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Author finds room for queer inclusion in mythic African fantasy

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Author Marlon James (Photo courtesy CAP UCLA)

Marlon James didn’t start out wanting to be an epic fantasy writer.

His career as a novelist has been built on stories derived from the history of his birthplace, Jamaica, exploring the effects of religion, supernaturalism, sexuality, violence, and colonialism on the struggle to find a Jamaican identity in a post-colonial world. There have always been threads of allegory and surrealism woven into his work, to be sure – his first novel, “John Crow’s Devil,” was a politically provocative parable about the archetypal struggle between good and evil. As for epic, his third effort, “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” was a sweeping (and scathing) political thriller that was awarded the prestigious UK Man Booker Prize for its depiction of several decades’ worth of social unrest, violence, intrigue, and instability through the voices of 12 separate narrators.

Even so, it was something of a surprise that his most recent work, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” published in early 2019, turned out to be a surreal, full-blown epic fantasy novel, derived from the folklore and mythology of ancient African culture and jokingly referred to by its author as “an African ‘Game of Thrones.” The joke may have been on him, in a good way, because the book (which he says is the first of a planned trilogy) has garnered raves from critics and fans as all that and more. In the words of New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, it’s “the literary equivalent of a Marvel Comics universe—filled with dizzying, magpie references to old movies and recent TV, ancient myths and classic comic books.”

James, who spoke with the Blade ahead of an appearance at UCLA on Thursday, February 27, can’t remember a specific inspiration that sparked his ambitious foray across genres – “It was so many years ago,” he says, somewhat incredulously – but he does recall early discussions with friends around the subject of Tolkein-esque fantasy epics in which he argued their irrelevance.

“’The Lord of the Rings,’” isn’t real,’” I would tell them. ‘You can do what you want with [those kinds of stories] – it doesn’t matter if a hobbit is Chinese, nobody cares.’”

Ironically enough, “Black Leopard” has been praised by no less a giant of fantasy literature than Neil Gaiman as containing “a fantasy world as well-realized as anything Tolkien made.” And James is now quick to point out that he’s not disrespecting Tolkien – indeed, he now gives lectures on the much-revered author, who created Middle Earth as a realm imagined from the heritage and folklore of its author’s own Germanic roots, partly to provide a gap he perceived in the mythic underpinnings of his family’s adopted homeland of Great Britain.

That’s something to which James can relate profoundly.

“When you’re a black person in diaspora, you don’t realize how big the gap is in that part of your life,” he tells the Blade. “Part of the emotional history of a people and of a country is their mythology, and to grow up without it, which I did, means I never had all of that.”

It was to fill that gap that James began a deep dive into African mythology and folklore. “Before I ever thought about writing a single word,” he says, “I was reading these books just to connect with my own cultural legacy, to fill that void which I didn’t even know was there.”

The book that grew out of that research has drawn praise for filling that void on a cultural level, by creating a gloriously non-traditional, unabashedly African point of intersection in a genre traditionally – and overwhelmingly – dominated by white, Euro, usually hetero male authors writing about themes and characters appealing to white, Euro, usually hetero male readers. Salman Rushdie (another literary lion) called it “a fabulist reimagining of Africa,” in a Time Magazine review, and Entertainment Weekly lauded its “astonishingly realized” precolonial setting that “crawls with creatures and erects kingdoms unlike any I’ve read.”

Another surprise of James’ novel, perhaps, is that its inclusion extends to the LGBTQ experience as well. There are “a number of queer characters” in “Black Leopard,” enough so that some commentators have suggested the author was layering a contemporary statement into his fantastical ancient world.

On the contrary, says James, “it was in going back to the mythologies and the histories that I found a far more open-minded view of African queerness than the present day would lead us to believe.”

Nevertheless, the importance of depicting queer existence in these fictional realms is not lost on James, who agrees that the LGBTQ community has long had to make a leap of mental transference in order to identify with the characters in the stories they were told in their favorite fiction.

