In honor of Pride 2020, I’m writing this blog post about Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader.
I first learned about Steve Abbott when I read Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father by his daughter, Alysia Abbott. The book walks the line between biography and autobiography, since it is told from Alysia’s perspective with first person pronouns, yet her father Steve, not herself, is the main subject, because being a single gay father in the 1970s and 1980s was *cough* unusual. Nowadays, Steve Abbott is probably much better known as The Single Gay Father of Alysia Abbott than anything else.
But I was curious about Steve Abbott’s writing, so when Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader was published, I got a copy.
As of now, I’ve read less than half of the book. And that means I still have plenty of unread material waiting for me when I feel an inclination to read more of Steve Abbott’s writing.
I didn’t realize how all-over-the-place his writing actually is. Sure, I know that he was a poet AND an essayist AND a prose-fiction writer, but a writer can be all of those things without being weird. Steve Abbott’s writing is so weird that I think describing it as ‘weird’ is an understatement. Some of it completely defies categorization. For example “Lives of the Poets” isn’t really fiction or non-fiction. Maybe it’s a twenty-page long pure prose poem based on factual information about the lives of various writers and artists.
In the essay “Passing Strangers” he says:
Most of my writing is published in obscure magazines. I like to write on unusual topics: the history of rubber stamp art, avant-garde poetry, tv commercials, horror movies. I want to make connections.
Whoa, that’s a lot like my writing. Most of my writing is published in obscure blogs, especially this one. I like to write about unusual topics, like aromanticism, wuxia, organizing, mountains in Taiwan, Takarazuka, sewing camping gear, and even more obscure topics. And from the beginning of this blog, I decided to be so eclectic because I too wanted to make connections. I usually don’t try to connect weird combinations of topics as explicitly as I did in this blog post series, but putting together topics most people wouldn’t put together has been a theme of this blog from the beginning. And I can feel that making weird connections is also a running theme in Steve Abbott’s writing. It’s one of the things which makes Beautiful Aliens exciting.
Steven spent more than a decade living on Haight Street, which means that there are various references to the neighborhood in some of his writing (one of the things I did while reading Fairyland was take note of how Haight Street had changed since the 80s and how it had stayed the same). So I feel that connection to his work.
(I haven’t found a good place in this blog post to mention that Steve Abbott was bisexual. He usually describes himself as ‘gay’ but when it comes to specific orientation labels, he says he’s bisexual. Even though this insertion is awkward, I think this is better than contributing to bi-erasure).
The essays are the most ordinary part of this reader, probably because Steve Abbott aimed them at a more mainstream audience. They are also a lot easier to understand since he communicates clearly instead of trying to jolt the reader’s senses with surprising juxtapositions. One of the essays in the reader “Will We Survive the 80s” is available online for free: it presents his thoughts and reflections on AIDS as an existential crisis for gay male communities. I strongly recommend reading it.
Technically, Steve Abbott did survive the 80s. He didn’t die of AIDS until 1992.
I also got to know about what it was like for him to be a single parent directly from his words, not mediated by his daughter. Things like this:
So I am torn, forced to live a lie. How can I be a parent? I’ve always hated parents and avoided their company. I don’t want responsibility. I want to be the child. Denials or displacements of parental selfishness constitute lies of the tribe.
As for the gay scene, some were jealous of Alysia stealing their limelight; others feared she’d break their antiques. It got better after I helped found the gay fathers organization. I felt less isolated and weird then. The first group of us was mostly welfare fathers. When a more Yuppie crowd took over – real estate speculators or Doctors who’d “come out” at age 50 – I felt somewhat outcast again. I mean, I was on AFDC and they sat around talking about their yachts.
[While on drugs] I was hearing cosmic voices telling me to kill John and myself so we could be reincarnated. Barb [Steve’s wife, Alysia’s mother] was about to have me committed when she died in a car accident after going to Detroit to get Trip out of jail. I sensed our excesses would lead to death, only I assumed I’d be the one to die, which I longed for … Barb’s death shocked me out of my insanity … I knew if I wanted to keep Alysia I’d have to stop being crazy. I didn’t know if I could but I had to try. Alysia was all I had in the world and I was all she had too. Not one of my friends thought I could do it. They all thought I should give Alysia to Barb’s or my parents. But I pulled it together.
Reading his writings, I’m surprised at how relevant much of it is today. As in, I am surprised he was writing some of this stuff in the 1970s or 1980s rather than in the 21st century. Was he really that ahead of his time? Or has the world not changed much since he was around? (In fact, thinking about how little some of the things he mentions have changed does not seem to bode well for our ability to ever change them). Maybe the editor (Jamie Townsend) was really good at picking the works which would appeal to current readers and cutting out anything that was too dated. Or maybe it’s just that we are all Barbara Yung and the time between the 1980s and now is not enough for us to notice the movements of the glaciers that are carving our world.