Gay writer Blaine Marchand, a former president of the League of Canadian Poets, will read from his collection The Craving of Knives June 5 at the Ottawa Art Gallery. A former diplomat who lived in Pakistan for many years, Marchand shares his insight into an often misunderstood country with Xtra. Marchand is currently working on two additional collections inspired by his travels in Pakistan and the Kitchissippi ward of Ottawa.
Xtra: You lived in Pakistan for two years. Was there any aspect of the culture of Pakistan that surprised you?
Blaine Marchand: I had visited and travelled in Pakistan and in Afghanistan for six years prior to living there so was quite familiar with things in that region of the world. Pakistani and Afghan culture are quite vibrant, particularly [in the] folklore and literary [sense]. Poetry, in particular, has a prized place in the hearts of people of that region. One thing I do feel is that Pakistan is portrayed negatively in the media, sometimes deserved, but a one-sided view. What one does not hear about is the generosity and kindness of the people, which is contrary to how many people here perceive the country and its people. This is one of the reasons that I proposed to Vallum, a journal of international poetics based in Montreal, to do a special issue devoted to Pakistani poetry in English. I am very proud of that issue and returned to Pakistan in March to launch it there.
Is there a gay scene in Pakistan? How does their culture treat gays and lesbians?
To be honest, as I was there as a diplomat, I did not become involved in the gay scene. But I know it is there, from private parties to cruising to people "sharing” accommodation, despite the illegality of same-sex acts and relationships. The strident anti-gay position comes from a mixture of ongoing colonial laws and Islamic beliefs. Marriage and family are strong forces in Pakistan. Homosexuality is a threat to that. There is an incredible pressure from parents for their sons and daughters, who they do not know are gay, to marry. Interestingly, in 2009, the Pakistan Supreme Court officially protected the civil rights of transgender people, called hijras, who long ago had roles as court eunuchs and who today dance at weddings. They are often seen in markets or on streets, sometimes begging but often just going about their daily routine. However, they, no doubt, continue to suffer discrimination and harassment. There was a popular TV show while I was there on which the host dressed as a woman and interviewed many high-placed people. But he wore a sari, not the shalwar kameez women in Pakistan wear, and he claimed he was straight. Who knows?
I do have some Pakistani friends who are gay, but they live quietly, fear for their lives and [fear of] being blackmailed. Some are not sexually active. That said, I did meet two young artists from Lahore who were lovers and had a show in Islamabad called, appropriately enough, Blue Boy. Lahore is a vibrant, artistic and in many ways a liberal city. But these artists told me they felt much freer to have their show in Islamabad because the presence of foreigners in the capital city makes it more tolerant and open to gays.
Pakistan was one of five Islamic countries that stonewalled approval of a UN resolution that sought to protect all persons no matter their sexual orientation. The US embassy held a LGBT event in 2011, to support gay rights. There was an outcry and demonstrations about it.
You are working on a collection of poems inspired by the Kitchissippi area of Ottawa, which encompasses Westboro and Mechanicsville. What is it about this area of Ottawa that inspires you?
I grew up in this area of Ottawa, formerly called Ottawa West. With the exception of a 10-year exile in the Glebe, it is the area of the city I always have lived in. Like many areas of Ottawa, it is in transition, unfortunately, not always for the best. As I think back on my younger years and the landmarks for myself and my friends, many of these no longer exist. I find myself trying to recapture that era in prose poems. I was originally afraid they would merely be nostalgic, but the poems take turns that I do not expect. It is not only about the buildings or businesses that don't exist, but about the people, the characters, who lived here at one time.
Ottawa was recently voted the most boring city in the country. As a writer who draws inspiration from the city, do you disagree?
I disagree. For decades, Ottawa has always been portrayed as boring, just as Toronto continues to be the city most Canadians love to hate. Boring is another code word for hate. But there is a difference between the political scene, which I must admit I find endlessly fascinating — currently the Senate problems reek of what the Greeks called hubris — and the city itself. I think the art scene is very vibrant. The gay scene has, over the decades, become more and more a part of the fabric of everyday life. We may not have as many galleries or as many theatres, but we do have good ones that put on great shows. Ottawa is a beautiful city. As someone who bicyles everywhere, it is perfect city for being on two wheels. The landscape here is an integral part of it. I really respond to that. And the access to the countryside is great. You know in many ways, Ottawa and Islamabad are similiar cities — here we have the Gatineau Hills, there the Margalla; there is the politics and then there is the city itself — although it is often said that Islamabad is not like any other Pakistani city — orderly and tidy.
Where would you say you drew inspiration from for your collection The Craving of Knives?
The Craving of Knives was a collection I suppressed for a long time. Most of the poems were written when I was coming out in my mid-30s. It is a dark book about aspects of my life as a gay man, although not all of the poems are drawn from my life. Some are imaginative retellings of incidents in friends' lives and their struggles with sex and relationships. Initially, I thought it was just a series of occasional poems but then realized there was more to it. Once I realized this, I decided to allow the manuscript to be published. I did not write poems for many years after publishing my first gay collection, Bodily Presence. In those years, I was travelling in Afghanistan and meeting Afghan refugees, who continually talked about poetry and quoted it. I began to realize that if they, with their struggles, could use their voices poetically, then why couldn't I? I was censoring myself. Publishing The Craving of Knives was liberation; I was no longer a refugee and returned to poetry, a literary form I have written since Grade 7, inspired by my teacher who recited poetry in class. She was the first person who said to me, “You could be a writer.”
AB Series presents Blaine Marchand, Adam Dickinson and Meredith Quartermain
Wed, June 5, 7:30pm
Ottawa Art Gallery, Arts Court
Free (a hat will be passed around)