John Paul Brammer, The Advice Columnist Behind 'Hola Papi,' Releases His Memoir
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
If you want to dish out advice, it's best to know yourself first.
JOHN PAUL BRAMMER: Who was I other than a promiscuous, Twitter-addled, gay Mexican with chronic anxiety and comorbid mental illnesses who could barely answer his own emails in a timely manner without having a breakdown?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's John Paul Brammer, the man behind the advice column "Hola Papi." The column began its life as a feature on Grindr, the gay dating app, becoming a hit. And it shares its name with Brammer's new memoir, which comes out Tuesday. And John Paul Brammer joins us now. Hola, papi.
BRAMMER: Hi, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hi. I learned a lot about you in this memoir, which I guess is the point of memoirs.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are from a small town in Oklahoma. You were bullied in middle school because they suspected you of being gay. You were still trying to understand that about yourself at the time. And you didn't come out even to yourself until much later as a young adult. This is Pride Month. Do you feel the closet can be a good thing, though - sort of a helpful, necessary protection if someone is gay but not safe where they are?
BRAMMER: It's one of those things that is an unfortunate reality for a lot of people. And I often wonder what life would've looked like if I had been allowed to be more myself or not even just to be myself but to engage with more questions in an open and honest way instead of suppressing them because growing up is all about messiness. It's all about making mistakes. It's all about trying your best to figure out who you are. It's just that I kind of had to do that with the added problem of feeling like I had something to hide.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write this at the end of the chapter about that period in your life - trauma is always trying to convince us that we are beings trapped in amber, defined by the static, unchangeable events of our lives, but that's not the case. The worst things that have ever happened to us don't define us. We are the ones who get to define what those things mean. It's beautiful and uplifting, and so I do want to ask you about being an advice columnist because you are good at it. You use your own personal experience to ring a sort of universal truth. Talk me through, though, what you weigh and what you choose to put out in the world?
BRAMMER: Yeah. I thought the column was going to be a satire. The joke was sort of, what if "Dear Abby" was on Grindr? And I thought that was really funny. But the letters really held a lot of weight. And because the column was put all around the world, anywhere where Grindr exists, I was getting very serious letters about trying to come out to yourself, accept yourself, to see if it was OK to talk to someone you had a crush on in places where homosexuality was illegal. And I never try to say that I have all the answers. I never try to say that, oh, all you need to do is X, Y and Z, and it'll fix your life. I'm much more abstract than that. And what I try to do is provide vocabulary and words to people to help them understand something that they're struggling to put words to, be it an experience or an identity or something they're struggling with. I just try to help people see things from a different perspective.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to also talk about a different part of your identity, your Latinidad - you know, you leaned into your Mexican heritage as a teen by getting a job at a local Mexican restaurant. You write, desperately undermining all the hard work abuela had put into making me white. And you capture an aspect of being Latino that doesn't often get discussed - this idea that we're not enough, that there's some shame attached to not speaking Spanish or whatever, especially among second-generation kids - that we're not somehow authentic enough.
BRAMMER: Yeah. I grew up right next to end with my abuelos, who went through a lot in life. My abuela dropped out of elementary school because she was struggling with English, and she performed manual labor for a living. And my abuelo was the first in his whole family to go to college. And they grew up very poor but also, at the same time, were very set on making sure that their family - their children and their children's children could better assimilate into America because they knew what the hurdles were, and they knew what the obstacles were. And what I've come to understand is I was very much eager to reclaim these things that I had lost - the Spanish, the recipes, the traditions. But I've kind of come to realize that loss itself is a hallmark of identity. It is in itself an element that makes you who you are. That idea of being deprived of things, that idea of having to cut things loose so that you can move lighter through this country - that is very much part of the immigrant experience. It is part of the Latino experience for many of us. And it is one of the most defining aspects of my identity and something that kind of goes against the idea that we have to reclaim everything if we're going to be authentic.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do you grapple with that in your position now? Because you're sort of a celebrated card-carrying Latino member of the media.
BRAMMER: It really is wild to see. I saw a poster in front of a bookstore the other day, and it's me in a sombrero at a typewriter.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, that's the cover of your book, literally.
BRAMMER: Yeah. What would high school me say if he could see himself...
BRAMMER: ...Wearing this so publicly in this bookstore? He probably would've been both proud and freaked out like, no, no, no, you're lying to people. You're not a real Mexican. And there's always going to be some element of that because none of us really can perfectly inhabit any identity because those are ideas. They are a set of criteria that no one is ever going to perfectly inhabit. And what I've noticed, too, is that a lot about being a Latino in media is sort of navigating industry appetites - this idea that, you know, we want your pain. We want you to yell at something. Especially during the Trump years, being a writer who struggled to say no to opportunities, I sort of became an attack dog who could get maybe 400, $500 for a long piece condemning something that had just happened.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you think they wanted you to be an attack dog - I mean, to put you in particular in that position?
BRAMMER: I think that it makes their outlook look better by proxy. It means, yes, see, we're uplifting diverse voices. We have people like this. And granted, you know, it was very easy for me to condemn many of the things happening during the Trump years because a lot of it was so horrific. It was just that, in the pitches I would get, oftentimes, they would already have the opinion I was supposed to have baked into it, and it's because it would look good in conversation with all the other pieces they have from more established, more moneyed, more senior people there who are often older and white and who they trust more with nuance.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, this book is full of nuance. And I want to talk about forgiveness or at least moving on because the book touches on a trip that you made home in Oklahoma for Thanksgiving as a professional. You're out. You open an app - not Grindr but a different one - and there's your childhood bully, the one who traumatized you by calling you anti-gay slurs, on a gay dating app. And he asks you if you're mad. Can you walk us through how you decided to respond?
BRAMMER: My goodness. I went through every emotion during that time. My first instinct was very much revenge. It was very much like, here's my opportunity to make you hurt the way that I hurt. And I rarely act purely out of emotion because I know that my first instincts are often actually informed by the trauma I experienced being abused as a kid. And when I really thought about it, I thought about the way violence works, the way it's a cycle, the way it moves. And I kind of talk about in the book how I was sort of robbed of being a perfect victim because I knew deep down in many instances that, if I was given the opportunity to put someone else down in the position I was in and get out of it, I probably would've taken it. And I realized that this person, who was my former bully - he was probably doing just that. He was probably afraid. He was probably just glad it wasn't him. He wanted to be in the in-group as best he could. And while that is inexcusable, it is understandable. And so I didn't really forgive him necessarily, but I did choose not to hurt him in that moment because there's just enough pain in the world. And pain just loves to travel.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: John Paul Brammer is an advice columnist and the author of a new memoir called "Hola Papi." Thank you very much.
BRAMMER: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF HERMANOS GUTIERREZ'S "ESPERANZA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.