What is Gay Literature? The Case of Colm Tóibín’s [The Blackwater Lightship]

Jeanette Winterson, author of the celebrated novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruittakes a rather defensive stance when asked if she considers Oranges to be a lesbian novel. She explicitly addresses this question in her personal website by answering it in the negative:

No. [Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is] for anyone interested in what happens at the frontiers of common-sense. Do you stay safe or do you follow your heart? I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers. That said, I’m really glad the book has made a difference to so many young women.

Winterson’s answer strikes into the heart of a question that has perplexed me for some time: what is, and more importantly, what is not gay literature? Part of the difficulties of answering this question stem from the fact that the term gay literature can either allude to a work’s readership (as Winterson implies in her answer), its themes, its characters, or perhaps a combination of these elements. Whereas some works tend to unanimously be approached as prime examples of LGBTQ literature–as in the case of novels such as Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle and E.M. Forster’s Maurice–other works complicate the ease of categorizing a text as such.

Good examples of this complication are most of the works of David Sedaris–particularly his collections of autobiographical essays such as Me Talk Pretty One Day and NakedThese essay collections usually discuss gay themes quite prominently: Sedaris depicts the hardships of growing up gay, he talks about his partner constantly, and he openly discusses how he is perceived as effeminate by his teachers and friends. Despite the presence of these themes and characters, Sedaris’ works are typically not approached as gay literature. Sedaris’ works are also read by a massive mainstream audience–people will literary pay to attend a Sedaris reading. Does the genre define the audience, or does the audience define the genre?  Is LGBTQ literature completely audience-based, or is there more at stake when approaching a group of literary texts under the guise of this category?

The questions that surface when approaching this genre do not stop here. Does the presence of a queer character in a literary work automatically make it a gay literature? If a work is approached as a gay one, does this pose any restrictions on the novel’s readership or audience? While I completely understand the cultural and marketing reasons why Winterson denies approaching Oranges as a lesbian novel–this novel is almost always alluded to when speaking of well-known LGBTQ fiction. Trying to pin down parameters used to classify a work as gay literature is no easy task–we are dealing with a very queer genre here.

The difficulties of pinning down the genre of LGBTQ fiction and of creating a queer canon can also be attributed to two other factors: the relative novelty of gay fiction within the entire scope of literary history, and furthermore, the queerness of the genre itself. In terms of its novelty, literature with explicitly queer themes or characters was not produced in Western culture until the twentieth century, with the advent of works written by Forster, James Baldwin, and Christopher Isherwood, among others. Keep in mind that queerness and queer sexualities were definitely encoded in texts before the gay literary boom, however, it was not until the mid-twentieth century that we began to see the emergence of a group of texts that could be explicitly categorized as LGBTQ literary works.

This questioning of the factors that shape the genre of LGBTQ literature was recently sparked after I finished reading Colm Tóibín’s 1999 novel entitled The Blackwater Lightship–mostly because I’ve had difficulties assessing whether it is a gay novel. The novel has a central queer character, which at first seems to be a good enough reason to approach it as a gay novel. However, the main themes and tensions present in this work are triggered through the queer character’s presence, but they are not exactly centered on this queer character per se. 

Front cover of Colm Tóibín's The Blackwater Nightship (2004 edition)

Front cover of Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Nightship (2004 edition)

This novel focuses mostly on the strenuous relationship between Helen and her mother Lily, and their efforts to repair their relationship after Helen’s brother, Declan, reveals that he is dying of AIDS. Declan’s impending death serves at the catalyst that forces Helen to reunite with her mother after a nearly ten-year hiatus–and it also forces Declan’s family to come into contact with his rather private queer life. After his revelation, Declan’s family and his close gay friends spend a week living together in the house that belongs to Helen’s grandmother. During this time, the characters come face-to-face with Declan’s declining health, Helen and Lily struggle to repair their relationship, and Lily tries to comprehend why Declan shares an intense connection with his friends and not with his family.

