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International conference: Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City”: Tales of a Transmedia Experience? / “Tales of the City” d’Armistead Maupin : chroniques d’une expérience transmédia ?

November 17th, 2023, Hôtel de Lauzun, Paris, France
Florian Fraissard et Alan Van Brackel

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1Hosted in Paris in the presence of the author, the international conference “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City: Tales of a Transmedia Experience? / Tales of the City d’Armistead Maupin : chroniques d’une expérience transmédia ?” was organized by Clémentine Tholas (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle), Dennis Tredy (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle) and Aliette Ventéjoux (Université Jean Monnet-Saint-Étienne) and the research teams from Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, CREW (EA 4399) and PRISMES (EA 4398). It was also supported by Institut des Études Avancées de Paris (Paris, IEA), La Cité des Écritures and the research teams ERIBIA (Université Caen Normandie, EA 2610), IMAGER (Université Paris-Est Créteil, EA 3958), LARCA (Université Paris-Cité, UMR 8225), 3LAM (Université d’Angers, EA 4335). Clémentine Tholas opened the conference paying homage to Françoise Brousse, the first scholar in France who found that Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City deserved some attention. In fact, she pointed out the dissymmetry between the popular success of the books and the rarity of scientific works. She hoped this conference could fill that lack.

Panel 1: Style, Structure and Storytelling / Les enjeux narratifs chez Maupin

2Anna Ferrari (Sapienza Università di Roma) started the day by a presentation called “The Happy ‘Trojan Horse’: Tales of The City and the Subversion of Positive Storytelling” in which she questioned the way Armistead Maupin introduces the AIDS theme in the second trilogy of the cycle without breaking the homogeneous and humorous style that characterizes his writing. She drew a parallel with the holocaust writing for the Jewish community insofar as it deals with the problem of how to speak about the unspeakable. According to Anna Ferrari, Armistead Maupin’s solution to address the AIDS crisis in his writing involves continuing the use of the queer style characterized by a marginal point of view on narrative situations. This approach allows for both gay and non-gay readers to engage with the topic of AIDS. Additionally, Maupin constructs a utopian world within his writing, which is maintained by the humorous perspective. Indeed, Maupin still includes humorous elements despite the tragic reality of AIDS. The camp style used by Maupin succeeds in combining seriousness and lightness, death and life, reality and fiction, gayness and straightness.

3The second paper delivered by Dennis Tredy (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle) and entitled “‘Retellings of the City’: Television Adaptations of Tales of the City” deals with the problems of Tales of the City’s transmedial adaptations. Starting from the theoretical concept of “transécriture” formed by André Gaudreau, Tredy exposed the ideal vision of San Francisco brought by the different adaptations that reflect the literary universe created by Armistead Maupin. These adaptations are built on a selection of significant elements of the fictional cycle and not by an exhaustive adaptation. Moreover, it seems that all the adaptations try to preserve the special vision of Maupin, about the City and the characters, what may be called a camp vision. All the televisual adaptations seem to be faithful to that uncategorizable camp sensibility which produces a real continuity between the books and the series.

4Christelle Klein-Scholz (Aix-Marseille Université) gave a presentation called “Examining the way HIV/AIDS constitutes a structural motif in Tales of the City.” As Maupin once explained, his book Babycakes (1984) – which opens the second trilogy – could be considered as the first novel that speaks about the AIDS epidemy. The choice made by Maupin to introduce this frightening experience is significant. In fact, in this book, the theme appears as insidiously as the disease itself did in the homosexual community. For example, the death of Jon Fielding or the positive diagnosis of Michael occur outside the narration, in an elliptical way. Consequently, in the Tales, HIV remains unsaid till Sure of You (1989) which corresponds to volume 6 and the epidemy is, in a way, unwritten, although it constitutes a structural and silent motif in the second trilogy. Finally, volume 7 entitled Michael Tolliver Lives (2007) can be interpreted as an affirmation, or even a victory, of life over death.

