The Genius of John R. Gordon



John R. Gordon is a polymath. He has written many novels, including the award-winning Drapetomania — a powerful, inventive indictment of slavery that centres same-sex male desire. He has also written about an androgynous gay former child soldier who arrives in South London as a refugee and has to cope with PTSD, alongside the street wars and pusher-men that plague his new surroundings. As if that weren’t enough, Gordon has also written a novel called Faggamuffin about British-Caribbean bad boys who have to navigate their sexuality as well as their complex cultural heritage as Black-British gay men who have been sidelined by the system. There is also Colour Scheme — a panoramic depiction of modern bohemian London with blackness and gayness as its nexus points.


For someone who has written almost exclusively about the intersections of race, class and sexuality in Britain and America, and examined those dichotomies through an epic lens, John R. Gordon cuts a paradoxically shy and confident figure. He is the kind of writer that isn’t afraid to draw blood, but he is also the kind of man who navigates the world with an increasingly rare originality of thought and generosity of spirit. His expansive and sensitive portrayals of Black outsiderhood has meant that his work hasn’t received the kind of acclaim that his closest counterparts — David Simon and Dennis Lehane, two middle-class white American male writers who explore similar terrain — have experienced. Maybe it’s the fact that Gordon centres Black gayness — particularly Black British gayness — in a publishing landscape where the mundane musings of white, middle-class, cis, straight femaleness: think Rachel Cusk or Sally Rooney — are hyper-valorised to a ludicrous extent.


This is not a new phenomenon: British publishing has found it almost impossible to drag itself out of being the exclusive province of cis-het, white, middle-class female gatekeepers who unleash unbridled beigeness upon the world.


As a corrective to this narrative, in 2011 Gordon co-founded Team Angelica Press, one of Britain’s very few LGBT imprints, with his creative partner, Rikki Beadle-Blair (the hyper-energetic and ingenious playwright and filmmaker). What Gordon and Beadle-Blair have accomplished with Team Angelica is nothing short of miraculous: they published my Polari Prize-winning short story collection, Fairytales for Lost Children about the LGBT Somali community as well as Chiké Frankie Edozien’s Lambda-winning memoir, Lives of Great Men, which is the first out gay Nigerian memoir to be published. Team Angelica has also published the ground-breaking trans writer and critic, Roz Kaveney, as well as the cultural interventions that were Sista!: an anthology of Black British lesbian writers, and Black and Gay in the UK, featuring some of the country’s finest young writers including Dean Atta and Travis Alabanza.


What’s astonishing about this dynamic output is that Team Angelica Press has never recorded a single financial loss, which is remarkable since almost all books that are published (including your faves) get pulped at one stage or the other. With Team Angelica, nothing is wasted and every book makes a profit. This is unheard of. Most publishers would shout this achievement from the rooftops, but Gordon and Beadle-Blair just keep their heads down and do the work, bolstered by a lifetime of cultural and literary activism.


Even getting Gordon to sit down for this interview and photo-shoot was a challenge, but he eventually acquiesced to discuss his latest novel, Hark, a simmering young adult romance that feels startlingly prescient with regards to the racial reckoning that is happening all over America right now. Below is a condensed transcript of our conversation.


1. The character of Hark is such a beguiling, distinctive fictional creation. How did you conceive of him? Was it a character that had been bubbling in your mind for a while?


Thank you! He came out of a mix of things. Many years ago — I mean probably over twenty years ago — I wrote an unperformed, very chaotic play that had a lot of the notions around Hark and his technology in it, particularly the Ancestor Box, his travelling device. The play used a lot of Afrofuturist motifs — (Black gay) Star Children in silver platform boots; riffs on Parliament and Funkadelic and Sun Ra. The image of quicksilver eyes has haunted me for a long time as a sort of techno alien thing. That was all over on one side. Then there was the whole thing about lynching photographs being made into postcards: the sickness of that; the persistence of America’s racial history as horror show. The issues around who controls the image, and death as spectacle and humiliation. So there were those structuring images and ideas. And above all, he’s a man on a mission, and so by necessity at times ruthless. But then I wanted him to also be a real person, with history, individuality, humanity and texture, and his own linguistic register — a touch of the hep cat. People oscillate between human and inhuman, kind and callous, all the time, I think, and I wanted to explore both sides of him, not least to avoid the trap of showing him as nothing but likeable, and only therefore a suitable victim of history. He is — his mission is about — defying victimhood.


