The evening began with a 19th-century Parisian opera singer, and by 6 p.m. it had moved to a hookup in the Nics lounge.
This is how conversations seem to meander when they involve Jenny Boylan ’80 and Alexander Chee ’89, who returned to campus this weekend for a talk on, as the title indicated, queer pasts and futures. Both read recent work: Chee, from his first novel, “Edinburgh” (which, he shamefully confesses, does not take place in Scotland) as well as his most recent, “Queen of the Night,” and Boylan, from her upcoming novel titled “Long Black Veil,” which takes place in a haunted Eastern State Penitentiary.
After introductions by University Librarian Dan Cherubin and Assistant Professor of French Michael Meere, who is also President of the Friends of the Library program, Chee took the stage, opening by mentioning that one of the t-shirts on display in Olin was one he designed and created back when he was a student here, equipped with a team of friends and silkscreening materials at 7 Fountain Avenue. This announcement aptly set the tone for the evening, which centered primarily on each of the graduates’ time here, how those two eras interacted with each other, and their relationship to campus in its current state.
Chee was soft-spoken, his punchlines (which were often hilarious) landing subtly and slyly, as if he was trying to disguise them. His first excerpt came from “Edinburgh,” which published in 2001, tells the story of a young boy (and his eventual adulthood) who navigates the politics of a sexual abuse scandal in his professional boys’ choir. Chee, however, chose to read from a more nuanced section of the book that orients itself around the Korean grandfather of the protagonist Fee. The section weaves carefully between Japanese fox mythology and accounts of Fee’s interactions with his grandfather and parents, which involve memories of them reading these myths to him.
Up next was Chee’s most recent novel, “Queen of the Night,” which was published fifteen years after “Edinburgh.” (“There was a lot of stuff to do,” he chuckled mysteriously.) In an arguable one-eighty from “Edinburgh,” “Queen of the Night” is narrated from the perspective of the 19th–century star of the Paris Opera. In the novel’s opening scene, narrator Lilliet Berne regrets her choice of dress for the 1882 Sénat Ball at the Luxembourg Palace.
In the subsequent Q&A session, Chee recounts inheriting his interest in opera from his parents, his immigrant father a firm adherent of the belief that to be an American meant being culturally educated—speaking more than two languages, reading Russian novels, and listening to Italian opera. His passion then further blossomed as an adult, when his high school friend started performing as a mezzo soprano and his brother, harboring a crush on the friend, repeatedly paid for tickets to see her perform.
After Chee’s reading, Boylan took to the podium and immediately addressed the event’s location—Olin’s Smith Reading Room—as the site where she wrote some of the worst papers that the English department had ever seen. (Audience members familiar with her work laughed, knowing otherwise.) Before her reading, she spoke of matters relating to identity and shared what she called “seven queer moments” she had written down while sitting in Pi (a locale that had not been around during her time at Wes, and one which she expressed ambivalence towards).
“If you’ve met one trans person, you’ve actually met one trans person,” emphasized Boylan at the end of these accounts, all of which detailed experiences—most of which aired on the negative side—she had on the subject of transsexual individuals during her time on campus. One included a psychology textbook that categorized transsexuals under abnormal psychology along with fetishists and murderers; another one recounted a friend, who now does breast enhancement surgeries as a profession, expressing how “fucked up” trans people must be; and another involved a student telling her, back in 2005, that she was “the wrong kind of trans person.”
But none of this has kept Boylan away from Wesleyan, nor, it would seem, has it hindered her enthusiasm toward the school and pride in her status as an alum. She arrived wearing a bright red Wesleyan sweatshirt, and nostalgically recalled a walk she takes every time she returns to Middletown that traces what she calls Brownstone Row to the ’92 Theater (“that’s called the 1892 Theater,” she clarifies), and up to the top of Foss Hill.
