It has been a hot minute since I last blessed the internet with my unwarranted literary insights and opinions, BUT NO WORRIES I AM STILL HERE TO BLABBER INTO THE ETHER!!!! The book today is a slightly chunkier tome which may be why it took me a tad longer to organise my thoughts but I am so glad to have ploughed through, which ended up happening with ever increasing speed- such irresistible words. It has beauty and tenderness at its core, swirling in a universe of New York streets, glittering fineries and many, many cigarettes. The House of Impossible Beauties, by Joseph Cassara is not a book that will leave you quickly.
Paradoxically, it was actually by watching TV that I found out about Impossible Beauties. For anyone whose eyes haven’t yet been graced by the drama unfolding in the TV show POSE (The Category is: FIERCENESS!), then get on it!!!!! Pose (and Cassara’s novel) is inspired by ballroom culture curated by lgbtq+ people of colour from mainly Black and Hispanic descent- in particular and especially transgender women and drag queens- during the 1970s/80s onwards in New York. Mostly rejected by their original ‘nuclear’ families, young gender non-conforming people would come to the city homeless, and (hopefully) become members of their own self-made communities; putting on Balls, runway dance battle extravaganzas to celebrate (and read to filth) each other’s’ existence, dressing as whoever they wanted to be, away from the cruel white supremacist, heterosexual mainstream.
Impossible Beauties is inspired by the lives of Angie Xtravaganza and Venus Xtravaganza- of the Xtravaganza House- two transgender women who should be celebrated for their undeniable contribution to queer culture, but also towards fashion and club history. One criticism I have read, is that Cassara based his novel on real history without doing the necessary research. I believe he couldn’t conduct any face to face interviews with people who had been influential in the scene, and many dates in the novel are not in synch with details surrounding how the AIDS epidemic impacted lgbtq+ life. I will say there seems to be a lot of empty gaps in the novel, often serious events in the characters’ lives are omitted, and regarding scene setting- there is only one ball actually detailed in the entire book! I think omitting the personal scenes is one way to emphasise already devastating loss further, letting emptiness breathe for itself. A lot more effort has gone into imagining quotidian detail in fleshing out past backstories and how characters relate with each other, which I do still adore. It just would have made a lot more sense to set a greater portion of the book at the actual balls, considering that is what it’s based off!
Having said that, what the book lacks in historical clarity is made up for with emotional detail: this book will make you smile, it will make you weep. The way the characters are followed as they grow up into themselves, only to be misunderstood or devalued somehow, and the damage that leaves, is a searing study on the humanity of outsider-ness. All of them- Angel, Dorian, Venus, Hector, Juanito and Daniel- are fun-loving souls entangled in the needless brutality of a world that doesn’t want them to be fabulous. The love they have for each other is immense, but this love comes with an unspeakable baggage of trauma, trauma they must navigate around each other. But humans are humans, mistakes are made, and devastating hurt ensues. I did not think a book could be so brimming with laughter and dancing and sequins, yet simultaneously so deeply rooted in pain, violence and goodbyes.
Historically it may not be 100%, but Cassara certainly does not wash over lgbtq+ history with rose tinted glasses to make everything one big piss up of amnesia. Without giving too much away, one of the most heart wrenching parts for me was how the AIDS epidemic at the time is portrayed: too, too many people dying with no explanation why; people losing their lovers without being able to say it as such, grieving alone. (Never forget) Impossible Beauties is a testimony to the absolute zenith of glamour and feisty togetherness that Ballrooms gave, and a eulogy to everybody who lost all that they had in the name of living for love, real love.
May we always continue to delight in the beauty and glamour that femme queens have been serving for themselves, with a sincere and sober commitment to fight for and defend the political rights that enable such brilliance. If The House of Impossible Beauties has anything to teach us, it’s that beauty wears a brave face. Beauty always survives.
“It is about love, but a different kind. A kind that you can only find and not substitute for. And I think it’s hard for them to realise. So they go out to the balls for all the wrong reasons. Not all of them, but most of them. They go out seeking an audience of adoring fans who aren’t gonna hurl shade. And they go out looking for their Adam or their Eve, their other half, the other pea in the pod, or whatever you want to imagine it as.
I just want to shake all those darlings. Love is great, it is. But it’s also so brief. Didn’t these kids ever learn that even in the Garden of Eden, someone betrayed the other?”
PS: If you are interested in learning more about transgender history and the origins of much of lgbtq+ culture now (*ahem RUPAUL*), I also highly recommend watching the documentary Paris is Burning!!!