Fire Island: Love, Loss and Liberation in an American Paradise

fire island book cover

Jack Parlett

During my time as a postdoc in English at Oxford, I’ve been working on a project about the literary history of Fire Island, a vacation spot off the south coast of Long Island, New York. Located around sixty miles from Manhattan, Fire Island has been a destination for queer artists and writers since the 1930s, with figures such as W.H. Auden, Patricia Highsmith, Carson McCullers, James Baldwin and Edmund White spending weekends and whole summers in two of the island’s communities, Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines.

My book Fire Island: Love, Loss and Liberation in an American Paradise, which will be published by Granta Books in May this year, addresses not only the liberatory aspects of the island as a burgeoning queer utopia, but its political limitations as an exclusive and sometimes apolitical space. I’ve written in more detail about the book for a recent blog on the Univ college website.   

Today, artists and creatives in the Grove and the Pines are working towards a more inclusive future, seeking to make the island more accessible at a time when safe queer spaces for all are at a premium. Annual residencies have, in the last decade, hosted numerous writers, performers and visual artists, including Brontez Purnell, a musician and author of several books, and Kia LaBeija, whose work across media explores being a queer woman of colour born HIV-positive.

Purnell’s most recent work 100 Boyfriends (not to be confused with poet Richie Hofman’s new collection A Hundred Lovers, a book I’m looking forward to reading this month), is an exciting example of contemporary queer sex writing. Traversing the bars, streets and apps of America’s sexual subculture, the text’s narrators detail a variety of encounters, love affairs and relationships. Purnell’s prose is frank, stylish, breathless; it moves between humour and poignancy in the space of a sentence.

In exploring LaBeija’s work as a photographer and performer, I recently read Marty Fink’s book Forget Burial: HIV Kinship, Disability and Queer/Trans Narratives of Care, published in 2020 by Rutgers University Press. Featuring one of LaBeija’s powerful self-portraits from her 24 series as its cover, Fink’s book examines historical and contemporary material about living with HIV to excavate stories of care across different communities and identity categories. Its title is inspired by artist David Wojnarowicz’s resounding words, written on the back of his leather jacket at a protest at the Food and Drug Administration in 1988: ‘If I Die of AIDS – Forget Burial – Just Drop My Body on the Steps of the FDA.’ Wojnarowicz’s reminder that queer loss is political – and must be marked as such – is something we should continue to heed this History Month.

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