Lawrence Ytzhak Braithwaite (1963-2008)

2008/12/31

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Ytzhak_Braithwaite

 

Jason McBride, “Death of a Literary Outsider”, Quill and Quire (December 2008).

I met Lawrence Braithwaite only once, at a now-legendary writing conference in Buffalo in 2001, where many of the so-called “New Narrative” writers – Dennis Cooper, Robert Glück, and Kevin Killian among them – had gathered. Braithwaite was short – 5’4″, or, as he was fond of saying, as tall as his idol, reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry – and wore a long football jersey that hung nearly to his knees. A black patch covered his right eye (“Lord Patch” was one of his aliases), and a blue toque covered his bare scalp. He chain-smoked and charmed some of his fellow writers with a funny riff about black and Latino porn stars.

Later, that charm turned to menace when he interrupted a panel discussion called “Talking Dirty: Sexual Politics, Pornography, and Desire,” ranting incoherently, irrationally, about the racism of the conference’s organizers. When his tirade was over, he stormed out of the room. In his semi-autobiographical 2000 novel Ratz Are Nice (PSP), Braithwaite describes himself as a “SWOT” – a street tough, someone who’s excessive in force, relentless, even brutal – and the self-portrait seemed largely accurate.

Braithwaite died last July at the age of 45, an apparent suicide. He had hanged himself in his Victoria, B.C., apartment. According to police, he had been dead for at least four days before his body was discovered by a neighbour. Many of his friends and literary acquaintances didn’t even hear of his death until about a month later, reading about it on a blog maintained by San Francisco writer Dodie Bellamy.

Canadian literature has produced precious few genuine subversives, and Braithwaite – black, gay, working-class, a drug user – was perhaps the most subversive of them all. Though he was barely known outside the small-press community, he wrote two of the most daring novels ever produced in this country: Wigger and Ratz Are Nice (PSP). Both books are composed in an invented patois, an ecstatic, deliberately confounding fusion of street slang, porn, typographical trickery, and song lyrics. Hip-hop, dub, heavy metal, reggae, and, above all, punk dictated his rhythms and sensibility. His priorities weren’t plot and character, but speed and disorientation. He invited comparisons to transgressive writers like Céline and William S. Burroughs. He spelled Canada “kkkanada.”

“His work … was very atypical of Canadian literature,” says Arsenal Pulp Press publisher Brian Lam, who published Wigger in 1995. “It spoke more to American literary circles.” Indeed, Braithwaite found his most ardent support among the likeminded New Narrative writers, a coterie of innovative, largely gay writers concentrated in San Francisco and L.A. Kevin Killian considered him a “grand novelist with the sweep and technical bravura of Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Günter Grass, the Joyce of Dubliners, or someone like Don DeLillo.” Of Ratz, Dennis Cooper wrote, “Lawrence Braithwaite’s writing is so original, gorgeous, propulsive, and alive that it almost seems to reinvent fiction before your eyes.”

Braithwaite was born in Montreal in 1963, the youngest of four children. More inclined to visual art as a younger man, he studied film at Dawson College and then, improbably, spent 12 years as a clerk in the Canadian military, stationed on bases in Nova Scotia and B.C. “If I was to guess why,” says his older brother, Jack Braithwaite, “it was to get closer to our father.” (The senior Braithwaite was an airport manager and former pro baseball player who had also served in the armed forces.) According to Jack, a labour lawyer in Sudbury, Lawrence was discharged on permanent disability after an accident in which he broke his leg in several places. (Braithwaite claimed the disability was the result of constant beatings.)

In 1993, Braithwaite began to focus more on his writing, and one of his stories appeared in Arsenal Pulp’s Queeries: An Anthology of Gay Male Prose, the first anthology of its kind in Canada. He then settled in Victoria, where he wrote his three books – the last of which, More at 7:30 (Notes from New Palestine), remains unpublished – and eked out a somewhat mysterious, resolutely uncompromising, existence. His friend, Robert Garfat, the owner of Victoria bookshop Dark Horse Books, affectionately called him a “fringe-dweller.”

Braithwaite had attempted suicide at least once before, as a teenager, soon after the death of another older brother, Joey, in a bike accident. Jack ascribes Lawrence’s subsequent anger to the loss of his beloved sibling. “[Lawrence] was a very nice, sweet young guy,” Jack says, “but after [Joey’s death], he just had a great difficulty dealing with society.” Jack recalls several conversations over the years, long late-night phone calls where Lawrence monologued about various injustices, occasionally quoting Kant and Joyce. “He spoke in paragraphs, with footnotes,” Jack says, laughing. “But he was intellectually intolerant of others, and nobody lived up to his standards. Ultimately, it didn’t even matter if I was on the other end of the line or not.” Every call ended the same way, with Lawrence asking Jack for money. When Lawrence died, the brothers hadn’t seen each other in nearly two years.

