There’s an implicit caution when reading fiction, as taught in high school English classrooms and some college literature courses: Don’t read the author into the book. Their biography is not some exalted key to deciphering plot, character or desire -- more a nagging voice in the back of one’s head, threatening to mar the essence of a novel if listened to too closely. In other words, the biographical isn’t needed.
Or so it’s said.
For Chelsey Johnson, whose debut novel, “Stray City” was released last year and just came out in paperback, writing herself and her queer Portland community onto the page was necessary.
Through Andrea Morales, Johnson’s young, lesbian, part-Mexican protagonist, the author works to write queerness into the canon, not so much as an act of defiance toward literary practice that has historically enacted, whether deliberately or not, an erasure of queer culture and stories, but one prompted by the need to preserve and archive a specific time, place and people.
“I think we like to think of the artist as some lone genius, some kind of singular source of inspiration, but we all make art with and among other people who influence the way you think and the everyday quality of your life. And there was no way I could write about [Portland] without knowing all that I do from my friends and my friends’ lived experiences,” Johnson says.
Like her lead character, Johnson first came to Portland in the 1990s, a city whose “slightly ruined quality of everything — the rusted joints, the mossy edges,” envelop Andrea when she arrives from her small Nebraska hometown for college.
The reader meets Andrea six years later, 24 years old, no longer welcome in her strict Catholic family after coming out, but thriving in a Portland still untethered from the tech world and condos, a city that brought in strays who, much like her, never left.
“I’ve never known a city so intimately,” Johnson says. The northern Minnesota born, recent Flagstaff transplant left Portland for what she thought would be a temporary teaching gig that turned out to be permanent. And she found the city changing, fast.
“I wrote my way back into [Portland] when I was homesick and the longer I was away, the more that the city started to change really dramatically, and I felt compelled to archive what it was like to be in this place and time because I felt it starting to slip away,” she says.
That sense of urgency prompted her to document the place, she says, and within it, Andrea.
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What centers the novel is indeed Andrea, not a straight white man, and not a lesbian woman gratuitously stuck in a straight narrative. Andrea has grown roots in Portland among her chosen family: artistic, opinionated, zine-making, print-making, music-making “wimin.” But her world has also become unsteady, her sense of home threatened when she finds herself in the midst of an earth-shattering breakup from Flynn, her girlfriend of three years. In the throes of her pain, Andrea sleeps with Ryan Coates, the drummer in a local band and the man who, until recently, was simply someone she knew because he also happened to be Flynn’s hairdresser.
They continue their affair for months without anyone knowing, until Andrea becomes pregnant and decides to keep the baby.
Andrea wasn’t always the center of “Stray City,” however. The story began with Ryan, a guy who had ditched his pregnant girlfriend to head north to Minnesota.
“I realized I was writing this really straight story that’s been written a million times,” Johnson says. “I had a white guy behaving badly on his own, and I thought, what am I contributing to anything? And then I thought, well what if his girlfriend was a lesbian? I had to find myself somehow in the story,” she says.
That’s when Andrea turned into first-person and took over: The story became about her life as it intersected with Ryan’s, anonymous maneuvering, late nights behind her friends’ backs, not telling them about the relationship until she was forced to.
As Andrea grapples with her identity within approaching motherhood, she worries she’ll be ostracized from her friends, from the card-carrying Lesbian Mafia. At the same time her parents extend an olive branch, welcoming her back in now that she’s expecting a man’s baby.
“In some ways it was harder to come out as gay-with-one-exception than it was to come out as gay,” Andrea reflects.
“What I wanted to show is that, having come out, to go back is not an easy slide back into comfort. There’s something I think deceptively easy about following a heteronormative path -- you can slot into it, or it feels like you can. But [Andrea’s] never gonna not be queer, to go into this life feels like this complete erasure of what her life has been and it seems like a terrible price to pay for her parent’s approval,” Johnson says.
In many ways, Johnson says, she wrote the story as a sort of reverse coming-out narrative, painting the challenges in slipping from queer life into motherhood and how the two ultimately work in tandem. "Stray City" is as such a glimpse of the multi-faceted nature of identity, which will never be simply a single narrative, but a complex amalgamation, much like Andrea.
“I wrote this story where queer is the norm, because that’s what it feels like or it felt to me when I lived in Portland,” Johnson says. “I wanted to push back against the idea of the purity of identity.”