Finding His Place :: EDGE Chats with Gay Humorist Judah Leblang

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday August 25, 2011

If the name Judah Leblang sounds familiar, it may be because you're read his column "Life in the Slow Lane" in Bay Windows. Or, you might have heard him relating an anecdote from his life on the radio.

Leblang's book "Finding My Place" is a collection of his autobiographical essays. Funny, painful, and poignant by turns, the stories he tells underscore the absurdities that make life as a gay man in America so fraught and explore family dynamics that are deep in emotional resonance and wide in their generous encompassing of non-blood kin who are none the less part of the fold.

Just as much a part of the stories as family is the theme of home. Leblang hails from Cleveland -- a city he notes, with a tinge of bitterness, that is better known for a river that had a tendency to catch fire than for its cultural aspects. Then, he laments, there's the pain of being a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Cleveland's baseball team, the Indians. ("The pain of being an Indians fan is never ending," Leblang told EDGE. "Being an Indians fan is like being a Red Sox fan before 2004. We haven't had our redemption.")

The tall, lanky Leblang gave a reading in Cambridge not too long ago. He was one of two featured authors who presented their work at the event, which had been organized by Jewish group Keshet, an advocacy group for GLBT Jews. Leblang, who used to work as an ASL interpreter, did a little of his own sign language in the course of his reading, but left most of the ASL interpretation to another signing professional who had been hired for the occasion.

The occasional bit of ASL was only part of Leblang's overall animation. His reading was punctuated with gesticulations as he related the story of his grandfather, who ran a drug store in a Polish neighborhood for many years, read aloud an account about his deaf uncle, a sports fan named Jerry, or recounted buying a baseball hat in Florida emblazoned with the letters "WWJD" -- which the Jewish Leblang took to refer to a local radio station. (The natives warmed up to him considerably once he started wearing the hat.)

A few weeks later, meeting EDGE at a bagel shop, Leblang was just as lively. EDGE wondered about his energetic personal presence and if it was easy to get that across to a radio audience.

"The reading you saw was the first time that I actually had an interpreter and there were a few deaf people there," Leblang said. "It was actually a really exciting experience for me, because that-the Deaf world and my love for American Sign Language -- used to be a big part of my life. I've never had that opportunity before, having an interpreter at my reading, because generally I set them up. It's through a bookstore, and you've got to pay the interpreter, I would end up losing money on the deal and the store would usually not spring for that. This was a good opportunity.

"With the radio stuff, I actually feel like our voices are so expressive that" it's not an issue, Leblang continued. "The challenge for me with radio is that I can't move around when I'm recording. That is a little bit difficult for me because I'm used to using my body -- I imagine that's what you're referring to, I tend to move around. I don't know how much of that is because I used to be an interpreter, and how much is a matter of being Jewish. I think it's a combination of the worlds that I come from.

"I feel like, if the material is good, the voice can convey it," the writer added. "I've actually gotten really good feedback about my voice, even from people in radio."

Gay comic writers who feature on the radio as well as in print are not a completely unknown quantity: Just look at David Sedaris. EDGE asked about Leblang's career on the airwaves.

"I don't know how much of a career it is, but I listened to NPR a lot, and years ago I would listen to these commentaries, and I would think, 'I could do that, but nobody's asked me,' " Leblang recounted.

"I finished a graduate program at Lesley in 2003 and I had written a number of these short vignettes, some of which are in the book. I was interested in trying to record some of these pieces, maybe make a CD and try to get them on some radio stations. I didn't really know how the process worked, but I was referred to this guy, a local radio producer in Somerville named Robert Smyth. He's done a lot of work in the storytelling community. He used to have a bookstore and he still has a small press, Yellow Moon Press, which is based in Somerville.

"I went in and asked him a few questions, then I started to learn a lot more about the process of recording and all the potential expenses involved," Leblang continued. "I ended up working with him and producing a very basic CD with some of my pieces, and in the meantime found out a little more about how one might go about getting on the radio. Eventually, I was able to get two pieces on an NPR station at Kent State University, outside of Cleveland, and because a lot of my pieces have a local angle there, they broadcast several more.

"Then a number of my pieces got picked up by a producer in Albany, at WAMC, which is the NPR [radio] station that covers western New England and northeast New York. They have a syndicated show called 'The Health Show,' which is broadcast on between 150 and 200 stations around the country, for which I don't get paid, but it's good exposure. The first piece he broadcast was about my grandfather with the drug store. After that, I'd just go directly to him and say, 'Hey, I've got this idea," or sometimes I'll send him the text, and if he likes it, I'll go ahead and record it. He's broadcast five or six of my pieces in the last five years."

