Joseph Cassara's 'The House Of Impossible Beauties' by Paul Flynn
Illustration by Fernando Monroy
Paul Flynn is an author and journalist. He is Senior Contributing Editor at Love magazine and a columnist at Grazia and Attitude. His first book, Good As You, a personal and pop-cultural mapping of the thirty years preceding British legal gay equality in the UK came out in 2017, published by Ebury.
In his final year as an undergraduate at Columbia University, New York, the writer Joseph Cassara went on a date with a medical student. Cassara grew up an hour out of the city, in New Jersey, the son of a Sicilian father and Puerto Rican mother. His date relayed a tale that stuck with Joseph. In their first year, medical students are given an acute empathy lesson. In a lecture theatre, they would hear the story of a surviving AIDS patient from the height of the pandemic. There could surely be no sharper practical lesson in softening the bedside manner of natural scientists.
‘The story that he told me was about this man who would go onto the subway during rush hour,’ says Joseph. The man liked to feel the physical proximity of human bodies, the hot rush of frenetic energy batted back and forth between strangers with no common currency other than the need to expediently get from A to B. The strange intimacies of commuter travel, Up to Downtown, had morphed from irritation to intermittent moments of comfort as he stared death in the face.
When he was writing his spellbinding first novel, The House of Impossible Beauties, Joseph remembered the conversation and wove it into the last quarter of the book, passing it on to one of his characters. ‘Seven years later,’ he says, ‘I was sitting down with a blank page and thought, oh, let me incorporate that story into this, because that is something that is true. It actually happened to somebody. I knew that if I put it in the book, it would have a real resonance.’
The House of Impossible Beauties is an audacious undertaking. It is a felt history, an imaginary retelling of the back-stories of The House of Xtravaganza, the prominent Latino Voguing collective who form a cornerstone of Jenny Livingston’s biopic of the late 80s Harlem Ballroom scene, Paris is Burning. Joseph first saw Paris is Burning as a student, too, while living in a modest apartment on 114th Street and Broadway. ‘Friends had quoted it,’ he says, ‘and it was pretty clear from my reactions that I didn’t really know what they were talking about. They were like, OK, we need to go watch this, this weekend. I had a viewing of it and really loved it. I would always come back to it.’
His discovery and experience of the movie will chime with many first-time viewers. It is a film once seen, never forgotten. What Joseph Cassara did next, almost a decade later with this deeply moving tale, turning it into a full literary volume, both true to source and spilling over with the author’s fertile imagination was, however, quite unique.
In his masterful book, Joseph Cassara cements the legacy of Livingston and her subject matter, extending it out like a peacock’s fan for new generations. The House of Impossible Beauties is tribute and travelogue, shifting through alleyways teaming with low level criminality, hustling and highs, a dance of the flick-knifes. It tells of a New York now all but lost to gentrification, a Times Square before Disneyfication. Since its release in 1990, Paris is Burning has become a vital, lively tool in LGBTQ+ education, passed friend to friend, acting as a gateway drug to get a firm toehold on one of our origins stories.
With the passing of time, the New York Vogue Balls have taken on the mantle of our Punk. Over a sprawling picaresque, Joseph Cassara weaves the biographies of some of its most prominent members into a classic modern social history, filled with rich humanity, aspiration and survival; tales pockmarked by the fundaments of desire and death. His ear for Latin dialects, drawn from his own family home, is flawless. There is only one ballroom scene in the book. It’s all it needs. What fills the pages, instead, is a love story splitting at the seams with elegance, danger and defiance.
Though not yet born when Livingston fashioned her masterpiece, it is as if with his prose, Joseph Cassara is recounting the tales of long lost buddies he knew first hand. Sometimes, with the writing of the story he would make himself cry. ‘When [redacted] died, I cried. It felt satisfying, in a really odd way. I knew that if I could make myself cry then it felt true. It feels like it’s succeeded and something true is happening on the page and that the reader will also feel that, too.’
His ear for the vernacular of street tough queens who storm-trooped through multiple ills and anxieties, battles won and lives lost, dancing through sadness toward hope, manoeuvring themselves gymnastically into their place in history feels entirely instinctive. ‘The voice of the narrator was easy to find, that came naturally,’ he says. ‘Then as I was writing scenes where the characters were talking to each other, that’s when I discovered all of them.’
