When Paul McVeigh was growing up in Belfast, the library was a refuge — from the febrile atmosphere on the streets, a difficult home life and "the kind of trouble being an effeminate boy got you’". However, even in that ‘safe space’, he struggled to find stories that represented his life and experience, especially from an Irish perspective.
When the author was invited by Pat Cotter of Cork-based press Southword Editions to edit Queer Love: An Anthology of Irish Fiction, he saw an opportunity to redress this imbalance.
“Pat said there had been an anthology [The Irish Eros, published in 1996] which had featured just two pieces on Irish gay life and one was a poem by a straight man. This anthology is just a small attempt at saying ‘here we are and here’s the way we love’. There aren’t many books that focus on gay people and there are even fewer on the love lives of gay people. It’s the same thing as ‘I don’t really mind gay people but I don’t really want to talk or hear about what they do in bed’. Even in films or on TV, the depiction of the gay person is often of the camp, funny best friend. We very rarely see them in bed with their lover,” says McVeigh.
The author says the lack of representation of gay lives and perspectives was also recently brought home to him when he watched It’s A Sin, the acclaimed drama from Russell T Davies centred on the lives of gay people in 1980s London during the AIDS crisis.
“We rarely see ourselves like that on screen. I went to London every summer to work from when I was 17 until I left uni, then I moved over there for 15 years. All those places, bars and clubs, that was my life. It was incredibly emotional to see that and see your story on television. It was something that straight people had every day, on every channel — their lives were shown to them and validated, analysed and celebrated,” he says.
The anthology features the work of best-selling writers such as Colm Tóibín, Emma Donoghue and John Boyne along with published, emerging and new writers, including Neil Hegarty, Shannon Yee — who took legal action to bring same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland — and Emer Lyons, a lesbian writer from West Cork now based in New Zealand. There is also a piece by the legendary gay rights activist and Aosdána member Mary Dorcey.
Choosing who is to be included in an anthology is never an easy task and McVeigh says he was challenged by people who wanted to know why the book wasn’t longer and why it couldn’t showcase solely new writers. However, he says the anthology was not intended to be an exhaustive survey of LGBTQI+ writing.
“This was never going to be covering 150 years of writing or whatever, it is more like a little collection of love letters to gay fiction from Irish writers,” he says. “I wanted a range of stories to show that we are various, we have many different points of view but we live for love as anyone else does. I want people to pick it up and see what an amazing array of talent there is coming out of Ireland — LGBTQI+ writers who have faced, in most cases, a lot of disadvantages because of that in terms of getting published and having their story seen as relevant and sellable.” McVeigh says there is still resistance among many people to reading books that offer an LGBTQI+ perspective.
“I don’t pick up a book and go, ‘oh my God, that’s a straight book, it doesn’t talk to me about my life, I’m not going to read straight books’, but I think a lot of people do that about gay books. They think, ‘why would I read a book about gay people, it doesn’t reflect my life and I’m not really interested’. If you are interested in humanity and curious about life — how are we different, and how does that impact on us as people — you should be interested in this book.” McVeigh says he is thankful that there are a lot more avenues of information and representation available to young people in the LGBTQI+ community today.
“Gay people of my generation often led lonely lives — they were very isolated because they were rejected by society, schoolmates and sometimes their family. Now young people have a hugely different experience, but not always. There is a lot of acceptance and representation online and more laws to protect us. It is a very different world.” Ultimately, he says the stories in the anthology are like a “trail of breadcrumbs to say: ‘look at how many are out there…there is a place for you and your stories — be true to yourself and write them’.”
- Queer Love: An Anthology of Irish Fiction, published by Southword Editions, is out now.