The novel, although told in the third person, is distilled through Helen’s thoughts and perspectives. The novel opens in Helen’s home, where she interacts with her husband and her two children; the novel concludes in this same location, albeit centered on Helen’s first interaction with her mother in her house. Not only has Lily never visited Helen’s home, but she has also not met Helen’s husband or her own grandchildren due to the estranged relationship that she and her daughter share. The novel weaves a narrative focused on the past and the present–Helen’s interactions with her mother and her dying brother force her to think about and retell the reasons why their family is so estranged to begin with.

Among the past events that Helen recalls, significant attention is placed on the death of her father. While her father was being treated for cancer, Helen and Declan lived with their grandmother. Lily stays with her husband at the hospital, never bothering to visit her children or to abandon her husband’s side. The distance between Helen and her mother widens after her father dies–pushing a teenage Helen to interpret her mother’s absence as abandonment. In their efforts to cope with Declan’s declining health, Helen and Lily reach a degree of closeness that they haven’t experienced in years. The novel culminates with the mother and daughter expressing a desire to spend more time with each other.

Even though the events mentioned above comprise the core narrative of the novel, The Blackwater Lightship also places significant attention on queer themes, issues and characters, particularly in its depiction alternative, non-normative forms of kindship, and in its depiction of queer subversion. Declan’s declining health due to AIDS puts him in a position in which he is forced to come out to his mother and his grandmother. Declan’s deteriorating health is described with much detail, which verges on the point of discomfort. Interestingly, Declan’s gay friends, Paul and Larry, are shown to be better caregivers than his actual family due to the fact that they were present in his life during the advent of the syndrome. Paul and Larry also seem to know more about Declan’s life than his own mother and sister. At one point, Paul and Lily have a heated argument that manifests when Paul interferes in Lily’s attempts to comfort her son–which prompts Lily to kick Paul out of her mother’s home. Paul confronts Lily by stating the following:

I’m here as long as Declan is here and you can take that written in stone, and I’m here because he asked me to be here, and when he asked me to be here he used words and phrases and sentences about you which were not edifying and which I will not repeat. He is also concerned about you and loves you and wants your approval. He is also very sick. So stop feeling sorry for yourself, Mrs. Breen. Declan stays here, I stay here, Larry stays here. One of us goes, we all go, and if you don’t believe me, ask Declan. (223)

As seen above, Declan, Paul, and Larry can be approached as a family–even though none of them are romantically involved, these three men understand each other, and unlike Declan’s family, they stick together and they do not abandon each other even when things get rough. The novel explores the importance of this alternate form of kinship in the lives of queer subjects–a theme that is present in many texts categorized as LGBTQ literature. This is not the only instance in which the notion of family is queered. A moment  that particularly caught my attention was the instance in which Paul tells Helen how a Catholic priest performed a secret marriage ceremony for him and his partner, François:

He changed into his vestments and said Mass and gave us Communion and then he married us. He used the word “spouse” instead of husband and wife. He had it all prepared. He was very solemn and serious. And we felt the light of the Holy Spirit on us, even though Declan thought this was the maddest thing he’d ever heard… (173)

The novel presents not only alternative forms of kinship, but it even goes as far as to present a queer subversion of normative institutions such as religion and marriage. What we see in the case of The Blackwater Lightship is an instance in which gay themes and characters are implemented within a narrative not only to serve as a foil to other characters in the novel, but to ultimately queer heternomative manifestations like the nuclear family. One cannot help but compare the relationship that Declan has with his friends with the central relationship of the novel between Helen and her mother. The message of the novel is clear: blood is definitely not thicker than water.

Given all the above, can we, and more importantly, should we approach The Blackwater Lightship as an example of gay literature? Although the answer to this question is still somewhat fuzzy, I think it’s important to bear in mind that when we categorize a work as such, we have to look beyond matters of audience, and we also have to take more than just the characters, the plot, or the work’s themes into consideration. When it comes to approaching a literary work as gay (or as any other category within the LGBTQ spectrum), we must keep in mind not only the work’s elements, but even more importantly, the work’s aims, purposes, and its alignment towards non-normativity and queer livability.

What are your thoughts on LGBTQ literature? What makes a literary work gay? What criteria must we keep in mind when categorizing a novel as LGBTQ fiction? Please share your thoughts and opinions below!

Work Cited

Tóibín, Colm. The Blackwater Lightship. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print (Paperback edition).

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