“She beckoned to him, shining and silver, and he knew he must go: unafraid, not hesitating, he paused only at the garden’s edge where, as though he’d forgotten something, he stopped and looked back at the bloomless, descending blue, at the boy he had left behind.”
-Other Voices, Other Rooms
This is the finale of Other Voices, Other Rooms. Truman Capote is known for his most successful work, In Cold Blood, or perhaps his numerous sad and drunken daytime TV appearances, but I think all too often an aspect of him is forgotten: he was queer as fuck. He was not simply a gay man. In his own way, he was an advocate, and in his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, he provides a message that I think continues to be valuable: until you find your “other” voices, and until you find your “other” rooms, queer happiness may be impossible.
Other Voices, Other Rooms is pretty standard territory by Post-War-Southern-Gothic fare; it follows Joel Knox, a boy of thirteen, as he visits his father at Skully’s Landing, a decaying estate in the fictional Noon City. To make it extremely clear, Capote’s prose is everything you could ask for out of a prose writer, especially an author’s first novel- clear, poetic when necessary, sensory. But this control of prose is not where I find the book’s value. You can find a whole lot of books that accurately represent the natural beauty of the South, but the central, weighty themes of the novel are why I think the novel should be required reading for us Southern queers.
Beyond the title, the novel takes very little time to let the reader know that the concept of “the other” will define the book. The protagonist, Joel, is described as “too pretty, too delicate and fair skinned,” as well as effeminate and unlike what a “real” boy looks like. He’s brought into stark contrast with a truck driver’s rugged masculinity, and it’s clear there’s Something Different about Joel. This feeling of other-ization is something every damn queer person in the South has felt as some point. I remember standing limp before a mirror in the horror of pre-pubescence and analyzing why I wasn’t like the “real” boy my dad had expected out of me. It’s a small detail, but that detail served to show me almost immediately that Capote understood at least a part of me. Personal digression aside, Joel soon finds that Skully’s Landing is exclusively defined by “the other”: it’s inhabitants include his father, paralyzed and bedridden, his cousin Randolph, a dandy who frequently crossdresses, and Zoo and Jesus Fever, the two black house workers at the Landing. The book then shifts into a more familiar “coming-of-age structure, but queer themes continually color the characters and story. One young friend of Joel’s even complains that she wishes she were born a boy; her characterization is more sympathetic and accurate to the trans experience than many current portrayals of trans characters.
In the final pages of the book, Joel accepts that this is the place he is meant to be. These “other” voices care for him, and these “other” rooms are where he belongs, and through this acknowledgement of the importance of accepting one’s queerness, he leaves the boy that he used to be behind. It’s climax that seems to come from nowhere, but I think that’s part of the beauty of it. In one quick moment of insight, Joel comes to truly accept his queerness. No more bullshit, no more lying to himself, just acceptance.
That’s what’s so damn great about this book. It’s a powerful statement that as queer people living in a place that does not have exactly the best history with any sort of “other,” we must let our “other voices” be heard and provide “other rooms” to our fellow queer people. Simply replace other with queer and rooms with spaces, and Capote was approximately fifty years ahead of his time in terms of his queer advocacy.
Additionally, the book makes it abundantly clear that assimilation is not the answer; queer people are not, by definition, like straight people. We’re not an entirely homogenous group, but queer people are inherently others. Capote seemed to acknowledge that one must not reject their otherness. As society becomes more accepting of queer people, we can’t forget to foster the disparities that do define us. So yes, Capote has some good shit to say about the nature of queerness in the South, and I think it’s too often forgotten that Capote, among that first wave of mid-century queers (Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams are also worth looking into), was the most open and accepting with respect to his queerness. Even Vidal purportedly disliked Capote for being “too effeminate,” because Gore Vidal was so terribly masc4masc.
Capote was even given criticism for putting the above portrait on the back of Other Voices. Many thought it was too suggestive and sexual for a young man to pose like that.
Capote was willing to be unapologetically queer, even sending a letter to TIME complaining that TIME’s critique of the novel saying that “the distasteful trappings of [Other Voices’] homosexual theme overhang it like Spanish moss, ” was unjust. In my own opinion, it’s some fucking beautiful, queer, important Spanish moss. If you’re a reader, give the book a try.
Jackson Watson is a big ‘ol homo living in Dunwoody, GA, a shitty little suburb Northeast of Atlanta. He likes literature and wearing the caftan that he took from his grandmother’s house after she died.