The Radical Empathy of Tim Murphy

The novelist drew upon his experience as a journalist and activist to create the sweeping, emotionally resonant novel "Correspondents."

Photos by Laurel Golio

Calling someone a “gay writer” (or “queer,” “lesbian” or “trans”) can still have dire repercussions. The writer is often pigeonholed, and their work risks being relegated to special shelves in bookstores or lost in some algorithmic niche on Amazon. And so writer Tim Murphy chooses carefully whether and how to engage with the label when discussing his new novel, “Correspondents.”

“I will say… I don’t think this book is very gay, compared to the last one,” Murphy offers cautiously, lounging on his couch in his light-filled apartment in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Though “Correspondents” isn’t “very gay,” its precision, depth and empathy are all from someone who has created a powerful voice in many respects because of his sexuality. Murphy has worked for nearly 20 years as a journalist, focusing mostly on HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ issues for publications including The New York Times, The Nation and POZ magazine. He is also an energetic activist, including being a member of the New York City-based activist groups Gays Against Guns and Rise and Resist. Both on social media and IRL, friends know him as a community builder and tirelessly supportive political voice. He’s not just a gay writer. He’s a super gay writer.

All that time in the trenches led him to write ”Christadora,” his previous “gayer” novel that deals with the devastating effects of AIDS on a large group of characters in New York. Moving back and forth through time, from the ’80s until the near future, Murphy portrays several characters affected by a disease that transforms their lives, their city, even reality itself. It was a huge accomplishment, up there with another AIDS novel, Rebecca Makkai’s ”The Great Believers,” and deserving of more attention.

“Correspondents” also confidently flips through time, and Murphy once again draws upon his expertise as a journalist and an exhaustive researcher to create another emotionally resonant, time-hopping page turner. The sweeping novel mostly takes place in the post-9/11 2000s and centers on Rita Khoury, an ambitious Lebanese American reporter covering the Iraq War, and her translator, Nabil, a young Iraqi just coming to terms with his sexuality. Tapping into his own ancestry (Murphy, like Rita, is also of Lebanese descent), ”Correspondents” explores immigration, the effects of US intervention and the long arc of war. But the novel, driven by a gripping plot, is by no means dogmatic. The book has received glowing notices from early book buzz makers like Kirkus, Booklist, Shelf Awareness and Library Journal, as well as being an Amazon Best Book for May 2019.

A few weeks before its release, Murphy discussed the novel’s inspiration, as well as the research that went into it, including a look into his ancestry and the struggles of immigrants then and now.  

Your family is much like Rita’s, working-class Lebanese who immigrated to America in the 1900s to work in the mills in Massachusetts.

Yeah. Well, it’s the flip. In the book, her dad’s side is Lebanese, and her mom’s side is Irish. Obviously, you can tell from my last name, my dad’s side is Irish, and my mother’s side is Lebanese. I did that so I didn’t end up writing my parents, basically.

Did you experience bigotry? Was it a problem to be Lebanese for you?

No, I don’t think it was. There were a lot of Lebanese in that area, actually Syrians — prior to 1925, they were called Syrians because Lebanon didn’t exist yet; it was carved out of Syria. Even though they were fully Arab, speaking Arabic, eating Arabic food and listening to Arabic music, they intermarried with the Irish and the French and the Italians. They kind of slipped into the slipstream of whiteness.

In recent decades, way more immigrants from the Middle East are Muslim. But in this first wave that happened anywhere between 1870 and like 1925, it was mostly Christian. I think that’s partly why they assimilated. A lot of the book is about how [Rita’s] family just kind of becomes white. It becomes very American and upper-middle class.

And did your family work in the mills, too?

I think our grandmother on my dad’s side worked in the mills. We were very attuned to labor and that golden age of labor and unions. There actually was a massive strike that commanded the world’s attention in Lawrence [where Murphy’s family settled] in 1912. [The workers] were from every country in the world. And they didn’t all speak the same language, but they struck. They had very little zone of comfort to strike because they were all living on absolute subsistence. There were these charities that sprung up to feed them. The stakes were very high. And ultimately they did get a wage raise, and it was the beginning of reforms that created the five-day, 40-hour workweek.

That was how we survived. We survived by laughing through the pain.

In the beginning of the novel, we hear about the Khoury relatives back home and the strife they are experiencing.

All the tragedies befall. World War I and pestilence. I mean, literally pestilence, locusts. So between the locusts and the blockade of foodstuffs because of World War I, Mount Lebanon was beset with famine, and people literally became like skeletons and just died. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that the era of immigration coincided with this humanitarian crisis. A lot of people were very lucky that they got out right before that happened because a lot of people just died of starvation.

With our current president saying the country is “too full,” I’m curious, in your research, did you discover any similar xenophobia at the time?

