JP Wants NYT Spelling Bee Back: A Conversation with John Paul Brammer

John Paul (JP) Brammer is a writer, speaker, and activist based in New York City. He writes the advice column “¡Hola Papi!” and has been published in The Guardian, Slate, BuzzFeed, NBC, and many other outlets. He can be found on Twitter @jpbrammer, and samples of his writing, including essays, memoirs, and features can be found on his website (johnpaulbrammer.com).

 

Hi, JP!

Hey, how’s it goin’?

 

I’m good. You? Your first question is actually… how are you?

[Laughs.] Yeah, I feel a lot of people are trying to figure out how to answer that in new and creative ways. I’m fine.

 

Really?

Yes, I’ve just sort of, you know, shut down my brain for a while.

 

Sounds healthy.

Yeah, we are closed.

 

Closed for business.

Yes.

 

I wonder if that means you won’t have anything for the second question, which is do you have any really effective coping strategies for this time?

You know I really wish I did. I don’t know. I just sort of take everything day by day. I just wake up, drink coffee, see what the day coughs up. I’m just sort of plodding along at home. I think I’ve gotten back into somewhat of a routine that resembles productivity, which isn’t everything, no one needs to do that, but I certainly feel better making things again.

 

I remember you wrote an article about your love for the sous-vide egg bites at Starbucks, and I’m wondering how you’re dealing without the sous-vide egg bites at Starbucks.

I’m… not doing great. I miss so many things. Not just from Starbucks, but from my little local coffee shop. So that sucks, but once you go enough time without something at some point you get the picture and it’s like, “Ok, fine.” I don’t think about it everyday, but if I do it’s just unpleasant. [Laughs.]

 

A lot of my “ok-ness” comes from the small moments of relief I get from TikToks, memes, new music. Do you have anything like that that’s sustaining you?

You know I was doing that New York Times spelling bee thing, but they cut me off. I’m really upset about it. I hope you put this in the interview because I’m mad. I want to be able to do it again, but they’re like, “Oh, you need to subscribe. You’ve been doing this for weeks.” So I feel very put out.

 

I’ll make that the headline.

Thank you. I’m really mad about it. I guess I could remedy that by subscribing to the New York Times, but I’m so concerned about local media, and I rather put my money there. And also I hate the New York Times opinion desk. I really hate it. That doesn’t discredit everyone else’s good work there, but it makes me reluctant. I’m like, “I can subscribe to X, Y, and Z outlets.” The New York Times has this fun, little spelling bee thing I wanna do, but does that really justify me choosing it over another? I don’t know.

 

Alrighty, so can you tell me everything that you are legally allowed to tell me about your book at this point.

That’s a great question because I’m not even sure what I can share.

 

Well good! Then just tell me everything then.

Yeah, we’ll figure it out later! It is a memoir that sort of plays out through a series of essays. Each essay is sort of like an “¡Hola Papi!” prompt to myself. Something like, “Hola Papi, insert one line question,” and the essay is an answer to that. So it’s an essay telling a life story in advice column format. But what I want to do is make all these essays cohere around a single theme or question or energy. What I found is that the memoir is really about wrestling with the idea of authority, which I think is central to the idea of an advice columnist. It’s the question of what gives you the right to tell anyone else how to live because I think we get the idea that the advice columnist has their life together and has wisdom to dispense. I think that has such beautiful symmetry with how any one person looks at their own life. To what degree do we have control over the story of our lives? To what degree can we wrestle with the things that have happened to us? What do those things come together to say?

 

It’s an anti-memoir, I think. Most of the chapters actively challenge my version of what happened. I like it because it sort of looks back in time but also goes forward. The reason it does that is because I really want to poke holes in the things that happened the way I see them. So one chapter is about a really traumatic event in the eighth grade for me where I experienced really bad bullying in rural Oklahoma for being gay. That’s how I told the story to myself for years and years. “I was bullied because I was different.” And it really structured how I saw the rest of my life. I wanted to succeed, to make money. I wanted achievements and awards. I wanted all these things because I felt like people were actively rooting against me, and the chapter shows me in the future after I have a good job and I’m living in New York. I visit the school, the physical school, that had propelled me to do so many different things in my life and sort of realizing that it was just a small building the whole time. So it’s about, “Was I even correct in assigning the motives of the people who tormented me? Were they really perfect villains? Was I a perfect victim?” It’s really trying to grapple with, “Can I look at this thing that happened to me a different way, and can looking at it that way give more agency in my everyday life.”

 

So just a very fun, light book.

Yeah!

 

[Laughs.] Well, it’s both right? You obviously have a great sense of humor, but there are so many horrible things that happen to you as a queer person of color.

I always think things are funny, and then someone’s like, “That was so sad.” I think I’m being hilarious, and they’re like, “That was so painful to read.” It happens more often in my essays than my tweets. 

