Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
About a year ago, I clicked on an article by journalist Allegra Hobbs entitled “The Rise of the Messy Advice Column.” In it, Hobbs traces the history of writers answering readers’ quandaries and how, in recent years, advice seekers are turning to columnists not for cut-and-dry solutions to their problems but “to transform how they see themselves and their place in the world,” especially when nothing feels certain.
I was pleased, although unsurprised, that John Paul Brammer’s name came up in Hobb’s article. Brammer started the advice column ¡Hola Papi!—which manages to be somehow both tender and irreverent—in 2017. Its wide popularity led him to publish a memoir of the same name in 2021 and recently the Washington Post announced that Brammer would be joining their Opinion section as a contributing columnist.
¡Hola Papi! references Brammer’s own life experiences heavily. Namely, those of a queer, mixed-race kid growing up in America’s heartland. He writes about his hometown hilariously, lovingly, and critically by turns, weaving in anecdotes about coming of age (and coming out) in rural Oklahoma amongst astute observations about life and love.
I didn’t reach out to Brammer with a specific personal conundrum, but I think you’ll still enjoy our conversation about falling asleep to the sound of crickets, sex education in rural schools, and what constitutes an ideal Valentine’s Day.
Caroline Carlson, The Daily Yonder: Your bio always includes some variation on the phrase “J.P. Brammer is from rural Oklahoma.” Of course, I’m interested in this because I’m interviewing you for a rural-focused publication, but beyond your experiences growing up, many of which are detailed in your columns on Substack and in your book, I’m curious about why it’s important to you to include this detail in your bio. How has coming from small-town Oklahoma informed who you are today?
John Paul Brammer: I include it in my bio because I think it’s an important distinction to make. I think it’s as crucial an element as any other that I identify with, like Mexican-American or gay. I guess it’s something I’m proud of enough to place it front and center. It’s also my little way of holding on to where I come from, since I’m a certified city dweller now. As with anyone else walking the earth, I’ve been shaped by where I come from, and where I come from happens to be a dot on the map where it’s not especially common to be a public figure. It would be nice, I think, to let other people in rural areas know that whether they move to a big city or stay put, they can make things happen for themselves.
DY: You gained notoriety writing essays in the form of advice columns for the LGBTQ community on love, sex, and relationships. Even a quick perusal of your work divulges some pretty traumatic experiences from your youth and young adulthood. Given that advice is your currency, do you have any wisdom for queer kids growing up in rural—and perhaps more conservative—places?
J.P.: It’s tough, because nowadays the context for those experiences has shifted dramatically from when I was a kid. When you leave a place, and that place could be physical or mental, you take the idea of it with you, but you can’t really step inside it the way you used to. So I could talk all day about how difficult it was or what I learned from it, but at the end of the day I’m not in that kid’s shoes, the one who was terrified to show up to school every day and whose daily struggles I’ve melted down into single words like “bullying” or “homophobia.” So I guess my advice would be, hey, even if it doesn’t always feel like it, you’re on your way to somewhere. There’s nothing that says “somewhere” can’t be better than “here.”
DY: What about rural communities? How can they do a better job supporting LGBTQ youth? Are there specific things you wish you’d had?
J.P.: I mean, a functioning sex education would have been nice. Any sex education at all. That was something I just didn’t get, and it would have gone a long way to helping me make choices for myself and not feel like I was being thrown into this entirely alien world where it was up to me to figure everything out. There are a lot of places out there, and I imagine it’s not just rural communities but especially rural communities that don’t have anything at all. Even if they’re not outright discriminatory, they’re not offering education or resources or even acknowledgment. I think about places like that a lot. Goodness, just make an effort at least.
DY: Your book ¡Hola Papi! contains a number of descriptive anecdotes about Cache, Oklahoma, your hometown. In one essay you write “It was a big deal when we got a stoplight and an even bigger deal when we got a Sonic Drive-In…There are almost as many churches as there are residents.” As someone who grew up in small-town Wisconsin (same-same but different), I can relate. Even though your essays deal with heavy—and intensely personal—topics, I’m struck by the humor with which you often treat Cache. Do you think some of this lightness comes with time and distance?