2. Cleve and Roe have this interesting dynamic for what is a Southern-set interracial teenage romance. I like the inversion of Roe, the young black man, being radical and punk and upper-middle class, whereas Cleve, the white character in the narrative, comes from a dirt-poor background riddled with sociological disadvantages like morbid obesity and opioid addiction. In any other writer’s hands, the black character would be presented as the one with the economic struggles. What inspired this inversion? Was it a desire to resist cliché?


Yes, very much so — though Roe’s well-to-do folks have economic anxieties too. But I wanted to avoid the trope of the socially ‘outsider’ Black character being a conduit to ‘growthful’ experiences for the typical blandly privileged ‘relatable’ white character. After all, in love both people must grow.


Realism had to do with it too — white rural poverty is a huge thing; Black folks are middle-class and so on. I mean, it’s not at all a fanciful inversion, just an unusual one. I think it allowed me to explore much more interesting cross-cuts — interactions with the police, for instance, became much less predictable. Roe is perhaps the more complex character — proud of his parents’ achievements but stifled by aspirational conservatism; aware of his privilege in attending the local private school, but burdened by being one of only four black students there; seeking ways to rebel against levels of racial ‘fixing’ within and outside the Black community without erasing himself as a young Black man.


I was also concerned that we go inside both Cleve and Roe equally. The book starts from the white boy’s point of view, and then a few chapters in switches back and we see everything from Roe’s point of view. This inhabiting of multitudes is what fiction, uniquely, allows us to do — as both writers and readers — and is what I think is enriching about it.


There were other things I wanted to show that are also perhaps less usual, like both Roe and Cleve having constructive relationships with their fathers in ways that will lead to the fathers accepting their sons’ homosexuality — something lightly sketched at the book’s conclusion. Twined in with this, it was important to me that neither Cleve nor Roe were bogged down in self-hatred for being gay: in their differently-inflected ways they both see homophobia as a problem within other people, and something to be resisted and defied, rather than seeing their gayness as an internal defect to be wished away in order to make moving through their lives easier — which seems to me to accord with young lgbtq folks today, who are refreshingly angry with homophobic (etc) microaggressions.


3. Talk to me about the destruction of the confederate statue in the novel. Even though this book was completed a year ago, it feels weirdly of the moment and timeless, certainly in relation to the racial reckoning that’s happening all across the world right now, and particularly in America. I’m interested in your perspective on this as someone who’s always been incredibly astute about the racial history of America, and whose stories have a prophetic edge to them.


I started writing Hark during the first Black Lives Matter moment, and the toppling of those faux-historical propagandist statues was a perfect image for cracking the past open and forcing it to disgorge itself, be exposed to the light and (hopefully) faced up to, so worked as both a literal and a thematic trigger for my tale. As Faulkner (a touchstone author of mine, along with Baldwin, Wright and Chester Himes) said, ‘The past isn’t dead. The past isn’t even past.’


Actually, I’d started to worry that the felling of the statue would seem a bit dated by the time the book came out, along with the BLM references, but the killing of George Floyd has led to a global rekindling of anti-racist protest, BLM discourse, and confrontations with the wickednesses of history, and so my story is, tragically but not despairingly, right on time. Perhaps anything ‘prophetic’ is inadvertent. Racism isn’t going away anytime soon, alas.


4. What inspired the deep pivot from writing an acclaimed slavery saga like Drapetomania to Hark, which reads as classic young adult fiction?


I like to work in different forms and idioms and not repeat myself, though I do have plans to explore slavery in a future novel, through a British-Caribbean lens. After spending a decade on Drapetomania, I really wanted — needed — to do something shorter and faster. I was still very much steeped in that Southern Gothic world, so it felt natural to set my next tale there, but use a contemporary setting — in fact literally embed it in the fictional county of Welt, the setting for the opening sections of Drapetomania, which I think gives Hark a sense of dense or deep history and geography, hopefully even for readers who’ve not read Drapetomania.


