Commitment to read Raziel Reid's "When Everything Feels Like the Movies" in defiance of calls to strip its Governor General's Award
[The short version] We, the undersigned, commit to read Raziel Reid's Governor
General Award-winning novel When
Everything Feels like the Movies in defiance of attempts by conservative
activists to strip the book of its award. We believe attacks on the book are homophobic in nature, and we also believe that attacks on young people's freedom to read challenging and mature books are regressive and unhealthy. Above all we believe that young people should be able
to read whatever they want, no matter how controversial its subject, and that
young queer people deserve to see their lives, loves, and struggles considered
and reflected in works of art and literature.
[The long version] We, the undersigned, commit to read Raziel Reid's Governor General Award-winning novel When Everything Feels like the Movies in defiance of attempts by conservative activists to strip the book of its award. We support the Governor General's Award committee in selecting a book for younger readers that contains challenging and mature themes, because we understand these themes are already present in the lives of many young people and for that reason must be respected and explored in art and culture.
Those petitioning for the revocation of the Governor General's Award claim that the book is “vulgar.” They are led by Barbara Kay, writing in the National Post, who claimed the novel was “values-void” and that the award committee “wasted tax dollars” by choosing it. Kay's criticism of the novel should not be a surprise to those who have read her columns over the years, in which she has claimed, supporting Rob Ford's decision not to attend Toronto Pride:
“The exaltation of homosexuality is second only to the reverence paid to unfettered abortion as a litmus test for political correctness amongst our cognitive and cultural elites. [...] Pride doesn’t need public money, any more than strip shows do. Millions of tolerant, non-homophobic Canadians find nothing to celebrate in lewd self-promotion.”
Clearly, Kay's opposition to the book has less to do with her argument that it lacks literary value (one strongly refuted by the numerous critics who have read and celebrated the novel) than her general discomfort with gay sex. (Among her complaints about the book’s main character is the line that he is “a sex-teaser of strange men.”) We suspect Kay and those like her feel deeply threatened by the notion that people below the age of franchise might learn that such a thing as gay sex exists, and that gay teenagers often enjoy it without anything bad happening. Indeed, we’ve noticed that plenty of teenagers enjoy gay sex and discover that many good things (like fulfilled desire, loving relationships, deep affection, or feelings of proud agency and the defiance of homophobia) happen as a result.
Others claim that the book is harmful because of its use of “vulgar language” in a novel targeted at readers aged 12 to 18. We wonder whether these critics remember being that age, whether they ever used “vulgar language” themselves, or heard others using it, and whether in either case this inspired them to behave harmfully toward other people or themselves. This, we recall, was never the case in our own adolescent years. In fact, many of the older ones among the undersigned used “vulgar language” as teenagers and grew into meaningful adulthoods full of passionately pursued education, service to our communities, and devotion to our families and friends.
We do not understand the mechanism of harm that Raziel Reid’s critics believe is inherent in his book, particularly given that there is no unbiased literature in the field of psychology showing that “vulgar language” is correlated with destructive or harmful behaviour in young people. Instead, we believe that it is healthy for young people to want to learn about sex and to experiment with vulgarity, and that curiosity and experimentation in no way leads them into unhealthy behaviour or attitudes.
We recognize that Raziel Reid’s book depicts situations in which sex is not always positive and is sometimes emotionally very complex, but we also do not believe that teenagers are so stupid as to need books in which moral standards are laid out in simple black and white. Many teenagers endure lives in which—like Reid’s characters—they are punished and bullied for trying to assert themselves, and do not return home to comfortable lives where they feel supported by their families. Recognizing and depicting this in literature is a far cry from endorsing bullying or family discord, as some of the book’s critics claim it is (perhaps disingenuously, as a veil for homophobia).
We trust that the Canada Council for the Arts is staffed with far more sensitive and careful readers than Barbara Kay and the ultra-conservative activist group REAL Women. Therefore, we stand by the Canada Council and we support them in choosing a book they felt was the best available in spite of the protests of conservative fringe groups.
We find it very hard to imagine teen readers being harmed in any way by this book. However, we see how they might feel supported in behaviour that homophobes find distressing, such as coming out of the closet as teenagers and challenging those who scapegoat them for their sexualities. They might even use “vulgar language.” We don’t see what harm exists in those possibilities, but we clearly see the possible harm in a public call to strip a national award from a book because it’s too explicitly gay.
For that reason, we will read this book and will encourage others to do so as well. Above all we believe that young people should be able to read whatever they want, no matter how controversial its subject, and that young queer people deserve to see their lives, loves, and struggles considered and reflected in works of art and literature.
(The book may be ordered directly from its publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press, here: http://www.arsenalpulp.com/bookinfo.php?index=410, though many local booksellers in our communities offer it for sale, and we encourage you to buy from Canadian independent bookstores.)