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The Barbershop by J. Isaiah Holbrook


J. Isaiah Holbrook’s flash fiction piece “The Barbershop” illustrates the anxiety and isolation many young LGBTQIA+ people experience when in the company of those whose own coming-of-age stories stem from a cis-heteronormative standard steeped in machismo, bravado, and broken hearts. In his accompanying author’s note, Holbrook shares that “the simple act of performing straightness for the fear of being othered is the tool many queer kids feel obligated to grab on to.” The breathless, one-paragraph/one-sentence structure this piece embraces amplifies so well the overwhelming tension felt by this young narrator as they seek their voice. Readers feel the narrator’s increasing discomfort, especially as the banter amongst the men in the barbershop escalates, deepening the chasm between them. Influenced by Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, Holbrook says, “I wanted to write this piece as a call-to-action, a plea for us to put the master’s tools down and create our own tools that will make sexual and gender inclusion the standard.” We couldn’t agree more and are honored to publish this piece. —CRAFT


 

On the day I turned fourteen my dad told me I was old enough to go to the barbershop on my own, even though every ounce of me wanted to remain hidden behind his broad shoulders and tuck my mouth shut because, to the regulars, I reflected who they used to be in the stories they told about the times they were younger chasing after girls, sneaking in and out of houses to see the girl of their daydreams lie in the comfort of her bed, anxious to add another number to their body count, and the barber and the regulars laughed at their stories and shared all the stupid shit they had done just for some damn pussy, all the times they dusted off their knees and prayed to God she would get her period soon and rejoiced in His name when she did, and the barber said don’t be like me, to play it smart, otherwise I’d end up with an unanswered prayer, a kid on the way, and be forced to love the girl whose window I’d snuck in, the girl who’d raised my manhood up to an acceptable degree, and I’d get married and start a family, but it wouldn’t be by choice, it would be to make the best out of the situation and eventually realize the way life happened was more of a blessing than a curse, and he cracked a joke or two about his relationship with sex after kids, how the crowning of their heads stretched her shit out, how that shit was looser than a mutha fucka, got me dreamin’ of how tight it used to be ’n’ shit, so I played the part and laughed with the regulars, laughed at how they talked about sneaking into their dads’ secret stashes and placing each VHS tape back where they found it, because not laughing attracted suspicion, because I knew better than to tell them about the feeling I’d gotten when my whispering lips grazed the top of a boy’s ear in fifth grade, how my touch against his skin felt like a dream I never wanted to escape, so I acted like they did, attempted to swallow their dialect like cinnamon down the throat, mimicked the comfortability of their bodies slouched in the chairs as if they were resting on the years they’d lived, and when the barber finished giving me a clean-cut fade he handed me a couple condoms to make sure all my prayers were answered and promised not to tell my dad because he knew what it was like back in the day, and I smiled and said thank you and walked out the door, and I played the role again and again and again, tucking away my whispering lips that reached for another boy like me, one who knew what it was like to be an echo of someone else before finding a home in his own voice.

 


J. ISAIAH HOLBROOK holds a BA in English from Saint Francis University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Oregon State University. He’s been published in The Rumpus, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Harvard Review, Stellium Magazine, and The Voyage Journal, where he received third place in their short story writing contest. He is currently the flash fiction editor for Decolonial Passage Literary Magazine and an editorial intern at Beacon Press. Isaiah has also received acceptance into Lambda Literary’s Writer’s Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices and will attend this summer.

 

Featured image by Dan Gold courtesy of Unsplash

 

Author’s Note

I came across Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider last summer when I went to one of my favorite bookstores near my hometown. I sat on the floor and browsed through the pages until I stopped at “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” While reading the essay there on the floor, I kept coming back to the quote: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” I didn’t know yet how much of a positive impact that quote would have on my writing, how it would be the connective tissue for the body of this narrative, a piece I had already considered finished.

Once I revisited “The Barbershop,” I noticed how the narrator was suffering from the master’s tools, that the simple act of performing straightness for the fear of being othered is the tool many queer kids feel obligated to grab on to. Because homophobia isn’t always what is said but what is left unsaid. What is classified as the standard. The dominant. To write this story was to tap into my own reluctance about going to the barbershop alone when I was younger, to look at all the Black men in the shop and question if my sexual identity was welcomed, if I could ever be as boisterous and opinionated as they were. I wanted to write this piece as a call-to-action, a plea for us to put the master’s tools down and create our own tools that make sexuality and gender inclusion the standard.

This story wasn’t originally a standalone. It comes from a larger piece, a novella that explores the drift between two siblings who are influenced by their hostile upbringing caused by their parents’ constant arguments, and how they build a pathway toward healing. I viewed the one-sentence structure as a way to communicate the repeated isolation the narrator feels, but as I read Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street for the fifth time, I was able to articulate why that novel resonates with me as a writer, how each vignette is its own story that adds to the collective story.

It was then that I began to look at this piece as a pocket of a story, one that also deserves to breathe on its own.


J. ISAIAH HOLBROOK holds a BA in English from Saint Francis University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Oregon State University. He’s been published in The Rumpus, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Harvard Review, Stellium Magazine, and The Voyage Journal, where he received third place in their short story writing contest. He is currently the flash fiction editor for Decolonial Passage Literary Magazine and an editorial intern at Beacon Press. Isaiah has also received acceptance into Lambda Literary’s Writer’s Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices and will attend this summer.