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Dumbing gay down?

New queer writers invite straight audiences into their lives

STORMY WEATHER. Newly published gay author Matthew Fox. Credit: Xtra Files

After 14 years,Wilde About Sappho is finally coming to town. Since 1991, the annual celebration of gay and lesbian writing has toured both established and up-and-coming queer writers to a variety of Canadian cities, but this is the first year it’s coming to the West Coast.

Part reading series, part fundraiser, the event doubles as a benefit for its sponsor, Ottawa’s Lambda Foundation, the non-profit organization behind Canada’s only series of annual university scholarships in gay and lesbian studies.

Over the years, Wilde About Sappho has showcased such literary luminaries as Will Aitken, Felice Picano, Daphne Marlatt, Erin Mouré and Sky Gilbert.

This year’s roster is no less impressive: Kingston, Ontario-based poet and novelist Helen Humphreys; Torontonian RM Vaughan, who has distinguished himself as a playwright, poet and novelist; Lambda Literary Award nominees Warren Dunford and Anna Camilleri, also from Toronto; Montreal fiction writer Matthew Fox; and Vancouver poet (and former Xtra West columnist) Billeh Nickerson.

Vancouver author Michael V Smith, himself a featured author in 2001, is organizing the West Coast leg of the event.

Talking over muffins and juice at Our Town CafĂ© on Kingsway and Broadway, Smith says the purpose of the event is to promote the Lambda Foundation’s scholarship fund in hopes of finding donors to create scholarships in various universities across the country. “Their goal is to get 20 scholarships. So far, I think they have five,” he says.

“I think it’s probably the longest running queer reading series in the country, certainly the longest running one of its scale,” he continues. “There’s nothing else in Canada that travels quite so far.”

RM Vaughan, who will be reading from his new book of poetry, Ruined Stars, as well as his most recent novel, Spells, and his drama collection, The Monster Trilogy, says occasions such as Wilde About Sappho are important because “we don’t pay enough attention in Canada to our artists.

“It’s good for queer folks to come together for events that celebrate our culture,” he says.

Matthew Fox, whose first book-the short story collection, Cities of Weather-is coming out in February and for whom the Vancouver leg of Wilde About Sappho will be his first reading as a published author, says these kinds of events are important, not just for gay audiences, but for general audiences as well.

“They provide one more way for literature to climb into people’s lives,” he says. “I believe that one of the ways in which literature can succeed is in making the audience relate to it-if a gay reading can celebrate those things that we have in common, then there is the possibility that people will stumble upon something else they like in the process.”

Queer lit is becoming “less and less about sexuality, and more and more about living,” Smith notes.

“Queer fiction did so much work in the ’80s trying to catch up with just representing ourselves,” he explains, “so it was about queer lifestyle, about what we did. And in some ways it was very documentary: it was trying to document our experience, talking about what set us apart, because it wasn’t accurately depicted in mainstream literature.

“I think now I see that people have really started to move beyond that, where queer writers are looking at commonality of experience, commonality with the general population.

“Hopefully it means that straight people are starting to recognize themselves in queer characters. We spend so much time as queer audiences interpreting straight people into our experience, and now the reverse is true as well.”

With the ever-increasing cultural mainstreaming of gays and lesbians, the tension in the gay literary world between hardcore queer writing-“identity” writing written by queers for queers-and “assimilationist” writing that is more “straight-friendly” and accessible to a general audience has in turn increased.

Vaughan rejects the idea of labeling literary work: “I don’t see writing as being created by teams. People write what they write for a limitless variety of reasons. And finger-pointing is so tiresome.”

Fox is even more adamant: “If an author is telling audiences that only queers should read their writing, then they are not prepared to be published. Anyone who wants their writing to be read by a slim percentage of humanity is selling themselves short, taking advantage of people’s identities, or simply being foolish.

“Why can’t a straight person benefit from or identify with queer literature?” he asks.

But Smith takes a more diplomatic view of the matter. “There’s certainly a whole San Francisco movement of artists who are queer and resisting the dumbing down of the gay community and resisting this very notion of what the new ‘gay’ is-the new sort of apathetic gay, that isn’t interested in equality for the minority groups within the queer community, isn’t interested in aligning itself anymore with feminist issues, isn’t interested in aligning itself with people of colour, or with the trans community. And they are very active in trying to build bridges with all of those communities and trying to still fight for equality rights.

“I think that’s why it’s important to have those writers who are ghettoized, and are deliberately ghettoized, in order to keep the message alive and pure.

“But I’m on both sides,” Smith continues. “I definitely want to talk about plurality and inclusiveness and who gets left behind, but I want to have that discussion with straight people as well. And I think that’s the happy marriage between the two. I think it’s really important to have people who are gay and in the mainstream, and I think it’s really important to have people who are gay and ghettoized. And I think it’s even more crucial that those two communities aren’t exclusive of each other.”

Adds Smith: “Queer lit is still so new that these [writers] are the names that you’re gonna be thrilled you saw when they were starting out, when it was still a fairly new movement. It’s still a brand new adventure, and people are still inventing what queer lit is in Canada. And that’s exciting.”