Friday, March 12, 2010

The Berdache and gay fiction


Byron found a moment of creative epiphany, walking the famous battlefield and promptly beginning his poem 'Waterloo', reckoned by Edna O'Brien to be his greatest poem. She wrote in her Byron in Love (see below) of how writers find themselves in a situation that opens the sluicegates of creativity. In our evening together, she spoke movingly of how this had happened for her, making her bleak yet terrific novel In the Forest inevitable.
My current novel is one of those 'sluicegate' ones, spinning out of a single instance in the Teton Mountains. A more gentle moment keeps spinning out a sequence of stories. Some years ago, around Easter, I walked up into the hills around our village in France (up in the Eastern Pyrenees). I was letting myself be fallow rather than urging myself to write, and stood beneath a chestnut tree. Sunlight brushed the young chestnuts, starkly beautiful as one of my favourite greens. I cupped one in my hand. The spikes were almost soft. It was an exquisite moment of burgeoning.
(Until writing this now, I had never seen the link between this moment in nature and what sprang from it. I'm growing lyrical, but of course these were nuts and I was cupping them in my hand. It takes no psychoanalytical genius to come up with a sexual analogy.)
I walked down the mountain path as a story sequence emerged in my head. It linked in to the berdache tradition of Native American tribes. The berdache, essentially a gay male, held a position of honour, free to pass between the worlds of men and women, known for their caring nature, expecially nurturing of children and the frail. A test (I expect this is a simplified version, but I like the story) was to put a baby down in between a doll and a bow and arrow. If the male baby chose the doll, then his berdache qualities were noted. Native American parents would be delighted to have a berdache child.
A berdache appears in Tom Spanbauer's The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, and the scifi novel Riverrun by S.P.Somtow, both of them glorious works. In my own sequence I've transferred this tradition to the west. The parents in my tales discovered early on that their baby boy was gay, and immediately realized that their family was perfect and complete. Part of their mission was making sure that he understood the beauty of his sexuality, and all the wonders that might flow from it.
The story is told in seven year leaps. Episodes were triggered by chance observations. For instance, crackling through on the BBC World Service one night as I lay in bed, I heard a few words of a young English male and knew at once he was gay. The subject matter wasn't a queer one, but all was revealed in his careful diction, his phraseology, the fine placement of words and sentiments. It was interesting to see how a person's voice reveals so much. The notion was transferred to my young Arnold, aged fourteen, standing up in class to get his schoolmates to sign up for the Gay Society. None can actually take in what he is saying for the beauty of his delivery, but all are prompted to join.
It's ridiculous of course, homophobia remains rampant, but the great potential of writing is to invest alternative threads of story with real power. I call the sequence 'The Lovely Life of Arnold'. It's a fable, in that it's fabulous.
These stories are a joie d'esprit for me. Curiously they are all finding their way into print. (Here's aged 21.) I've written Arnold's adventures up to the age of 35. The early part of 28 was published in The Edinburgh Review, but at 28 Arnold still had some way to run. For all his parental training, Arnold has a few faults. One of these is jealousy. This is spurred when he watches his lover compete in the testosterone world of the Olympics.
This tale, 'My Tri-athlete',  has just been published in The International Literary Quarterly. Now in its tenth issue, edited by Peter Robertson with my pal Jill Dawson now on board as deputy editor, the journal does wonders at discovering truly international dimensions.

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