This is no. 113 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
In a review of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) for the Atlantic, Caleb Crain writes of the character Felix, who is identified in-text as bisexual, “I came to think of his bisexuality as a bay leaf that was said to have been added to the soup but hadn’t been.” To Crain, the matter of Felix’s bisexuality “goes largely unsubstantiated.” Fascinating! And I mean that sincerely. I do not wish to debate or analyze the role of bisexuality within Rooney’s novel specifically, but I think this nugget of criticism, the idea that queerness must be substantiated on the page, is a far more interesting discussion to have.
When I started writing the stories that became my debut collection, I wasn’t fully out yet. I began writing the oldest story, “Half Hearted,” about a man who fears his heart may devour itself, back in 2015. I was a senior in college and just figuring out that I was maybe, kinda, could be into men. In my first drafts, the protagonist, Hector, was straight, lonely, and in love with a woman, living his life in a fog of isolation. It was a mess. I tried writing it in the second-person, in the first, and in the third (which is where I landed). I tried and failed writing it as a piece of flash fiction. Nothing stuck. But later, when I was in the process of slowly coming out to myself and then friends, I decided to make Hector queer and turn his love interest into a man. Something clicked into place. I finally figured out how to finish his narrative. The story was less about loneliness and more about his fear that he might not be able to open himself up fully to another person, to the intimacy he most desired. This same fear roiled inside of me.
This is not to say that swapping out names is the key to making something queer. That switch was a first step for me, but not an end point. And the more I wrote, the more I wondered if queerness wasn’t something I needed to try so hard to make explicit; the emotions I explore and interrogate in my fiction will always be inseparable from my place in this world as a bisexual man of color. Whether any particular story of mine is about lovers of the same gender, different genders, or friendships without sexual attraction, I still feel they are layered with a humming pulse of queerness—in the portrayals of intimacy and desire, in the characters’ longing hearts, in their fierce uncertainty.
Labels can be valuable, after all, without them, there will always be a chance that a character intended as bisexual will be read as gay or straight. But how much does this matter? And if labels are included, is it an invitation for readers to test their validity? Is that a test one can truly pass? Is any of this actually the point of fiction?
I only ask questions, because I honestly don’t know.
Just as my writing has shifted and grown over the last seven years so has my relationship to my queerness. And so, it’s possible my stories about bisexual characters may feel surface-level to another reader, perhaps one that is more familiar with a wider canon of bisexual fiction, or perhaps one expecting it to look like something else entirely. What that something else is, I’d love to know.
Christopher Gonzalez is a queer Puerto Rican writer living in New York City. His debut story collection, I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat, is forthcoming from Santa Fe Writers Project in December. His writing has also appeared in Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, the Forge, Little Fiction, Lunch Ticket, the Millions, and the Nation, among other publications. He serves as a fiction editor for Barrelhouse and spends his waking hours tweeting about Oscar Isaac, book publishing, trash television, and the Popeyes spicy chicken sandwich @livesinpages.Thumbnail: Hossein Rivandi