Damitri Martinez (he/his) is a 2019 Lambda Fellow. His work has appeared in Foglifter journal, where he is also an assistant editor. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel. He lives in Denver, Colorado. To learn more, visit damitrimartinez.com.
“Bat Outta Hell” was originally published in Foglifter.
The sound of Jay’s new motorcycle found me like a fury. It was faint at first, a storm on the horizon. Then I saw him slingshot around the corner, bringing all that noise with him. He hung a sharp left and revved the bike before he skidded to a stop on the street in front of our house. I was already standing on the sidewalk. I could feel the heat and noise radiating off the bike like a small sun. Jay revved it and everything exploded. Those savage pops and cracks, the metal gurgle of pipe, all of it looped around my lungs, twisted around my gut and groin. It filled me up and rattled me. I wanted to challenge that crazed noise with a primal growl, or throw myself into its hot mechanical core. He revved it again and all the trees and leaves, all the brick bungalows and sidewalks lining the asphalt shimmered, threatening to shake loose their rough surfaces and show us the dark stuff the world was really made of.
Where did you find the idea for this story?
Because the story is fairly dark, I’ve been cautious when thinking about that question. The stories I’ve written since then are all laced with a particular melancholy, and what I’ve begun noticing is a complex relationship between my creative process and how it relates to how I process sorrow. Ever since I was a kid, I have been very good at listening, and consequently, people compulsively tell me their stories. They tell me a wide range of things, and over the years, I’ve been told some very heavy and sad stories. While “Bat Outta Hell” is no one’s specific story (not consciously), I think it reflects what my unconscious has been doing with all that second-hand pain. Writing, at least as it functioned for this first story, was a way for me to make sense of the complex traumas relayed to me, a way to work them together and release them into something as cathartic as a work of fiction. I don’t know if that’s exploitative, but it’s been a very valid way for me to process my own sensitivity to grief and sorrow.
Initially, the story wasn’t meant to be that dark. I’d begun with a simple image: a young queer teen riding on the back of a motorcycle belonging to a shadowy figure. It appeared to me as a warped “Little Red Riding Hood:” What would a modernized “Wolf” look like? And in regards to Little Red: what might a contemporary breach of innocence look like? As I continue to write other stories, I’m finding my brain works well in the realm of archetype, myth, and fairy tale. Once a problem or relationship is established between archetypes, I actually start moving pen to paper to see how they might be grounded in the real world, which is where my unconscious seems to leak through. What starts out as sweepingly magical and archetypal becomes soberingly real and specific.
How long did it take you to write this story?
The inspiration was quick to strike for this story. I’d just quit seven years of teaching high school English, and the desire to try my hand at the creative process finally broke through. I enrolled in a short story workshop at Lighthouse Writers in Denver, led by the incredibly encouraging and talented Nini Berndt. The story was the culmination of my six weeks in that workshop. It took me about a week to write the first draft, another week to redraft, and then I gave it rest for a bit. After that, it took one last week to finalize some feedback from other readers.
I’m discovering that grappling with inspiration is finicky; some stories that I’ve written since “Bat Outta Hell” have come even quicker, while others are just now coming to fruition. It’s a mysterious process I’m just beginning to make some sense of, but I’m grateful this particular story was my debut.
Jay’s motorcycle serves as the focal symbol of the story — it plays a key role in the first and last scenes of “Bat Outta Hell,” its significance drastically transformed. How did you land on the motorcycle as the driving image of the story, and how do you feel it speaks to the distinctly American performance of masculinity?
When I was a kid, my grandparents owned a red Harley Davidson, not unlike the one I describe in the story. They took me with them on short rides a couple of times, and riding a motorcycle at such a young age leaves a distinct mark. I remember the terrifying sensation of so much hot metal rumbling between my legs, but also feeling secure with my grandfather in front of me and my grandmother behind me. Most of all, I remember the noise and how much I hated how loud it was. In the opening lines of the story, I try to capture the complex emotions I have when I remember that motorcycle. I’ve always been extremely sensitive, especially to loud noises, and the noise from that motorcycle was enough to stir me into anger, frustration, and a strange, primal urge to scream and attack it, anything to shut it off and make the noise stop.
I think that’s how some men confront their sexuality. Particularly if their feelings do not coincide with the myth of traditional, American masculinity. Their perception of their own queerness threatens their manhood, so they overcompensate. They become violent, or manipulative, or self-hating. Or all of the above. And that’s because they are ultimately wrestling with a loud contradiction of sex: it is something that is primal and pleasurably a natural part of us, but the pressure on men from our culture—and especially the pressure in certain subcultures—turns it into something raucous and roiling, something to be conquered and ridden recklessly.
