Wilton Barnhardt is upfront when it comes to introducing his new anthology of essays and stories about LGBTQ life in North Carolina. North Carolina likely wouldn’t be expected to be the “first across that particular finish line,” he writes.
But the Winston-Salem native hopes “Every True Pleasure: LGBTQ Tales of North Carolina” changes that, showcasing the multifaceted challenges and joys of being LGBTQ.
“LGBTQ stories are simply human stories, made richer, perhaps, by the added layer of complication that queerness brings,” he said in a phone interview.
In the book released March 11, Barnhardt and 20 contributors cover the terrain of “young love and gay panic, the minefield of religion, military service, having children with a surrogate, family rejection, finding one’s true gender, finding sex, and finding love,” according to the publisher’s press release.
The collection featuring writers who identify as gay, trans, bisexual, and straight. They feature some of the state’s most well-known writers, including David Sedaris, Kelly Link, Allan Gurganus and Randall Kenan.
Barnhardt is a former sports writer for Sports Illustrated and the author of several novels, including “Lookaway, Lookaway.” He’s also a professor in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
In between stops driving through the California desert, Barnhardt answered our questions via email. A few contributors to the collection also emailed us answers to why they wanted to participate in this collection.
Q: You mentioned in your introduction, you wouldn’t expect “North Carolina would be first across that particular finish line” of producing a gay anthology? What pushed you forward?
A: Well, for that very reason. You might not expect a thriving LGBTQ community was here if you listened to the news. There’s been HB2 (House Bill 2), inspired by the legislature’s backlash to municipal gay rights ordinances around the state. (Congressman) Mark Meadows works tirelessly to eliminate any protection Obama signed for transgender soldiers as well as citizens. And the legacy of the homophobe of homophobes, (late Sen.) Jesse Helms, is still alive in North Carolina. As long as there are N.C. Republicans, there will be elections won at our expense. But most people in this state tend to be kind. And queer citizens are an integrated part of N.C. life all over the state, not just the cities.
Q: How do these stories told through the lens of LGBTQ help us understand the state better?
A: I think there are many reasons to write, but I suspect, more often than not, queer writers are seeking justice. Not politically or legally, perhaps— though that would be welcome, too. But justice for being seen as a human being, equal to the rest, only with a small degree of difference. Nothing to be killed or jailed or hated over or endlessly preached against.
Q: Also in the introduction, you wrote “the unifying principles among our writers gathered here was that their stories or personal essays be vital, keen, and observant, accurate to LGBTQ life as we find it in the 21st century, and that the writers be natives of, residents of, or connected strongly to North Carolina.” What other qualities were you looking for in the contributions?
A: I could have done a whole volume of “coming out” stories or, less happily, discrimination stories, but I wanted a wide range of experiences. There are tales of military life, family life where religion has made things difficult; there’s the challenge of coming out to a sibling or to a father who is a minister. There is unrequited love; there is love that works out; there is love where control and abuse are in the picture. In short, each story visits issues that any reader will understand but there is always an added twist or two when the person is LGBTQ.
Q: What types of discussions do you hope “Every True Pleasure” will generate?
A: I could see a straight reader, who has given LGBTQ folk little thought, becoming more sympathetic to some of their fellow citizens. I could see a young reader who knows that they are gay or trans finding solace, useful information, a preview of the joys ahead, not just the rough patch. Suicide among gay youth is at record highs and the more tales and stories that are available to be read, the better.
North Carolina is a perfectly fine place to have a LGBTQ life; they should hang in there. And I hope, if the anthology’s readers admire the writers included, if they are moved and educated by the stories that are featured, that next time an opportunistic politician tries to win an election by ginning up resentment and fears about LGBTQ citizens, these readers join the chorus of disapproval until this sort of expedient gay bashing is done for in this state.
Contributors’ featured work
Three writers were asked about why they contributed their respective essays and what they hope readers will learn from them.
Poet Wayne Johns of Greensboro, “Where Your Children Are”
“I’m primarily a poet and this is one of the few standalone stories I have written. That fact aside, “Where Your Children Are” is set in the summer of 1980 at the height of the Atlanta child murders. The story depicts the tensions of race relations, and the looming threat of violence in that place, alongside the narrator’s awakening of sexual identity. I hope that it reverberates for any reader, in that it is also just a coming-of-age story that happens to be set in the deep South.”
Author Zelda Lockhart of Hillsborough, “Without a Word”
“I contributed the piece I did, because I am black, lesbian, a mother, a grandmother, an artist, a teacher, and a person who is so curious about how I am both different and the same as every other human.
“I hope that when reading my essay, people are able to ask themselves what do they think, feel, or remember about their own journey. I hope that they then share those thoughts, memories and feelings as their own personal story with others who might think, feel, or remember something.”
Writer John Pierre Craig of Raleigh, “The Handoff”
“I contributed the story because we don’t often see glimpses of young black boys working to understand their manhood and sexuality, especially in certain traditionally heterosexist environments like the military and the black barbershop. I wanted to share what it could be like to think through all the images and pressures of manhood a young black boy encounters and how that affects his self-image.
“I hope that people will read this story and consider the ways we press young black boys into a mold of straightness and manliness that stifles their potential and joy.”
Barnhardt will discuss “Every True Pleasure: LGBTQ Tales of North Carolina,” (UNC Press, March 11, 2019) at several Triangle bookstores.
▪ March 21, 7 p.m., Quail Ridge Books & Music, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh, in North Hills Shopping Center. Contributors Allan Gurganus, Minrose Gwin and Randall Kenan will join Barnhardt at this event.
▪ April 11, 7 p.m. Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham.
▪ April 17, 7 p.m., Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill.