Raziel Reid writes between the lines.
The perfectly imperfect anti-hero
What’s the cost of freedom? To Jude Rothesay, the fictional character at the heart of the 2014 novel When Everything Feels Like the Movies, the cost is his very life.
For years, Jude’s story existed only as a file on 25-year-old Vancouver author Raziel Reid’s computer desktop. “He wouldn’t have been happy with that,” Reid says, smiling, of his larger-than-life protagonist.
Reid created Jude four years ago when he started writing this, his first novel. Jude is unapologetically gay and desperate to be famous. He’s bullied and ostracized by his classmates. “Jude is an emblem of the isolation faced by young people,” Reid explains.
Reid was moved to bring Jude to life after Larry Forbes King was murdered in 2008, when Reid himself was 18. King, then a 15-year-old boy living in California, was killed by a classmate after King asked him to be his Valentine.
“[Larry] had so many star qualities. He was brave, bold and in your face,” he says. “I wanted to create a narrator like him, who is a star.”
Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press published When Everything Feels Like the Movies last year. It won the 2014 Governor General's (GG) Award for Children's Literature for books targeting people between 12 and 18 years old.
Reid, then 24, was the youngest-ever author to receive this honour. The book was also selected for 2015’s Canada Reads, the annual “battle of the books” competition held by the CBC.
Despite the honours, the novel’s provocative language and content was met with criticism. The controversy that ensued brought the question of freedom to the fore: freedom of choice, freedom of speech, freedom to read, and freedom of the press.
After Reid received the award, National Post columnist Barbara Kay denounced his novel as an inappropriate choice for the GG given “Jude’s sexual yearnings, masturbating, fantasizing... and voyeurism”—which, according to her, constituted the bulk of the narrative.
The novel’s language, in particular, came under attack. In her column, Kay referred to incendiary passages like “I asked the doctor if he could suck out some fat when he took the fetus,” and “I have to make the Hemsworth brothers as wet as they make me.” Kay treated those quotes in a manner that suggested they summed up the content of the entire book.
Kay accused Jude of being a liar, a thief, a sex-teaser of strange men, a stalker, a masochist, and a narcissist. In doing so, she reduced Jude to his most outrageous and shocking characteristics—just like his classmates had done for years. In concluding her column, Kay wrote, “The message I draw—and think young people will too— is that the “authentic” narcissism of queer/transgender identity exempts one from the obligation to mature.”
Kay’s column prompted an online petition to the Canada Council for the Arts to have Reid’s award rescinded because his novel "is not what we as parents, grandparents, educators and fellow authors consider good literature for teens.”
Many fellow young-adult writers signed it.
Despite the backlash, the Canada Council for the Arts, the organization responsible for awarding the GG, stood by its choice.
Reid believes his book shows a side of life that has never been represented in young adult fiction. In his mind, he’s depicting a culture as it is. “It’s extreme because it’s told from Jude’s point of view,” Reid says. “As a narrator, Jude is hyperbolic, dramatic, over-the-top and not the most dependable.”
Jude lives in a world where attention is mistaken for love and affection—a world where the worst thing that can happen to someone is to be forgotten or obliterated. Exaggeration and shock are merely the tactics he uses to stay in the spotlight
for as often and as long as possible.
“Every now and then I felt like Norma Desmond because the spotlight would fade, and I would be forgotten,” says Jude. “That’s when I would wear the most makeup, or throw myself to the floor in the middle of the hallway like I had just tumbled out of
a limousine after snorting an eight ball.”
Shortly after Kay’s petition to rescind the award began, UBC Creative Writing program chair and novelist Steven Galloway fired back with an open letter shaming fellow writers for their response to Reid's book.
“You may not agree with the content of his book, but if you don't value free speech and think that transgendered youth have a place in literature, andif you don't understand that your viewpoint is not absolute and privileged above other voices, then you don't deserve to call yourself a writer... I am ashamed of you, and ashamed to share a profession with you,” Galloway wrote.
Reid’s book touches upon important under-reported social issues beyond sex. The author says he wrote the novel to break down barriers—between elders and young people, queer and straight communities—and not just to provoke and shock gratuitously.
Much of the criticism, he says, stems from what he calls “polite prejudice.”
