January 27, 2016

Interview with Lluís Maria Todó

One of the most significant Spanish authors devoted to LGBT themes currently, Lluís Maria Todó (Barcelona, 1950), has discussed with us his young adult novel Isaac y las dudas; you will find his interesting remarks on topics such as creativity and reality, sexuality and censorship, if you read this juicy interview.

SPANISH GAY FICTION: If I am not wrong, Isaac y las dudas came up from a request. Could you please explain this?

LLUÍS MARIA TODÓ: It was around 2002 when the person who was in charge of La Magrana publishing house made an appointment for me. She told me that secondary education schools were lacking a fiction depicting young gay people and their issues in a positive way, and asked me if I wanted to solve this deficiency. That is to say, to write a young adult novel about teen gays who are not discriminated, attacked, or eventually determined to commit suicide or hopelessly embittered. It was supposed that the book would become a recommended reading in high schools, and therefore sell well, as well as an opportunity to visit schools and talk to young readers about the book, about them, about me. I really liked the idea and accepted.

SGF: Are there autobiographical elements in this novel?

LMT: Not in the least. This is the least autobiographical of all the novels that I have ever published. It is all fictional.

SGF: Do you remember when you realized your sexual identity? Would you say that it was a relieving experience like Isaac’s, or rather different?

LMT: I talked about this in El mal francés:[1] it happened when I was a 19-year-old student in France, while my girlfriend was expecting my first child in Barcelona. No doubt my experience was much more dramatic than Isaac’s, indeed. Other times, other manners—And all that was reality, not fiction.

SGF: Do you think that Dimitri’s story is now much more up to date than the time the novel was published, regarding the current Russian administration’s homophobic attitude and the increasing number of homosexual Russians exiled in our country?

LMT: Absolutely. The type of the gay pretty Russian boy has sadly changed from a sort of sexual fantasy (like in the novel) to become a tragic reality in mass media and host countries.

SGF: Roser, David’s mother—is she based on any real person that you have ever known?

LMT: No, I have never met any woman keenly wishing that her son declares himself as gay, so that he may lend a hand in her dance studio—As if all gays were good at dance! This character, like many other elements of the book, meets the general strategy to display a favorable—though not too much sentimental—scene for teen gays, modulating this positive vision with a touch of humor.

SGF: The most original aspect in your novel may be the fact that a boy has sex with another boy to reaffirm his heterosexuality—no fuss, no mock. How did this idea come about? Have you ever known any straight guy who has experienced anything similar?

LMT: Yes, I know boys who have had homosexual experiences—to reaffirm their heterosexuality?, I do not know. But they wanted to see how it is, and then resolved that they like sex with girls rather than boys. My first homosexual experience fits in this scheme. Of course, it was the other guy who was testing, and gratefully resolved that it was not bad, but he was determined to stay with his girlfriend.

SGF: How important is this novel in your work? Is it one of your favorites?

LMT: It plays a special role in my work. To start with, and as I said before, this is the only time I write a book on request so far, and was thought as a young adult novel. Isaac y las dudas is also special for me as this is the only novel of mine which does not include any autobiographical element. I liked it, and was pleased to see that I was able to make up characters, situations, a funny, believable plot. Years go by, and this group of young boys, Isaac and his doubts, and his boy friends and girl friends, and their partners and dads and mums—it all seems to me too sweet.

SGF: As this is a project on request to make homosexuality become normalized in secondary education schools, do you feel that this affects the tone of the book? Is Isaac y las dudas very different from your most personal projects?

LMT: Absolutely. I wanted to design an imaginary scene in which young gays are not only accepted by their families, but also their sexual orientation is considered better in some cases. In addition, the book contains a mystery plot, a joke on contemporary dance (which gets my nerves), plenty of humor. Yes, everything in Isaac y las dudas is different to my other books. Another point is, for reasons that I ignore but can guess, that the book did not become a recommended reading in any secondary education school—as far as I know.

SGF: Now let me vouch for Rafa and other swishy gays. Why in this much more diverse society are effeminate homosexuals still made fun of, or not taken seriously, even within the gay universe?

