¡Hola Papi!

John Paul Brammer is a member of a small club: advice-giver to the queers. If you don’t have an elder gay to turn to, there are only a few “experts” who are currently answering your questions: Kai Cheng Thom of “Ask Kai,” Brammer in his advice column “¡Hola Papi!” and Tig Notaro, whose 2020 podcast is actually titled “Don’t Ask Tig,” so maybe she’d prefer not to be on this list. Brammer himself might not have intended to be included, as he didn’t set out to help people with sage counsel, rather, as his column grew in popularity and attracted serious queries, he found himself in a position where he was able to draw on his own experience to provide actual advice. This book is a sort of play-acting of this acquired skill, with chapters beginning with a faux question that give Brammer the opportunity to reflect on his life, with humor and honesty, and from his experience offer nuggets of wisdom.

Brammer identifies as a gay Mexican but admits that his understanding of his identity is malleable, and that he has considered the idea that he might be bisexual, under the right set of circumstances (which simply have not yet occurred.) This decision to be open to all possibilities is one which serves him well as an advice columnist, bringing little preconception to any given situation: even his own sexuality. “I remain open to challenges to my perception of my sexuality,” he writes, “and to my reading on my desires, and as we as a collective continue to shift the vocabulary around sexual orientation and identity, I imagine that self-understanding will change. Or at the very least, my vocabulary for it will.” Identity is often a strong point of pride and contention for queer folks, so to have Brammer express his willingness to evolve is not a narrative often found in queer memoirs.

Brammer’s understanding of his identity is especially interesting when paired with his understanding of his racial and ethnic identity as a Mexican, and his gender performance as male. Both of those identities were ones with which he struggled, not only in accepting, but also in exhibiting. To feel and project Mexican, Brammer takes a job at a Tortillera, and learns through observing the men who work there how to approach the legitimacy he craves about his Mexican heritage. His approach, however, turns out to be “intrinsically American,” in which the adoption of an identity hinged on having things (Spanish, tattoos, a certain look). In the end he reaches into the past to give himself advice: “Identity is defined as much by what you have as it is by what you’ve lost. Wanting to recover those things was like feeling homesick for a home I never had.” Emulating the men he encounters happens not only in Rosie’s Tortillera, but in school as well, where he is bullied mercilessly, and is never able to apply the lessons he learns about boyhood that he sees succeed with a new classmate. As the new classmate moves from being ostracized to being popular, Brammer realizes that “that’s what being a boy was about: dominance. Dominance over the rules, over the space around you, over the person next to you.”

It is ironic that where Brammer has gone through life, learning lessons from the men around him to inform his own world view, he is now the man to whom others turn to for those lessons learned. Every revelation in this book is brought to light through his interactions with the many men that occupy these pages: Stefan and Erik and Carlos and Patty and Dillon and Corey and Thomas and Dave and… you get it. This is a very populated memoir, which is foreshadowed in the introduction when Brammer states, “Once I’d committed to ‘being gay’, I immediately started throwing myself at whoever would have me, which at least brought a colorful new cast of characters into my life.”

The man at the bookends of this memoir, however, remains unnamed. He is a man who has written to “¡Hola Papi!” seeking advice as a gay man living in a place where homosexuality is illegal. It is this letter that begins Brammer’s story, the impetus for looking back to what started him on the journey towards writing an advice column, through to what he feels of his responsibility now that he is an established persona. For an advice column which started as a spoof on the entire notion of advice columns, how has it evolved? “Identifying where I have been helpless in life has done more good for me than maybe anything else,” he writes. It seems much of this memoir is about doing just that: identifying when, and in what areas, he himself has felt helpless and what has come from those moments.

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While the question-and-answer structure reminds readers that this is the memoir of an advice columnist, it doesn’t always deliver on its premise. The inclusion of a title in addition to an opening question seems redundant, even though the titles are often very clever. It also serves to muddle the intention of each section: is it to actually answer the question, or to tell the title-worthy story? More often than not the question seemed to go unanswered, with a focus on Brammer’s own experience, without considering how it might apply to a similar situation. Rather than the faux questions at the top of the page, an example of some actual material from his archives may have served the same purpose, while also giving newcomers an orientation into Brammer’s style.

That said, there is certainly wisdom to be gleaned from “¡Hola Papi!” especially concerning discovering a sense of self and self-worth. Brammer originally pitched the idea of an advice column because he was afraid he wasn’t going to be able to originate content himself week after week, choosing to rely instead on what he imagined as the “infinitely renewable resource of gay drama.” From there he has gone on to answer countless queries, learning about himself through the process. When he finds he is irritated by the personality of a date, he is self-critical, perceiving his annoyance “as a character flaw in myself, a roadblock I had to overcome if I was ever to end up with someone as good as” his date, but he learns to value his own judgement enough to trust it, and entrust it to others. Although he is confronted with ideas of worthlessness, and of his life being out of control, there is a reframing that occurs in which he is able to ask “Is there a way of looking at the narrative arc of your life differently? Are you aware it’s a narrative at all, one with a beginning, middle, and end that you wrote yourself?” And so, we have his book.

About this book

  • ISBN:1982141492
  • Price:$21.99
  • Page Count:224

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