Author and queer activist Christopher Gudgeon has never shied away from themes of isolation and loss in his work, and his latest book is no exception. Encyclopedia of Lies is a collection of short stories about the enduring prevalence of suicide in LGBT communities, underscoring the dire need for support and resources for at-risk queer youth.
It’s an issue close to Gudgeon, who recently became executive director of It Gets Better Canada, an international affiliate of the American organization focused on suicide prevention amongst LGBT youth and anti-bullying initiatives through the use of social media.
In The Encyclopedia of Lies, Gudgeon has stitched together a web of narratives from Buenos Aires to West Hollywood. While Gudgeon has written in several genres throughout his career — 2016’s compilation of poetry Assdeep in Wonder topped Amazon’s Canadian poetry bestseller list and was shortlisted for the Canadian League of Poets’ prestigious Gerald Lampert Memorial Award — he says he’s most at home crafting short stories.
“I don’t know where I’m going, ever, until I get to the end and realize I have to start all over again,” he says. “And poems are more — even though they take a long time — they’re more spontaneous. But short stories, I think I understand the craft better than any other kind of writing. It’s because they’re short.”
One of the stories in The Encyclopedia of Lies is The Widow, a Chilean woman learns that her deceased fiancé lost his virginity to his cousin in a pigsty and later enjoyed a tryst with a “perfumed sodomite in a Buenos Aires Turkish bath.” The story underlines the inevitable disappointments of intimacy through its grim, disquieting humour.
Gudgeon’s penchant for conjuring vulnerable, dynamic characters is clear in The Encyclopedia of Lies, perhaps most vividly in Jericho — a bewildering tragedy about a burgeoning friendship that recalls Gus Van Sant’s queer cult classic My Own Private Idaho.
The story, which takes place as the Orlando massacre unfolds live on a TV screen in a gay bar in West Hollywood, provides a chilling insight to the realities of queer suicide. Told from the first-person perspective of the narrator, Jericho describes a frightening scenario that continues to play out for some LGBT youth:
“I tried to keep my mind occupied, but I kept going back to the note and the fact that Jericho was in the room beside me in whatever condition he was in. I wished I was one of those guys who could do something in a situation like this, like administer CPR or something, and I wished I could have done something to help him before it got to this. I don’t know what I could have done, though. All I could have really done is talk to him and I did that all the time. I shut my eyes and placed my hands on my knees. I thought I should cry or something, that that would be the appropriate thing to do. But I didn’t. I just sat there, hands on my knees, cigarette still pinched between my lips, breathing in smoke and distant conversation, wishing someone would come and turn off the light so I could be alone in the darkness,”
Through his work with It Gets Better Canada, Gudgeon hopes stories like this will become less common in our cultural narrative. The organization aims to link queer youth with better access to community resources, such as better mental health support.
Gudgeon believes challenges facing Canadian queer youth are unique and complex. He says many LGBT youth continue to struggle with isolation, both socially and geographically, especially since Canada’s relatively few urban centres are far-flung.
“We have, I think, much less clear lines of support,” he suggests, comparing services available to LGBT youth in Canada to services available in the US.
It Gets Better was started by columnist Dan Savage in 2010 in response to a string of queer teen suicides in the United States. Since then, the organization has gone global and provided critical support to LGBT youth and their families. Gudgeon hopes It Gets Better Canada will achieve a similar goal by building more content and conducting further research on how to best serve vulnerable LGBT youth.
“We also want to engage other youth, LGBT, two-spirit, allied, unaffiliated, undecided, to do an education around what the issues really are and also to engage them in developing those really positive messages and developing content,” Gudgeon says.