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James Hannaham's God Says No
A 19 year old Black student at a Christian college in Florida falls in love with his roommate, but both of them are men. To cure himself, he has sex with a woman on campus, but in that one sexual encounter, she becomes pregnant. And she is Samoan. They marry. Overweight and in need of money, he gets a job. At a snack company. Hungry, he wanders into a Waffle House. While he eats, a man watches him from another table, and then goes to the bathroom. He follows. As the man unzips his pants, he says yes. But this is the story: God Says No.
How does a married Christian fundamentalist of somewhat limited intelligence and absolutely no street savvy negotiate a deal with Jesus to save his own lust-filled soul? With dexterous development of his main character?s first adult homosexual encounter at the Waffle House, and subsequent other encounters that become compulsive in their increased regularity, debut novelist James Hannaham grapples with that daunting question. Using brilliant humor, clever prose, and page-turning first person narration, Hannaham explores the repressed homosexuality of a man so specific, yet so plain and nondescript, that he becomes an everyman - the closeted male so much like you and me that you?d pass by without even casting a glance his way and so never know the depth of the painful struggle he has with his own body. Scripture is black and white, but this protagonist is Gary Gray.
Hannaham manages to negotiate the lonely bathrooms and dark public parks of Middle America?s Gay America with agility and wit. God Says No is funny. A cousin of controversial silhouette artist Kara Walker, Hannaham explodes the absurdity of both social convention and flamboyance, Bible Belt dogma and art school abandon, the Red States and the Blue.
Hannaham joined Guggenheim winner and Big Machine author Victor LaValle to discuss ??Laughing at Myself in the Mirror?: Comedy in Black Literature? at the most recent literary salon hosted by RingShout: A Place for Black Literature, which was pod cast by the PEN American Center. Both authors know comedy is the brutal art, and Hannaham?s use of humor develops themes of crucifixion and obedient submission. Every character in God Says No expresses the absurd. Every character suffers.
Annie, Gary Gray?s Samoan wife, shares his fascination with amusement parks and his sincere belief that Mickey can make almost as much magic as Jesus. Their wedding takes place before the signs of their one-night sin begin to show on her body. At the back-yard reception, Gary?s ?Great Uncle Linton showed his teeth and said, ?Have Samoa?? at least a hundred times. Likewise, Gary?s mother wonders out loud if Annie really is part ?Black and the other Chinese? with her tan skin and ?with that flat nose.? Meanwhile, Reverend James Cleveland and Mahalia Jackson fill the space between their words with a master mix of righteousness and piety.
Annie suffers all this on her wedding day and more after her husband?s encounter at the local Waffle House? and another at a local department store, and another on a business trip, and another on another business trip? While her back is bent in the care of their baby girl, her husband?s knees bend him into a prayer-like position to face and consume the pleasure and the sin of other (mostly white) men?s bodies.
God Says No is written in the first person, and the novel?s use of I is stunning. Inspired by the real-life personal narratives of gay men who attempt to rehabilitate themselves away from the homosexual lifestyle through Christian-based treatment, Hannaham never misses the all-important sincerity in Gary Gray?s quest for hetero-normative suburbia. Gray?s voice becomes a lamentation, a wail of Biblical proportions in its pliant longing for redemption and new life. Short-listed for a Lambda Award, God Says No is a brilliant debut sure to provoke sympathy, laughter, and, perhaps, introspection.