On Record: Real Life

In Episode 3 of On Record––Madeleine, Caitlin, Maddie, and Celia discuss Real Life, by Brandon Taylor, a novel about a gay, Black doctoral student in a predominantly White, Midwestern PhD program as he navigates life over the course of a weekend.

Transcription

CELIA: When the queer community does get representation, it typically is, you know, white boys. Which is not necessarily bad, it’s just that is what makes up the majority of the content. So especially with people of color, or women in the queer community, or transgender, and nonbinary individuals, their representation is very very slim.

[MUSIC] 0:10

MADELIENE: While our goal in this podcast is to tackle and address controversial topics, we are doing so from an analytical standpoint. Our goal is to educate ourselves and listeners through our discussions. No member of On Record supports racism, derogatory language, or offensive content.

[MUSIC] 0:05

MADELEINE: Welcome to On Record, where we discuss controversial and underrepresented literature. We’re your hosts, Madeleine Bonnaillie…

CAITLIN: Caitlin Clement…

MADDIE: Maddie Willey…

CELIA: …and Celia Brocker

CELIA: So this is our third episode of On Record. As usual, we’re gonna kick things off with a little update in the terms of, you know, controversial topics that could ban books. Maddie found this article about a recent bill introduced in Tennessee that would ban public schools from teaching any textbooks that contain any mention of the LGBTQ+ community. That seems pretty in line with the book we’re going to discuss today, so –

CAITLIN: On brand with the topic of discussion.

MADDIE: Yeah, it’s a very interesting article. It’s by Metro Weekly, it’s from the end of March. Yeah, basically a Tennesse Republican is entering or submitted a bill that states as a direct quote, “To not locally use or adopt in the public schools of this state, textbooks and instructional materials or supplemental instructional materials that either promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender issues or lifestyles.”

MADELEINE: I think there’s a lot on this bill that’s interesting, there’s a lot of issues. I know we were talking earlier before we started recording that my favorite line personally is that they call LGBTQ+ people “a controversial social issue.” Which is an interesting way of phrasing the entire bill and sentiment of that.

CAITLIN: “You’re a controversial issue.” 

[LAUGHTER]

CELIA: Thanks 

[LAUGHTER]

MADDIE: Yeah

CAITLIN: Sorry Celia 

[LAUGHTER]

CELIA: It’s okay, heard it before 

[LAUGHTER]

MADELEINE: It’s interesting that it’s not even–they don’t want to normalize support or address any LGBTQ+ issues, so it’s like “we don’t even want to acknowledge that this is a thing,” or let it be normalized in schools.

CAITLIN: I think it’s funny, cause the representative, his name is Bruce Giffey…or Giffey (said Jiff-ee)? [laughs] The gif or jif debate 

[LAUGHTER]

CELIA: Yes

CAITLIN: He said, I think it’s funny because I guess it’s earlier on in the article, he suggests that schools should focus on academic courses that can lead students down a pathway to success such as reading, science, and mathematics. But of course if any of that has to do with the LGBTQ+ community then apparently it’s not a pathway to success. I don’t know, I just think it’s dumb.

MADDIE: Yeah

CAITLIN: Reading science and mathematics. Well, reading, there’s a lot of LGBTQ+– oh my gosh.

[LAUGHTER]

CAITLIN: I always get, that’s always a tongue twister for me. I don’t know why but you know. There’s always representation, or at least when I was in high school there was always some sort of representation in books that we read, at least a couple of books.

MADDIE: Yeah another really good line in this article is “The bill also stresses that any teaching related to topics or gender identity or sexual orientation may offend the Christian community.”

CAITLIN: Cause you know, we got to stay away from offending the Christian community.

MADDIE: Yeah

MADELEINE: Separation of church and state, I don’t know, never heard of that.

CAITLIN: Who is she? 

[LAUGHTER]

CELIA: I think the main thing I’m taking away from this is that this legislator thinks that if we just don’t talk about it, it won’t exist. 