The book began as a 40-page short story exercise, written while Joseph was studying for a post-graduate diploma at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. When he saw Lena Dunham’s character in Girls attend the same course, Cassara encountered familiar triggers. ‘The first episode of that season, when she comes to Iowa and she has a bat in her bathroom? That happened to me when I first came to Iowa. It’s a common occurrence. There’s a lot of bats in the city.’ He says not much of his original fictionalisation of the House of Xtravaganza made it to the final volume. ‘Two sentences, I guess?’ Cassara is now assistant professor of creative writing at California State, Fresno.
Writing The House of Impossible Beauties was his labour of love. ‘I knew I had to write it for myself because I didn’t know if it would be published.’ It was the autumn of 2014. ‘It’s a book about queer people, people living in poverty and people of colour. Those three populations, there aren’t books that are published about them all at once. You might go in a book store and see a book about people of colour or queer people or people in poverty, but those three intersecting I had never really seen before.’ He proceeded with the endeavour regardless, like the House of Xtravaganza battling a dominant prevailing culture. ‘I had to just write it for myself, making myself laugh and making myself cry. So even if it didn’t sell it was a worthwhile pursuit.’
Back when he was a student, Joseph Cassara did not for a moment imagine that Paris is Burning and the House of Xtravaganza would become so embroiled with his own story. ‘No, absolutely I didn’t.’ Their story continues to introduce us to staggering new talents, fed by its raw power. That cycle will continue. After a reading for The House of Impossible Beauties, one teenager stuck his hand up to ask a question. ‘He’s just come out and wants to be a writer,’ says Joseph, ‘and wondered if I could recommend books for him to read in the lineage of my own book. I thought, oh wow, so this is someone who just came out, who is looking for more queer literature. I have the chance to write up a little list for him. That was really touching.’ (For the record, his recommendations were Justin Torres’ We The Animals, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, Kim Fu’s For Today I Am A Boy and Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance. ‘They’re the books I like to teach,’ he notes).
The House of Impossible Beauties falls itself into what might be considered a new golden age of LGBTQ+ storytelling. The lineage from Paris is Burning to the stories of the queens battling it out on RuPaul’s Drag Race, syndicated across the planet and obsessed over by the digital generation hardly needs pointing out. If you want cerebral companion pieces to the central axis of The House of Impossible Beauties, you don’t have to look far on the library shelf, from Tim Murphy’s wonderful slab of a book The Christadora through Robin Campillo’s filmic discourse on the establishment of the Parisian branch of Act-Up!, 120 BPM.
Cassara is not the only person fictionally revisiting Ballroom New York, either. Ryan Murphy’s TV series, Pose, focuses on the same source material and employed Jenny Livingston as an authenticating consultant. On August 16th, when Madonna hits 60, you won’t be able to move for vogueing’s most famously empathetic thief.
Joseph Cassara recognises the moment he is both living through and, in his own quiet way, with his wonderful, raucous, incendiary novel now becoming central to. ‘I think because various industries have recognised that gay and queer people have things marketed to us, products like vodka, so they’ve realised that there is also a market for our stories, in movies, books and on television.’
The quality control will invariably alter. ‘Some of them are good and some of them aren’t good. But now we’re seeing a lot of them and I think that is good, ultimately.’ He is currently at the tentative stages of fashioning his next literary work. ‘I’ve just outlined another book. It’s going to be about an artist and it takes place in contemporary Cuba and Spain and the US. I wrote a full six-page synopsis and described the entire plot from beginning to end. I need to write ideas for scenes now.’
Like many before him, his first novel has been a strangely skewering experience for Joseph. ‘I do feel like an author,’ he says, with a little laugh. ‘And I feel like that doesn’t feel like I thought it would feel. I realise now that it doesn’t get easier. I thought once you published a book, then you understood how to write books and then how to navigate the industry and how to talk about your work. Now, I think I have this sense that it only gets harder with each book. That was kind of unexpected.’
Whenever he speaks with notes of simultaneous resignation and resolve, to strive onward against the odds, it is all but impossible not to notice the tiny ghosts tracing the conversation. The work of the House of Xtravaganza is gone but not forgotten. Paris is Burning and its captivating successor, The House of Impossible Beauties is a place where Angels live.
Fernando Monroy is a Mexican illustrator currently studying in México city. His work references pop culture, reflecting the work of photographers, designers and fashion. Out Magazine named him one of twenty young queer artists to watch.