When Brontez Purnell sat down to write 100 Boyfriends, he knew he wasn’t going to have to try hard.
“Given the queer sex that we’ve been handed over the years, how hard is it to do something radically different?” he laughs. “I don’t think I tried very hard, I just presented the facts.”
The result is a searing collection of short stories that delves into the intricacies of sex between men. Some of the vignettes explore intimacy and love, while others delve into sex that stems from boredom. Over the course of three acts and an epilogue, Purnell interrogates capitalism, class, racism, homophobia and mental illness – all through the lens of man-on-man action. That might make it sound staid, but 100 Boyfriends is anything but. In fact, it manages to straddle the line between being laugh-out-loud funny and powerfully moving.
Naturally, 100 Boyfriends has already been labelled as “radical” for refusing to look away from queer sex in all its glory – but Brontez Purnell doesn’t view it that way. He wanted to show that sex can be “beautiful”, but also that there’s much about the process that’s “just not fun”. He spoke to PinkNews about how capitalism influences his work, writing his own experience into being, and wanting to be “that bitch”.
A lot of explorations of queer sex have been really vanilla. Did you want to deliberately challenge that in 100 Boyfriends?
Gentrified, sanitised – it’s like, who’s even allowed to talk about their sex life? Who’s even allowed to show those expressions of love? I want a world where a fat boy can go on Instagram and not feel like he’s making a political statement by just showing his body. That’s what we’re reaching towards. That’s the goal.
Have people tried to suggest that 100 Boyfriends is a political statement because of how upfront it is in its exploration of sexuality?
Oh yeah, for sure. But also I don’t want people to shy away from that. If it feels really political to you, by all means, go for it. I feel like I’m a little lazier than that with my intentions. But I mean, if that floats your boat, by all means. I feel like I always just present the facts.
You told Vulture in January that 100 Boyfriends is for “jaded old whores”. What did you mean by that?
I think there’s just something so different when you’re young and love feels fiery and new and very remarkable and very personal. But then after you have so many of these encounters I think you see them in a different way, like they’re just a part of life and they’re a descriptor within a life. The pedestal we sit on gets brought down the scale, and once it’s brought down the scale, I think you can deal with it for what it is. It can shape and move us in so many directions, it can warp our orbits, or sometimes it gets to a point where it just kind of stands still. I just love getting at the emotional diversity of sex and relationships.
A lot of the discussion about 100 Boyfriends has focused on the exploration of sex, but it also interrogates capitalism, loneliness, boredom. Were those themes intentional?
I think when you’re writing about sex or love the way I write it, all these things are interconnected. Like, capitalism is always the culprit. It decides what neighbourhood you’re in, who you’re going to sleep with, who’s gonna sleep with you, what you’re doing to subsist. And also within these themes are themes of why we are having sex. Are you having sex from this joyous place of opulence where you feel generous of spirit? Are you doing it because you feel anxious and depleted and nervous? Are you doing it for some sort of instant validation you’re not getting in other parts of your life? Whatever type of moral opulence or moral fatigue is going into why you’re ending up in the bedroom is kind of how I wanted to paint that map of what all these characters are doing. And so I think in order to have what I’m trying to build on those pages, you have to have a really clear spreadsheet of where all these characters are coming from.
How does capitalism affect the way that you approach your art?
I think in some ways, it hindered a lot of the art that was supposed to happen, but then I don’t know. There are so many ways in which having access to a phone can really limit the work that you’re making. Sometimes I do think it was better when I was just super broke in Oakland, making art with college loan money – sometimes it felt like that’s when I really got to be the freest in terms of what I was making, the mistakes I got to make and the things I got to explore. I mean essentially, the better you do at art, there’s just more white people telling you what to do, so what’s the fun in that? So essentially, yes, capitalism has affected my art.
The effects of capitalism are present everywhere, in all art forms.
If you hear about some twink on a beach in the Mediterranean having sex with their daddy, rest assured, that is not someone you’re going to be having sex with. You do not come in contact with that person! It’s always so clear.
When did you first start writing and were there any particular writers that inspired you?
I came out of zine culture in the ’90s, so the conversational tone you hear me take is probably from personal zine writing. Oh god, I had punk friends all over, like Seth Bogart, who I was in a band with. He was living in Arizona and I was living in Alabama, and we traded zines as teenagers which is how I first really got to meet him. My friend Adee [Robertson], she was in that band New Bloods, she did zines in Florida and I met her. So yeah, I could sit there and be like, ‘Yeah, Syliva Plath, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes,’ but like I don’t know these f**king dead people. My tone came from trading zines with other punk ass zinesters. We were very pre-Twitter – if you think people are funny on Twitter and s**t, you should read some of the old zines from back in the day when you only thought 10 people were listening and you could say any f**king thing you wanted.
How have your own experiences as a queer person affected your writing?
Well I think writing is just about wanting to see my own experience. Sometimes people come at that question with this earnest, “I just didn’t see myself reflected in so many stories so I did it because blah blah blah” – f**k that, no. I’m a f**king selfish c**t, I’m a total egotist. I wrote because I knew that me and the narrator God voice would be f**king lit. I wasn’t coming from a place always of this moral scarcity, I was coming from, “No, I felt like a f**king battle rapper or something.” I was just like, I want to write about my experience. I want to spit murder. I want to be that bitch. So I think that is where my sense of queer writing comes from. It comes from a very, very King Kong place of, I want to sit on a page and feel 80-feet f**king tall sometimes.
I think it’s a radical approach because so often the way queer writing is approached is that it needs to fill a gap.
My queer writing is gonna fill up everyone’s gaps, all of them! Cover the lampshades, god damn it.
100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell is published by Cipher Press in the UK and can be purchased here.