There definitely was. In the early 20th century, you had to be classified as white to become a citizen. What is that? How did they determine that? What is whiteness? For immigrants from the Mediterranean ― like Sicilians, or Greeks or Syrians ― they really occupied this racially ambiguous status. Quite a few had emigrated to the South, and some were lynched, although obviously nowhere near the number of black people who were lynched. Just like now, there was a white nationalist movement saying that the country is being polluted with these dirty people from southern Europe and Eastern Europe.

This Syrian guy in the South went to court to argue that he was white and he won. So Arabs have always been classified as white in the U.S., since then. There is no place to mark Middle Eastern or Arab on the census. 

There are so many details about the recent past in ”Correspondents.” Especially when Rita returns to the States and is so grossed out by Paris Hilton and the ”Real Housewives,” where American culture turned after 9/11. The whole “go shopping!” message.

Yeah. I think of it as a real 2000s book. I started writing the book before Trump was elected. Then he was elected, and everything he was saying played so much into the book and these themes about immigration and refugees and the idea that the United States is supposed to be a safe harbor. And, of course, he’s turning the sentiment in the opposite direction, almost like a big ‘fuck you’ to the Statue of Liberty and what she means.

I thought of extending the book into the Trump era, but then I really thought that’s many, many more years of plot, you know? I determined that it would just go into a little bit after Obama’s election. But I wrote most of the book in 2017, and I did feel like so much rage, and then sorrow, too, went into the book.

It’s interesting how you portray post-9/11 as the beginning of polarizing “fake news,” the beginning of the propaganda machine we are now buried in.

And the internet as the dark place where this ideology thrives and flourishes and really enables mentally unstable people with weapons.

Yes, especially in relation to your character, B.D., the unstable right-wing powder keg of a person.

He’s fulminating about the tiny, tiny Muslim population that wants to build a mosque in southern New Hampshire. And actually, in 2008, the year that part of the book takes place, that was actually happening. There was a tiny Muslim population in southern New Hampshire that was trying to buy this really old octagonal building to make a mosque, and while I don’t know if I’d say that it created widespread outrage, I found lots of invective.

You traveled to Beirut for this book, right?

I went there for the first time in 2005. And then I went again in 2011 and again in 2017. I went to Tripoli for six weeks this year, studying Arabic. Tripoli is an almost all-Muslim, non-Westernized, hardcore Middle East city north of Beirut. I really wanted to go to Syria, but then I couldn’t because of the conflict. 

I just thought so much about displacement, fleeing not just where you’re from but your own family, fleeing your own family in fear.

A lot of Americans have an extremely monolithic idea of the Middle East, but every country, or even places within countries, have very distinct identities, just like anywhere.

One big question for me in reading Nabil’s story was the danger he faced as a gay person in the Middle East. He’s threatened by a stranger and has to pay money or be exposed. Is that common?

Yeah, it definitely happens. I have this friend who left Iraq in 2005. He’s gay. I talked about this a lot with him. It’s such a police state that it creates exploitative opportunities for people. I’m sure you know this, but in many countries in the Middle East, gay people are extremely, extremely vulnerable.

At the very worst, they’re vulnerable to being hanged or thrown off a roof by ISIS. But they’re also vulnerable in more banal ways, like the police bribing them or blackmailing them or saying we’ll tell your family. Because if your family knew, then it’s a great dishonor to your family.

One place this book started for me was about 10 years ago. I did a story on LGBTQ refugees from Iran. I spent a week in this podunk town in the middle of Turkey with this household of LGBTQ refugees who had left Iran on claims that they were in danger ― either by the police or by their families. Turkey will host these refugees but will just barely host them. It won’t give them any money, any funding or any health care. It won’t even let them work over-the-table. But it will let them stay there while they wait out the UNHCR process. I spent a week with this group of men and women, about eight of them. They were living in a three-room apartment in Kayseri, Turkey. It would be like coming to the U.S. for the first time and going to Indianapolis. They were just in this nether zone, waiting for their number to come up.

How did they get by?

Some of them worked under-the-table. Some had brought a little money with them. They cooked for the whole house. They had internet and they played video games. It was just really sad. They were fleeing their own families. 

 

This article you wrote was the germ of the book, or at least Nabil’s story in the book?

Yeah, I just thought so much about displacement, fleeing not just where you’re from but your own family, fleeing your own family in fear. And then you’re in this limbo for anywhere from two to five years. Whose interview is going to come up next? Whose approval will come up next? Who’s leaving next?

For the second part of that article, I went to Toronto, because that was the final destination for a lot of the refugees, and they all knew each other because they were all kind of like the Persian queer refugee network.

Listen, obviously this is through my eyes, but they did not seem happy. I was hanging out with ones who had come recently, like in the past year. They just seemed shellshocked and culture-shocked. They were at the end of a process they had embarked upon. And so they are now able to live free gay lives in Western democratic Canada, but there was still so much residual PTSD and paranoia. They were afraid. There is a big Persian population in Toronto, so they were afraid that straight Persian people that they knew would find out and would send word back, or even that they’d be harassed by people in the Persian community in Toronto.

