East Village author weaves together fiction and memoir in new collection of essays
Photo by Bob Krasner
Author Lucy Sante is at an interesting point in her life, looking backward and forward simultaneously. With the release of her latest book, a collection of essays entitled ‘Maybe The People Would Be The Times’, she has gathered together pieces that form a kind of memoir – even in the fiction that weaves in and out of the examinations of music, art, tabloids, photography and her life in the East Village many years ago. Between the creation of this book and its actual publication, Sante has entered a new phase of her life, with a remnant of her previous persona stamped large on the cover of the work, which is credited to ‘Luc’ Sante.
In her mid-60’s, Sante has recently come out as transgender, changed her name and is happily living her life with a new set of pronouns. The writer, who came to prominence in 1991 with ‘Low Life’ – an examination of the seedier side of Manhattan life in the mid-nineteenth century – is still the same author with an insatiable quest for knowledge and the requisite skill needed to share her insights. But for the first time, she is feeling comfortable with who she is.
“I’d been thinking about this since I was in single digits and I fought it every step of the way,” she reveals. “But now I realize now that fighting it was ridiculous and I should have done it many, many years ago. Decades ago – but it was impossible.” Sante recently took all the photos of herself she could find of herself through the years and put them into a program called FaceApp to see herself gender swapped, but there weren’t many pics to work with. “I hated being photographed,” Sante explained. ” I hated myself and the way I looked.”
Since she came to the United States from Belgium as a young boy she has been an outsider, in the position of having to do her own research on even the most mundane things. “I didn’t want to give myself away as an immigrant,” she recalls. “So I couldn’t ask questions like, ‘what kind of shoes are those’? I had to figure things out on my own.”
“I was never good at school or jobs,” she admits, backing it up with the revelation that she didn’t finish high school – too much time spent hanging out in the East Village instead of class – or college, although she ended up teaching at Columbia University, despite having left there as a student without a degree, due to too many incomplete credits and possibly an abundance of overdue library fines.
It didn’t stop her from learning, though. The results of her tireless research – done long ago in the library and elsewhere but now handled with the benefit of the computer ( of which she has very mixed feelings) – will soon result in three more projects. One, titled ’19 Reservoirs ‘ promises to be an exhaustive history of the water supply in Upstate New York. A book about Lou Reed is also in the works, as well as an extended piece about her own transition that will be published in a major magazine. Which makes sense for an author who notes that ” everything I’ve ever written is about me.”
Research has kept her immersed in the internet, which she finds is a double-edged sword. “I was determined to never get a computer,” she reveals, adding, “Apple, Google….they are all evil.” But she admits that the abundance of information that is out now, especially on the subject of being transgender, was not available years ago.
“I do wonder what it would have been like if I had transitioned when I was young,” Sante muses. ” A few years ago I started the long process of selling my papers to the NY Public Library and at the time, I thought that I was preparing for death. And then this happened! It is a kind of second puberty. It’s certainly a second youth. I don’t want to die anytime soon.”
While enjoying breakfast at Veselka she reminisced about the good times of her East Village tenure – citing the only band she was ever in -The Flags – consisting of Sante on drums backing up Felice Rosser, Barbara Klar and Bobby Radcliff on the only song they ever learned, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “All Wi Doin is Defendin”. And the bad times too, such as being dragged down the block at 4 am by a cop during the Tompkins Square riots, for no particular reason.
Her time in the neighborhood ended when “I was hauled kicking and screaming upstate by a former spouse,” Sante says, but it has all worked out for the best. Sante now teaches writing as well as the history of photography at Bard College and has settled into her Ulster County home, where she has lived longer than anywhere else. “I got to love Kingston deeply,” she admits. As for the East Village, she finds that “the quality of people has dropped off precipitously. The people now make demands of their environment rather than adapting to it.”
Sante has certainly adapted to her new life, even to the point of enjoying her photoshoot. “I didn’t realize how uncomfortable I was in my body until I began the transition,” she relates. “I was off-balance, prickly, unconsciously avoiding possibly feminine poses. Now, suddenly, I feel comfortable.”
More info about Lucy Sante can be found at lucsante.com/