Fiercely committed to gay rights, notorious comedian Margaret Cho’s righteous rage finds its target
“I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight,” by Margaret Cho. (Riverhead Books, 2005) 256 pp., $23.95.
In case the Patty Hearst getup on the dust jacket wasn’t a big enough clue, Margaret Cho has become even more militant and political than ever.
Undoubtedly, some will see this as posturing purely for publicity and will wish she’d go back to routines about her mother’s eccentricities. Others will see it and the material within “I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight” as a manifesto, a call to arms against right-wing conservatism.
While anger has always fueled Cho’s comedy to some extent, here it’s more intense. She calls Dubya “a liar and a thief.”
In his war on “errorism,” as Cho calls it, the comedian grouses about how “This fool has fingered the wrong countries, the wrong people, the wrong everyone and everything, and in doing so has risked the lives of thousands of American children.”
When it comes to religion, Cho writes, “God isn’t really the problem. Some of His followers are big assholes.”
Is this anger? Maybe not. But Cho surely has voice, and she intends to use it.
In recent years, her sharp political criticism has resulted in some “un-invitations” to perform. Once she was led off-stage 10 minutes into her routine for fear of upsetting audience members. Daring to speak one’s mind especially in these conservative times, when voicing unpopular opinions is somehow equated with being unpatriotic takes guts and chutzpah, and in this book, Cho repeatedly demonstrates that she has these in abundance.
In one hilarious, rambling rant, she rails against the inadvertent (and sometimes downright deliberate) racism behind many of the stereotypical Asian roles she’s turned down over the years. In several other essays, she examines the subtle but undeniable ways that misogyny pervades American culture, such as how popular and celebrated Viagra is for men, yet women cannot easily obtain a “morning-after” pill like RU-486. Similarly, she disapproves of Martha Stewart’s conviction for insider trading, and laments the invisibility forced upon Korean women by a fiercely patriarchal society, and the consequences this had for one of her cousins.
As to be expected, Cho comes out swinging in defense of gay marriage. She also calls upon the sleeping giant of gay activism to awaken and claim the right to marriage. The bisexual comedienne also takes issue with those who’ve called her hypocritical and unworthy of defending gay marriage after she married a man in 2003: “I got married so I could steal the right that my GLBT brothers and sisters are denied.”
While occasionally the book seems self-centered verging on narcissism Cho more often reveals her everyday side.
“I ride the subway and eat at McDonald’s I am no diva,” she writes.
“I will sign every autograph I’m asked for, and I love anyone who will wait around to meet me, talk to me,” she write. “But I can’t imagine I’m really all that interesting.”
In two different essays, she becomes a gushing fan of David Bowie and Richard Pryor. The Pryor one being that more poignant in light of his recent death. She reveals how scared she and her family were during her mother’s recent poor health, and how the episode led to Cho’s acquiring her mother’s cache of family jewelry, unearthed from all sorts of mundane hiding places. She even reveals how she had an abortion and considers herself “grossly unfit” for motherhood, feeling she would be “ghastly” at it.
Margaret Cho may still see herself as a “little, confused, sad, ugly, crazy, unwanted, unloved Korean American girl from the cloudy side of San Francisco.” But to the rest of us, she’s a force of nature who yells out the unpleasant truths. By exercising free speech and questioning the status quo, Cho emerges like a true patriot.
“You Can Say You Knew Me When,” by K.M. Soehnlein. (Kensington, 2005) 408 pp., $23.
K.M. Soehnlein’s “The World of Normal Boys” was one of the gay literary highlights of 2000, and his second effort is no sophomore slump.
Like its predecessor, “You Can Say You Knew Me When” features a contentious father-son relationship. Rather than physical abuse, this intergenerational battle is waged with sharp words and bruised feelings. And this time around, redemption and closure are at least possible.
Jamie Garner, this book’s protagonist, always had a poor relationship with his father, Teddy. And things only worsened after Jamie came out.
The two stopped speaking after an exchange of bitter words, and Jamie moved to San Francisco. He doesn’t see his father again until his funeral.
Flying back to Greenlawn, N. J., to help disperse his father’s estate, Jamie comes across a cache of old letters and photos in the attic. They’re from the ill-fated year that his father spent in San Francisco as a young man. Intrigued by stories and events he never knew about, Jamie decides to investigate the few surviving threads of his father’s narrative. How did an aspiring young artist turn into the rigid, disapproving father who never understood his own son.
“You Can Say You Knew Me When” is not only a paean to the Beat Era of San Francisco, but a journey of self-discovery for Jamie. To borrow an apt phrase from Augusten Burroughs, Jamie seems to be “made up entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.”
A freelance radio writer-producer, Jamie lives from paycheck to paycheck, smokes too many cigarettes and way too much marijuana., He overspends money he doesn’t have and frequently fritters away his time. In other words, he’s very easy to identify with. But Jamie isn’t all that likeable especially once he starts cheating on Woody, his boyfriend of two years, for no particular reason.
He’s always been a bit obsessive, and his father quest soon becomes all-consuming, to the detriment of everything and everyone around him.
Set at the turn of the millennium, this novel captures San Francisco during one of its cultural upheavals, as artists and longtime residents begin losing their spaces to landlords eager to cash in on the dot.com boom. Woody, for example, works for one such start-up company, spending long hours there, much to Jamie’s growing unhappiness.
Soehnlein deftly evokes the city’s Beat Era mainly through the experiences of Ray, the female artist with whom Terry had an affair and through several elderly gay characters recounts the heady years of comparative freedom they enjoyed after World War II, before the governing forces began cracking down on them.
The narrative slightly rambles when Jamie, during a downward spiral, impulsively decides to retrace the last road trip his father took before deciding to head back East. But “You Can Say You Knew Me When” contains many resonant truths, a realistic (and messy) breakup scene and unpleasant moments with friends and family when one too many painful things are said and done in rapid succession. There’s also a cast of finely-drawn supporting characters, such as Jamie’s old college chum Colleen, who at one point, to her horror, realizes that “my hair is the color of my pudenda”; Anton, Jamie’s pot dealer and longtime San Francisco resident; Ian, a sex pig and all-around free spirit; and Woody, the boyfriend who gets away, but might still come back.
Written with self-assurance, a keen ear for dialogue and a flair for steamy sex scenes, “You Can Say You Knew Me When” brims with self-assurance and maturity. Let’s just hope that Soehnlein doesn’t keep us waiting five more years for his next book.
NPR HIRES BRINI TO PODCAST
On the domesticity front, drag doyenne Brini Maxwell gets more and more legit as the years tick by. Last week, she started podcasting for National Public Radio. And each Friday at 5 p.m., listeners can get new tidbits of useful information on her podcast titled “Brini Maxwell’s Hints for Gracious Living.” For her first installment, Brini discusses the three Cs: consideration, creativity and confidence. Watch out, Martha Stewart.
Daniel A. Kusner
Free. To subscribe paste the following URL into a podcasting tool: http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast.php?id=510029.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition of February 10, 2006.