I Dedicated My Book to My Mother, But I Can’t Tell Her I Wrote It
Edgar Gomez on the pitfalls of writing his deeply personal memoir, "High-Risk Homosexual"
A little over a year ago, I was working as a cocktail server at a gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen, putting my MFA to good use by writing what I could on my cell phone between rushes. One night, I had an idea for a story and dashed into a bathroom stall to jot down some quick notes. Once inside, I saw I had a new WhatsApp message from my mom. Apparently, she’d been watching late-night TV and this ad came on she thought I might be interested in: one of those companies my professors had warned me about that tries to convince writers to pay them thousands of dollars to publish their book.
For a long time, I kept large parts of my life hidden from my mom. After I came out to her in high school, she’d reacted in unpredictable ways. At times, she was seemingly accepting, playing Madonna around the house or patting the empty seat next to her on the couch so we could watch Ellen. But there were other moments when I was certain she thought I was a monster: the afternoon she tackled my locked bedroom door after looking through my phone and finding a photo of me taken with a drag queen. Or the day she stopped me as I left the house to go out with friends and warned me not to get AIDS. As a teenager, I felt safer, and easier to love, when I withheld anything that might trigger her anger. Essentially that meant avoiding all personal details that would remind her I was gay. I didn’t talk to her about my confusing relationship to gender, about boyfriends, or even about my regular friends, who were mostly queer.
But now that we weren’t under the same roof and she had no control over how I lived my life, as a test I’d begun to share little things about what I was up to, including that I was writing a memoir. She might not have known much about the publishing industry (like that it’s usually the publisher who pays the writer, not the other way around), yet standing in the bathroom stall at the gay bar, reading her WhatsApp message, I felt the kind of support I’d always wanted from her. Could it really be this easy? I wondered. I imagined us as a perfect sitcom family, sitting together at the dinner table, asking her advice about crushes, my career ….
Just as quickly, another thought brought that fantasy crashing down. Thank you, I messaged her back in Spanish, but I gave up on the book. I’m thinking of trying teaching. At work. Call you tomorrow!
I didn’t. Instead, I waited for a week to pass before dialing her number, hoping it would be enough time for her to forget the publishing ad, and the memoir I’d foolishly told her I was writing, and every memory she still carried with her of me begging her to drive us to the library as a kid.
My mom worked as a barista at the Orlando airport Starbucks. In Manhattan, I carried trays of whiskey sours over my head while dodging messy, heartbroken twinks flailing their arms to Dua Lipa. Despite the obvious differences, my mom’s life and mine are quite alike: we served expensive drinks to people on vacation. I suspect that when I shared with her my plan to give up writing, my first love, all of the dreams she’d had to give up because of money flashed through her mind: doing hair, opening a Nicaraguan restaurant, traveling—her job at the airport a constant reminder of how little of the world she’s gotten to see. I suspect this because, ever since I told her I was through with the book, she’s done anything but forget. Several times a month, she calls to ask me if I’m writing anything new. When I say no, she says, But you’re the artist in the family! I remember when you were little you were always reading. You have to follow your dreams. And, when you’re rich, you can buy your mama a Jaguar.
I try my best to change the subject. How’s the garden going? You ready for hurricane season? What’d you have for breakfast? Anything to avoid telling her my dreams have already come true.
Not long before I started working at the gay bar, I sent my memoir, High-Risk Homosexual, to a literary agent, who agreed to represent me. The title was meant to be ironic, a phrase I’d borrowed from the doctor who diagnosed me a high-risk homosexual when I asked to be put on PrEP, a medication that reduces your risk of HIV infection. After the pandemic hit New York and I lost my job, I realized how risky my life had actually become: I was unemployed, on Medicaid, unsure how I was going to support myself, or my mom if I had to, because she also lost her job. We were in quarantine, under curfew. Every day I woke up to the sound of ambulances carrying COVID victims to the hospital and fell asleep listening to police helicopters circling the sky.
With an unexpected amount of free time, I threw myself into editing my book, burying my anxiety under the hope that once it sold, I’d have some level of financial security. When I had a solid draft ready, my agent sent it around to some publishers. One by one the rejections started pouring in. I sat alone in my cramped Brooklyn bedroom laughing despairingly as I read about the six-figure book deal a white woman had gotten for writing a novel about Mexican cartels, at the thought that I’d ever be successful, at how silly my dreams were. And then I got an email from my agent: SOFT SKULL LIKES YOUR BOOK! The following week, I signed a publishing deal with an independent press. My advance was hardly enough to buy my mom a Jaguar, but it’s kept my fridge stocked throughout the pandemic. Suddenly my life was slightly less risky.
I’ve wanted this from the moment I discovered being a writer was even a thing. My mom might want it for me even more. The trouble is: I don’t know how to share the news.
Although her message about the publishing ad sent me into a panic, it also reminded me how far I’d come as a writer, even if I paid most of my bills cocktail serving. Throughout graduate school, despite being confident in my abilities and knowing I had a good story, I’d always been skeptical about my memoir selling. I’d had the statistics about what books get published shoved down my throat enough to know it’s rarely the coming-of-age story about a queer child of a Central American immigrant. Strangely, it was those statistics that kept me going. While writing my memoir—in particular the chapters that deal with family—I didn’t feel inhibited by how they might react to the book, because I figured no publisher would ever buy it.