 

So I’m Mexican, like you, and we’re talking on Cinco de Mayo. I tweeted today about how stoked I am about Miss Rona cancelling Cinco de Mayo because I won’t have to see any assholes in sombreros drinking Tequila and then going back to hating Mexicans before their hangover’s even over. Do you feel similarly? How has your view about that holiday changed if it has? I think as a kid I was like, “Woo! Mexican stuff finally!” and then it was like, “Oh wait, people are using this an excuse to be horrible. As usual.”

Hmm, my journey with Cinco de Mayo… As a kid it was just fun because it was the day that our Spanish class held a fiesta and we’d bring food and we’d decorate with all the trashy, stereotypical Party City Mexican stuff and we’d take it easy. In college it was also great because I got to drink and that was fun. As I entered social consciousness, I did what a lot of young people who have experienced oppression do, and I went too hard. I started seeing Cinco de Mayo as this dumb white people holiday, and I was very woke about it. “This sucks. Why are we celebrating this? Blah blah blah…” And over time I’ve just sort of like abstracted my own identity to the point where I’m just like, “What does this have to do with me?” and I have to think about my relationship to what quote-unquote “Mexican” means, what “Latino” means, what race is, all these other wonderful little existential crises to have on any given day. And I’ve sort of just come around to this point of view where it’s just like, “Yeah, like most things it’s dumb.” It’s an avenue for people to be really stupid. You have people wearing the fake mustaches and the sombreros and the ponchos. That has a lot to say about political identity and how we perceive in our imaginations not only Mexicans but any given, I guess, “caste” and what they look like. I think it’s been so abstracted in my brain to where I don’t even think about it much. I don’t think much of anything anymore. [Laughs.]

jpb

[Laughs]

I just don’t think. I’m just like this amoeba hurtling through space.

 

On that note, describe the concept of race in one sentence.

 

I’m kidding. “Just tell me exactly what identity is in one sentence.”

I would just start doing guttural screaming.

 

Because inQluded is a platform for and by QTBIPOC, I always ask about how important community with fellow QPOC is to you? How did you find it? What do you get from it? How do you nurture it?

In a very real way, my entire life as I’m living it today is a manifestation of that sort of mutual support from QPOC. The first people who published me were queer people of color. It’s not in the abstract. For me it’s not like these diversity panels where you’re like, “We need more of it!” and you go home and it’s just, like, cool I upheld my values for the day. It was Michelle Garcia, a queer Afro-Latina, who, when I was still living in Oklahoma, took a risk on me and published my very first article in The Advocate, where she was an editor at the time. That to me was the start of everything. I remember being like, “Oh my God. Maybe I’ll get to be a writer after all,” and the window sort of opened up from there. So for me it’s mostly about horizons and possibilities. Someone has to stretch your imagination further than you thought was possible, and it’s often people who share those same obstacles. They’re the ones who say, “You actually too can be a writer, an author. You can sit on a panel. You can be a speaker.” When I look back on my career, it is so often those people who’ve helped me. I really hope I get to do that for other people in the future.

 

I think you probably already have and will continue to do so.

I hope so.

 

The theme for our next issue is “Blue,” in all possible interpretations. What does blue mean to you?

So the first mental image that comes up for me is the sky in Oklahoma because one thing you notice when you first land in Oklahoma and walk outside is just how massive and blue and huge the sky is. For me it’s always been not necessarily a positive or negative thing, but if I were to interpret it negatively and speak on some of the sadness or feelings of isolation or feelings of nothingness that it inspires, sometimes it’s so huge that I can’t imagine anything else. I can’t imagine buildings. I can’t imagine people. I can’t imagine ever going anywhere else because there’s only room for this giant, huge feeling. So when I think about how I felt when I was younger and how I felt when I was so limited in my potential and my mobility, that’s what I conjure up because it’s such a good example of that rural, isolated feeling of, “I’m never going to connect with anyone else. Ever again.” And I think I’m starting to feel that way on my worse days during the pandemic. It’s this surplus of nothing, surplus of silence, surplus of blankness. Too much nothing. And those are my worst days because I’m thinking, “When am I gonna get out of here. When can I fill my life with stuff again?” That could be people, trips, walks, relationships. Stuff. All I have at the moment is this huge blank space, and it comes with this mandate, “You have to do something with it.” When in reality nothing is going to stick in that way right now. But I think a lot of people feel that way, so it’s this paradoxical thing of a lot of people having the same feeling but not coming together about it in the way that we normally could. So I’ve been very heartened to see new ways of connecting with other people, making attempts to contact each other, have conversations. That’s all been wonderful.

 

That was beautiful.

Thank you.

 

Thank you for doing this. Have a great day.

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

 

 

Interviewed by Aaron H. Aceves

Interview condensed for clarity

Photo credit: Eliel Cruz

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