2 min

Prostituting cultures?

Author gets an alien world right

ENTERTAINING DIFFERENCE. In her novel Transient Dancing, Gale Zoë Garnett dares to confront the realities of gay life. Credit: Xtra files

I love old-fashioned novels. Give me Evelyn Waugh (some juicy characters, a soupçon of wit and a dash of plot) and I’ll pass on the partying any day. Gale Zoë Garnett’s new novel Transient Dancing is a good old fashioned read – very entertaining and heartwarming. But the leading character is a gay black man, and since Garnett happens to be a white woman, the book raises some important questions. Can a white woman write a convincing novel about a gay black man? Should she even try?

Once, while having lunch with Cree writer Tomson Highway, I took the opportunity to pick his brain on the issue of appropriation of voice. At the time, CBC TV was running a miniseries about native schools – the program, of course, was written by a white man. I asked Highway if it was okay for white people to tell native stories. He said it wasn’t so much that white people shouldn’t be allowed to do it (a writer should write about anything he or she pleases, he said) but the potential problem was that those who write about an alien culture might get it wrong.

This made perfect sense to me.

Transient Dancing is the story of Thaddo Daniels, a black, gay, closeted American political activist who falls in love with a beautiful young Swedish dancer named Bjorn. The subplot is the story of Johnny Reed, a straight black American actor who has moved to Greece to escape the malevolent world of US show business. Thaddo meets Johnny during a vacation.

The good news is that Garnett passes the test: She gets most of the queer stuff right. Not only that, but the novel concerns subjects most gay novelists wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Thaddo is rich and Bjorn is somewhat of a hooker. Johnny (after he is blacklisted by a sleazy casting director) ends up in a very gay drag show. Unlike squeaky clean contemporary gay novelists like Alan Hollinghurst and David Leavitt, Garnett dares to confront the realities of gay life. Her heroes are not all rich, white and discreetly masculine. And she writes about these realities with enormous generosity and love – not since John Henry MacKay’s The Hustler have we seen the relationship between a hooker and a john portrayed with such tenderness.

Occasionally Garnett gets the queer details wrong. For instance, Thaddo takes protease inhibitors to battle AIDS. He says physical deformities are a “small price” to pay his new lease on life. I’m not sure everyone who has experienced the extreme side effects of these sometimes toxic drugs would entirely agree.

Being a white male, I can’t argue whether or not Garnett has succeeded in satisfactorily portraying the black experience. But I imagine she manages it as well as she does the gay stuff.

It’s unfortunate that we have to rely on straight women to write honest narratives for us. But since we do, I recommend Gale Zoë Garnett for the job. All in all, Transient Dancing is a brave, touching account of some very queer lives – coming from a surprising place.

* Gale Zoë Garnett reads with a lineup of authors for the Stephen Lewis Foundation fundraiser Getting It Write on Thu, Jun 10.


Gale Zoë Garnett.

McArthur & Co.