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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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Rarely does a narrative capture so many of my passions as the one I read yesterday and wish to share with you today. Having spent 17 years as an ex-gay and then over 10 recovering, then moving into the arena of exploring gender, transgender issues and the Bible all the while dating a dishy South Africa writer, I was so pleased to read a South African, Christina Engela her piece about her own transition along with a reflection of the US-based ex-gay movements affects on South Africa.

Over the past few months a war of words has been raging over the activities of “ex-gay” groups in the USA and around the world wherever they have set up affiliates or branches of their own – including in my own country, South Africa. The ex-gay” movement operates on a purely religious basis and claims solely out of a misinterpretation of religious dogma, that gay (or trans) people can and should either deny their nature – or “change“. They claim all sorts of “studies” and “proof” exist to support their theories, but the truth is that no such evidence exists – and that every reputable medical, scientific and psychological institute, authority or body asserts that “conversion therapy” – IE attempts to change sexual orientation by “ex-gay” industry, is dangerous, risky and harmful to those it affects.

Christina Engela Age 27

All this has prompted me to look back – and inwards, to a time when I was struggling for self-acceptance, and to find my own identity.

The very first thought I can remember which indicated to me that there was something “different” or “abnormal” about me (those are increasingly dangerous and stigmatized words these days) was when I was three years old and sitting on a potty, looking at my genitalia and thinking “that shouldn’t be there”. I am sure it is no coincidence that many of my best ideas since then have also come to me under similar circumstances. *Grin*

I had a t-shirt which was a bit large for me that I used to parade around in at home, that was my “dress”, when I tramped around the flat in – or rather on – my moms shoes. And later I had a pair of pink shorts I loved so much I wore them out in record time!

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Get a little Xhosa

As I sit waiting for what I hear is about the fifth major winter storm since Christmas, I feel warm and content inside my cozy apartment and even more so as I bask in the afterglow of my holiday in South Africa. What a rich time!Lesotho

Glen (my guy) and Jenna (his colleague) went home a day earlier than I did and missed my show in Cape Town. At the Friendly Society Cafe I performed Transfigurations and Doin’ Time with Peterson Toscano. We had a PACKED house, which even surprised the organizers as everything shuts down during the summer holidays. The audience that evening, a diverse mix of people, reminded me of the diversity of the 3 weeks traveling around the rest of South Africa.

Drakensburg, South Africa

Home in rural Lesotho

We packed in a lot in a short time and went to both urban and remote rural settings including Lesotho, the mountainous country that is completely landlocked by South Africa.

There we walked up into the mountains further to view rock paintings drawn Peterson in Lesothomany many years ago. We also visited some of the towns people and even enjoyed some home brew.

After our time in Lesotho and Drakensburg Mountains, we traveled to the Wild Coast to an area called Transkei (which sounds like Trans Guy, so every time someone said, “We’re going to see Transkei,” I was like, “Wait, we’re going to Northampton, MA???”)

Transkei is Xhosa country with brightly colored Xhosa children in Transkeiround houses and gorgeous beaches with warm water from the Indian Ocean. I enjoyed getting tossed around by the strong waves as I watched the surfers. We swam a lot and on New Years Eve, as we watched the moon reflected on the water, we witnessed dolphins leaping around the wild waves. I took this as a good omen for the new year.

By the time we reached Transkei and the Mdumbi Backpackers, where we stayed, I had a serious hankering for traditional food–chopped greens and corn meal. At a Shebeen, a local bar, a woman prepared us food. Xhosa girl

As we waited for the food children, came by and entertained us with songs and games. The Mdumbi Backpackers has partnered with the local community to benefit the village economically they provide a cultural component for visitors. We learned firsthand about Xhosa culture in this part of the world from the people in the village as we walked around, visited with adults and children and spent time just being without the distraction of the Internet. Oh and it was BEAUTIFUL!Jenna and Glen waiting for lunch

Although it was a bit of a wait, when the food finally came it was DELICIOUS, one of our best meals. Afterward we took kayaks up river and saw birds and jumping fish and people fishing.

Below are some more images from our trip and then some video. The first video shows a panoramic view of our party in Lesotho. I simply scanned the scene and only afterward I realized I caught a man peeing. (See if you can find him!). The second video captures some of the singing of the children in the Xhosa village. Enjoy!
Mdumbi Backpackers

Xhosa Village by the sea

Grazing in the Transkei

Ocean, beach and goat

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