Matt Ortile is the managing editor of Catapult magazine and has written for BuzzFeed Reader, Into, Self, Out, and Details, among others. He graduated from Vassar College, which means he now lives in Brooklyn. His first book, The Groom Will Keep His Name, is a collection of essays about sex, power, and the model minority myth. It’s out from Bold Type Books June 2nd. Matt stopped by to talk about memes, catfishing, and QTIBIPOC solidarity.
Reading about your life in New York was a bittersweet experience as those scenes now read like escapist fantasy, so I was wondering what you miss most about pre-social distancing life.
Restaurants. [Laughs]. It’s interesting because over the course of writing the book, I started to develop relationships with my local bars and restaurants. There are a couple in my neighborhood where I’d go to write, and they’d let me pay out after brunch or they’d let me stay six, eight hours even though I only had a croissant and a coffee. And I started to get to know the folks there, the servers, the cashiers, the bartenders. It’s a bummer because I was starting to get familiar and just go to hang out. But then all of a sudden we can’t. So I really feel for the folks in the hospitality and service industries because so many of them have lost jobs. It is a little bit of an escapist fantasy to currently be in a car right now. I’m really thankful for the privilege of going and recording my audiobook and driving through the city.
Let’s talk about the epigraph that opens The Groom Will Keep His Name. Besides laying to rest any doubts an unobservant reader might have about your sexuality, what significance does that Ariana Grande song hold for you?
So I originally chose two epigraphs, but only one is gonna be in the finished copy. Ultimately we struck the Carly [Rae Jepsen] line and we’re just going with “thank u, next.” It’s funny, the song came out in 2018, and I very viscerally remember her dropping it at midnight and listening to it. It was her thanking all of her exes for all of the lessons that she’s learned while also making room to say, “Ok, what’s next? Let’s move on.” And essentially that was the mood for the whole book. Almost every essay in my book revolves around one particular relationship and the lessons that I learned from them and what I learned about who I was in that relationship or whatever-ship and what that said about who I was as an Asian American, gay, immigrant unlearning the trappings of the Model Minority Myth and internalized colonialism. The song was a fun way to set the tone. For folks who are fans of pop music, they understand that there’s kind of heft to that idea of being gracious and moving on, but at the same time there’s that fun edge of it where Ariana is literally listing all the men that she’s dated. So I was doing that as a gesture of “I understand too.” I use pseudonyms, but I am still citing relationships that could be recognizable to certain… people… Sorry, I just saw a really hot guy on the sidewalk…
[Laughs]. There was a line in this book that made me stop reading and stare in awe at its concise verity. It was, “This was part of my immigrant conditioning—the dual fear of stagnation of stagnation and desire for stability.” Can you expand on this feeling?
Yeah, that dual fear of stagnation and the desire to keep moving, to keep going, to keep achieving. Progress so often means motion, forward motion, and particularly in the capitalist society that we live in, productivity, so there always has to be some kind of product at the end of it or reward to show for it: a certificate, a medal, a ribbon. For someone like me who was an immigrant who grew up in the Philippines and then moved to the states—and I imagine too for a lot of kids of immigrants—there’s that pressure to make good on the promises and the investments that our parents have made for us. Very often we hear the immigrant narrative of, “Our parents gave up lives or went through huge amounts of suffering and trauma so that we could have quote-unquote better lives.” And how tragic it is that these “better lives” are often just differently packaged but often have their own traumas and struggles. So it’s that interesting tension of, “I need to keep doing this for my parents. To make my mom proud of me. To win the validation from my father. To feel loved by my stepfather.” Hopefully we have conversations with our parents as we get older, and our parents say, “I’m proud of you no matter what.” But that’s a hypothetical. What we’re left with is that idea of constantly go-go-go-go-going, and it’s exhausting being in that mind set of what am I achieving today for myself, for my family, for my community, for my people, for my nation, for my diaspora. To God! Isn’t it enough that I’m just here? That I can feed myself? That I’m happy? That comes with its own privileges of course, but it’s that interesting tension that i’m thinking about especially now that it’s Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month.
