Photo of Keith Maillard by Mary Maillard.
In anticipation of the Sunday, May 7th online launch event in support of Keith Maillard’s “In the Defense of Liberty”, we present an interview with the author. You are invited enjoy the power and urgency of this dynamic new novel from this experienced and celebrated author. Register for this online event here.
Massy Arts: The 1960s are often referred as a decade of fights for equality, when a strong political feeling of change had taken over several countries in different continents. It is also said to be a time of effervescence for political groups, when the structures of submission through systems of class-gender-race were questioned and challenged. That being said, why choose 1964 as the time period of your new book? What characteristics from the 1960s did you choose to incorporate in this novel, to address gender nonconformity and the reach of history?
Keith Maillard: When we talk about the ‘60s, we’re usually thinking of the fiery end of it—’68 through the early ‘70s—but I wanted to enter at an earlier point, when things were brewing but no one knew yet exactly what they were. In the summer of 1964, a large number of university students, most of them white, went to Mississippi to help register black voters, and three were murdered, two of them white. Black people had been lynched in the South forever, but this was the first time white kids had been lynched, and this badly alarmed white Americans. Barry Goldwater was running for president, and his supporters took over the GOP, creating a sharp rightward path that would eventually lead to Donald Trump. Goldwater refused to repudiate right-wing extremists like the John Birch Society, leading to his famous speech with the line that gave me the title for my book. I also wanted to paint a picture of how alienated and isolated people with gender trouble were in those days when there hadn’t been any language invented to talk about these things. It would take years before anyone would connect queer rights to civil rights.
MA: You have been working in the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia for more than thirty years. By choosing to place your story around a group of PhD students and academia, were you able to draw from your own journey as an instructor? And also, why create Mason as a History student?
KM: Of course I was able to draw from my own experience as an instructor—I’m writing about what I know. Because I wanted to take a look at American history, what better protagonist could I have than a history student? The early ‘60s was a time when revisionist historians began saying, “Hey, wait a minute, there are a lot of things we think we know about American history that are wrong.” Reconstruction was one of them. The Confederates may have lost the Civil War, but they won the propaganda war that followed it, and when I was in high school, I had teachers who praised the early Klan for protecting the white planter class from violent attacks from freed slaves and the Northern carpetbaggers. That orthodox narrative was simply false, filled with lies, and needed to be debunked. The first I heard it debunked was in a university classroom.
MA: Linda Svendsen said that your characters navigate acceptance, intimacy, and regenesis. In this sense, regenesis from what? What are the forces that your characters fight against in this new novel? What is this “liberty” they pursue?
KM: “Regenesis” means rebirth. Linda may have chosen this word for its associations and reverberations. “Born again” in the Christian sense means rising from the dead, being reborn into life—as were many dying and rising gods long before Christianity. Mason has been plagued by thoughts of suicide, so death is a real possibility, and his rebirth is quite literally rising from death into life. My characters are fighting against what Simone de Beauvoir called, and we continue to call, “the Patriarchy.” The liberty that my characters pursue is the freedom to be themselves—to be, wholly and authentically, who they are already.
MA: With the ongoing political state in North America, especially in the USA with anti-queer and anti-trans movements gaining more resistance, what do you think is your book’s main message? Why tell a story about gender nonconformity at this moment?
KM: Following the lead of Donald Trump, the GOP in the United States has become a fascist death cult. Republican-controlled states in the US seem to be in competition with each other to see which of them can pass the most cruel and repressive legislation aimed at eliminating trans and queer people altogether. The most significant contribution Trump has made to American politics is by doing something that Goldwater never would have done, adopting the make-shit-up approach, simply lying, and Canadian Conservatives are following his lead. Trump announced it when he first left office and reinforced it again recently in no uncertain terms—he is vehemently opposed to “transgenderism” and, if re-elected, will do everything in his power to stamp it out. Trans people are fighting for their lives. I am entering into this conversation as a way of fighting back. My main message is that trans people are not as they are being portrayed—broken, defective, not even human. We are whole and perfect and beautiful. We have always been here, and we are going to continue to be here.
MA: Could you choose a passage from this book and share it with our readers? Why did you choose this passage, and why do you think it represents this book’s core theme?
The rain was slowing down some, turning misty. It hazed over everything. He left his bike in the rack at the front of Old Main and he was exploring an idea so simple he hadn’t seen it before. He walked up through the main entrance and on past the reading room and up the broad stairs to the truly beautiful part of the building that was like a cathedral. The sound of the fans and the sound of the rain falling on the library, the sound coming from all over the library, made a music that comforted him strangely, and he looked up through all that lovely empty space, all the way up to Level Five where Jessie had her carrel, and the light coming through the enormous windows was soft and hazy like the rain.
This was his library, his home, he saw now how it could cradle him and comfort him, and he felt a surge of joy so sweet, so intense, that his eyes filled up. He could sense that Jessie wasn’t there today but he walked slowly up to Level Five anyway and all the way back to the eastern wall and stopped in front of her carrel and he’d been right, she wasn’t there, and that was exactly the way it should be.
He’d never understood before how simple it was. When he looked out over the campus, that hard cold knife-edge clarity would be gone, everything would be softened by the haze of the rain that was his rain, that was made for him today. He could take off this men’s ugly raincoat for good and the rain would comfort him and hold him. It was as sweet as could be, and comforting, so close to him now, just up the freight elevator and then quick as a wink through those five doors that were never locked, then he’d be high above the campus where nobody could hurt him ever again. He’d be a girl forever, the blood splashing from him like rose petals fallen in the rain, and he’d be washed clean, broken and beautiful in the rain.
He’d been staring off at nothing but now he looked down. He wasn’t quite seeing things. He looked down and read the words on the official card in its wooden slot.
DEPARTMENT OF HISTORY
FACULTY OF GRADUATE STUDIES
Holy sweet Jesus fuck, he needed something real. He grabbed the wooden railing with both hands and squeezed until he saw his knuckles turn white, until he could feel the wood hurt him. You’re not rational, he told himself. You’re not thinking straight. You won’t get to see how beautiful you look broken on the concrete steps. You’ll be fucking dead and you won’t know a goddamn thing.
KM: This passage is from the centre of the book as it approaches midpoint when the main themes are reemphasized. Mason has attempted suicide twice before, and if this attempt were to be successful, it would be “three strikes and you’re out.” This is the moment at which Mason feels most downhearted and depressed, but he does the one thing that will lead to his salvation—he reaches out to another human being.