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Blackbird resurrected

Latest Little Sister's Classic a story of race and sexuality

20 YEARS ON: Author Larry Duplechan found inspiration for his 1986 novel, Blackbird, in his own experience as a gay black teenager Credit: Xtra West files

In 2005 the Vancouver-based publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press, started republishing lost and out-of-print books that occupy significant places in the queer literary canon. They christened the Little Sister’s Classics series in honour of the famed Davie St bookstore of the same name, Arsenal’s cohort on this ambitious project.

“What I like so much about this series is that every single book that we add to it adds to the great diversity of books,” says series editor Mark MacDonald. He says Little Sister’s Classics was designed “to expose all the different kinds of things we did as authors and publishers, and not to allow that history to disappear without a fight.”

Making the cut this year is American author Larry Duplechan’s novel Blackbird. Upon its initial publication by St Martin’s Press in 1986, Blackbird was hailed as “revolutionary” because it was one of the very first, if not the first, to deal with the sexual awakening of a black gay man.

“It’s suburban in some ways,” says MacDonald. “In that respect, it is a novel of the people, and it represents an aspect of American gay culture that is not covered in a lot of fiction.”

On the phone from Los Angeles, Duplechan says he “feels great” about the republication of his novel. “It’s my favourite one of my books, so I’m really extremely happy to see it back in print. It’s been out of print for three or four years now, so I’m happy as heck.”

Blackbird tells the coming-of-age and coming out story of a young black California high-schooler, Johnnie Jay Rousseau. What feeds his teen angst? The loss of the lead role in the school production of Romeo and Juliet, a girlfriend who presses him to have sex for the first time, and an intense attraction to Marshall MacNeill, a sexy white guy he meets at an audition.

Duplechan concedes that high school was a difficult time for him, as it was, and likely still is, for most queer youth.

“I think high school is a really important time for most people,” he says. “Blackbird is really about me in high school. I imagine things are easier now. I was in high school some 35 years ago. A lot has changed. Certainly in the mid-’70s it was misery in hell.”

MacDonald notes an intoxicating tone of defiance and verve in Duplechan’s novel. A young person who is both gay and black would, he says, in most mainstream media, be depicted as facing insurmountable challenges. “But Larry just throws that back at you. He’s not taking any of that. It’s a really powerful message that defining yourself is key.”

When the book was first published, “there were several distinct responses,” recalls Duplechan. “The gay press was very kind to it. The straight press ignored it completely. But it got very kind reviews just about down the line. It didn’t move a lot of product, but I felt like it was well received critically.

“There were some African-American gay writers who voiced opinions that they would have preferred that I’d written something different,” he continues, “But everyone, I think, agreed that it was important that somebody had written a coming-out novel from a black gay perspective. Some people wished it were someone else’s perspective other than mine.

“One of the drawbacks of writing minority fiction–especially [since] I was one of the few black, openly gay writers being published at all, certainly by a major New York [publishing] house–is that everybody would have liked me to have written their story,” he continues. “And I could only write my story.”

The main complaint coming from some fellow gay black writers when the book was released in 1986 was that the protagonist’s object of affection is white.

“‘You’re right that [a book about black-on-black gay love] should be written. Go write that book,” was Duplechan’s response then. But things have changed over the last 20 years. “People who are different than I am, and have different points of view, different attitudes about things, came along and wrote different kinds of black gay fiction,” he says. “Now, if you came to me with that [criticism], I would just kind of shrug and say, ‘Well, why? What’s your burden?’ It’s not like mine is the only voice any more.”

In recent years, queerdom and the African-American community has become a hot political issue in the United States, with Republicans trying to make inroads among blacks by pushing an anti-gay agenda. It’s a strategy derived from the perception that blacks are less accepting of gays than the general population.

But, says Duplechan, “I don’t know that straight black people are any more or less tolerant than the majority, or than white people. I think black people and non-white people have different issues about sex and sexuality than maybe WASPs have. And I also think that ethnics deal with the issues of sex and sexuality in a different manner maybe than WASPs. African-American people, for instance, have manhood issues that white people don’t have. To them, a gay black man is an emasculated black man.”

When asked whether he thinks Blackbird is still relevant in 2006, Duplechan responds: “You know, I’m not nearly so concerned that it be relevant as that people find it entertaining because that’s really why I wrote the book in the first place.

“I would actually love to put it in the hands of some 18-year-old kid just out of high school and say, ‘What do you think of it?'” he reflects. “Blackbird may be terribly, terribly old fashioned. I have no idea. But I’d like to think that there would still be some identification there in light of the struggle of trying to be who you are at that age when it’s so difficult.”