Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: The curse of the invisible gay writer

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Author Tony Simpson. Photo / Supplied
Author Tony Simpson. Photo / Supplied

Tony Simpson, historian and president of the New Zealand Society of Authors, has heard some "terribly unfunny jokes at the expense of [his] sexual orientation" over the years.

Chairing the Pride Festival's literature discussion at the Auckland Art Gallery on Monday, he noted that if the try-hard comedians find out later he was gay, they say "the most homophobic of all things: 'You don't look gay'."

"But I must look gay because I am gay and this is what I look like."

Poet and novelist David Lyndon Brown put it another way: "The curse of being gay is invisibility."

New Zealand "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex" literature history is sparse - we don't have a pantheon of queer writers so much as a "pantheonette", says Brown, who last year received a Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship, named after our best-known pioneering queer writer, Frank.

The first openly gay novel by a New Zealander, A Way of Love, by the appropriately named James Courage, was published overseas in 1959 and banned here. Compare this to the US, where Gore Vidal, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote were all prominent, in varying degrees of "outness" in the 50s and 60s.

Genuine A-lister Witi Ihimaera came along a generation or two after Sargeson, but didn't come out on the page until Nights in the Garden of Spain in 1995. Since 1986, among the canonised are Stevan Eldred-Grigg, Peter Wells and Douglas Wright. (Alienation and Aids are two recurring themes.)

As Brown tells it, in the 1980s and 1990s, international publishing houses favoured queer literature so much "it seemed everybody was a gay writer". But irritatingly, when it went out of fashion, people seemed to turn their back on their gayness. Before then, the man-alone (and men-alone) settings of the woolshed and pub allowed a homoerotic nudge and wink to slip through, but arguably our masculinist national literature made early queer women writers more invisible.

Lists start with 1980s writers like playwright Renee. Paula Boock has written queer young adult literature (Dare, Truth or Promise), while Aorewa McLeod is launching her first lesbian novel Who Was That Woman, Anyway? as part of the Pride Festival. Novelist Julie Helean, Brown's fellow panellist, won last year's Katherine Mansfield Award.

Both Brown and Helean are loud and proud about being queer writers, but Helean isn't optimistic about the outlook for queer fiction publishing, not necessarily (just) because it's queer, but because it's publishing, and the outlook for publishing in general isn't good.

Recessions hit minorities first, and a New Zealand setting is unlikely to sell 4000 copies, let alone a New Zealand setting for a queer audience.

But elsewhere, the digital revolution offers hope of visibility, if not vast riches. My most regular queer-lit reading is a transgender webcomic by Sam Orchard - a funny, endearing, intimate (and occasionally explicit) autobiography at www.roostertailscomic.com.

Or if no literature is visible enough for you, get along to today's Pride Parade, 4pm along Ponsonby Rd. It's the first in 12 years - hopefully a sign of things to come (out).

- NZ Herald

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