The author of I Will Greet the Sun Again chronicles a personal relationship with the late artist and his defiant, fiery work.
Content note: contains references to sexual abuse and suicide
Several summers ago, when I first met David – our introduction made through Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City (2017), David being one of four male artists Laing chose to hover her loneliness around – I didn’t know it then but two years later he’d become my closest friend. We’d even travel together, David and I – his memoir, Close to the Knives (1991), clutched in my hands – through Vienna, then Frankfurt, then back to New York City.
But I couldn’t have anticipated how much time we’d end up spending together. He is dead, after all; died the year I was born, 1992.
David was thirty-seven years old, was killed by a diseased society, as he called it,that failed to recognise, failed to treat the virus that was killing him and his friends and lovers, his fellow artists and activists.
In 2018, my first summer living in New York City, I encountered David again, this time at the Whitney Museum, where his stunning and devastating body of work ran for a short nine weeks. I went several times; I should have gone every day.
It was David Wojnarowicz, on the fifth floor at the Whitney, who summoned buried memories of a queer boyhood – mine – where fear burned within the walls of my past; up until then, up until encountering David’s paintings and films and photography and writing, I never had the chance, as an adult, to live inside my own queerness. But by showing me his, David invited me back inside, and I haven’t left since, and I never will again.
When I first arrived at the museum, when the elevator doors slid open to the fifth floor, what you see below is what I saw, staring at me. I couldn’t look away. The portrait may not take you through the same tornado of want, but that’s OK. As long as you see it, I think that’s enough.
He’s beautiful, isn’t he?
But, for me, that’s not how it began. In that moment I didn’t see David’s beauty; I couldn’t. At twenty-six years old I was filled with such shame, and hurt, the conversations from the playground of my boyhood still playing in my head. Don’t be a faggot, I was told, and I listened, so that as David’s eyes caught mine I wanted to yell at him. It came sliding up my throat, that same ugly epithet so many have used, I wanted to lob it at this vivid and daring self-portrait of this queer artist. I was so fucking angry – angry at the years of rampant abuse, at the adolescence and early adulthood I spent pretending, and hiding, snuffing my queerness in order to survive in the sprawling and stifling Los Angeles suburb where I came of age, where I tried over and again to belong, where nobody told me that although I was destroying myself, that didn’t mean I wasn’t beautiful.
As I travelled through each hushed corridor and corner and room – stepping through my shame, stepping into David’s work – I saw them in their togetherness, seared right before my eyes: beauty informing and enriching destruction, destruction heightening and highlighting beauty, all while speaking to each other’s fiery, fierce nature; his fiery, fierce nature.
Here was David on fire with everything the older boys, and my father, told me not to be; only David wasn’t burning down, or silenced, in the way which I was told would happen to those who dared to come out; as you can see, David was a part of our world, front and centre: he was on fire with love, and life, on fire with queer artistry.
That summer in New York City, where I had just arrived from Los Angeles, where I left my father behind, for good, I didn’t dare expect to be given the chance to reclaim what had been taken from me, but I was. I was given back queerness, I was given back language, both of which came because of David Wojnarowicz. The former through his self-portrait as a man, the latter through a picture of David as a prepubescent boy. I saw him, and he saw me; I read his words – One day this kid… – and then, back at home in the Uptown room I lived in on the fifth floor of a brownstone walkup, I gave David mine, writing certain things I had never before written, never said aloud. I didn’t know it then, but what I wrote would become the birthplace for the novel I’d soon begin, and publish, I Will Greet the Sun Again (2023), a novel about queer identity, and belonging, about a family torn between Los Angeles and Iran, about existing as a Muslim in America on the heels of 9/11. One day this boy became a kind of mantra for me, allowing me to go wherever my soon-to-be-formed narrator wanted to take me.
One day this boy will grow taller, taller than his father, his older brothers.
One day this boy will hear something inside himself so quiet that if the rest of his life were lived without acting on that something-quiet, nobody – not even him – would have noticed.
One day this boy will remember the stolen afternoon, pre-dusk hours spent in his childhood room with a boyhood friend, peeling down his shorts and putting his skin on his tongue, his tip deep into his mouth and he’ll remember the ricochet of the pop as the boy removed his sex, the sound soaking up the splashes of the setting sun, his bedroom spotlighted by heat and filled with the quiet pause that these boys were never taught how to fill, at least not with language so turning to laughter instead, more and more ha ha has until it helps them forget their gayness.
One day this boy will remember the night his father told him, “Well,” looking straight into his youngest son’s eyes, “you can put it inside of my mouth.”
One day this boy will recall the heartbreak of his father’s vivid eyes, the shimmering thin blue line circling melted-brown irises. This boy will remember how bad he became for not giving his father what he wanted, because he could never, fully and completely, give to his father what his father demanded.
One day this boy will grow taller and taller and he will remember the dampness of his father’s palms, the smooth white edges of a tub, the darkness of a room. He will ask, and nobody will answer, How early did it begin?
One day this boy will look for it, a way to make it go away, searching and seeking just like so many other boys before turning to sex and drugs to sedate, he’ll forget more but still not enough and so then food, bingeing until he forgets to remember, purging, only to become addicted to forgetting and so again sex, more booze and then food, this time restricting, this time withholding, waiting for the memories to become ash as the walls of an empty stomach sizzle and burn the film of his father’s wet eyes, the tip of his pink tongue sticking out as he whispered to his boy, “Can I watch you do it?”
One day this boy will arrive to that solution that so many more will try. Where the next day, waking in a hospital bed, his eldest brother will say, “I just don’t get why”.
Until one day instead of trying again that last solution, this boy will decide instead to pick up a pen – he will pick up a pen because it was meant for him to talk and the talking will begin two decades after he discovers the spark that comes from placing his naked words on the naked page of another world, certainly not the world from which he came.
But these words of mine, will they be enough, David? Were yours enough for you?
Khashayar J. Khabushani’s first novel is I Will Greet the Sun Again (Penguin, 2023)