J.P.: It’s certainly time and distance, yes, but Cache is a funny place in general. My family is Mexican and we’re all cynical and storytellers, so to entertain ourselves we’d do the voices of people in town and make fun of them to each other and make each other laugh. We got really good at skewering the local characters, and we had plenty of material because small towns are gossipy and because there are fewer people, you really get to know their quirks and habits. Humor was a great way to pass time and to get people to leave you alone. It was a gift from God when my brain developed a little bit more and I was able to ward people off by cracking jokes about them.
DY: It’s clear that your relationship with Cache is a complicated one (I think a lot of us have complicated feelings about our homes) and I know you live in Brooklyn now, but I wonder if there are still things you miss about Oklahoma and the Great Plains?
J.P.: I definitely miss a lot about Oklahoma and the Great Plains. It’s why I go back so often. I recently got to bring back this guy I’m dating. I got to show him my hometown and all the things I love about it, like the Wichita Mountains and the local drive-in burger place. It was great. It reminded me how fun it can be. I think most people have complicated relationships with any place they come from. I have complicated feelings about Brooklyn. Some of the best sleeps of my life have been in my family’s house out in the countryside, so I always look forward to that. It’s pitch black and all you hear are crickets or some coyotes off in the distance.
DY: An advice-seeker wrote to you in April asking how to be proud of where they’re from, even though it’s “a nowhere town.” I really loved this part of your reply: “In the ongoing conversation between you and the world around you, I hope you find space to both appreciate and criticize, laugh at some things and roll your eyes at others, talk some shit and brag a little.” This strikes me as very similar to what we’re trying to do here at the Daily Yonder. Celebrate the victories and illuminate the challenges in rural America, even while a lot of narratives paint it as either idyllic or desolate. How do you think folks can better cultivate the ability to see these dichotomies and nuances?
J.P.: I think it’s common for people to hold a lot of resentment for where they come from. It’s usually when they come from a place they deem as insufficient, a place that was unable to accommodate them for whatever reason. It’s not dissimilar from how people will resent their parents as they get older, dwell on all the things they didn’t do or didn’t provide. I get that. But life is tough. Life doesn’t hold your hand through things. There’s a point where it’s up to you to find the good in things and seek out the silver linings. I like that I’m from where I’m from. I think it’s unique. I like my hometown. It’s not perfect, and it was downright cruel to me at times, and I can acknowledge that without spitting on it. What am I gonna do? I have to live with it, so I’ll take the good with the bad.
DY: Given that February is unofficially-officially about romance I can’t resist asking a few questions in this vein. You’ve written about coming out, about unrequited loves, traveling across the world to pursue love, being infatuated and being heartbroken. And I know you’ve written at least one love letter. Are you a big Valentine’s Day guy? Or is it just another hallmark holiday?
J.P.: I’m definitely a romantic! Always have been. It’s necessary for my engine, I think. I need to get myself in ridiculous situations and be open to new experiences or else I wouldn’t have much to write about. I don’t mind Valentine’s Day as much as some do. I like the idea of getting flowers and being wooed. Still, this is the first Valentine’s Day of my life where I’ve had a guy, and he’s not giving me anything until he visits next week, he says. Sad! I wanted a big box of chocolates like in the movies. Perhaps he’ll read this and be adequately shamed. [Editors Note: this interview is hitting your inboxes the week of J.P.’s beau’s visit, so we’re all crossing our fingers chocolates were received.]
DY: If you were to plan a romantic vacation to any remote or rural place in the United States, where would it be?
J.P.: Visit beautiful Medicine Park near Lawton, Oklahoma! There are cabins and the whole thing has a unique architecture and the swimming area may or may not render you bioluminescent after you take a dip. It was, for whatever reason, selected as America’s coolest small town one year by some prominent publication. They don’t just hand titles like that out, even though I wasn’t aware Medicine Park qualified as a “small town.” Go hiking or fishing in the morning and perhaps you can even take a day trip to Lawton, where such delights as “that particularly violent Braum’s” (an ice cream joint notorious for giving patrons food poisoning) await you.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.