Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Q&A with Daniel Allen Cox On His Latest Book, Krakow Melt

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Daniel Allen Cox

Krakow Melt is an incendiary story about two pyromaniacs who fight homophobia in Krakow, Poland. Provocative and unnerving it is at once a love letter and a fiery call to arms. Krakow Melt has been shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award in Bisexual Fiction and the Ferro-Grumley Award for Best LGTB Fiction. In this Q & A author Daniel Allen Cox discusses activism, identity politics and writing as risk-taking.

You’re not Polish. How did this influence your choice of Poland as setting for Krakow Melt, the writing of the book, and how you think it has been received?

Let me make it very clear that Krakow Melt is an outsider’s perspective. I’m not Polish and have no Polish ancestry I know about. The book is far removed from the current situation of queer communities in Poland, and cannot speak for anyone.

It’s risky terrain for an author to write about a culture not their own. It calls up ideas of appropriation, impersonation and even colonialism. There are many examples of authors getting into trouble for this sort of stuff. When asked, “Why did you choose to write from the point of view of a Polish person?” I answer, “How else would I have been able to tell the story?” When I lived, worked and travelled in Poland in 2004 and 2005, I was very sheltered. I was given the red carpet treatment for being Canadian. When I was open about my sexuality, there was virtually no backlash. That made me a poor example to model my main characters on. I needed characters who would realistically experience the oppression, Polish characters. This allowed me to write from a place of empathy, and less from voyeurism.

I challenge the notion that writers should write only about their own experiences. Outsider perspectives can enhance a conversation. What kind of literature would we have if writers wrote only about themselves?

I had the responsibility to make sure the historical, political and cultural references were accurate. I researched them meticulously. Beyond that, I felt pressure to capture the spirit of Krakow, a city I love but had not visited in five years.

You can imagine my nervousness when I found out that my first scheduled interview was with a woman from Krakow!

I was relieved that she loved the book. Perhaps key to her reading was the realization that I did not write a tourist guide. Yes, it presents a severely distorted view of the country. As a writer of short books, I am economical with text and try to use only descriptions that will advance the plot. There are many non-homophobic aspects of Poland, but they have little place in a book like Krakow Melt.

I have also received negative feedback about this kind of creative license.

All this being said, response to the book has been very positive. It has many obvious faults, and reviewers have been right to point them out. However, its seeming “newness” has found overwhelming support, a newness perhaps only possible because of my position as an outsider.

The situation for LGTBQ folks in Poland is a difficult one. Can you speak more about this and what — if any — impact you hope Krakow Melt might have?

It does not surprise me that the response to Krakow Melt in Poland has been quiet, and that Polish publishers have so far declined to translate the book. They are right that it was not written for a Polish audience, but for an outside audience looking in. A book dealing with a deceased pope and president in less than reverential terms may well be too controversial for them to sell. I can’t imagine a book heavy on fire-starting instructions and elephant porn being too useful to the local LGBT community.

If Krakow Melt has any activist value vis-a-vis homophobia and transphobia in Poland, it’s to raise awareness about it in the international community.

In a certain way, Krakow Melt has nothing to do with Poland. I could’ve chosen any number of countries with flagrant human rights violations, including Canada, United States, Russia, Uganda, Latvia and about 200 others.

My perception of this novel was turned on its head when an Istanbul-based publisher bought Turkish-language rights for an underground literature imprint. A Canadian ex-Jehovah’s Witness writes a book about Catholic Poland and it will be sold in largely Muslim Turkey? Absolutely surreal. I’m forced to believe that the story is accessible enough to resonate with different audiences. It’s a thrill to see this book become a cult object of sorts as it takes on different readings, including a punk reading.

Yes, I’m an activist, but my ties to the activist community in Poland are limited. If my book motivates anyone to take action against homophobia in Poland, I advise them to research the people and organizations who are really making a difference there. I keep tabs on the situation and I can provide information, but they are far better sources than I can ever be.

How would you identify your characters — bisexual, queer, other, both — and is it important for you to clearly define sexual identity in your work?

The central relationship in the novel is between a man who is an indeterminate mix of gay and bisexual, and a straight woman who identifies as a queer ally. While this may appear outwardly complex, I think this is a very common type of relationship. These couplings might not get portrayed in the arts very often, perhaps because their stories are difficult to market and to categorize in bookstores and databases.

What I’ve attempted to portray is that these labels are not mutually exclusive. They can be used in harmony with each other to deepen the context around someone’s sexuality.

Not everyone in my queer communities believes that bisexuality is a valid category, and not everyone thinks that straight people can call themselves queer for primarily ideological or political reasons. Ultimately, the characters in Krakow Melt do what they like, which I admire. It is a book about allies and the place they earn in the communities they help to build.

I’m very proud that Krakow Melt was nominated for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, and for the Lambda Literary Award in the Bisexual Fiction category. Many have fought hard to raise visibility for bisexual writing. I am extremely grateful for an opportunity to contribute to the genre.

Journalists can refer to me as gay, bisexual or queer in any mix they choose, and I will not object.

Krakow Melt is a heart-in-throat read; your characters flout danger and take enormous risks. What role does risk play in your writing?

Fiction is a place to take risks we can’t take in real life. Literary risk-taking can embolden us for more modest achievements in the world outside of books.

I see my role in writing as challenging conservatism in the gay mainstream. I follow the lead of artists who already do this work, some of whom I am beyond lucky to have as friends and collaborators and who have inspired me.

There is no blueprint for how to react to something new-ish. A multitude of viewpoints will emerge in an effort to make sense of it, and that is where risk comes in. By publishing Krakow Melt, I have lost some of the readership I acquired with my last novel, Shuck, who perhaps expected me to once again write in the realm of gay male fiction from a North American viewpoint. I’ve created a fragmented work, very thin on plot and character development in favour of ideas and cultural trivia, leaving the book vulnerable to those judging it as a traditional novel. I have written the kind of work almost impossible to promote at the community-outreach level without making it seem that I just want to sell books.

Most gravely, however, I’ve written a book that some have accused of justifying violence as means to an end — that fire should be used as a weapon. I see the novel instead as a cautionary tale that shows what can happen to otherwise calm people when they are forced into extreme situations, and that’s how most reviewers have seen it as well, but not all. I suppose with the kind of books I write, it was only a matter of time before I saw the word “fascist” in a review, haha.

So, the rewards have been great, but the costs have also been unusually high.

Overall, it’s been amazing. I’m thankful to be doing what I enjoy, and happy that others have taken the leap with me. And I realize I’m incredibly lucky and privileged to be working with Arsenal Pulp Press, a terrific team who made this whole adventure possible in the first place.

This interview with Daniel Allen Cox was first published in Arsenalia.

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