I spent this weekend at World Pride with my girlfriend and her best friend Dreamy. It was an absolutely mad weekend, and despite my new sunburn, I had a wonderful time in the most ludicrously deranged bacchanal that I’ve ever experienced. I think Toronto now knows its physical limits in terms of how much of a party it could sustain without breaking. Let’s just say that after this weekend, I’m extremely glad to get back to work.
As my overstuffed workweek begins again, I thought I’d share some ideas at the heart of one of my fiction projects, A Small Man’s Town. This is the sprawling novel about life in St. John’s in the 2000s that I’m turning into a book of linked short stories so that I can sell it to a publisher more easily.
The stories all revolve around subtle, slow-dawning epiphanies. My favourite short stories are by James Joyce, though my too-late discovery of Alice Munro’s work has brought a new element to my influences. You could say the modern stereotype of the short story involves a moment where the protagonist comes to understand some fundamental aspect of his life differently, or more truly, than he had before. My short stories in this collection all have this moment of realization, but we see how it doesn’t really change the characters at all.
When it comes to the gay characters in my St. John’s stories, you see this best with the two stories featuring Nadia, my 21 year old Palestinian lesbian. She’s a central character in the collection’s first story, which was also the first scene that I thought of when I first conceived of A Small Man’s Town in 2007. The campus protest scene was originally much more ludicrous, and was played for cartoonish laughs. Its current form is more subtle and cynical.
It’s a protest against the Iraq War, a scene that takes place in early Fall of 2003. The first speaker is a local leftist activist, who almost brings the rally to a halt with her ridiculous defence of the Ba’ath Party as brave resisters to American imperialism. Newfoundlanders will probably know which local politician I’m skewering there. Her friend Laurie, who organized the protest, throws Nadia on stage too early to try to save the rally (instead of doing any public speaker herself), and ends up sputtering through her speech in a moment of stagefright. The next day at a party intended to celebrate a successful protest, Nadia and Laurie reconcile over a block of hash.
Their friendship is central to a later Nadia-focussed story, which describes how Laurie and her boyfriend became Nadia’s first friend when she moved to St. John’s. This story focusses on the fallout of Nadia’s only real relationship during her university years, with an egocentric girl named Jen. They only date for six months, and it’s implied that Jen was cheating on Nadia with men — she was more interested in amassing sexual experiences now that she was living independently in the city.
Nadia, however, fell stupidly in love with a woman who was only ever using her, like a lot of people do in their 20s. One New Years’ Eve, when Jen rubs her promiscuity in Nadia’s face one night until she’s reduced to tears, Laurie comes to her defence, kicking Jen out of the party* and helping her feel better about herself.
* A lot of the major events in the university-centric stories of this collection happen at parties and rock shows where people are drinking heavily. This is when people’s most honest natures tend to emerge.
What was most important to me for these characters was establishing the complexity of their friendship. Too often, I’ve seen relationships between straight women and lesbians depicted according to stereotypes, and within the swirling network of these stories, I wanted to have one set of friends who would just relate to each other as people instead of The Gay Best Friend™ or close friends who are Awakening Their Latent Sexualities™.
Laurie and Nadia are a decent person who’s sometimes too full of herself and a sweetheart who can become terrifying when she loses her temper and despondent when her heart is broken. I wanted to offer people a story that offered that kind of complexity in such a simple friendship.