This has been quite a blogging week for me, and it’s been fun revisiting my New York book tour, but Thursday night’s reading for X: The Erotic Treasury at Diesel Books in Oakland, CA brought me right back to a very exciting here and now. It was a wonderful evening and while any account can’t do it full justice, I’ll try my best!
My expectations were already high after reading the stories and interviews of Pam Ward and Greta Christina, my fellow contributors to X. And of course, I knew from experience, beginning way back when I heard Susie read Anne Tourney's “Full Metal Corset” from Best American Erotica 1994 at the now defunct Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph, that Susie’s events were always provocative and enlightening (This story also appears in X). I also knew I’d have six friendly and familiar faces in the audience to cheer me on, including Jane Black—she made my week with her generous comment posted below.
I’d practiced my excerpt several times—the narrator was male and I felt I needed a little extra work to approach a tenor range. And fortunately I managed to fit into my “lucky dress” as EllaRegina dubbed it, although it was still a wee bit tight from December’s cookie madness.
Because some of my friends needed to leave early, I asked to read first and Susie graciously obliged. All of the chairs were taken by the time we got started—say about 40-45 people seated and more standing around in the back. After a very nice introduction from the Diesel events coordinator, who affirmed his support of erotica and free speech (Yay!), Susie came to the podium to talk about the genesis of X and her vision of the book. Then it was on to the topic of yours truly and our first project together, Best American Erotica 2006, which included my first story on a Japanese theme, “Ukiyo” (still one of my favorite pieces!)
And then, I was on with my story “Yes”! I’d say my reading went pretty smoothly, except for a wee bit of nervousness about shuffling my pages in proper order. I decided to dive into the action with only minimum scene setting—within a few sentences the narrator was ordering his girlfriend to strip for his old college buddy and otherwise forcing her to push her limits in exactly the way she secretly desired. Although on the surface the story of a man “on top,” I drop plenty of hints that the woman is really in control. My excerpt lasted about 12 minutes, all the way to the final “Yes!” which I emphasized by closing my eyes in a timid—or maybe you’d say lightly suggestive—mimicry of an orgasm. (Oh, and don't my breasts look misleadingly HUGE in this photo?)
The audience was warmly appreciative and I returned to my seat, relieved, relaxed and ready to have fun. The next reader was Pam Ward, who lit up the stage with her positive energy and humor. She read the opening section of her porn noir story, “A Clean, Comfortable Room,” then took us right into the lustiest scene and then…left the poor audience hanging just moments from the shocking climax. I shared Susie’s sentiment that even though I’d already read the story, I craved more, more, more.
Greta Christina then read from her thought-provoking story “Deprogramming,” after warning us that the story dealt with a topic foreign to her—the eroticization of non-consensual sex. Greta read the first section of her story and her rich, resonant voice gave the piece even more power than it has on the page. By this time, I think the audience was totally blown away.
A question-and-answer period followed, and these can be excruciating, but the Diesel crowd was thoughtful and lively. I found it interesting that a number of people asked Susie basically the same question in different form—in your view, how have attitudes toward sexuality changed over the years since you first began editing and writing erotica? Susie gave some interesting answers as you might expect. As a writer, the one that intrigued me was the patterns in the types of stories she receives as submissions. Around the advent of AIDS awareness, she got a lot of vampire and blood-letting stories. During times of war, male submissive stories were more common. And in our new era of hope? Susie shared a dream she’d had where she was Barack Obama’s “comfort woman,” refilling his water glass while he met with dozens of church ladies.
I haven’t had any Barack Obama dreams yet, although I did have a Clinton dream in early 1993, so maybe it’s only a matter of time?
My fellow writers had some interesting things to say as well. I was impressed with Pam’s confidence as an erotica writer—she totally refuses to buy into the mainstream’s attempts to belittle what we do, and I’m going to remember her spirit the next time I deal with another snooty bookbuyer (which should be next week, unless I decide to give this up for good, which might be a different way of showing my pornographer's pride….)! Greta took a few questions about abuse and recovery, a complex and still taboo subject. I know we all left the event with some things to think about. And a very nice lady came around with homemade truffles for the panel, which I believe should become a tradition at such events.
All in all, it was a great reading. But the best was yet to come.
