Portrait of the artist as a conflicted queer
Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, and Humphrey Bogart are all dead, which is kind of a problem for Cambridge poet Jade Sylvan.
“I worry I’ve outlived the romantics,”
Sylvan writes in her debut memoir Kissing Oscar Wilde: a Love Story in the City of Lights. The line, which is borrowed from the poem of the same name, is penned after Sylvan finds out a glass wall had been built around Wilde’s tomb in Père Lachaise to prevent adoring tourists from ritualistically painting the headstone with lipsticked kisses.
The poem serves as both the base and boiling point of the novelized memoir—spurring Sylvan to make a vision quest to Paris to again lock lips with Wilde’s tomb just as she did six years prior. However, her second sojourn to the Continent is unlike the first. Battling a sense that all that is genuine is liable to fall victim to the same sacrilege, Sylvan is forced confront that she may not actually be the last of her kind.
The winner of the 2012 Write Bloody book contest, Kissing Oscar Wilde is the first memoir published by the Austin, Texas, indie poetry press. Typified by the dizzying intro “We’ll Always Have Paris,” which was recently published (along with three other chapters) in DigBoston, Kissing Oscar Wilde is comfortably at home in Write Bloody’s catalog. Sylvan’s writing is steeped in verse, and a panoply of writing styles make Kissing Oscar Wilde feel like a collection of poems bridged together with poeticized memories.
Billed as “a modern version of A Moveable Feast,” Kissing Oscar Wilde finds the protagonist expatriated and swooning for Paris. Once there, Sylvan is joined by her post-op male companion Caleb, who tags along as a photographer, and an array of post-bohemian French poets—including Adelaide, who Sylvan is immediately drawn to for her Bogart-like je ne sais quoi. However, as her tour continues, the novelty-stricken Sylvan realizes that she may only be in love with the idea of the city and that she has a bit of an identity struggle to go through before she can love anything for real.
This struggle revolves around two poles—her vocation and her gender.
For anyone that has had the pleasure of seeing Sylvan perform, it is pretty obvious what vocation she discovered in Paris. However, as someone who confessedly doesn’t believe in gender, the latter pole is more complex. Equal parts origin story and gender theory, Kissing Oscar Wilde evolves into a pansexual bildungsroman—a portrait of the artist as queer and conflicted.
What separates Kissing Oscar Wilde from self-discovery tales of its ilk is Sylvan’s acceptance of cliché. The events are retold with self-awareness and, often, incredulity, and Sylvan is unencumbered and confessional. Furthermore, by consistently appealing to novelty (which, judging by the whole friggin’ Internet, is pretty big with her generation), Sylvan invites readers into an otherwise personal struggle without compromising her work’s old soul.
Of course, Sylvan isn’t the sole bastion of romance left in the modern world, but, as it goes, you have to figure out these things for yourself.
Sometimes, you have to wander around Europe with a transgender photographer and a nubile French poetess before that really sinks in.
Regardless, barriers will always be built around the things you love because you’re not the only one that loves them. This hard truth is what makes Sylvan’s pilgrimage not only relatable but also noble.
At our cores, we are all just waiting for that big displacing moment when we finally realize who we are and what we mean to the world. Reading the story of someone else who went out and actually did it—especially when it is crafted with the unabashed eloquence of Kissing Oscar Wilde is—can be an epidural of hope for those moments when we don’t think it’s possible.
And it’s even more inspiring to hear it from someone who’s, you know, alive.
Kissing Oscar Wilde can be found a nice indie bookstore near you.