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The Author in his Study

Actually I can see the Northumberland County Jail when I look out the window from my partner’s study. Glen Retief, my partner, will read and sign his new book, The Jack Bank–A Memoir of a South African Childhood, tonight at Susquehanna University.

He may change his mind, but I believe Glen will read from the chapter entitled The Castle, about his time in college when he was still repressing his gay orientation and lived with mostly Black university students in Cape Town right after the dorms were integrated in the early 1990s. Writing about that chapter while looking out at the stark, gray, dramatic walls of the jail with the curl of barbed wire on the top provided a potent visual metaphor for the South Africa of Glen’s youth.

Although his calling is as a writer, these days he does as much talking about his writing as writing itself. Yesterday WVIA public radio an interview in which Glen talks about the book, living in Central PA bartering books for eggs, and the rich history of art and activism in South Africa. (You can listen to his interview yourself: ArtScene with Erika Funke)

Zack Ford and I got to interview Glen ourselves for the Queer & Queerer podcast. With our cat yowling in the background, Glen attempts to read from the chapter, Blacks Boys of my Youth.

Here are the show notes and the link:


Glen previously joined the podcast for a discussion about gay-for-pay porn actors, but now he’s back to tell us all about his just-published memoir, The Jack Bank. In it, he chronicles growing up gay in Apartheid South Africa and participating in the revolution that led to sexual orientation becoming a protected class in that nation. He shares an excerpt from the book (despite an interruption by cats) and fields questions from Zack and Peterson not only about the content of the book, but the process of writing it and the importance of memoir as a genre. Order your copy of The Jack Bank today!

The Queer and Queerer Podcast!

Listen to Episode 48 The Jack Bank featuring Glen Retief

(Please click here to listen on iPad/iPhone or download.)

Here’s some more information about what we talked about this week:

» Buy The Jack Bank on Amazon.com.

» Visit Glen Retief’s homepage, Twitter, and blog.

»Peterson on being Glen’s partner: Two are Better than One–Art, Love, & Partnership

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Since finally coming out gay in my early 30’s (after 17 years of self-imposed therapies to de-gay myself) I was never that keen on finding a partner. Sure I dated, and I met some great guys, but first off I knew I had a ton of gunk to work through. One cannot go to war against one’s sexuality and personality the way I did without needing serious recovery. The Ex-Gay Movement with all the faulty oppressive teaching  “ministers” and “therapists” served up with a warm loving touch did a number on me. Honestly I never thought I could ever be partner material.

Although “change” was not possible (as the ex-gays vaguely promised) recovery has been. Not that I have everything sorted out. Sadly I believe I will live with some of the negative effects of ex-gay treatment for the rest of my life. But not only does life go on for me, I have been able to reclaim much of my life, my art, my hope, and my sanity. With a handful of thoughtful, faithful, loving friends, I was prepared and content to live single the rest of my life.

In regards to romance and partnership, I hate it when people say things like, “Once you stop looking, that’s when you will find love.” Perhaps anecdotal evidence supports this claim, and unfortunately my own romantic situation plops me into the data pool of those who found love when not looking. Surely most people who find a partner have been looking for said partner. These folks don’t just drop out of the sky.

Glen Retief in Lesotho

Still, my partner did, in a matter of speaking, dropped from the sky. In 2008 I attended the Friends General Conference, an annual gathering of North American Quakers. We met that year on a college campus in Johnston, PA, and I roomed with my conference buddy, Dennis, a 65 year old+ scientist and dancer from Denver.   We roomed in a wing of the dorm where many of the LGBTQ folks clustered (you get to request what cluster you prefer when you register.) The dorm rooms were such that two rooms shared a bathroom. When I heard someone on the other side of the two bathroom walls, I thought that we should meet and devise a protocol so that we do not inadvertently barge in on each other.

Just as I cracked open my bathroom door, the stranger in the next room burst in. Tall, gorgeous, and wearing only his underwear, he practically ran into me. I quickly explained, “Um, yeah, so, like, I guess we share a bathroom, so maybe we need to knock or do something before we enter.” Although he was the near naked one, he did not seem flustered one bit. “Yes, I did not realize.” he said with a lilting foreign-accent that sounded a mash-up of British and German. “My name is Glen.”

