Squicky Clean: An Interview with Samuel R. Delany

Ben Shore: When you were writing in the 50s (and thereafter) being gay was still heavily demonized (as with your experience of being blacklisted in the Vietnam draft), now that we have had major strides in gay rights, what effects do you see in the resulting literature?

Samuel R. Delany: When talking about male homosexuality in the 1940s, when the only other terms for the phenomenon were sissy, faggot, and cocksucker, before terms such as same-sex relations, or even the term gay had become part of the language, before the Stonewall Riots of June 1969, before the concept of gender was distinguished from sex birth sex, basically 45 years before you were born, it’s simply hard to realize how different the world was then. Far fewer people went to university than go today. And back then, there were no gender studies, no gay studies, no black studies—and if you suggested that you wanted to study any of these before you had a graduate degree in a standard area of the sociology of history, probably you would be considered certifiably insane, and if you were under 21, your parents would be notified, and you would not be allowed to attend the institution.

Samuel R. Delany at the home of Priscilla Meyer (1972?) at Wesleyan University when, for a winter visit, he was a guest of the Wesleyan Center for the Humanities, then under the directorship of Victor Gourevitch (1925–2020).

Perhaps the hardest thing to get your head around is how much ignorance was abroad about same sex relations, both among people under 18 and among people who were older.

An incident that actually happened to me when I was briefly in the hospital for observation when I was nine or ten years old for twenty-four-hours observation. I knew I was far more attracted to other male bodies than I was to female bodies. I knew this was called homosexuality. I used it as a scene in the childhood of my protagonist, Arnold Hawley, in my novel Dark Reflections. Sometime in the 40s he is in a Massachusetts’s hospital, and he asks a young, white resident, “How many homosexuals are there,” and the answer, as a similar doctor in 1952 told me in answer to the same question, “You have to understand. This disease is very rare. It affects only perhaps one out of 5,000 people. And you don’t have to worry, because you’re Negro. As far as I know, there simply are no cases of Negros having it.”

It wasn’t until 1974—five years after Stonewall—that the third printing of the DMS-II stopped listing homosexuality as a mental disorder.

You say we made major strides, but as a gay man I look at all the strides we haven’t made, starting with the failure to pass an ERA amendment for women, and I’m appalled, despite the legal normalization of gay marriage (which I always felt was a kind of assimilationist red herring to distract from the failure to pass smaller, enforceable laws against hate-crimes and local discrimination), how few laws have actually been set in place.     

BS: Characters like Scummy show a strict adherence to sexual roles. In terms of relationships, do you seek the elimination of assigned roles or rather an emphasis on flexibility within those roles?

SRD: Personally, I think that’s an odd way to describe him. Scummy and Buck’s relationship has been going on for years outside of the house. Once Irene leaves and Buck brings Scummy into his house, ostensibly as a gift for his son, in practical terms, he wants to have someone around who can read and write and help fill out papers to see that the rent gets paid and some cooking takes place. It’s actually a very understandable set of relations.

Eventually Buck himself slips into a far more traditional pimp/prostitute relationship with Harriet, whereas Adrian and Shoat might well be on their way to a legal marriage—or, they may not be—but even there, her ability to read and write, as well as her sexuality, is probably the prime commodity. For better or worse, the greatest agent for Buck’s moving in a conservative direction is probably the removal of Shoat from the home by the powers that be and his moving further and further from home until he meets Adrian, how-many-hundreds of miles away in New York City. Again, it’s Adrian’s literacy and willingness to support Shoat when he’s around that is prime commodity that’s being exchanged, represented by the creation of the text itself.

BS: How important is transgressive sexuality, i.e. bed wetting, incest, spermophagia, or, even to a lesser extent, non-heteronormative relationships, polyamorous ones, or those that have large gaps in age and class. Would you like to see said acts or permutations completely normalized?

SRD: Most of the critics who have written about these books of mine—I’m thinking about Professor Shaviro, K’eguro Macharia, Ray Davis, and Lavelle Porter—have called these books “post-transgressive.” They point out that transgressive works—like Sade or Bataille—tend to carry a kind of “fuck you, normal-bourgeoise world!” But with the possible exception of Hogg, a veil of normalcy covers much of my writing and, grounded in the idea of work, puts it outside of that category. Macharia has called it an exploration of “livability,” which again, as he talks about it in his essay on Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012), is something I recognize from where my attention was focused during the writing. Even Franklin Hargus, in my 1969 novel that carries his nickname, has a job, however anti-social it appears to be. Its inspiration was meeting some guy in a bar who explained, once, that that’s what he did, as well as running into a lesbian friend—Carol Lee Haine—who had fled from her apartment when some guys who were apparently hired to terrorize her and her roommate and do exactly that: Marilyn and I found her sleeping on a schoolyard bench on East 4th St. She felt safer on a park bench in public than she did in her own apartment. She used to write the column in the Mattachine Newsletter, “Move Over Guys,” about gay women, and ran a coffee shop in the village where I occasionally sang.     