He’s also heartened that, even in the short space of years that positive queer visibility has been rising in popular media, the representation is making a difference.

“You see in younger queer people, where there are some things they do take for granted which we didn’t, which I never could, certainly, and it’s kind of glorious.”

He tells a story about speaking recently at a college in Jamaica, where he was addressing a campus LGBTQ association. “I was prepared to give my whole ‘it gets better’ speech to these kids,” he says. “And they were like, ‘We don’t want to hear that bullshit, do you know Beyonce?’

“They refuse to be denied a childhood, they refuse to be denied the fun and the mess of just being a teenager and doing dumb crap.” He laughs, “Where the biggest issue is ‘do you buy Cardi B or do you buy Nicki Minaj?”

He continues, “There’s a validation you get from seeing yourself, and people like yourself, and seeing that from an early age. It’s one thing to watch ‘Queer As Folk’ when you’re 32, it must be a hell of a thing to watch it when you’re 16.”

Shifting to the subject of his upcoming book discussion at UCLA, he told us, “Sometimes when you are writing, you sit down at a desk, you’re pretty alone, and you have no idea what the impact of your work is. Events like this can be a reminder that I do write for an audience.

“We talk about things, we talk about fantasy, about writing the supernatural or the fantastical. And we talk about who gets to tell what story. Because when you write a fantasy novel, all of it is ‘other,’ all of it is foreign.”

“So, who should tell these stories,” he concludes, “when you’re writing anything, really?”

Marlon James will appear as the concluding event of CAP UCLA’s Words and Ideas series this season, at 8pm on February 27 at Glorya Kaufman Hall. For tickets, visit their website.

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Finalist for TIME’s ‘Kid of the Year’ is 11-year-old Texas Trans activist

“It makes me sad that some politicians use Trans kids like me to get votes from people who hate me just because I exist”

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Kai Shappley protesting at Texas Capitol in Austin last April (Photo Credit: Equality Texas)

AUSTIN – The petite fourth grader calmly sat at the witness table in her pretty yellow dress, reading her notes from her iPhone and without a hint of nervousness she began testifying before the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs.

“I love ballet, math, science, and geology,” she told the committee by way of introduction. “I spend my free time with my cats, chickens, FaceTiming my friends, and dreaming of when I finally get to meet Dolly Parton. I do not like spending my free time asking adults to make good choices.”

“It makes me sad that some politicians use Trans kids like me to get votes from people who hate me just because I exist,” she went on. “God made me. God loves me for who I am. And God does not make mistakes.”

For 11-year-old Kai Shappley of Austin, facing down the Senators gathered, many of whom literally wanted to legislate her and other Trans youth out of existence, was an exercise she’s intimate familiar with as in her short life she has become an experienced advocate in Trans youth issues in Texas.

In fact it is her experience that has landed her in the prestigious position of being a finalist for TIME magazine’s Kid of the Year. In an interview with TIME’s Madeleine Carlisle, Shappley says she felt furious. Lawmakers were avoiding her gaze, she said, glancing at their watches, scrolling on their phones or doodling on papers. When the opportunity came to ask her questions, no one spoke up.

“Seriously? None of y’all want to know more about me?” she quipped.

Video of Shappley’s testimony quickly went viral. It wasn’t the first time she’s garnered attention. The now-5th grader has been publicly telling her story and calling for Trans equality for years.

She’s traveled the country with her mother, speaking at rallies for LGBTQ+ rights. She’s worked with the ACLU on pro-Trans projects. She’s met with national lawmakers to urge them to pass the Equality Act, which would outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

But April was the first time she’d ever testified on her own. Her reasoning was simple. “I wanted to show them that all these lies people have been spreading [about Trans kids] are not true,” she says.

