h) Culture, history and literature
Review of Death of a Drag Queen
(Julian Halls, Ginninderra Press, 2003)
Why would anyone bother reading or writing about drag queens?
(launch speech delivered at Fuller's Bookshop, Hobart, October 12th 2003)
If left to my own devices, Death of a Drag Queen is a book I would never read.
First of all thereís the title.
Death of a drag queen - thatís nothing special, drag queens die all the time. They die little deaths when their songs are misqueued or they fumble their lines. They die long lingering deaths when get their own shows on JJJ or MTV. When the illusion is broken, as it was the other night in a show I was half watching in Melbourne when a wig fell off to reveal wispy grey hair underneath, they die a sudden and very painful death. Simply put, most drag queens present a very compelling case for euthanasia.
Normally the genre would deter me as well.
Gay fiction is not my thing, for the simple reason that gay life-experience has become my work. I see too much homophobia, too much violence, too many fucked-up lives to enjoy seeing that reality reflected back to me from the pages of a book. When I read fiction itís anything but gay.
Some of the bookís subject matter also fails to capture my interest.
When I pick up a book and on flipping through find the words Paddington or Surry Hills or Circular Quay I almost always put it down again. My problem with Sydney is much the same as my problem with gay life Ė Iím too familiar with it, too conscious of it. Worse, Sydney isnít me, itís not my life, Sydney-siders are not my people.
Nothing Iíve said is a judgement on the quality of the work. Itís just how I filter.
As you can see "Death" came to me with many in-built disadvantages. Even before I read it I was preparing to fail it. But of course to talk about it I had to read it. And thatís what saved it for me.
Death is a short, tight wonderful book.
Having not previously read much by Julian I was impressed by his clear and easy language. His words flow into you like sweet wine. There is a keen sense of timing and rhythm in every sentence, techniques which we can guess from the first story, Julian learnt a long time ago but has never forgotten.
Great timing and strong rhythm make stories effortless to read and you feel they must have required little effort to write. But this is deceptive.
Soon I realised I was captured by protagonists in whose lives I had an interest and about whose characters I wanted to know more. I had no choice but to follow them on their sometimes difficult personal journeys.
I imagine Armistead Maupinís Tales of the City was born in interwoven personal stories like these. Julian tells me he is writing a novel. It will be interesting to see if he follows the same literary path.
What else impressed me about Death of a Drag Queen?
I enjoyed the way Julian integrates politics so seamlessly into his stories. For example, in "Angels" a manís male partner dies and the surviving partner, not recognised as next-of-kin, loses everything. From there the story begins. Julianís mastery of political understatement is a sign of his maturity as a writer.
I was smitten by Julianís metaphors. When a young Japanese manís thick parted hair shines in the sun blue/black like the wings of a beetle I could immediately and vividly see him. If it is the purpose of metaphor to liberate the imagination Julianís serve their purpose perfectly.
I love Julianís gay eye. By that I mean his unjudging, unsentimental, sad, camp and colluding observations of weakness, frailty and foible. This is the same eye with which David Leavitt sees upper middle class America or Edmund White, French cultural dissidents. Of course, Julian has turned that eye on people altogether different and much less often observed.
Some of these people have had until now no representation in literature at all. Iím talking here about Hobartís young gay knaves, queens and aces, young men who live unstable, inflamed lives and who too often crash in flames as well. Credit to you Julian for observing, honouring and in some cases memorialising lives the world is too quick to forget.
But beyond all these qualities there is a far deeper reason I enjoyed Death of a Drag Queen.
After 15 years as a gay advocate the anger which once propelled me has finally been transformed into something much more important.
It has become joy: joy at the great and real changes which have occurred on this beautiful island, joy at the possibility that that change is a beacon of hope in a pessimistic and cynical world.
But it has also become sorrow: a deep sorrow at the overwhelming pain and desperation I have been compelled to witness, all the ignorance and hate and fear.
It was only when I read this sad and joyful book that I realised how deep my joy and sorrow are, and how completely they have replaced my youthful anger.
By portraying joy and sadness so well, and by portraying them here, now, in this world, "Death" gave me permission to cry all the tears that I should have cried many years ago.
I can assure you from now on I will be reading much more fiction about drag queens, about Sydney and about being gay.
This launch speech for Julian Hall's Death of a Drag Queen, delivered at Fuller's Bookshop on October 12th 2003, was reprinted in the Tasmanian Literary Biannual, Famous Reporter #28, Dec 2003.
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