The immediate trigger was an African-American New York agent who championed Drapetomania for me for a while. She specialized in YA fiction and suggested I write something for that audience — an interracial romance that in its opening pages focuses on the white protagonist. It was one of those rare, happy circumstances where the plot fell very naturally into place and everything came to life in the writing without much in the way of stumbles and difficulties.


I think pretty much all writers like the idea of creating a book that captures young readers’ imaginations — something that might lead to someone saying later, ‘That’s the book that inspired me to write.’ We all have a special place in our hearts for beloved childhood books.


I also wrote in a way against Simon vs the Homo Sapien Agenda, a YA gay romance set in a Southern high school. It has an interracial twist that frustrates — or frustrated me, certainly — because the author simply ducks all the issues to produce an essentially colour-blind narrative that inadvertently erases the black character’s experiences. It is, of course, hugely successful, and has spawned a film and TV series. Anyway, I hope I’ve done something more provocative than that, and so, ultimately, more honest and heartfelt: had lovers, Black and white, face the pain of reality and history in order to endure, and to thrive.




5. You’ve always had a deep love for adventure stories and fantasy, whether it is Tolkien or HP Lovecraft. With regards to Lovecraft, his strident racism has tainted his legacy and yet we still have narratives like Lovecraft Country trying to wrestle with his bigotry. I see Hark as much more than a counternarrative to the toxicity of Lovecraft’s oeuvre. To me, Hark feels like a work of Afrofuturism. What do you make of this assessment?


My next novel, Mother of Serpents, engages more with Lovecraftian tropes. The Lovecraft thing is a huge, difficult topic. Any claim that he ‘got over’ his anti-black racism as he went along is untrue (letters to Robert Psycho Block in the last year of his life — he died of stomach cancer, aged 47 — are cringily vitriolic — and clearly not in response to anything racist that Bloch said.) I just read The Ballad of Black Tom, a rather good weird novella by the African-American writer Victor Lavalle, where he reworks one of Lovecraft’s clumsier and more overtly racist tales, ‘The Horror at Red Hook’, with a Black protagonist, to powerful effect. Lovecraft Country — I haven’t seen the show yet; the book (by a white author) is not brilliant, but has a brilliant premise — and engages with America’s racist past — the racist evils of the segregated 1950s — cleverly and provocatively. So there’s an interesting irony in which it’s precisely because HPL was a racist that reworking, challenging and subverting his cosmically nihilist vision has value and moral power now — first by a white liberal author; then by brilliant Black showrunner and film-maker Jordan Peele — and of course before that, by African-American Lavalle and others.


Tolkien is a totally different prospect, of course. He withdrew a German edition of The Hobbit when the publisher demanded to know if he was Jewish. I revisit Lord of the Rings regularly for the pleasure of storytelling and world-building on an epic scale, and for his style, clarity and a sense of deep (‘feigned,’ as he would put it) history (as opposed to fantasy, or allegory, which he especially disliked.)


I grew up with adventure yarns — Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, all that tail-end of empire stuff that still predominated in Britain in the 1970s — a legacy which I very much didn’t engage with in my earlier novels, which were contemporary, urban, aiming for detailed naturalism and representing the under-represented — Black, often underclass gay men in the UK, and were particularly inspired by James Baldwin, perhaps above all by his brilliant Another Country — along with other African-American writes like Richard Wright and Chester Himes. In my later work — partly informed by my film and TV writing — I began to become fascinated with fusing those serious concerns with overtly exciting storytelling of the sort that reaches the ‘popular’ audience. I had developed the confidence to write eventful tales. Writing ‘action’ is really tricky, but rewarding when you get it right — and it’s action and deft plotting that make a book a page-turner. Why not try to be a page-turner? My aim currently is to fuse that sense of pace and narrative involvement with situations, characters and psychologies that are complex — the concerns of what we usually call literary fiction. So my 2012 novel Faggamuffin was about a gay Jamaican fleeing to the UK following a lynch-mob attack and trying to build a life here; and my 2014 novel Souljah was about an effeminate African boy and his mother arriving in South London as refugees from a civil war. They are predated on by local drug-dealers, not realising that the boy is a former child soldier, and capable of levels of violence far beyond them. These are tales of migration and refuge in which the quiet moments of instrospection must be fought for in a hectic, brutal world, and I would argue that this is realistic. It seems to me pernicious — actually ridiculous — to think that only well-to-do, fairly uneventful white lives are the stuff of serious writing. If I have a single motivation, it’s to write about such lives as I do with as much literary seriousness as others’ lives get written.


