Lydia Perovic on Writing the Contemporary Queer Novel

Incidental Music, by Lydia Perovic (Inanna Publications).

Incidental Music (Inanna Publications) is the Lambda Literary shortlisted debut novel by journalist Lydia Perovic. Perovic has written for many Canadian, UK and U.S. media, including The Awl, n + 1, openDemocracy, Opera Canada, Xtra!, and Toronto Standard. She grew up in the Communist Yugoslavia and moved to Nova Scotia in 1999. Toronto has been her home since 2005.

49th Shelf talked recently with Perovic about writing her own artistic, intellectual and sexual queerdom into the kind of book she'd been craving to read; art as integral to a sense of civic well-being; and, the writer she claims made her gay.

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Julie Wilson: Incidental Music centres around three generations of women—Romola, once a famous Hungarian opera singer; Martha, a married, historic preservationist; and Petra Veselinovic, who has immigrated to Canada.

This novel contains a lot of your own personal tapestry. You, too, immigrated to Canada and share a love of artistic and intellectual pursuits, and women. You've said elsewhere that you were craving more contemporary literature that features this aesthetic. With this work, were you endeavoring both to write such characters into being as well as your experience into the queer or contemporary literature canon?

Lydia Perovic: You know that thing that writers often say, how they wrote a book they were dying to read? I also have to say that. As a reader of Canadian literature, I felt I couldn’t find enough novels that are set in Toronto and are taking place in the present. There are some, thankfully, it’s not entirely hopeless, but nowhere near layers and layers of urban contemporary works that some other literary centres in the world produce. I think—and you think about this a lot while you’re writing your first novel—it’s in the job description of a novelist to tell us what it’s like being alive today. You can go about this business in different ways. But I don’t think choosing to write in the register of the historical novel, or the fantasy novel, or the family saga novel, or the novel written from the POV of a child would have worked for me for this purpose. I had a sense of urgency that demanded that the setting be very contemporary, and in the city that I live in.

And when you write your first novel, the question is always, why that form? Why do you have to say something with a novel, especially given the current state of book publishing? It’s a thing with an awe-inducing history, the novel, and I like finding myself where I’m not at ease, where I’m always somewhat incompetent (why I like writing about opera and classical music, too). You’ll never know enough or be skilled enough, so there is always so much left to do, read, discuss, experience. The novel is also at the same time an extremely roomy form that allows all sorts of abuse—hell, probably thrives on abuse—and essentially democratic in its inner workings. (I agree with Richard Rorty and Iris Murdoch and many others who wrote about this: a good novel is on the side of all the characters and is a conflicted, multi-layered, unruly world.)

JW: Talk a bit about your views on the what you see as the middle-classing of the queer community, the importance placed on coupling, etc. How did you explore or address that in this book? Were there other places you wanted to take these characters or offer comment?

Lydia Perovic (Photo credit: Cheryl Rondeau)

LP: It’s a funny old thing, as a country we are very middle class. And we are not middle class in actual earnings—the income disparities are as bad as ever—but in aspirations, in the practices of the everyday life, in topics that our media cover and discuss, and probably in our literature to some extent, too. Since I move through the queer quarters, what I notice is how middle class in worldview the queer nation is becoming. If you think of the conversations you had with people over the last few days, they’re bound to have been about either somebody’s house (renos, selling/buying prices), their career or yours (this includes the relentless self-promotion that we all do even in our sleep), or their children and pets or yours.
But I think it would have been too easy to have written a literally crass and oblivious middle class family vs. an outsider who’s coming from a non-capitalist place. I would get no pleasure from that simple scheme. So I made Martha and her family just about impossible to criticize and fed into them all the questions about this adopted city of mine and adopted country of mine that have boggled and fascinated my mind since I could think clearly about them.

Although the novel is on first sight in a fairly realist register, this is I hope undermined by the dialogues (they’re often philosophical or political dialogues that, for a traditionalist reader, stop the plot), bits of operatic librettos, musings on urban architecture, a press clipping, an entire speech. And you know, what’s been very revealing to me is hearing from readers who find scenes from work and discussions about politics a non-fiction stall in the movement of the plot. This is where I think some of our reading habits are a bit escapist. I’ve heard feedback, sometimes from sophisticated readers even, who tell me that nothing really happens until Chapter 4, when Martha and Petra have an affair. In fact, Petra gets fired from two different jobs and a big dinner party at Martha’s takes place and is a stage for the “where the hell are we going as a country” conversation. But somehow all this is not plot-y. These things are seen as resisting fiction (work, especially). The melodrama is the plot. How did we come to this habit of reading, is my question.