In an email, fellow Texas Trans youth activist and Gender Cool Project advocate Landon Richie noted:

“Last year, we saw an unprecedented, nationwide, legislative assault on trans youths’ access to sports, gender affirming care, and unfettered existence in public life, with Texas accounting for the highest number of anti-Trans bills filed in any state legislative session, ever. And, just this week — on top of states like Arizona, Alabama, South Dakota, Kentucky, and more beginning to file harmful bills targeting Trans youth — HB 25, a Texas bill that prohibits trans and gender expansive youth from playing on the school sports teams that align with their gender identity, went into effect,” Richie said.

“Kai’s nomination is a reminder of the impact of these egregious bills and the stakes of this fight; she, at just eleven years old, has been forced by the so-called “leaders” of our state to debate her very existence and right to dignity and respect, year, after year, after year. And she is not alone. Trans youth across the country — and the world — deserve not to be pawns in a political chess game, nor fearful that who they are will be constant ground for discourse: they deserve to be celebrated, to be adored, to be cared for — they deserve childhoods where they are free to just be kids,” he added.

“Shappley is a force of nature,” TIME reported. “At only 11 years old, the Trans rights activist has built a following online; children and adults have written to her saying she’s inspired them to come out.”

“It makes me want to keep on going, knowing that there are so many people who rely on me,” she told TIME .

She was only 5 when she first watched her mother, Kimberly, testify against anti-Trans legislation in Texas, and the two soon began appearing together. By 2020, Kai decided she was ready to go solo.

She also spoke at the funeral of Trans journalist and activist Monica Roberts, who’d been a mentor to her.

“Mom was like, ‘I’ll go up there with you,’” Kai Shappley told TIME. “But I said, ‘I think I’m strong enough to talk for myself now.’”

Testifying before the Texas Senate:

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Sports

NCAA adopts new policy on Trans athletes

Requires documentation of testosterone levels amid a fervor of recently transitioned swimmers breaking records in women’s athletics

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Graphic courtesy of the NCAA

INDIANAPOLIS- The National Collegiate Athletic Association has announced it has adopted new procedures on competition of transgender athletes, creating a “sport-by-sport” approach that also requires documentation of testosterone levels across the board amid a fervor of recently transitioned swimmers breaking records in women’s athletics.

The NCAA said in a statement its board of governors voted on Wednesday in support of the “sport-by-sport” approach, which the organization says “preserves opportunity for transgender student-athletes while balancing fairness, inclusion and safety for all who compete.”

Although the policy defers to the national governing bodies for individual sports, it also requires transgender athletes to document sport-specific testosterone levels beginning four weeks before their sport’s championship selections. The new policy, which consistent with rules for the U.S. Olympics, is effective 2022, although implementation is set to begin with the 2023-24 academic year, the organization says.

John DeGioia, chair of the NCAA board and Georgetown president, said in a statement the organization is “steadfast in our support of transgender student-athletes and the fostering of fairness across college sports.”

“It is important that NCAA member schools, conferences and college athletes compete in an inclusive, fair, safe and respectful environment and can move forward with a clear understanding of the new policy,” DeGioia said.

More specifically, starting with the 2022-23 academic year, transgender athletes will need to document sport-specific testosterone levels beginning four weeks before their sport’s championship selections, the organizational. These athletes, according to the NCAA, are also required to document testosterone levels four weeks before championship selections.

In terms of jurisdiction, the national governing bodies for individual sports are charged determines policies, which would be under ongoing review and recommendation by the NCAA, the organizational says. If there is no policy for a sport, that sport’s international federation policy or previously established International Olympics Committee policy criteria would be followed.

The NCAA adopts the policy amid controversy over University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas smashing records in women’s swimming. Thomas, which once competed as a man, smashed two national records and in the 1,650-yard freestyle placed 38 seconds ahead of closest competition. The new NCAA policy appears effectively to sideline Thomas, who has recently transitioned and unable to show consistent levels of testosterone.

