This month, Sebastian invites Chicago-based poet and writer Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué to tell us about his favorite books. Gabriel is most recently the author of Losing Miami (The Accomplices, 2019) and co-editor of An Excess of Quiet: Selected Sketches by Gustavo Ojeda, 1979-1989, both of which were finalists for Lambda Literary Awards. His fourth poetry book, Madness, is forthcoming from Nightboat Books in March. He is currently a PhD student in English at the University of Chicago, where he works in the study of sexuality. Below are his favorite books.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Before I knew how to write anything, and barely knew how to read anything—I mean when I was 14 or 15—I loved William Faulkner. Isn’t this a somewhat odd choice for the angsty and bullied gay teen’s favorite writer? I guess, in retrospect, I just think I should have been obsessed with something more punk, or at least less masculine. But no, I loved Faulkner and most of all I loved The Sound and the Fury. This is Faulkner’s classic experimental account of the fall of the Compson family, a once-rich, brutally racist, and terribly STRESSED OUT family. The Southern Gothic is so loudly aestheticized that I think teen-me just glommed on to what felt like my first a-ha moments around ‘style.’ Back then, I thought this was one of those books that explained everything (like the vibe Malick’s Tree of Life wants to give off), that so totally zooms in and out on a world I felt I had to get a sense of quick. I imitated this book again and again in my first attempts at writing. It made for an awkward thing where I kept writing stories where people kill themselves at the end (spoiler!). Like…all the time; I really couldn’t think of other endings. I was not a great teen writer, and I’ve come to peace about that.
I recently taught this book in an Intro to Fiction course I TA’d and gosh, re-reading it is weird. It’s sort of corny? Jason feels like he’s supposed to be big and scary, but he’s sort of dopey, and Quentin feels like someone you just want to slap upside the head. And boy is Faulkner sex-negative here (in a kind of fascinating way, I admit). I don’t think the undergrads liked it that much, but honestly, I still did.
The Book of Frank by CAConrad
At the start of college, I worked at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia as a sound guy. Not a bad gig for someone who so desperately needed to figure out what writers were like, what they did, and how they did it, to get some sense of his germinating inclinations. One of the first readings I worked was a group reading that included CAConrad and some of the other people I would soon learn were Philly poetry staples. Conrad talked about putting cum on their forehead for a ritual. You’ve got to understand something about me for this to make sense. I was always this quietly angry, gay and atheistic teen at a Catholic all-boys high school and the only other gay person I had met was my first boyfriend who I basically waged physical and verbal war with. So, then I get to Philly for college and this big, beautiful, long-haired, sort of crabby, bejeweled person comes on and says they put cum on their forehead. Another “a-ha.” A coworker recommended The Book of Frank (Conrad’s third poetry book, a narrative of the life and death of ‘Frank’ told in short, tender, abstract, and angry poems) and I just devoured it.
There’s a contingent of us, queer poets of a certain age, for whom The Book of Frank is an object of almost cultish reverence, an object that enabled tons of queer aesthetic production after it. Before reading it, I had dipped my toes into several genres, but this was the book that solidified that I needed to be writing poetry above all else. Like Faulkner, I badly imitated it for quite a while.
Versed by Rae Armantrout
This one came to me in a similar way to The Book of Frank, another book of poetry recommended by a coworker. This time, I had a bit more background, having learned of the Language poets from a course with Charles Bernstein that repaired more than a few things about my brain. Armantrout is so goddamn smart in her poems. They’re all basically the same—I mean across her whole career, really—but I’m always mesmerized by them. Versed, her mid-career poetry collection half about language’s relation to subjectivity and half about her experience with cancer, is her best. I learned from Armantrout two things: how to make abstractions sharper or duller, depending on what you need them to do; and how to use alienation to your advantage. I’ve carried both skills with me for a long time, and when I feel stuck in my writing, I often turn back to this book. Her reading voice, delivered like a corporation’s voicemail, has also been my main reference point for the weird, depersonalized way that I read. I generally don’t teach creative writing, but if I did, I’d likely just stick students in a room with “A Resemblance” and “Missing Persons” and call it a day.
