures — and their struggles — lay the foundations for much of the queer culture we know today. I spoke with the author about blurring the lines of homage, history, and fiction.

Adam Vitcavage: About a year ago, I was on a subreddit called “Suggest Me a Book” and I was looking for books about the history of drag queens. I posed the question as a search for nonfiction and got some biographies of queer activists, but really I didn’t get a lot of feedback. A year later, and The House of Impossible Beauties landed on my doorstep.

So, my first question: what are the books you used to do research, in addition to watching the documentary Paris is Burning?

Joseph Cassara: I read Myra Breckenridge by Gore Vidal but that’s kind of dated now. I read an essay by Michael Cunningham called “A Slap of Love” which is about looking for Angie Xtravaganza in the early 90s. Other than that there weren’t a lot of books. I had the same problem you had, I couldn’t really find anything.

Instead, I scoured the internet to try to find as much information about the clubs people went to or how people described their memories of the era. I wasn’t so much as interested in historical facts or details as much as how much people remembered that era and what it felt like. I wanted to distill that information to create scenes that had emotion.

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AV: What drew you to this specific time period of the late ’80s /early ’90s of New York City?

JC: I grew up in New Jersey in that time period. My family is from the Bronx and Brooklyn, so I spent a lot of time with my extended family in the outer boroughs of the city. Like a lot of writers and artists, feel that all of the things that happen to you before you’re around 12 are formative, they really stay with you, and my art draws from that time.

Obviously, I wasn’t really exposed to queer culture or drag culture when I was that young. But I was exposed to the vitality of the language of Spanglish in New York or Latin music on the radio. What people wore. Especially how dirty the city was. The city is not really the same as it was when I was young. I mean there were peep shows in Times Square but now Times Square feels like Disney World. Back when I was young it was just strippers and prostitutes outside of Port Authority.

I was just young, quiet, and absorbing all of this. When I was in grad school and trying to figure out what I was going to write about, I was very interested in the documentary Paris is Burning and questions of queer identity and racial identity. I feel like with this novel I was able to fuse my interests and my childhood.

AV: You mentioned weren’t really exposed to drag or queer culture. What was your first exposed to drag or trans?

JC: I watched Paris is Burning when I was 17 or 18. That was my first exposure to the film. I don’t definitively recall meeting any drag queens when I was younger, until I was in high school and becoming aware of my identity as a gay man.

I wanted the book to feel like an homage. I wanted it to be viewed through a lens.

AV: Why did you decide to use the real life people that Paris is Burning explores as the basis for your characters?

JC: The decision came slowly. I didn’t set out to do that. When I started writing, I didn’t think I was writing a novel. I was in grad school and just writing scenes to practice craft. I wrote scenes where fictionalized people met people from the documentary. I wanted to see what that would look like. As I continued, it began taking shape into something larger and I realized it might be a novel. Then I wondered if the characters based on real people should also have the real names or if those should be changed. I really wanted the book to feel like an homage. I wanted it to be viewed through a lens.

I wanted this book to be inspired by these people’s lives, but I wanted it refracted through my own style as a writer. I wanted to write what I felt was the emotional truth. Although it’s inspired by real lives, it’s fictionalized in a way that allows me to fill in what happened to them, their hopes and desires, into a larger tradition of queer writing.

That was the goal of the book. When I was trying to sell the book an editor said what if I just changed the names because it would be easier than having to go through the legal department. I thought about it, but then I realized if I changed the names the homage would no longer be there. The book would no longer be about their lives. I wasn’t interested in writing biographies about them, but I wanted it to be inspired by them so readers could be very aware of the direct link between them.

AV: One of my favorite moments is the opening of the chapter “Thomas — 1976.” It reads: “He feared that with that name, he would become the type of man who wore plaid button-downs and tucked them into chinos. With a belt. She would never.” Can you talk about how approached the identities of your characters and being sensitive about your choice of pronouns?

JC: First, there is an interesting kind of problem when you set out to write a book about gay and trans people in a decade that is not the current decade. Discourse has changed. I could not use the language we use today to describe these characters and how they describe themselves. I had to keep that language of the time period or else it would have felt anachronistic.

The second point is that I find the pronoun shifts to be really fascinating on the line level. In the first chapter when Angel gets into a fight with her mother, as soon as she takes off her dress the pronoun shifts back to “he.” It’s almost as if it’s been forced upon Angel to use that pronoun. As soon as she’s alone with her brother, the pronoun shifts back to “she ”because that is what she is more comfortable with.

