Guest Post: TOWARD THE SKY by Cordelia Jensen
I'm happy to host Cordelia Jensen as part of YA Reads' Debut Author Bash event. I read and loved Cordelia's debut, Skyscraping, and am thrilled to introduce her to more readers. Read through to the end to enter a giveaway for a copy of this incredible novel.
Losing a Father to AIDS & My Choice to Write About It
It is hard for me to describe my debut YA verse novel SKYSCRAPING (out this June from Philomel/Penguin) without telling my life story. This is what happens:
“You have a book coming out! How cool, what’s it about?” asks Random Stranger.
I think it’s important to know that I’m sort of a people pleaser. So I hesitate, partly because I think they might want me to tell them a high-concept story summary and partly because what I am about to share feels too personal for this level of exchange.
Instead I say, feeling my cheeks grow warm,
“Well…my dad died of AIDS the month after I graduated high school. It used to be a memoir in verse but I fictionalized it. It is sort of about that.”
“Oh um sorry,” says Random Stranger.
I mumble “thanks,” and look down.
Awkward and not so articulate.
But, also, the truth.
I have a hard time saying I wrote this book without owning that I know something about the topic. Yet, I think it is one of those topics that is hard to write about without first-hand experience. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone outside my family who had lost a parent to AIDS. It felt so singular to us. Which, of course, was ignorant. But it also felt true.
My father died 21 years ago this summer. Like the father in SKYSCRAPING, mine was an academic, creative man who left the world too soon. He was a large man who was often mistaken for Jon Voight. He was so tall he walked with his head down. He was someone who could hold the attention of a room but always described himself as shy. He could be critical, mean even. He loved to give advice and for his advice to be taken. I know he would have loved to know his grandchildren; he would’ve played chess with my son and thrown my daughter high up in the air. To quote one of his own poems, titled, “The Blessings of AIDS”: “I will never know my grandchildren but they will hear stories of me. I will be a myth much purer than reality!” Maybe it is that line, which has stuck with me for so many years, that inspired me to write this book. Approval-seeking person that I am, I want to do what my father seemed to think I would: create a myth.
I remember being at my grandparents’ house when I was eight or so, close to the age of my own children. I saw an issue of People magazine with a story about a tall blond man who had a family but looked so skinny, as if he were dying. I grabbed the magazine and quickly ran into a room to read it, as though someone was going to take it away from me. I remember feeling like I didn’t want an adult to catch me reading it. As I read, I understood that the man in the article had a disease. This man was gay, but he had a family. There was a tiny part of me that held on to this image, this black-and-white photograph of a family that seemed far away but that also seemed familiar. At the time, I didn’t know that my dad had male lovers, or that my mother had multiple partners too. My parents had people over all the time, but nothing was explained to me. I knew these people as friends of my parents. But I also knew I was jealous of them, angry with them. I just didn’t know why.
I still have all my diaries, which have become incredibly helpful in writing a story inspired by a certain time in your life. One of my favorite lines is from my ninth grade diary: “I just found out my father has HIV. Not sure if I’m going to the prom with Nate Goldner or Matt Pulowski.” First of all, it rhymes. More importantly, this is just the epitome of my life at the time: I was shocked by what was happening to my father, but I was simultaneously preoccupied with all the regular teenage stuff. Unlike Mira, the main character in my book, I did not hide the truth about my family from my friends. But I also never really talked openly about it. My friends knew but rather than discuss it, we talked about prom, about Nate Goldner or Matt Pulowski.
Recently, I was watching “Girls,” a show I watch regularly but do not usually relate to, being a generation older than the characters and also never having had the post-college city living experience with a group of friends. Toward the end of this past season, however, Hannah finds out that her dad is gay and, seemingly, that her parents are choosing to stay married. Suddenly, part of my life story that once felt so insular is so common it is the subject of a popular, mainstream television show.
When I was growing up, I didn’t know anyone with gay or bisexual parents, or anyone who had lost a parent to AIDS. Being gay terrified me because in my small world starring my father, it meant getting ill, dying. It meant hiding the truth from your family. And, of course, in some communities it still does. Now there is a group of people called the Recollectors—children whose parents died of AIDS—who are coming out themselves and telling their stories. I see now that I am not singular at all; there are so many with experiences similar to mine. And perhaps it has always been that way. The difference is it’s now much safer to talk about it. And, to me, that is so much better.
While there is undeniably a lot of bullying against the LGBTQI community today, and lots of people die from AIDS annually, there’s a much more open dialogue around the topic. My kids recently spent a day in silence at their school in support of gay bullying. They know all about my father; they also have a grandmother who has fought since 1980 through her photographs to normalize the trans experience; they have an aunt who is in an openly gay band. Being gay is not something my children are scared of or confused about. At least, not at the moment.
I know writing this book means answering a lot of questions about what was true to my life versus what I created for the sake of fiction. Which is okay, because I it means that I will be giving people more than the myth. As I think about my dad’s words—and his own shame, his own inability to come out to pivotal people in his life—I’m starting to believe that maybe he needs more than just the mythical story told. Maybe he needs the real one to come through as well.
My hope is that now, given our climate of openness, interested readers won’t need to read my book in secret—they will probably read it in a restaurant or on a park bench. And perhaps the next time a Random Stranger asks me what my book is about, I will make a point not to hesitate. I won’t feel embarrassed by the need to tell my own story alongside the fictional one. And when they say, “sorry” maybe I will smile, look them in the eye and say, “thank you, I hope you read it.” I will look toward the sky, remember all those we’ve lost, and I’ll hold my head high.
Cordelia Jensen graduated with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. Cordelia was Poet Laureate of Perry County in 2006 and 2007. She is a Writer in Residence at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Philadelphia. She teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and Germantown Friends School. Cordelia is represented by Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger, Inc.
Visit Cordelia online at cordeliajensen.com.