OCTOBER 4, 2019
Rafael López: MATERIALIZING QUEER HISTORY
STORY BY TARA ENG AND JACKSON SHORT / EDITED BY MAE MCDERMOTT / ILLUSTRATION BY KATE ROCKEFELLER
Rafael López ('21) grew up going to art museums in Washington, D.C. with his grandparents, where his grandpa would stop and read every single word. Although he studies acting, he is also fascinated by writing, art history, photography, cinema, and education. He has appeared on the Ithaca College stage as Orsino in Twelfth Night and participated in various workshops, readings, and directing projects. Rafael joins Stillwater’s inaugural creative lab in correspondence with co-editors-in-chief, Jackson Short and Tara Eng, from London, England, where he is studying abroad and living his best gay life.
TE: Could you speak about what you think the purpose of fiction is? So often we hear that fiction is a way to reveal deeper truths about humanity through stories – to shed a light on parts of our worlds and relationships that are seemingly insignificant. It’s in this way that fiction writers disrupt our patterns of thinking, or alter our perspectives, by putting the mundane under a magnifying glass.
RL: Recently I participated in a play reading that did end up dispensing one nugget of wisdom: in relation to someone’s performance, a character says, “It doesn’t have to be natural, it just has to be true.” I don’t think I’ve ever read or heard anything so simple that sums up art for me – art that I happen to like, at least. In fiction, I think this quote is a maxim of the form. Good fiction writing on stage doesn’t have to be natural, or realistic, or recognizable, it just has to tell the truth, and maybe even expose it to all of us who can’t seem to find it in our everyday lives.
JS: Your working art form is acting – embodying the lives and experiences of others in order to offer an honest portrayal that, in many ways, disrupts the audience’s preconceptions of what it means to be alive. Do the devices of theatrical performance also seep into your fiction writing?
RL: Absolutely. One of the biggest critiques I received on the first draft of this story was that my dialogue was all alone, as it would be in a script (there were no “he saids,” “he muttereds,” etc – nothing to support the words being spoken). I think that I approach writing dialogue from the angle of an actor and an observer of the world – what feels true in the mouth? What are the things that I say? My friends? How do we all speak to each other?
I think I also write material that I can visualize in my head. Not necessarily on stage, but definitely as an observer – like you would during a show or during a movie. I want strong visual symbols that readers can latch onto and see in their world as well, which is something I think visual art forms like painting, theatre, and film do well.
TE: How did the idea for your story, “Gemini Season,” take root?
RL: Well – it came about by blending a couple of experiences together, and mixing in some fantasies of mine, I think. I have a friend who sometimes drives his mother’s old convertible (which is red, not white, as Sebastián’s is), and there was a time when we drove up the hill on Route 13 with the roof down at twilight, and it made a big impression on me. I just love wind, I think it’s one of the most beautiful things on the planet even though it can’t be seen. When I feel a really good gust of wind, and my hair gets blown out of my face and the world cools down...it’s just magic to me.
The other major inspiration was Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, in which Haraway rejects the notions of traditional categories and labels, asking us to find affinities between ourselves and others. She writes about the destruction of the border between animals, humans, and machines in really exciting ways and I wanted the contrasts in the story to also have a feeling of sameness. While the convertible is a machine it is also a symbol of their relationship. It is also the same color as the moon and both are objects that change, one in phases in the night sky and the other with a roof, one massive and one small, yet both are significant.
JS: “Gemini Season” exists among many contrasts. The children play outdoors while the main characters enter into adulthood from the protection of the convertible. The monumental nature of the cosmos (and the realization of potential love) fuses with the clinical nature of bacteria cells that manifest in the body. These contrasts offer a deeply moving – and also funny – portrayal of the early queer experience. They also culminate into what feels like a soliloquy – a gift in the form of answers to questions the audience might not have known they were ever asking. Are these contrasts a prerequisite for telling honest stories?
RL: I’m not sure. I like contradictions because I think they invite us into realizing how two seemingly opposite things can be the same, because that is a truth I see in the world. In the story, I think I work with contrast mostly on a level of scale – that patterns repeat both in the tiny and in the gigantic. There are things I would change in this story too, but the contradiction with what I want to say and what I wrote (write?) is one that I can live with for now.
TE: What subjects do you find yourself writing most about?
RL: I find myself writing about gay men the most. Our (my) experiences, troubles, thoughts, problems, etc. I like that [Jackson] calls this an example of “early queer experience” because I don’t ever mention their ages, but I think you can tell that these are young people who will eventually leave each other, and that’s okay.