Happy Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month! At some points in your book, I found myself thinking, He’s right but he shouldn’t say it. Do you have any other mantras or memes that you could use to sum up this book?
The “Spider-Man Pointing at Spider-Man” meme. There are the moments when I’m reading books when I feel really seen or those are the moments that make me pause and think, and it’s reassuring to see that someone has gone through what I thought was a specific experience. There’s something really comforting in the idea of seeing it in a book.
Having read the book, I can say that if making someone feel that Spider-Man meme was your goal, you’ve accomplished it.
Speaking of, I was interested to find out that you were catfishing people before there was a show about it, and I’ll admit that while I was figuring things out, I, too, catfished men with a picture of an acquaintance I thought was hot. I’m obviously not proud of doing that, but it’s interesting that we share this experience. Besides anonymity, what did you, as a young queer boy of color, gain from catfishing? What were your underlying motivations?
I don’t think I consciously thought about it, but as I mentioned in the book it was a chance to play a role that I couldn’t play. I couldn’t play the role of a white gay man. So by taking this photo from a blog and using it, I was playing that part and experiencing something that I wouldn’t have as a brown queer kid online. I made friends on DeviantArt, and we made really bad comics—I made mine in, like, MS paint—and I did that as a white person. I drew my characters with my friends with a white skin tone, and I wonder would I not have made those friends were I forthcoming and said, “I’m Filipino; I’m an immigrant?” I wasn’t conscious about my choice to play white. I didn’t use my last name, so very early on, I wanted to change my name. I thought it was so ethnic, so foreign. I was like, “I need to get rid of it.” So that was my chance to say, “Oh yeah, I’m Johnathan-whatever, rather than Matthew Ortile.” It’s interesting now that I have this really specific anecdote, and you mentioned you also used a white person’s photo online for a certain amount of time, and it says a lot. It was a very clear symptom of my desire to become white. How fucked up is that? That this 12-year-old kid felt that he couldn’t be himself.
It’s interesting that you said I used a white guy’s photo, but I actually said I used a hot guy’s photo.
I heard white!
Ah, but I think it plays into everything you say in your book about desirability in the queer male community. Part of the reason I did it was to have that sort of currency. With his pictures I got a lot more responses, and it was kind of like seeing “how the other half lives,” you know? It was interesting to wield that social cachet.
Do you remember this really short-lived YouTube series called “Drunk Grindr?”
No, I don’t.
It’s these two white boys, one a little more conventionally attractive, one a little skinnier. They would get drunk, go on Grindr, and record themselves. My friend and I did that as well. We kept it on Facebook, friends-only view. We used our own faces. Watching them back now, I noticed how much more often my friend got messages. I think it was the same dynamic. He was a little bit buffer, a little bit more conventionally attractive. He’s half-Mexican, half-Polish but passes as white. I wondered then too how much of the difference in our quote-unquote success on Grindr was due to how our race was read online. You mentioned that currency of proximity to whiteness, proximity to masculinity.
Speaking of Mexican-Filipino friendships, I grew up with a Filipino best friend (she calls me kuya), and I’ve always found Filipino identity fascinating. You’re technically Asian, but as you point out in this book, Asians are not a monolith and Filipinos have a unique history, one of Spanish colonization, one shared with Latinx people. How do you feel in relationship to a pan-Asian identity. Do you have any connection to a Latinx identity?
