If you've ever been on Grindr, you know the — let's go with "colorful" — responses your mere presence on the popular gay hookup app elicits. After being greeting with "Papi" time and time again, John Paul (JP) Brammer saw an opportunity. Like Venus rising from the froth of the ocean, "¡Hola Papi!" was born from the sea of white-dude speak deployed in an attempt to flirt.
Inhabiting this moniker, Brammer founded the enormously popular advice column, "¡Hola Papi!," which has garnered him young queer readers from around the world. That's not the only corner of the internet readers flock from: his Twitter account, which boasts more than 160,000 followers, offers daily anxiety-induced bon mots that frequently travel viral vistas. Now, we meet JP Brammer the author.
In his debut memoir, eponymously named after his advice column, Brammer employs the advice-column format to share his story of growing biracial and queer in the middle of the United States. Except, this time, the questions are asked by the author himself. Brammer ponders his past, self-acceptance and his authority to dole out advice, all while effortlessly pendulating between the heart and humor that has earned him the global readership he's amassed over the past few years.
PAPER caught up with Brammer in the midst of his virtual book tour to discuss his debut memoir, the concept of persona and what character he hopes Super Smash Bros. introduces next.
What made you want to structure your book in the format of your advice column?
I definitely wanted to give a nod to "¡Hola Papi!," the advice column, which has given me the greatest platform out of any of my other forms of writing. Like I wrote in the book, I didn't intend on starting an advice column or being an advice columnist. I think the book reflects that in that it's not a round-up of the most popular columns that I've written as "¡Hola Papi!"; it is very much a memoir-in-essays. I did want to root it in "¡Hola Papi!," though, because I think it's a fun, unique method of storytelling for me. Of course, the memoir itself uses the advice column as the catalyst for the identity crisis that's present in the book.
You mention in the beginning that you once got a letter from someone living in a country where homosexuality is illegal. He had an inkling about another man being into him, but acting on those feelings would be a matter of literal life or death. Was this the letter that spurred said identity crisis?
I was like, "Huh, do I really have the authority to answer this?" In real life, of course, that internal conversation couldn't have taken more than one minute, but, in the book, it plays out over the course of several chapters. It's me having a conversation with myself, trying to submit my own resumé, and being like, "No, you can answer this question, because you remember that time you dealt with this, or the time you overcame that?" What the book is really asking is: Do these life experiences as I present them add up to give me the authority to answer a question like this? Of course, at the end of the book, the answer is no. It's sort of a weird, fun ending where the advice columnist doesn't answer a letter. I think it separates it from the column because in an actual advice column, you answer the letter. The book is very separate from [the column] in this case. But it does use the advice-column format to ask questions about authority, the stories we tell ourselves, and who we are as people and where we can help and do harm.
One of the things I think we have in common is humor as instinct. There are many vulnerable moments in this book. Do you think your propensity for making things funny acted as a gateway to telling some of the stories in this book?
Absolutely. To this day, humor is my major instinct. When I don't know what to do on the page, I immediately wonder how I can be funny. It's just the thing I know how to do when maybe I don't know how to do other things. I found humor to be a useful tool in getting the truth across; if you're saying what you think without adding a joke or personality, people will be less likely to be receptive to what you're saying. Some of the things I'm saying in my book may not seem controversial or that radical, but if you take the humor away, some of the points I make are a little bit new, thorny and nuanced.
What was it like to find equilibrium — or some sort of sustainable balance — between humor and vulnerability? Were there times when you had to catch yourself, and realize you were using humor to deflect?
I've gotten that note so many times. It was like, "Aren't you being a little glib here?" or "Isn't this a little dismissive?" I remember there was this wave of writers on Twitter saying that they were tired of focusing on pain and they want to focus more on joy — and I completely understand that — but, to me, those two things texture each other. They're kind of married to one another, and it's hard to feel one without the other. I've always enjoyed that weirdness of placing humor next to pain and suffering. At the end of the day, I love writing about pain and suffering; I love making jokes about them. I'm a Mexican! [Laughs]
"I found humor to be a useful tool in getting the truth across; if you're saying what you think without adding a joke or personality, people will be less likely to be receptive to what you're saying."
