I've been thinking about this subject for a while. I wondered many times whether this piece should simply be called, 'The Loneliness of the Writer,' but I know there are certain isolations that are specific to the gay, lesbian, trans and nonbinary wordsmiths amongst us; isolations that are further complicated by issues of race and social reach and disability and countless other intersections.
Here in the UK, for all its particularity, the loneliness experienced by the queer writer also feels like a microcosm of the loneliness felt by the entire citizenry of this strange, sometimes beautiful island. To live and work in the UK, whether it is at or close to the social apex or subsistence-level survival, is to be existentially lonely in that hit-you-in-the-heart-until-you-struggle-to-breathe kinda way, which is to say that it colours all your interactions at the molecular scale.
Struggle seems to be the syntax of the queer writer and it can be a destabilisation that swallows up the sun in ways that are so startling and hyperspectral as to be hallucinatory.
The queer writer is repeatedly reminded that their writing is too niche for a worthwhile audience (read: straight, preferably white, preferably middle class.) If underpaid twenty-two year-old Clarissa in the marketing department of your bigwig publisher can't see herself in the pages of your gay or sapphic masterpiece, if Clarissa in all her astrology-devouring, Groupon-loving, Instagram-obsessed wisdom can't empathise with your narrative, you're fucked and no big-shot agent this side of Binky Urban can get your book to a wider audience.
Have you heard the story of Dan Franklin, the head of Jonathan Cape who had overseen the careers of writers like Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Julian Barnes, who found himself being fucked over by his young marketing team over a brilliant, avant garde novel by a critically acclaimed female writer that he desperately wanted to publish? Moral of the story? be super-kind to the Clarissas of this world. Those women run tings.
There is also the grim anecdote by Michael Cunningham who relayed that as soon as he stopped writing about sexy gay dudes living their best sexy gay lives, and started focusing on depressed, middle-class women instead, he won a Pulitzer for his troubles and had his novel adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep.
Or what about my own weird encounters in the world of big publishing? When my then-agent was shopping my first book, Fairytales for Lost Children, a collection of queer short stories, to every major and minor publisher in the UK, the rejections came quick and fast. One editor at Random House said she loved, loved, loved the book, but she had already spent her budget on short story collections for the year on another African writer, and that was more than enough for her. The short story collection from the African writer in question appeared, then quickly disappeared from view. Fairytales for Lost Children won the Polari Prize for Fiction, was acclaimed by everyone from Meshell Ndegeocello to Bernardine Evaristo to Alison Bechel, and is currently being taught in universities and high schools from Malawi to Minnesota. Moral of the story? Be super-kind to the Clarissas of this world, but gatekeepers do not always make or break a career.
All of this, however, doesn't quell the isolation of the queer writer. For every win, you are told again and again that your success is a blip in a system that wasn't designed with you in mind, an exception that proves the rule.
What is the antidote you ask, beloved reader? Let us nurture ourselves and each other as LGBTQ+ writers, publishers, academics and artists. Let us invest in those who have gone out of their way to invest in us. Let us build our own communities predicated on the kind of love and solidarity that seems lacking in so many areas of modern life.
And let us continue to write. Let us continue to tell our stories even if everyone and their mama seems unwilling to hear it. Change is lateral and messy, a jagged graph, not a smooth assent. Let us meet the moment because...why not? What does one have to lose?
This world and everything in it is yours, beloved reader.
DIRIYE OSMAN'S new book, The Butterfly Jungle, is out now and can be ordered via these global retailers: https://bit.ly/3L9SLR4
Song of the moment: 'She's in Formation' by BEYONCE and MISSY ELLIOTT.