I first encountered Ryan Berg’s writing as a jurist for a fellowship a few years back. Ryan’s submission blew me away. It was an excerpt from his just-published debut, No House to Call My Home: Love, Family, and Other Transgressions, which details the lives of queer youths of color with whom he worked as a caseworker in a group home. Here was a work both political and narrative, compassionate and scrutinizing—I am always looking for such books. I had loved Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family and been so impressed by the power of marginalized people’s stories to effect awareness and, hopefully, change. I already believed that narrative was a more accessible and powerful tool than rhetoric, and books like LeBlanc’s and Berg’s further proved this. In that 20-page sample I recognized what I have since read in the entirety of NHTCMH: the stories of queer homeless youths of color told with humility, self-scrutiny, intelligence, and love. It is a brave and conscientious book, an important book. Berg is mindful to keep his own story in the background of his subjects’ and I was interested in hearing a bit more about his process.
No House to Call My Home: Love, Family, and Other Transgressions
(Nation Books, 2015)
Melissa Febos (Rail): Tell me the origin story of this book, Ryan.
Ryan Berg: I started working with LGBTQ youth in foster care in 2004. I’d been working in theater and was feeling the conversations within that community were taking place in silos. I felt a need to do something outside myself, so I applied to work at a group home. I hadn’t intended to write about the youth, it felt too exploitive. I didn't want my writing to steer my experiences with them. During the summer of 2005 I went to the University of Iowa for a creative writing workshop for social workers and it was there I put down the first pages. I was encouraged by the instructor to continue writing after the workshop ended. Once I returned to New York I shelved the pages, and focused on working with the youth again. It wasn’t until I left my position and started an MFA at Hunter College that I realized I couldn’t shake these stories. I really felt an urgency in telling them. These stories felt unavoidable. There was nothing being said about the youth experience of homelessness, especially LGBTQ youth. We know the statistics. They’re out there, but people really operate from empathy. I was trying to help by opening a door into an unseen world, to focus on the lives of the young people experiencing the hardships that were addressed in the book.
Rail: Our books are so profoundly different in about every superficial way, and many deeper ones, but I relate to this a lot. I also had an experience of explicitly thinking, I will not write about this. But the muse doesn’t give a shit about our plans, does she? The story that needs you to write it comes calling, invited or not. I had already been hijacked by my memoir when I discovered the importance of writing it. To air that secret life had a value I hadn’t ever considered before the impulse took me. But that story was mostly my own. Yours carried a different set of implications—can you talk about that?
Berg: There’s a great responsibility in writing about others. The inherent challenge was how to do it while honoring their stories and their privacy. Writing about others—especially people already marginalized—creates such a skewed power dynamic. I wanted to make sure that I was exercising that power as justly as I could.
Rail: What does that mean to you, making sure that you’re exercising the power as justly as you could?
Berg: I needed to interrogate my motives for writing the story. I was aware of my own privilege and power in that moment and tried not to shy away from it. Within the book I tried to acknowledge places where I can’t comprehend or understand their experience, because I haven’t been there. When they’re experiencing family rejection or abuse or systemic racism, I acknowledge that, but I’m not really able to grasp all of that. It’s about operating with as much empathy as possible.
Rail: I agree completely. I think that too often the people with privilege are unsure how to negotiate that position of power and choose to avoid acknowledging it, which is, of course, also a privilege. It’s hard to know how to be an ally, and I think it’s really one of the tasks of our generation to figure out that role—both how to ask for what we need, and to listen when others ask. I hope that as this conversation plays out more publicly, those in a position to bring attention to and acknowledge stories like those of the characters in your book choose to exercise the opportunity to acknowledge them, and offer this kind of empathic and nuanced illumination. How did the writing change over the course of working on the book?
Berg: I learned about humility writing this book, I learned about privilege. The writer who wrote the initial pages in 2005 was a much more sentimental, naive person. Over the course of writing the book I became more aware of issues of mass incarceration, systemic oppression, racial and economic justice, and the role of well-intentioned white social workers in the lives of young people of color. I learned about power, about the uncomfortable reality of my own power. I had to turn the lens inward and do some work on myself in order to attempt to do these stories justice. My hope is that this book creates space for LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness to tell their own stories, that their own memoirs begin to emerge, becoming the necessary corrective to history.