Jay, the antagonist, is looking for freedom: from his dysfunctional mother, from his shitty town, and most of all, freedom from how he’s come to understand and express his sexuality. In that sense, his performance is at its breaking point. All of this pressure has built up and exploded, in ways that are damaging and destructive, but ultimately (and ironically) thanks to the motorcycle, in a way that allows him to finally escape. Precious Julian, however, is the thoughtful observer. He understands the struggle his uncle is going through, if only subconsciously, because he is entering that same struggle. Fortunately, Julian is a little more tender and sensitive when it comes to dealing with that energy appropriately. Left to his own devices, he seeks art and creation, rather than loud, destructive forms of escape.
Julian’s life is not easy, and “Bat Outta Hell” paints a nuanced portrait of a young man coming of age and struggling to cope with his circumstances. He gets high and goes to parties and hooks up with near strangers, at the same time he finds solace in literature and art. On tough nights, Julian would “read or draw, like some fuckin nerd”—he sketches Jay’s motorcycle, for instance, and treads through a collection of Greek mythology. Can you talk a bit about the role that art and literature have played in your own life, and of the healing power they can wield?
Before my junior year of high school, I was fortunate enough to go on a class trip to Athens, Greece. Our group stayed at this small hotel with a rooftop patio that overlooked the acropolis. One evening, pleasantly exhausted from walking the Parthenon under a brutal sun all afternoon, I started writing postcards to my family. As the sun began to set, I looked up and was deeply moved at the way the light was hitting Athena’s temple. I was suddenly overcome by a feeling I’d not experienced before: a total and complete moment of peace and validation, the universe accepting me as I was. With all the energy that came from that moment, I had an urge to write a poem. It turned out to be a love poem to my best friend, who I suddenly realized had been the unconscious object of my affections over the past two years.
That trip had surrounded me with so many ancient forces, it gave me enough courage and energy to come out when I returned home. Unfortunately, the repercussions were less than ideal. Coming out threw me into a spiritual crisis. It tested my already strained relationship with my mother. And when I shared my feelings with my best friend and tried to give him the poem, I ultimately lost him. Back home, without Athena’s encouraging wink, it all felt like a mistake. I sulked in my dark room for a couple days, where I had an easel set up for my visual art projects. I always had a blank canvas or a project mid-progress on that easel. And so, in my sulkiness, I was met with a familiar impulse, this time under very different circumstances. I picked up a paint brush and painted a scene of two men dancing on a European sidewalk. That painting was crucial for reconciling all the tensions and sadness of my coming out process.
Consequently, I cling to art, sometimes as my only saving grace. In that way, I am like Julian: in my darkest moments, my impulse is to grab a book, or a sketchpad, or a notebook, and start to make sense of my sorrows or complex emotions. I’m indebted to my artistic awakening in Athens and all it’s brought me. I still have a statuette of Athena from that trip. She sits on my writing desk.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
More than anything, it’s validated the unconventional approach I’ve taken to writing. I had this fear that I wouldn’t be able to do it, to write well enough to complete stories people would be interested in reading, especially because I didn’t have an MFA or hadn’t followed a structured path to writing. Until I’d written and published “Bat Outta Hell,” I’d only considered myself a creative and voracious reader, rather than a creative writer. So to put my first efforts out there and be met with this kind of recognition has allowed me to wear the badge of writer with a little more confidence.
At the same time, it’s helped me discern and sharpen my own personal values regarding art. I am incredibly grateful for the recognition and validation the prize signifies, but it has also forced me to understand that art, especially stories, have a transcendent purpose beyond accolades and recognition. To be candid, I felt an irrational kind of pressure and fear after winning the award, that it might be taken away from me if I didn’t prove I could sustain it with another great story, a novel, more writing! But then I reminded myself (and I continue to remind myself) that the impulse to write is, first and foremost, to make something beautiful and complete. Everything that follows is meant to supplement that first priority.
What are you working on now?
This story is just the beginning. Since then, I’ve written several more stories, with the hopes of stitching them into a manuscript for a complete collection, all with variations or extensions of the themes found in “Bat Outta Hell.” I am a story or two away from finishing that project.
I am also working on two novels: one, a semi-magical examination of the tensions between cultural folklore and urban assimilation, and the other, a perhaps foolishly ambitious, queer retelling of King Lear.
The decision to write has been prosperous. I feel like I am honoring something I’d been ignoring the first half of my adult life.
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
A couple of places. Before the pandemic, one of my favorite activities was to browse the New Release bays of some of my favorite bookstores in Denver. I also follow lots of presses on Twitter and subscribe to every book newsletter I can.
Since winning the Robert J. Dau prize, Foglifter Press has offered me some invaluable opportunities as a prose editor for their journal. As such, I have direct access to some of the most innovative and imaginative voices in queer literature. In that aspect, they’ve granted me the same access and power they had when they encountered my own writing. The experience feels fulfillingly reciprocal and complete.