My Year of Canadian Reading: what stories are you made of?

As I’m approaching an inevitable embrace of Canada (oh, sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found you!) I’m aware that I have very little knowledge of Canadian literature.  A poor citizen is one who does not know his country’s stories. It is how we speak to one another–a cultural physiography and language that connects Canadians together.  How can I become a citizen without learning this cultural language?  Sure I could take a class, I suppose, from a Canadian university online, do some papers, etc.  But I thought a more creative way would be for Yukoners to suggest Canadian books that meant something to them–then it would be more personal.

So I went on CBC with Dave White and we came up with a plan for book suggestions–a reading list of sorts–so that I could become more literate about Canada.  We are getting great results, but please call in to Dave and suggest more books.  I’d like to build a canon, of sorts, of Yukon-suggested Canadian literature.  Right now I’m looking mostly for fiction, poetry and drama—but I have decided that a few creative nonfiction pieces are a must, a Pierre Berton, a Farley Mowat, even a Kevin Chong (go, KC!).  I built a blog to read and discuss this literature.  It’s called “A Year of Canadian Reading” and you can follow the link to see what I’m reading, what I’m up to, and what I thought about books you suggested.  Follow along if you like.  Read them with me.  I want to get an idea about Canada from its literature.  I want to understand you through your stories.  I think when we understand a culture through its stories, we are more able to speak to and hear from its citizens, and as citizens we’re more able to understand each other.

I don’t have any intention of stopping reading after the Year is over—but an actual year is a start.  I’ve read some Canadian Literature.  I came in with knowing only three authors: Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje.  But I’m aiming for the depth and breadth of Canadian Literature, even the heart of our warm, warm country.

Let me know if you want to play.  Follow these links if you want to:  SUGGEST A BOOK FOR ME, or find out WHAT I’M GOING TO READ.

Harry Potter Diary: Harry, the Suppressed, Closeted Wizard

At 41, I’m reading the Harry Potter series for the first time.  Outside the demographic for the book, I was wondering what I would latch onto as an adult.  What would speak to me?

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, HP1, gives us a kid whose true identity is being suppressed.  His muggle guardians KNOW he is a wizard, but they are hoping that he will just not learn about this heritage, and certainly won’t become a wizard.  They never mention his parents were wizards, never tell what really happened the day his parents died, and they never want to hear if he has any wizard “tendencies”… and they punish him severely whenever those “tendencies” appear—when Harry acts on his wizarding nature.

I always found the scene when the owls try to deliver his welcome letter from Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft to be quite moving.  While on the surface it looks like the Dursleys are merely being subverted in their plan to keep Harry from knowing the truth–it is a moment where Harry learns WHO he is and that he has great potential.  Without this moment, there is no Harry Potter or Harry Potter series.

The urgency with which the owls start tossing their letters into the house; the extremes that the Dursleys go to hide away from the letters finding Harry; this is no small event.  I would say it is the biggest turning point in Harry’s life–because afterwards he will understand who he is, and be given the skills to fulfill his destiny, while before he is humiliated and punished when any sign of his true nature reveals itself, and living as a secondary person, almost a slave, in the Dursley household.  He lives in a closet under the stairs!  (I mean, really, people… a closet???)

It’s hard for me to escape seeing this as a coming out moment for Harry, or see this as a metaphor (at least for me) of a boy society has been trying to make more and more “straight”–who just can’t help certain natural tendencies.  As a gay man, I saw myself in Harry.  Society hides our history from us, brands us as immoral, makes us feel humiliated for being who we are–if we even get to know that information–and somewhere along early puberty, the signs start coming in unusually fast… the letters telling us who we are and what we are capable of start flying in.

I had great parents.  No, they didn’t know what to do either when I started exhibiting behavior outside of what they had expected.  I don’t think they ever tried to hide who I was, though; they were afraid to mention anything, uncertain if this might be a tipping point where I would start to explore what this meant.  But certainly my religion tried to separate me from the immorality of a whole group of people, convincing me that I could never be a “homosexual”– because I was a good boy, a good Christian.

If I’d only had a list of the great gay and lesbian people of history, or that so many of our revered American writers were gay or lesbian.  If only I’d realized how much we contributed to history.  Or known what was happening to me physically and mentally and sexually.  I’m glad that Mason Crest Publishers recently announced a line of books for middle-schoolers about being gay, about coming out, about gay and lesbian role models, history, religion.  Like 15 letters!  I want to own those books.

In my life, though, the letters stopped coming, the owls gave up.  I never realized I was gay until I was 34.

But in Harry Potter, the Dursleys can’t prevent Harry from knowing who he is because a giant comes through the door.   Hagrid—man, would I love my own Hagrid!—breaks down the door of the shack on the island where the Dursleys and Harry have hidden.  And he is angry when he finds out that Harry’s history has been suppressed, that Harry’s true nature has been ridiculed and been denied him.  There is triumph and relief in that moment of comeuppance for the Dursleys.  Not only have they been shamed, but Harry has seen them as they are— as no longer the standard or authority for telling him who he is.  He cannot be shamed.  Hagrid has revealed a higher truth.  Harry is allowed to break free of their mental tyranny–because Hogwarts, a place designed for people just like him, is waiting for him.  They value him.

Now, at Hogwarts, everyone treats Harry as someone they love.  Yes, a few treat him like a superstar, but I’m amazed at how loving and caring all the characters are towards Harry–especially the adults.  They become his new family.  Dumbledore and McGonagall serve as surrogate parents, and Hagrid as a protective big brother.

We see the Dursleys as comedic backdrop, but I think, in some ways, they are as dangerous to Harry as Voldemort is.  While Voldemort wants to take Harry’s life, the Dursleys also want to take Harry’s life–his soul, his self-worth, his personhood.  Whoever would rob you of who you are, or try to shame you for being who you are–that is a dangerous person.  If the Dursleys had been successful in keeping the truth from Harry, it would have robbed him of a joyful, adventurous life.  Those who want to keep their children from realizing who they are–and the joys of being that person, the contributions that other people like ourselves have made to history–are extremely dangerous people.  There is nothing wrong with being gay.  And great people in history have been gay.  It is extremely important for every person to have role models.  We spend an inordinate amount of time in Christianity talking about our role models, and in American History about role models, and in sports about role models.  Gays have been hidden from history for a long time.

Oddly enough, we were handed a great role model when Dumbledore was outed by JK Rowling.  Such a huge moment–that a beloved character could be gay and still be the wisest, most caring, fatherly, most powerful character in an already beloved series.  We were handed a beautiful role model, who doesn’t have to just be “gay”–he’s allowed to do other things with his character.   And it completes my attachment to this scene.  Harry is saved by Hagrid, a man of the woods, an earthy gamekeeper, in service to the Head Wizard himself, who is gay, and finally taken from the suppression that had marked his whole life.  Harry is given a new start as a Wizard, in a place that values him, and this makes me cheer.

I’m not implying at all that Harry is gay, only that this scene–where the truth is revealed, and assumption that Harry is worthless is wrong–resonates with me as a 41 year old man.  And that there is a whole hidden history, a whole place where people value who you are–who’d have thought?

It never would have occurred to me at 10 or 12 even… but there is something powerful in these books even for us 41 year olds.