[LAUGHTER]

MADDIE: It will just go away.

CELIA: Which is the best mindset ever.

CAITLIN: If we just ignore it, it’s not there. If only, if only. So many things would be resolved if we just –

[LAUGHTER]

CAITLIN: If all it took was if we just ignored it.

MADDIE: Yeah

MADELEINE: I thought this article was a great segway into Celia’s book today.

CELIA: Yeah

MADELEINE: So props to Maddie for finding this article.

CAITLIN: The resident news lady on On Record. Or I guess reporter. You’re our news reporter.

 

[LAUGHTER]

 

MADDIE: Yep.

 

[Music] 0:05

 

CELIA: So, this is kind of a nice segway into the book we’re talking about today. Cause when I was looking for my book, I wanted to find an LGBTQ+ book or dealt with that content that came out recently. So when I was doing my research, pretty much every list I found of books from 2020 had this book on it and fairly high on the list. So I was like “Okay, this book comes really highly recommended, I should read it.” And it actually has a lot of content in it that could be considered controversial, or could make people uncomfortable. So, the story is called Real Life. It’s the debut novel by Brandon Taylor, and it tells the story of Wallace, a gay Black doctoral student in a predominantly white Midwestern PhD program. It’s also in Iowa, I’m pretty sure, so that’s great.

 

[LAUGHTER]

 

CELIA: The story takes place over the course of one weekend, which alternates between gatherings with his friends, having moments by himself, a session in his lab, and a couple of other encounters with a friend. And the whole time Wallace is in kind of a mentally difficult place, where he’s craving solitude but at the same time he wants help but doesn’t know how to ask for it. So it’s that really tricky place between, you know, “I want company but at the same time I want people to leave me alone,” which I’m pretty sure everyone can relate to.

 

MADDIE: Yeah

 

CELIA: I think what interested me the most was the book was really almost autobiographical when I was doing my research about Taylor. Cause, he came from a very working-class background in rural Alabama. Like Wallace, he was the only Black queer man in his program. He was also a biochemistry graduate like Wallace. But he left after four years to pursue a career in writing, so you know, not science and mathematics.

 

[LAUGHTER]

 

CELIA: And he’s also, Taylor’s confirmed he does share similar life experiences and habits with Wallace. I just also found it interesting that his career path was so similar to Wallace’s. And Wallance in the book is considering leaving graduate school because it’s not really making him happy and Taylor actually left. I think it’s kind of interesting to show, you know, we don’t often show quote on quote “giving up.” Giving up is rarely portrayed as a positive thing. You know I think sometimes when something isn’t for you it’s okay to recognize you can step away and take care of your own mental health, you know.

 

CAITLIN: Yeah absolutely.

 

CELIA: A question I had is because the novel doesn’t really come to a resolution, whether Wallace chose to stay in graduate school or choose to give it up. Obviously, Taylor went one way, but I was wondering what you guys thought would it be necessary for a story to have an ending or specifically a story like this, a coming of age story. Does it need to be tied up in order to be satisfying? Or if it’s left open ended is that too much or is that just right. I’m curious to know your thoughts.

 

MADDIE: Yeah, I mean, everyone’s going to have a different opinion. Everyone either likes the solid type of ending or if it is left open I think that’s great sometimes. Every story doesn’t need an ending. At the point of Wallace’s life and at the point of life we’re in, we don’t know what’s coming next. We don’t know how that’s going to end. What the decisions were making, the consequences they’re going to have and I think that’s very nice to kind of see that in a book as well.

 

CAITLIN: Yeah absolutely. I think it always depends on the story that you’re telling, you know. I think specifically, cause what this all happens in the course of a weekend, correct?

 

CELIA: Yeah.

 

CAITLIN: It’s hard to wrap up a weekend, you know. It’s like, there are so many other things that still need to happen, still need to develop, still need to be, still need to come forth and be I guess. But I think for some books it’s kind of like showing that it’s still up for discussion, that there’s still something to learn, there’s still something to be thought about. I, as frustrating as open-ended endings are sometimes, I secretly love them because I feel like the books that have those open-ended endings are the ones that are talked about and discussed the most. Just because everyone is always like “Oh gosh, what if this happened or what if or what if this happened?” and then you really get into the book and all that kind of stuff.

