The Days of Anna Madrigal
Armistead Maupin. Harper, (270p) ISBN 978-0062196248
The first Tales of the City debuted back in 1978 and is an undisputed classic of LGBT literature. A true cross-genre, cross-audience hit, the series even made it to television in the mid 90s (following a failed HBO sitcom proposal in the 80s), with the Channel 4 in the UK producing the first series on their own, partnering with Showtime in the US on the second series, and then stepping back to allow Showtime to produce the third series on their own.
With more than a dozen main characters wandering their way through the first eight books, it was a very pleasant surprise to find that Anna Madrigal herself would be anchoring the final book. For those unfamiliar with the series, Anna is played straight (pardon the pun), without any elements of camp or even drag humour, as an aging woman who just so happens to be transsexual.
“Anna has always been the spiritual centre of “Tales” and the wise elder of the tribe at 28 Barbary Lane,” says Armistead Maupin. “Since she was getting along in age, it just made sense to look at her origins and let her have the last word, as it were. She’s the only character who’s continually more evolved than I am, so writing about her is both enlightening and a form of self-improvement.”
Much of the novel consists of a bucket list sort of road trip adventure, providing Maupin the opportunity to gather his characters together one last time, and really have some fun by taking them out of ‘the City’ that has anchored so many of their stories. It’s almost daring to have so much of the story take place on the road, but it doesn’t feel artificial or forced. Instead, it feels like just what it is – one last adventure for all, contrasted by the very first adventure for Anna.
When asked whether having the characters hit the road was a thematic sort of goodbye to the series, Maupin acknowledged, “I suppose it was, in a way. There was certainly an element of suggesting departures.” As he goes on to point out, however, it’s also about exploration. “I also wanted to write about Burning Man, the otherworldly art festival in the Black Rock Desert, so that automatically required travel, as did Anna’s road trip to her mysterious past.” Taking his work to heart, Maupin actually bought a house in New Mexico with his husband, Chris, where they lived for about a year a half, even stopping in Winnemucca to “search out a good locale for Mother Mucca’s whorehouse.”
As Maupin himself alluded to, the flashbacks to Anna’s past are what tie the present-day adventures all together. We not only get to see who she was before becoming ‘Anna’ but we learn just why she chose that name – and, let me tell you now, that history is one tear-jerker of a tale.
“I knew, of course, that Anna grew up in a brothel in Winnemucca, NV,” says Maupin, “but I had never really fleshed out the details of that experience until this final novel. It was my favourite part of the process, living in the 1930’s and absorbing the cultural trappings of the time.”
Readers who are familiar with the series will likely find the idea of such extended flashbacks to be a bit unusual. When we asked whether he ever considered telling the story as a straight (again, pardon the pun) prequel, Maupin dismissed the idea immediately.
“I wanted the rich texture – the resonance — of telling a story in the past as well as the present – the ways in which gender and sexuality issues have mirrored each other over the past century. It was interesting for me to reflect on how much has changed and how much still needs vast improvement.”
Whether you’re joining the cast for a final adventure, or are just stepping foot in the City for the first time to visit Anna, there’s no doubt that she’s a fascinating character. Olympia Dukakis portrayed her very well on television, but even she couldn’t quite capture the duality of Anna’s personality. Alternately contemplative and playful, stern and free-spirited, she’s like the family’s odd old Aunt, the one who refuses to acknowledge her years, even if she embraces the wisdom that’s come with them.
“Anna’s spirit is the spirit of my grandmother, a charming, fey cisgendered woman who worked as a suffragist in England in her youth,” explains Maupin. As for who most directly influenced the idea of having a transsexual woman at the emotional hear of his saga, he told us of two individuals.
The first is Dawn Langley Hall, an English author who not only had a very public change in gender, but who also married her husband in South Carolina’s first interracial marriage. “She was brave beyond belief,” says Maupin. “When she died a decade or so back her obituary in the New York Times was full of apologies from people who had ostracized her.”
Maupin’s other influence is a woman by the name of Kate Marlowe, a one-time drag performer, professional madam, and transsexual author. As bold and flamboyant as you might expect, she hosted ‘The Ball to End All Balls,’ a big band fundraiser to help pay for her surgery. “I loved her sense of humour,” says Maupin. “She told me at the time that her mother had been a madam at a whorehouse in Winnemucca. It turned out not to have been the truth, but it served my fiction well, so I’ll always be grateful to her.
If you’ve ever doubted that a 90 year old woman could be strong enough, funny enough, and thoughtful enough to carry an entire tale on her back, then The Days of Anna Madrigal will certainly change your mind. This is a tale that’s both sweet and sad, lamenting loves and lives lost, while still looking forward to greater adventures ahead. It’s also a very funny novel, with the character interactions as fantastic as any Maupin has written before.
Like I said earlier, the extended historical flashbacks are new to the series, but it’s only right that a saga 35 years in the making should have some sense of history. We’ve seen what a caring, delightful, matronly like woman Anna has become, so it’s almost startling to discover what a tender, sensitive, uncomfortable young man she once was. Maupin concludes the series with a story of growth and evolution, of coming to terms with the past, and of enjoying the future.
Whether this marks your first visit to the City or your last, you couldn’t ask for a better hostess, tour guide, or friend than Anna Madrigal.