“Real Life” Captures the Loneliness of Being Black and Queer on Campus
Brandon Taylor on subverting the white gaze and writing his debut novel in five weeks
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In Brandon Taylor’s debut Real Life, Wallace, a black, queer Alabama-born doctoral student contends with the virtual all-whiteness of a Midwestern campus—and how it infects his personal and private life.
Taylor wrote the novel in an incredible five weeks (!) during his own science doctoral program before switching tracks to pursue an MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop. The book, which times feels pointed though placid with its observations through the introverted Wallace and at others, absolutely violent and devastating, has been greeted with near-universal praise from the literary establishment.
The novel dissects Wallace’s otherness through his friends, colleagues, and love interest. The interactions stew with awkward misfires, microaggressions, and downright racism—all of which offers a sort of sociology of campus otherness set against the backdrop of Midwestern niceness.
I spoke to Brandon Taylor, who is a senior editor for Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, about learning to fight with oneself on the page and the most gratifying response to his debut.
J.R. Ramakrishnan: You captured the feeling of being the only person of color in academia so acutely. You and Wallace share a lot in common. How much of the novel is lifted from your real life?
Brandon Taylor: I took situations that happened but the ways they unfold in the novel are quite different from how they unfolded in my actual life. The reason for that is that Wallace and I are very different. Once you move something into fiction, it belongs exclusively to the realm of fiction. But I did make up my mind to use the raw transcript of the racial accosts that I experienced while I was in my Ph.D. program in Madison, Wisconsin. All of the really awful things that the white people say to Wallace are actual things that were said to me while I was a doctoral student. I didn’t trust myself not to want to tamp it down because of discomfort. If I used what was actually said, then I didn’t have to worry about trying to make it more palatable. The reader will have to sit with that, the same way I had to sit with it and the same way that Wallace has to sit with it in the novel.
JRR: I thought you wrote the hell out of Chapter 5 where you give us Wallace’s horrifying backstory (but so beautifully rendered and such a shock after the tense but calmer early chapters)? It cleaves the novel and the reader. I understand from your essays that some of this is also drawn from your personal history. Could you talk about writing that chapter?
BT: I wrote this novel in five weeks, but two of those weeks was about not being able to write that part. When I set up the novel, I knew that the middle would contain all of the mess and difficulty of Wallace’s past. I knew the other parts couldn’t contain this. I wanted to seal it all in the middle of the book and it would exist in this totally different register to everything else in the novel. I knew that was what I needed to do. So when I sat down to write, I wondered, how do I write this? How do I get my way into this? If I can’t finish this section, and the whole book is a wash.
It was so incredibly difficult. I just didn’t know how to access the language I needed because it’s a moment in which Wallace is having to make a disclosure about all of the things that have happened to him and all the reasons why he hasn’t been able to face it. And all the reasons why he is the way he is. I didn’t have the language for that because it’s the most interior part of the novel. All artifice has been dropped and it’s just a moment of raw emotion. But at the same time, it’s a novel so it has to make sense. And it was just incredibly, incredibly difficult.
But, one night I was coming home and there was this crack of thunder in the sky. That’s when the first line of that section came to me. I went home and I wrote it in 40 minutes and then it was over. I then felt very sick because it was just so much. Once you make such a disclosure, what do you do? How do you pick up the pieces when someone has told you, all of this awful stuff? It was a bit difficult to start the novel up again because it’s a huge molten core of energy.
JRR: I was reading your Buzzfeed essay where you talk about learning to fight with yourself in science. Would you talk about this?
BT: In my doctoral program, my thesis advisor was so tough on my writing in a way that my English teachers had never been in school. She was always saying things such as, this has to be more rigorous. This needs to be more thoughtful. This needs to be more skeptical.
She was teaching me how to write about ideas and how to push my writing. I got a comprehensive education of how to think and write critically, how to reason through complicated ideas, and how to pitch them together into a larger narrative in science. It taught me a lot about inquiry, curiosity and how to manage a large unwieldy intellectual project like a novel or a short story.
My education in writing is one that is deeply rooted in the tradition of treating the ideas I hold most dear with absolute ruthless skepticism and doubt. I pursue ideas through this intense line of inquiry where I always second guess, double-check, and second guess again until what emerges is a solidly argued, reasoned piece of thought on the page.
When I left my Ph.D. program to come to the Iowa Writers Workshop, there was very little actual writing instruction or people teaching me how to think on the page or write rigorously. And that was a source of great disappointment and in some ways, a lot of suffering.
JRR: You are guest hosting EL’s advice column, Blunt Instrument, soon. What’s the best writing/literary advice you’ve been given?
BT: Justin Torres told me that I had a tendency to punish my characters and to take sides. He said, even if you, as the writer hate the character, the character still deserves a moment of grace in which they’re allowed to be dignified. Instead of pushing my characters to behave in ways that were convenient for me, it was about allowing each character to be real, complicated, and human. That was one of the most important things for this novel—making sure that the characters were allowed to be full and messy.
JRR: Before you wrote this novel, did you read or have any affinity for novels about science or scientists. If so, can you recommend your favorites?
BT: I haven’t read a lot of novels about science because as a scientist reading novels about science, I’m always thinking, well that’s not how it is. That’s not right. Or the science would bother me. It’s funny because when I was in my science program, other scientists would constantly critique with depictions of science in the media, be it books or movies or TV shows or podcasts. The pedantry was out of control. I didn’t read any science-y books in the run-up to this novel. The novel is more directly inspired by campus novels that I have read. I see it fitting into a tradition of this contemporary moment of novels of anxiety and novels of consciousness. That to me is really the mode in which it is operating. So I don’t have any recs on this.
JRR: What are your favorite novels of queer life and/or coming of age?
BT: The novel that made me want to write is André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name. I read it when I was 18 years old and it just totally rearranged the world for me. Before that, I had never read a single book about a queer person or queer life. For most of my life before that point, I went around thinking that no one else felt the way that I felt, that no one else felt weird, precocious, alone, and without a sense of self. That book was when I detected the consciousness of a queer person. The novel is integral to my artistry but also to my sense of myself as a queer person.
Edinburgh is one of my favorite books. It’s so beautiful and wise. Garth Greenwell. His What Belongs to You and Cleanness are both superb. The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith is deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply important to me as a writer and reader. I just love that book to death. Justin Torres’ We the Animals is so lyrical, and yet so earthy, concrete, and deeply imagined. It’s an exquisite book.
JRR: What has been the most gratifying response to your book thus far?
BT: One of my big fears was that I had written a novel that would make white people feel just uncomfortable enough that they could be say, “Oh yes, I have eaten my moral vegetables for the day,” but that other queer people of color might say that I’d written a book that that glorified whiteness. I was just so afraid that I had written a morally unsophisticated novel. To me, the most gratifying responses has come from other queer people of color who see this book as being complicated, nuanced, and rigorous, but above all else, truthful about a kind of experience that I think doesn’t get talked about enough.
If you look at contemporary publishing, you would think that there are no black, brown or queer people anywhere, in any field. What this book is showing and what the response is showing that we’re here, we’ve always been here, and finally, we’re maybe being heard a little more.