On the linguistic level, the pronoun shift allows readers to understand what is happening in Angel’s psyche. The narrator doesn’t have to describe that to the reader; it’s described in a pronoun.

Discourse has changed. I couldn’t use the language we use today to describe these characters and how they describe themselves.

AV: Reading how Thomas transforms into Venus was one of my favorite plot threads, which is why her ending was so heartbreaking. But Angel’s death was based off the real death. Did you consider fictionalizing her ending, having her live on?

JC: The last scene, when Angel dies, for me felt like the only way to end. You get a sense of finality. I knew that Angel died in 1993 or 1994 and that Dorian Corey [another drag queen in the book based off of a real queen] had a mummified body and I had to address those things. I had to figure out, do I have a scene where people find a mummified body or do I just tell the reader? Do I show Angel’s death or is it just an implied death?

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AV: HIV and AIDS play an important role in the book, but they’re never the central plot. The virus is looming over these characters but it’s never forced on the page. Why did you decide to portray it this way?

JC: I view this book as an American family novel and using those tropes, which feels very different to the tropes of an AIDS novel. This could have been an AIDS novel and it would have dealt with HIV/AIDS in a very different way. I specifically wanted this to feel like a domestic drama of these characters, with the topics of the late 1980s as simply the backdrop.

I knew I had to deal with HIV in a way, but I didn’t want it to feel clinical. I was interested in their day to day lives. How they lived together and interacted together. Their aspirations and their let downs. I wanted the book to go beyond the era’s anxiety about the virus. I was more focused on writing a book about domestic lives and how people would react when their hopes and dreams could not come to fruition because of the impact of AIDS.

Historians have to write with accuracy, but as a fiction writer I can fill in the blanks.

AV: When I first started reading, I assumed the book was going to be heavily into the ball culture, and I was going to see a lot of scenes covering that. Really, there was only one bigger ball scene. Why did you decide not to dedicate more time to that part of their lives?

JC: It goes back to the fact that I wanted this to be a domestic novel. The book is very deceptive that way. You pick of the book and you expect it to be loud and colorful with a lot of balls. What you get is this quiet literary family novel. I thought about adding more ball scenes, but there is a risk where once you have more than two — that they’re all the same. How do you make a ball scene different? With the one scene where Jaunito is making his debut, I felt I wrote about everything I could about the outfits and characters. If I kept doing that the reader would become numb to it and it would lose its dazzle. I wanted that scene to feel alive when it happened. The book was never meant to explore the ball culture, it was always more about the inner lives of these characters.

AV: From the time period when your book takes place to the mid ’90s when RuPaul was on VH1 to now, gay culture has shifted so much. Where do you think it goes from here?

JC: I don’t know. Especially because of current political situation. What’s interesting for me as a writer looking at gay fiction is that even in the past few years there has been a shift. Gay novels before 2005 were really hard to get published. Books we think of as being foundations of queer lit were not well received in their time. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin received terrible reviews. The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal almost destroyed his career.

Really the past few years with the success of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, which is interesting because she is a straight woman, and What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell kind of proved to the publishing community that you can publish books about LGBT characters and it can still do well. People are interested in engaging with those stories.

I think there is going to be a further shift where there is more gay fiction being printed by big publishers.

AV: How do you view your literature? Will you always write toward the gay community?

JC: I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. When you write your first book you write it for yourself because there is no guarantee it will be published. Now that it has been published and it has gotten wide attention, I am aware there is an audience out there.

I’m working on two different projects, I’m not sure which will come first. One is a collection of short stories about contemporary gay life. Just about friendships and relationships told by different characters. I guess that is for a gay audience.

The next novel is also kind of historical. I’m interested in this character from early 20th century American painting. Not many people know this character was gay. I’ve been reading biographies and different archives and I see the coded language. I see the painting of his “friend.” I am interested in what a novel would look like about his life. That’s another gay novel, but it’s also tapping into American history. While I aim that toward a gay audience, I think straight people would also be interested.

I feel like my goal as a writer is to resurrect stories from the past and revisit them in the present. I’m interested in stories that are at risk of being lost because they haven’t been preserved or they have been erased. I want to put in the work to imagine what fills in the gaps. Historians have to write with accuracy, but as a fiction writer I can fill in the blanks.

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