Award-winning lesbian writer and educator Julie Marie Wade lights up every room she enters. Her joyful spirit qualifies her as the Mary Tyler Moore of literature who can virtually “turn the world on with her smile.” The smile, however, is hard-won. Having survived being raised by unyielding, religiously conservative parents, Wade has channeled that experience into her work, combining art and catharsis, most recently in her new collection of braided essays, Otherwise (Autumn House Press, 2023), to be released this month.
Gregg Shapiro: Even before I started reading Otherwise, your new book of braided essays, I intended to ask you if you are a poet who writes essays or an essayist who writes poetry. Now that I’ve read your essay “Prose & Cons: Consideration from a Woman of Two Genres,” the question is, Why was it important to include it in Otherwise?
Julie Marie Wade: I didn’t actually think to include the “Prose & Cons” essay in this collection when I first began assembling it because I felt it might be too different in structure and style from the other essays I had slated for the book. Then, as I considered the evolving manuscript again, I realized that “Prose & Cons” could add some interesting texture if placed later in the book—after the reader had a chance to get to know me more fully as a queer person and a creative writer, but before the reader had gotten to know me quite as well as a teacher. In the same way that I wrote this essay to discover more about who I am as an essayist and a teacher by recreating scenes from my classes in textual form, I ended up edifying my two most enduring identities as a result of writing it: my poet-self and my lesbian-self. Turns out I am a queer poet through and through, and everything else I do or may become comes directly from these core aspects of self.
The detailed description of events from your past made me wonder if you were a journal keeper or if you just have a very good memory.
[Laughs] I was—and am—a prolific journaler, but as a child and teenager, I was also a fastidious diarist, a habit I eventually abandoned in college when the pace of my life began to exceed the rate at which I could record it. My diary had a very specific function: it was a place to record day-to-day experiences and encounters. I believe a combination of detailed documentation of my formative years and the fact that we were rewarded in vacation Bible school with progressive quantities of candy for the number of Bible verses we could recite by heart—let’s just say I was swimming in Skittles by the end of the week [laughs]—have equally contributed to my detailed memories of past events.
Marriage is at the very heart of Otherwise, beginning with the “Meditation 32” essay and continuing in the others. It brought to mind the recent addition of “gay marry” to dictionary.com. How do you feel about that term?
I remember a meme I enjoyed about a decade ago as marriage equality was progressing toward the Supreme Court. It went something like this: “I like to talk about something that is very dear to my heart, gay marriage, or as I call it, marriage. As in, I had breakfast this morning, not gay breakfast. As in, when I parked my car, I didn’t gay park it.” And as much as I laughed and nodded my head, love being love and marriage being marriage, I also often say to Angie that something I’ve cooked is made with my favorite ingredient—gay love— or that I’m so glad she gay married me or that I love being her gay lady spouse. All those things are true, but being on the other side of marriage equality now permits a levity that I don’t think I could truly appreciate before the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. When marriage was still a privilege that some people got to access simply because they were heterosexual—or living heterosexual lives—I resented the terms gay marriage and gay marry. Now that marriage is a right, equally available to any couple, I feel more comfortable and playful about embracing the ways that we are different from heterosexual couples. It’s OK to be different and to celebrate differences; what isn’t OK is for those differences to be used to limit our legal rights.
Speaking of terms, Otherwise is full of wonderful turns of phrase, and the unforgettable line “Lesbianism is my birth control.” What would it mean to you if any of what you wrote in the book became part of the fabric of queer culture?
I’m honored to be a part of queer culture in any way, to be woven into that enduring and capacious fabric at all, but I don’t have to be the whole coat. I’m happy to be one gay button, even the kind on the inside of the coat. Not everybody knows you’re there, not everybody sees you, but you still have a place and a job to do, and that matters the most to me.
Otherwise is full of references to poets, including Robert Hass, Sharon Olds, and Galway Kinnell. I remember attending a Sharon Olds reading and book signing with you in Delray Beach a few years ago. Did you ever get to meet Kinnell or Hass?
