Saturday, July 11, 2015

Johnny Townsend Writes for the Record

In the seventh in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Johnny Townsend, author of Despots of Deseret, discusses his subject matter.

When I first began reading the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, I was instantly fascinated. He had so thoroughly described a culture that in just a few years had become completely extinct. Yes, Jews survived, but Eastern European shtetl Jewry did not. There were problems in that culture, to be sure, recounted in detail, but there was a real beauty as well.

As an eleven-year-old boy in New Orleans in the summer of 1973, I watched a horrifying news story of thirty-two people who died trying to escape a French Quarter bar which had been set on fire by an arsonist. The images of people burning to death halfway out the windows haunted me for years. When I came out as gay in the late 1980s and learned for the first time that the UpStairs Lounge had been a gay bar and that the arson had occurred on Gay Pride Day, the horror of that day came rushing back. I wanted to read more about it, but there was nothing to read.

So I decided to write something myself. I tracked down survivors of the fire and friends and relatives of those who had been killed, and I tried to tell the stories of the people who’d been in that bar that night before those stories were lost forever. This was at the height of the AIDS epidemic, before any successful treatment existed, and people in my community were dying daily. That book, Let the Faggots Burn, may not be my best writing, but I consider it a useful historical document. Now, twenty-five years after I wrote my account, other people are telling the story in new books and in documentaries, and they are thankfully learning information I didn’t know, but the vast majority of my interviews with people involved in the fire simply can’t be replicated given that so many of them have since died. 
UpStairs Lounge: Commemorative plaque

I recorded history, however inadequately. That feels like something important.

I suppose in many ways, this is the same motivation behind my writing Mormon short story collections. With the advent of the Internet, so much information about Church history is now available, and Mormons are leaving the Church in droves as they learn that much of what they had always been taught simply isn’t true. Other religions also have issues with their past, of course. Catholics have the Inquisition, to mention just one. Yet even something as horrific as that didn’t destroy Catholicism.

But the situation for Mormons is slightly different. We have absolute proof that some of the scripture Joseph Smith claimed to translate from Egyptian papyri was completed fabricated. We know because we still have those papyri, which have been translated correctly now by Egyptologists. There is DNA evidence that proves the Native Americans did not come from the Middle East as the Book of Mormon claims. We have documents that prove Joseph Smith lied about his polygamy, even to members of his Church, and was married to girls as young as fourteen. At some point, even “faith” isn’t enough to prevent members from realizing the whole thing might really be just a great big sham.
And yet, despite the many problems I have with Mormon doctrine and social practices, I also had many wonderful experiences as a member of that Church, and I don’t truly want to see it dwindle away completely. Improve, yes, but disappear, no.

So I write about Mormons. True believers are horrified by my work and won’t touch it, and many ex-Mormons are so “over” religion that they certainly don’t want to read stories about it now. So I’m not sure I’ll ever have much of an audience. But it feels important to me to record the culture honestly. I understand Mormons, both their strengths and their weaknesses, and I believe they are people worth knowing.

Jewish culture lived on despite the destruction of the shtetl. Gay culture survived the death of many of its greatest artists from AIDS. And Mormonism will probably continue on as well. But there is no doubt it will be changed by the current events shaping it just as those other cultures were.

I write stories to entertain, as any writer does. But I also write them to record.

That attempt gives me comfort, even if few other people in Mormon culture have any desire to read my books. As a writer, I obviously want my work to be known, but ultimately, I write out of the belief that history and experience are things worth preserving, and in the hope that if something is recorded well, it never really dies.