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YAAAAAAAAS Jesus: An Interview With Brontez Purnell
Huda Awan , August 14th, 2021 08:15

‘Forgive Me, Philip’ from Brontez Purnell’s White Boy Music EP was one of our tracks of the year in 2020. Now this year Purnell has published two novels. Huda Awan chats with the multitalented Bay Area resident about grief, trash, and why rock’n’roll is so boring these days

Photo credit for author photo: Stephanie Lister

How do you write about the pain of being alive without losing all of yourself? Brontez Purnell might have the answer. A fixture of the Bay Area’s DIY punk scene for the past twenty-odd years, Purnell is a musician, artist, writer, dancer, and filmmaker whose most recent two books somehow manage to chart the terrain of trauma without becoming excessively melodramatic or despairing.

100 Boyfriends, published earlier this year in the US by Farrar Straus and Giroux imprint MCDxFSG, is a collection of short stories that ex-New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal described as a “hurricane of delirious, lonely, lewd tales.” The stories are mostly hilarious, sometimes sad, and often feel like being tickled and punched in the gut at the same time. On a Zoom call, Purnell tells me it was originally meant to be published by City Lights Books, an independent publisher based in San Francisco. In the end it was picked up by editor Jackson Howard at MCDxFSG, who reached out after reading Purnell’s debut novel Since I Laid My Burden Down, which received the Whiting Award for fiction in 2018. That book is now receiving a UK publication by Cipher Press, a self-proclaimed “independent publisher of queer fiction and non-fiction,” who brought 100 Boyfriends to UK readers earlier this year.

In both books, the narratives largely centre on the narrators’ memories of the men they have loved and lost. I loved both, but Since I Laid My Burden Down felt particularly special, even if, as Purnell tells me, 100 Boyfriends is the most edited work he’s produced. Burden follows DeShawn, a gay Black man from Alabama living in San Francisco, who is abruptly summoned back home for his uncle’s funeral at the beginning of the book. The narrative jumps back and forth in time, detailing various important men in DeShawn’s life, and the lasting impact they have had on him through both their cruelty and love.

Burden, Purnell tells me, was written in a “fugue state.” “At the time, my father had died, a couple of friends had died, and I was dealing with the fact that my Saturn return was over, so I wanted to write a story that followed one character, about an arc around death and loss.” At different points in our conversation it becomes clear that loss is a big theme in Purnell’s life. “My personal friend group were a pretty hell-ified group of young faggots in my day. Most of those boys are either in recovery, dead, or don’t hang out anymore,” he says in response to a question about what it’s like living in Oakland these days, and the changes in his community over time.

What is remarkable about both Burden and 100 Boyfriends, though, is the way in which Purnell chooses to process trauma and loss. Both books refuse to ruminate extensively on the significance of loss. One might expect a book like Burden – which details the deaths of numerous people who have had an impact on the narrator’s life over the course of 153 snappy pages – might have a maudlin feel to it. But Purnell counterposes pain with absurd and flamboyant humour in such a way that one can’t help but laugh. “I think trauma is so common that it’s damn near unremarkable,” he says when I ask him about this. “We don’t always have time to just sit in a room and grieve and despair, we have to do it or take it as it comes.”

Another striking element of Purnell’s writing is his renouncement of respectability. This becomes evidence in the portrayal of the Alabama community throughout Burden. There is nothing remotely sentimental about the writing, nothing that panders to the expectations of a certain kind of audience. In one of the book’s many passages about religion and the church, DeShawn remembers a particular sermon during which “some bitch got so drunk on the Holy Spirit that she started screaming, “YAAAAAAAAS Jesus,” and nearly tossed her baby into the back pew.” In another passage, DeShawn chuckles at a memory of his uncle dragging an aunt “out of the car by her hair and [punching] her in the face. DesShawn’s aunt, not to be outdone, uppercut his uncle in the stomach, causing him to crouch on his knees in the brown gravel road, where she proceeded to kick him in the head until he bum-rushed her from the ground.” The physical fight continues until the aunt does a “running, twenty-foot-long, WWE-style dropkick that landed on the back of [the uncle’s] head.”

I ask Purnell whether honesty had been important to him in depicting the community he was writing about. “I dunno if I really think about it,” he says, “This idea of how we present in front of white people I really think depends on what type of white people you grew up around. Because honey, I grew up around trashy-ass rednecks. There was nothing I needed to be ashamed of, but maybe if you’re a person of colour who grew up around Anglo-Saxon refinement, you might turn your nose up at it.” He continues, “But there are so many white boys, too, that will read that and be like, ‘Yo, my aunt and uncle used to do that, too.’”

On this last point, throughout our conversation Purnell stresses that though both his books are largely about Black and/or gay narrators, his characters have a “universal and modern ennui” – emphasis on the ‘universal.’ “Very specifically, it’s like gay Black characters of a counter-cultural class or whatever. But I think the things that they are going through hit so many cultural benchmarks of our generation in general. Just like the struggles, the failures, the feeling that, even when we get a seat at the table, is anyone going to listen to us? … These are universal heroes. I have people from all fucking walks of life tell me, ‘I have felt that. I get that.’”

This desire to transcend a certain kind of pigeon holing is evident in Purnell’s musical outputs, too. In an introduction to an interview Jenn Pelly conducted with him for The Believer, she wrote, “Brontez Purnell has spent much of his life reimagining what an American punk can be.” Last year he released his first solo EP, entitled White Boy Music, a record that in his own words, tried to “make fun of 80s fake mod culture.” I ask him what the idea of ‘white boy music’ means to him conceptually. “It’s mostly a joke, because when I was a teenager, and when I first started playing alternative music, my family would be like, ‘Aw man, you play that white boy music … maybe I was writing the alternative music EP that I wanted to write when I was a teenager, and finally got to do it in my forties.”

On the topic of punk music more broadly, Purnell is a bit more ambivalent. “I don’t really put as much faith in punk rock these days … most rock ’n’ roll is so boring, it’s such an old white man thing at this point.” When I ask whether being punk has been politically defused to some extent, he seems to agree, saying, “I do think that freaks, weirdos and gay wads – in a weird way, we won the visibility war. I’m not saying that everything is 100% safe … but if you look at how things have moved more towards the cultural norm, we definitely won that shit.” He adds that acceptance has a tendency to render “a lot of stuff is kind of bland, and nothing is a radical choice when something is a given.” At the same time, he likes it “when everyone feels like they have more options.”

I ask whether he feels like he has more options now. To this he responds, “I feel like I’m a fat middle-aged gay man in decline. I feel like I have a very specific set of options at this point, but I’m loving the journey, fuck it!” followed by a signature cackle.

Since I Laid My Burden Down and 100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell are published by Cipher Press