There’s a friend of mine, an academic by the name of Anthony Christian Ocampo, whose first book, an academic book, is called The Latinos of Asia. The book is about how Filipinos as a diaspora, as a culture, as a history varies greatly from East Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) histories and South East Asian (including Vietnamese folks, Thai folks, etc.) histories, and it was interesting because then I mentioned this to someone who was Latinx and they kind of bristled at the idea of using the word Latino to describe what is potentially not a Latinx experience. Filipinos have this weird privilege of being read in multiple ways. I mentioned in the book that I’ve been mistaken for Mexican and one time I was called “an Arabian.” And it’s hard for me to make that comparison. I think Anthony makes an interesting case in his book, but in my perspective it’s hard for me to use that word because I don’t know the Latinx experience. And again, not all Latinx people are a monolith. So there is that sort of kinship in that we’re stuck under these umbrella terms that underserve us. Non-Black Latinx folks and Asian folks are not white and they’re not Black. We kind of occupy that middle space where we have to figure out who we are in relation to white folks and Black folks. And I think about how often Asian folks have appropriated Black culture in ways that disserve Black folks, and how the violence that is enacted on Non-Black Latinx bodies is similar but not at all the same to the violence that Black people face in America. There’s that interesting middle ground where Filipino experiences are so diverse within ourselves that it’s even hard for me to relate to another Asian person at times. We’re kind of in that weird melting pot. It’s great that I can find solidarity with someone who’s Indian or Puerto Rican or from Guam or someone from Mexico or Cuba, but also acknowledge that there are differences in these experiences that I have to listen to and not claim as my own.
It’s really funny, when I read in your book that you were called “Arabian,” I flashbacked to this time in Philly when a guy yelled “you fuckin’ Arabian” at me from his car. Not Arab, but Arabian.
There you go!
It was one of those things where when I was still doing a lot of the unlearning work, early on in the process, I was like, “I appreciate having other brown friends, but it’s not like I rely on them so much and they give me life.” But I do rely on them so much, they do give me life
You got into this a little bit, but let’s talk about the umbrella term “person of color.” inQluded is a platform for queer youth of color, and I was thinking about that fact as I followed your journeys in the essays “Rice Queens and Dairy Queens,” in which your friend Krutika (we stan) helps you deal with internalized colonialist ideals, and “To Live Alone,” in which you describe your chosen family. How important is it to you to have community with fellow QPOC?
On a scale of 1-100, it’s 200. You can’t underestimate that. It was one of those things where when I was still doing a lot of the unlearning work, early on in the process, I was like, “I appreciate having other brown friends, but it’s not like I rely on them so much and they give me life.” But I do rely on them so much, they do give me life. They were really the people who opened doors for me. One of themes that I worked very hard to present in the book was how much my friends did so much of the work with me. And ultimately what I hope readers get from the book is that this is work that cannot be done alone. We talked about having solidarity across different experiences and listening to each other and hearing each other out and understanding that someone else’s experience is not yours, but you can learn from it too and understand the systems that we’re all trapped in all the better for it. So I think it’s so important to be in communion with queer people of color. I cannot overstate the importance of that.
Last and certainly least, can you give me your personal, unfiltered thoughts about the social-economic-political-racial-ethnic-patriarchal implications of someone going to a bar and ordering an IPA?
Oh my God! He really ordered that damn IPA. I hate it. I don’t like really hoppy beers. I’m already not much of beer drinker; I’m much more of a wine and cocktail drinker. I had a sip of it and it was so hoppy and I was like, “Ugh, ok.” I just had that idea, “This is a very specific type of person who drinks this.” It tells me that they’re white. It’s a white dude. Probably had a lot of straight friends growing up. If it’s a girl, she’s probably Kate Hudson. It’s the opposite of that meme “Mmm, the flavor.” It’s like “Mmm the lack of flavor.” An IPA is a feeling, not a taste. It’s like “Mmm, why is my mouth doing this.”
That response lived up to everything I had expected from you. Thank you so much for this interview! I’m so excited for everyone to read The Groom Will Keep His Name.
Make sure to rest that voice.
Oh yeah, I’m not talking for the rest of the day.
Interviewed by Aaron H. Aceves
Interview condensed for clarity
Photo credit: Gerrie Lim