GOD SAVE THE QUEEN
Personal Essays by Ronald Baytan
Youth is the gift of nature, but age is a work of art.
— Stanislaw Lec
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
— Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”
Ah the circle closes
Same old withered roses!
— Allen Ginsberg, “Maybe Love”
The title of my current project, like the two previous books, contains the word “Queen.” Despite the fact that naming the self “queen” is lethal, almost self-immolating, in a very effeminophobic gay culture, I have no qualms about using the word. As I’ve always taught my students, nomenclatures will always be inadequate to fully capture the complexity of our lives.
Given the title of the collection, the book is undeniably gay (after all, what else can the work be but gay, given my subject-position as a gay writer? And no matter what I do, even if I talk about “non-gay” matters, the collection will still be gay by virtue of the consciousness that engendered it)—but it is more concerned with midlife. Finally, the 25-year old queen is turning 40 in a year’s time. So what now?
God Save the Queen has a heavy stamp of the “I,” an inevitable feature of the genre I am writing in. Creative nonfiction is always about the “I,” even when narrator/persona is talking about someone or something else. The tone and the insights emerge from a certain consciousness, a certain bias or perspective, and it is this particular consciousness, this “I,” that will give the work its flavor, its grit, its uniqueness.
I would also like my little narratives to function as, to use Barbara Tuchman’s words, “a prism of history.” Some parts of the book are meant to memorialize the gay culture of today, and of the recent past. The old feminist maxim still stands: “The personal is political.” Through my little stories, I hope to give the future generation not only a voice but also a “usable past.”
God Save the Queen will be composed of chapter-length autobiographical narratives/personal essays about being a middle-aged gay man. Danton Remoto and Michael L. Tan wrote moving essays about turning 40. I guess I am following suit. Never did I imagine that I would one day write about aging, too.
With midlife (or getting there fast) as the thematic center, the project will cover the following sections:
- A re-examination of my youth—high school life, finding and losing my religion, adventures in college, heartbreaks, being a sissy nerd, nostalgia, more nostalgia.
- Pedagogy—my life as a teacher; the things I’ve learned from teaching for more than 18 years; the writers/teachers who influenced my practices/methods as a teacher; memorable students, the remarkably brilliant and the terrifyingly beautiful.
- Family—my strange family of three which includes my mother, my brother and myself, plus my other siblings living elsewhere; the irreconcilable differences that haunt our family; dogs and other pets; my relationship with my father.
- Pinoy culture—observations about being Pinoy; the idiosyncrasies of our culture; why I hate being in this country and why I love it; the most memorable strangers I have encountered.
- Gay life—ruminations about Pinoy gay culture; the dating stories, my friends’ and my own; the cruising rituals; my life with my equally aging becky best friends.
I am planning to play with form in this book. Some works will take the form of little anecdotes and vignettes, quotable quotes, dialogues, tabloid blind items, speeches, book reports, love letters, sudden fiction, complaint letters, and other documents/texts. I am using these various forms to complicate notions of “truth.” Why write an autobiographical narrative as if it were a short story utilizing multiple points of view? Why use speeches and reports? I want to defamiliarize readers in my book. I want to show how “truth” arrives at our door in different shapes. After all, we all know that there are different ways of “inventing the truth” (to use Zinnser’s words), not to mention that sometimes something is so true that it becomes fictional, or the other way around. In addition, a writer has to acknowledge the limits of the eye/I in her work. The various “unconventional” forms function as my own admission and affirmation of nonfiction as, like any other work of art, a “made-up” thing. Partly inspired by Brecht, I want to show/remind my audience/my reader that what they are witnessing is not the Truth, not Reality, but only an approximation, a re-presentation, a self-presentation. One is supposed to tell the truth, but whose truth, and what truth? The manner of telling ultimately determines the matter: Form becomes truth.
How much of the “truth” will be told? Everything that my poor brain can remember.
One of the best things about getting old is mustering the courage to speak one’s mind without having to care about what the others will say. I no longer have to be conscious of my looks (well, at least not so anymore); I no longer have to say things to please others; I no longer have to depend on others to live or to live my life; I no longer have to be friendly to everyone at the university to make it as an academic.
But the best part of it all is self-knowledge. Now, I know where all this drama, this catwalk, this pose, is leading to: my demise and the demise of the ones I love. I have learned life is a series of losses, a room full of empty chairs, a constant quarrel with God, a confirmed booking for the final flight.
First the body shows signs of breaking down, or falling apart. Then, the body decides to let go. I am now in the breaking down stage. And it’s too early. And I am not exactly ecstatic about it.
What is a queen if she can’t remain beautiful for all time? “Youth and beauty conspire,” I once wrote in one of my poems; and never is beauty, or youth, more prized than in the lookist gay culture. There is no room for ravaged faces and misshapen bodies in our community, and no botox can keep the wrinkles away permanently.
I have always wanted to become muscular. I have been going to the gym for ten years, but each “season” can last for only two months at most because my body is frail. Just when the pectoralis major had begun to increase in size, I would have to abandon the gym because of a tendon or muscle problem. That is why the queen is perpetually flat-chested! For years, I have had problems with my neck, back, shoulder, and upper arm, which have made it impossible for me to lift heavy weights. The irony is that my injuries were never caused by weightlifting; working out may have aggravated my medical condition but it was never the principal cause of my misery. I have gotten tired of visiting the rehab unit of Chinese General Hospital where my “batchmates” are men and women in their fifties up. I would often hear old women complaining about their age, some even saying that they are ready to go, that they want to die. I am only turning forty but I have the bones and muscles of a sexagenarian. I also have other health problems (e.g., the onset of diabetes, uric acid, arthritis, mild asthma) that have often made me look up to God in protest.
Being forty or close to it in the gay culture is to be near obsolescence, if not extinction. But what most gay men—young and old—fear is not only the loss of beauty. It is the fear of one day ending up alone. Heterosexuals reproduce so that, at least genetically, they know they will live on. Most of them can have children who, they hope, will take care of them in their twilight years. Gay men have no one to turn to but themselves, and by the time they get to the pre-departure area, most of their friends and contemporaries will have gone ahead.
I am writing this book because the fears of the queen are real. But if the book were simply about fears, then it would not be worth writing at all.
The body’s decline notwithstanding, age brings with it an invaluable gift: wisdom. Age clears our vision. This collection, rather than grieve for the body’s covenant with gravity, is not solely about things lost, or the onset of decay. It is, I hope, about things gained: “the brightening glance” (Yeats), the translucent insight, paid for dearly with one’s own frail body, with one’s coming to terms with mortality (Being) as a scintillating presence—and present.