The tender-rooted honesty in Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, is of refreshing minority compared to the often fast and exploitative writing currently in the genre. Expertly braiding her memories of growing up with her gay father in 1970s San Francisco, with their parallel social and political markers, Abbott’s Fairyland is for creative readers and history enthusiasts alike. It is a beautifully-written testament of a time and culture swiftly being forgotten.
Fairyland was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and an ALA Stonewall Award winner. Abbott has been published in The New York Times, Slate, and TheAtlantic.com, among other publications. She grew up in San Francisco, and received her MFA in writing from the New School Writing Program. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her family, where she co-created and runs the website TheRecollectors.com , “a storytelling site and community for the many children and families left behind by parents who died of AIDS.”
12th Street‘s Poetry and Online editor, Anna J. Witiuk, had the following conversation with Alysia Abbott via e-mail.
AW: I must confess that it wasn’t easy coming up with questions for you, specifically concerning Fairyland. Not just because I felt compelled, after sitting in on your wonderfully stirring talk during this year’s New School Summer Writing Conference, to give your writing a renewed appreciation, but also because as the narrator of this story, you leave no worthy feeling or motive of a character un-exhumed; unacknowledged. You could have been a narrator who left much of how you now perceive the past up to the readers; just told your story and got out of there. Instead, you often go into passages of careful self-analysis and analysis of your father, as in the end, when you tenderly pick apart, in your adult voice, all the reasons for your confusion and anger at twenty years old, when your father told you that he was dying. Was your very present adult voice in Fairyland a choice you made as the storyteller? Possibly as an of ode to your father’s writing, of which you said: “it’s Dad’s emotional availability which most strikes me. Making my way through the pages of his letters…I am caressed by the near-constant expression of my father’s trust and attention.”
AA: When I started Fairyland I knew I wanted to create a nuanced and complicated portrait of my father. Working with his journals and papers, I had access to all sides of him (the profane, the bored, the intellectual, the depressive, the “slut”), which is rare for a child to have. And I knew that if I were to reveal his less flattering sides, I was going to have to reveal episodes when I didn’t make the best choices, when I behaved badly. I hoped that in portraying us both as imperfect people our story would be richer, even if it opened us up to public criticism, which it has.
I also have a very different perspective on my father now than I did as a girl and I thought it’d be interesting to look at that change of perspective. When my dad was alive I always considered him in relation to my own experience—was he there for me, was he mad at me? It was difficult for me then to really see him as his own person, with his own struggles and disappointments; that he deserved love, even if the pursuit of that love might make him unavailable to me. I also came to respect him more as a writer, his integrity and commitment, which as girl, again, I just didn’t see. I believe children are inherently self-centered. It’s how they’re built. Most people aren’t able to see and accept their parents as flawed beings until they go through the trials of adulthood themselves. But my dad died when I was 21, when I was on the cusp of adulthood, so that transformation didn’t happen for me until later, and maybe didn’t fully happen until I started working on this project in earnest.
AW: Fairyland is an attentive walk on which you guide us, as you guide yourself, back through your life and love with this man—your father. The story is woven with extreme vigilance; in the documented vigil it keeps of your father’s legacy as a father, a resolutely gay man, and a writer and activist during the AIDS crisis, and in your tireless incorporation throughout the book of any pertinent letters or journal entries written by your father.
During your Summer Writing Conference talk, I remember being struck by your description of how you focused your mind to recall the lost details of a faraway memory—something like quieting your thoughts and letting the ghosts of the past breathe again around you. What are your modes of transport back into these memories, and how are you able to recount them with such vivid scenery and emotion?
AA: I have a tendency to over-think in my work so in order to reach the most fresh and vivid memories I came up with tricks to get around my overactive rational mind. My research trip to San Francisco was hugely important in this process. While there I really tried to focus in on the sensual experiences that are unique to the city, and which for the most part haven’t changed in the last 20-40 years. So I would walk around in the dark Haight Ashbury, or let myself wander Golden Gate park and smell the eucalyptus, or feel the damp night air, or listen for the Muni lines, and just let myself sink into remembrance, without concern for my present life and concerns. I’d then take a voice memo of my immediate impressions or write them in a notebook. I would try to capture these moments absent from any narrative expectations, where they should go in the story. I needed these memories to come in freely to see where they’d take me. It was something like diving or snorkeling; sounds are different and you adjust your breathing to fit the atmosphere.