BS: Many of your characters have a proclivity for dressing up in animal costumes, whether physically or via hologram. You seemed to have predicted furries. Do you have an affinity with this subculture or is it happenstance?

SRD: No, not particularly. My assistant had to tell me the meaning of the word. I was once made an honorary member of something called the Soiled Sole Society, but other than saying thank you, I never kept up the contact. I think they were on the West Coast, anyway.

BS: There’s a scene in Shoat Rumblin where Buck talks about getting erect while holding his baby son Shoat, explaining that erections make babies and also allow for us to keep babies around instead of committing infanticide or neonaticide. He proceeds to use that erection to have sex with his wife in a redirection of sexual energy. Could you expound upon that notion and any related theories therein?

SRD: It’s something I’d heard a couple of guys talk about. That’s all—so I put it in the book. It never happened to me, but I know that, in one case, knowing that he wasn’t the only one, it made one young man feel a lot better about the reaction.

BS: You have a vast experience with reading and writing erotica. Do you believe there must be a sexual element to truly enjoy erotica?

SRD: No, not at all. I have a now infamous (I gather) fetish for men with large hands who bite their nails badly, which has been more or less in place since I was seven- or eight years old. I knew a guy in San Francisco whose erotic response was wholly connected with bright-colored fabrics and brocades. Kraft von Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis is full of shoe fetishes and underwear fetishes and at least one rather charming fetish for red wigs (#98). This is a book I always had in my library, even before I got a chance to check out Hoboken’s own Alfred Kinsey (June 23, 1894 – August 25, 1956), whose Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (and Human Female) appeared in ’48 and ’53. The film about him is surprisingly good, and I used to show it in some of my classes. He himself was bisexual, slipping over the years further and further towards homosexuality. Magnus Hirschfield (14 May 1868 – 14 May 1935) was another one of my heroes, who put together a museum for sexual research in Berlin. It was burned and smashed by German students supported by the Nazi regime.

BS: In Dahlgren, there’s a focus on how white society sexualizes Black people. Now that elements of Black culture have become more mainstream, do you think there’s still a fetishization of Black bodies?

SRD: Of course there is. All human secondary sexual characteristics can be sexualized—hair color, eye color, skin color, body hair, breast size, butt size, genital endowment, feet, hands, and face, etc., etc.

BS: You’ve expressed the fact that writing gives you sexual satisfaction but many of your works weren’t explicitly erotic until later. Was that satisfaction based more on the act of writing or the portrayal of alternative relationships?

SRD: The relationship is just part of the story, but if you can think about it, you can be fairly sure that, somewhere, somebody was trying it out. Some people find reading about them incredibly squicky; other people don’t. Generally, my own experience has been that anything forbidden can be (and probably has been) sexualized by somebody.

BS: Ranging from movies to books, do you see any unspoken or subtle influence from your work on current genre fiction?

SRD: I’m in exactly the wrong position to tell what my influence has been. I’m right in the center of it. I’m fairly sure that an early work of mine, The Fall of the Towers, was the source of the image of the Star Wars lightsabers. At the premiere, when they go to the bar to find a pilot, everyone in the audience yelled out “Babel-17 . . .!” the same way the mention of the spice mines got catcalls of Dune. Babel-17 was far better known than The Fall of the Towers because it had won a prize, but Lucas was one of those guys who read lots and lots of science fiction, so he seemed to have the image in his mind from somewhere. At the time, however, nobody knew how big the Star Wars franchise was going to be, or even that the first film was going to be one of the most successful films ever made in the country—and that the story was going to expand backwards and forwards and create full-length animated cartoons, etc., etc., etc. . . . He didn’t pay people for them, and initially people were just flattered that their work was used and, sometimes, recognized. When I watch television series, I see all sorts of things that might or might not have come from my own works, but nobody has been rushing to make any of them into films or series, although there are always whispers of possibilities. When and if it happens, I will be delighted. I like films and would love to see what somebody did, using this book or that one, and using the title as well.