 

MADDIE: Yeah, everyone who reads it can kind of figure out their own ending…

 

CAITLIN: Yeah, they can make their own interpretation if that’s what they want but.

 

MADELEINE: I’m a huge Steven King fan, so if any of you have heard this just let it happen, but as he writes in one of his books; it’s not about the ending, most people won’t be happy with an ending, but it’s all about the journey that gets you there. For Wallace, it’s interesting looking at his journey and coming to terms with “do I stay or do I go” and what that means and making that choice. Personally I am also a fan of open-ended endings.

 

CAITLIN: Yeah. I think if you want to get deep about it, you can kind of apply that to life in general and that it’s always good to enjoy the moments as they come and not solely focusing on the end result because you’re going to forget what happened on the way. And that’s where the story happens. The story doesn’t happen at that one specific moment, the story happens from the beginning to the end. It’s all the middle bits, that’s the substantial stuff.

 

CELIA: Going to back to the main reason I chose this book is it’s talking about and depiction of it’s queer characters. One of the things that stood out to me the most with the novel is that Wallaces sexuality, he’s not discovering it or questioning it or struggling with his sexual identity throughout the book. That’s something that’s already happened. His sexuality comes up a lot in the novel, but it’s not the root of the novel. Which is what I was kind of expecting. So I was pleasantly surprised that it was, not an afterthought, but it just wasn’t the important thing because typically when we ready stories with characters, that’s typically the main plot point is that initial discovery period. I also liked that a pretty big portion of his friend group is made up people who are also queer. Typically we just see the token queer character, which is not really the truth in real life at all.

 

[LAUGHTER]

 

MADDIE: Not any more.

 

CELIA: Nope.

 

CAITLIN: yeah the one queer member of the group surrounded by all their straight friend. Like that does–no.

 

CELIA: Yeah that doesn’t…

 

CAITLIN: I mean obviously they have straight friends and straight people have gay friends and whatever, but yeah, it’s not like each little group has their resident queer person.

 

[LAUGHTER]

 

CELIA: At first sometimes it seems charming but other times it seems annoying when it keeps happening. Because it’s mostly just the moving going, “Oh we gotta tick off that representation box.”

 

[CROSSTALK]

 

CELIA: So that’s why I really like this novel and then, what made it even more was that it wasn’t about discovering sexuality. I liked that the story already happened so that we could focus on other aspects that come with that because that’s something that often doesn’t get talked about as much as the initial period.

 

CAITLIN: Yeah I wouldn’t say that, you know, those stories, those coming out stories aren’t as important, because they are. I just think that there are a lot more of them and it’s refreshing to know that there’s a book out there that’s not all that it is. It’s still a part of him but it’s like…but…exactly it’s a part of him. It’s a piece of him but it’s not his whole story. Which I think is interesting.

 

MADDIE: Yeah and having stories like that is good for like representation, just like normalizing it in general, because it is just a part of our normal lives now. And just having that representation and just showing “Hey, he’s gay, but that’s not all he is. There’s a lot more to him if you just get to know him.”

 

CAITLIN: Yeah, humans are complex creatures, there’s more going on than just what you think is going on.

 

CELIA: Yeah, I feel like if the legislator from Tennessee, if he took his time and sat down with a book like this. I don’t think necessarily he’s come around, but I think he would just say, you know, it’s not as complicated as he’s thinking it’s going to be or thinking that you know, being gay just takes up someones whole personality. He’d realize that people who consume content like this, it isn’t going to quote on quote “Going to turn them gay”. Which is like a main fear…

 

CAITLIN: Gay from association.

