“Black Sheep Boy,” the chronicle of a young gay man in Louisiana’s Cajun bayou by California State University, Northridge English professor Martin Pousson, is a finalist for a 2017 literary award from PEN Center USA.
The West Coast center of PEN International — the world’s oldest international literary and human rights organization — will announce the winners of its literary awards early next month.
Pousson said he was “shocked” when he received word that his book was one of four finalists for the PEN Center USA’s literary award for fiction. The other contenders are “The Association of Small Bombs” by Karan Mahajan, “Sweet Lamb of Heaven” by Lydia Millet and “Lions” by Bonnie Nadzam.
“[‘Black Sheep Boy’] was published by Rare Bird Books, a small independent LA-based press with limited funds for advertising and promotion,” he said. “I self-funded a large part of a limited book tour. There were a couple of early reviews, but none in the regular literary review magazines. Rare Bird submitted the book to PEN—and somehow it was named a finalist.
“The book is very much about defending a queer identity that is both personally and socially queer,” Pousson continued. “It’s about a teenager who pushes against assimilation and conformity and remains an individual, which is also a fight for the Cajun culture and all people who are outsiders. That’s why this award nomination from PEN is so meaningful. It’s an organization that has always stood for and defended those on the outside.”
Pousson said the honor also has particular meaning for him as a professor at CSUN, with its rich diversity of students.
He pointed to a panel of LGBTQ writers he recently served on who were asked if the literary world still needed queer “coming-out” novels. A fellow panelist responded that he thought such books were a “generational thing” and weren’t really necessary anymore.
“I had to interject that it’s not generational, it’s geographic,” Pousson said. “You don’t have to go very far out of West Hollywood to find very young people who are outcast by their families and friends, even in 2017. We may have marriage equality, but in 28 states someone who is LGBTQ can be fired from their job or evicted from their home. There still are so many places where lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and especially transgender people are subject to extraordinary brutality.
“When I teach on our campus, this is one of the ways I connect with our diverse body of students,” he said. “Like a lot of them, I know what it means to be outside the mainstream culture. Our students are at a crossroads, are pushed to assimilate and conform as the only gateway in a market of success. But, like the protagonist in my book, they can fight to maintain their uniqueness and succeed all the more —they can succeed in a soul-satisfying way.”
Pousson called “Black Sheep Boy” “a novel in stories:” stories that tap into the Cajun Bayou of his youth — with its unique mix of races, religions, languages and cultures — and that incorporate the mythologies and legends that permeate the region.
The book’s protagonist is a misfit, an outcast and loner, but not a victim. He is the son of a mixed-race Holy Ghost mother and a Cajun-French phantom father. In a series of stories, he encounters gender outlaws, drag queen renegades and a rogues’ gallery of sex-starved priests, perverted teachers and murderous bar owners. To escape his past, he must create a new story for himself.
Pousson was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2014 for a selection of interlocking stories that chronicle the sexual coming-of-age of a young, mixed-race man in the bayous of Louisiana. The fellowship helped Pousson turn those stories into what is now “Black Sheep Boy.”
The book was inspired by a short story Pousson wrote about a young gay man escorting a girl to their high school prom.
“I remember sharing the story with close friends,” Pousson said last year upon the release of his book. “One of them turned to me with a question: ‘What about the girl?’ It was a great question to raise. It was absolutely right. My field of vision was so limited, it troubled me. I had to find a way to write stories about a boy coming out in that era and against all that adversity, and yet to write the stories not squarely and solely about him.”
Pousson said in 2016 that he hoped his book, which falls into the “fabulism” school of writing, not only captures the boy’s experience, but also “the experience of the place and everyone who occupies it.
“It’s not just about a queer boy, but also a queer place — an outsider boy living in an outsider culture,” he said. “The magic in the book arises not just out of a place but also out of a person growing up as an other, a gender outlaw, with all the horrible, traumatic elements of that experience. For those who grow up gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual or intersex, there is a duality to how you live, to how you dream and yet still tether yourself to reality.”