In late 2016, I was featured prominently in an article that appeared in Quill & Quire, entitled Out in the open: Is it time for Canadian gay literature to leave its comfort zone and respond to the Grindr generation? As a young gay writer, this felt like a big deal. While Quill & Quire is an obscure publication, it serves as a sort of bellwether of popularity within Canada’s tiny, tightly controlled literary community. Plus, I was appearing alongside more famous LGBT writers: veteran gay writer Sky Gilbert (now of Quillette fame) and trans author Vivek Shraya. The professional stakes were high for me because this was my first appearance in the national media following the publication of my debut novel, Candyass.
The author of that 2016 article, Elio Iannacci, interviewed each of us about the state of “queer” art and representation, with the premise being that market forces still prevent gay writers from fully expressing themselves. Vivek, who had come out as trans in her mid 30s, stated: “All we hear is ‘love is love,’ or ‘love wins,’ or ‘love won,’ and I find that is a way to ignore desire…A lot of queer people are growing up in a much more liberal environment than what I grew up in, and these younger writers can speak to what it is to be queer in this particular moment in a way that a lot of us can’t.”
That’s exactly what I was trying to do in Candyass, a gay coming-of-age story about the lives of modern sexually-liberated young men living in Montreal, where I’d attended university. As a young writer in his 20s, I wanted to explore the idea of how, even once you strip away the specificity of sexuality or identity, you’re always still left with lonely people longing for human connection. Digital distractions and hookup culture notwithstanding, the “more liberal environment” we now inhabit hasn’t altered this basic human need to forge one-on-one bonds. Gay or straight, trans or cis, black or white, we all have the same desires.
It seems strange to me now, looking back on that Quill & Quire piece, with the three of us all being listened to in an open, fair and inclusive way. In the 27 months since the article was published, the world of LGBT politics has been turned upside down. Gilbert and Shraya, in particular, recently found themselves entangled in a literary-world controversy when Gilbert published a poem about his misgivings regarding the current ideological climate, and was promptly subjected to a Soviet-style shaming session at the very theatre he had founded decades ago.
Of course, infighting always has been a feature of modern Canadian cultural industries, which rely heavily on government grants and subsidies, and so are beset by a climate of ruthless competition for scarce resources. What started as a publicly funded, socially-engineered initiative to form a national literary identity distinct from that of the United States now has become an arena for embittered call-out mobs, all of which have weaponized identity politics as part of their social-media battles.
This was the mindset that Gilbert had sought to highlight with his poem. And it scares me that we now live in age when a poem can get someone fired. As Clint Margrave recently wrote in Quillette, the last time poetry could get people de-platformed in this way was when Allen Ginsberg published Howl. In that case, the censors were conservatives. But these days, it’s leftists who are playing that role, closing ranks against anyone who isn’t deemed sufficiently woke.
My own first encounter with this attitude came in Toronto. I had been booked by my publisher to read at the Naked Heart LGBT literary festival. The event in question was titled “Out of Bounds,” which supposedly was aimed at gathering “outsider” literary voices of a transgressive and experimental variety. I read a few short vignettes from my book, one in which the narrator recounts a conversation he had with a character he suspects might be a sociopath. The scene is about the suspension of disbelief we sometimes instinctively engage in when being told an upsetting story. The sociopath character casually recounts to the narrator an episode in which he purportedly coerced an underage boy into sex—which leaves the narrator questioning whether he’s been told something that’s true, or whether he’s just been played for shock value, the slippage between reality and fiction being a hallmark of the sociopath.
When I was done reading, the writer after me made a comment before starting their own work: “It would have been nice to receive a trigger warning before listening to a story about child abuse in what is supposed to be a safe space.” The writer then commenced to read from their own story about suicide—without a trigger warning. I brushed the whole thing off as a performative exercise in virtue signalling.
But that wasn’t the end of it. I later received an email from my publisher informing me that there was “negative” feedback about my attendance from the organizers. There was even a possibility, I was told, that my book would be pulled from the bookstore that hosted the event. I couldn’t shake the irony that all of these supposedly hyper-tolerant and artistically transgressive literary-festival types were basically treating me the same way I’d once felt among high school bullies.
In a widely read 2015 piece for Briarpatch magazine, titled A Note on Call-Out Culture, Toronto-based writer Asam Ahmad wrote: “It isn’t an exaggeration to say that there is a mild totalitarian undercurrent not just in call-out culture but also in how progressive communities police and define the bounds of who’s in and who’s out.” Such essays now have become common, but Ahmad wrote this four years ago, marking him as a perceptive observer of this new threat to free speech. “When people are reduced to their identities of privilege (as white, cisgender, male, etc.) and mocked as such, it means we’re treating each other as if our individual social locations stand in for the total systems those parts of our identities represent. Individuals become synonymous with systems of oppression, and this can turn systemic analysis into moral judgment,” he wrote. “Too often, when it comes to being called out, narrow definitions of a person’s identity count for everything.” Readers may scoff at terms like “systems of oppression” and similar jargon. But I wholeheartedly agreed with Ahmad’s call to avoid ascribing too much importance to “narrow definitions of a person’s identity.”
I only wish Ahmad continued to agree with himself—for within the space of just a few years, his own writing would come to perfectly exemplify the “mild totalitarian undercurrent” he’d identified in 2015.
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There is a long tradition of writers lashing out against critics who give bad reviews to their books. And I will admit that I wasn’t happy when Ahmad wrote a negative review of Candyass in an LGBT magazine when my book came out two years ago. But over time, whatever ire his review originally elicited has dissipated. The reason I revisit the article now is because it speaks perfectly to the moment that Sky Gilbert—and all the rest of us—now are living through.
