By THOMAS MOODY
Recently, there have been a number of articles in the New York dailies and elsewhere announcing the “birth” of a Queen’s literary “scene,” One New York Post columnist began his review of Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves by declaring that “suddenly after centuries of neglect, Queens is on the literary map.” It is undeniable that Queens is having a moment of literary acclaim. Queens-based writers are receiving international plaudits, while the borough itself is increasingly becoming the backdrop for American fiction. Jonathan Lethem’s 2013 novel, Dissident Gardens, is set in Queens, as is the lion’s share of short stories from National Book Award winner Ha Jin’s collection A Good Fall; while Queens natives Tara Clancy and Bushra Rehman have published a memoir and novel of “autofiction” respectively, detailing two very different experiences of growing up in Queens.
The notion that Queens has been some kind of literary backwater for the last hundred years, however, is an entirely false one. Queens has a uniquely rich literary history, and the list of writers who were either born or raised in Queens, or spent a significant period of their writing life in the borough, shouldn’t be eclipsed by Queens’ newfound exposure. Rather, they should be seen as an important bedrock upon which the current writers are building.
Queens has always been an influential branch on America’s literary tree.
Jack Kerouac wrote the first drafts of the seminal novel of the 1950s On the Road while living in Ozone Park and Richmond Hill. “The Wizard of Ozone Park,” as the poet Allen Ginsberg liked to call Kerouac, lived in Queens for over 12 years with his mother, and their house at 133-01 Cross Bay Blvd. was the starting point of the writer’s first-ever crosscountry journey, the narration of which would be the inspiration behind an entire “Beat Generation.” John Berryman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the poetry anthology 77 Dream Songs, moved to Queens at the age of 12, shortly after his father’s suicide. His new home was surely the place where, in the first of his Dream Songs, there “came a departure. / Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.” A major literary critic of the middle-half of the 20th century, Lionel Trilling, was born in Queens—as was Paul Bowles, who revolutionized the idea of the travel novel in books like The Sheltering Sky. The great W.E.B. Du Bois lived his final years in Queens, while Emma Lazarus and Sholem Aleichem are just two of the literary giants buried in Queens.
One of the reasons for the recent development of Queens as both a residence and setting for writers is that the borough gives the truest reflection of the American literary zeitgeist. A wider range of voices is being published than ever before, with writers from once-overlooked communities now among the most vital and influential in the contemporary canon. America is increasingly interested in stories from the margins, from those who have previously been silenced or ignored. Queens, with more languages spoken than any other place in the country, has more voices. That is why Bushra Rehman’s novel Corona, about growing up in Corona, Queens, in a conservative Pakistani immigrant community; and Tara Clancy’s memoir The Clancys of Queens, about growing up queer in an Irish-Italian working-class family, can seemingly have nothing in common yet have everything to do with one another.
The legendary New York School poet and Queens native Tony Towle once described growing up in Queens with a view of the Manhattan skyline: “It was like seeing the Emerald City from afar rather than living in it. That kind of perspective pops up in my poems, I think.”
Place influences us in ways we can never fully grasp, defining us through both our absorption of it and equally, our efforts to reject it. In Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “Queens Cemetery, Setting Sun,” the “rows and rows and rows and rows” of the cemetery’s “small stone slabs” are shaded in Manhattan’s “great stone slabs / skyscraper tombs and parapets.”
Slowly, Queens’ literary community is coming out of the shadows of its more prominent neighbors, but there is nothing sudden about this emergence. Queens has always been on the literary map; people were just too lazy to look.
Once a month, we will highlight a book that has contributed to Queens’ rich literary history.