Recently our Blogger in Residence Nalini Haynes talked to Will Kostakis about equity and representation in literature.
Will is “made in Australia from imported ingredients”. His nana came to Australia by boat as an adult with a primary school education. Her children, Will’s parent’s generation were the first in the family to finish high school, and now Will’s generation is the first in the family to go to university—and he’s an award-winning author.
Until year nine, Will didn’t see himself reflected in literature. At school he “read Shakespeare’s sonnet, A Woman’s Face. For those who aren’t familiar with the sonnet, it’s Shakespeare writing about his own experience or for a commission about a male who was attracted to another man’s face. I wanted to be a writer and I thought being gay was going to be a barrier. Then I realised that William Shakespeare is in every single classroom in the land, everyone knows his name and quotes his work even if they haven’t seen it. He either entertained these thoughts or he wrote them for someone else and he was ok with it. If Shakespeare can do it then I can be Shakespeare. That was the pivotal moment for me when I knew this was going to be fine.”
Were there any unusual hurdles in getting published because you’re not the straight white stereotype?
Not so much for getting published or the content of my work, it’s more in its reception. I had written a gay character in The First Third. When giving talks at certain schools, teachers would caution me not to mention the gay character, which I find really odd. It’s like people saying, ‘Hey, don’t mention the Greek character’ because, y’know, those Greeks. It was just really weird that gay content was treated as different.
It’s also the reason I stayed in the closet for as long as I did. Coming out caused a few hurdles. A school in Sydney offered to host a book launch for me but they rescinded that offer after reading on my blog that I’m gay. They said the book itself would no longer be appropriate. The blog post about me coming out had nothing to do with my book, but they thought, ‘Will is recently out, this is his latest book, it must be the gayest thing ever’. It was really weird.
However, I’ve been really heart-warmed by the reception of the book, the way people have embraced not only me but the gay characters I’ve written. For every school that says ‘Hey, we really love your book. We don’t let the kids read it but the staff like it’, there are hundreds who have embraced it. The wonderful thing about reading is that, not only can you show kids who are gay that their experiences matter and they have value, but you can also show people who aren’t gay that this is what gayness is, it’s not that scary. They develop empathy and understand the gay people in their lives or the gay people they encounter that bit better.
Why is representation important?
It’s seeing yourself reflected. On some level you see that your experiences have value. On another level—at that school that told me ‘don’t talk about the gay character in The First Third,’ I asked the students who their favourite character was.
This girl puts up her hand and says, ‘Sticks!’ who was the gay character. I thought, ‘Oh, great, I’m going to get into trouble.’
I’m like, ‘Okay, what was your favourite scene?’
She says, ‘The scene where he has sex.’ I’m like ‘Oh, God.’
[Will’s tone was partly someone about to head-butt his desk, partly exasperated amusement. By this stage in the interview I was belly-laughing.]
The teachers were sinking into their seats. The students were year 10 girls; I assumed all of them were heterosexual or, at least, most of them. What was it about that scene that connected with them? The girl said, ‘It made me understand my friend Sam a little bit better.’
That is what representation does. Representation begets understanding.
“When I was 4 years old, I discovered a large hardcover book of poetry in a corner store and my father bought it for me. Later he wanted me to read ‘Triantiwontigongolope’ by CJ Dennis. I said the poem was silly; I couldn’t possibly read a word THAT BIG so the trees and grass being purple was a great excuse. My father challenged me to think about possibilities in this strange world. I knew my disability separated me from others so I asked ‘Could I be normal in a world like that?’ He said ‘Yes’. Thus my love of genre and my passion for social justice were sown with the hope of changing the world.”
— Nalini Haynes.
You can find Nalini at: her website, Dark Matter Zine,Twitter as Dark Matter Zine and as herself, Facebook as Dark Matter Zine and as herself, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.