This is Not a Gentle Profession
This is not a gentle profession. I do not write quietly while sipping camomile tea after a morning of yoga. This an ink-on-the-face, chewed-down-fingernails, half-filled-coffee-cup kind of thing. This is rejection, rejection, rejection, rejection, despair, and then a glimmer of success. This is bad reviews, and the neighbours giving you the eye and you know they’ve read the sex parts in your book.
Writing is an unmedicated, unmediated breaking of taboos. It saying what you want to say. It is speaking truths to the whole goddamn world instead of to a therapist. It is screaming, screaming, screaming into the void and hoping to god the void never answers back. It is naked in public or, at best, wearing a pair of blood-stained underwear.
Give me the messy ones. The ones who understand it is not the third glass of wine one should be worrying about, but the third bottle. The ones with unpaid bills, avoiding the calls from student loans collection, and three months behind on the power bills. The ones who are divorced, or downsized, or straight-up broke and sleeping in the sad twin bed of their childhood bedroom. Give me the Elizabeth Bishops, the Jean Rhyses, the Sylvia Plaths. Give me A.S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble and their public sibling feud. Give me Timothy Findley, drunk at the dinner party. Give me Alice Munro shunned by the town that is her muse. Give me Maya Angelou smoking cigarettes and listening to country music. Give me Cheri Dimaline living off her American Express card. Give me the writers crying in public bathrooms, on trains and at the Lisbon aquarium. Give me the writers who go out and buy a carton of smokes when they win the cash prize. Give me the writers that serve their lightly-poached souls to their readers on a plate made of ground-up bones. Give me the ones writing at 3 a.m., words in their head they are too tired to get on the page. Give me the single mothers with sentences swirling in the air around them, with never enough time, enough clean hands, enough spare breath to get them on to paper. Give me the unwritten novels of the old, with epic tales acting out in their minds, who didn’t have the privilege of class to buy paper, learn to type, or to lock themselves away in Paris hotel rooms.
All this cleanliness be damned, give me sweat-soaked sheets and manuscript edges chewed on by rats and ringed with red wine stains. Our trade should be sleepless nights, where we lose and find our faith in gods, ourselves and each other. Too many soft edges and muted phases and our words, our weaponry, become weak: the futile stab of a theatrical sword.
Susie Taylor, June 16, 2019
All my stories are queer because I am queer. It doesn’t matter what I’m writing about, I cannot look at the world without seeing it through the lens of my queer experience. The queer part of me can’t be separated from the writer part of me. The same could be said for all of the things I do; I cook dinner queer, walk the dog queer, and watch TV queer. My identity, and my experiences because of that identity, filter everything I do.
Queerness is still outside of the social norm. Cries of “one love” and “we are all the same” leave me cold; I am not the same as the straight women who live on my street, and my queer love, my queer desire, is not the same as theirs either, and nor do I want it to be.
When I was ten, Elton John was married to a woman. I grew up without Ellen, Will and Grace, gay marriage, and the internet. I knew fairly early on that men did things together; mysterious sex things. But in our education system, and in the wider social realm, gay sex was always tied to AIDS. AIDS was killing gay men at a catastrophic rate. We were living through a tragedy, but I never remember it being framed that way. In suburban Ontario, we turned our heads away: this was a city problem, a problem of a “special interest group,” and, sometimes, the wrath of God. The creeping insidious message we took away from our early sex educators was don’t be gay and you’ll be okay. The message was clear, gay lives were not as important as the lives of the straight, white people who lived in the cookie-cutter, pesticide-lawned, and quietly repressive houses of the town I grew up in.
That women could have relationships beyond a kind of Laverne-and-Shirleyesque companionship was almost unthinkable when I was growing up in the 80s. Back then, “sex” seemed to have to involve at least one penis. Female pleasure was not on the curriculum, only mensuration and reproduction. If lesbians came up, it was about acts boys had seen in their father’s porn mags, designed to elicit male pleasure.
As a teenager, I started to understand who I was, not publicly but in the privacy of my mind. My writhing discomfort with the gender role I was expected to perform, and my horror at the heteronormative future I was supposed to look forward to, started to make sense. I wasn’t the same as the other girls. I read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Rubyfruit Jungle. Books I loved, but also confused me; did being attracted to women mean I had to have a thing for citrus or perhaps work in the funereal services? But despite this confusion, I was, for the first time, reading books whose characters thought like me. These were stories about characters who wanted out. Out of the world they were living in, and out of the expectations that were being placed upon them to live a certain kind of life.
And this is the thing: the prevailing attitude back then was if you didn’t have to be queer, why would you? Why make your life so difficult when you could successfully have sex with a man without puking? I’m not butch. I didn’t like softball or tennis or golf and had no desire to be a gym teacher. This was what lesbians did, according to all the stereotypes of the time. I could, and can still, pass as straight. Yes, I did occasionally get called out – there is always some bully that can see the queer self you are trying to hide – but I, like so many others, learned how to wear a cloak of heterosexuality. I bought tickets for my high school prom and I fell asleep with the teddy bear my high school boyfriend gave me, and all the while I dreamt of women. I dreamt of women’s lips, and arms, and of their conversation.
My queerness is defined not just by my attraction to women, but by my desire for a queer life. I am wary at a creeping trend towards assimilation of queer culture into the greater social domain. Police marching in Pride Parades, straight people turning their profile pics rainbow coloured, and commodified drag queens available at any hour on our streaming services. Every sitcom on television has a nice straight-acting queer couple living next door, or that new stereotype (one I do embody) the quirky lesbian aunt. Clean-cut self-actualized queers pop up on TV all the time now, and oh how they bore me. Greater social acceptance of queerness doesn’t mean understanding. It’s easier to be out now, it’s safer, but that doesn’t mean that queer experience is the same as straight experience and it is important that queer folks don’t forget this. We still have enemies, ones that want to erase us, and ones that want to change our culture into something more palatable for a larger straight society.
Queerness is about far more than not being heterosexual. It about living a life that challenges and is constantly wary of social norms. Its about creating new ways of living and sharing life with other people. Queerness is about having a moral code based on empathy and acceptance, not taken from current religious or political dogmas.
Having fought to lay claim to my identity, I will never let it go. It matters that I’m queer. And my writing, whatever it is about will always be queer too, pushing back at a world that still tries to force bent lives into straight ones.
Susie Taylor, May 5, 2019