Healing through memories
Two new books by UCI English teacher grapple with lingering effects of homophobia
By Lilibeth Garcia
Jonathan Alexander was visiting his family in Colorado when one morning, the day he was planning 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, her diagnosis was quite unexpected: it was a stroke. If the plaque that lodged in his ocular artery had gone in the opposite direction, it might have cost him his life.
âWe try to live our lives very carefully, and then all of a sudden, something that we didn’t even know could happen, happens,â says Alexander, professor of English and computer science at the UCI. “We can use these times to complain about the failure of our best plans, or we can view them as opportunities to review what we are doing and why we are doing what we are doing.”
The medical event was the catalyst for Alexander’s recent post Stroke Book: The Blind Spot Journal (Fordham University Press, 2021). Informed by his unique perspective as a queer person undergoing medical intervention, he explores existential questions in diary-like lyrical prose.
Just as Alexander hadn’t planned for a stroke to disrupt his life, he also didn’t plan for his two books to be published a week apart: Stroke notebook October 26 and Bullying: the story of abuse (Punctum Books, 2021) November 9. Intimidated – the second book of his Creep trilogy – was supposed to be published last year, but the pandemic has struck, ending the lives of everyone – including publishers. While the books deal with different important moments in Alexander’s life, they incidentally reinforce each other.
âAs I started to meditate on stroke and why it could have happened, I started to think about various stressors in my life, various traumas and difficulties that I had,â Alexander said. “As an aging gay man, some of us live with a lot of scars from the past.”
Alexander grew up in the Deep South – New Orleans – and came of age in the 1970s and early 1980s. âIt was a very homophobic time in a lot of ways,â he says. âMuch of my own early college experience was marked by the specter of AIDS. Much of it, I think, has contributed to a life of not only stress, but worry and anxiety as well. “
Alexander’s health crisis got him thinking about what it means to age and experience the passage of time as a queer man, and that’s when Stroke notebook was born. Intimidated, on the other hand, although it is also a deeply personal book, deals with the structures that often perpetuate homophobic abuse – family, church, school and politics – and what it means to fight against such varied forms of bullying as that queer storyteller. While not intentional, his books tell a whole story about how homophobia affects all aspects of a person’s life, and how homophobia can continue to affect people long after it is over. violence has decreased.
âI often think of homophobia as being unevenly distributed, spatially and temporally,â says Alexander. âWe like to think that we now have same-sex marriage, so everything is fine, but still there are people my age who live in areas of this country where they experience homophobia very regularly. Identity and sexual behavior are criminalized in different parts of the world, so it remains an international global problem. “
Alexander’s books come at a time when queer people, despite discovering new forms of freedom, still make sense of a homophobic story. Author, co-author and publisher of 21 books, Alexander’s works have resonated with readers. Recently named Literary Lambda Stroke notebook on her list of “Most Anticipated LGBTQIA + Books”. Columbia Pride Month projector included Creep: a life, a theory, an apology (Punctum Books, 2017), prequel to Intimidated.
In addition to being an award-winning memorialist and professor of English, Alexander is also associate dean of the Division of Undergraduate Education at UCI, researcher for The Wayfinding Project (a collaborative, multi-campus enterprise that examines the ‘life of writing ‘from UC students who are three to ten years after graduation), and as a teacher in the UCI’s Connected Learning Lab and PhD. Program in culture and theory. At the center of his work, he engages with the UCI community and helps those who were once in his place.
âThe platitude that we have offered to people is that ‘it gets better’. But the reality is that we have to help each other to make things better, âhe says. âI don’t think things get better on their own. They improve because we make an effort. We need to connect with the people who can help us make things better. We need to find the communities that help us make things better for ourselves and for each other. We can help each other to improve it.
During the pandemic, Alexander offered his support to queer students, many of whom had to return to intolerant environments. âIn 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,â he says. .
In an episode of “COVID-19: The Humanities Respond,” a series of interviews with School of Humanities dean Tyrus Miller, Alexander drew parallels between today’s pandemic and the HIV pandemic /AIDS. He explained 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 (BA English), who is a marketing strategist for the office of the vice-rector for teaching and learning at the UCI, produced a series of podcasts titled âWe are UCI: Redefining Student Success,â in which they interviewed students about how they were dealing with the pandemic. The project was originally designed with the idea that they would support students by giving them a platform to let off steam, but the reality was quite different. Instead, they were overwhelmed by the creativity and vibrancy of student life. Many of them took advantage of the lockdown to learn how to cook new dishes, take on an art project, become political activists, start attending city council meetings and engage with their communities.
âIt completely transformed me, invigorated me and reminded me over and over again why I absolutely love being a teacher,â he says. “I love the time I have to write and reflect on my life and reflect on the lives of those I love and the ideas that interest me. But I also get to be in this world of pretty relentless stimulation. by other intellectuals, colleagues and, above all, by young people who constantly bring me their curiosity, their enthusiasm and even their optimism about life.
Learn more about Intimidated here and Book here.
Watch a video interview on Stroke notebook here.