In order to better understand the experience of the AIDS crisis and how the gay community was evolving, which I naturally didn’t get as a girl, I would read through my dad’s journals and letters, look at photographs and periodicals of the era (at various libraries), and try to, again, go deep—to capture as fresh detail as possible and really imagine what it was like to be a gay man in the Castro when Harvey Milk was in office—the sense of freedom and possibility.
AW: Do you feel this vigilance to recollect is often lost or silenced in many communities, specifically pertaining to the AIDS epidemic? You write: “to grow up the child of a gay parent in the seventies and eighties was to live with secrets.”
AA: I do feel like this history—of the LGBT experience and the AIDS crisis—have been given short shrift outside queer communities, so I felt like I had a great opportunity and a responsibility to help bring it to life.
AW: In your piece published this year on POZ online magazine about your father, and about your collaborative website, “Recollectors,” you write: “after being raised alone by a gay man, a man who also died of AIDS, I believed this history [of the AIDS crisis in gay communities] was my cultural heritage, too, and I felt shut out [of the conversation]. I was a straight woman, a mom, not of [older gay men’s] generation…[This] wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling.” You go on in Fairyland to say that, growing up, you “often existed in a state of uneasiness, a little too gay for the straight world and a little too straight for the gay world.” This feeling of straddling multiple existences plays out in Fairyland, and in many of your other essays, whether you are writing through your experience as a mother of an autistic child, or on the complicated life and death of Actor Robin Williams. Is this, often frustrating, feeling what has drawn you to write? So that you at least can claim a firmer hold in your multiplicity; and help others claim the same?
AA: I think people who go through significant experiences as outsiders (unable to comfortably fit into the dominant culture around themselves) are uniquely poised to become writers. In having to occupy multiple identities you see how those identities are constructed, how fluid they can be, and you see how the dominant cultures react to those identities and maybe you consider why. In my own experience, having to adapt to very different social situations and feeling that so much was at stake in my ability to adapt, I came to look very critically at the world around me. Writing is a way to help me make sense of the space between these selves—straight vs. queer, mother vs. free woman, disabled vs. able-bodied.
AW: Why do you think you’ve turned to essay and memoir as your creative writing expression, and not, like your father, to poetry? I mean, my god, your writing is lyrical and poetic in its own right: “Such a strange expression, I thought to myself: ‘full-blown AIDS.’ Why ‘full-blown’?… I thought of an orchid in the summer, its petals expanded to their full blossom, exploding with gaudy color, sticky nectar, and scent. I pictured something blown apart, like a dandelion, fully blown until nothing is left but the naked stem.”
Have you had an inkling to write poetry? Please do.
AA: I think I always saw poetry as my dad’s “thing.” I’m also made very uncomfortable when I read or hear bad poetry, poetry that feels forced, pretentious, failed. I think because I went to so many poetry readings as a kid I heard a lot of bad poetry (along with the good poetry) so there’s a big cringe factor in play. For me to become a decent poet, I think I’d have to write a lot of bad poetry and I just don’t know if I have the stomach for it. It’s different with non-fiction prose for some reason. I feel grounded in straight-forward truth, good writing like a windowpane.
AW: So much of how you describe San Francisco and the Haight in the eighties reminds me of my childhood in the East Village in the nineties—its general wackiness and eclectic scene. But there was also the sense of a cultural duality and shift—both cities exploding with artistic revivals, while at the same time exploding in a devastating drug and AIDS epidemic. This seems so specific to these places and time. Was this a duality that you felt and understood when you were growing up? Have you experienced that kind of dual cultural explosion anywhere else since?
Do you see it as a particularly “American” occurrence?
AA: I often think that hard times—drugs wars, economic recessions, etc. —are accompanied by explosions in artistic creativity. Certainly within the world I knew there was a sense of—the world is going to hell, let’s live it up now or at least try new things. I feel very lucky to have known the San Francisco of the 70s and 80s. It was a special place, as I know was the East Village was in those eras. These environments cultivated artists and young people because they were hospitable to them—cheap, open, experimental—and the San Francisco and East Village of today are of course very different. I can’t say whether this is uniquely American. But I believe there will always be new neighborhoods spilling over with dirty creative energy as there are people with that energy to burn. I’m a mom now, with a car and a house so, regrettably, I don’t know where those neighborhoods are.