 

[LAUGHTER]

 

CELIA: I promise you, if that was a real thing…

 

[LAUGHTER]

 

CELIA: Oh lord…

 

MADELEINE: I think it’s important to acknowledge that Wallace is a PHD student, he’s got other things in his life that are consuming his time. He’s at that period of time in his life where he’s trying to shape his identity and figure out who he is, but I think at this point his big thing is, “Do I stay or do I go” in this graduate program and “What does success look like either way?”

 

CAITLIN: But, I mean, yeah, I think books like these, er just like this one, again they’re just really refreshing. There’s more to it. He’s a complex individual, and we’re all complex individuals and I think that makes that very relatable to a lot of people. And I think relatable books become popular books because people relate to them.

 

[LAUGHTER]

 

CELIA: Yes, and talk of being able to relate to stuff, sometimes the stuff that people can relate to is sometimes darker material. And this book has a little bit of darker material in it. ‘Cause Wallace, kind of what his mental process is rooted in is that he was sexually assaulted as a child, by a family friend. And the flashback scene is pretty graphic, which some people might have problems with. It’s very controversial with graphic scenes like this. I remember when Thirteen Reasons Why came out and there was a lot of talk about the sexual assault scenes and other scenes, where they said that “It shouldn’t have been this graphic. That’s just triggering, unnecessary.” I think it really depends on the content. And I feel as long as there’s a certain warning beforehand. Because honestly when it got to that scene I didn’t read it all the way through. Because I just–I know what’s going to happen in that scene and I don’t need that for context. But you know, some–So I think that it shouldn’t matter necessarily sometimes how graphic a scene is, as long as you’re able to skip through it if you don’t want to. I don’t think we should ever take content away or ban it. But I don’t know, what do you guys think?

 

CAITLIN: Yeah, Yeah, I don’t think that we should ever ban it. Like you said, I think there should be a warning if it’s something that gonna one, trigger somebody who has been through a similar situation. That always needs to be a warning. Because it’s true. A lot of people have gone through sexual abuse, rape, mental health issues, you know. A lot of people have and they read that stuff and it’s triggering. But I think their goal with graphic scenes is to make you uncomfortable. Because it’s not supposed to be comfortable. They want you to think about it from a critical lens. And feel that uncomfortable feeling and realize “Oh my gosh. I need to do something about this.” Like this isn’t something that, you know, we should just sweep under the rug, and pretend isn’t there. Like the representative.

 

[LAUGHTER]

 

CAITLIN: Um, full circle. But yeah, I mean, I think also a lot of times graphic scenes are super graphic because they have to convey the feelings of the individual. The very strong feelings of that individual and sometimes, emotionally, it’s hard to describe that. So, I think the imagery of those graphic scenes kind of helps to convey that a little bit more for those individuals that just don’t quite know how to–or those people who have never experienced those things and they just don’t know what that feels like. So, this at least can give them, you know, even just a tiny little piece of it.

 

MADDIE: Yeah, and I think a big part of it too is also what the age group is for the particular books. Like obviously if it’s gonna be in high schools, it might not be as graphic all the time. But like, this is a book that is more targeted towards an older audience. So, having more of that graphic content is a lot more acceptable because it’s not like there’s people, young adults, reading it. So I think age is a big factor of that as well.

 

MADELEINE: Yeah, I think it is. I mean the world isn’t pretty, and things like this do happen and you don’t want to keep them out of books, because that might erase it or make people feel like it’s not something that happens or that it’s not something people can relate to. And it can almost build up shame I think for the event. So I think having these graphic scenes, even if not everyone reads them it’s important to help some people put a name to what happened. Or to understand people who are in these circumstances. And like you were saying, it’s a very intense moment, it’s supposed to make you uncomfortable. So I think like Maddie was saying, maybe age is something that plays a factor, but violence also happens at all ages too. It’s one of those things, you walk a very close line or “Do you include it or do you not?”

