Landfall win – a Q&A with Siobhan Harvey

27 Nov, 2023
Landfall win – a Q&A with Siobhan Harvey

Acclaimed author Siobhan Harvey has won the 2023 Landfall Essay Competition with “beautifully crafted and timely comment on prejudice against the LGBTQIA+ community”.

Editor of the Landfall journal, Lynley Edmeades, used those words to describe the winning work, adding: “Harvey holds this contemporary issue in view while also weaving in her own story, one ultimately fraught with a failure to be accepted into her family because of the ‘contamination’ inherent to her ‘unlovable’ self.”

Below is a Q&A with the AUT creative writing Senior Lecturer about her winning essay.

What is your essay about?

A Jigsaw of Broken Things is a her-storic story of coming out entwined with an examination of recent violence and prejudice against queer people. It interlaces my personal experience in the 1980s of questioning my identity and the parental, societal and political ostracism that resulted with a contemporary consideration of how, in many ways in many countries around the world despite supposed progress since the second half of the 20th century, queer people are returned to being the targets of social and political exclusion, bigotry and prohibition. In all this, the essay examines the power of memory as a reminder that past violence and prohibition against queer people must never be forgotten, because it reminds queer contemporaries of our need to be vigilant at a time when our rights and privileges remain under attack.

What were your inspirations behind this essay? Why did you feel compelled to write about this topic?

As someone who came out at a time of unadulterated political, cultural, psychological, and physical brutality, revulsion and spite against queer people, I had to write against the rejuvenation of hardcore opposition to and oppression against the community still; I felt a sense of need and duty to do so. This has been emboldened by my teenage son’s generation who have liberated much of the enmity against being queer, widening the beautiful diaspora of identity to include pansexuality, asexuality and so much more. Amongst themselves acceptance of diversity and the right to self-identification is powerful to experience and humbling to witness. But my son and his generation don’t yet possess political or social power, and are too young (fortunately) to know of the intimidations and violence against queer people of my youth. Yet they are emerging into an adult world where identity is a brutal battleground, in which the identities that they claim are not just under assault from hardline politicians and social commentators, but have been turned into the aegis of radicalism, including homicides, massacres and state-endorsed execution. On a personal level, as a mother, I wrote A Jigsaw of Broken Things because I want to protect my son from becoming a victim of that. On a social conscience level as a writer, I want the essay because I want to protect everyone who is queer from becoming a victim of that.

Why this essay now?

Because the 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Act in Uganda. Because Colorado Springs, November 2022. Because Oslo, June 2022. Because Posie Parker, Aotearoa, March 2023. Because the English Government’s colonial-style subjugation of the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, ongoing. Because New Zealand can’t be complacent that we are immune to this or an outlier of it. As recently as 2020 the HRC found that discrimination against queer people is widespread, and our legal protections need to be strengthened.

What was the process of writing this essay like? Did you find any of the topics hard to write about?

Writing anything is never easy, but then never should it be. Writing should push the author to dark and difficult places in order to bring light and succour to its subject and its reader. So confronting things like rejection was emotionally and psychological hard, particularly when seeking to bring as much objectivity as I could to a subjective subject such as this. So, like all my writings, I allow the work a great deal of time until satisfied that it’s fully realised itself, and living with any work for that amount of time – in this case two years – was additionally hard.

I love the structure of your essay and this running idea of piecing together memories. How did you decide to structure your essay this way?

A great deal of writerly contemplation and grist, error and editing. The structure finally materialised when the title suggested itself. A Jigsaw of Broken Things emerged as a response to considering the relationship I was forced (based on sexuality) to have with my parents, which is no relationship at all. I saw how broken we were in so many ways. An equally extensive consideration I’d been indulging in simultaneously: how memory works, and how we piece it together, suddenly – and given the two years it took to complete the essay in its ‘jigsaw’ form – eventually conjoined the original realisation. I saw how the title was a relevant meeting point between my experience of parental relationship and memory, and that there in I could deconstruct the essay into ‘pieces’ that the reader puts back together as a whole work.

What are the overall messages that you’d like people to take away from reading your essay?

It’s less a message than a provocation and call for change. As someone who’s experienced and continues to live with some of the most damaging consequences of bigotry against queer people (for there are fewer more destructive outcomes of intolerance than prolonged rejection by one’s parents and birthplace), I know that the status of queer people in society must change for their betterment. To me, I want this essay to be an agency to offer alternatives. I’ve had 50 years to deeply mull over what those possible ways to make this change might be. I see two. Firstly, to normalise the coming out process by expecting everyone, including heteronormative peoples to “come out”; or, secondly, erase the need to “come out” entirely. I believe that if heteronormative people experienced the deep anxieties of coming out society would quickly see the value of the second option. Indeed, of the two possible paths towards transformation, I believe the latter makes for the better social change, for it removes all stigma, personal anxiety and trauma, lifelong debility and loss that is placed on every queer person who is made to confront the societal expectation to “come out” (even if they choose not to come out, they must still face these matters), and in so doing actively and/or subliminally mark themselves out as “different” (which then society institutionally engages with as “lesser”). Erase that, and individuals can simple be: diverse in all their wonder, accepted and celebrated for simply being who they are. That’s a future, this essay wants to provoke readers to take away from it.

Are you working on anything else at the moment?