I think the best novels say as much in their form as well as in their content. Niven Govinden’s new novel “This Brutal House” is about a silent protest staged by several mothers from different drag houses in front of NYC’s City Hall. For years these mothers housed many queer children who were forced to leave the homes of their biological families. But when these children have gone missing the police force haven’t taken their disappearances seriously and even used these losses as an opportunity to harass and interrogate the lifestyle embodied by these drag houses. Frustrated and tired of trying to form a dialogue these mothers sit in silent protest because “we are past words.” The author conveys the complexity of this political act in a number of ways. Govinden invokes their collective voice to capture the tenor and sweep of their emotions and experiences. But he also relates the story of Teddy, a child from these drag houses who now works in City Hall and is caught between these two very different social spheres. By switching between these points of view and relating large sections through dialogue Govinden allows us to wholly feel this complicated situation and hear everything that’s left unspoken in the midst of these drag mothers’ mute resistance.
There was a long period during which drag was seen as a fairly niche section of the queer community where the only far-reaching understanding of it came from the vital documentary ‘Paris is Burning’. But, in recent years, it’s become more popular with the advent of TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and ‘Pose’ as well as some excellent fiction such as Joseph Cassara’s “The House of Impossible Beauties”. Govinden doesn’t seek to create a guide to understanding the form and rules of drag houses in this novel. Those who know nothing about drag will no doubt feel disorientated when they start reading it, but that shouldn’t deter book lovers who appreciate engaging and imaginative fiction. Instead of explaining the author immerses the reader in the attitudes and social dynamics of drag houses showing how they are in their essence and very existence a political phenomenon. These are the voices of children who often provide an alternative to the dominant narrative of the largely white, heterosexual and patriarchal society they’ve been born into. By inhabiting the art, fantasy and cut-throat competition of drag balls or immersing themselves in the capitalist dreams of high end stores they find “bubbles which envelop and shield you from real life.” In doing so they discover succour, kinship and vitality amidst a society that seeks to stultify or erase those who are queer and refuse to conform to its pervading values.
Govinden intelligently conveys the essence of this community by indulging in the rich pleasures, fierce attitudes and humour of the drag ball scene. Several pages are narrated from the perspective an MC calling out a multiplicity of drag categories – everything from “backstreet dancer realness” to “Miami Jewish matron” realness. Through this repetition with endless variations and a keen ear for the irreverent we feel how these individuals can simultaneously inhabit and play upon the full spectrum of identity: “The balls were heaven as we divined; a right we would give our last breath for.” In the exactitude of criteria there is an ironic freedom to be found from all categories of being and a liberation from all the boxes which society tries to put people into. I loved how Govinden’s framing of the scene conveyed both the celebratory joy and the heartrending sincerity of these balls and their expression of realness. This is tribute to the craft and excruciatingly hard work which goes into drag as an artform. I especially enjoyed when the author likened drag families preparing for a ball to soldiers preparing for war: “Weeks of preparation! Through that time life was somehow lived, yet this took over everything. Soldiers readying for battle clean their gun and polish boots. They run ten miles, expelling yet withholding the energy they will need. They’re drugged up to the eyeballs, fucking comfort women in conflict zones. No different to us: method and masculinity shared.”
The novel conscientiously gives space to the collective voices of the drag mothers, their children and the police force. Between these groups there is the friction of misunderstanding or opposition. But spaced throughout the novel Teddy’s experiences and dilemmas give a personal weight to these fraught groups as he invokes his own understanding of the city. Perhaps one of the most admirable things about this novel is how Govinden refuses to give a simplified and one-sided view of the drag scene - which in some recent popularised iterations has become more about catty indulgence rather than politics. The mothers in “This Brutal House” are queens worthy of reverence but they are not saints. Some of their children have become lost due to illness or violence, but others wilfully left out of rebellion or because they simply grew up and moved on. At one point the children say of the mothers “Their mania for taking our money? They were our bosses. Gang masters in drags.” Just like in many biological families the propensity for parents dominating and exploiting their children (and vice versa) is just as prevalent in drag families. But because there aren’t legalized social structures to give credence and support to drag families it can more often lead to isolation. This is aptly summarised in the haunting lines: “Drag is nothing but family. Drag is everything but family. Remember this.”
This novel is saturated with a verve which made it compulsive and pleasurable reading for me, but I also savoured the author’s exactitude in his language and ear for dialogue which brought these disparate groups to life. Moreover I admire the ingenuity of its structure for conveying a social scene and section of society which deserves to be recognized and celebrated.