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Part II: Is ‘Queer Fiction’ determined by its writer or story?
Yale University, Connecticut, 2012
I’m nineteen. I’m standing outside the dorm rooms. It’s nearly the night, the sky a heavy blue, the trees turning black, the street lamps have come on. I’m standing within one of the campuses of Yale. Yale sprawls over a large quarter of New Haven, the classrooms and campuses nestled close together. I’m making sure all of the kids are inside, to head to their rooms. I’m here for two months as a Camp Counsellor and Teacher’s Assistant. I’m wearing a shirt and a pair of shorts, my keys hanging around my neck. Nobody around. Tonight I’m on duty and the counsellors that aren’t are heading to the bar around the corner that serves us. Ironic, I become of legal age to drink alcohol in the United Kingdom but am not in the United States. The bartender serves us, we sit together and he refers to us as “the teachers” asks “how the kids are?” as we drink tequila.
I walk down the halls, check that everyone is OK and head to my room. It’s large with a fireplace. It has book shelves with my copies of House of Leaves and Lolita and the copy of Anna Karenina I got from the library which is opposite my bedroom window, against the courtyard. There’s a desk, exploded with papers, books and my laptop, a chest of drawers and a sad single bed with a sheet and a pillow. Why do Americans insist of never having duvets? I sit at my desk, move some of the papers – a mixture of lesson plans, extracts from novels, some of the kid’s work from class they asked me to edit and my own work. I start writing. I’ve spent the day in two Creative Writing classes – running one of them – a class on critical thinking and a class on Time Travel. I have a lot to write about.
I’m working on a series of stories about guilt in relationships for my University course. My tutor, Catherine Merriman, has already read two of them, I have six more to write. The couples are predominantly straight and it has happened accidentally. As I begin working, I remember a time when I wouldn’t allow myself to write gay characters for fear of people knowing I was gay. The first gay character I wrote was when I was fifteen, in a fantasy story I was working on about Vampires and teleportation. I gave it to my school librarian, Jessica Robinson, to read, thinking she might know. At that time in my life, I was also scared that, if I ever were published, I would be labelled a “gay writer”. Only a few months ago, my friend, Tom had been reading Hollinghurst’s novel, yelling at me to do the same. Now, writing about gay characters is naturally and I do it if it fits the character. “Write what you know.” Isn’t that the advice writers get? I’ve never been told to do it by any of my tutors but we all do tend to write what we know that’s how we make it authentic and raw and honest.
My stories at fifteen were ambushed with littered lies, half-truths I shaped and morphed to fit the fantastical character I had written. Before I moved out for University, I found all of the manuscripts I’d printed and kept. There were about fifteen, all of them two hundred to three hundred pages each, the odd novella. I read some of them. They were awful, some of the stories horrendous others OK but the writing overworked, riddled with clichés, melodramatic. I didn’t believe in any of these stories at the point of sitting and getting ready to leave and even through University I kept to straight characters not until my MA, when I was twenty-one, writing lesbian and gay characters in a natural way.
I got thinking, what determines a queer writer? Is it their writing – the stories they create – which feature queer characters or was it the writer him or herself that made it queer? Their identification with the queer label, they, themselves being gay or lesbian or trans etc then making their work queer fiction? Of course, straight writers write gay characters also. So what is the answer?
I’m twenty-one. I’m sat in my small bedroom in the apartment I’m renting in Milan. It’s at the edge of the city, the last stop on the metro. I’m sitting in the soft chair near the doors which open and let in the hot, summer air. My laptop whirrs on the high, small desk, my wallet, empty bowl and spoon next to it. I hear Avrina shuffling in her room, next to mine. We’re here together, sent from the University of Warwick to work with Tim Parks. He’s told me to spend the weekend only working on my novel and ignoring all the other work I’ve been doing. “Ignore that shit,” were his exact words. It always feels a bit surreal being with Tim, sitting in an Irish bar together, drinking beers as he talks to me about my story of a serial killer couple. He talks about the plot, the craft of the story.
Now, I’m thinking, thinking with my glass of red wine. I’m thinking about Eve, my main character. I’m thinking about her thinking. I’ve been working on a novel about Eve and Adam, married, successful, serial killers. I began writing in Warwick now I’m set to finish in Milan. Adam is straight, Eve has experimented with women perhaps she is bisexual. Now, in Milan, read and watched and experienced, I know sexuality’s fluidity. From a straight guy with a boyfriend to an old classmate, the realisation infected into my work sometimes more predominantly than others.
Would my story – if it were ever magically to be taken and published – be seen as queer fiction based on me, as a writer, being gay or as my story features a bisexual woman? Is it the story that contributes to the queer genre or is the writer? Are we to view Allen Ginsberg’s poetry – of course his infamous Howl – as queer poetry due to his sexuality, its content, or both? A trial was held for Howl. It was seen as pornographic, something I feel quite patiently about as I wrote in my column last time. Ginsberg was creative, he was original, he was forward in every possible way:
‘…who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off
the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists,
and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors,
caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings in the rosegardens and
the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their
semen freely to whomever come who may
who hiccupped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a
sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath when the blond
& naked angel came to pierce them with a sword…’
– ‘Howl’, Allen Ginsberg
And now, I’m thinking about a woman thinking. I’m thinking about her means of escape, her desire to run away and I have. I have successfully run away to Italy, away from the University and the rain and the grey-slacked roofs and dirty floors of Coventry. I had run to a place of food and coffee, cigarettes and hot pavements. I know the novel has issues, it’s been problematic from day one, nobody has been completely satisfied with the way I’ve decided to go with it. I know it will not get published in its current state but I am hopeful. It catches attention but it cannot ignite. I think, if I die, will it ever be seen and will people see me as some writer of queer fiction? Will they see me as fiction?
If I were to write a novel featuring only gay characters would it be seen and sold as queer fiction marketing only to them? I long for the day ‘queer fiction’ will be fiction, to be made accessible to all, to not eliminate or narrow, to join together the voices of queer fiction to the huge mass, to be given the respect it deserves having carved through years of discrimination, to appreciate the rights fought, nod to the Grandfathers and Mothers of that world and bring everyone together, men and women, equal creative radicals of the universe.
Thomas Stewart is a Columnist for Litro NY and has had his fiction, poetry and essays published at The Stockholm Review, The Cadaverine, Storgy, Vada Magazine, Anomaly, Agenda Broadsheet, among others. His debut poetry pamphlet, 'Creation' is forthcoming from Red Squirrel Press. He has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick and a BA in English from the University of South Wales. He enjoys folk music, horror films, suburban fiction, watches, cooking, patterned jumpers and beat poetry. He is afraid of the dark.