And that dear friends, is how I met my partner–in the bathroom at a religious conference. Glen, Dennis, and I spent much of the week together going to meals, talks, and Quaker worship. I was a bit harried as I co-led a daily workshop for teens and was scheduled to offer a plenary address to the 1000+ Quakers at the end of the weekend. Glen told me months later that at the time he did not know if Dennis and I were just friends or something more, and he hoped I was available.

I struggled with a sore throat the whole week. I obsessed so much that I would not be able to speak by the time I did my presentation, The Re-Education of George W. Bush, that I paid little attention to Glen. He did catch my attention after one of the plenary addresses when he expressed his strong, thoughtful opinion contrary to my own about something the speaker said. I found this to be extremely alluring. At one point he told me that he was a writer, and inwardly I remarked, “Yeah, right, everyone is a writer these days.”

He saw my play and although he did not say so at the time, he was struck by my ability as an artist–not just another pretty face 😛 He then emailed me a chapter of a book he had begun, something about growing up in South Africa which I promised to read when I had some quiet time away from all the wild Quakers with all their many activities. Then we abruptly parted ways. He left a little early because he was concerned for the welfare of his cats, and I hurried back to Hartford to catch a  plane to London to speak at the Lambeth Conference.

I meet so many people. I like many of them and stay in touch, but I felt something different about Glen, and found myself thinking of him and speaking about him to friends in the UK. “I met this really nice guy…but I’m sure it is nothing.” Then on a train going up North to visit friends in Wakefield I cracked open the email that held the attachment of Glen’s memoir excerpt. The prose was gorgeous. The story deeply moving. I concluded, “He really is a writer–not just another pretty face.”

And as they say, the rest is history. Of course we took other steps to get to know each other before we literally fell in love while hiking in the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon. We also each found the other to be freakishly compatible. We are both odd ducks in our own ways, and to find another that fits so well, is well, nothing short of miraculous–a statistical improbability. We compliment each other in multiple ways. We enjoy ourselves together immensely and we help each other to become better artists and better people. We intellectually spar, we comfort each other, we cook for each other, look out for each other, we partner in every aspect of our lives–personally, professionally, spiritually, domestically.

Glen Retief and Peterson Toscano

Next month in Washington, DC we will appeared together to present our work. Glen will read from his memoir, The Jack Bank, and I will perform scenes from my plays, I Can See Sarah Palin from my Window and Transfigurations (a play about transgender Bible characters.”

Glen and I often quote a favorite passage from the book of Ecclesiastes, a text used in many wedding ceremonies. It can easily apply to all sorts of couples, but the text appears to be speaking directly about two males (at least in the English translations I have read. I will have to check in on the Hebrew one of these days.)

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

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Wanna check us out?

Tuesday, April 26, 11:00 AM Radio Interview with Glen about his book. WVIA’s ArtScene with Erica Funke

Wednesday, April 27, 7:30 PM Reading and book signing, The Jack Bank, at Susquehanna University

Saturday, April 30, 7:00 PM Reading and book signing, The Jack Bank, at Midtown Scholar, Harrisburg, PA

Friday, Saturday May 7 and 8 Peterson will perform I Can See Sarah Palin from my Window and Transfigurations in Oslo, Norway.

Wednesday, May 25, 7:00 PM Quaker and Public Witness, a joint presentation by Peterson Toscano & Glen Retief, at the William Penn House, Washington, DC

Thursday, May 26, 700 PM An evening with Glen Retief and Susi Wyss, Atomic Books, Baltimore, MD

Friday, Saturday June 24, 25 Reading by Glen Retief, performance by Peterson Toscano at Wild Goose Festival, Shakori Hills NC

Glen will also read at the Friends General Conference and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (details to be announced)

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This is my final installment of my four part review (with excerpts) of Glen Retief’s The Jack Bank, A Memoir of a South African Childhood.

Part One: A Child Takes on his World
Part Two: Losing Ourselves to Violence
Part Three: Violence is Glorious

Literary memoir often requires that the author apply novelistic techniques on one’s own life story or a portion of that story. Unlike autobiography which seeks to lay out the facts of a life or event, memoir is more concerned with all kinds of truth rather than just literal fact. At times dialog is re-imagined, scenes may even be combined, but in my opinion, the goal remains to get to the emotional truth of a personal narrative. As a result, the work may serve as confessional for the author, who if she or he works hard at it, does not stray into self-pity or justification.