Oh, meeting Sharon Olds was a lifelong dream realized! We met at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in 2019, I believe. There’s a picture somewhere—maybe you took it, Gregg—of Denise Duhamel and me telling Sharon Olds how we wrote about her in our collaborative collection, The Unrhymables, listing her in our glossary of unforgettable women whose work had touched our lives. Her graciousness that night was also unforgettable.
You also write about the impact that queer writer Michelle Tea’s book Valencia had on you. Have you ever had the opportunity to meet Michelle? If not, do you know if she’s aware of what you wrote about her?
No, I’ve never met Michelle, and it hadn’t occurred to me until just this moment that she might be aware of how her work appears in my work! Isn’t it funny how we’re so aware of the writers we learn from, but it never dawns on us—or it hadn’t dawned on me—that they might know or find out what we’re up to in our own literary undertakings.
In the “Nine Innings” essay, you write about living in Kentucky and a terrible encounter you had with a notary where you banked. A few days before we conducted this interview, a federal jury ruled that Kim Davis, the former Kentucky county clerk who denied a gay couple a marriage license in 2015, must pay them $100,000. As someone with her own difficult history associated with that state, how does that make you feel?
Well, my initial reaction was to smile and nod my head, thinking, “Wow, there is some justice after all. It was a long time coming, but she’s finally being held accountable for breaking the law and causing others pain in the process.” Unfortunately, these little upticks of glee don’t last long for me. They turn almost immediately to sadness when I consider how likely Kim Davis is to resent gay people and gay marriage even more fervently than before, to recommit to the prejudices that led her to break the law in the first place. People in her church community will rally around her, and the divide between that community and those who support the gay couple in question will only deepen. I’ve been a teacher for more than 20 years, and I still believe that education is the only way to create lasting change in society. The humanities, in particular, where so much repressive legislation is targeted right now, is also the place where minds and hearts are opened.
Because we both live in Florida, where the misguided concept of parental rights in education is being weaponized to do irreparable harm to the young minds in our state, I kept coming back to the various things your mother said to you when you were young, and how you were being groomed for heterosexual life. Do you think there will ever come a time when straight, religious people will own up to being the groomers they accuse LGBTQ people of being?
Wow, Gregg, that’s such a good question, and so well put. I don’t know if people like my mother will ever recognize the pain their beliefs and admonishments have caused, but I’m invested in trying to prevent others from ending up in the cages those mentalities create. These restrictive worldviews aren’t really good for anybody, not just the queer among us. As a young woman, my mother was taught that marrying “the right man” was essential for her basic social survival as well as any future economic security she hoped to have. How amazing it would have been if we could have talked honestly about those ideas and where they came from.
As I was reading Otherwise, I was also catching up on the amazing second season of The Bear on Hulu. There’s a scene at an intense family Christmas gathering where one character accuses another character of telling the same story repeatedly, and in the “Meditation 35” essay, an editor tells you they fear you are “telling the same stories over and over.” Please say something about that.
JMW: Oh, I love The Bear, and I know exactly the episode you’re describing. It resonated deeply with me—as a work of art, impeccably made, and also as a portrait of cyclical family dysfunction that I recognize, with variations, from my own past. It turns out I’m not afraid of telling the same stories over and over; I’m afraid of telling stories rather than embodying them, bringing them to life on the page, shaping them in new ways and innovating with form as I do. My raw material may be fixed, but my polished material is potentially infinite.
One of the things that I love about Otherwise is the way you capture your wife Angie’s distinctive, dry sense of humor, especially in the “Meditation 36” essay. Does she make you laugh more, or is it vice versa or equal?
[Laughs] Angie has a crisp, incisive wit that I have loved since the first day we met. Sometimes she’s funny even without saying a word, just by a certain look she gives or gesture she makes. I’m not a concise person by nature, so my humor rarely puts such a fine point on things the way Angie’s does. I think she’s loads funnier than I am, though I can make her laugh, too—and I do!—which is one of my life’s great joys. In our more than 21 years together, a through line of our partnership has been the fact that we have laughed every single day. Sometimes we only have to look at each other across a crowded room or text each other a single word, and we’ll both erupt in laughter.