Still, seeing a writer -- especially a storyteller like Leblang -- in person is an experience unto itself.

"I do a lot of readings, and having the book has given me a good platform and a way into it," Leblang said. "I like doing that. A lot of writers don't, but for me, that's the reward for having written the book."

From Page to Stage

"I've looked for ways to get the pieces out, and my next step, God willing, is I [have taken] a couple of pieces from the book, and a couple more pieces that I've written, and put them together in a one-person show," added the writer. "The show is happening November 19 at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in Harvard Square."

One challenge: Memorizing the material, something Leblang doesn't have to do when he's reading in person or recording for radio. "A few of the pieces, like 'Voices in My Head,' I pretty much have memorized; that is one piece from early in the show," the writer told EDGE.

It's also a piece that cries out for performance, a half-poem, half-rap that unspools like an anxious game of word association. If Leblang's everyman is a jittery bundle, this is his anthem. It's a natural for a show that, Leblang says, "is essentially about navigating middle age and trying to find my place in the world, which is an ongoing process."

For Leblang, finding a place in the world also means understanding his place in the family lineage. Asked about his deaf uncle Jerry, Leblang points out that unlike himself, his uncle refused to use sign language.

"I never saw him sign," the author recounted. " According] to his daughter, my cousin, he understood it and he signed in some situations, but according to her [he rarely used sign language].

"One thing that was really telling to me was she said when she was a little kid she would go with her parents to the deaf club. In many cities they would have these clubs for deaf people to get together and socialize, because back before email and videophones, deaf people were very isolated," Leblang continued. "They had to get together face to face to communicate [in live time], so they would have these clubs where people would get together and play cards and maybe drink, play Bingo -- they were a big deal in these communities.

"My cousin told me she would go with her parents, and her mother, my aunt, who was also deaf, would be signing up a storm," the writer continued. But "my uncle, even at the deaf club, would tend to gesture, or use very rudimentary signs. She said once he got really excited, like about sports, or if he got really angry, he'd let himself go. That was, to me, a reflection of how suppressed he had been. He had been taught -- brainwashed -- that sign language was not a language. It had no value."

When he writes about his family, is Leblang working out issues? Or is it more that he finds them to be an amusing group? It's possible to come away from the stories included in "Finding My Place" with a sense that all of this, and more, drives his writing.

"I don't think I would call my family an amusing group," Leblang told EDGE. "I wouldn't have been able to write some of the lighter pieces with that kind of a tone without having done a lot of internal work, including therapy, and there's a lot more dark stuff that I chose not to get into.

"But it's interesting, because some of the things, like writing about my car accident -- there was a lot of trauma in my childhood -- and these incidents didn't feel funny at the time. Beyond what was in the book I had several accidents, several very serious injuries and illnesses. But, you know, now I'm at a point in my life where some of that stuff is no longer so charged, and I can see humor in it that I didn't see at the time. I made a choice to some extent, to take a lighter tone with some of that material.

"I'm working... I could say I'm actively not working... on another book," Leblang added. "I have about three quarters of a first draft of a manuscript which is very much about my uncle, going back and doing research about him and trying to figure out who he was, and also somewhat more about my childhood, and I think there were many parallels between his life and my life -- as there often are, I think, between deaf people and gay people's lives. A sense of difference or otherness that I think is very profound. That book is much darker. One problem with it is I think it could use a little more humor, a little more leavening."

Leblang struck that balance for "Finding My Place." "I wanted to write something that was both authentic, where I wasn't sugar-coating my life, but bring in humor as well," he told EDGE. "I tried to find some balance with the bitter and the sweet. The fact that my mom actually read the book and seemed to like it, and brought her friends to my readings in Cleveland" was a validation, Leblang added.

"My older brother, who I really don't have much of a relationship with, I sent him a PDF of the book just before it was printed, and I said, 'You might want to read this, if you're interested,' " the humorist recollected. "I got a one-line email back a few weeks later saying, 'Reading the book, great so far.' And then I never heard anything for months and months, and I figured he probably didn't like it.

"It just so happened that last August I was doing a reading at the library in the suburb where I had grown up, and my brother, who rarely comes to Cleveland, happened to be coming into town that day. My mother said to him, 'Hey, Judah's doing a reading, do you want to go?' So I find out he's coming to the reading, when I hadn't even seen him in a couple years, and I figure he probably doesn't like the book.

