Before anything else I’m about to say, I want to make sure the first thing I write is this: If you were at all pondering whether or not to attend Glad Day Bookshop‘s Naked Heart: An LGBTQ Festival of Words, allow me to be the first to persuade you. It was fantastic – even moreso to say it was the very first year the event existed – and I sincerely hope it happens again next year. Also, huge thank-you to my publisher, Bold Strokes Books for trusting me enough to sponsor the event.
Okay, now back to the beginning. Last Thursday, my ever-patient husband and I brought His Fluffy Lordship to the in-laws, spent the night there in the guest bedroom while His Fluffy Lordship wandered about at night wondering why no one was playing with him, and then caught the train to Toronto on Friday morning. We arrived in the mid-afternoon, and we took a tour of the new aquarium, which was flipping brilliant, and my husband especially loved it (he adores aquariums). It was a great time, and by the time we were done, we were hungry, so we went to The Host: Fine Indian Cuisine and wow was that some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had. Seriously, you should go there. So good.
Anyway, those of you who know the schedule for Naked Heart know on the Friday night there was a launch party that started at nine-thirty. For those of you who know me, you know that’s roughly half-an-hour after I’m usually done for the day (I know, I know, I’m old and boring, but in my defence, I’m awake at 5:00a-ish most days, and up and ‘doing’ by 6:00a at the latest). I wanted to try to push myself. But with a belly of Indian food, all hope was lost. I fell asleep.
But I was all the brighter-eyed and bushy-tailed for the following morning.
By funny coincidence, all the events I went to during Naked Heart – with the exception of the reading I was a part of – were located at Buddies in Bad Times, Toronto’s leading destination for alternative theatre and a world leader in developing queer voices and stories for the stage. It’s a perfect venue for a festival of words, and every event there was fantastic. More, they should be given massive kudos as they – and all the event locations – were donated space for this event, which meant the programmers could afford to put every penny they could raise toward paying the authors and artists who made the festival so grand.
The first panel I went to was Bending the Genres of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, & Thriller, which was hosted by David Demchuk, and included authors J.M. Frey, James K. Moran, Michael Lyons, and Steven Bereznai. This was a very fun and upbeat panel – even when the panelists were discussing how they’ve sometimes been pressured to squash a bi character (Moran) or knowing the queer character can’t be front and centre if they’re looking to move copies with the big-5 (Frey). I have to admit I found myself nodding and laughing along with all the authors, and I had a bit of a fan-boy moment saying hello to Steven Bereznai afterwards (he wrote Queeroes, and how can I not gush over queer superheroes?) And for a guy who was worried beforehand about feeling like an impostor, Michael Lyons often stole the show with his wit and energy, discussing meta-narrative and fielding the topics with ease. It was a great time, and the usual measure of that – David Demchuck calling time after what felt like a few minutes – was keenly felt. I wanted more, darn it, but I really got a lot out of it. Also, David Demchuck is a great moderator – just enough input to keep things hopping, and to keep authors on point when, really, let’s be honest, doing so is like herding cats.
After that, I stayed put and waited for Hyphens & Hybrids, a panel about the experiences of those who with cultural hybrid identities and how that has impacted their audience, writing, and successes, and it was absolutely fascinating. Here, Keith Garebian, Tamai Kobayashi, and Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene led us through a fascinating discussion of identity, language, appropriation and colonization, history, and bias that was eye-opening more than a few times. It’s funny, as I’ve bumped into some of the things the authors spoke of, and I’m a freaking white British guy in Canada. You wouldn’t think there’d be erasure or pressure to change there, right? But there’s that pressure to cater to a mainstream audience (even when that’s not at all who you’re writing to) that can come from publishing, and it was fascinating to realize that something as simple as being asked to make sure I mention that Ottawa is a city and Canada’s capital in a story is actually a bit insulting: context exists. Hearing the more extreme versions of this editing colonialism from the mouths of these authors was really enlightening. I loved this discussion. Also, huge praise to Yvonne Fly Onakeme Eteghene who had the audience learn how to pronounce her name before the discussion began, pointing out something just as colonialist: how come we’ve all learned how to say Schwarzenegger, but ask people to provide easy nicknames or to shrug off mispronunciations if they’re from somewhere else. ‘Burgoine’ gets mangled all the time, so I can only imagine how much frustration she gets on a daily basis. I’ve always tried to give people the consideration of learning how to pronounce their names properly (which maybe came from having mine mangled in so many interesting ways), but I’m going to redouble my efforts here. Glad Day Bookshop had her book, too, so I picked it up.