For those of us who could stay—me and Greta—Susie had a wonderful treat in store: a quick get-away to Polynesia, or rather Forbidden Island, a gourmet Tiki bar in Alameda. Wisely traveling by cab, we talked shop in the backseat, while the courteous driver switched on some mellow jazz. Greta made my evening by telling me how much she’d enjoyed “Yes,” and the positive portrayal of a woman who said “yes” to sex. That was pretty much the whole point of the story and it was gratifying to have someone capture it so perfectly. We also talked about the whole culture of “sex sells” where the kind of sex that sells is superficial, dishonest and unsatisfying.
Susie also mentioned that she often gets questions asking her to summarize changes in our sexual culture over the decades as she had that night, and while she has her own answers, she really wants to ask the questioner to weigh in as well because we all have our own view and our own truth. In my own less experienced way, I totally related to this—we are all encouraged to look outward to get validation about sex. To our partners, to the stupid magazine articles that supposedly give answers but really just try to sell us things, to experts. But to really be empowered, we have to make our own observations, draw our own conclusions, look within to figure out what sex means to us and how we’ve changed. I think erotica can be more than a way to get off—it can help you learn about your sexual desires. I didn’t say this then, I just got to thinking about it later, but I’m sure the cab driver’s mind was inspired to interesting conjectures as well after he dropped us off at our watering hole.
What can I say about Forbidden Island? First of all, I’m a Tiki girl from way back. My roommates and I had a Tiki god statue in our room junior year of college and we took a series of photos—me teaching “Zamboozo” from the Norton Anthology of English Literature, my chemical engineer roommate tutoring him in organic chemistry, and my peer sex counselor friend teaching him about condoms and foam. I also have several books on my shelf like Tiki Road Trip, plus The Enchanted Tiki Room is a must-visit attraction every time I go to Disneyland. Secondly, it struck me that in a figurative sense, Susie Bright has been whisking me away to Forbidden Islands since the mid-nineties with Best American Erotica. Suffice to say, I almost had to pinch myself to make sure this was real!
Susie had first heard about Forbidden Island from a book, Sippin' Safari: In Search of the Great "Lost" Tropical Drink Recipes... and the People Behind Them by Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (sorry, I just bought the last immediately available copy on Amazon). The décor was appropriately Tiki, although not overwhelmingly tacky—booths with thatched roofs, romantic lighting, carved wooden statues. But the real draw of the place was the cocktails, concocted with fresh juices and house-made cordials. The drink menu was as overwhelming as a tropical garden—too many delicious choices—but Susie pointed us to the Nui Nui made with the bar’s own allspice liqueur and cinnamon syrup, fresh citrus juice and of course rum. It was absolutely exquisite, the perfect balance of spice, sweet and tart—like Thanksgiving in Tahiti. Of course, Tiki drinks need the proper snacks as accompaniment, and we feasted on coconut shrimp (the perfect blend of sweet coconut, tender shrimp and crunchy coating), sweet potato fries (perfect for the Thanksgiving flavor theme and not greasy), and crab Rangoon (fried wonton with a fluffy crab-cream cheese filling). The food came in simple paper trays, the drinks in tall chilled glasses with fresh mint sprigs, which shows where the owner’s passions lie. As a chaser, Susie ordered a house specialty, the Sidewinder Fang with passionfruit juice and rum. A “hearty goblet” was promised and indeed the glass took up most of the table—rather like a slightly smaller version of a honeymooner’s champagne bathtub in the Poconos.
But what better way to lubricate our literary discussions? Susie told us about Chronicle Books' very positive attitude toward promoting X in creative ways and her upcoming book trailer, which sounds like lots of fun (I’ll let you know as soon as it is released). Although both Susie and Greta are long time veterans of publishing, they were very supportive about my newbie trials in the business. Both had gotten their start at On Our Backs and I loved hearing about the early days of the Erotica Revolution. Hanging out with them just proved what I’ve been discovering in this year of making connections: erotica writers are very witty, warm and generous people. I’m not sure which comes first—you have to be open-minded and creative to take the dare of writing erotica or exploring that edgy territory opens you up? Maybe both, suffice to say, there’s nobody I’d rather quaff tropical drinks with!
I could have lingered on and drunk myself into a South Sea Islands stupor but we all had places to be by midnight, so we cabbed back to Diesel Books and said our goodbyes. Parting is always bittersweet, like a bracing taste of grog, but I knew I’d be joining Susie, Greta, Susie Hara and Rachel Kramer Bussel next week at Books, Inc. in the Castro.
It’s bound to be another Xciting evening!