Pride 2017: five British LGBT writers on books that inspired them

50 years after the UK decriminalised homosexuality, authors and activists talk about literary representations of gay relationships – and more.

Sian Norris
3 July 2017

Pride in London 2016.

Pride in London 2016. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Images. All rights reserved.

2017 marks 50 years since homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK – so this year we’re celebrating Pride with even more oomph than usual. There’s an exhibition on gay life and law at the British Library, a series of BBC plays, and a collection of documentaries on Channel 4 marking the anniversary – as well as the annual Pride parade in London this weekend, now in its 45th year.

I grew up in a gay family – my mum came out in 1989 when I was four. We lived under state-sanctioned homophobia. Homosexuality had been legalised more than two decades earlier (lesbianism was never criminalised), but an LGBT person still couldn’t serve in the military, lesbian and gay couples couldn’t adopt children, and equal marriage seemed an impossible dream. Until 2001, the age of consent for gay sex was 18, while for heterosexual couples it was 16.

'We lived under state-sanctioned homophobia.'In 1988, the Conservative government passed a law called Section 28 which banned the “promotion of homosexuality in schools”. Only repealed in 2003, it was this legislation that arguably had the most impact on me as a child and teenager. I felt unable to talk about my family at school.The education system banned any representation of LGBT people. From classes on literature to history to sex and relationships education, it was as if gay people didn’t exist.

Meanwhile, at the local library I discovered literary examples of LGBT communities – memorably in the early 20th century French writer Colette’s Claudine novels. This was the first time I’d read novels featuring bisexual women characters – the first time outside of my family group where being LGBT wasn’t the punchline of a joke or deemed wrong and disgusting.

Books on a shelf.

Books on a shelf. Photo: Ryan Phillips/PA Images. All rights reserved.

From there, I discovered a whole range of exhilarating work from other French and expat lesbian women living in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s, writing, painting, publishing and supporting one another. I felt like I’d found my people. Today I’m writing my own novel set in that very community.

There is of course a long tradition of representations of gay and lesbian desire in literature – from ancient Greece and Shakespeare’s sonnets to Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, 1950s pulp fiction, and Alice Walker. And so, as we celebrate Pride 2017, I asked five LGBT writers in the UK about the authors and books that inspired or influenced them.

Some responded with examples of other gay and lesbian writers. Some chose other authors who include representations of queer relationships in their work. Their selections are diverse – as are the ways in which literature can impact us. It can satisfy our desires to see our own experiences reflected at us, for example. It can also be subversive and make us think differently.

Paul Burston

Paul Burston.

Paul Burston. Photo: Krystyna Fitzgerald-Morris.

Author of novels including The Black Path and The Gay Divorcee, Paul Burston is also founder of the Polari Salon and Prize which awards LGBT writing. Which books have inspired him? He points to the Tales of the City novels by Armistead Maupin – a nine-part series chronicling San Francisco life from the 70s to the present day.

'part of life’s rich tapestry'

Burston said: “Before I discovered Maupin, most of the gay novels I’d read were written in the first person singular, where the first person was a gay man – e.g. A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White. Maupin wrote in the third person, and focussed on a variety of characters, male and female, gay and straight. His Tales of the City were the first books I read where gay people are presented as part of life’s rich tapestry. They are part of a gay community but also part of the wider world – they are sons, brothers, uncles. For me, this was game changing. This is the life I live. It’s what I know, and it’s what I write about”.

Eley Williams

Eley Williams.

Eley Williams. Photo: Chris Williams.

Short story writer Eley Williams’ debut collection Attrib was published earlier this year. Exploring life’s microdramas in subtle and experimental ways, it was described by the Guardian as “elegant” and “beautiful”. Williams told me about the multi-faceted work of Bryher, a modernist British writer who re-named herself after her favourite Scilly island and wrote memoir, poetry and fiction. Williams shared this snippet of her poetry:

‘If I am a needle on a disk / got to play the record out / got to go on / whatever voices break across me / or what shadows / knees or shoulders / silverpoint the blackness / got to play the record out / til I break or am lifted / I don’t choose the sound I make / you don’t choose the groove.'

