24 JUNE 27. 2003
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The Queen of Harlem' novelist is not
his own title character, and being out
in interviews serves a larger purpose.
Black gay author 'represents'
YES, BRIAN KEITH JACKSON IS GAY
and lives in arguably the most famous
black neighborhood in the country.
And yes, his latest novel is titled "The
Queen of Harlem."
But this vivid and insightful book,
which has been likened to an African-
American "Breakfast at Tiffany's," is not
an autobiography in fictional drag.
"I am not the Queen of Harlem," the
35-year-old author says recently from his
home in the storied neighborhood where
his third novel is set.
"I wanted to create a book about identity, and perception," Jackson says.
"There's no better city in the world to do
that than New York, and I've had a fascination with Harlem for a long time. I
wanted to explore what Harlem means
Jackson moved to Harlem's West Side
two years ago, and like his narrator,
Mason Randolph, the author — who was
born in New Orleans — grew up in a well-
off Southern family.
BUT MASON, WHO TAKES THE NAME
Malik and disguises his upscale origins
when he moves uptown, is thoroughly heterosexual. He's smitten with the glamorous Carmen — the "queen" of the title
— and with Kyra, a wealthy Columbia
Jackson says writing characters "is
not always fun for me."
But Carmen — a wise and witty diva
whose social network seems to include
every bold-faced name in New York's gossip
columns — was "very fun" to write, he says.
"Everybody has a little Carmen in
them," Jackson says. "I honestly believe
that. She's grand... but she's aware."
Like Mason/Malik, Carmen recreates
herself in a neighborhood not only historically famous for its artists, musicians
and writers, but more recently renowned
for a surge in the value of its residential
and commercial real estate.
Hamstrung for decades by the neglect,
decay and drugs that afflict many city
neighborhoods, Harlem is hip again.
Jackson wanted to explore what it
means to be a young black'man in a place
where so much is changing — and not
always in a positive direction, he says.
With its contrasting scenes of blue-collar and upper crust black life, "The Queen
of Harlem" is more concerned with class
than race or sexual orientation.
JACKSON WAS A CONTRIBUTOR TO
"Shade," a 1996 anthology of fiction by black
gay men, but until recently tended to be publicly circumspect about his sexual orientation in interviews as well as in his work.
Even though he does live in New York's famous
black neighborhood, gay writer Brian Keith Jackson
does not refer to himself in the title of his third
novel. The Queen of Harlem.'
"It takes a great deal to be who you are,"
Jackson says, comparing Carmen's fiercely
proud act of self-creation to the ongoing
process of being gay in a straight world.
"I basically identify as gay," he adds. "I've
never tried to hide it. It's a non-issue to me."
Besides, he's too busy: Jackson is writing a screenplay based on "The Queen of
Harlem," working on a one-man play in
which he will star, and getting started on
a new novel.
"(The new novel] is going to be about
how people have relationships based on the
free minutes of their cell phones," he hints.
Jackson also admits that being out in
recent interviews promotes his work and
his date-ability. But it has another, larger
purpose, he says.
"It's about representation," he says.
"About having faces to see. Tf your face is
in a magazine, and you're a novelist, and
some kid is in a dentist's office and sees
you, that kid knows it's possible.
"When I was a kid. I didn't see many
black faces when I was flipping through
the magazines," he adds. "I have to go out
and be a face."
f) FOR MORE INFO
The Queen of Hariem'
by Brian Keith Jackson
256 pages. $12.95