The stories in “Tea Leaves,” a collection by Jacob Budenz — better known as Jake Bee to fans of Moth Broth, makers of “strange but not unfamiliar” music, led by Jake’s honeyed ethereal slippy-slidey vocals that appear to have all the octaves possessed by legendary Yma Sumac — contain fairies, witches, sorcerers, druids, magicians and healers. But these characters who possess or are witness to extraordinary powers beyond the veil, are rooted in the everyday and psychological realism. A powerful witch running a dingy convenience store. Two guys hooking up to discuss the fantastic fairies they are both privy to seeing all around them. A swamp tour guide’s faithfulness to his partner being tested by an elixir that transforms his body into various young hunks.
I am normally a reader of hardboiled miserablism, speculative sci-fi exquisitely mapping our impending doom & absurdist farce, but I was drawn into these genre bending “fantasies” that are more like realistical magicism, immediately. There is a refreshing brain oxygen within them, lively propulsive energy.
The vast and mixed array of well-drawn characters is impressive. Budenz’s style is a continuous thread throughout, but their voice is never intrusive. They expanded upon these and other matters in an exclusive interview for the Baltimore Fishbowl.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Good spirit, you have your usual glow that reminds me of the jukebox lights in bars in sunken Atlantis. I love that your book is both queer, as in LGBTQIA2S+ celebratory and queer in the aspect of literature dealing with the eldritch, arcane arts of magic & other realms. In the book’s first story, “Seen,” the protagonist doesn’t have a true sexual awakening until they awaken to fairy life visible all around them. When did you yourself have a spirit realm awakening and did it coincide with a sexual awakening?
Jake Budenz: Whew, skip this one, Mom, we’re getting right down to it! In a word, yes. I’ve always been “spiritual” in the sense that from a very young age, I was very into crystals and astrology and the unseen world. At the same time, I grew up in a deeply religious environment—part of the process of learning to read and to train my brain included rote memorizing Bible verses, for example.
I was, in a sense, a true believer for a long time, even if I also held a witchy spiritual worldview that was incompatible with Christianity. I was also always aware, painfully so, of my sexuality and my discomfort with my assigned sex even though I lacked the vocabulary to understand the latter. In both spirituality and queerness, there were just lines I wouldn’t cross. Ouija boards and Tarot cards and even those coin operated fortunetellers were demonic, and I obviously kept my sexuality to myself and internalized the idea that if I could just resist it and not act on it, there might still be a place for me in heaven.
I encountered and unfortunately subscribed to the school of thought that people born with “homosexual inclinations” could resist them and could even be more righteous in the eyes of God than so-called normal people because we had a harder battle to fight and so forth. Yikes – cheery stuff!
I’d say I started to experience the fullness of both my queerness and my spirituality around the time I walked away from the church, which took me an embarrassingly longer time than a lot of so-called smart people, but I’ve always been a little gullible. By my junior year of college, I hadn’t cut ties with all the religious people I’d first become friends with and even continued to sing with and be the music director for a Christian a capella group, if you can believe that, but by around that time I was also like, okay, this year, I am not going to lie to anyone about who I am or what I believe unless I literally feel I am in danger, even if I lose all my friends.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Although the narrator in “Seen” was already much more out and proud than I was before he starting seeing and accepting the fairies, like him I’d say that opening myself up to this way of seeing the world led to a lot of connection and opened me up to communities and people I wouldn’t have known existed otherwise. Being more liberated and confident encouraged me to audition for plays out in Baltimore, for example, and I wouldn’t be here talking to you specifically if I hadn’t made that choice!
BFB: The stories of “Tea Leaves” take place in many different areas — Seattle, Miami, New Orleans, just to name a few. The detail and descriptions of these places are nicely guidebook deep. I felt transported, which reading in swampy August & early September was much appreciated. What was your geographical Earthly emergence and blooming point? How long did you take root there? What other places have you lived for significant periods of time and how did they influence you?
JB: This one’s a little easier: I spent most of my childhood in Miami, but I was born right outside of Philly and spent a lot of my summers there. I wish I could say you can’t see the Miami influence in me, because I don’t identify very much with the ethos of the city, but I think people would be justified in saying that some of Miami’s tackiness and the general swampy chaos of Florida can be seen in the way I dress and the work I make. Baltimore has been home for about 13 years, with a brief detour to New Orleans for grad school.
BFB: There is a wonderful energy to these stories and forward momentum. The focus is always on emotional attachments between people, but they are caught up in fabulist adventures filled with fairies, witches, sorcerers, Druids, healers and magicians. But the fantastic is rooted in the everyday like food trucks, convenience stores, bars and tourist attractions. What books/genres have influenced and inspired you? Are there some that you read for pure fun versus inspiration?
JB: Thank you for saying that! In my free time, I consume a steady diet of speculative fiction of all kinds, from the more literary stuff like N.K. Jemisin and the magic realists to the trashiest, sexiest epic fantasies. I normally have a slight preference for the headier stuff, but I’ve found this year in particular that sometimes you just need a story where the hero beats the odds after wandering through the desert to reclaim their powers or whatever, you know?
At the same time, I’m a child of the academic writing workshop, which presents a bit of a challenge with publishing sometimes. There’s a vibe in academia that still persists in publishing that psychological realism is inherently more worthy and literary than speculative work, and after going through undergrad and grad school I think I’m always subconsciously writing for an audience that might not like fantasy, but they’ll like this, dammit. And that’s fine.
I think sometimes you expect that that’ll have crossover appeal in publishing, and it’s more like, okay, a lot of these literary journals or publishers will probably hit “decline” the moment they realize they’re reading a ghost story, whereas the average fantasy purist might prefer work that’s got a tighter plot and sparser prose than I like to write.
I’m writing for the readers in between, and I think writers like Kelly Link and Carmen Maria Machado and to an extent Neil Gaiman prove those readers exist, but they’re not always easy to find.
Launch Party for “Tea Leaves“
Join Jacob Budenz for a Big Queer Book Party on Sept. 20 at Current Space, 7 p.m., $10 suggested donation at the door. Readings by the author, Sylvia Jones and Tonee Moll. Special guests include DJ Amsies, Alex D’Agostino, Molesuit Choir, and Tarot by Soleil. Books and audiobooks will be on sale.