A word of advice: John Paul Brammer's memoir 'Hola Papi' comes to BookPeople in Austin
Plenty of things John Paul Brammer says are funny in a way that you’ve never thought to string words together, like “abuela” and “vape.” Or, they’re deeply profound in a way that opens the door to some hallway closet in your tender, idiosyncratic heart. Sometimes, they’re both.
Example of the first, from the author, illustrator and advice columnist’s Twitter account: “when ppl ghost you but still like your tweets that's a séance.”
Example of the second, from Brammer’s new collection of autobiographical essays disguised as advice columns: “Sometimes two otherwise-fine people end up here, with a massive tally of strikes between them. … Blame is for simpler arrangements.”
Example of the third, from our recent phone call with Brammer ahead of the book’s release: “One thing I’m really obsessed with is how we can all be unwitting lighthouses to someone else.”
Given his equal aptitude for the absurd and the illuminating, Brammer has become one of the internet’s most distinctive voices. Raised in rural Oklahoma and now living in Brooklyn, with some Austin time in between, his popular advice column called "Hola Papi" has lived many lives, but it’s always essential reading. It’s currently published as a Substack newsletter and syndicated in New York Magazine’s The Cut.
Brammer often tackles LGBTQ relationship dilemmas, or sometimes explores his own Mexican American identity through readers' letters. He always answers the big, universal questions with care — recent columns are titled “Will Anyone Ever Love Me?” and “How Do I Grieve?”
Now, Brammer has adapted the advice column format into a memoir, “Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons.” It's out on June 8 from Simon & Schuster, and he’ll bring the book to a virtual BookPeople conversation with writer Shea Serrano on June 10.
Take it from him (or don't)
Brammer opens the book writing about the power of mentorship, like the college classmate who taught him what hookup app Grindr is. ("Hola Papi" would be introduced to the world through Grindr’s short-lived online publication called Into. Brammer pitched the column as “queer Latino Dear Abby huffing poppers.”)
"Hola Papi" the column is about using a funny, confident character to break the fourth wall and speak directly to readers, he says. The book is written in his actual voice, which he uses to explore what he’s learned about moral authority. If you’re looking for rules to living, you might be missing Brammer’s point.
“That's one of the things that the more I think about, the more anxious I get, so I just sort of have to not think about it at all,” Brammer says. "Putting this book out there, there's going to be a lot of people who aren't LGBTQ, but probably even more who are, who see it as a roadmap or as some sort of blueprint. Meanwhile, the whole book to me is about how that didn't work for me.”
Writing an advice column, he says, asks you to occupy the space of “Yes, I do know what I’m doing, because now I have to tell you.” But the process of learning about yourself is never that simple — daresay it's messy, which is not inherently bad, Brammer says.
Still, reading “Hola Papi” feels like talking to the friend who always has the right words, if your friend also has a knack for precise sensory details. Brammer describes reconstructing his memories as making “a constellation of understanding for myself.” He rearranged his life experiences, “the ones I thought were so intense and so important,” and turned them into narratives — asking himself if they really happened the way he thought they did, and what they meant in the clear light of morning.
And in “Hola Papi,” Brammer relives a lot: tortuous bullying in his hometown of Cache, Oklahoma; a confusing teenage relationship with a girl; taking a job at a tortilla factory because he didn’t “feel Mexican enough”; and so much more, like coming out to his boyfriend in a Walmart parking lot, of course. (It’ll make sense when you read it.)
“We’re storytelling creatures,” Brammer says of looking at his personal lore as symbols that might bear understanding. Reconstituting those stories was not difficult for him, he says: “When we remember something, we don’t have a perfect record to tap into in our brains. We have our understanding of it. That is a creative exercise. … I am creating a picture of a picture.”
Those pictures are sharp and evocative. Brammer writes with specificity about the little rituals of childhood, like finding the shapes in the texture of the walls at your school and forming an early concept of fashion sense while rifling through racks at Dillard’s with his mom. He likens that writing process to “digging out the trunk in the attic” and finding unexpected treasure. If the brain is hurtling through time and space, he says, those details are like fishhooks, tugging you back to see where the line leads.
“Our lives are riddled with the weird things that for one reason or another get entrenched in the creases of our brains,” he says.