Reading my mom’s message, it occurred to me that I didn’t need to piece together thousands of dollars to get my memoir out in the world through a company that aired ads between episodes of Telemundo novelas. By then, I had an agent. She’d read and liked my book! She had a fancy office in Manhattan because she was good at selling books! Maybe my memoir would sell, I thought. I might really become a published writer. Yet any validation that might have brought me didn’t last, because it meant my book might actually find its way into my mother’s hands.
There are certain things my family doesn’t talk to anyone but God about. We keep our problems within the walls of our house. Perhaps that’s in response to the narratives that are pushed on us as immigrants, as Latinx people, as the working poor. The world demands our suffering, so we smile. Even amongst ourselves, admitting that anything is wrong is out of the question. Should I foolishly bring up trauma, my mom will quickly let me know I’m confused: The only mistake she made raising me, she’ll say, was when she put too much salt in the empanadas for Christmas.
My book is not sad. My mom is not a villain. But I am honest about the complicated journey we shared regarding my life and my queerness. Part of the reason I wrote this book was to untangle the messiness of my upbringing and give meaning to the memories that haunt me. I’m done crying over the past. It’s time to move on. I don’t believe writing is therapy, but spending hours attempting to understand why people did what they did, their motivations, and how they impacted me, helped me reach a place of acceptance and forgiveness. I dedicated my book to my mom because writing it reminded me why I love her and want her to be a part of my life. Maybe if I hadn’t, I would still be angry about the day she tackled my bedroom door. Maybe I would still resent that, after the shooting at Pulse Nightclub a half hour drive from our house in Orlando, the only thing she asked me is if I’d seen the news, as if my universe hadn’t just imploded. Writing my memoir, while not a substitute for therapy, helped heal our relationship.
I’ve always been purposefully vague with my family about my writing. They’re not big readers, and even if they were, they would read in Spanish, and they likely wouldn’t pick up a memoir. Compared to poetry and fiction, in Latin America, memoir isn’t a hugely popular genre. The combination of those things and my not believing I’d ever get published allowed me to write freely in graduate school without worrying that I’d ever have to deal with the repercussions.
I didn’t wonder if my family seeing themselves reflected through my eyes would put a strain on our already complicated relationships, or if they’d take my attempt to discuss the afflictions that plague many Latinx folk—homophobia, machismo, addiction, violence—as a betrayal. I didn’t wonder, to put it simply, if my uncles or my brother or my mom would be mad at me. And if so, would they forgive me for telling strangers our business? Or would they ice me out like they did when I came out at 16? Over a decade later, there are still relatives who don’t speak to me beyond the obligatory hello at family gatherings, others who constantly tell me I’m in their prayers. It took years for me to learn how to navigate conversations about my queerness with my family. Would my book reopen old wounds and force us to start from scratch?
While I was getting my MFA, the problem of writing about people you know came up often in my memoir classes. If they did something bad to me, I should at least be able to write about it, a classmate of mine once said regarding a story she was working on about sexual assault. A woman who was going through a divorce worried that her memoir would be used against her in a custody battle. I can’t do that, she countered. I could lose my kids. Don’t ever let anyone tell you what you can and can’t write about, another chimed in.
Everyone had an opinion: Always try to find one good thing to say. Change their descriptions a bit and just deny it’s them. You have to ask yourself if writing the story is worth sacrificing the relationship.
I listened with interest, but these conversations always seemed irrelevant to me. I could write whatever I wanted because what I wrote wouldn’t end up anywhere. The moment my book sold, I realized how wrong I had been, and worse, that it was too late to ask myself whether the story was worth sacrificing the relationship. Even if I had asked myself that, there was the added catch-22: Writing the story is what helped me rebuild those relationships, and now having it published might put them in jeopardy again.
Terrified after reading her WhatsApp message about the publishing ad, I did the only thing I could think to do. I told my mom I was quitting writing to pursue teaching. Maybe she wouldn’t Google me. Or walk into a bookstore and see my name on a bright, beautiful cover with the words HIGH-RISK HOMOSEXUAL. Maybe I could publish my memoir in secret. Perhaps I still can, but a side-effect I didn’t expect is that instead of letting the subject go, she’s only become more supportive. It breaks my heart, because whenever she writes me a message asking if I’m doing okay, I want to be able to tell her: Guess what? I did it! I made it. You don’t have to worry about me going hungry anymore. I want to tell her: I wrote about our lives, Mom, and yes, there are some things in this book you might not like, but there is also so much tenderness, like how after you kicked down my door that day and I thought you would kill me for being gay, you climbed into my bed and told me you loved me, te quiero, perdóname.
I want to say: I didn’t write this book to hurt you. I wrote it because I didn’t know what else to do with my hurt. I wrote it because I love you, too. La quiero más. Perdóneme.
I’ve made my career out of words, but right now it feels impossible to speak them. One day, I hope I’ll have the courage to take her to a bookstore, open my memoir to the dedication page, run my finger down to her name, and say: Look, mami, here you are. At the very front. For you.
Until then, I have to think about what’s best for me. My mom had to set her dreams aside because of money, to feed our family. Am I going to set aside my dreams for her, for anyone?
If I could go back and give my teenage self a piece of advice, it would be to wait to come out of the closet until I’d reached a place of safety and didn’t have to depend on my family’s support. I can’t change the past, but I can follow the same advice now: I lost my family once for being gay. I want to wait a little longer before I risk losing them for writing about it.