Toronto writer Derek McCormack was at the Buffalo conference with me and met Braithwaite as well. The two stayed in touch, and Braithwaite asked for his help in finding a publisher for More at 7:30. The relationship faltered when Braithwaite repeatedly asked McCormack to send money; he was too broke, he explained, to even afford paper on which to print out hard copies of his book. (McCormack was too broke himself to help.) Around the same time, Alana Wilcox, senior editor at Coach House Books, read an early draft of the novel and encouraged Braithwaite to send a revised manuscript. After several interactions with him, however, she was reluctant to go forward – their phone conversations were, in her words, “difficult.” The manuscript never materialized.

“Lawrence constantly felt he was intentionally being kept down,” Garfat says, “because of his race or his disability or because he was gay. And I can’t deny that there must have been some of that; we do live in a prejudicial society.” But Braithwaite was consumed by his paranoia, alienating even those who were most sympathetic to him. Lam describes him as a “tremendous talent,” but in the same breath stresses how badly he treated people. (The two hadn’t spoken in years.)

Aaron Vidaver, a Vancouver poet and activist for whom Braithwaite had written book reviews, says, “He had problems with just about everybody.” So much so that Vidaver even doubts that Braithwaite was a suicide. Investigating the death on his own, Vidaver discovered that Braithwaite had numerous genuine enemies – notably, drug dealers and a violent ex-boyfriend – and had recently been involved in altercations so threatening that, uncharacteristically, he called police for protection.

“But the problem with Lawrence,” Vidaver says, “was that often his friends couldn’t tell the difference between his paranoia and real threats.” There was no suicide note, explains Vidaver, and, most unusually, Braithwaite’s cherished German shepherd was left chained up outside his apartment for several days before his body was found [sic]. Vidaver is certain that had Braithwaite planned a suicide, he would have made sure the dog was cared for first. The police have concluded their investigation, but the coroner continues to work on the case.

Jack, however, notes that Braithwaite died on July 14, the anniversary of his brother Joey’s death. “He never got over it,” Jack says. “But I think he was also tired of fighting the good fight. He always called his own shots, even at the end of the day.”

