Every time there’s a new production of the perennial tale of Peter Pan, someone feels compelled to note how queer it all seems. JM Barrie’s century-old creation seems to have invented the idea of gay subtext, with its tragic yet ageless boys, historians debating whether Barrie was asexual or a pedophile and the British child labour laws that led to women playing Pan on stage, establishing a theatrical tradition. Pan’s history has always been one of gender and sexual fludity, and now Brooklyn-based writer Sassafras Lowrey has flown with it in a new novel, Lost Boi.
“I think I’ve always on some level been obsessed with Peter Pan, and the story itself is definitely one of my queer roots,” Lowrey says. “I remember as a little kid having a VHS tape of a stage production of Mary Martin starring in Peter Pan and I was completely enthralled with it. I’m pretty sure I wore that VHS tape out by playing it so often! The idea of this adult woman playing a boy who would never grow up was just too brilliant.”
In Lost Boi, Lowrey merges Barrie’s fantasy world with our modern one, casting leathermen as pirates, drag queens as mermaids and, in the weirdest and most whimsical touch, a pigeon as Tinkerbell. Best of all is the sprawling group of outcast lost bois and daring grrrls, tangled in poly love and rivalries while remaining fiercely loyal to Pan, the boi who never grew up and master of them all.
“I wanted a novel that was magical and playful but also gritty and real,” Lowrey says. “Barrie’s story is incredibly dark, much darker than the adaptations (for child audiences) have tended to be. I loved the darkness of his work and was inspired by it, including his portrayal of orphans. The story just really lent itself to being updated and queered.”
A winner of the Lambda Literary Award for best emerging writer in 2013, Lowrey is the author of the novel Roving Pack and Leather Ever After: An Anthology of Kinky Fairy Tales, and credits the iconic trans writer Kate Bornstein as a mentor.
“I was really lucky when I was 19 to have the opportunity to be part of a writing and performance troupe that Kate Bornstein was directing called The Language of Paradox,” Lowrey says. “At that time, most of my work was autobiographical and I was really angry, so angry that at times the story I was trying to tell got overrun with the anger. Kate worked really closely with me to help me to learn to figure out what was at the core of the stories I was trying to tell — those lessons, about harnessing anger, and all other emotions, in my work ultimately was one of the best writing lessons I’ve ever received . . . I’m not an MFA-educated writer, and really built my own queer literary education through that amazing experience, and a few other fabulous mentors.”
In the same way queer horror/fantasy author Clive Barker mixed the magical and the mundane until the distinctions were near-meaningless, Lowrey’s tale is playful and sexy yet gets darker as it goes. The great theatre director Tyrone Guthrie once said that any actor playing Peter Pan must be “as delicate as a moth, as deadly as a bomb,” and it’s what Lost Boi has achieved as well.