People in Trouble

Heather Love

My Awesome Place is truly the result of a massive community effort …” When the poet and performance artist Cheryl Burke died at the age of 38 from complications related to the treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, friends and members of her writing group brought her unfinished memoir to publication. The book, which was awarded a Lambda Literary Award, features a foreword by Sarah Schulman and an afterword by Burke’s partner, comedian Kelli Dunham. It is dedicated “to the City of New York, for helping so many people find their awesome place.” A story of Burke’s working-class family, relationships, alcohol and drug-fueled hijinks, and development as a writer and performer, the book also chronicles the queer and art worlds of downtown New York in the 1990s. This is the autobiography of a community.

My Awesome Place opens with a classic scene of teenage boredom and bad behavior. It’s Christmastime in a New Jersey suburb, and Cheryl has just smoked a joint and is fondling a tab of acid in her pocket. She gazes absently out at the winter night, poking her fingers through her parents’ front screen door, as the “darkened exterior of each neighbor’s house lights up with holiday cheer.” An alienated, precocious youth biding her time in the provinces, dreaming about a bigger world, we recognize Cheryl, and root for her.

Burkes book is not just a story of escape, or of an artist transcending her origins. Burke remains ambivalently attached to her working-class family, taking their side against a New York world that, while glamorous, also comes across as cutthroat and phony.

Cheryl does break away: with the help of a scholarship, she attends NYU; she comes out as a lesbian and starts writing; frequents gay clubs and crashes art parties; tries (and fails) to find work in a strip club; and eventually begins performing in theaters, clubs, and galleries. But My Awesome Place is not just a story of escape, or of an artist transcending her origins. Burke remains ambivalently attached to her working-class family, taking their side against a New York world that, while glamorous, also comes across as cutthroat and phony. One morning after blacking out from alcohol the night before, Cheryl meets her friends for brunch in Manhattan, and finds their hipness as alienating as her parents’ cluelessness: “This is what savvy urban chicks in their late twenties did on Sunday; eat at a trendy brunch place, in cute clothes with clean hair and complexions free of scaly rashes.” Wherever these missiles land, one feels that Burke herself is the intended target: she has come to brunch in crumpled clothes, with dirty hair, facial dermatitis, and a case of the shakes.

The relentless self-exposure and the rush of the writing link My Awesome Place to spoken-word performance and the blog, genres that Burke mastered. At one point, several years after coming out as a lesbian, Cheryl begins dating a man. The resulting confusion prompts a characteristically blunt account of her erotic history:

 

I’d never understood dating. I spent my adolescence battling both anorexia and obesity and because of this I’d only been on a few dates in high school (when I was anorexic) and managed to lose my virginity to a 23-year-old amusement park attendee (when I was obese) right before my self-imposed deadline of “before graduation.” In college, thanks to cheap beer, marijuana, hanging out at drag shows with my gay male best friend and an inexplicable, dramatic weight loss sophomore year, I became a full-fledged slut and once again skipped the whole dating thing.


The frank discussion of body issues, sex, drugs, and alcohol, and feminine abjection links the book to the feminist blogosphere and to third-wave crossover hits such as Lena Dunham’s Girls and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2012). But the book also recalls a tradition of queer downtown artists writing in extremis. One thinks, for instance, of Sarah Schulman’s novel People in Trouble (1990), which juxtaposes a chronicle of the AIDS crisis in New York City with a harrowing romantic triangle and suggests that people often respond to world-historical trouble by making trouble for themselves and others. Burke’s writing also brings to mind David Wojnarowicz’s “Living Close to the Knives”: “Time is now compressed … [E]very painting or photograph or film I make, I make with the sense that it might be the last thing I do … I work quickly now and feel there is no time for bullshit.”

A similar sense of urgency informs My Awesome Place, although it is not an AIDS memoir. It is not a cancer memoir either, since the narrative ends on January 21, 2001, the day Burke gets clean, roughly ten years before her diagnosis; we learn about Burke’s illness and death in Dunham’s afterword. But the book does register how AIDS transformed New York City in the late 20th century and our understanding of illness in general. Visiting her friend Keith after his cancer diagnosis, Burke writes, “the waiting area seems more like a hospital-themed gay bar than an actual emergency room.”

One lesson of AIDS activism was that social stigma materially affects the way bodies are valued and the treatment they receive. When Cheryl’s father gets kidney cancer early in the book, the doctor decides not to operate, telling her, “If I put him on the table now, he’d probably expire as soon as I opened him up.” Burke reflects, “I picture my father being slapped down on a metal gurney like a big, fat dead turkey, a carving knife coming at him. I wonder if everyone gets ‘put on a table and opened up’ or if that was just something reserved for big, brawny blue collar men.”

My Awesome Place is about fucking up and getting your act together, getting wasted and getting sober, becoming a writer, finding true love, and not being around to live the dream. (In her afterword, Dunham cites one of Burke’s late blog entries called “Don’t Bother, You’re Going To Get Cancer Anyway.”) The book is not about redemption. It is about getting by, holding on to your jacket, keys, and cell phone when everything goes south. Completed in the year following Burke’s death, My Awesome Place is a testament to care and self-care for readers who know better than to hope for a cure.