Rail: Yeah, empirically I’ve learned that every story worth telling on the page is inevitably one that annihilates a part of the story I have about myself. Writing from a marginalized experience made me think (and in some cases made others ask) why me? Ultimately, I came to the same conclusion: we can’t carry the burden of everyone’s truth—no single book can—but every time we tell a story from that corner of humanity, we are making room for all the others that will come after ours. What do you think replaced the sentimentality?
Berg: I think what replaced it was knowing the ugly reality of our marginalized youth, and that we as a community are complicit in their neglect by remaining uneducated about the subject. There’s no room for bleeding-heart sentimentality there. Because the stories, and the accompanying tragedies feel so overwhelming, the only way to write through it was to keep it simple, to boil it down to detail, to tell it clearly and in the moment. When I would try to talk about systemic failures and the enormity of the issues that lead to such dire outcomes, I would think, how do I even begin to comment on this?
Rail: Some reviewers seem to have been almost shocked by some of the unpleasant realities of the youths’ lives. How do those kinds of reactions strike you?
Berg: It made me protective, because I grew to care a great deal for these young people, and I was tasked with helping them move forward. Yes, there’s a great deal of tragedy, but there are moments of joy and connection. The unfortunate reality is that when you house numerous youth together who’ve all experienced great trauma in their lives, shit is going to get tense on a regular basis and eclipse the quiet moments. I find it strange that some people criticized the youth for acting out. It's true that the circumstances of these young people's lives are very disturbing, but all they experienced and expressed—the love, the loss, the turmoil, the betrayals—all these are universally human things.
Rail: You mentioned people being judgmental of the youth. How do you respond to those kinds of judgments?
Berg: I think that kind of judgment is a way to distance ourselves from the reality of poverty, homophobia, transphobia, and systemic oppression. If Bella’s poverty is her fault, that means your financial comfort is solely your accomplishment, right? Nothing to do with the privileges afforded you. It's a very unsophisticated way of saying that if you work hard enough, anything is possible, everyone gets what they deserve. That’s total bullshit. Many trans youth can’t find legitimate work and face discrimination from service providers tasked with providing employment support. I work with homeless youth in Minneapolis now and witness some of them working forty hours a week, doing everything they’ve been told will help them break the cycle of poverty but they’re never able to get a leg up. Politicians use this judgment of the individual as a tactic to distract us from a really fundamental question: Should we help people in need? The question shouldn’t be who deserves help or not, but do we want to be a country that turns its back on the neediest. Vilification of individuals and their choices diverts us away from this question.
Rail: Victim-blaming is nearly as old a tradition as the myth of the American Dream, isn’t it? I guess that’s how we avoid having to look at the devastating social symptoms of our postcolonial legacy. Like, why can’t all these historically subjugated people locate their damn bootstraps? There is no solution that doesn’t threaten the very institutions our society is build upon—how much easier to tell them that it’s their fault for not seizing the individualist spirit of this country. Do you feel the LGBTQ community has adequately demonstrated concern about the LGBTQ homeless youth problem?
Berg: Most of the major LGBTQ media outlets have been negligent in their reporting and dedication to this issue. I’ve read fifteen articles about Kim Davis this week, and one about LGBTQ homeless youth issues. Forty percent of homeless youth in the US identify as LGBTQ but make up only eight percent of the population. One in five transgender women report having experienced homelessness at one time or another in their lives. Many get turned away from shelter or services due to their gender identity. Where is the outrage in the community? I challenge the mainstream LGBTQ media to take an intentional stand on this issue , and dedicate themselves to reporting these stories. People often don’t want to read about tragedy unless there is redemption in the end. Then we need to create that redemption. If we mobilized half as much and showed half the ingenuity as we did in the fight for marriage equality, the LGBTQ community, and their allies, could end LGBTQ youth homelessness. These young people have had to face enough indignities. They shouldn’t have to face erasure and neglect from their own community.
Rail: How can the people reading this interview and your marvelous book be better allies to these kids, Ryan?
Berg: People need to educate themselves on the issue. I have a resource guide in the back of the book. I included this not only for youth to access services across the country but also for allies to reach out to service providers in their communities to find out how they can help. Policy is an important part of this issue. Don’t wait for legislation. Politicians are reactive, they don’t inform public opinion, they respond to it. Insist that LGBTQ best practices and cultural competency training is required for homeless youth workers and foster care parents so all queer-identified youth can feel affirmed and safe wherever they live. Aversion therapy needs to be banned, and LGBTQ-specific protections barring discrimination need to be in place. Clearly, there are many entry points. Calling your legislator to voice your concern in important; calling a youth shelter in your community to see if they are LGBTQ affirming in their practices is also a good place to start.