Brontez Purnell & The Occupational Hazards of Sex
A Conversation with Writer, Musician, Dancer, Filmmaker, Performance Artist and Legend Brontez Purnell
Some writers ruin their work by reading it aloud. Brontez Purnell is not one of those writers. When this Black punk performs his autofictions, his storytelling does precisely what storytelling should. It seduces. It entrances. It makes you stay in your fucking seat.
The unsatisfying thing about Purnell’s storytelling is that it ends.
I first encountered Purnell in 2012, at the Art Theatre in Long Beach, California. The self-identified fag was touring with Michelle Tea’s travelling literary cabaret Sister Spit and I sat in the packed house, watching Purnell take the stage as he carried a zine to the mic. Greeting us by way of a disclaimer, Purnell explained that though he was wearing a cardigan, he was neither a member of the band Weezer nor a fan of The Smiths.
He read, or rather, he performed a story titled “Johnny, Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger?” which ends as the gay waiter who tossed a brick with an attached note through a former lover’s window receives his reply: “Two months later, Johnny…threw a brick through my window with a note attached that said ‘YES.’”
100 Boyfriends (FSG 2020), Purnell’s new collection of homo vignettes, begins with the epigraph, “Fuck all y’all” and in the proceeding pages, everyone gets fucked. Purnell pungently narrates in the tradition of hustler John Rechy and sperm donor Mike Albo, and his particular talent is generating prose that exalts the grimy. His art grabs hold of pathos and somehow makes it both fun and oddly dignified. Check out these lines: “…he’s a ho, like a real ho, like he will fuck virtually any man in the neighborhood who asks nicely; I have an undying respect for him because of that.“
I FaceTimed with Purnell, who lives in Oakland, California, and we spoke about his hometown of Triana, Alabama, trimming weed for libertarians in Ukiah, anti-erotica, and fishing. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
You should go see the birthplace of white supremacy! When I’m in Europe, I feel like a bull in a China shop. Boys there will be like, “Oh, you wild American libertine!” because their government pays for their art careers.
MYRIAM GURBA: My favorite writing makes space for place and your writing does that. It makes a lot of space for California since so much of it is set here. Do you feel very rooted in California or do you entertain fantasies of a Southern homecoming?
BRONTEZ PURNELL: The Alabama I grew up in seems like a more liberal place than what it is now. The place has gone backwards in time. I grew up in, [Triana], a 400-person town and lately, the white people who live in [nearby] military cities have realized that they don’t want to live in those places anymore and so they came and created a bunch of white subdivisions in my town. There’s a lake that’s been there forever where old Black people go fish. Now the white people are calling the police on them. Even in rural Alabama, you can’t escape the sweep of gentrification.
My grandmother’s brother came to California in the sixties to play blues music. He played at a club that was four blocks up the street. My band plays there now. California was my destination even though I watched the kids who were from here leave for New York or Berlin. I definitely feel rooted here.
MG: I’ve never seen Berlin. I’ve never been to Europe. I’m provincial.
BP: You should go see the birthplace of white supremacy! When I’m in Europe, I feel like a bull in a China shop. Boys there will be like, “Oh, you wild American libertine!” because their government pays for their art careers. The stakes are so different there.
MG: Do you think of yourself as a Southern writer?
BP: I read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People” when I was in seventh grade and had a conversation about it with a girl who said the story just seemed like a bunch of people in the country being really mean to one another. Being isolated has that effect on people. Southern gothic literature also has a certain swagger that appeared in a lot of mid-century writing. People were taking some bold chances with the written word then. I like to think that I carry those Southern traditions in my writer’s toolbox.
MG: The overt cruelty in Southern gothic writing attracts me. So frequently American writers dance around cruelty but certain Southern writers threw it on the table as if to say, “The main dish is cruelty: eat it.” I went on a pilgrimage to the home of Carson McCullers, one of my favorite Southern writers, and met one of her neighbors. He talked to me while he gardened but I left once he started to talk about race.