"He comes in, my heart's in my throat, it's ten minutes before the reading's supposed to start; he comes up and gives me a hug!" Leblang continued. "I said something like, 'I never heard from you, so I figured you didn't like the book.' 'Oh, I loved the book!' That was kind of the icing on the cake, because I figured that he would not be very happy -- not that he would deny that we don't have a close relationship, and I feel like in that piece, really, the humor is more at my expense than at his, but I still felt that he may not be happy about this. But I also felt that I had to do what I had to do."

Everybody's A Critic

"The only negative feedback I got was from my aunt, my father's sister, who passed away in January. I loved her, but she was extremely undiplomatic, very blunt. She'd say whatever was on her mind, and everybody was entitled to her opinion. Everybody. She had been pretty ill the last few years and whenever I would make it back to Cleveland I would usually make an effort to go see her, and she had no real family of her own, so me and my two brothers were her closest family.

"I called her up and said, 'Hey, I wanted to stop by,' and she sounded really weird," Leblang recounted. "Well, I had done an interview with the Cleveland Jewish News, a weekly paper that everybody in my mother's world gets that. They did a pretty in-depth interview with me, and I talked about my childhood, and having been depressed a lot -- I was pretty honest about my experiences. I didn't say anything negative about my parents, but I talked about being gay, and some of my ups and downs. I guess my aunt had heard about the interview. I hadn't even told her about the book!

"She heard about the book because she had this one close woman friend, and the friend had evidently gotten the paper, seen the interview, and quoted a few things to my aunt," Leblang said. "So my aunt said, 'I didn't like some things you said in the article.' I said, 'What things?' and she just said, 'I can't, I don't want to talk about it.' So I said, 'You don't want me to come over?' She said, 'No.'

"Five minutes later, she calls back: 'I changed my mind.' Then I was stressing out thinking that when I would go over there, we'd get into a big argument. So the day I was supposed to go over I told her, 'Look, if I come over, I don't want to get into an argument about the interview.' And I didn't say this to her, but the reality was that train had left the station; it was already done. She said, 'Fine, we'll just continue as before.'

"When I went over there, we talked about the Indians, because she loved to watch baseball. I kept it real light, and she said, 'I'm glad I changed my mind.' I said, 'Well, yeah, you never know what's gonna happen...' She said, 'Well I am 89 years old.' That was as close as she was going to get to an apology. That was the only negative reaction I had in my family."

The second book, Leblang reflected, might not go down quite as easily.

"I could see my younger brother saying, 'Well, you know, you didn't really need to get into that family stuff,' " the writer told EDGE. "It doesn't really talk about him, but it does get into my father having affairs and various other things which I was kind of caught up in.

"Ultimately, I feel that at some point we have to be able to tell our stories. even though I was a little uncomfortable thinking, 'What's my brother going to think of this book?,' the reality is that he could write his own book," Leblang said. "This is my life, I've lived it, I've paid my dues. I have the right to tell the story feels authentic for me, and if that bumps up against somebody else... Well, that's what happens when you write honestly.

"The first part of the book is about place geographically, Cleveland and the suburb where I grew up. The second part of the book is more about place as a metaphor, that sense that I have a right to be here and take up space, which is definitely not something I felt for the first part of my life. To me, that idea of place has a couple of different meanings."

Equally important to Leblang, and just as complex, is the idea of attaining completion as an individual.

"Not that I have achieved this, but I am working on this idea of integrating the different parts of who I am: The gay piece, the Jewish piece," the writer said. "I don't have the deaf this in my life overtly, by I do have the history [of having deaf relatives and working with deaf people], and then, ironically, I have lost some of my own, so now I am a hard-of-hearing man, which wasn't part of the plan.

"I think that the book is really about bringing these different pieces together," Leblang continued. "We all have these different identities. Nobody is an aspect or a category; we all are these amalgamations. Putting these pieces together is somewhat similar to the struggle of putting together a life that feels authentic. And again, I didn't want the book to convey that everything is great now and I have it all together. I wanted it to say, more, 'I'm working on it.' "

Asked whether he feels that he has, indeed, found his place -- and whether he's now happier -- the writer responded thoughtfully.

"It's kind of a personal question," Leblang said. "I would say yes, but would I have been able to write that book in the same way ten years ago?

"Being depressed is a label I would have used for myself up until my early forties. Not that I haven't had some periods in the last ten years, and I probably will have in the future, but I don't see that as a reflection of who I am. In that sense of not carrying around that depression. And that's only in the last ten years, since I've been writing. If you'd asked me ten years ago if I was a writer, I would have laughed."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.