John Paul Brammer's survival skills
Brammer describes his boyhood as one marked by softness. Performing masculinity was always at the forefront of his mind as a kid. He still gets anxious when he draws attention to himself, but Brammer says he no longer often thinks, “'I hope I am succeeding as a man'; that idea is so silly to me now.” As a man writing an acclaimed advice column and doing "one of the most public, gay things I can think of, which is publishing a gay book into the world," Brammer has realized that he is “so spoiled.”
"I think it's a huge privilege for me to live the way I live right now," he says.
He continues, "If you're a man, and you're living in a world where you have certain expectations placed upon how you're supposed to perform, and what roles you're allowed to occupy, and what emotions you're allowed to express and have, then yes, of course, it will be a huge deal for you to constantly be policing yourself in that way," he says. "Most people in the world, understandably, want to avoid the violence of going against that. The world is very good at providing violences that will deter you from expressing those things."
He hopes people can read “Hola Papi” and stop berating and punishing themselves. He remembers the constant, gnawing anxiety.
Several of “Hola Papi’s” chapters deal with the amorphous process of coming to terms with your sexuality, and what that means as a person continues to negotiate the disparate parts of themselves.
“The coming out narrative would tell you that it’s wisdom and clarity that alleviates you from having to live (in denial), but I think that’s not necessarily true,” Brammer says. It takes street smarts to navigate a hostile world, he says, and he’s thankful for the person he was in the past, who survived when he wasn’t allowed to accept himself.
“We still live in a world where those obstacles exist,” he says.
Like putting your story into the world and having other people define it as being primarily for gay men.
“I’m just writing about desire, about appetites,” he says, adding that he doesn’t think straight authors have to contend with the same pigeonholing.
'The city where I first fell in love'
Formative times in Austin make up one "Hola Papi" essay, swirling with the heady air of early romance. The summer between his junior and senior years of college, he took an internship reading scripts for Austin Film Festival’s screenwriting competition. He fell in love with a University of Texas student, the closeted son of a Houston cattle rancher. Another fling around the same time conjures memories of pancakes at Kerbey Lane Café and night swims in the dark waters of Barton Springs Pool.
Brammer still likes visiting Austin and Texas. One side of his family moved to cities like San Antonio, El Paso and Wichita Falls from Chihuahua. Spending so much time visiting relatives in the Lone Star State, Brammer says he identifies as a Tex-Mex person.
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And Austin has always felt congruent with his personality, Brammer says. The city holds a great deal of nostalgia: “It’s always going to be the city where I first fell in love.”
"One of my good friends said, 'You have got to stop going to Texas,’” Brammer laughs. He sometimes teases a move back to Austin, and it's not like he hasn't spent some time on Zillow fantasizing about it.
“I am a superstitious person,” he says. “That’s the prophecy.”
One line from “Hola Papi” could stand in for the rest of its more than 200 pages: “You never know who might be listening and who might need to hear you.” That’s when Brammer’s obsession with unwitting lighthouses came up in our conversation. Especially as a writer, someone who places a heavy emphasis on observing, he’s keen on the ripple effects of our everyday encounters.
They can be more meaningful than explicit advice, he thinks — some of Brammer’s best mentors have been complete strangers. Because, after all, how do you know what your possibilities are until you’ve been introduced to them?
"I, for one, am not super cognizant of all the progress I've made, even though my life right now would look so utterly alien to me when I was in high school, or even just five or six years ago," he says. "To me, it's all very normal, because it's the water I'm swimming in. I am a regular-ass fish in my regular-ass pond. But for someone else, when they see you doing something that maybe they don't feel confident enough to do, or maybe haven't quite figured everything out yet, they have their interpretation of what you're doing. I see other people say all the time where I'm like, 'Wow, I love that person for doing that.'"
In those moments, thanks to those lighthouses he’s seen, Brammer says, “the burden of being me isn't such a burden after all, and maybe I can live a little bit easier in my own skin."
Eric Webb is the Austin360 entertainment editor for the American-Statesman. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @webbeditor.
If you go
What: BookPeople presents "Hola Papi" author John Paul Brammer in conversation with Shea Serrano
When: 6 p.m. June 10
Cost: Tickets to the virtual event are only available with the purchase of "Hola, Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons" for $26 from the bookseller.
More information: bookpeople.com