Meet Ben Francisco's "Tio Gilberto" And His Friendly GhostsS

James, of Ben Francisco's "Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts", plans on spending an idyllic summer in the Castro, only to run into complications, both romantic and otherworldly. An interesting take on the supernatural, plus we interview the author!

James, a stand-up living in New York, heads out to San Francisco for a fresh start, and hopefully new boys. As luck would have it, his aging uncle has some of the best real estate in the Bay. His uncle Gilberto shares his house with twenty-seven ghosts, victims of the GRID/AIDS panic of the 1980's. Some are Gilberto's former lovers, others his friends. James accepts the ghosts with neither fear nor wonderment- they are relics of a past era, a sadder time not worth remembering - at least not worth remembering when cute boys are around.

Tensions between Gilberto and James start to mount, particularly when James starts having unprotected sex with the cute guy from the dry cleaners. Relationships start to crumble around James, who soon can't turn to friends his age for help and doesn't want the help of his uncle and the ghosts. It's a strong confrontation for a young man trying to walk the lines between a generational rift.

Author Ben Francisco was kind enough to talk to us about "Tio Gilberto," and we discussed everything from Ursula K. LeGuin to why you don't have to be gay to appreciate a good ghost story, but it sure helps.

What gave you the idea to write this story?

I read "Through Soft Air," a story by Lee Battersby about a World War II veteran haunted by the ghosts of his fallen comrades, and his relationship with younger family members who were far removed from the reality of the war and the ghosts that came with it. It got me thinking about the generation gap in the gay community, the ghosts that haunt an entire generation of gay men who saw the worst of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. A large chunk of the story came to me very quickly after that, and the character of Gilberto was immediately born in my imagination almost fully formed-a rare but welcome occurrence.

"Tio" isn't the first story to incorporate ghosts and the AIDS panic of the 80's- Tony Kusher's Angels in America uses the idea as well, although with different goals. Do you think there's anything about the idea of a corporeal spirit that intersects with gay culture?

I think the interesting thing about ghosts is that they're scary, but we're also drawn to them. We want to connect to spirits of the past, to a life beyond this one. Maybe it's one of the ways we grapple with our mortality. I think the appeal of the ghost story is universal, but there's also something lonely about ghosts that may have special resonance in LGBT communities, since isolation and alienation are such a common part of the gay experience.

There's a tangible gap between Gilberto and the ghosts and James/Kasper. One side love show tunes, the other nightclubs. One has grown cynical about political change, the other still has hope. There's a sort-of reconciliation at the end, yet James still isn't sure what side he wants to be on. Do you think it's possible to reconcile this divide?

Well, my short answer would have to be (1) yes, it's possible, and (2) I wish it happened more often. In any culture, there are bound to be divides between generations. In the LGBT community the generational divide is exacerbated not only because of the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, but also because most of us don't grow up in "gay culture," so we often miss out on the intergenerational transfer of knowledge. A friend of mine says we should have trading cards of LGBT leaders-with photos and biographical information, sort of like baseball cards-as a fun way for young LGBT people to learn about the leaders who came before them.

I do think there's a strong tradition of mentorship in the gay community. I've had more than one real-life Tio Gilberto in my life-inspiring mentors who are my tíos in spirit if not by blood. So sometimes the divide does get bridged. Although I do have a feeling James will never get into show tunes…

Who are your favorite science-fiction/fantasy authors? Books?

Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness is one of my all-time favorite books. I love the way she builds worlds that are just as complex and diverse as earth-and as riddled with social challenges. I also love Kelly Link's stories, the way she offers the reader something unexpected in every sentence. She's influenced me a great deal both through her writing and her teaching-she was one of several amazing teachers when I attended Clarion South, an SF writing workshop in Australia. As a teenager, I read a lot of classic space opera, and recently I've been enjoying more contemporary writers who are taking the sub-genre to interesting new territory without losing its sense of fun-Iain Banks, C.J. Cherryh, John Scalzi, Charles Stross. Some of my favorite books are magic realism or surrealism, which I consider part of the broader SF tradition-Aimee Bender, Junot Díaz, Etgar Keret, Gabriel García Márquez.

I'm also a big fan of the other members of my writing group here in New York-Daniel Braum, M.M. DeVoe, Nicholas Kauffman, Sarah Langan, and David Wellington-and my mates from Clarion-Peter Ball, Christopher Green, J.J. Irwin, Chris Lynch, and the rest of the gang. Being part of a community of writers is so important for my growth and learning as a writer-and for my sanity!

While sci-fi and fantasy literature is known for pushing the envelope and having some of the strongest female protagonists around, it's still largely a hetero-normative genre (although comics like Birds of Prey have made strides to correct this). Why do you think this is?

Mostly, I think it's because present-day human cultures tend to be hetero-normative, and SF-for all its fantastic aspirations-is firmly rooted in the culture of the present. But I do think there's a species of hetero-normativity that's especially common in SF-a certain geek-boy fantasy thing. Spider-Man is a good example-especially those early stories. Peter Parker's a skinny geek with glasses who gets pushed around by Flash Thompson, but then he gets the proportionate strength and agility of a spider, and, of course, all the women want him. It's a distinctly heterosexual male fantasy, I think. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Spidey. Ironically, the fantasy spoke to me partly because of my own experience as a gay teenager, getting pushed around by bullies that make Flash Thompson look tame, wishing for a secret identity much more powerful and glamorous than my scrawny self. But for all the ways I identified with Spidey, the hetero-normativity creates a gap between his story and mine. As a kid I sort of had to translate to fill that gap, which is what a lot of young gay people have to do as we live our own stories.

I don't have anything against geek-boy fantasies, I just would like to see more stories that recognize that sometimes the geek-boy happens to be gay-or, for that matter, sometimes the geek-boy is a geek-girl. And a lot of great writers are writing those stories now. I recently read a great story by Hal Duncan in the Wilde Stories 2009 anthology, about a young gay man learning to deal with homophobic world, told from the perspective of the fairy who takes up residence in his imagination. And every time I read anything by Geoff Ryman my secret crush on him gets more hopeless. Chris Barzak, Rick Bowes, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, and Lee Thomas are just a few of the others writing great SF with gay characters and themes.

Discussion:

I'm giving you guys the same questions I gave Ben- do you think this sort of cultural gap can ever be fully bridged? Should it?

Ben notes, accurately, that today's society is largely heteronormative. Yet sci-fi and fantasy often prides itself on pushing culture to its limits- why do you think it has been slow to pick up on LGBT- or has it?

Next Up:

May 15- "The Cold Equations" - Tom Godwin, 1954. Recommended by Gaudy Mouse and uglyMood in the comments. Give a recommendation in the comments, we'll try to use it for a future edition of WSSC.