JW: What role does sex play in this novel? Is that also something you'd like to see more of in contemporary novels in general, or within the female-identified queer community, in particular?

LP: I hoped to make a novel that rings with excitement about ideas, politics, arts, and queer desire in equal measure. Its tone is probably a bit manic. Some sections are hot and bothered about ideas or politics or Toronto streetscape, and others about women’s bodies. I am not saying anything new when I say that sex is incredibly difficult to write. There are many practical reasons you would leave the sex out (a book with some R-rated pages will never be the first choice for the book of the month at your local library). An unfriendly reviewer may quote bits of sex scenes, and out of context they are always cringe-worthy. Etc. But I could not honestly do a fadeout for sex in this story. It would mean leaving important information out. It’s a book full of desire and yearning.

With regard to the queer side of your question, I sometimes have these conversations with some of my queer friends about what is a turn-on in queer porn, and what isn’t. And I find pre-set role-playing not particularly exciting as a sex-writing strategy. So I didn’t do any femme-butch scenarios, or top and bottom. Queer porn has done femme-butch endlessly. I have made the two characters who have sex effectively both switches, if we want to use that very traditional vocabulary. They end up being, as they carve out autonomy in the relationship. This could be my personal blindness, as I’m very close to what Barbara Hammer talks about, the kiki, somebody who’s neither butch nor femme but can be either depending on the person she’s with. So I wanted to look at a situation in which there is more freedom and also unease, where nothing is decided in terms of sexual roles.

JW: Incidental Music is unabashedly set in Toronto. What attracts you to cities? Or is it a Toronto-specific love?

LP: This is my eighth year in Toronto (fourteenth in Canada), and I’m still trying to figure it out, but it’s tolerating me well. I know small-town life and have been trying to escape it since conscious memory. I don’t know what it is about small towns that feeds my knee-jerk Balkan fatalism ... that you can’t really change anything for better so might as well give up before trying.

But in big cities there’s room for contingency. Things come out from the left field. There’s room for comedy. I’ve been re-watching a lot of Jaques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot films lately, and I think big cities are the texture of an Hulot film, a symphony, a cacophony of things coming at you from all directions, but they somehow cohere, often funnily, and often in a way that reminds you that you’re not central.

JW: From the publisher's copy: "This book will have your heart by way of your mind." Talk about the worth of art to our civic well-being and, if you can, how this story is best suited to literature.

LP: They’re indivisible, the civic well-being and the arts. Civic structures of the Toronto in my book have elements of fantasy—the Museum of the City of Toronto already exists, so Martha is lobbying for a museum that would focus on the working class and immigrant Toronto. One of Martha’s staff members has his finger on the pulse (sometimes literally) of the dying members of the haute bourgeoisie and negotiates with the families what objects they’re wiling to bequeath to the city. There’s a civic heritage award that Martha receives that is a really big deal. She is also head of a department that combines both urban heritage and affordable housing. The governing structures in the Toronto of my book are de-siloed, nimbler, more focused, more imaginatively run than might presently be the case. The mayor’s name, which gets mentioned in a press clipping, is Sheila Carroll. So you see why I chose fiction to talk about these things.

How to suit to literature the plot about a big urban policy change, that is the question. I gave it a shot. I hope others will too. Governing of a city is not outside the scope of the novel. Nor is the meaning of heritage and the vitality of art. Things need to be imagined before they can be introduced. Maybe we’ll call something into being, maybe not. But let fiction talk about it.

JW: You joke that Virginia Woolf made you gay. With this book, will Lydia Perovic make anyone gay? Or maybe move to Toronto?

LP: I was dead serious about Woolf. Reading about Mrs. Dalloway remembering a stark-naked Sally running through the hallway, or the stream of consciousness of one seriously sexed up Jinny in The Waves can corrupt a girl. But where was I? Right. Let’s get everybody to move over here first, then we’ll see about the conversions. I had a friend in NYC and a friend in Sweden read the book, and they liked the city bits. So maybe the city bits work. What they skimmed, alas—not even the best among us are immune—are the political discussions. Our political hangups might read local and parochial, but the life in Toronto, it seems, not at all.

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Lydia Perovic appears as part of "Writing Ourselves In: International Social Revolution and the Queer Experience in Literature".

Reading and panel discussion also featuring Shyam Selvadurai (The Hungry Ghosts—Doubleday Canada) and Elizabeth Ruth (Matadora—Cormorant Books).
Moderated by Dina Georgis.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013
7:00 p.m.
Another Story Bookshop
315 Roncesvalles Avenue (at Grenadier)

June 19, 2013
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