Jason McBride, “Death of a Literary Outsider”, Quill and Quire (December 2008).
When Victoria author Lawrence Braithwaite took his own life last summer, Canadian literature lost one if its few genuine subversives.
I met Lawrence Braithwaite only once, at a now-legendary writing conference in Buffalo in 2001, where many of the so-called “New Narrative” writers – Dennis Cooper, Robert Glück, and Kevin Killian among them – had gathered. Braithwaite was short – 5’4″, or, as he was fond of saying, as tall as his idol, reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry – and wore a long football jersey that hung nearly to his knees. A black patch covered his right eye (“Lord Patch” was one of his aliases), and a blue toque covered his bare scalp. He chain-smoked and charmed some of his fellow writers with a funny riff about black and Latino porn stars.
Later, that charm turned to menace when he interrupted a panel discussion called “Talking Dirty: Sexual Politics, Pornography, and Desire,” ranting incoherently, irrationally, about the racism of the conference’s organizers. When his tirade was over, he stormed out of the room. In his semi-autobiographical 2000 novel Ratz Are Nice (PSP), Braithwaite describes himself as a “SWOT” – a street tough, someone who’s excessive in force, relentless, even brutal – and the self-portrait seemed largely accurate.
Braithwaite died last July at the age of 45, an apparent suicide. He had hanged himself in his Victoria, B.C., apartment. According to police, he had been dead for at least four days before his body was discovered by a neighbour. Many of his friends and literary acquaintances didn’t even hear of his death until about a month later, reading about it on a blog maintained by San Francisco writer Dodie Bellamy.
Canadian literature has produced precious few genuine subversives, and Braithwaite – black, gay, working-class, a drug user – was perhaps the most subversive of them all. Though he was barely known outside the small-press community, he wrote two of the most daring novels ever produced in this country: Wigger and Ratz Are Nice (PSP). Both books are composed in an invented patois, an ecstatic, deliberately confounding fusion of street slang, porn, typographical trickery, and song lyrics. Hip-hop, dub, heavy metal, reggae, and, above all, punk dictated his rhythms and sensibility. His priorities weren’t plot and character, but speed and disorientation. He invited comparisons to transgressive writers like Céline and William S. Burroughs. He spelled Canada “kkkanada.”
“His work … was very atypical of Canadian literature,” says Arsenal Pulp Press publisher Brian Lam, who published Wigger in 1995. “It spoke more to American literary circles.” Indeed, Braithwaite found his most ardent support among the likeminded New Narrative writers, a coterie of innovative, largely gay writers concentrated in San Francisco and L.A. Kevin Killian considered him a “grand novelist with the sweep and technical bravura of Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Günter Grass, the Joyce of Dubliners, or someone like Don DeLillo.” Of Ratz, Dennis Cooper wrote, “Lawrence Braithwaite’s writing is so original, gorgeous, propulsive, and alive that it almost seems to reinvent fiction before your eyes.”
Braithwaite was born in Montreal in 1963, the youngest of four children. More inclined to visual art as a younger man, he studied film at Dawson College and then, improbably, spent 12 years as a clerk in the Canadian military, stationed on bases in Nova Scotia and B.C. “If I was to guess why,” says his older brother, Jack Braithwaite, “it was to get closer to our father.” (The senior Braithwaite was an airport manager and former pro baseball player who had also served in the armed forces.) According to Jack, a labour lawyer in Sudbury, Lawrence was discharged on permanent disability after an accident in which he broke his leg in several places. (Braithwaite claimed the disability was the result of constant beatings.)
In 1993, Braithwaite began to focus more on his writing, and one of his stories appeared in Arsenal Pulp’s Queeries: An Anthology of Gay Male Prose, the first anthology of its kind in Canada. He then settled in Victoria, where he wrote his three books – the last of which, More at 7:30 (Notes from New Palestine), remains unpublished – and eked out a somewhat mysterious, resolutely uncompromising, existence. His friend, Robert Garfat, the owner of Victoria bookshop Dark Horse Books, affectionately called him a “fringe-dweller.”
Braithwaite had attempted suicide at least once before, as a teenager, soon after the death of another older brother, Joey, in a bike accident. Jack ascribes Lawrence’s subsequent anger to the loss of his beloved sibling. “[Lawrence] was a very nice, sweet young guy,” Jack says, “but after [Joey’s death], he just had a great difficulty dealing with society.” Jack recalls several conversations over the years, long late-night phone calls where Lawrence monologued about various injustices, occasionally quoting Kant and Joyce. “He spoke in paragraphs, with footnotes,” Jack says, laughing. “But he was intellectually intolerant of others, and nobody lived up to his standards. Ultimately, it didn’t even matter if I was on the other end of the line or not.” Every call ended the same way, with Lawrence asking Jack for money. When Lawrence died, the brothers hadn’t seen each other in nearly two years.
Toronto writer Derek McCormack was at the Buffalo conference with me and met Braithwaite as well. The two stayed in touch, and Braithwaite asked for his help in finding a publisher for More at 7:30. The relationship faltered when Braithwaite repeatedly asked McCormack to send money; he was too broke, he explained, to even afford paper on which to print out hard copies of his book. (McCormack was too broke himself to help.) Around the same time, Alana Wilcox, senior editor at Coach House Books, read an early draft of the novel and encouraged Braithwaite to send a revised manuscript. After several interactions with him, however, she was reluctant to go forward – their phone conversations were, in her words, “difficult.” The manuscript never materialized.
“Lawrence constantly felt he was intentionally being kept down,” Garfat says, “because of his race or his disability or because he was gay. And I can’t deny that there must have been some of that; we do live in a prejudicial society.” But Braithwaite was consumed by his paranoia, alienating even those who were most sympathetic to him. Lam describes him as a “tremendous talent,” but in the same breath stresses how badly he treated people. (The two hadn’t spoken in years.)
Aaron Vidaver, a Vancouver poet and activist for whom Braithwaite had written book reviews, says, “He had problems with just about everybody.” So much so that Vidaver even doubts that Braithwaite was a suicide. Investigating the death on his own, Vidaver discovered that Braithwaite had numerous genuine enemies – notably, drug dealers and a violent ex-boyfriend – and had recently been involved in altercations so threatening that, uncharacteristically, he called police for protection.
“But the problem with Lawrence,” Vidaver says, “was that often his friends couldn’t tell the difference between his paranoia and real threats.” There was no suicide note, explains Vidaver, and, most unusually, Braithwaite’s cherished German shepherd was left chained up outside his apartment for several days before his body was found. Vidaver is certain that had Braithwaite planned a suicide, he would have made sure the dog was cared for first. The police have concluded their investigation, but the coroner continues to work on the case.
Jack, however, notes that Braithwaite died on July 14, the anniversary of his brother Joey’s death. “He never got over it,” Jack says. “But I think he was also tired of fighting the good fight. He always called his own shots, even at the end of the day.”
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