Of all the stories I’ve done, no story saddened me as much as that story. There’s still so much homophobia in the U.S., but can you imagine you could be jailed, or you could be assassinated, or your own family could not only throw you out but kill you? Just imagine that. You have to leave everything you know, your culture, your music, your language, your family who you obviously have very complicated feelings about because you love them. And yet you’re scared of them because they could kill you. And then, going into this netherworld, where you’re living in some random city in some random country.

The real center of the book is Rita. She is such a hard worker but also has huge blind spots.

I feel like I’ve always been drawn to these women. I’ve known a lot of women journalists. But particularly, there was on one story, there was a female journalist who I worked with, and we were in another country. I just marveled at her focus. And it could’ve been a man, but I’m just saying I never forgot her because there was this laser focus to how she worked. There was almost like a slightly robotic quality about her. It was just fascinating to me. I think for me, as a journalist, I’ve always kind of wanted to be that crisp and clean and efficient, just like a deadline machine.

I want to hear about your life now. I feel like in a weird way, because we’re the same age, that our trajectory as gay guys encompasses so much from fear of being killed, repressions, beaten up, bullied, through AIDS, through drugs and now to wherever we are.

Like I’ve lived every era of the gay experience? Do you want to know something really funny? I was in a group setting ― this is like almost 20 years ago ― and this much older gay guy was telling us his story. He took us through the ’60s, and he took us through the ’70s, and he took us through the ’80s. He took us through the ’90s, and this was around the year 2000. He was probably like 60. I said to him, later, your story is so amazing because you encompass so many eras of gay history. And everyone in the room, just went like, ooh, shade, ooh, shady. I was like: I don’t mean it that way! So I guess I’ve become that person. I’m Gay Father Time.

When did you start becoming an activist?

I moved here to New York in 1991. I had just come out, and I was like, I guess I’m gay, but that doesn’t mean I have to be one of these angry, crazy queers, lying down in the streets. But by the same turn, how could you move here in ’91 as a young gay and not be obsessed with AIDS? I was like I’ll channel all these feelings into writing, and so that’s how I became an AIDS journalist.

In terms of activism, I think I was mostly a party boy in the ’90s. I wasn’t an activist. That started in the 2000s. I started working at POZ magazine, and it was the Bush years. We were seeing the attacks on science and LGBT people. That period changed my lens. I was very upset about Iraq. I felt just like Rita says: “We’re going to war. They want to go, and anything that’s happening prior to that is just a pretense.”

But before then, I got very druggy in my late 20s and early 30s. 

I feel like that time, 1999 to 2003, was like the crystal meth years among my friends.

Mess city.

Super mess city. I’m really curious about that time. Is it a collective trauma thing?

It’s really fascinating because you think about crack in the black community, meth in the gay community. I mean, I’m not an expert on this either, but it does seem as though drugs always decimate vulnerable communities in a way. Because now, look at rural whites and opioids.

If it’s about a community that has been traumatized by AIDS using drugs to fill a void, then that makes sense to me.

We had so much trauma around sex. Just think about it. Sex really should be carefree, liberating, right? Sex for us in the ’90s was stressful, you know? It was a series of lines that you did not cross. You were probably OK to get a blow job. Probably OK to give a blow job. Probably OK to fuck someone with a condom, but what if the condom breaks? I mean, just on and on and on, all these gradations of risk. So then you have this drug that it’s pretty good at wiping out inhibition. I think it was sort of the perfect drug for that moment.

I think in the early years of [me] stopping use, it was important to demonize it. Now I don’t seek to demonize the experience. I see it a little more philosophically, that it was not healthy, but it was like giving me and others something we needed. Like some sense of freedom. When you think of growing up with homophobia and with AIDS, and the sense of wildness and joy that should come with sex kind of eludes you, it kind of provided that. Obviously, you have to pay the piper at some point.

Maybe it’s one of the good things about getting older: perspective.

I don’t know. I think about this a lot. I want the AOCs of the world to rise and to take the power. I worked on a campaign upstate last fall, and we unseated a horrible Republican and that was sort of a good feeling. It’s something that I just think about constantly, for me, as a middle-aged white queen, what’s the best role I can play for that?

But the flip side is I was thinking about our sense of humor as gay men of a certain age. I don’t think this is just white gay men. I think of all my gay male friends of a certain age, white, black and otherwise, we have this particular sense of humor, and that’s very rooted in rudeness and camp. I think that we should revisit this era because I think there was a lot of misogyny or racism woven into that, and I think we should check the hurtful parts of it, but I hope we don’t lose the essence of it because I really feel like that was how we survived. You know, that sort of gallows humor?

Right. The AIDS jokes.

Yeah, exactly. That was how we survived. We survived by laughing through the pain.

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