What about Bryher inspires her? Williams said: “The breadth and range of her work: from modernist film criticism to collections of poetry, ‘science fantasy’ and historical novels to commentaries on the work of Amy Lowell via essays discussing the figure of the ‘Girl Page’ in Elizabethan drama. She was a prolific, chameleonic and acclaimed writer throughout her life”.

'a complex, delightful-strange take on traditional ‘coming-of-age’ and ‘coming-out’ narratives'

Williams said Bryher’s quasi-memoirs Development (published in 1920) and Two Selves (1923) feature a “kaleidoscoping exploitation of ‘accepted’ forms,” blending aspects of “prose-poetry, bildungsroman and a camp, tender mythology”. These books, she said, “offer a fascinating insight and a complex, delightful-strange take on traditional ‘coming-of-age’ and ‘coming-out’ narratives as well as notions of gender.” There is, she says, “wistfulness as well as urbanity, celebration, mess, mindful absurdity alongside searing precision and political engagement”.

Saleem Haddad

It tells the story of a young gay man called Rasa living in an unnamed country during the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Set over one day and littered with flashbacks, it explores Rasa’s own personal turmoil over his grandmother discovering him in bed with his lover amid the political turmoil around him.

'underworlds, unspoken experiences, and life on the margins of society'

Haddad said: “I would recommend Jean Genet's Prisoner of Love. It was his final piece of work, and recounts his time with Palestinian resistance fighters in the refugee camps in Jordan in the 1970s. He approached the Middle East's complex and long-running conflict, and those fighting on the frontlines for freedom, with a certain sensitivity and a queer sensibility”.

Mid-20th century French writer Genet spent much of his life in and out of prison including for thievery and ‘lewd offences’. His work attracted controversy for its frank depictions of homosexuality at a time when it was still illegal. Genet wrote about underworlds, unspoken experiences, and life on the margins of society – from criminal gay life to Palestinian refugee camps to civil rights movements.

Haddad’s own novel is named after the secret nightclub where his LGBT characters congregate. Both writers explore the tension between public and private gay identity – secret spaces created by queer communities, and how one negotiates queer identity in a world where to be gay is to be threatened by violence and exile.

Deborah Cameron

An old book in a bookshop in Wales.

An old book in a bookshop in Wales. Photo: Ryan Phillips/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Deborah Cameron is a professor in language and communication at Worcester College, Oxford. Her books include The Myth of Mars and Venus, which challenges popular assumptions about how men and women communicate – and how those assumptions impact on women’s equality.

“I am woman, hear me roar” She recommended the essays and poems of American second-wave feminist writer Adrienne Rich. She said: “My pick would be The Dream of a Common Language, the first poetry collection she published after coming out in the mid-1970s.” In this book, Rich speaks about women’s bodies and lesbian sexuality with largely unprecedented openness. Her line, “I am woman, hear me roar” was picked up by feminists and gay rights activists and still appears on protest placards today.

Cameron also highlighted another US poet, Marilyn Hacker, author of Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons. She said this collection of sonnets, published in 1986, “has a combination of sexual explicitness and literary formality – I remember that making a big impression on me when I first read it”.

Claire Heuchan

Claire Heuchan.

Claire Heuchan. Photo: Claire Heuchan.

A self-described black radical feminist, Claire Heuchan is currently collaborating with novelist and Good Immigrant editor Nikesh Shukla on a forthcoming children’s book called What is race? Who are racists? Why does skin colour matter? And other big questions. Which authors inspire her? She points to novelist and short story writer Irenosen Okojie, who she describes as “one of the most exciting writers on the British creative scene”.

'a poignant reminder that there’s beauty in everyday life'

Born in Nigeria, Okojie moved to England when she was a child. Heuchan highlights Okojie's exploration of relationships between women in her short fiction – and compares Okojie’s “use of magical realism to explore grief and trauma” to the writing of Toni Morrison, the American Nobel-Prize winning author of Beloved.

“But her writing has its own character – it’s very vivid,” said Heuchan. Okojie’s book Butterfly Fish, she said, “really touched me... It was a poignant reminder that there’s beauty in everyday life, even when the world around us becomes desperate”.

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