In Retief’s memoir he does not simply spill the beans on his country, South Africa, with the racism and white privilege that choked most of its inhabitants during Apartheid and beyond. Retief does not only reveal the rampant male on male violence within the state-run boarding school he attended and likely existed in other such schools around the country. He also unearths tragedy, trauma, and injustice within his own family–including exposing his own pedophile grandfather who sexually assaults one of Glen’s family members. Layer after layer Retief pulls back the curtains and reveals the ugly, sick side of human nature hidden behind the family friendly Braai and the young boys’ and good old boys’ clubs.

But the author does not let himself off the hook. He does not emerge the perfect hero rising above it all in order to redeem his family and country. He too is touched by the violence and racism. As he attempts to become part of a Black community–dating Cecil, a Black South African and staying in the all-Black Soweto township during a time of unrest, he discovers that he too is damaged goods. In one of the books final scenes, Retief seeks shelter during an Inkatha attack in Soweto. Musa, a friend of Cecil’s, risks his own life (and ultimately gets kidnapped by Inkatha fighters and nearly beaten to death) in order to protect Retief. Reflecting on “The Jack Bank” or the accrued interest of violence that infects every sector of South African government and society, Retief poignantly discloses yet another deposit he has made into this inhuman system.

“I am going now to the hospital,” Cecil says.  “I have to see Musa.”  A pause.  “Do you want to come?”

I can hear the sadness and grief in Cecil’s voice, his need for support.  Regardless of my irritation for the night on the telephone and the Soweto eviction, I still love him.  I need to be his boyfriend.  To Musa I need to affirm his courage: “Cecil has been looking for you for a whole week, Musa.  We didn’t forget about you.”  I need to hug Cecil, to show I’m proud of him.

I also need to become blacker.  This half-decade yearning for a dark-skinned community of refuge—for all its foolishness, it can lead me out of terror and into convalescence if I only take it seriously enough.  Community—the word implies reciprocity.  The purpose of life, it suggests, isn’t to avoid agony or duck the jack bank, but to band together with others against it.  To find in solidarity a fragile but sustaining redemption.

Finally, of course—I cannot leave this out of the roster—at this moment I owe it to Musa.  Whatever the wisdom of his decision to go to his girlfriend’s house, the fact remains he gave up his room, that afternoon, for my protection.  A white man like you shouldn’t be outside.  A deposit of jacks made not in his own account, but in mine.

“Well,” Cecil asks, “are you coming?”

“Will you get me?”  I’m playing for time, now—I know this isn’t practical.  Cecil is an hour and a half away by public transport.  If he ferries me around all day he won’t get anything else done.  “I really want to see Musa, babe.”  This, too, is a lie: he must sense it. I do not want to to be reminded of my trauma.  I do not want to feel Musa’s pain, and by extension my own.

“But I don’t know how to drive there.  Is it dangerous if I get lost?”

“It is OK, Glen, really.  Don’t worry.  I cannot come for you—I am too busy.”  We say goodbye and hang up the phone on friendly terms.

But it’s not genuinely alright.  Really, he sees through my ploy; understands my the cowardice of my decision.  A week or so later, in an over-the-phone breakup conversation, Cecil will say: “I do wish you had come to visit Musa that day, né?  It would have showed me we were equals, as you always said.”

The Jack Bank, though a dark tale much of the time, has something for everyone–exotic breathtaking scenes of wildlife in Kruger National Park–young tentative tender love between two friends–revelations about the white supremacist South African government and its death squads–conflicts and confusion between the white Afrikaans and English-speaking worlds co-existing–family dysfunction–the exhilaration of sexual, romantic, and intellectual liberation in revolutionary-era Cape Town–and a the story of the first country to grant equal rights to gays and lesbians in its constitution. Through it all Retief provides steady, deep reflection, vivid details, and startling insight.

But don’t just take my word for it. Listen to what others are saying about the book.

Glen Retief

This week Advocate Magazine lists The Jack Bank on this week’s Hot List (along with Glee and Scream 4 :-P) and in its review states:

“If it only dealt with his growing up against the harrowing backdrop of apartheid in a South African military boarding school trained to groom privileged white boys like him into violent oppressors — “jacks” are beatings — then this would be a riveting memoir; the fact that Retief was also coming of age as a gay man makes it essential reading. He also details his efforts to ban antigay discrimination in the post-apartheid Bill of Rights.”

