At first glance, Marvel comics may not seem like an inspiration for gay culture. For Ottawa-based writer Nathan Burgoine, however, who started reading comic books as a child, the animated world of superheros and villains was fertile ground for his literary imagination.
“I am a giant geek who voraciously read X-Men comic books when I was a pre-teen all the way through high school graduation and beyond,” says Burgoine in an email to Apartment613, while discussing his debut novel Light, which he released this past October.
“[W]hen I was a kid, the metaphor of the X-Men was perfect to my experience: they were people who were born to normal parents, but weren’t normal themselves. They were different, and people would hate them for it. It wasn’t a far leap to translate that to my experience as a young queer kid.”
Besides superheros, Burgoine was also fascinated with psychic powers, especially telepathy and telekinesis. Combine these fantastical elements with gay culture, and the result is Light, a fantasy-filled adventure that takes place in Ottawa. (While Light is Burgoine’s debut novel, he has published numerous shorter pieces over the years).
Set during Pride Week in the nation’s capital, the book revolves around Kieran Quinn, a gay masseuse who lives in the ByWard Market.
Kieran is looking forward to a week full of activities, but when an extremist religious group arrives in Ottawa and starts picketing Pride events, violence erupts and several people end up seriously injured. What is unclear is the exact cause of the mysterious wounds – while Stigmatic Jack can make his hands bleed, nobody can prove he is the one wounding Pride participants.
Kieran, who has telepathic and psychokinetic abilities, begins to suspect that the violent attacks are being caused by mental powers. Is Stigmatic Jack a psychokinetic who is using his mind for evil? The answer will surprise you.
What may also surprise readers is the novel’s ability to deal with such difficult themes as virulent homophobia, while still telling a fun story.
“I think laughing at the serious things is a part and parcel of being queer,” says Burgoine. “It doesn’t mean I don’t take struggles and very real issues seriously, it just means that if I spent my entire life angry about the injustices, I’d burn out and be miserable.”
Being a happy warrior, he adds, is essential.
“In the face of a challenge, I think the most inspiring people are the ones who can paint you an accurate picture of the real work and tough times ahead, and still make you smile,” says Burgoine.
“Kieran is facing some pretty awful people, but there are are people at his back, a whole community of them, in fact, and he’s goofy enough – I hope – that the reader never feels buried in the darker bits.”
This sense of a wider community is another great part of the book. Interestingly, almost all of the characters in the novel, from the Mayor to the police to the news media, support gay rights. Even mainstream religion is seen as a positive force, with Kieran himself saying that a true god could never hate anyone.
“It is really hard sometimes as a queer person to remember that there is a vast – but often quiet – group of people who aren’t out there trying to make your life worse,” says Burgoine.
“One of the reasons I wanted to set LIGHT during Pride Week is how much Pride Week reminds me of that. The police and firefighters have marched in the parade. Every parade I’ve gone to has included the Ottawa mayor as well.”
It’s only the extremists led by Stigmatic Jack and his followers who are portrayed as homophobic.
“A lot people I’ve spoken with who’ve read the book ask me if I was talking about the Westboro group, but there was no singular group,” says Burgoine. “It seems to me that those really out-there groups have nothing in common with the roots they claim (i.e. Christianity in general) and are mostly just making noise for the public limelight it can afford them.”