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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.”

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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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNiven Govinden
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“Remembered” begins with a newspaper clipping from 1910 recounting a tragic event where a black man drove a streetcar into a Philadelphia department store. We then follow the near hallucinatory experience as the driver Edward's mother Ms Spring rushes to his side in the hospital alongside the ghost of her sister Tempe. Though this calamitous day is already filled with drama and intrigue where Edward is accused of intentionally crashing the streetcar amidst his rumoured involvement with the distempered local union, his story is only the backdrop for the time Ms Spring spends with him. The novel primarily concerns her disclosing to her son the true story of his origins and her own challenging journey from being born as a slave on a plantation to freedom. She feels it's important that he knows and understands this personal history because “Most of what I’m about to tell you ain’t in no history book, no newspaper article, no encyclopedia. There’s a whole heap of stories don’t ever get told.” This novel tells a story which is moving and surprising in many ways showing the complex mentality and relationships which develop amidst the horrors of slavery. It's an impactful, uniquely told tale.

I really admire it when an author is able to portray a situation of grave moral complexity through characters who take egregious action because they are in extreme circumstances. I've not read many novels that dare to depict such a story. One of the only examples I can think of is Anoshi Irani's tremendous novel “The Parcel” which is told from the point of view of a hijra who considers it her duty to psychologically prepare newly purchased adolescent girls for a life of sexual slavery. Here a character performs an evil task but she is doing it out of charitable necessity because the only other option (as she sees it) is death. A character of equal complexity is depicted in Yvonne Battle-Felton's novel in the figure of Mama Skins. She's determined to prevent more children from being born into slavery on the plantation and takes extreme measures to stop this from happening. It presents a great challenge for readers because they are at once sympathetic to her struggle but horrified by her actions. Yet this is a point of view which needs to be voiced to better understand the individual realities of our complex socio-economic environment. The heartbreak comes not just from the poisonous reality of slavery but the way individual options become so warped.

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the nation's transition from slavery to freedom wasn't smooth or easy. Another remarkable thing this story does is show through Spring's story how information was withheld and manipulated while the Emancipation Proclamation took time to be implemented across the nation. The author has an impressive skill for conveying both the sensory and social atmosphere of Spring's journey, but there are times when the vigorous action of the circumstances becomes confusing to follow. What works impressively well is the supernatural element of the spirit of Tempe who accompanies her sister Spring. Such an element in a novel can sometimes feel tacked on or cliched, but here feels touching and natural to her experience. There's a powerful energy which propels the story forward as Spring recalls it through the difficult hours of Edward's time in hospital. This is a courageous, passionate and rousing novel that demands we consider the complexities of history.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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There’s an interesting tradition of feminist utopian novels which speculate about futures or alternative societies that feature populations dominated by or entirely composed of women. These range from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Herland Trilogy” to Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s witty parody “Sultana’s Dream” to Marge Piercy’s science fiction classic “Woman on the Edge of Time” to Mary E. Bradley’s “Mizora” where women can reproduce through parthenogenesis (reproduction from an ovum without fertilization.) These imaginative works radically envision places where men are of secondary importance or become entirely irrelevant. These idealistic visions offer a breath of fresh air and a welcome counter-reality to the patriarchy which has dominated society for centuries.

Given enormous recent advances in science, it’s not hard to imagine the prospect of a technology which enables women to reproduce without men. That’s exactly the premise of Angela Chadwick’s enthralling debut novel “XX” which tells the story of lesbian couple Rosie and Jules who enrol in the trial stage of a ground-breaking new Ovum-to-Ovum treatment. It allows them to become pregnant through an IVF technique using two eggs rather than needing a sperm-donor. Since there is no XY sex-determination system at play in this method of reproduction it means the child will always be born with the sex chromosome XX and must be female. But Chadwick doesn’t posit this advancement as an opportunity for a world-dominating matriarchy; it’s exactly the opposite. The great drama of the novel comes from the wide-scale social resistance to such an advancement which will enable a small group of isolated individuals a unique opportunity to reproduce together. A conservative backlash perceives this technology as a threat to the status quo as they assert all children need a mother and father. They also fear boys will be phased out of the species. Rosie and Jules find themselves at the centre of a horrific and politically-contentious media storm. It’s a vivid story of personal struggle reflecting how any advancement with society is sadly met with reactionary politics.

It’s a difficult fact for many same-sex couples who wish to have children that some alternative method is currently required to assist them in becoming parents. This can be very painful and complicated because it means both people in the relationship don’t have an equal genetic stake in their child. I admire how Chadwick addresses this issue in her novel by offering a solution and exploring the challenges that would arise from this. In doing so, she addresses how pregnancy, relationships and family life are filled with infinite complexities so the road to becoming parents is never simple or easy. But, in the case of this couple it’s particularly complicated given how they become the focus of media scrutiny from becoming pregnant with the first O-O child. The story is told through the perspective of Jules whose partner Rosie becomes pregnant from the treatment. As a journalist at a local newspaper, she finds herself in a unique position of being a reporter who is herself the top news story.

Filmmakers Debra Chasnoff and Kim Klausner editing their 1985 documentary ‘Choosing Children’ about lesbians who become parents

Filmmakers Debra Chasnoff and Kim Klausner editing their 1985 documentary ‘Choosing Children’ about lesbians who become parents

Jules strives to keep her personal life and work separate, but this sadly becomes impossible. The novel serves as an interesting commentary on our sensational media system which exploits individuals for the sake of broader attention-grabbing contentious issues. A local Tory politician named Richard Prior emerges as a spokesman and campaigner for an organization called the Alliance for Natural Reproduction. He’s recognizable as a composite of right-wing figures who develop platforms to rile up the public with paranoias and fears about threats to the “natural” order of things. The story meaningfully reflects how such cases have become more and more common in recent years regarding a whole range of issues including marriage rights, health care, education and immigration. It also comments on how a large section of the population now consumes such news stories by “flick-throughs and social media posts” and form opinions about issues without engaging with their full complexity or considering the real facts. It’s striking how Chadwick realistically envisions how an optimistic advancement such as this would be blown up into a much larger political issue with a vicious backlash.

“XX” is one of the debut titles from an exciting new imprint called Dialogue Books. The imprint’s goal is to publish writers and reach audiences from areas and groups of people currently under-represented by the mainstream publishing industry. It aims to spark a dialogue across different communities about subjects we ought to be talking about. This novel certainly touches on a number of subjects that feel relevant today and takes a refreshing perspective. It does this through a well-plotted story and characters that I grew increasingly attached to. There’s nothing flashy about the prose, but this feels completely appropriate for a story about a normal couple that find themselves swept into an extraordinary situation. It also feels positive how we might no longer need stories of extravagant extremes that envision all female societies as a correction for the gender imbalances in our world. Instead, Chadwick offers a very rational and practical vision of how incremental steps can be taken to create more inclusive communities and dynamic families for everyone.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAngela Chadwick