The Butterfly King – Edmond Manning on Writing and Daring
by Edmond Manning
By what right does a white man tell the story of a black man? Describe that man’s struggles, the lifelong challenges he faces, the hardships of living in a white-centric culture?
I have asked myself this question many times.
In September, the third book in my ‘Lost and Found Kings’ series, The Butterfly King was published. The premise is the same in each book: a gay, Midwestern car mechanic invites another man to spend the weekend together. He promises “…if you submit in every single way, I will help you remember your kingship. I will help you remember the man you were always meant to be.”
It’s a bastardization of the NWTA weekend. Well, kinda. There are absolutely no affiliations or mentions of MKP in the novel. There is not a fictional organization cleverly renamed “LKP.” Nope. No crossover activities. None. The car mechanic narrator relies on Joseph Campbell and the masculine archetypes to create experiences that help each man discover his unique giftedness. Combined with fairy tale storytelling, emotional manipulation, and a healthy scoop of man-on-man sex, these books have attracted attention for their innovative look at the masculine psyche and the possibility that all men are kings.
I’ve delighted in writing about different types of men. My tall tales celebrate the power of men, the beauty of men, which includes their woes: the lifelong consequences on a man whose father died young (the first book, King Perry), an angry man who feels betrayed by love and how shitty his life turned out (the second book, King Mai), and the most recent book, my third, deals with a black man in New York city who sacrificed his own future to care for his family.
The Butterfly King.
But by what right does a white man tell a black man’s story?
I find myself in a curious and difficult position. I want to write about interesting people and fascinating lives. It’s what writers do, I guess. But how dare a pasty-white, middle-class man attempt to get inside the head of a man of color? I can’t possibly know the circumstances of prejudice he experienced growing up and throughout adulthood. It’s very possible my attempts to portray empathy come across as condescending, ill-informed, and patronizing. I worry about this. It keeps me awake at night.
A curious parallel exists in my fiction genre.
Right now, most of the books written about the men-loving-men are written by heterosexual women. I’m not kidding. They compose the lion’s share of the market of both writers and readers. Some have adopted a man’s name for better acceptance or to hide their identities, afraid of the backlash. Most are open and proud of their writing prowess. In fact, gay men now find it difficult to publish their stories—honest-to-gayness-men-loving-men stories—because women so dominate this field and their preferences have become industry traditions. Gay men must conform to these industry standards to get published or be marginalized.
The debate comes up three times a year or more in the blogosphere. By what right do women step in and tell gay men’s stories? By what right? They don’t experience gay bashing, homophobic slurs, and hell, they don’t even have the right junk.
And yet, they write. They dare.
The reasons fascinate me. They feel called. Because the stories are about love. Because it’s more interesting than writing about their known world, male-female relationships. Some of these women have gay kids, gay friends, gay garage mechanics and they want to make the world safer, more accepting. Whatever their reasons, they dare.
I love this. They dare.
Don’t we also dare?
As men in MKP, don’t we dare to love men different from ourselves? Don’t we step outside our comfortable skins to love men of different ages, of different colors? Don’t Republicans sometimes cradle Democrats as they weep over lost marriages? Have you not seen some granola, hippie leader love a young corporate go-getter, doing whatever it takes to honoring that man’s kingship? I know you have.
I’ve seen it, too.
We do not interfere in each other’s lives because it’s our right to do so. We do it because we dare to love each other as men, as brothers.
I researched this book thoroughly. I read about shifting ethnic migrations to and from New York City from the 1950s through the 2000s. I read books about race. I read articles about white authors attempting to write black characters. I read blogs about blind-spots in dominant culture and how it shows up in insidious, exclusionary ways. I’m glad I did this research, but none of it gives me the right to write.
But I dare.
I write about men of color because I have loved men of color. I have wept in their arms and they in mine. We told our sad stories and felt each other’s masculine healing. On staff weekends, we have wiped away each other’s sweat and tears, and went back to the carpet if not refreshed, certainly more sturdy. More ready to bear the next sorrowful tale.
We celebrate each other by telling these stories, stories which are not always ours to tell.
I remember a night long ago when my I-group decided my work that night was to share my coming out story. I shrugged. Although I had been complaining of the lifelong estrangements it has caused, I felt it wasn’t really relevant. Happened over two decades ago. As I told the experience telling my parents I was gay, two of the straight men in my group cried. Another man said, “Listen to me repeat this to you.”
When I heard my own story coming from his mouth, I cried myself because the story —surprise, surprise— was sad. Although he repeated a few details wrong, he heard and honored the spirit of the tale. Apparently I had to hear it from someone else to recognize the sadness.
When I think about this latest novel, I’m sure I fucked up in a few places because, like most of us, I sometimes fuck up when I’m attempting a big project. That is one story about me. Here is another story I learned by working with MKP: I am also glorious, ridiculously bold and I radiate effervescent, sparkling love from my fingertips when I type fiction. I have the power to reveal how gorgeous, how beautiful men can be.
I celebrate us.
And so, I dare.
– is a deeply personal issue that everyone decides for himself. Sometimes the price is high, sometimes low. But this is not very important for life. Life is an interesting thing. And the price on Viagra – too.