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.

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