“I really started to write when I was scheduled to die in 1994,” says Francisco Ibáñez-Carrasco. “That’s when Flesh Wounds And Purple Flowers came around. It was my way of writing myself slowly but very gently into my demise.”
But 13 years later, Ibáñez-Carrasco is still writing and very much alive. In fact, his fiction seethes with life — and particularly with the lives of the forgotten and outcast on the margins, or sometimes the centre, of society: drag queens, drug addicts, illegal immigrants, stalkers, the homeless, the heartless, the lonely, the sick or simply the sad. His presence as a feature reader at Transgress gives Ottawa audiences an opportunity to taste gritty fiction first hand.
Ibáñez-Carrasco is also a social scientist with a speciality in community-based research, using the skills he honed during his doctoral days at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University. His experiences as a researcher feed the truth behind his fiction.
“At first it makes no sense that I’m a gay erotica writer and that I do this other thing [social science],” muses Ibáñez-Carrasco. “Community-based research is an approach to research that’s very grassroots, so I work with communities, particularly communities that deal with issues related to HIV and AIDS, which these days means poverty, drug use, survival sex-trade work. So then you can start seeing the links between the kinds of things that I write and the kinds of things that I do as a professional researcher. Because otherwise its seems like I have a double personality.”
Ibáñez-Carrasco is also a faculty member at Goddard College in Vermont, which is one of the few remaining liberal arts colleges in the United States with a philosophy that evokes the “free schools” of the 1960s. Students at Goddard build their own curriculum and there are no grades, only intensive retreats on campus twice a year and continuing work and development at home. This is Ibáñez-Carrasco’s fourth year with the college and he’s part of the creative writing program, which he loves. He credits Goddard’s students and fellow faculty with helping him come to see himself as a writer.
“I’d never experienced education the way it’s meant to be,” he says. “They have made me respect myself as a writer. I always thought that my being published was accidental until I went there.”
Others would argue that Ibáñez-Carrasco’s success as a writer is certainly no accident. Flesh Wounds And Purple Flowers, his debut novel, was nominated for a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. He followed that up with Killing Me Softly: Morir Amando, a collection of often gut-wrenching short stories that tear the all-too-shiny veneer off yuppie Vancouver. If you believe the book jackets, he’s the reigning bad boy of Canadian lit, but on the phone, his soft-spoken generosity offers sharp contrast to his hard-biting fiction.
If transgression is about crossing boundaries, Ibáñez-Carrasco’s life has certainly been transgressive. Born and raised in Chile, he crossed physical and cultural boundaries to come to Vancouver in the 1980s. He’s been to the brink of death and back again, and now divides his time among his divergent professional interests. He credits his sexuality with helping him bridge the divides in his life.
“As a gay man there are certain kinds of bipolarities or schizoid shifts that I’m more prepared to do than other people,” he explains. “No matter how liberated we are, we’re always ready to go into say a soccer game and behave very heterosexually even though we’re not. We’re kind of used to daring shifts in ways that other people find insufferable.”
With so much on his plate, one might wonder when Ibáñez-Carrasco finds time to write. He says the short stories are always coming, and he’s seeking support from the Canada Council for the Arts so he can write another novel.
“I have a novel in my gut,” he says with urgent conviction. “I’ll have to write it or vomit it or shit it out. I can’t die with the damn thing in there.”
Ibáñez-Carrasco is a survivor, and his survivor’s gut seems to be a bottomless pit of searing stories. Transgress is a rare opportunity for people in and around Ottawa to see and hear him in the flesh.