There is such a lack of material that young gay men get to find themselves in, and I want to contribute to the growing list of material in which they can. Unfortunately, a lot of “gay material” (fictions, film, non-fiction) is rather adult, and not always appropriate for young gay people, however important. Maybe the AIDS crisis or examples of violent homophobia aren’t the best welcome mats. While this material is important, tells a story, is true, and provides us with a history, there is also more than enough space for unimportant, frivolous, smarmy, childish, sappy, lovely material, too – not to say there isn’t any crossover, of course. Which category my contributions fall under isn’t really any of my business, I suppose.
Stillwater’s Creative Lab was conceived in an effort to foster collaborative relationships across all artistic disciplines. The Lab’s Fine Art Causes A Ripple campaign, which invites artists to share their methods of disrupting spaces in stasis, led to a partnership between Rafael López and biology student Ray Volkin (‘21), who often finds herself illustrating the bacteria she studies in labs.
“After reading this, I thought there were a lot of elements packed into this writing. One cool thing about science is the parallels between the itty bitty pieces that make up the universe on a small scale, and these massive clusters of heat and gas that make up the massive universe. I was looking through my microscope pictures from a genetics class when I came across this beautiful germline from C. elegans, [and] suddenly I understood what the author was saying: we are all made of stardust, rearranged and smashed together.
As someone with a background in science, I felt I could do this project justice. The picture I took of C. elegans inspired this digital drawing [which is] an illustration that connects the stars and our cells.”
- Ray Volkin
STORY BY Rafael López / ILLUSTRATIONS BY RAY VOLKIN / EDITED BY MAYA CARLSON AND TARA ENG
When I step out of my house at night to get into Sebastián’s car, the kids on the two cross-streets are playing outside with a big white ball--the kind that comes in towers at toy stores. They run around, yelling and calling, under the light of the street lamp that sits in the median right before the intersection. I’ve always admired them, not caring if they fall and scrape their knees, or stain their pants. The kids become part of the street, the line between their feet and the pavement blurring, as if the neighborhood wouldn’t even exist if they didn’t. The corner of Juniper St. and Carson Dr.
Sebastián picks me up in his small white two-seater convertible, a car he inherited from his parents. He always comes to get me at night when we want to go driving, sometimes with places in mind, but usually we just pick a direction and go.
“North please,” I’d say one night.
“How about East?” he’d ask.
“South. And step on it!” I yelled. He laughed as he hit the gas and I flew back into my seat, not ready for the acceleration. Once, I said West so many times he got angry.
“You always say West! Why not literally any other direction?” he asked, frustrated. “We have driven on the same highway and past the same barns like fifty times!”
“Only six,” I responded innocently. “I don’t know, I just feel like we’re going backwards every time we go East. I want to go forward, discover something new, find something! Westward Ho!”
“How colonial of you,” he responded with a sly smile. I rolled my eyes and began to respond but he cut me off. “You know the Earth spins West to East, so if we go East I feel like we’re actually going into the future with the rest of the world. West is actually backward.”
“Fine,” I responded. “But I actually started getting attached to those barns.”
“Such a westward ho,” he replied.
“Ha-ha,” I slapped his leg in response. He drove East.
Once, we drove through a neighborhood at night, blasting music in languages we didn’t understand, watching lights turn on in homes as we drove past, laughing and screaming the melodies.
“I DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY’RE SINGING ABOUT, BUT I LOVE THIS SONG!” I screamed above the music.
“ME TOO!” he yelled back. “WOOOOO, HAVE SOME CULTURE!” he yelled at the houses, more and more lights turning on as we drove past.
Another time, Sebastián took me to a museum for an exhibit opening of Mexican muralism.
“Do you see how he used European techniques but then turned them on their head? Like instead of white people, they’re full of Indigenous people, and their culture, and color. So much color.” Sebastián had a white mom and a Native Mexican dad, something he said with pride. “I feel like there’s so much in me. Two cultures, two histories, all that.”
“So much Spring within you?” I asked, a reference to his favorite musical, A New Brain.
“Ha, yes.” he responded. “I feel like I’m the product of a process of addition. I mean in some ways we all are, but for me, it’s so...right there, you know?” I nodded. “Jump frog jump…” he hummed to himself.
Tonight, I jumped into the car and Sebastián began driving right away. The top was down and a full Moon was shining above us, casting shadows.
“Happy Gemini season,” I said. “South?”
“No.” He paused, long and drawn out like he had a surprise in store. “Not tonight.”
“Oh,” I said, equally drawn out. “Sexy and mysterious huh?”
