Lesléa Newman Turns Hate Into Love
The lesbian author revisits the case of Matthew Shepard.
Lesléa Newman shot to fame in 1989—her groundbreaking children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies, with its warm and loving depiction of a child and her lesbian parents, was celebrated in some circles and banned in others. In the ensuing years, she has written or edited more than 60 books, including A Letter to Harvey Milk, The Boy Who Cried Fabulous, The Reluctant Daughter, Nobody’s Mother, and Write from the Heart. Her recent book October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (Candlewick Press) is a moving and evocative response to Shepard’s death, and was almost 14 years in the making.
You have a special connection to Matthew Shepard. Can you tell us how you two nearly crossed paths right before he died?
In 1998, I had been asked months before Matthew Shepard’s murder to be the keynote speaker for Gay Awareness Week at the University of Wyoming, which was put together by the University of Wyoming’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Association. One of the last things Matt did, on the Tuesday night of his attack, was attend a meeting of the LGBT Association to go over the plans for Gay Awareness Week. That weekend, Jim Osborn, president of the LGBT Association, called to tell me what had happened to his friend Matt. Jim asked if I wanted to cancel my appearance. I said absolutely not, and arrived on campus the day Matt died. I met some of his friends and teachers. When I gave my talk, the students from the LGBT Association were sitting in the front row. There was one empty seat among them and I kept looking at it, and thinking, “Matthew Shepard should be sitting there.”
Is that what inspired you to write this collection?
On October 12, 2009, The Laramie Project, Part II: The Epilogue was performed in 150 cities, including Northampton, Mass., which is where I saw it. That night, I couldn’t sleep. The play brought everything back to me in a flash, and I got out of bed in the middle of the night and wrote the poem “Wounded,” which is part of the collection. At this time, I was the poet laureate of Northampton, and I created a project called 30 Poems in 30 Days. I organized 75 poets to write a poem a day during the month of November and collect monetary pledges per poem [it was a fundraiser similar to a walkathon] to raise money for a literacy organization. After I wrote the first poem, I knew my 30 poems would be an exploration of the aftermath of this hate crime. And when the 30 days were over, I kept writing.
You published it 14 years after his death. Why now?
I think it took me over a decade to truly absorb how horrific this hate crime was. I also think I had to grow as a writer, an activist, and a human being in order to have the confidence to take on this project. That’s one answer. The other answer is, I never know what I am going to write when I sit down and pick up my pen—yes, I still write with a pen! And these are the poems that came pouring out of me. Some books have longer gestation periods than others. And this book was one of them.
You use several different poetic forms in the book. How did you select them?
I kept thinking about all the empty space surrounding this hate crime——Matt being alone on the prairie for 18 hours, the huge space he left in the lives of the people who knew him and loved him. In Japanese aesthetics, which I have studied, there is a quality called yohaku, which means the empty space in a poem or a painting. I wanted to capture this emptiness by keeping the poems very sparse. Some of the forms I used are the villanelle and the pantoum, both of which use repetition, as well as haiku, alphabet poem, acrostic, and several imitations. Many of the poems that were not written in a specific form use formal poetic devices, such as rhyme and repetition. Because the poems contain such intense emotion, writing them in form was a way to contain that emotion, and to make the process of diving into this intense material more bearable.
You also tell the story from the point of view of the fence Matt was tied to, the truck Matt was kidnapped in, and the stars overhead, which is very intriguing. Can you tell us more about those choices?
When I began to write the collection, I had to ask myself, “What do I have to say that could possibly add to the many accounts that have already been written about Matt’s murder?” The facts were known, as much as we will ever know them. I kept thinking how we will never really know the truth about what happened at the fence that night. Matt can’t tell us and, in my opinion, his murderers can't be trusted to tell the truth about what happened. I kept wishing there had been witnesses, and then I realized that there were witnesses: the fence, the moon, the stars, a deer that kept Matt company. As a poet, I used my imagination to create monologues from these points of view to learn something new about the story. The book is not the truth; rather it is my truth, my take on this murder and its aftermath.
What has been the response to the book? Have you heard from the Shepard family?
The book has gotten a tremendous response, both from adults who remember vividly where they were, what they were doing, and how they responded when Matt was murdered, and from teenagers who were only 2 or 3 years old, or not even born when these events took place. It is a very moving experience for me to give a reading from the book and look up and see a row of high school students, both male and female, wiping tears from their eyes.
I hope that Matt’s story inspires people to work harder to erase hate from our damaged world. I am a member of the Matthew Shepard Foundation Speakers Bureau and have their full support for the work that I am doing. I recently spent some time with Judy Shepard in Brooklyn, where we saw the Tectonic Theater Project perform both parts of The Laramie Project. I thanked Judy for allowing me to tell her son’s story, and she thanked me for telling it and told me she had heard many good things about the book. She is an amazing person and her dedication to human rights for all inspires me on a daily basis.
October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard has been recommended by many teachers and children’s library groups, and has won several young adult book awards. This is not a typical choice of literature for children or young adults. Can you say more about this?
I don’t think we give teens enough credit. They are passionate about injustice and are hungry for true stories that will inspire them to make the world a better place. I think teens deserve to know the truth about the world they are inheriting. I have been very inspired by their reactions to the book, and to the presentation I give, He Continues to Make a Difference: The Story of Matthew Shepard. At the end of that presentation, I ask the audience to make a commitment to do one specific thing to make the world a safer place for the LGBTQA community. So many teens have said things like, “I’m not going to use the word ‘fag’ anymore,” or “The next time I hear someone say, ‘That’s so gay,’ I’m going to call them out on it.” It takes a lot of courage to stand up in front of your whole school and make a statement like that.
What are your current and upcoming projects?
I’m very happy to say that I have a few children’s books coming out in the near future: Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed, which is based on the true story of a cat whose solo composition for the piano won honorable mention in a contest—really!—and Here Is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays. Also I am thrilled that Heather Has Two Mommies, which is currently out of print, is going to be reissued with brand-new fabulous illustrations. And currently, I am working on an adult poetry collection about my mother’s recent death, with all the poems being written in form.
Anything else you would like to share about your life?
For any reader who is struggling, I’d like to say, it does get better! I am proud to be happily and legally, in Massachusetts, married to my beloved, and we are about to celebrate our 25th anniversary! And I fully expect that the federal government will recognize our marriage in our lifetime. And also, never underestimate your own power. One simple act of kindness can save a life and make all the difference in the world.