LMT: I really cannot diagnose such an interesting topic. But I can state without hesitation that the character of Rafa was created just to vindicate the swishy gay, to fight against one of the most long-lasting homophobic strongholds, even (or should I say above all?) in the gay community itself. Prejudice against being swishy is unfair, reactionary, stupid, and very usual at the same time. Do not ask me why, but it is so. I actually have the impression that nobody knows well what is to be swishy about (saying it means effeminacy is an absurd simplification; women are not used to be swishy). Why some little children and some adults are swishy, and what the connection between being swishy and homosexuality is, what being swishy expresses to us. . .Many mysteries and one slogan for the moment: you have to love swish.

SGF: Let’s talk about Ferrán, Isaac’s teacher. . .Do you feel sorry for him, or do you think that he is a miserable wuss? What do you really think about him?

LMT: Regarding Ferrán, let me tell you an interesting story: when I went to the publishing house to give the novel, the person in charge was not the same woman who had requested me the book. After a few weeks we met and she told me that she had found the tone of the book too frivolous for a significant topic such as homosexuality in teenage (of course, this was her idea, not her words). And worse: if they had to suggest the book to high school teachers, Ferrán could not come off so badly, so coward. I tried to defend my choices, but I finally adapted to the new manager’s needs. After all, it was a novel on request. In the Catalonian version[2] Ferrán is therefore a much more positive character, he manages his pupil’s love in a more courageous way, or at least more elegant. Later, when the possibility to translate the novel into Spanish arose, I recovered the original, uncensored version, where Ferrán is more afraid of a kind of teen sexuality that he himself has made spring forth. As a punishment to the censor, every time they ask me, I say that I prefer the Spanish version, which is a very good translation and displays a plot more faithful to my intentions. 

SGF: When the kids are working on a project about homosexuality and literature, they take an interest in homosexual authors’ wives. Are you also interested in these women historically overshadowed by their renowned gay husbands?

LMT: That was also one of the publisher’s suggestions, and a price that I paid with no objections, given the circumstances. Actually, I do not think that the type of the gay author’s uncomplaining wife is too usual. Moreover, it is almost disappeared, typical in the times when every homosexual needed to marry a woman to be socially accepted. Of course it would be very interesting to portray women married to homosexuals in the pre-gay age, no matter if their husbands were authors, taxi drivers, or presidents of the government. These women were lots, and they are still many today, and for sure they have a lot to say.

SGF: Isaac’s father, Lluís, is worried that his son may be gay. Is it a homophobic issue, or rather a feeling of unease since his son may suffer in life a lot because of his sexuality? According to you, to what extent may parents concern the same in real life?

LMT: Lluís’ dialectical trick is too usual. That is to say: “I am not against gay people, but I would prefer not to have a gay son, since he would otherwise suffer discrimination.” People who say this do not realize that they themselves are discriminating, and causing suffering to their children. The only honest position before your children’s homosexuality is to love that homosexuality, as this is an essential feature of them. Anything else is homophobic rubbish.

SGF: Is there any criticism on those writing workshops that Lluís attends? What is your opinion about these workshops where you can learn to write?

LMT: In writing workshops they teach to write books that meet the publication market demand, best-selling books. That is absolutely okay, but has almost nothing to do with my concept of what literature is. Until proven otherwise, to be a good writer you need talent, a lot of reading, deep knowledge on the language you are going to write in and, above all, something original to say. The main point is that you need to have the feeling that there is something in your mind which is still unwritten, and take over the task to get it down on paper or record it in a hard disk.

SGF: What are you working on now? What are your next projects?

LMT: I am writing a somehow weird book, still unnamed. There I will explain my varied relationships with the books, or the authors that have helped me the most become the writer that I am. I will speak as a reader, as a teacher, as a translator and as a novelist about the authors that I have been keener on, in terms of similarity or just for professional need: Proust, Flaubert, Stendhal, Balzac. It is a combination of informative essay and intellectual autobiography. We will see—

[1] A title hard to translate, as this phrase is polysemic. Possible choices: ‘The French Disease’ (that is, syphilis), ‘The Bad Frenchman,’ ‘Broken French’. . .This book is a journal in which Todó portrays a turning point in his private life, as well as he considers the recent history of Spain, from the last years of the Franco regime to the first stages of our current democracy. This book won the 2006 Josep Pla Prize, a prestigious literary award for books in Catalonian.
[2] This book was published in Catalonian first, the title being Isaac i els dubtes.

