James Hannaham is a writer, performer, critic, and visual artist. The Bronx-born/Yonkers-raised author is a professor in the writing program at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. His short fiction has appeared in BOMB, The Literary Review, and several anthologies. He has written for many publications such as the Village Voice, Out, New York Magazine, The Barnes & Noble Review, and The New York Times Magazine. His novels are God Says No (2009), Delicious Foods (2015), and Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta (2022).
Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta follows Carlotta Mercedes, a trans woman who returns to Brooklyn after spending two decades incarcerated in a men’s prison.
After coming out as a trans woman, authorities refuse to acknowledge her gender transition and inmates and correctional officers rape her. Then one day following her fifth meeting with the parole board, she is suddenly released from prison. Carlotta returns home to live with her Afro-Colombian family, many of whom struggle to accept her new gender identity. She is shocked at the gentrification in her neighborhood since her imprisonment.
PrideIndex interviewed Hannaham via email. Below is the backstory he shared concerning bringing Carlotta to life and more.
PrideIndex (PI): In one sentence, sum up your experience writing your book Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta.
James Hannaham (JH): I kept making it more difficult for myself.
PI: How long did it take you to write this book?
JH: In this case, it’s very hard to know since some of my “research” started when I was a child. The writing of a book and the living of a life are not always easy to separate. I think the boring answer about when I began to type things into an MS Word file was in June 2014, and the final edits happened in May 2022. So, a total of eight years, although the last year and a half is always revision. It feels like you are done and just tinkering, so maybe it’s six and a half? I tend to stop and start a lot, too, so perhaps those eight years could be compressed into five if I hadn’t had other things to do.
PI: I’ve read somewhere Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta takes its cues from Homer’s Odyssey & James Joyce’s Ulysses mixed with contemporary themes of gentrification and transphobia. How did you make these “gumbo soup themes” work together?
JH: Well, I guess the proof is in the pudding, right? How I did it is that I wrote the book! Read it if you want to know how I made it work. But what happened is that I started writing the story and noticed that it had certain parallels with the Odyssey, things that I thought were unexpected and funny to juxtapose with the very contemporary, non-fictional aspects of the book. Since so many other writers have already used the Odyssey as source material, why not add Ulysses to that? Then I started to notice a whole slew of other things that “rhymed” between Carlotta’s story and Joyce’s and Homer’s. Then I started deliberately adding things and jokes and stuff to make the book consistently referential. Structurally, mostly. It was fun to think that, on the surface, I was writing an elegantly trashy Black LGBTQ novel while also low-key cannibalizing the Western canon.
PI: Describe your writing process. How do you nurture ideas from conception to actualization and get them down on paper?
JH: I don’t know; I try to do it differently every time. Different pieces of writing require different strategies. I start with something I feel strongly about, a story usually or a social issue that I hope people are not already too familiar with, and then try to make strong choices about what kind of book I want to end up with. I suppose part of what might be helpful to know is that it’s often a good idea for me to get into a kind of trance state where I stop judging the quality of the writing and keep cranking the thing out, knowing that the revision process will be intensive and will take care of a lot of what I might find lacking in that first draft. I expect to do at least 20 drafts of a book so that the first one is like, who cares. Novelists call the first draft the “vomit draft,” which usually means that you’re just upchucking it onto the page to get it out of your mind, but maybe they’re also suggesting the quality of the work itself could induce vomiting.
PI: You recently won Publishing Triangle’s 2023 Ferro Grumbly Award for LGBTQ Fiction. Tell us how you felt the exact moment you learned you’d won.
JH: Not to sound like a diva, but relieved. Carlotta had been nominated for five different prizes(!), and the Ferro-Grumley (not Grumbly, although on certain days I could win a Grumbly Award!) was the first it actually won. I am very grateful when awards committees recognize my work with a nomination; in fact, I really want that to happen, but oh boy, do I hate waiting to hear about winning or not. I know, woe is me. But the mind fuck is real! I spend way too much mental energy trying not to care about it and failing. Handicapping my odds, trying to figure out who the judges are. Writing acceptance speeches in my head and discarding them at 4 am. If there’s money attached, I start mentally spending it and then berating myself for doing that because I won’t win. I was feeling like a jerk for wanting to win, even! It engages some internal hope/despair dialectic that fries my circuits, especially when I start imagining that my book will lose due to some bias; in this case, I thought a lot about how centering the life of a trans person in a novel while being a cis author is a gesture that frightens institutions and could create controversy among judges, let alone the fact that the book has a curse word in the title. The nominees are always all worthy of winning, so you know that the decision can often come down to weird things like that, choices that sometimes reflect a panel’s aversion to controversy. The worst is when the winner gets, like, 50K, and as a finalist, you don’t get jack shit, not even a pat on the head. You go home feeling more than a little used.
PI: Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. Do you plan on attending this event or any other award shows where this book is nominated?
JH: Yes, but if I’m ever in this situation again, which I hope I am, I might try to avoid the whole rigmarole. There are many ways to structure an award without psychologically torturing the nominees or making them spend their money to find out they have won only a good line to put on the cover of their paperback edition. There’s a fun party involved, at least this time; it sounds like. If I’m not going to win, at least wine and dine me, right?
PI: Are there plans to write a sequel to this story? Why or why not?
JH: No, but the book has been optioned for TV/streaming. I don’t think I can say more than that publicly.
PI: If someone were interested in purchasing this book, or if they were interested in having you attend a book signing, panel discussion, or book club reading, what should they do?
JH: Go to their local bookstore or bookshop.org. As for appearance requests, I’m pretty easy to contact directly through my website, as the notorious fiction thief Filippo Bernardini discovered when he tried to steal the unedited manuscript of Carlotta. Offering to pay a decent amount for my time is a good way to get my attention. Pro Tip: Don’t use the word “honorarium.”