 

MADDIE: Yeah, and kind of what we talked a little bit in our first episode, Caitlin mentioned how her teachers in high school would bring up things that were coming would be like “Hey, in this next section were reading there’s gonna be some intense stuff, so I’m letting you know so YOU can decide if you want to read it or not. And I think as long as teachers do that still, it’s important to obviously give the kids a choice if they want to read that material or not.

 

CAITLIN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I kind of want to pose a question to the group. ‘Cause like your not always reading books in an educational setting. You’re reading books outside of it. Do you think it’s…do you think it’s the responsibility of the publishers to give some sort of a warning about the book. If it has serious graphic content. There might be some laws or legal issues associated with that and I just haven’t–I don’t know those, or I haven’t looked them up. But I think that’s an- it’s just something that popped into my head. Like “But what if?”

 

CELIA: Well I know that movies come out with ratings. And that’s really helpful when I’m going to see a movie and I can like read the ratings. Cause you kind of know, based on the resting system, what’s going to be in that movie. So you can prepare yourself more in a way. And I feel like, if we had a similar concept for books. Sometimes it’s just known when you pick up a book or you read the description, you can kind of expect it. But if books had kind of like ratings like that I feel like that might be helpful to some people. Also, I feel with this particular scene in this book, it wasn’t done with the intent to upset people or trigger people or just for the sake of shock factor. It was done because it was a deliberate plot in the story that needed to be told. And honestly, I think it was too…Because sexual assault does happen, unfortunately. And it happens across all ages. And I think it was a way for him to reach out and find people and say “Hey, you’re valid. This happened to me too, and it’s not your fault.” Which I think is pretty important if we’re gonna portray it that way.

 

MADELEINE: I also think the portrayal to is– I think when you think of sexual assault you think of an act committed again a women or a girl. And I think this instance with Wallace being a man, I feel like it’s almost drawing attention like sexual violence can happen to anyone whether your a man or a woman, or a child or whatever age. So I think it’s maybe on that side of the author too. Like bringing to light that this isn’t just one issue that happens to one group of people. And kind of–not normalizing it but normalizing the conversation around that.

 

CAITLIN: Yeah, I think you’re bringing up a good point. I think there’s a lot of layers to this store, for sure. Like you have the queer community represented, you have the black community represented. And now you have male sexual abuse represented. So, I think that’s…you know…super cool to see, considering, you know, all we’ve been through in the past. And we still have so much that we need to do in the future. But it’s good to see things like this I think, and representation of specific groups, especially all in one book.

 

CELIA: I totally agree, and especially because When the queer community does get representation, it typically is, you know, white boys. Which is not necessarily bad, it’s just that was what makes up the majority of the content. So especially with people of color, or women in the queer community, or transgender, and nonbinary individuals, their representation is very very slim. And so I–it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not just, you know, gay. It’s LGBTQ+. There’s a whole lot of stuff in there.

 

CAITLIN: Yeah, and I mean we’ve–I mean we’ve seen that in the Lil Nas music video–

 

[LAUGHTER]

 

CAITLIN: everybody blowing up about that and talking about that, so yeah. Definitely, there needs to be more like, wider representation of different marginal groups, because again, complex human beings we are.

 

MADDIE: Yes.

 

CELIA: Another big part of the novel is Wallace’s race because he’s the only Black person in his friend group and he’s the only Black person in his graduate program, and it makes up for a lot of the conflict in the novel because he experiences a lot of discrimination in his lab and from his friend group. He has a female rival and a professor telling him he’s being sexist based on certain altercations, and, having read it, he wasn’t. But, um, they’re not considering his experiences with racism as important. They’re focusing totally on one minority and not focusing on the other minority in the lab. And there’s another moment later where someone of his friend group tells him “You should consider yourself lucky to be a part of this grad program because you’re Black,” and then none of his friends defend him. They kind of just let the moment pass because of how awkward it is. Which is typically the white person response to racism, which is just, you know, it doesn’t really affect me, so I’m just going to ignore it as awkward as it is, I’m just going to move on.

 

CAITLIN: Yeah, being a bystander.

