Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Pride, Prejudice, and Polar Twins

On Friday night, a close-knit audience was treated to everything that I’ve come to expect from the Writers Festival: laughter, music, and thought-provoking discussion. Hosted by the Ottawa Citizen’s Matthew Pearson, the evening included two readings from Raziel Reid and Michael V. Smith, as well as special performances by musician Glenn Nuotio.


During the first readings, there was a lot of nodding along and knowing chuckles scattered throughout the crowd, but Michael decided to mix things up for his second reading by inviting everyone to play Polar Twin with him. The goal of the game was to find Michael’s polar opposite in the room, so the audience was asked to stand while he read a list of things that he had done or that had happened in his life. Anyone who had the experience in common with Michael was asked to sit down. It was, to say the least, delightfully funny—particularly as the list got racier.


“Sit down if…you’ve ever had a threesome,” he said, then glanced up with a sly grin. “That one always clears half the room.” (It did.)


I was not Michael’s polar twin (and no, I won’t mention which thing landed my butt back in my seat), but when a lovely lady in the back corner was the last one standing, Michael gave her a free copy of his memoir, My Body Is Yours. “You and I will have the least amount in common here,” he said, “but hopefully the book will show you that we also have a great familiarity.” It was a wonderful sentiment, and it touched on a major theme that pulsed throughout the session: books have the power to enrich us, to free us, and to reveal common ground (even between polar twins).


During the discussion, Matthew noted that some of the Canada Reads debate about Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like The Movies focused on the language in the book. While Craig Kielburger argued that the language was too graphic, that it wouldn’t be accessible to audiences everywhere, Lainey Lui was a staunch defender of the book’s use of “the language that young people use.” Raziel admitted that some people do think that the book and the language are too provocative, but he was trying to be honest and raw with the narrative. He emphasized the fact that the themes in his book are present in a lot of (less provocative) LGBTQ books, and yet “we still have LGBTQ teens killing themselves. We’re still driven to promiscuity because we’re so isolated. So, maybe it takes something bold to shatter the wall and break the barrier.”


As the discussion shifted from societal barriers to personal armour and the stories we tell, Michael explained that his goal in writing My Body Is Yours was to write about his emancipation from masculinity. He focused the book on all the ways in which masculinity shaped him—or, alternatively, the ways that he resisted the constructions of masculinity that surrounded him. “We have had lives as gay people that have been torturous because we’ve been forced to…be people we’re not. That twists up a soul,” he said, “so I was trying to undo the knots.” He also said that he was trying to be candid and thorough with the memoir, which was evident when he became emotional while reading a passage from My Body Is Yours about his father lying in pain in a hospital bed. His father, he explained, didn’t know how to “be a man” and have an emotional life. Escaping that version of masculinity let him be something else, something more authentic. “And see?” he said later, referring to his own display of emotion. “That was perfectly okay.”


The first audience question came from an educator who works in a small town and wanted to know how she can support LGBTQ kids in her school. Although there isn’t a single, simple answer, both Michael and Raziel provided excellent advice. “The teachers that saved my life saw me,” said Michael, who had explained earlier that his younger self had gravitated toward teachers to find safe spaces. “You know who the kids are that are ostracized. Find ways to include them.” Raziel agreed and explained that his high school English teacher, who started a creative writing club, never mentioned his sexuality. “Don’t bring up the struggle,” he explained. “Bring up the positive. Find out what those kids are good at and nurture that.”


Asked how it feels to suddenly become spokespeople for these issues, both Raziel and Michael emphasized that—despite the pressure—it is an honour to be in that position. “I felt like my homosexuality interfered with my relationship to the rest of the world,” said Michael. “Now I feel like I’m part of a great legacy…I feel like I’m making space for younger people, and I’m trying to make the world a better place for the man that my father could have been.”


I really enjoyed this panel, and I sincerely hope that these writers will come to the festival again. They both expressed the hope that “more straight people will read queer books,” and I wholeheartedly agree. Let’s forget about our differences and embrace the familiarity.