“Sometimes I’m romantic,” he responded. I smiled. We merged onto the highway and I felt myself accelerating with the car, going from 30 to 40, 50, 60 mph. I leaned back against the headrest and closed my eyes, allowing the car to carry me away. We sped along and began going up the hill at the edge of town, the streetlights becoming less and less frequent. Quickly, the lake that sat to the North of our town came into view, shining like a mirror under the full Moon.
“Where are we going?” I asked. “God, it’s such a beautiful night.”
“Por favor, chico. Vas a ver,” he replied. “And yes, it is.”
We followed the road along the edge of the lake and eventually turned off and parked in an overlook. We got out of the car and sat on the hood, staring up at the night sky. We sat in silence for a while, taking in the late spring air, the cicadas buzzing around us, filling the night with a beautiful noise.
“Do you ever think about all the bacteria that live inside us?” Sebastián asked, breaking through the sound of the insects.
“What? What do you mean?” I replied, turning to face him. “And what made you ask that?”
“Like, all the little bacteria that help us digest, and protect us against diseases, and help us poop, even? The stars remind me of all of them, a bit. So many stars up there, all sending their light out into space, maybe even making life,” he replied, engrossed still in the sky. “Like, oh!” He turned to me. “You know how some people tell you not to douche because – ”
“Wait, who’s saying not to douche?” I responded, laughing and shaking my head at how silly he sounded.
“I don’t know! People!” he replied, also laughing now. “But yeah you’re not supposed to do it too much or else it’ll harm the bacteria!”
“Okay!” I laughed with him. “So why are you asking me?” He paused.
“It’s just so cool that we don’t exist alone. Like we can’t function properly if we’re sanitized all the time, we have these beings inside of us that, like, ARE us to a certain extent but really aren’t. So really, we can’t do anything on our own!” He looked at me as if I was supposed to like what he was saying. “We have stars inside us, solar systems even! No, we’re galaxies walking on two legs!”
“That terrifies me,” I replied, blankly.
“Why?” he asked.
“I mean – agh!” I responded, rubbing my eye, trying to articulate. “It just...makes it sound like we aren’t real, I don’t know. That we’re fake somehow, that if we have all these little beings inside us doing the things we’re supposed to be doing then what do we actually do? Makes me feel powerless,” I finished.
“Well it makes me feel safe,” he responded quickly. “Like there are a million beings watching out for me. Humans aren’t just human, they’re also a trillion little pieces of matter stuck together somehow! Imagine the strength that must take. We’re complete beings sure, like we take up a defined amount of space and all and have one brain that controls one body, but we’re also this cosmos of stuff who’s brains can go so much further than the limits of our skin, and realize we’re alive, and we can do absolutely anything we want. We’re walking contradictions, really.” He was alive with the conviction that what he was saying was true.
“Or like all the colors rammed together, a rainbow and a white light,” I offered.
“Yes! Exactly!” he replied. I turned from him and looked back at the moon. It was high in the sky and bright as ever, full and loose like it was about to burst and flood the whole world, West to East, with moonlight.
“I guess you’re right, then,” I said after a while, turning away from him. Admittedly, I hadn’t ever thought about it. But the more I did, the less powerless I felt. If you consider how impossible it is that we even exist, billions of years in the making, I suppose I was okay having a little help – from bacteria, from stars, whatever.
A wind blew over us, rustling the leaves that surrounded the overlook. The insects kept chirping and the first bird had just begun singing, adding to the beautiful noise. Sebastián and I looked to each other. I saw the Moon, shining back at me, in his eyes. I kissed him, slowly, and thought about our bodies becoming one, but holding millions.
The sun started to come up as we got back into the car. I laid my head back as Sebastián pushed further on the pedal and sped down the hill. I let the wind roar past me and stuck my arms into the air, waving my hand like a rudder, as if I were steering the car myself.
I smiled to myself, looking out the window, his hand now in mine. I wished that the car’s walls would stretch and expand to hold all of us, not just our bodies, but our dreams and our millions too. Past the street, past the intersection, past the whole Earth to reach the Sun. I could see it in the trees flying past my window, smell it in the air that was fresh with spring-almost-summer, find it in the reflection of the morning light on the lake.
We parked in front of my house, happy and unashamed about not sleeping all night. The sun rose from the East, that morning, as it always does, and Sebastián and I watched it rise from my front lawn, drenching the intersection in light. At the opposite end, we could see the moon still, making its way down. Sebastián held me close, and I could smell him, the grass, and the concrete, all blending together. In just a few hours, I know the kids will come out to play.