 

CELIA: So, I think this was a really successful calling out of the white community because white people tend to get very offended when called racist because they think of one extreme and they don’t think about the micro-aggressions and subtleties of racism. So–

 

CAITLIN: Yeah, those are everywhere. Microaggressions are literally everywhere. I feel like I learn or am educated on a new microaggression every day. And it’s just crazy how much systematically everything is just integrated in with each other. And it’s sad to see, but I’m glad we’re at least making an effort to find those things and at least somewhat change them for, you know, some people more so than others but–

 

[LAUGHTER]

 

CELIA: Yeah, and I think we see a little in the novel too, you know, cause I think people get very upset when they’re getting called out for behavior and they take it personally. But it’s not really–what we need to remember is that it’s not about us and it’s not meant with the intent to put you down, it’s saying “Hey, this offends me”, so the only correct response is I’m so sorry and please specify and “I won’t do it in the future.”

 

CAITLIN: Yeah exactly.

 

MADELEINE: Well, I mean, when someone hurts your feelings, you’re going to expect them to apologize even if they didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. And I think people don’t translate that, like, empathy of “Oh you did something mean to me and I’m telling you it” and correct it to instances of racism or microaggressions. They’re like immediately “Well I didn’t mean to be racist, that wasn’t my intention, why are you offended by it?”

 

CELIA: I think it’s just really important to take racism into account, especially the fact that it hasn’t gone away in any shape or form, especially with everything that’s been happening in our country with Black Lives Matter and then the past month or so with Stop Asian Hate, there’s still a deeply rooted racism in our country and that’s not okay.

 

CAITLIN: Yeah, I think the past few years have just shown us how much, just how much racism is still in the world, you know. I think a lot of people were surprised by that. Well–I would say some people, like maybe the Black community, wasn’t surprised by that, but um, you know, the white community that likes to push things under the rug and pretend they’re not there, I think people were surprised by it. Because it, you know, people weren’t talking about it, people weren’t bringing it up. Yeah, I think it’s shown we still have a long way to go.

 

MADDIE: Yeah, and when I was preparing for this episode I was just doing a little bit of reading and there was an article by The Guardian about it that had–part of what they wrote I thought was interesting and it talked about how the book Real Life does a good job at showing how–showing the dissonance of not feeling accepted or understood at an institution, which markets itself as progressive but is populated by mostly white students still. And I think it’s something we still see a lot with universities too. Like they market themselves as having all different races and they pick out certain people who are Black or Asian and use them when they’re doing photoshoots for promotional materials. So you think it’s a very diverse campus or diverse area, but then once you get there you’re kind of blindsided.

 

CAITLIN: Yeah, for sure. I think that goes back to the tokenization. They pick out, you know, the one Black student, the one Asian student, the one Latin American student, and they like put them up on all of their photos and say “We’re diverse, we represent all people” or whatever, and then you get there and it’s like 90% white kids. So, yeah, I mean I guess you could go the extra step and actually look up their stats and stuff but you know, it’s kind of upfront is being a little deceiving I guess.

 

CELIA: I picked this book, and I think other people should read it as well because of how inclusive it is of a whole bunch of topics, it’s not just, you know, one topic that’s its main selling point. It kind of has everything. And I also found it really relatable even though I hadn’t been through a lot of things that Wallace has been through, I could find certain moments where I feel, you know, that strikes me. So I feel everyone should just, you know, broaden their minds and sometimes reach for something they didn’t expect.

 

[MUSIC]

 

CAITLIN: Thanks for listening to the Urban Plains podcast On Record. Join us next week where we’ll be discussing Lowboy, a novel by John Ray telling the story of Will, a 16-year-old schizophrenic, referring to himself as lowboy in the middle of a psychotic break in New York’s uptown B train. We will be discussing how Ray’s choice of representation affects the stereotypes of mental illness like schizophrenia and how much of what people know is outdated and dramatized in pop culture. Check out our website urban-plains.com to listen to our podcast and follow us on our social media to get the latest news on all things On Record.

[MUSIC]

END

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