After reading Claire Rudy Foster’s new short story collection, Shine of the Ever, I was truly stunned. Foster short stories were full of people grappling with situations that I had lived through. On the pages were characters dealing with unrequited love, repressed sexuality, strained friendships and other wonderfully mundane or fantastically chaotic moments that you find in real life. There were so many things I related to, in fact there was even one character called Lisa who loves Tennessee Williams. So very me.
When I was asked if I wanted to interview Foster, I jumped at the chance.
I saw myself in many of your characters. The ones who had to suppress their sexuality I could especially relate to. How much do you see of yourself in your characters and the world they live in?
My heart is on the page, always. Neighbours and incidental connections are a recurring trope in Shine of the Ever. Sometimes, the only other queer person I see is my mail carrier, or my barista, or a homeless person. Those connections sustain me and give me hope that I’m not alone. Like me, my characters find comfort in their transitory relationships. I’m always a non-binary trans, queer person, even when I’m standing in the kitchen eating a sandwich. My identity doesn’t have to be performed to be valid. I’m as much a part of the landscape as the trees and stars: I know I have a right to be here, and so do the people in my stories.
The collection of stories illustrate, at least for me, a sort of disjointed community battling a range of issues. Was that something that you wanted to create?
I think the idea that there is a unified community or even a “gay agenda” is an illusion. Lumping us all together does a great disservice to the individual, in my opinion. Shine of the Ever includes diverse characters who grapple with all kinds of issues that are specific to LGBTQ people. These issues include homelessness, transphobia in the gay community, discrimination, addiction, and self-acceptance. It was important to me to include a range of issues that aren’t necessarily the ones we see represented in the media. I wanted my characters to inhabit spaces outside what’s expected for queer and trans people—especially joyful spaces. Transgender bodies in particular have been vilified, marginalized, exploited, and murdered. I wanted to give my characters better outcomes. When I put this collection together, I promised myself “no sad endings” for any of my queer characters. I am tired of seeing myself and the people I love punished for being ourselves. In my collection, we survive. We love. We prevail.
How important was it for you that your characters find a place for their identities in their community? Is community important to you?
My characters do the difficult, often frustrating work of finding themselves and where they fit in—at work, in relationships, at home. Representation tends to be white-washed, wealthy, and palatable to straight mainstream culture. Ellen DeGeneres is a perfect example of how “community” has been discarded in favour of capital. So many people, especially black trans women and other trans people of colour struggle with real issues: whether or not they can get married is at the bottom of the list. As one character in Shine ruminates, “Community was something that only happened at dance clubs, Madonna concerts, and the annual AIDS walk. That kind of togetherness was a holdover from the eighties in every way.” In my experience, community is something I found in others, but it’s not something I can rely on. Privilege bestowed by class, race, gender, body size, ability, the cishet gaze, education, all of it—it’s more complex than just putting two gay people together and expecting them to get along. Yet, sometimes they do become friends. That’s true for my characters also. Many of the stories in Shine are about discovering and nurturing the sometimes-unspoken connection between two queer people.
Your readers will relate to the some of the characters you have written about. What were some literary characters that you related to during your life? Do they influence how you create stories?
When I was younger, I gravitated toward characters who crossed gender lines: Joan of Arc, Alanna of Trebond, Legs Sadovsky. I don’t want to write more characters like that, but I do want to give readers the opportunity to see themselves on the page. It’s empowering to read about someone who is like you, and see that person as a hero rather than a victim.
As a writer, you will have put some of your life experience in to your work in various ways. How did it feel to bring those parts of your life to the page?
Doesn’t every writer? I’ve been accused of writing “autobiographical” fiction, which seems to me to miss the point. Portland is not an imaginary city. Queer people are not mythical beings. Shine of the Ever is close to my heart because it touches on my city and the experiences that have made me who I am. The book draws on material from my own life, but, as with the personal essays and first-person memoir I’ve written, it is still fiction. Writing this book required a lot of patience with myself, willingness to be vulnerable. Showing the world who you are takes a lot of courage. I hope I have done justice to the things I love.
You can see our current political climate reflect in your characters’ lives and histories. Is what is happening political at the moment something that compels you to write these sorts of stories?
The personal is political. If an individual lives an “apolitical” life or is unaffected by politics, they enjoy immense privilege. Laws are made about LGBTQ people without our voices or viewpoints. We are not invited to the table. There is a sense of being at the mercy of politicians who are apathetic to LGBTQ people and even actively hate us. Several times in Shine of the Ever, a character encounters a hypocritical Christian or a self-satisfied liberal: someone who, knowingly or not, enacts bigotry because they don’t consider queer or trans people as fully human. Politics have often been at odds with the best interests of LGBTQ folks. We have a “president” who emboldens hate speech and hate crimes. Neo-Nazis gather in Portland and have to be driven out by anti-fascist protestors. Ronald Reagan aided and abetted the AIDS epidemic, and the apathy in Congress about the current drug crisis isn’t much better. Police brutality as well as the near-daily murders of black trans women oppresses LGBTQ people and targets people of colour. Da’Shaun L. Harrison said, “To be visibly Queer is to choose your happiness over your safety.” Now, more than ever, that safety is at risk. And “allies” stand by, patting themselves on the back for putting a rainbow sticker on their car window or smugly saying “Love wins” like it’s some kind of equalizing spell. It’s not enough. People lose their lives over politics, daily. Writing Shine felt especially urgent. My hope is that, in five years that urgency is totally obsolete.
There is a lot of LGBTQ+ representation in this book, which is something I wish I had when I was learning who I am. How much do you think a book like this would have impacted you when you were discovering yourself?
What’s that adage—write the book you want to read? I needed Shine when I was younger, when I was coming out, when I was deciding whether or not to transition. I’m 35 now, which means I’ve outlived the average black trans woman, whose life expectancy is 32. I owe a lot to other trans people who were willing to share their experiences and speak fearlessly about who they are. My hope is that Shine of the Ever reaches not only people who want to read about characters like themselves, but also readers who are not queer. Several folks who have read the book are cishet, yet their emotional responses tell me that I’ve written something that can offer them new ideas, too. Trans and queer humanity shouldn’t be a novel concept. But here we are. That bridge needs to be built.
Last question, do you have a favourite character or story from the collection? Call me biased, but I kind of favour Lisa…
Lisa is a favourite of mine, too! There are no “Fosters” in the book, you notice. I love them all–they’re so messy, so sweet. I have a particular attachment to Katz, the roommate in “The Voice of Edith.” Katz is not an “inspirational” trans character. In fact, the narrator struggles with how unnecessary she is in Katz’s life. She says, “It was apparent that the role I’d fantasized about—confidante, trans ally, best friend, hand-holder, gender demystifyer—wasn’t mine to play.” Katz is kind of a jerk, and I like that about her. She’s a normal person who wants to play video games, smoke weed, and leave for work on time. She’s not a symbol. I resonate with that: I think there’s something sacred about the moments when marginalized people are allowed to be ordinary. I hope my book creates more of those opportunities. I’m glad we get to celebrate ourselves, all the ups and downs. Life doesn’t have to be a Pride parade to be beautiful, powerful, and true.
Shine of the Ever is out on 5th November 2019 and published by Interlude Press. You can click here to buy it.
This review was made possible by Netgalley with an advanced reader copy. The interview was made possible thanks to Mind Buck Media. Thumbnail photo credit: Wesley LaPointe
Foster is a queer, non-binary, trans single parent in recovery who lives in Portland, Oregon. They have won awards for their writing and been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize. This is Foster’s second short story collection and their writing has been featured in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Click here to learn more.