Who Was That Man?: A Present for Mr. Oscar Wilde by Neil Bartlett
This is Neil Bartlett’s first book of prose after his start in playwriting. Not quite a novel, not quite a book of scholarship, not quite literary nonfiction, Who Was That Man? is an attractively conceptual book about the relationship of Oscar Wilde to gay British culture after him. There’s a chapter composed entirely of quotes from novels that symbolize gayness through flowers. There’s a chapter where Bartlett imagines fucking a quite ugly and mean version of Wilde. There’s a chapter where Bartlett deep dives into the epistemological connection between gayness and criminal trials. It’s a weird book, not always good, but it precedes some of the major innovations and debates of queer theory (Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, Christopher Nealon’s Foundlings, Heather Love’s Feeling Backward) and does them in a way that is totally mind-bendingly sexy, melodramatic, experimental, and even a bit corny. It’s like if J.K. Huysmans was alive during the AIDS crisis. This book was a head-exploder for me and was a major reason for my turning to gay studies as a legitimate form of scholarship and work.
Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig
Am I just allowed to put it out there that I think El beso de la mujer araña (Kiss of the Spider Woman) is the best novel of the second half of the 20th century? Is that okay? Growing into my writerly and readerly identity with such a fetish for stylistic difficulty, I was honestly surprised by how a novel so totally readable could present such rich thematic difficulty. Two prisoners, one gay and transfemme with a penchant for aesthetic production and consumption, the other straight, masculine, and staunchly Marxist, talk in a cell about the movies and about each other. That’s about it for the plot. But the book accomplishes so much around politics, aesthetics, form, queerness, shame, sex, motherhood, cinema, Argentina, prison, infancy, care, genre, conformity, service—I could go on but I’d be annoying. It’s a novel that constantly imitates the forms of a play, of a film, of an academic monograph, of a psych eval, of a novel. Yes, I’m saying it’s a novel that imitates a novel. I had read a lot of gay novels before this and I had a deep love of books like Maurice and Giovanni’s Room and all that, but El beso felt like a moment where I really saw the potential of gayness for the novel.
(Side note: I hate the movie of this book. Making the gay, femme one white and the masc one Latino? Miss me with that.)
The Mad Man by Samuel R. Delany
I’ve been a big Delany fan for years. I’ve read about 15 of his books (incredibly, that’s only about one fifth of his titles!) and I am so interested in their incredible political difficulty, woven erotic imaginary, and their unique ethical viewpoints. But I wouldn’t describe my reading experience of any of them as particularly pleasurable. I mean, these are novels where rape, racism, brutal violence, hatred, and precarity are so foregrounded as to seem incidental; usually, reading them is a mix of visceral displeasure and heady wonder. So, it feels weird to call any particular Delany book a “favorite.”
But The Mad Man, which I read for the first time only a couple years ago for the “orals” portion of my PhD, feels like the apotheosis of all the particularities of Delany worldbuilding and narrative. An attempt at a plot summary: a Black PhD student in Philosophy, who cruises daily for increasingly extreme forms of sex (mostly with homeless people), becomes obsessed with studying the work and life of an Asian PhD student and philosophy prodigy who died before completing his dissertation. This latter student also cruised daily for increasingly extreme forms of sex (mostly with homeless people). Both students have/had visions of a giant, dark minotaur-like beast with a giant dick. Its narrative runs like a mix between a mystery novel, a campus novel, and a pornographic picaresque. It’s also 800 pages in most editions, because well, its Samuel Delany. There are so many scenes of people pissing on each other. So, so many.
(Side note: If you’ve ever spied Delany’s Facebook, he has some strong feelings about which edition of this book is the right one. Namely, the 2015 edition for Kindle is quite corrected from earlier editions. I read one of the wrong ones, the 1996 reissue, because I just don’t have the energy to read such a big porno on a Kindle.)
"Favorite Books with Sebastian Castillo" is our monthly column in which previous contributors and friends of Peach Mag are invited to share the works of literature that have made the biggest impacts on their reading and writing lives. Sebastian is the author of Not I and 49 Venezuelan Novels. Read previous installments of Favorite Books here.