The author of seventeen previous books, David Watmough believes his new novel, Vancouver Voices, which is being released this fall by Ripple Effect Press, to be his most challenging work to date.
“[It] was perhaps my biggest challenge as a novel in the broad reach of its canvas,” says Watmough. “It depicts far more major figures in what is also a more convoluted plot [than in my previous novels]. It not only depicts an unfurling gay relationship but a straight woman/gay male one and has a trial as part climax in which I seek to present the opposite roles of Jew and Christian from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. How’s that for a challenge?”
At 79, Watmough is truly one of the senior statesmen of the BC literary scene, and, along with Jane Rule, one of the pioneering figures in gay Canadian literature.
Despite that, one of the first things Watmough says in the interview is, “I’m a writer who happens to be gay, not a gay person who happens to write books.” Watmough describes the difference as “one of freedom from being nailed down too precisely and thus restricted. As a novelist who happens to be gay I am free to write about gayness or not-as my muse sees fit. As a gay writer I imagine one would feel obliged to use that major constituent in one’s work-almost as a moral obligation. I don’t believe that literature necessarily has to be moral to find its creation. I loathe labels and would ape the freedom of birds.”
Vancouver Voices is the first installment in a trilogy set in Vancouver, where Watmough has lived since 1961. A synopsis can’t do justice to its complexity, but the main thread of the novel involves a middle-aged woman who develops feelings for a gay man, just as the latter falls in love with another man. Coinciding with this private struggle is the very public controversy dividing the city, involving a young gay Anglican priest accused of child molestation. The overarching theme of the book is the clash of old and new values in early 21st century Vancouver, a city that within a relatively short period of time has morphed from a sleepy, WASP-ish backwater to a raging, postmodern metropolis.
Pedophilia is an issue that as a society we haven’t fully come to terms with, says Watmough. “I think anybody in their right mind, gay or straight, tall or short, man or woman, would say that a child of two or three should be protected against the attacker. [But] we have not really worked out the argument of what age a person is responsible. In other words, what is maturity?…We know now that young girls are dating earlier than they were 15 or 20 years ago. So there’s this type of biological and cultural evolution. And we also have to decide what in fact pedophilia is. Are we treating here a sickness, or are we treating criminality comparable to a bank robber? I don’t think these arguments have been aired properly and worked out. And I think in my novel at least, I bring it under people’s noses. I’m not providing the answers. I’m trying to provide the framework so that people can argue it for themselves.”
The gay community, according to Watmough, swings between two extremes: smugness and paranoia. “We haven’t reached paradise yet, despite the fact we have same-sex marriage,” says Watmough. “As people who are gay we have to accept the fact that we are marginalized. And that is why we should automatically have empathy with Jews, the Holocaust, etc…..because we have attitudes towards minorities that are different from [the attitudes] they have towards majorities.” In addition, Watmough points out that gays must be aware of the influx of new immigrants from developing countries who are bringing with them centuries of homophobic prejudice.
On the other extreme, says Watmough, there are those in the community “who live only on the grounds that there is some homophobe sitting behind the hedge or over their shoulder.” He doesn’t deny that bigotry still exits, recounting an incident from just a few years ago when he and his partner of over 50 years, Floyd St Clair (a professor of French at UBC and a well- regarded broadcaster and music critic) were walking their dog in Kitsilano. When the dog started growling at passersby someone yelled: “Old faggots!”
“Their instinctive reaction was not to say ‘Mind your bloody dog,’ it was to say ‘faggots,’ So I’m not for one minute saying that all is over because we now have same-sex marriage….But it’s easy to go the other way into paranoia. And that we musn’t do, because that wouldn’t help the cause at all. We must come right out front and say ‘good’ when something good does happen.
“It’s a lot harder now than it was 30 years ago [for gay people] to move in that difficult path between thinking that everything is hunky-dory, which it isn’t, and on the other hand thinking that there haven’t been very real gains.”
Born near London, England, Watmough experienced homophobic persecution from the beginning: at 17 he was imprisoned in his home country for being gay. This experience may account for his conscientiousness as a citizen: he has done readings and mentoring in local schools and prisons, and was the founding president of the Federation of BC Writers.
In his 79 years, Watmough has seen the world evolve from being a place where one could wind up behind bars for acts considered “grossly indecent” to one where same-sex unions are legally sanctioned, an evolution addressed in his latest novel. One might think that Watmough and his partner would jump at the opportunity to finally wed, and, though the idea is indeed in the air, it’s not a priority.
“We would only get formally married, we’ve decided, if by so doing it would actively politically serve the overall gay cause. In other words, it would not be for us so much as for our brothers and sisters who might use us as useful ammunition when dealing with the homophobes-particularly the fascist Christians!”