Papi is both empathetic and blunt, validating those who contact him while still seizing opportunities to poke fun at them. In a recent column from someone jealous of their hot friend, for instance, Papi said he wished the friend had written him instead. (He added, "Kidding. I'M KIDDING! You are all equal in the eyes of Papi. I can't see any of you. As an internet abstraction, I don't even really have eyes.")
Brammer describes Papi as "kind of like a cartoon character," and a persona separate from himself. But with a new memoir, which borrows the column's title, the writer is finally introducing himself to the public. Whether describing his childhood bullies in Oklahoma or recalling his efforts to embrace his Mexican heritage, Brammer writes about experiences he has worked through and learned from. He projects the same confidence as Papi but, over the phone with The Washington Post, also reflected on the process of writing in his own voice.
"¡Hola Papi!," subtitled "How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons," is a collection of personal essays written in response to imagined questions from advice seekers. The first: "Are you even qualified to help me?"
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: It’s an interesting question you open with — what qualifies someone to do this job? Tell me about your thought process and how you ended up writing the book.
A: I was a freelancer living in New York, freshly let go from the company that had moved me up there [only] two weeks after they put me there. I was looking for a way to not have to move back to my parents’ house out in the country in Oklahoma. I wanted to stay in New York. My friend Mathew Rodriguez recently had become an editor at Into, which was Grindr’s media outlet, and he was like, “Do you want to write a column?”
My thinking back then was very much on the practical end. I was like, “Okay, I need to maximize the amount of money I can get out of this outlet because I can’t make rent right now. So I want to write a new column every single week.” I didn’t trust myself to come up with something new to write about every week, I just didn’t have that many ideas. So that is how the advice column format and I found each other.
Q: There’s a point in the book where you talk about rejecting labels. But you also start off describing the column as a “queer Latino ‘Dear Abby,’ ” which is a whole bunch of labels for the persona you wanted your advice columnist to be. Tell me about the dynamic there, about carving out a voice for yourself while acknowledging that labels can be limiting.
A: It’s just so hard to completely do away with identity, because we use it. It’s a tool. It’s something we made, yes. It is a concept, yes. It doesn’t have to exist. But in the culture that we have right now, in the world that we have right now, we use it for some pretty practical things. We use it to find each other, to advocate for each other, to find strength in numbers.
We learn different things from different people . . . that we incorporate into our identity. We have to be flexible and adaptable, or else we’re just in for a really bad time in this life.
Q: You've mentioned that you write about things you've worked through. But I was wondering if there was any aspect of the book you thought twice about sharing?
A: The hardest chapter to write was . . . the one that deals with sexual assault. It is one of the few chapters that nods to popular discussion and controversial subjects that are actually happening in a contemporary sense, that being the #MeToo movement and going back into things that happened to you in your past and recontextualizing them in the present.
I realized I had such a tightrope to walk. I really enjoy putting a healthy dose of nuance into my stories, and I really enjoy looking at the sort of wilderness that can pop up between two people without assigning — here's the victim, here's the abuser. But I didn't want to include any language in that chapter that might make a victim or a survivor feel like, "Oh, I had a part to play. What happened to me was partly my fault." That would be my worst nightmare. . . . I very much in that chapter made a lot of head-scratching decisions that were really hard to justify and are really inexplicable to a lot of people on paper. I didn't want to pretend I didn't make those decisions, to make myself seem like a more perfect character. That was difficult.
Q: Do you write with your audience in mind?
A: The way I write is I sort of write down a sentence and it has a little rhythm to it that I feel I can stretch out and out and out. I just keep chasing it and filling it in because if I don't think that way, then I'm getting mechanical about it and I'll never get it done because I'm in my own head. So yes, I certainly think of an audience while I'm writing . . . [but] I'm not thinking specifically like, "Will people hate me for this?"
Q: On the flip side, there is an intended audience for each column because someone actually wrote to you. What have you taken away from that?
A: Sometimes I do hear back from the person who wrote in, and it's always nice because it's great if the person who sent you a letter got something important out of what you sent them. But also, the weird, dirty secret of advice columns is that the goal is not to fix that person's life. It is to create a piece of writing that lots of people will be able to take in and either feel entertained by or glean something from. It has to exist as a public object.
It's such a nice way to have a conversation with someone, to just talk and also show off your personality. I think that's something that's harder to do in other types of popular media writing formats, because you are literally in the role of the friend at the bar when you're writing an advice column.
Q: Are there any columns you grew up reading?
A: I would love to say yes but I think right from the get-go, I saw the advice column as more of a vehicle for me as a writer than I did anything else.
But I never like to fly blind or be ignorant about things, so . . . I learned a lot about the history of the advice column. The original advice column is very, very old and was started by a group of White, educated men who would field questions like, "Where does the wind come from?"
Later, it shifted into more of the etiquette and emotional issues, and people thought of that as the domain of women. And that's how it shifted — kind of terrible, but it provided a pathway for women to become household names with their writing. And because they weren't really allowed to write anything else, they found ways to shine in this format specifically. Some of them got really rich. Some of them became very popular.
I'm just so tickled by that because the advice column has always been this gateway for marginalized people, people who aren't trusted to write about other things. It wasn't until very, very recently that someone like me would be allowed.