I'm someone who's obsessed with the concept of persona — and all the ways it can help us explore the facets of ourselves that we otherwise wouldn't have considered or glazed over entirely. It's kind of like how I'm Greg and Mania, two different parts of myself and it's taken me years to learn how to live in that overlap. Do you think of "Papi" in that way — a persona, character, personality, or what have you — as a part of yourself, but also someone you inhabit? If so, what exists in the overlap of JP and "Papi"?
Oh, absolutely. It's a persona. For me, "Papi" as a personality has a color, a certain voice, a certain way of talking and acting. And that color is sort of a lilac purplish-pink; it has a theme. It's interesting to me when people say the columns are earnest because I wouldn't know. [Laughs] I really do feel like I have this voice that is me, yes, but it's also a little bit more confident, unhinged, and willing to play around with tone and structure. Basically, the book is about the version of me that writes the column.
So "Papi" is basically a vehicle to the unfettered truth you share with your readers in this book.
For sure. One of the best things about writing as "¡Hola Papi!" is that I get to take more risks and have more fun. Part of that is the persona, yes, but also, another part of it is the restriction of format. Writing an advice column comes with its own rubric and I've always loved that because it's given me a chance to break some of those rules and go completely off the rails. I think one of my most popular columns that I wrote as "Papi" was one about a guy who saw his manager on Grindr and was asking what to do. Of course, the answer to that is mind your business. But I had several hundred words to fill before I could file that column. So I told him to ignore it and mind his business, and then filled the rest of the column with an interview I did with a bee expert to find out if the bees are really dying and, if so, what we can do about it. [Laughs] That's kind of the thing you can only do if people have certain expectations about the format going in.
I think this is the beauty of memoir. It's very malleable.
Yeah, that's the thing. It's so malleable that it can be whatever you want it to be. I learned very quickly that the goal of a memoir is not to tell someone's life story. This book is not my life story; it is a handful of stories that aspire to make a point. They're linked and any life event that doesn't have that connecting thread just doesn't get included.
"At the end of the day, I love writing about pain and suffering; I love making jokes about them."
Exactly. A lot of the art of memoir is choosing what to include and what to omit for the sake of narrative consistency. Do you have any darlings that you did not include but hope will resurface in the future?
I do think that one chapter that ended up not making it is going to straight up be my next book. I'm writing it right now, but I've found that I wanted to fictionalize it. I didn't want it to hue so closely to my actual experiences, and I've just kept rolling with it and now I have something that's like 15,000 words. But, yes, I have pieces that I started and realized wouldn't work in this book, so I'm just storing them for something else.
Now to the more serious questions: WHAT NEW CHARACTER DO YOU WANT SMASH TO ADD TO THEIR ROSTER?
I have so many thoughts on this. First of all, the untitled goose from Untitled Goose Game, which would please no one but me and the creator of that game. Also, the Duolingo owl would be pretty incredible. More realistically, we're probably going to get Master Chief or someone from Fortnite.
Thank you for that. Now I have to ask you this because this is a rite-of-passage for any debut memoirist: HOW DO YOU FEEL KNOWING THE PEOPLE YOU WRITE ABOUT ARE GOING TO READ THIS BOOK? Should we form a support group?
[Laughs] Man, I don't know. It's a little scary. I really took great care to change names, faces and appearances. In some cases, it would be exceedingly difficult to have a conversation with the people I wrote about — some of these people are really traumatic figures for me. Of course, I talked to my family and people in that vein. But some people are really hard to contact and it made me question if I really wanted to tell a particular story. But then I thought, I can't just not tell that story. I'm just going to do it.
What spaces do you want "¡Hola Papi!" to take you in next?
I've been wondering how long I'm going to run "¡Hola Papi!" and what I'm going to do next. It's so hard to get me to do something once I'm no longer interested in it. I've quit a lot of jobs that were otherwise pretty nice jobs. [Laughs] I'm still doing "¡Hola Papi!" because I'm finding new things about it, but I think there will be an "¡Adios Papi!" one day. My upcoming projects don't have a lot to do with the "Papi" brand. I'm writing my next book, writing some screenplays and working on my print shop. I really just hope that this book can be my introduction to the world. I've been answering letters for the past few years — this is my letter introducing myself.
Greg Mania is the author of the memoir Born to Be Public.
Photo courtesy of Zack Knoll