Niven Govinden’s fifth novel, This Brutal House, is an elegiac and politically engaged portrait of New York’s vogue ball community. The novel focuses on a group of ageing house Mothers, engaged in a silent demonstration outside City Hall to protest against the city’s inaction over the disappearance of countless Children. Govinden explores the bonds that form within queer communities, the impact of gentrification on queer spaces, and the complexity of navigating between the queer and straight worlds. Here, he talks to Minor Literature[s] about the book, and his wider career.
If This Brutal House was a runway look, what realness would you be serving?
Stand up and be counted realness – in lace.
The novel touches on the erasure of queer identities, the nature of protest, and the importance of queer communities; what drew you to this story at this time?
I’d been thinking about writing about voguing or ball culture for over a decade. I wrote a voguing-related short story for an obscure Italian queer ‘zine in the mid-noughties, and another editor I showed it to at the time asked me if I was writing a book about the balls. It was a lightbulb moment. Both the story and that comment stayed with me as I worked on other books. Around the time that I finished All The Days And Nights – a novel about art and physicality – the need to write a book about queer experience particularly centered around POC protest was amplified. There was a tone in my head based around a group of house Mothers, unnamed, elegiac, wounded and defiant that felt urgent and needed to be written. It was also a reflection of my desire to write about a religious order, and to use group voices that share collective experience, a fictionalised oral history. Books are also the product of reading / phantom reading, so James Baldwin was on my mind, Sylvester’s lyrics, Robert Caro’s book on Robert Moses, as well as my own nostalgia about queer visibility and diversity of culture in the late 80s/early 90s. Thinking about Keith Haring, Act Up!, Oscar Moore, the Love Balls, Lady Miss Kier, Kathy Acker, Queer Nation, Jose & Luis. Many things.
Central to the novel is the importance of marginalised groups being visible, or seen. The mainstream prominence of drag culture has been significantly raised in recent years, most obviously by RuPaul’s Drag Race – what do you think the implications of this are? Are there dangers attached?
What makes me hopeful is the visibility of the diversity of queer experience in the wider culture. It improves our social language and our empathy. Visibility amplifies lived experience, fosters community and spaces, as well as allowing artists the opportunity to sustain careers. The more the merrier. At the same time, this has to be viewed against a wider societal tension. We’re living in an era of growing intolerance and polarisation. The daily acts of aggression you can face as queer/queer poc for the sound of your voice, your choice of partner – for just taking up space. The resilience involved in simply walking down the street cannot be underestimated. And this is very much reflected in This Brutal House, the defiance and impulse to keep moving forward whatever society gives and takes away.
Following on from this idea of being seen, the book indirectly refers to the process of gentrification and the loss of queer spaces. Is this something that was particularly on your mind during the writing process?
Very much so. I wanted the presence of the City to be felt: its infrastructure, bureaucracy, the failures of policy, and the fight of those who hold the City to account for those failings – whether it relates to a lack of civic protection, justice, or a wish to improve their environment. One of the takeaways after reading “The Power Broker”, Robert Caro’s epic book about Robert Moses, was how one man’s unfettered desire for power could upend the daily lives of thousands, whether it’s through rent rises or decimating communities by building new roads. I wanted to show how a community can support itself and survive a series of civic earthquakes they had no hand in.
In This Brutal House, one character observes that ‘drag is nothing but family. Drag is everything but family’. The mothers represent ‘the era of community and brotherhood,’ but there is a sense that their time has passed – do you feel that there has been a loss of traditional support structures within the queer community?
Not necessarily. Their laments are to do with the weakening of their power; the invisibility you start to become aware of as you pass into middle age. They are the King Lears of their block in that regard.
Even so, while the physical totems of community are eroding, bars, club, health and community spaces, the will to create new structures is strong.
Similarly, the digital space plays its part in generating a hub, and allowing those who have learned and experienced to pay it forward. There’s bullshit in the digital space too, obviously, but I strongly believe that support and generosity continues to exist.
Throughout the novel, characters are forced to decide whether to work inside or outside of the system, whether this is the mothers abandoning traditional means of political protest (voting and petitioning) for more direct action, or Teddy navigating town hall bureaucracy with his own form of street smarts; ultimately, the balancing act is impossible for either to sustain. This seems more relevant than ever in the present political climate – how do you feel that communities, artists and activists can effectively make their voices heard today?
By speaking up. By taking up space. By creating work. By being difficult. By supporting others. By being open to change. By kindness. By being unafraid when it matters.
I recently re-read your debut, We Are The New Romantics, and it’s interesting to compare the youthful energy of that novel with the more elegiac tone of This Brutal House, and also your previous book All The Days and Nights. How do you feel, looking back on your earlier work? And how do you think you’ve changed as a writer, as you’ve matured?
I had a mini-nostalgia fest about WATNR recently on its 15 year anniversary. Every book you write is a product of what came before – all your successes and fuck-ups – so for this reason I’ll always love WATNR. I have immense pride for it: its strident attitude and how it felt like unlike anything else published around that time. I was in a bubble then, having no solid connection with readers or writers, or any real idea of its impact. It was a pre-social media world in 2004, and only a year or two later did I feel the book’s connection to the wider world, both through becoming part of a community of writers and doing events, and in joining MySpace where I’d get messages from people who’d read and love it. Like Nick Kamen, Mandy Smith, and Pasty Kensit, it was big (with queer readers) in Italy. Dream come true! My writing’s changed for sure, as it should do as you continue to work through books. The space between my first novel and This Brutal House has been taken up with reading, writing, living, but what I like is that they can both be seen as nightclub novels, but with a shift of perception between the two, which pleases me. They both have distinct points of view but their common thread is that they feel fundamentally unvarnished and alive.
What’s your experience of working with Dialogue books? And what impact do you think that this sort of inclusive publishing vision can have on the wider literary world?
What I will say first of all, is that my previous publishing experiences have been great. I’ve been looked after by publishers who cared deeply about the work and wanted to do the best by it. The beauty of working with Dialogue on This Brutal House – from my very first meeting with Sharmaine Lovegrove and Dom Wakeford, and subsequently with the rest of the team – is that they get it, and the lightness that gives me is immeasurable.
I hadn’t fully realised how spiritually depleting it was to have to constantly explain or translate my work, its positioning, and the paths that led to its creation, until I no longer had to do it.
In many ways it was a revelation. It’s an experience all writers should have – to be able to publish without the exhausting baggage of having to justify your space. I love the passion, ambition and attention to detail at Dialogue and how our relationship is very much a collaborative process over the course of publication. They’re hungry for their list to impact with readers and across the industry, and truly have a boundless energy and desire to elevate their writers. It’s a great time to be involved in their journey.
What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a painting, a novel, a film, a song – anything)?
I’m currently obsessed with Agnes Varda’s Daguerrotypes. She was a filmmaker who knew how to capture life, no more so than in this film following those living and working on one Paris street. I recently wrote a response to it for Andrew Gallix’s anthology We’ll Never Have Paris, but I’m thinking about a bigger piece influenced by that work. Not sure what/when/how, but it’s very much on my mind.
If you were an Egyptian pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?
Typewriter / Polaroid / many, many mirrors. I’m all for vanity in the afterlife.
Niven Govinden is the author of five novels, including All The Days And Nights which was longlisted for the Folio Prize and shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize. His second novel Graffiti My Soul is about to go into film production. His third novel Black Bread White Beer won the 2013 Fiction Uncovered Prize. He was a judge for the 2017 4th Estate/Guardian B4ME Prize.
Thom Cuell serves literary editor realness at Dodo Ink and Minor Literature[s].