Publishers Weekly reviews it as well and says:

“Probing deeply into his personal memories of race, sexuality, and violence, creative writing instructor Retief has written a potent, evocative chronicle of his youth.”

And writer Robert Olen Butler praises the book and Retief saying,

“A remarkable memoir with the deeply resonant literary power of the finest fiction. The Jack Bank is an important book by a supremely gifted writer.”

And even if I didn’t adore Retief for lots of reasons other than his magnificent writing, I would still strongly endorse his book and encourage you to run out and get it or order it on-line.

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This is part three of a four part review of Glen Retief‘s memoir, The Jack Bank, A Memoir of a South African Childhood. (275 pages, St. Martin’s Press)  Here are reviews (with gorgeous quotes!) Part One–A child takes on his world and Part Two–Losing ourselves to violence.

African memory: Rocco de Wet, Border Fighter! Invincible!

One startling aspect of Glen Retief’s memoir is the way he chronicles the cycles of oppression he experienced growing up as a white gay boy in Apartheid South Africa. Retief reveals how the violence perpetuated against him within his violent culture bred violence in him. You may have heard of Stockholm Syndrome, where someone like kidnapped heiress Patrica Hearst transforms from captive into a terrorist. In similar fashion, after hanging with his “captors,” Retief becomes the very thing he hates and fears.

After five years of getting tortured by older boys in his school, Retief becomes a prefect with the responsibility to address bad behavior among the younger students. In this new position of power could become a protector of other boys, a reformer of the system, a voice of reason in that violent boyhood madness. Instead Glen reenacts the suffering he endured but this time taking the role of his former abuser, John, by brutally assaulting Waldo, a boy under his charge. In breathtaking honesty, Glen recounts the scene with the accompanying  intoxicating euphoria that fills him as he commits the violent act.

Later, what I’ll recall most vividly about the moment is the enormous, surprising pleasure.  Violence is glorious.  I crash the cricket bat forward with every ounce of my strength: Waldo’s head knocks forward against the wood.  He gasps; he struggles to breathe.  On about the fourth blow he begins to whimper and cry softly.  I do not care: in fact this satisfies me.  He deserves this, the little prick—now he will respect me—the triumph in my muscles and sinews is sensual, physical

What is it that makes me realize I’ve become John?  Perhaps it is Waldo’s kicked-donkey, helpless look, the way he leaves without making eye contact.  Perhaps the dribbles I see on his chin: he has been unable to keep his mouth closed.  Or maybe Paul’s comment, a reality check:

Yissis, hey, but you have only two settings.  Either you let them walk over you, or you donner them until they can hardly walk anymore.”

As Glen grows into young adulthood he hears the calls to violence and sublimation of Black South Africans coming from the white supremacist society around him and the Apartheid government. In part, Glen’s growing awareness of his sexuality–gay in a society that views homosexuals as deviants and subversives–helps him begin to break out of the cycle of oppression into radical activism that seeks topple destructive and corrosive regime. In order to do so, he first needs to plunge into worlds very different from his own.

You can pre-order The Jack Bank at Amazon or get it from your local bookstore. Oh, and tell your library to stock it!

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Jazzed up on my performance enhancement drug of choice (Trung Nguyen Vietnamese coffee brewed in my Bialetti Italian stove top espresso maker) I begin a four-part review of Glen Retief‘s new book, The Jack Bank, A Memoir of a South African Childhood.

[Full Disclosure: I have slept with the author. In fact, he acknowledges as much in his opening remarks.]

Childhood can be such a murky, shadowy time when viewed from the lofty perch of adulthood. Nostalgia mixed with fragmented memory and family folklore make the job of reconstructing the past a potential hazard. When I first read a draft of Glen’s book, I was struck by the power of his voice, particularly the honest, eyes-wide-open voice of his boyhood self that emerges early on in the memoir.

Glen Retief grew up in Apartheid South Africa, a privileged white boy who lived much of his childhood on one of the world’s most famous animal game reserves–Kruger National Park. Literally surrounded by lions and leopards and hippos (including the one that blundered into the family garden,) Glen artfully recreates key moments in his childhood that reveal dangers far greater than animal predators in the bush.

In the following excerpt he reflects on his otherness, a son of English South Africans living in a rural compound of mostly Afrikaner decedents of  Dutch colonists. While focused on his own differences among other white folk, in this scene he exposes his childhood remembrances of the Black South Africans in his world but not of his world. His society raised him to be racist in subtle disarming ways.