BP: It’s funny. When I’m up in Northern California, I always see the most Confederate flags and I remember the last time I was on this trim scene, we were working for this white guy the night Trump became president. He was totally a libertarian who had voted for Trump and he had hired all these people of color to work for him. We were just trying to get paid. When my roommate found out, she was like, “Did you really move from Alabama just to be a California cotton picker?” The answer is no and that’s why I applied to go back to school again. The thing about travelling west is that there’s something that happens when you cross the Mississippi River. Its expansive and everything in California feels new. Nothing in the California feels like a classic American city. It’s a whole other kind of amazing thing. Right?
MG: It is wild. I remember the first time I saw the Mississippi. I was with my former partner, a Midwesterner, and I’m this California girl who is used to seeing the ocean. That’s my point of reference for large bodies of water and the Pacific seems endless; it goes all the way to the horizon. When I saw the Mississippi, I was like, “This is some Mark Twain shit. This is some steamboat shit.” My partner’s family had a place near the Mississippi and we used to head out there, go fishing, come back to the trailer, and eat walleye.
BP: My dad would always try to make me go fishing and there was a time a couple of years ago where I really wrestled with the idea of writing the erotic adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Scott O’Hara clued into my writing when I was younger. There’s a picture of him where he has this huge hard-on and a skateboard or whatever. I read his memoir when I was 18 or 19.
MG: I love that you bring up this idea because you write super well about fucking and the only thing that I like more than good writing about fucking is bad writing about fucking. What are your go-tos for both good and bad writing on fucking and what is your favorite anti-erotica?
BP: Scott O’Hara clued into my writing when I was younger. There’s a picture of him where he has this huge hard-on and a skateboard or whatever. I read his memoir when I was 18 or 19 and the writing was like, “And then he separated my glistening cheeks and I achieved nine orgasms.” Adonis type of stuff that is so cheesy but I can’t get away from it.
MG: What we consume, especially at that age, sets an erotic template for us.
BP: Totally. I think that because gay sex was so demonized of course people were going to respond by writing about it like this. That really emo way of narrating suits me because I’m basically an emo crybaby who wants to write about the occupational hazards of sex. Cause like, even when it’s right, it’s still kind of wrong.
This summer I came across the first book of smut I ever read. It was Rosemary Rogers’s The Insiders. I read it at like 12 or 13 and it was thee go-to book. It’s about this woman who is in the Bay Area. She has a lesbian roommate. She also has this crazy sadistic relationship with this bisexual dude. He organizes her gang rape and it ends with her marrying him. It was the kind of book you could pick up at the grocery store.
[PURNELL PULLS THE BOOK OFF OF A SHELF AND FLASHES IT BEFORE THE CAMERA.]
MG: Any book cover with a title printed in that font is going to be filled with people committing assault. My mom used to read Judith Krantz paperbacks and they weren’t really that different.
BP: Its funny that you say that because I really consider myself a pulp writer. I’m an alternative romance writer.
Lifetime took Mario Lopez, my childhood sweetheart, and made him Colonel Sanders. It’s things like that that have made 2020 okay.
MG: My earliest influences are pulp. And my heart belongs to hard-boiled fiction.
BP: I also love that those books were serialized.
MG: That “trashy” stuff always had sequels. That way of publishing trained you to wait for the next installment, to be patient.
BP: Now we consume blobs of everything. Like Netflix bingeing. I have a nostalgia for patience. Speaking of nostalgia Lifetime took Mario Lopez, my childhood sweetheart, and made him Colonel Sanders. It’s things like that that have made 2020 okay. Like this was the light at the end of the tunnel that I had been waiting for.
Myriam Gurba is the editor-in-chief of Tasteful Rude. She is also the author of the memoir Mean, a New York Times editors’ choice. O, the Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time and Publishers’ Weekly describes Gurba as having a voice like no other. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris Review, TIME.com, and the Believer. Gurba has been known to call shitty writers pendejas and has no qualms about it. Along with Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, she co-founded Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots literary organization that seeks to revolutionize publishing.