Ahmad’s problem with my book was, in a word, it’s whiteness. “It would be one thing to script this prevalent white gay cultural voice in order to do something with it—problematize it, mock it, parody it, historicize it, etc.,” he wrote in his February, 2017 review. “Instead, all we get is the voice itself, as if it is communicating something real and authentic rather than being the fantasy that white gay male culture has immersed itself in.”
But of course, the narrator of my novel (named Arthur) isn’t a “white gay cultural voice.” It’s a narrator’s voice. The voice of an individual. Ahmad allows that it would be okay to situate the narrator as white (as I am, in real life) if my intent had been to “problematize,” “mock,” “historicize” or “parody” this whiteness—which suggests that he views an entire swathe of humanity to have literary value only insofar as it can be used as a punching bag. This is the same writer, recall, who just two years previous had warned us against “reducing people to their identities of privilege” and embracing “narrow definitions of a person’s identity.”
In this new world we inhabit, can white gay men not have a voice, a story, a perspective? Does anyone’s categorization within some group identity permit others to deny them individual agency? I’d hope not. If whiteness is fine only insofar as it acts as a shallow prop fit for mockery, one wonders what Ahmad would do with a novel about drug addiction set in, say, rural West Virginia. Are Appalachian whites also boring and “privileged,” fit only for racial parody?
The narrator of my novel is an American living in a French-Canadian city. (Yes, we all write what we know.) He immerses himself in the local culture, learns French, and educates himself about the “Two Solitudes” that separate English- and French-speaking Canadians. Arthur was, in some senses, an immigrant. And like every other character in the book, he is dealing with either outright poverty (the plot begins during the 2008 recession) or something close to it: Characters have trouble paying for tuition, food and rent. To see all of this as nothing more than an unending sea of “whiteness” is to erase the complexities of individuals in favour of a sort of nihilistic tribalism—otherwise known as racism. In some cases, I realize, “whiteness” is taken as a flip stand-in for boring, bourgeois, straight, sexless middle-class consumers. But I wasn’t even writing about middle-class characters. I was writing about impoverished gay youth.
Ahmad criticizes the protagonist for exploring his own “subjective experience of marginalization” because, Ahmad concludes, such subjective experience does not encompass Ahmad’s own subjective experience. From the review: “Arthur’s experiences of gay life are coloured by what he looks like, but he rarely seems to be aware that different people with different bodies might have different experiences with gay life and gay sex than he does…The novel inadvertently lays bare the all-consuming narcissism at the heart of so much white gay male culture today…Arthur is a skinny, smooth, good-looking white twink [slang for a stereotypically attractive, youthful-looking gay man] who calls his desire ‘picky,’ but cruel would be more appropriate.”
This is more than mere cattiness: What Ahmad is attacking is the very idea of aesthetic preferences and distinctions—despite the fact that such thoughts and feelings lie at everyone’s core. He sees Arthur’s very existence as an affront to the utopian conceit that no one’s feelings should ever be hurt, that no one should ever feel excluded. And by couching this demand in the language of race, Ahmad shows us the end point of intersectionality: a world in which no one can express anything sincere, since sincerity always requires choices, rankings, judgments.
The idea that anyone and everyone should have the right to see themselves represented literally in every story is condescending—for it presupposes that a reader from an excluded group doesn’t possess the empathy or imagination required to make the leap that the author invites. It’s also astonishingly narcissistic: Ahmad isn’t mad that Narcissus is staring into the river that drowns him by dint of his own vanity. He’s just mad that Narcissus is obstructing his own view of the water as all of this happens, and so he doesn’t get to behold his own reflection.
I can understand the sense of frustration you get when you can’t find literature or art that speaks to your experience. But that is what motivated me to write a book in the first place. If someone’s already written your book, why write it again? The solution to alienation isn’t to tear down other people’s experiences. It’s to hone your own artist’s craft.
As a consumer of someone else’s art, on the other hand, a sense of detachment from the characters on offer isn’t the end of the world. When I watched Moonlight, I didn’t focus on the lack of white characters in that acclaimed 2016 drama. I recognized that Moonlight wasn’t about me or my experiences. But I found it moving anyway, because I still had the opportunity to observe the lives of the characters and explore our shared humanity. I’d imagine that anyone watching that movie, gay or straight, could relate (to some degree) to its portrayal of a complicated man balancing toughness, tenderness and masculinity. This is what powerful art should do.
What powerful art doesn’t do is avoid locking eyes with the true human condition. In real life, when you choose to love someone—when you privilege that person in your mind over every other person—someone else is, by necessity, losing out, being unchosen. This is why totalitarian regimes are so suspicious of, or even hostile to, the authentic love that exists between lovers and family members: because it freezes out everything, including politics.
The world of the left generally, and of LGBT identity politics specifically, wasn’t always focused on infinite fragmentation within sects. As I noted at the outset, just two years ago, I felt part of an artistic culture, symbolized by those Quill & Quire interviews, that gave all of us license to retain our individual agency, and which gave voice to Ahmad’s earlier, proper admonition not to reduce people to “narrow definitions of identity.” Too often we forget that there are those on the far right who want to erect real walls under auspices of national security, while not so long ago there were those on the European far left who built walls to stop people from escaping their communist “utopias.”
The divisive psychology of these two personality types, however, is much the same. And it pains me to see it replicated in a literary culture that once held free expression and individual agency as firm values, and which encouraged artists to gaze upon (and build off of) one another, rather than gazing downwards in search of nothing but their own reflection.
Nick Comilla is a New York-based writer.
Featured image: “Narcissus,” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, circa 1597–1599.