Healing through memoir
UCI English professor's two new books grapple with lingering effects of homophobia
By Lilibeth Garcia
Jonathan Alexander was visiting family in Colorado when one morning, the day he planned to return to California, he woke up and noticed he was partially blind. He thought his retina had detached, but an eye exam ruled it out. Instead, his diagnosis was entirely unexpected: It was an eye stroke. If the plaque that lodged into his eye artery had gone in the opposite direction, it might have cost him his life.
“We try to live our lives very carefully, and then all of a sudden the thing that we didn't even know was possible to happen, happens,” Alexander, Chancellor’s Professor of English and informatics at UCI, says. “We can use those moments to rail against the foiling of our best laid plans, or we can think of them as opportunities to revisit what we are doing and why we are doing what we're doing.”
The medical event was the catalyst for Alexander’s recently published Stroke Book: The Diary of Blindspot (Fordham University Press, 2021). Informed by his unique perspective as a queer person undergoing medical intervention, he explores existential questions in lyrical diary-like prose.
Just as Alexander didn’t plan for a stroke to disrupt his life, he also didn’t plan for his two books to publish a week apart: Stroke Book on Oct. 26 and Bullied: The Story of an Abuse (Punctum Books, 2021) on Nov. 9. Bullied – the second book in his Creep Trilogy – was slated to publish last year, but then the pandemic hit, halting the lives of everyone – including publishers. While the books discuss different significant moments in Alexander’s life, they incidentally reinforce one another.
“As I began to meditate on the stroke and why it might have happened, I began thinking about various stress factors in my life, various traumas and difficulties I've had,” Alexander says. “As an aging gay man, some of us live with a lot of scarring from the past.”
Alexander grew up in the Deep South – New Orleans – and came of age in the ’70s and the early ’80s. “It was a very homophobic time in a lot of ways,” he says. “Much of my own early collegiate experience was marked by the specter of AIDS. So much of that, I think, contributed to a life of not just stress, but also of worry and anxiety.”
Alexander’s health crisis led him down a path of reflecting on what it means to age and experience the passage of time as a queer man, and that’s when Stroke Book was born. Bullied, on the other hand, while also a deeply personal book, is about the structures that often perpetuate homophobic abuse – family, church, school and politics – and what it means to grapple with such varied forms of bullying as a queer storyteller. Although not intentional, his books tell a whole story about how queerness touches every aspect of a person’s life, and how homophobia can continue to affect people long after the violence has diminished.
“I often think of homophobia as unequally distributed, spatially and temporally,” Alexander says. “We like to think, we have gay marriage now, so we're fine, but still, there are people my age living in parts of this country in which they are experiencing homophobia on a very regular basis. Identity and sexual behavior are criminalized in different parts of the globe, so this remains an international global problem.”
Alexander’s books come at a time when queer people, despite finding new forms of freedom, are still making sense of a homophobic history. The author, co-author and editor of 21 books, Alexander’s works have resonated with readers. Recently Lambda Literary named Stroke Book on its "Most Anticipated LGBTQIA+ Books" list. Columbia's Pride Month Spotlight included Creep: A Life, a Theory, an Apology (Punctum Books, 2017), prequel to Bullied.
Beyond being an award-winning memoirist and English professor, Alexander also serves as associate dean of UCI’s Division of Undergraduate Education, researcher for The Wayfinding Project (a collaborative and multi-campus endeavor that examines the “writing lives” of UC students that are three to ten years post-graduation), and as faculty in the UCI Connected Learning Lab and Ph.D. Program in Culture & Theory. At the center of his work is engaging with the UCI community and helping others who were once in his shoes.
“The platitude that we've been offering folks is that ‘it gets better.’ But the reality is that we have to help each other make it better,” he says. “I don't think things just get better on their own. They get better because we make an effort. We have to connect with the people who can help us make things better. We have to find the communities that help us make things better for ourselves and for each other. We can help each other make it better.”
During the pandemic, Alexander offered support to queer students, many of whom had to move back to intolerant environments. “In a way they gave me a gift by allowing me to help them recognize that there is a community here for them and that we look forward to welcoming them back to campus,” he says.
In an episode of “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond,” an interview series with School of Humanities Dean Tyrus Miller, Alexander drew parallels between today's pandemic and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. He discussed how community, art and writing emerge from difficult times. In some ways, Alexander has already witnessed this among his students.
Last year, Alexander and alumnus Hai Truong ’11 (B.A. English), who is a marketing strategist for UCI’s Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, produced a podcast series called “We are UCI: Redefining Student Success,” in which they interviewed students about how they were dealing with the pandemic. The project was originally construed with the idea that they would be supporting students by giving them a platform to vent, but the reality was quite different. Instead, they were overwhelmed with how creative and dynamic the students’ lives were. Many of them took advantage of the lockdowns to learn how to cook new dishes, take up an art project, become political activists, start attending city council meetings and engage with their communities.
“It was completely transforming for me and reinvigorated me and reminded me over and over again why I absolutely love being a professor,” he says. “I love the time that I get to write and reflect on my life and then reflect on the lives of those I love and the ideas that are interesting to me. But then I also get to be in this world of fairly ceaseless stimulation by other intellectuals, colleagues, and, most importantly, by young people who constantly bring to me their curiosity, enthusiasm and even their optimism about life. And that's great to see.”
Learn more about Bullied here and Stroke Book here.
Watch a video interview about Stroke Book here.