Set against the prairies and coalfields of North Dakota, Taylor Brorby’s Boys and Oil: Growing Up Gay in a Fractured Land is a lyrical coming-of-age memoir about the loneliness of a gay childhood in the rural West, the legacy of extractive industries, and the making of an environmental activist.
Kathleen Yale: While researching, you found incredibly few gay narratives in the pantheon of literature of the American West, Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain (and the lauded Hollywood film of the same name) being the only one most people can name. Can you speak a little about any feelings of obligation, and perhaps resulting pressure, to be a pioneer of sorts in this genre?
Taylor Brorby: I’m not sure I want to be a pioneer! It’s difficult to look at bookshelves in 2022 and realize how scant attention the part of the world you love receives except for maybe outdoors writing about hunting, fishing, and football. My sole goal in writing this book is the hope that it keeps queer kids alive. The other week The Trevor Project released its findings that last year 45 percent of LGBTQ+ youth contemplated suicide. That should shame us as a culture. It means that if you know two queer kids, one of them thought ending their life was a serious option. So my obligation is to say, stay. It doesn’t mean life will be easy, but we need literature that affirms our experience to put away the pistol, to unravel the noose, and keep the pills in the drawer.
How do you think a younger version of yourself might have felt if he found Boys and Oil on a library shelf?
Scared and affirmed. Scared because being gay—that word even—wasn’t talked about, wasn’t mentioned. I would’ve found a story of a boy who had hobbies and passions similar to mine. It would have been akin to when I read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in eighth grade, when he writes about how the country is divided at the Missouri River between Bismarck and Mandan, North Dakota—I would have known that my place was worthy of great literature.
You write a lot about your love of the prairie, the ponderosa and sage, the big sky. I know you are homesick for that ecosystem. Have you been able to connect like that with a different landscape? What do you miss most about your home?
I love immensity. Vastness. Sweeping expanses of browns. Mountains are for people of little imagination (I’m being cheeky!). Most people wish they were taller, so it makes sense that we like mountains. I don’t. Height doesn’t impress me—horizontal grandeur, as Bill Holm said, does. There is something so wonderful about an ecosystem that tells you that you must get down on your knees to explore it.
Read more about Taylor’s thoughts on his Fracture anthology.
The mainstream ethos of the American West has been predominantly dominated by masculine, hetero, white voices. Of course, this is a fundamental problem in the American environmental movement as well. Do you think this underrepresentation of women, members of the queer and disabled communities, and other racial and ethnic groups can be reconciled? How?
The underrepresentation can, and I think is, being reconciled, as we’re in an incredible time of changing of the guard. I think as publishing reflects more of reality, by which I mean something beyond only being white and straight, we’ll continue to see a more diverse literary landscape. And we need to ask ourselves why, at least for a time, the American West only tells stories about outdoor hobbies or farming and ranching? I’m reading to see novels and nonfiction that delve into the political complexity of pancake breakfasts to pay cancer bills, queer parents in Grand Junction, atheists in Vernal. The American West’s literature needs to be beyond just landscape.
Montana, for instance, just to pick on one well-known literary western state, seems to consistently attract straight, white men who want to write about fly-fishing. I enjoy fly-fishing too, but I think there’s more to explore in the literary landscape than that, so I appreciate, for instance, what Kali Fajardo-Anstine is doing in fiction that centers Chicana women and queer characters—she does an immense amount of research that shows how rooted her characters’ lives are to reality. That’s just one example.
You have a few harrowing scenes of violence, or potential violence, in the book and show a strong connection between violence against the land and violence against other humans. How does your identity as a gay man affect how you inhabit nature—especially in more remote areas—in terms of concerns for your personal safety.
I do a lot of deep breathing. What’s so odd is that I get labeled as an environmental or nature writer and I hardly go out into nature because, as a type 1 diabetic, it’s so dangerous for me to be out there, especially alone. I tend to think of myself as just a political writer who happens to write about extractive economies (close friends call me an “armchair environmentalist,” but I want to spend my time helping to close down coal-fired power plants rather than kayaking). When I do go out in nature, it’s normally to cool my tubes by fly-fishing. There’s something so great about standing in a gin-clear, ice-cold stream—it does more wonders than a deep tissue massage: time passes quickly, you notice how the water shimmers like silver coins, you can—if you’re lucky—relish in the “idiot joy,” as my friend David James Duncan calls it, of catching and releasing a fish (because many of us are no longer reliant upon what we catch to feed us), and you can forget yourself. I think that’s part of why I go into nature, to forget myself, if for a moment. Because so much of my life can be a type of permission for violence. Think of how many bars I could go into in rural America or bars near landscapes that we prize for their stunning scenery, and put my hand on another man’s thigh and hope to get out of there without any trouble. Very few.
What are a few adjacent books you’d recommend to Orion readers?
Here are some writers I’m not sure anyone reads anymore and needs to: Paul Gruchow’s incredible Grassroots: The Universe of Home, especially his essay “What We Teach Rural Children”; the essays of Meridel Le Sueur (all of them); Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write; Tillie Olsen’s Yonnodio: From the Thirties; and Sigurd Olson’s essay “Northern Lights.” I tend to bend toward socialist Minnesota writers that explore working-class issues.
Taylor Brorby is the author of Boys and Oil: Growing Up Gay in a Fractured Land; Coming Alive: Action and Civil Disobedience; the poetry collection Crude; and coeditor of Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America. He is a contributing editor at North American Review and serves on the editorial boards of Terrain.org and Hub City Press. Brorby is the Annie Tanner Clark Fellow in Environmental Humanities and Environmental Justice at the Tanner Humanities Center of the University of Utah.