Afrikaans versus English is not the only cultural dissimilarity that I know in that staff village; but it is the difference that presses upon my consciousness: squeezes it.  Black people, for example, appear in the mornings to make our beds and work in our gardens.  They are different from us, there is no doubt about it; they like to listen to pennywhistle and mouth organ music on the radio; once when we gave Sara, our maid, a lift back to her home in the tribal area outside the game reserve, I noticed that she slept on a bed raised on bricks—Daddy told me this was because she feared the tokoloshe, a mischievous goblin who spirits black people away.   But by afternoon, here in the village, black people disappear from my world, back to their compound more than a mile away, on the far side of the tourist camp.  They are not permitted to use our village store, tennis courts, swimming pool, or golf course, so they exist only in the background of my childish world—undertone notes.  There is something essentially flimsy or ephemeral about them.  Like the cicadas or crickets they are more heard than seen.

Tomorrow I will share a scene from the book in which Glen is sent away to a state-run boarding school where he faces a an oppressor who will baptize him into the institutionalized violence of Apartheid South Africa.

Get your own copy here.

 

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Today I get to perform a comedy cabaret of sorts in Harrisburg, PA. I love this sort of presentation. I get to pick and choose from scores of excerpts out of my shows along with stand-up comedy, improv, and storytelling. The casual setting and lively audience result in a fresh show of old favorites that is never quite the same each time. This performance will benefit Common Roads.

Common Roads, program arm of the LGBT Community Center Coalition of Central Pennsylvania, provides education, advocacy, and programming to empower lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth throughout the Central Pennsylvania region.

I also get to hang out tonight with Louie Marven, the very cool director of Common Roads, and his boyfriend, roommates, and puppy (ah, the gay lifestyle!)

Tomorrow I get up wicked early (demonically early?) to fly to San Antonio, Texas. There I will lead two classes (religion and theater) and give two lectures (transgender Bible characters and Wired for Activism) at Trinity University. Details here.

This morning I am frantic with packing for all of these events. Where is Marvin’s wig? Where are my shorts and sunglasses I got for South Africa? Is it really going to be 90 degrees in San Antonio tomorrow? What should I wear to the performance by a self-identified Xicana-Indígena lesbian multi-disciplinary artista? How many Homo No Mo DVDs should I bring? How many sets of earplugs? What should I download from iTunes onto my iPad? So many critical questions.

Today I am filled with so much happiness and energy after the GSA Leadership Summit at Dickinson College (I got to see my buddies from Mechanicsburg!) In my keynote about bullying I stressed that the bullies do not have the power nor should we simply react to their negative behavior as we seek to create safer schools. We need to find creative ways to affirm gender non-conforming students and students who are or may be bisexual, lesbian, transgender, gay, and queer or questioning. It’s getting beyond simply correcting “That’s So Gay” statements. It’s beyond tolerance. It’s about thoughtful inclusion of LGBTQ people and those with queer connections (lesbian, bi, gay, trans parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, etc) in the curriculum, school policy, forms, etc. It’s about education and not simply avoiding legal liabilities. It’s about creating schools where people can come out as themselves.

I’m also buzzing from the recent bizarre podcast I recorded with Zack Ford. (Reference for Lime Green Gas Mask) Goodness we bounced all over the place on this one. From Zack’s blog:

Zack’s sick and Peterson’s been busy, so this week’s episode isn’t exactly coherent. The most recent Glee episode gives us plenty to talk about, including bisexuality and anti-gay violence. Plus, there’s that whole Lady Gaga and Target thing. We also honor the passing of a local LGBT activist with the poem that was used in her 1993 wedding program. The episode isn’t over without appearances from Rev. Dr. Meadows and Marvin Bloom. There’s something for everyone in this episode!

Apologies for some of the audio quality; we have some kinks to work out when we use Skype to record like we did today. Kinks don’t scare us in the least.

Okay, need to finish packing AND need to help my partner, Glen Retief, with setting up readings for his soon to be published memoir, The Jack Bank. Oh, and I need to pre-order my copy of David Weekley’s new book! In from the Wilderness is David’s story about being a female to male (FTM) transsexual and Methodist minister and what happens when he comes out to his children, his church, and the world.

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