Prior to the NCAA announcement, a coalition of 16 LGBTQ groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and Athlete Ally, this week sent to a letter to the collegiate organization, urging the organizations strengthen non-discrimination protections as opposed to weakening them. The new policy, however, appears to head in other direction, which the LGBTQ groups rejected in the letter.

“While decentralizing the NCAA and giving power to conferences and schools has its benefits, we are concerned that leaving the enforcement of non-discrimination protections to schools will create a patchwork of protections rather than a comprehensive policy that would protect all athletes, no matter where they play,” the letter says. “This would be similar to the patchwork of non-discrimination policies in states, where marginalized groups in some states or cities are protected while others are left behind by localities that opt not to enact inclusive policies.”

The Washington Blade has placed a request in with the Human Rights Campaign seeking on the new policy as established by the NCAA.

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Television

June Jambalaya, lightly seasoned newcomer thickens mix of RPDR14

Jambalaya’s drag name came about when a dance instructor asked for her birth month and the last thing she ate

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“Some are born into drag greatness, some achieve drag greatness, and some have drag greatness thrust upon ‘em.”

LOS ANGELES – That iconic line, from the 1602 Shakespeare play “RuPaul’s Twelfth Night,” is as true today as when it was first spoken on the stage of London’s Globe Theatre. Back then, the female roles were played by men.

Times may have changed, but the song remains the same: Those with male plumbing who plumb the depths of what it takes to play a woman find themselves doing so through dynasty, scrappy determination, destiny, or a road they have to hoe on their own.

Season 14 “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestant June Jambalaya found herself in the iconic workroom and runway in a very roundabout way, indeed.

“I have been in the performing arts my entire life, going to performing arts school, and I moved out to LA to get my degree in fine arts” said the 29-year-old Jacksonville, Florida native, who spoke with the Blade just prior to the Season 14 premiere episode, in which she’s introduced alongside half of the cast.

Jambalaya, whose drag name came about when a dance instructor asked for her birth month and the last thing she ate, stayed in LA after graduation but found things, “didn’t go as planned, you know, just auditioning but still working my job. I worked as a visual manager for a luxury department store, so it [drag] gravitated to me because actually, I was choreographing for a co-worker. It gave me an opportunity to use my degree and use my talents—because I felt kind of frustrated with auditioning and the world of performing. I didn’t fit the stereotypical body that a male backup dancer or performer should have and so it drew me to drag because this was an art form where you got to make your own rules and really pick your narrative, which made me even more intrigued to do it for myself.”

While doing choreography for local LA drag queens Jambalaya noted, “They encouraged me to try it [drag], and I entered a nightly competition at Revolver and won and then I did a 10-week competition at Revolver and won. So all the stars just kind of aligned. It just felt like I was doing something right with all of the talents and gifts I felt like I had.”

BLADE: What sort of style were you drawing from in those early performances?  

JUNE JAMBALAYA: When I first started drag, my references were from the Latrice Royales and the Roxy Andrews. I looked at the queens before me that really put on high-energy, like high old school drag numbers and performances. But the more I got to experience who June was, her brand and you know my own artistry I started to really pull from my love for the modern woman and thinking about like, my mom and my sister and my aunts and how I was always inspired by women, especially minority women, because they were the strongest, most fearless, most stylish women that I got to encounter so I really drew a lot of those references into my drag. And then I also, you know, I call myself The Real Housewife of Drag because of my love for the franchise and how real women just sit there fully dressed and living their fantasy on television. That’s sort of what this is for me.

BLADE: You’re serious about the way you use fashion. Does that clash with camp elements of drag? 

JUNE: Yes I’m funny, but I don’t consider myself a comedy queen. I think it’s performance with looks, um, because I revealed myself in a Christopher John Rogers couture gown and then I added a train and airbrushed my name on there to make it, you know, it was fashion but then I made it camp and, you know, urban by airbrushing it—having my nails, have my name hang off… So I’m wearing these designer pieces that you typically don’t see from someone; I’m a size 14, 16 and you haven’t really seen a big girl pull out these type of designers this way and I think that’s interesting. So my camp comes in my love for the visual… You’ll see me inside a waterfall performing a song for a video. That’s where I think my camp comes through, in my visual artistic side. But with my fashion, I really do try to show that plus-sized women and full-figure people love and respect fashion and there is room for us there, too.