January 20, 2016

Dancer from the Slavs

On Lluís Maria Todó’s Isaac y las dudas (“Isaac and the Doubts”)

The plot of this 2003 novel of sexual initiation is pretty simple: 17-year-old Isaac is still doubtful about coming out. Also, he knows his father Lluís is secretly wishing him to declare himself straight once and for all.

Isaac’s platonic love is his hot young literature teacher Ferrán, who glances at Isaac every time he mentions gay authors in class; the teacher highlights the point that this is the moment in history when you can openly discuss about homosexuality. Ferrán’s attention to both the topic and his enchanting student gives cause to Isaac and Rafa—Isaac’s swishy, sexually experienced gay seatmate, currently dating a cop nearly twice his age—for thinking that Ferrán is gay as well, and blindly drawn to Isaac.

One day Isaac gathers his courage and dates Ferrán for opening his heart—but his precious teacher does not respond the way that Isaac and his friends had expected. . .

Well, this is not the end of the world—especially when Dimitri turns up. This new character is a gay Russian dancer who has recently arrived in Spain, a destination that he had chosen filled with hope and expectation. Dimitri and Isaac like each other at first sight—No wonder: Isaac is described as a Greek beauty: dark, deep eyes and curly, bushy hair; while Dimitri squares with the Slav type: pale, blond and light piercing-eyed—besides his perfect anatomy built up through years of dedication to ballet. Dimitri happens to be the guy to whom Isaac eventually loses his virginity.

Anyway, not everything is joy and pleasure; Dimitri is almost killed in an attempted murder. The Russian mafia that helped him leave his native country is believed to be behind. Isaac gets determined to watch over him while Dimitri is hospitalized, and this decision will bring about Isaac’s final coming out, showing that sexual identity is not so much asserted because of sexual rather than sentimental resolutions.

Once to this point—what makes Isaac y las dudas so different, so appealing? Well, we have left aside another important story so far—let’s go back. . .

Isaac’s classmate David is also inexperienced at the beginning of the novel. His mother Roser, a so fanciful, so romantic dancing school for children owner, always inclined towards arty-farty stuff—as well as a casual stoner—, is ready and willing to hear from her son: “Mommy, I am gay.” But this sentence still remains unuttered. What is eating David? Why is he waiting so much to confess his inclinations, given that his mother is so happily receptive?—The truth is that David is in a fog.

He can see the hints: his mother’s unyielding wish that her son must be gay; also, his unmanly company: a circle of none-but-gay-or-girl friends—However, he is not so certain. . .What can he do? Well, here is when the most exceptional feature of this novel happens.

To make up his mind, David is resolved to have sex with another guy. The chosen one is his mother’s hot new employee, Dimitri. Sex happens naturally, and it is okay—but after this experience David is sure that he is not gay. This event means a variation in the usual topic of the gay man who has sex with women to test his sexuality. It could be said that the best aspect is that the boy does not try it out as a bruising issue, but he gleefully shares his experience with his gay and girl friends.

Another surprising feature in this novel comes from the point that it is adult people who must learn an accepting lesson:
·       Ferrán, his true sexual identity;
·       Isaac’s father, his son’s homosexuality; and,
·       David’s mother, her son’s heterosexuality—no matter how much she loathes this.

This novel also reminds us of the state of play in other countries different from Spain. Concerning Dimitri, he had to turn to the mob so that he could leave Russia, a place where happiness is not possible for him.

Lluís Maria Todó’s narration is as unaffected as elegant. For instance, sex is shortly mentioned; this is not a scabrous novel aimed to make the reader arouse and enjoy some fun. The author respects his creations and takes care of their privacy. After all, Todó is focused on the feelings of this group of adults and teens, all confused at first, but able to see the light at the end of the tunnel in the end.