Boylan proceeded to read from her upcoming novel “Long Black Veil,” set for an April release, which tells the story of a group of recent Wesleyan graduates who accidentally get locked into Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary and soon discover, as she puts it, that they are not alone. Years after a mysterious tragedy occurs on a fateful night, one of the individuals is arrested, and the main character, a trans woman, is faced with the opportunity to testify and prove his innocence. But at what cost?
Boylan chose an excerpt that comes along late in the book’s development, which occurs directly after the heroine is “outed” as trans to her husband. She had been living in something known as “stealth,” which entails, post-reassignment, moving to a completely new locale and never revealing that you used to be another gender.
The scene takes place as the heroine is driving, and much of her passionate narration speaks directly and unabashedly to both the general trans community and Boylan’s own personal experience. One part recounts the very experience she shared earlier, of going into the library and finding clinical diagnoses for being trans. In one bitterly hilarious line, Boylan’s character follows a heavily scientific description of trans individuals articulated by Judith Butler with: “Man, that is so true.” In a particularly poignant line towards the end of the ardent narrative, Boylan reads with emotion: “I have a different theory. Maybe we should all just fucking love each other.”
After both reader and audience recovered slightly from this moving reading, Meere segued the evening into the Q&A session, which Boylan humorously began unprompted with the assertion, “Yes, I can have an orgasm.” The session soon turned to a back-and-forth between Boylan and Chee, during which both recalled their experiences on campus with their own sexualities and identities. The nine-year difference between their times here and their differing stages of publicity about their queer identities (Chee came out as gay his freshman year, while Boylan continued struggling to act like a boy throughout her time here) meant that both had very different feelings about their time at the school, although a nostalgic fondness seemed to run through both of their memories.
The Q&A session became at one point more of a conversation between Boylan and Chee, a welcome occurrence that provided hilarious and awkward anecdotes from both about self-exploration and sexual identity.
“Yes and yes,” responded Chee to a question Boylan posed about if being at Wesleyan affected his queer identity and if he had to renegotiate his place in the world after graduating. He went on to explain that he came to Wesleyan as a chubby adolescent and subsequently joined a ceramics class and the crew team in romantic pursuit of his TA.
“No one had told me that novice and varsity didn’t practice together,” Chee confessed with a quiet smile, to boisterous laughter from audience members. “So I didn’t actually get to see him, but I did lose 60 pounds that year, and after I lost 30, I told people I was bisexual and after I lost 30 more, I told people I was gay. This was before bears were really a thing…so, I felt like to be gay I had to be fit.”
The exchange turned into a comparison between to what extent both gay and trans culture had been visible during each writer’s time at Wesleyan, the latter of which was largely invisible from both their points of view.
In a surprising twist, Boylan ended up revealing that she often found herself in search of true love during her time here, recalling a particular a story of ending up in the Nics lounge with a girl reading poetry and just feeling an urge to cuddle.
“She was kind of like, ‘What is going on here? You think I came here to snuggle? Really? I got shit to do.’” Boylan chuckled. “And that was my experience. It was really one lesbian relationship after another, except that it wasn’t called that. And actual sex…I was, like, well, that’s only after we know that we love each other. We’ll get around to that, maybe, next semester. But let’s read the poems. And so I was speaking a language—actually, even now, maybe nobody speaks it. It might just be me, I don’t know.”
Perhaps the most gratifying moment of the evening was Boylan’s affirmation that Wesleyan’s “coolness” is not something of the past.
“I came back to teach here in the spring of ’92, and I taught a class in creative writing,” she relayed. “When I was teaching that class, everyone acted like the late ’70s was this golden time; ‘Oh, you were here when Wesleyan was cool, it’s a shame that we’re here now in this dark after time.’ And all I can say is that when I was here in the late ’70s, everyone talked about the late ’60s and, like, ’70, ’71 as the golden time; ‘Oh, we missed that.’ You know, the Dead concert, all that. And all I can say is, I think it’s a very Wesleyan thing to think the golden age has just recently passed and you missed it. And you should never let anyone convince you that it’s anything other than your time. The best Wesleyan is the one right now. And if it’s not, you can make it one.”