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American ROMANCES, Rebecca Brown

Because of The Haunted House, The Gifts of the Body, and The End of Youth, Rebecca Brown’s writings have been regarded by many as some of the greatest contributions to contemporary gay and lesbian literature.
An activist, teacher and community organizer, Brown has used a variety of mediums to project her voice, including composing the libretto for the dance opera The Onion Twins, working with painter Nancy Kiefer on a book Woman in Ill Fitting Wig, and developing the original two-act play The Toaster. In her most recent work, American ROMANCES, Brown presents a collection of unusual essays that explore the idea of what it means to be American.
At moments reading the American ROMANCES can seem disorienting. Brown intertwines pop culture, autobiography, literary and cinematic history, drawing upon everything from John Wayne’s personal life to Gertrude Stein’s infatuation with the Oreo to the author’s own adolescent struggle with Christian faith to illustrate her ideas. Yet, while using a hybrid of genres, she always manages to connect her histories/memories/stories to a larger idea of what makes America the way it is. The result of Brown’s work is an entertaining journey into seeing in unlikely places how:
American mainstream culture derives from these sources: England (our official language and laws); race warfare (killing the Natives to take the land; building an entire economy on slave labor); and religious fanaticism (the Puritans and everything created in opposition to them, such rock ‘n’ roll, feminism, sex for anything other than babies):  and the public confession by which we try to both explain everything and explain everything else away.
An intense read, Brown’s activist voice does leaks out in certain places. As when, after describing Ellison’s Invisible Man, Brown states “How many times do we have to go through this invisiblilizng of others?  When are we vermin going to get that we’re all here, we’re all queer (or colored or weird or different) and just get used to it”. However, throughout the essays, Brown maintains a mostly playful tone while she makes interesting historical connections and often dips into her deeply personal past.
For example, she draws comparisons between author Nathanial Hawthorne and beach boy musician Brian Wilson (who grew up in the California suburb of Hawthorne) as a springboard for exploring some thoughts on what constitutes the American spirit.
Viewing Nathaniel Hawthorne as a symbol of East Coast Puritanism, she retells how the Puritans came to new soil as an act of defiance, to set up a new way of life, “Oh, the sins of the fathers! Oh, the visitations upon the sons! The dream of America! The nightmare, the horror, the hope.” The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson then stands as an icon of West Coast Hedonism. While the culture of the West Coast has in many ways formed as a reaction against Puritanism, ultimately both share a common spirit of rebellion and exploration. “The Puritans dreamt of the City on the Hill and came to the New World to build it. Then when it went to hell their sons and sons of sons went west, and daughters, too… And so, to California they went”.
Later, when recounting her early years as a fundamentalist Christian and her break from faith, Brown recognizes that her own life has, at times embodied both Puritanism and the West Coast spirit.  She describes how by the time college came she had rejected her religious past, but that at the same time she also felt that “Part of me also missed it. I missed having faith in something and believing things could turn out right over time”. Here, Brown draws up another important thread that runs throughout American ROMANCES: how nostalgia, an idealized romance of the past, and a rejection of history has all shaped American into what it is.
Whether she’s being tragic or funny—and she sometimes is both simultaneously—Brown always points her essays back to poignant conclusions. Describing her fundamentalist past she writes, “Now I think that words can be a way to point toward God, and a story, like the Christian one, can tell, in a way I understand, about encountering a God who always was and is and does not need our telling.”
Throughout the rest of the collection, Brown writes in a variety of registers, from informal conversation to the detailed scholarly history to something near poetry. This helps keep the piece engaging and fresh.

Ultimately, American ROMANCES offers bold reflection on the complicated question of trying to figure out just what is and isn’t American. Rebecca Brown has written a fun and powerful book that balances its insight with entertainment.

Ameri

American ROMANCES, Rebecca Brown. (City Lights) $16.95

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Because of The Haunted House, The Gifts of the Body, and The End of Youth, Rebecca Brown’s writings have been regarded by many as some of the greatest contributions to contemporary gay and lesbian literature.

An activist, teacher and community organizer, Brown has used a variety of mediums to project her voice, including composing the libretto for the dance opera The Onion Twins, working with painter Nancy Kiefer on a book Woman in Ill-Fitting Wig, and developing the original two-act play The Toaster. In her most recent work, American ROMANCES, Brown presents a collection of unusual essays that explore the idea of what it means to be American.

At moments reading the American ROMANCES can seem disorienting. Brown intertwines pop culture, autobiography, literary and cinematic history, drawing upon everything from John Wayne’s personal life to Gertrude Stein’s infatuation with the Oreo to the author’s own adolescent struggle with Christian faith to illustrate her ideas. Yet, while using a hybrid of genres, she always manages to connect her histories/memories/stories to a larger idea of what makes America the way it is. The result of Brown’s work is an entertaining journey into seeing in unlikely places how:

American mainstream culture derives from these sources: England (our official language and laws); race warfare (killing the Natives to take the land; building an entire economy on slave labor); and religious fanaticism (the Puritans and everything created in opposition to them, such rock ‘n’ roll, feminism, sex for anything other than babies):  and the public confession by which we try to both explain everything and explain everything else away.

An intense read, Brown’s activist voice does leaks out in certain places. As when, after describing Ellison’s Invisible Man, Brown states “How many times do we have to go through this invisiblilizng of others?  When are we vermin going to get that we’re all here, we’re all queer (or colored or weird or different) and just get used to it”. However, throughout the essays, Brown maintains a mostly playful tone while she makes interesting historical connections and often dips into her deeply personal past.

For example, she draws comparisons between author Nathanial Hawthorne and beach boy musician Brian Wilson (who grew up in the California suburb of Hawthorne) as a springboard for exploring some thoughts on what constitutes the American spirit.

Viewing Nathaniel Hawthorne as a symbol of East Coast Puritanism, she retells how the Puritans came to new soil as an act of defiance, to set up a new way of life, “Oh, the sins of the fathers! Oh, the visitations upon the sons! The dream of America! The nightmare, the horror, the hope.” The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson then stands as an icon of West Coast Hedonism. While the culture of the West Coast has in many ways formed as a reaction against Puritanism, ultimately both share a common spirit of rebellion and exploration. “The Puritans dreamt of the City on the Hill and came to the New World to build it. Then when it went to hell their sons and sons of sons went west, and daughters, too… And so, to California they went”.

Later, when recounting her early years as a fundamentalist Christian and her break from faith, Brown recognizes that her own life has, at times embodied both Puritanism and the West Coast spirit.  She describes how by the time college came she had rejected her religious past, but that at the same time she also felt that “Part of me also missed it. I missed having faith in something and believing things could turn out right over time”. Here, Brown draws up another important thread that runs throughout American ROMANCES: how nostalgia, an idealized romance of the past, and a rejection of history has all shaped America into what it is.

Whether she’s being tragic or funny—and she sometimes is both simultaneously—Brown always points her essays back to poignant conclusions. Describing her fundamentalist past she writes, “Now I think that words can be a way to point toward God, and a story, like the Christian one, can tell, in a way I understand, about encountering a God who always was and is and does not need our telling.”

Throughout the rest of the collection, Brown writes in a variety of registers, from informal conversation to the detailed scholarly history to something near poetry. This helps keep the piece engaging and fresh.

Ultimately, American ROMANCES offers bold reflection on the complicated question of trying to figure out just what is and isn’t American. Rebecca Brown has written a fun and powerful book that balances its insight with entertainment.

Ted English is a teacher of first-year composition and a graduate student of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Oklahoma

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