Pieces of Identity with Santino Hassell – Post + Excerpt

December 11, 2015

Pieces of Identity

If you’re a New Yorker, there are certain things you pick up over time.

  1. The accent. It’s like going to the bodega or the cawnah staw to get a cuppa cawfee and then releasing questions or comments at a speed that’s somewhere between an audio cassette on fast forward and a machine gun. “Wassup? Howya been? Whaddya doin? Didja heah?” Or, of course, just giving the quintessential New York head bop (that is my favorite.)

  2. How to make a proper deli sandwich. It’s important, okay? Deli food is a big part of NY culture (bodegas, bagel shops, salumerias, kosher delis… trust me, it’s a thing). And it’s not just about meat quality, although that’s numero uno. It’s about the thinness of the meat (nearly translucent), the way the meat is layered, and the bread.

  3. You know that everyone, everywhere, will ask you at least once “Where are you from?” And this question isn’t referring to just your address or the borough you just rode in from on the subway. They’re asking where your family is from. What’s your “old country”? Where do your roots lie?

The last question is kind of a big deal, and it plays into SUNSET PARK. I have written stories set in New York before, but writing from the point of view of someone living in New York City but who wasn’t born here is an interesting experience. For me, NYC is not just a setting or a backdrop. It plays into who my characters are as people and the little idiosyncrasies that make New Yorkers a distinct group.

One of the main differences I’ve discovered between NYC culture and culture in the South, is that many New Yorkers celebrate their ethnic identities and nationalities rather than only identifying as American. They tend to play a lot of value on family history—where they, their parents, or their great-great-grandmother came from. Whether their family fled Europe in the years leading up to WWII, flew over from Puerto Rico in the 1950s, or came on a boat during the Irish potato famine in the 19th century, many people are knowledgeable about their family history.

Then there’s the matter of the borough you live in, which one you grew up in, whether you’re blue collar, white collar, or a city worker—all important aspects of the people who live in the city, and they all play into how people interact with their environment and how they perceive others.

So, how would a transplant view these customs? How will David deal with falling for a man who may not consider his queerness to be the most prominent part of his identity, when he feels it has shaped who he is from the very beginning?  Tell me what you think in the comments, and please enjoy the below excerpt from SUNSET PARK.

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**

“You’re not eating the bread?”

“Um, no. I’m already gaining eighty-seven pounds by eating all of this caloric stuff. I at least want to avoid the carbs.”

“God, you’re pathetic.”

Raymond shook his head and snagged a piece of my bread. It was still drenched in sauce and had remnants of pepper and onion on it. We kept walking, and before long, he paused at one of the many cannoli stands. Before I could protest, he bought two and thrust one into my hand.

“You’re determined to make me fat.”

“Shut up and eat.” I didn’t protest too vehemently. It was delicious.

“So what were you thinking about before? You were staring into space.”

“Nothing pressing,” I said. “I was just thinking about New York and how different it is from where I’m from. It’s so diverse, and people celebrate every part of who they are. It’s not just this… blend.”

“What do you mean ‘people celebrate every part of who they are’?”

I regarded the question, the fragments of my own thoughts, and the people around us. “Just… well, take you, Michael, and Nunzio for example.” I raised my voice as music exploded from a nearby booth. “You have all of these different identities. Being gay or bi is just a fraction of who you are. You’re primarily New Yorkers, but also Puerto Rican or Italian, lapsed Catholics, and then there’s the other parts— sons and brothers, teachers, gamers, etcetera.”

“Uh-huh. Is that a bad thing?”

“No, it’s not a bad thing.”

Raymond stopped walking, and I realized we had reached the end of the festival’s line. The evening was growing darker, and I was momentarily distracted by the stretch of the street going back toward the west side. Colors, lights, smells, and sounds, and a constant motion of people meandering along the festival route.

I looked up at Raymond and the play of light across his face, becoming aware of how close we were standing and the furtive glances we were receiving from the woman at the nearest game booth. I had tried to make this outing seem less like a double date by inviting our friends, but everyone had backed out of traveling way downtown on a Sunday. And the more he purchased my food and drinks, the harder it was to shake the feeling that it was a date.

But I knew it was just me assigning meanings that weren’t there. Again.

“What were you thinking about it, then?” Raymond pressed.

“I told you it’s nothing bad. I was just wondering if that’s why being out is so monumental to me but not to Michael. Being a gay man has always been my primary identity, but for him it’s just one of many facets. I was trying to figure out if that’s why his lack of absolute outness as a gay man doesn’t make him feel like he’s pretending to be someone he isn’t.”

“Is that how you would feel?”

“I think so, yeah.”

Raymond looked at again, his eyes drawing to a young couple with three small children crowding by their legs. “I think… you think too much.”

“Oh, that’s so helpful. Thank you for the insight.”

Raymond grinned and leaned against a lamppost. “You do. You always want to figure things out and ask yourself what they mean instead of letting things be the way they are.”

“Inquiry is good,” I said like a good little Common Core educator. “It’s how we explore the world around us.”

“I’m not saying it’s wrong to be curious and ask questions, but you do it because you want to make everyone fit into certain boxes, and that’s unnecessary. You don’t have to understand why Michael is the way he is. He’s never going to sit down and help you figure it out, and in the long run, how he chooses to live his life doesn’t affect yours. So who gives a damn?”

“I can’t help it, I guess. I just want to know why people make the choices they do. Maybe if I understood, I wouldn’t be so frustrated when people don’t agree with my point of view.”

“You get frustrated by that because you’re a control freak and you like being right.”

“Tell me how you really feel.” Raymond finished his pastry and slid his hands into the pockets of his hoodie. “Just being honest, man.”

A breeze caused the overwhelming smell of food to waft in our direction. The chill made me want to move closer. Press into his side or his chest, and pretend that was okay. Like platonic friends kept each other warm on fall nights in New York City.

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Author Bio:

Santino is a writer of queer romance heavily influenced by the gritty, urban landscape of New York City, his belief that human relationships are complex and flawed, and his own life experiences.

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