“A lot of people think that because Canada is a progressive country that legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, all the work is done and we can sit back and equality is a given,” he says. “We are a polite country, so we don’t show our discrimination. It’s done in more subtle ways.”
Reid and Galloway came together at a Freedom to Read Week event at Simon Fraser University in late February. They talked about censorship, freedom, the responsibility of writers to stand up when people start telling them what they can and cannot write about, and what does or doesn’t deserve an award.
“Revoking an award due to moral offence is censorship,” Galloway told the audience. “No child has ever been corrupted by a book.”
The UBC professor accused Canadian writers of being gutless for not speaking out in support of Reid’s work.
“I am stunned that in 2015 we need to have a Freedomto Read Week in Canada,” he said.
The surface level
In a piece published by The Walrus, Reid explained that Kay’s criticism reinforced his motivation for writing the novel in the first place. He wrote it with the intention “to educate people and open their eyes to a world and a character they may have not understood before.”
Even the book title, When Everything Feels Like the Movies, alludes to the emotional disengagement made possible by livingout so many parts of our lives onscreen.
“I wanted to zoom in on something I think is happening with Generation Y, which is this detachment to sex, violence and drugs because they’re constantly being bombarded with it growing up, on their phone, their computer or the TV,” he says. “They are so desensitized.”
Buoyed by a social media-addled culture that creates instant drama, teenagers understand that Facebook likes and Twitter retweets equal attention and can create a firestorm. “I swear, she was only happy if there was something nasty written about her behind a hashtag,” Jude says of his his best friend Angela.
Jude is about more than his high heels, his crude language, or his provocative behaviour. Ultimately, he is a kid who needs and deserves to be loved. But it’s hard to realize this when you can’t see past his super-glam, salty-tongued exterior.
And this is where Barbara Kay’s understanding falls short. By over-focusing on the obvious—Jude’s overt sexuality, his sassy mouth, his take-no-prisoners approach to life and love—Reid’s detractors are missing the point.
“They’re so hung up on the gay sex and the language that they can’t see anything else,” Reid says. “There are so many layers that are being missed because people are so fucking surface level.” When critics can't see Jude past his sexual identity, they are mirroring the behaviour of his oppressors in the book.
Early in the novel, Jude says, “I never wanted to be home. It made me mental. But I never wanted to be anywhere, really. That was the problem; everywhere was the same. I was the same, no matter where I went.”
Jude is as fantastical as he is a compulsive fantasizer. He’s constantly trying to escape from his reality: his abusive stepfather, his absent mother, his unforgiving peers and the small-town mentality that works constantly to oppress and erase him.
His biting wit creates a brash and prickly surface representation. To see Jude’s softer side, however, all you have to do is read between the lines.
The missing truth
If you know the story of Larry Fobes King, you know how Reid’s novel ends. It’s difficult to accept that Jude, a lively, witty kid, is murdered. You hope he will be preserved, that things will get better and he will finally obtain the fame he always sought in L.A.
But the truth is, fame and fortune are not the reality for most teens like Jude. A real boy died seven years ago. So when Reid sat down to write the book, he wanted a narrator that could stand firmly through all the attacks. And, potentially, live on in the minds of readers as a reminder of what blinded prejudice can do to us as society and individuals.
“Although Jude is victimized throughout the book and faces violence and intolerance because of who he is, he is consistently brave and he truly believes he is a superior being,” says Reid. “What really makes this an uplifting story is that Jude doesn’t kill himself. He would never kill himself. He’s someone who really gave zero fucks up until the end.”
When I asked Reid what’s missing in young-adult fiction, his answer is simple: Truth. Vulnerability. A book that offers no excuses. That’s exactly what he delivered with When Everything Feels Like the Movies.
Reid suggests there’s a trend, particularly in LGBT fiction, that suggests gay characters need to be saintlike. “We want to keep them intact and perfect,” he says, “to show that we’re not homophobic.”
But Reid wants teens to be free to express who they are, without fear of what might happen to them.
“Jude isn't a saint. He’s imperfect, he’s nihilistic, he’s narcissistic, he’s vulgar. There are a lot of negative traits that I don’t sugarcoat. But there’s also another side to him. He’s a full-rounded, complicated person as we all are,” says Reid.
“That is what needs to be represented in literature because that’s what kids are. They need to understand that it’s okay to be fully rounded and fully fucked up.”