BLADE: What is an LA club experience with you like, as opposed to what we’re going to see on television?

June Jambalaya courtesy of RuPaul’s Drag race

JUNE: I have always picked things that felt good to me, but I’m learning that I still have to pick numbers that people are going to enjoy. But when you come to a June Jambalaya performance, you want high energy. You know I’m gonna have backup dancers. So like me and my girls, we rehearse these numbers for weeks on end before the show. One of my biggest inspirations is Beyoncé. I’ve been to more concerts than I’d like to admit.

BLADE: Oh, there’s no shame in that.

JUNE: (laughs) Seeing those shows, all the way down to the costumes and the choreography, all that time and effort that went into it—so I try my best, with the resources I have, to give people that live tour show experience.

BLADE: Your life will be different from the moment the show starts airing. What is the waiting experience like, and have you been given any helpful advice from other queens?

JUNE: So recently, I posted a Christmas video that took three months to film—and it’s different now, because of the [Season 14] announcement, and people know the show is coming. So I get to hear from people from Brazil and Belize message me and tell me how much they enjoyed my video, and people who don’t even celebrate Christmas, that these visuals and these packages of my art are reaching all over the world—it’s blowing my mind to think about this time last year. I had maybe 2,000 followers and I just had dream and I was making videos and taking photos like crazy, and now it’s [the buzz leading up to the show] unfolding before my eyes.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have conversations with Gigi Goode, Kandy Muse, and LaLa Ri. They have all been so extremely supportive. I think Gigi Goode gave me some of the best advice. She came to my “Showgirls” performance and she was like, “Do everything, every opportunity that comes to you. You’re going to be tired but this is going to be the ride of your life—and everything you’ve dreamt of, you can literally do right now. So whatever is in your head, let it out.”

BLADE: What advice would you give to those who are just starting out with their drag, and is having a formal background like yours helpful?

JUNE: I think it [education] definitely helped me, but I haven’t been doing drag that long. I started April 2019… But I think when you find something you’re passionate about you will do the work to further educate yourself on it, and I really do believe I did that. So my advice to anyone embarking on something or doing something they’re passionate about is, pull from people who are doing it really, really well. I think one of the best things that I did, I watched Roxy Andrews. I studied with Aquaria [as I was preparing my audition tape]. I saw what the best of the best were doing, to prepare myself to meet that level of excellence. When you’re in this high-pressure drag situation, and mind you, this was just a hobby for me. I had a full-time job. So I went from a part-time baby queen to now doing it full-time, 18-hour days. So it showed me there’s still so much to be done, to be in drag all day, to go from doing an acting challenge to getting ready for a runway. It’s so physically demanding, to be a full-time drag queen.

BLADE: So are you in better shape now than you were before?

JUNE: Well, we filmed it a while ago. I was in really good shape. Then I took a break and ate some food, enjoyed the holidays. Now it’s kicking back in. You know, press [to do] and outfits need to fit (laughs).

BLADE: What do you hope to achieve, as a result of being on the show?

JUNE: I’ve never been to Fashion Week. I would love to experience that or walk and be a part of it, or be part of a beauty brand or something of that nature. But when it comes down to artistry, we have a whole Vegas residency with “RuPaul’s Drag Race” now. I would love the opportunity for that—or the Werq the World Tour, to actually; Imagine if I got to take all of my visuals and put it on the stage… that’s an artist’s dream.

Follow June Jambalaya on Instagram/TikTok/Twitter: @junejambalaya.

To stay up-to-date on all things #DragRace Season 14, follow along on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok at @rupaulsdragrace.

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