Ace F-388 Paperback Original (1966). Cover by Jerome Podwil

BS: This is a guest question from George Salis: “What is a novel you think deserves more readers?”

SRD: The Dreaming Jewels (More Than Human has already gotten into the Library of America, as has The Stars My Destination [aka Tyger, Tyger!]), A High Wind in Jamaica, and The Pilgrim Hawk. I’ve mentioned The Sot-Weed Factor to you a couple of times. As well, there are the wonderful Patrick White novels, Voss, Riders in the Chariot, The Aunt’s Story . . . Somebody first recommended him to me on my first trip to Greece, and a few years later, he got his Nobel Prize in 1973, but I still don’t think he’s anywhere near as widely read as he should be.

BS: This is another guest question from George Salis: “Do you think modern literary writers are hesitant to delve deeper into genres?”

SRD: You’re assuming genre writers are not literary writers. Genre, at this point, simply means it’s got a plot. Just recently, I tripped over some interview with the late Hugh Kenner, where he was saying that genre writers were very important. My two favorite American writers are Theodore Sturgeon and Guy Davenport. One is the quintessential SF genre writer, and the other is the quintessential literary experimental story “engineer.” That’s the word he used to me once in a letter. Both of them are among the rare people I wrote a few fan letters to.

BS: Given the loosening boundaries of sexuality and identity, what important topics do you feel the next generation of sci-fi writers should explore, or do you feel there’s still room for significant investigation in those areas?

SRD: You write about what you think is interesting and hope someone else finds it interesting as well, and if it’s something forbidden, you pray someone doesn’t find it so squicky that they want to lock you up, put you in jail, or burn you at the stake—or burn your books in a barn fire; though when that usually happens, it’s usually people burning the books without reading them because of the books’ reputation for evil and/or dangerous ideas. Mostly the books are considered dangerous for women and children.

BS: There seems to be an ever-present element of myth and classical culture that permeates your intergalactic worlds. What inspires you to revisit these ancient stories?

SRD: Only one of those books comes close to being intergalactic, and I don’t think there are any recognizable myths entailed with the story. The notion of families is a little unusual. If we’re thinking about the same book—Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand—they’re called “nurture streams,” and they’re based on an idea I took from my own family. I had an Uncle Hubert whose first wife was a poet. She died very young at 26. His second wife came with several children already, whom he adopted, and they are just as much Delanys as any of the others. I’m in touch with one of those cousins now, who calls me Uncle Chip, but there’s no blood relation between us at all, and he’s the one who seems to have some writing talent and even more photographic talent. We’ve been communicating about that only this week.

I liked mythology as a kid and read Edith Hamilton and a wonderful set of books that is the foundation of my library called My Book House, and I went on to be even more interested in books like Robert Graves’ The White Goddess (which every literarily-inclined kid at the Bronx High School of Science read in 1956 or ’57). It goes a long way toward explaining the kind of exploration into religions that a Faustian novel such as Gaddis’s The Recognitions undertakes. His two-volume compendium of Greek mythology, when I had my full library, were among the most useful books I’ve owned. I’ve replaced one of them and am waiting patiently for my replacement of the other. Having said that, though, recognizing a myth is just recognizing a kind of major plot relation. Biblical myths are just that, and I was a big fan of The Golden Bough, and though I realized it was nonsense, I could even enjoy a mythographer such as Velikovsky—and somebody who is not nonsense at all and whom I met a couple of times when I first taught at SUNY Buffalo, René Girard, with his very Graves-like explorations in books such as Violence and the Sacred and Deceit, Desire, and the Novel and his idea of mimetic desire.

It certainly explains a good deal of the political nonsense that’s so rife today over so much of the country.

December 22, 2020

Photo by Tom Kneller

Samuel R. Delany is an award-winning American science fiction author. He was born to a prominent Black family on April 1, 1942, and raised in Harlem. Delany was a published author by the age of 20. He published nine well-regarded science fiction novels between 1962 and 1968, as well as several prize-winning short stories. Later in his career, he published several autobiographical/semi-autobiographical accounts of his life as a Black, gay, and highly dyslexic writer, including his Hugo-award-winning autobiography, The Motion of Light in Water. Since 1988, he has been a professor at several universities, including 11 years as a professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a year and a half as an English professor at the University at Buffalo. In 2007, Delany was the subject of a documentary film, The Polymath, or, The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman. His website is here.

Ben Shore is a YouTube critic whose primary focus includes postmodernism and erotica. His channel can be found here.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below (River Boat Books / corona/samizdat). His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreads, Instagram (@george.salis), and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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