Getting back to Hark, I’d agree it’s not a speaking-back-to-Lovecraft tale, and your reference to Afrofuturism is apposite as well as a compliment. Certainly in terms of the uncanny elements it’s less a ghost story than a sort of science fiction — the UK TV series Sapphire & Steel was a touchstone for me (particularly Assignment 2, which uses the First World War as a story frame). Hark is given a device — the Ancestor Box — which has various technological-seeming powers and functions — and his mode of travelling seems within the realm of science, rather than magic; and the creatures that pursue him are in their way a part of the natural world, albeit beyond the normal. I was recently rereading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and maybe that influenced me, though Hark exists entirely outside any religious schema — particularly a Christian one. If anything, it is connected with African cosmology and the constant presence of the ancestors in the lives of the living.


On a general principle of realism, I wanted to tell a tale where the protagonists could always — just about — deny the reality of the supernatural elements they encounter, and, though changed by what they experience, plausibly return to the everyday world at the novel’s conclusion. While I enjoy a lot of genre writing, I suppose that was a literary choice: to bound the uncanny.



6. Which LGBT writers would you recommend readers go out and enjoy alongside Hark?


Blackbird, by Larry Duplechan, a wonderful gay teen interracial romance. All his novels are wonderful, actually, from Eight Days a Week onwards. He has that rare gift of combining a lightness of touch with real heart and depth.


A Spectral Hue by Craig L. Gidney — an eerie and poignant tale with a young black gay protagonist, a student of art history, who comes to a small, isolated town to study the strange folk art made by its African-American inhabitants.


James Baldwin’s novel of Greenwich Village bohemia, Another Country, and above all his epic final novel of the Civil Rights era, with its black gay gospel-singing protagonist, Just Above My Head, are both masterpieces.


Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse is a brilliant graphic novel about a young gay white Southerner getting caught up in the Civil Rights movement.


7. What can we expect from you next? Is there another novel in the pipeline?


During the early part of lockdown I managed to write and redraft a novel of the uncanny, Mother of Serpents, another American-set novel, about a gay black-white couple with a young son, who relocate from Brooklyn to an old house in upstate Maine. Duvone is lumbered with being the stay-at-home parent, and has to struggle with finding himself in an all-white neighbourhood — coping with the latent hostility of that and the way it corrodes the spirit — and also with his own pre-existing mental health difficulties. When creepy things start to happen, he at first thinks his psychosis is recurring, so it’s very much about the fear of going mad, as well as an — I hope — classic spooky yarn. I don’t really like fiction that nods to other writers or stories, but of course Lovecraft’s mother and uncle both went mad, and the possibility and fear of madness triggered by an encounter with the supernatural is in a lot of his tales. My novel is informed by friends’ experiences of psychotic episodes. The title is a riff on the tale Lovecraft ghost-wrote for Hazel Heald, ‘The Curse of Yig’. What I hope to achieve with it is something that both stands as a serious literary novel about race and madness (and homophobia, and class and gender) in America today — of course Get Out is a touchstone here — and feels like a classic tale of the uncanny in the tradition of M.R. James, Stephen King and others. As I say, I’m two drafts in, so fingers crossed. For me the polishing and nuancing is the most rewarding part of the work, but one has to be painstaking.


*


Photography and styling by DIRIYE OSMAN



JOHN R. GORDON'S favourite song: 'Ghost Town' by THE SPECIALS