Panel 2: Then & Now, Here & There I

5Mathieu Duplay (Université Paris Cité) opened the panel with a paper entitled “AIDS, Mourning, and Melancholia in Armistead Maupin’s Babycakes (1984).” Using the discussion between Michael Tolliver and his colleague Thack Sweeney about Act Up in Sure of You (1989) as a starting point, Duplay pointed out the role of affect in the struggle for survival in a homophobic environment during the AIDS crisis in Tales of the City. The paper demonstrated how empathy functions both as a narrative device and as a central objective within Maupin’s storytelling strategy, as illustrated, for instance, by Michael’s coming out letter. The focus then shifted to Babycakes and its significance as one of the earliest attempts to tell the story of people affected by AIDS from their own perspective. He examined in his analysis the distinctions between mourning and melancholia, drawing on Freudian and contemporary perspectives. He argued that Babycakes showcases the benefits of the mourning process in achieving closure and returning to a semblance of normalcy. Despite the novel’s ending, where the characters find resolution and order is seemingly restored, Duplay suggested that this closure may evoke a sense of melancholia for readers, especially in hindsight considering the ravages caused by the AIDS pandemic. The enduring melancholy in Maupin’s works is seen as a political point that challenges the notion of closure and emphasizes the ongoing nature of the AIDS crisis.

6Florian Fraissard (Université Jean Monnet – Saint-Étienne) explored the fictional universes of the first two volumes of Tales of The City by comparing them with the worlds of two later foreign works: the Swedish trilogy Torka aldrig tårar utan handskar [Don’t Ever Wipe Tears] by Jonas Gardell (2012) and the Spanish novel Diario de JL by Alex Rei (2010). He then introduced the concept of transfictionality of the gay universe, so as to suggest a fictional unity among these works based on shared narrative elements. While Tales of The City features a fluid and porous universe where gay and heterosexual characters coexist, the foreign works depict more distinct boundaries between gay and heterosexual worlds. Gardell’s novels portray a struggle between gay and homophobic environments, while Diario de JL focuses exclusively on a gay universe devoid of heterosexual representation. Despite these differences, all three works highlight relational dynamics as central to the gay fictional universe. The comparison underscores common themes across diverse fictional realms, while Tales of The City stands out for its narrative flexibility, making the interplay between universes an interpretative game for the reader.

Panel 3: Then & Now, Here & There II

7Alexandre Adouard (Université Paul Valéry – Montpellier 3) opened the third panel with a paper entitled “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City : réflexion sur le fossé générationnel LGBTQ+ contemporain,” in which he wanted to explore how different modes of production, audiences and socio-political contexts shape adaptations, with a focus on Netflix’s mini-series adaptation of the Tales (2019). Adouard discussed how the series retains the essence of the original works while being a modern transposition. He delved into the generational and social dynamics portrayed in the series, particularly through scenes depicting the clash between older and younger LGBTQIA+ individuals, and highlighted the evolution of societal attitudes and the challenges faced by the LGBTQIA+ community over time. Adouard stressed the pedagogical and nostalgic aspects of the reboot, which continues existing narratives and also passes on a legacy to a new generation, emphasizing the importance of understanding the past to navigate the future. In that way, the series is able to bridge the gap between past and present representations of LGBTQIA+ narratives while preserving cultural heritage and facilitating dialogue across generations.

8Ramzi Fawaz’s (University of Wisconsin) paper “Queer Love on Barbary Lane: The Serial Experience of Coming Out of the Closet with Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City” explored how the Tales served as a pioneering narrative in portraying the queer experience and the process of coming out in 1970s San Francisco. Fawaz used the interviews he conducted with original readers of the Tales alongside with close readings to draw a parallel between the serialized rhythm of the narrative and the evolution of the process of coming out. The speaker emphasized that, in the narrative, coming out is available to people of all sexual orientations and gender expressions and that some characters can inadvertently come out as queer through their actions and relationships. According to Fawaz, the narrative served also as a source of queer knowledge when it was published: it informed readers about various subcultures and locations (that even led people to do literary tourism), and it also challenged heteronormative ideals and expanded readers’ understanding of queerness. Ultimately, the paper highlighted how the serialized narrative of Tales of the City not only reflected the ethos of gay liberation but also actively contributed to the reproduction of queerness within the social body, reshaping societal attitudes and perceptions of LGBTQ individuals and communities.

Interview with Armistead Maupin

9After the second panel, an interview with Armistead Maupin took place in the same room; this conference was open to the general public and was live-translated by Smitha Chakravarthy. Clémentine Tholas opened the session and then gave the floor to Marc Amfreville (Sorbonne Université Paris), who translated Maupin’s work into French. The interview is available online.

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Référence électronique

Florian Fraissard et Alan Van Brackel, « International conference: Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City”: Tales of a Transmedia Experience? / “Tales of the City” d’Armistead Maupin : chroniques d’une expérience transmédia ? »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 12 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/22602 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11x2l

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Auteurs

Florian Fraissard

Université Jean Monnet – Saint-Étienne

Alan Van Brackel

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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