For author Jillian Keenan, there was no better place than Hell’s Kitchen to write her sexual coming-of-age memoir “Sex With Shakespeare.”
Keenan, 29, a foreign correspondent and freelance journalist who contributes to The New York Times, The New Yorker, Slate and other local publications has lived in Hell’s Kitchen with her husband David, a doctor in the neighborhood, for two years. Her first book, “Sex With Shakespeare,” is part coming-of-age, part literary analysis in which Keenan uses the plays of Shakespeare to interpret and understand her personal proclivities. The memoir comes out April 23rd, on the 400-year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
“I wrote a lot of the book at Rex’s Cafe on 10th and 57th,” Keenan says while sitting on her overstuffed sofa insider her cozy one-bedroom apartment. A frequent customer at Rex’s, she recommends the lox and avocado sandwich. “It’s a special, so they don’t always have it available. But when they do, you should try it.”
The afternoon sunlight pours from her apartment window into the living room where Keenan is seated. She has long brown hair that comes to her chest and a blue T-shirt with a picture of William Shakespeare that she put on for the interview. Across from the sofa is a bookcase covering the entire wall with books. She shows off some of her favorites, including a copy of Shakespeare’s works she bought as gift for David and a collection of travel books covering India, Thailand, Cuba and more.
In Keenan’s new memoir, she comes out as a spanking fetishist. “Spanking is not a part of my sex life; spanking is my sex life,” she states in her new book.
Coming out as a fetishist hasn’t been easy for Keenan, but living in the neighborhood has given her support during the process. “It’s super sex positive and a sexually exciting place to live,” she says.
Keenan’s love affair with Shakespeare began at age 15 when she saw a rendition of The Tempest at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. She felt immediate kinship with Caliban, the fish-man servant of The Tempest whose outcast echoed her own feelings of alienation.
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis shortly after, Keenan left her familyat 17 to study in Spain. A born vagabond, Keenan then traveled from Spain to California where she earned her Shakespeare chops studying English at Stanford University. “The summer after my sophomore year at Stanford the name I chose for my grant proposal was ‘Shakespeare and Sadomasochism,’” says Keenan. “So I was really unsubtle right from the beginning,” she says, laughing.
But Keenan ultimately moved to New York City to work as a journalist and to live with David, who practices medicine at a local Hell’s Kitchen hospital.
In “Sex With Shakespeare,” the characters from Shakespeare’s plays appear as characters in Keenan’s story, which somehow manages to combine her story growing up as a sexual outsider with a survey of Shakespeare’s plays focusing on love, romance, and the sea of troubles they bring. “Literature is a conversation. Books are walkie-talkies,” Keenan says in the book, during a scene depicting a late-night stroll into the Omani desert when, inexplicably, Helena and Demetrius from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream appear on top of the sand dunes and recite lines from the play. Like visions, or hallucinations, these characters interact with Keenan to illuminate how Shakespeare discussed gender, sex, and relationships. In another instance, Keenan meets up with a modern version of Lady Macbeth for a dinner date in the Financial District, where the two talk about being honest with their spouses.
Keenan also taps into the experiences of these characters for insights into her own daily struggles, for example seeing parallels in Ophelia’s tortured relationship with Hamlet to her own crush on a brilliant, but selfish man during college.
As a foreign correspondent Keenan continues to travel for her writing, but Hell’s Kitchen has become her adopted home. “I love living here,” Keenan says, reflecting again on the neighborhood. “The bars and wine shops here definitely helped with writing my book, too,” she jokes.