After a lunch break, I was back again in the Theatre for Alex Sanchez who was absolutely adorable. He was interviewed with a brilliant Q&A from Glad Day Bookshop’s Michael Erickson, and I basically sat back and just absorbed the entire time. I will say this: Sanchez was generously candid, speaking about his process, what it’s like to step away from a contract and fly solo and then realize that the industry is changing and it might not be easy to sell the next book. He spoke about readers who’ve contacted him, and how they were inspiration for new book topics and new characters, and most of all he was just so freaking humble and lovely. When asked what the biggest surprise was in his writing career, he said, “That people wanted to read me.” Sanchez credited a lot of the positive response to his works to having characters that weren’t pigeon-holed or one-note (I keep thinking of the term “intersectional”) and how much positive feedback he got from readers who’d never seen Latino characters like themselves in YA fiction before – let alone queer YA fiction. He had some great advice about dealing with the negative critic that lives inside your head and writer’s block. He keeps a journal where he writes down those negative thoughts while he writes – quite literally giving that critic a voice on a fresh sheet of paper – and then goes back to work. He finds giving that fear an outlet shuts it up faster. And he’s always found his writer’s block comes from fear, so he digs into that fear and tries to figure out what he’s afraid of, and then exposes it in the writing. I could write on and on about this event, but suffice it to say everyone in that audience was enthralled, and it was fantastic.
After that, it was time to wander to Glad Day Bookshop where three of the authors from that morning’s SF panel (Michael Lyons, J.M. Frey, and James K. Moran) were joining Stephen Graham King and I at a reading.
Three things about this reading: One, we had a mild moment of panic when it looked like one person was going to be our entire audience (only to learn that people had gone to the bookshop rather than the performance space one flight of stairs up, where we were). That was funny, in hindsight, and when people filled the chairs, it was a lovely (and anxiety inducing) moment.
Two: Everyone was great. Seriously. Michael Lyons was witty (and needs to finish writing his Toronto steampunk murder mystery, like, now), Stephen Graham King won everyone over with a single ‘Let’s get squishy,’ J.M. Frey tantalized with a perfect tease, and James K. Moran showed the room the atmosphere of his haunted work.
Three: For the first time in my life, I tripped up on my timing and went over. That has never happened before. I was so lucky Evil Mark from Saints and Sinners wasn’t there, or it would have been bullhorn time. I was really struggling with keeping my stutter at bay, and going slower than usual, and avoiding eye contact, which meant I didn’t look up to see our timekeeper waving me off. I am so damn sorry to Stephen, who went after me, though overall the event ran only three minutes late. Mea Culpa.
After the reading, the audience was really engaged, chatted with us all, and most went right down the stairs back to Glad Day Bookshop to pick up copies (which is brilliant, and we love you all, audience). I learned I’d sold out – these are awesome words to hear – and while James K. Moran and Stephen Graham King signed their copies, I gave them a stack of my magnets. I have no idea if any are left, but anyone who wanted one was free to grab one. If you’d like one, you could ask Glad Day Bookshop if there are any left. I can’t give you telekinesis, but I can help you hold stuff to your fridge.
After the reading, my brain went a bit wobbly (as it always does) and it was time to eat and step back. We had a lovely dinner, and then went back to the hotel room where I basically threw myself onto the bed and drooled.
On the Sunday, I was only able to stay for a bit, as my train left in the early afternoon, but I was so damn glad I made it to the Building Intergenerational Bridges panel. Moderated by Gitanjeli Lena, this fantastic group of people gave me a few dozen “aha!” moments of learning, and I love that feeling.
You’re all probably sick to death of me harping on this topic, but it’s huge. By virtue of how queerness works, we almost never have that consistency of generational inheritance that belongs to other groups. It’s not queer fathers passing on stories to queer daughters. It just doesn’t work that way (most of the time, of course exceptions apply, etc.) Finding our stories and making sure they are passed on is huge, especially in the trans* communities, where visibility of a future is so damn important.
Jia Qing Wilson-Yang, Prathna Lor, Susan G. Cole and Wayson Choy were, in a word, phenomenal. From discussions of thinking differently about “coming out” vs. “inviting in,” language barriers, poverty and racism and the various intersections and the effects on who has the privilege of visibility (and therefore representation), how elders have often survived things that youth cannot grasp (and vice-versa), and the random red-tape effects on youth and elder work (sorry, you’re over 19, no help for you, nor you, since you’re only 59!), the way the trans* community is often at the whimsy of the language use of others (at what point do we stop forcing transwomen to identify as transwomen and just understand they are women?)… The discussions here was fast, furious, and completely engrossing. I learned so much. Seriously.
And Wayson Choy made me cry, twice. The first when as part of his introduction he admitted a recent brush with death – “I am in my seventy seventh year, and I almost died recently, so I am very happy to be here.” And the second where he spoke about being your authentic self. “Simply behave as you do. You have a right to be here.”
Naked Heart was a reminder of that. I walked to the train station feeling revitalized, and supported, and reminded of the community around me – and how I also need to be working harder to find more of that community, especially those who don’t often have the opportunity or means to speak.
It was so well done. I hope there is another.