I don’t read a lot of novels, but when I read a good one, I definitely have to pass it on. Recently I read Looker, written by Stanley Bennett Clay. The novel’s basic story is of two black gay men, best friends, living in Los Angeles who struggle to find love—or to run and hide from it. But the novel is so much more than that. It’s a complex read of how Black people negotiate their own sexuality and inner desires through a lens that is often distorted by all the isms and phobias—class, race, age, (trans) gender. Some of the characters find sexual liberation. Some do not.I had a chance to talk to the author, Stanley Bennett Clay, a couple weeks ago. Clay has received three NAACP Image Awards for writing, directing and producing the critically acclaimed play Ritual, as well as the Pan African Film Festival Award for the film adaptation. He is the author of three novels, Diva, In Search of Pretty Young Black Men, and of course, Looker.
KF: I just finished Looker, and thought it was a really amazing novel. Can you tell me what inspired it?
SBC: I guess it was a part of my whole process of writing stories about the gay scene in Los Angeles and gay people in Los Angeles. I found oftentimes in reading a lot of black gay stories, there were few times when there was a discussion of the Los Angeles scene, and most of the stories were set back east. And being a really fanatical Los Angeles kind of person, I really wanted to put a spin on it and show the differences as well as the uniqueness of black gay life in Los Angeles, especially middle class black gay life. And just getting the landscape out there and introducing it to the readers.
KF: One of the things I really liked about Looker was that it explored people’s inner desires, particularly their desires around sex and sexuality, in a way that’s really complicated. Why did you decide to take on sex and sexuality in such an explicit way as you did in this novel?
SBC: I think that’s probably a trademark one would find in all my writing…I’ve always had a sort of a problem with America’s timid-ness and immaturity in regards to sex. I find it interesting that we live in a world were a movie can be shown and we can see dozens of people killed and maimed and mutilated and that gets a PG rating, but if you see a couple, a married couple, making love, and that gets an R rating or even an X rating depending on what is shown. There’s just this thing that really ticks me off which has to do with the way America views sexuality. I look at sex as very normal, and as this God-given thing, so I just show it very normally.
KF: I want to ask you specifically about the Black community and sexuality. For me, on one level through hip-hop videos and other kinds of media, you see a lot of overt sexual imagery of black people, but at the same time in the community you have a very conservative attitude or response to sex and sexuality. The characters in Looker deal with the full spectrum of that—either liberation or shame around his or her own sexual desires. So what do you think the take away is for the black community on sex and sexuality.
SBC: I think it goes back to slavery in a lot of ways. We don’t want to seem out of line with what society sees as acceptable, and because of that we have a tendency to be even more conservative when it comes to sex for fear that the white man is looking. And we don’t want him to do that we are doing some of these things. It comes back to the old cliché that there are black people who are ashamed to let people know that they eat watermelon simply because of the old stereotype, or who won’t buy a Cadillac because of the old stereotype of it being a pimp-mobile. We have to liberate ourselves from that sort of belief, and to be free enough to express ourselves any way we want to.
Now I’m not taking about demeaning things, because I have a real problem with some of the videos on TV, which really does a number on women and demeans women. And when activity is demeaning, then I find that repulsive for me.But as far as the black community is concerned we have to grow up in terms of our viewpoint of sexuality. I still find more and more that because of the black community’s viewpoint of us as gay people, that many of us have internalized that—that there’s something wrong with us because of how we express our love. But that’s the other people’s problem, not mine.
KF: Looker deals with aging in the black gay community—what it means in terms of one’s self esteem, what it means in terms of where you fit in. There’s one character who is in his early 40’s who finds himself only dating men in their 20’s. Now I, at 33, find myself going to clubs and being the oldest queen in the bunch. (laughs)
SBC: (laughing) That’s why I don’t go to clubs anymore because I’m always the oldest queen in the bunch…
KF: Right but so much of our social life as black gay men is centered around bars and clubs, how does moving out of that change your relationship to a “black gay community.”
SBC: I think we think that the clubs are our community clubhouses, anymore than straight people go to singles’ bars are their community spaces. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not a prude—I like to drink and have my cocktails and things like that. I think clubs are the worst places to meet somebody. When I’m not in a relationship and I want to meet someone, I go to some of the pride events, or a seminar, or a book reading, or sometimes just through knowing other people. There’s something wonderful about a person who loves to read. Or going to church and meeting someone spiritually minded, or meeting someone with something you have in common, sparks an interest and love can grow from there.
KF: Thinking about the community, Looker also deals with a range of folks in the community. I feel like in a lot of black gay fiction, we exist in these black gay bubbles. But in your book, there are straight characters, bisexual characters, there’s a character that several others knew as a boy who transitions into being a woman as an adult. Can you speak to this aspect of the community?
SBC: I believe that to have a full life, you have to get out there and experience the world. Los Angeles is only 11% Black, and the neighborhood I write about, Baldwin hills, is one of the few all-black areas in the city, and it’s also the wealthiest. There is every kind of person in my neighborhood, though, and I don’t ever want to ghettoize myself or my experience. And we have to respect that in our writing as black gay men.
KF: What’s next for you in 2008?SBC: My new book is into my publishers now. And I am co-writing a show with actress Debbie Morgan. I am also producing and directing the show. We were initially going to on tour in March but All My Children, the show she starred on for so many years called and signed her to a new four-year contract, and now we have to work around her situation. So we’re primarily doing weekends. It’s called So What If My Ass is Over 50?
She is a great person to work with. People seem to think of her as the stoic character because of the role she played in Eve’s Bayou, but that ain’t girlfriend at all. When we get together to work, we just scream, we laugh. I always ask her “Are you sure you’re not a drag queen?” because that’s just how funny her stories are. I’m having a lot of fun with that.