Writers on Writing: Alec Butler

Alec Butler is an award-winning writer and filmmaker from Nova Scotia. His work deals extensively with issues of gender and sexuality, and draws from his personal experience as a transsexual, two-spirit man. His play Black Friday?, on one woman revisiting her hometown to affirm her lesbianism to her mother, was nominated for the Governor General’s award in 1990. His most recent work, a 2014 novella entitled Rough Paradise, is his most autobiographical — a queer coming-of-age story inspired by his own childhood in rough, working-class Cape Breton.

I meet Alec just outside the greenhouse in Allan Gardens — a place that, despite its roughness, he calls his favourite park in the city. We are twice interrupted by the rambling, seemingly-homeless men who frequent the Gardens, but Alec just smiles, listens, nods his head and doesn’t seem to mind.

You were a playwright for many years, but your most recent published work, Rough Paradise, is a novella. Why the switch?

I don’t know. It’s so work-heavy and intense to write theatre, and then only a few hundred people come and see it. And then you get the critics, who pan it because they don’t understand it, or it’s out of their experience. And so I was looking for another genre.

I always wanted to write a book … I had this story in me, that I actually put on stage first. It was like a half-hour, one-person show that I did in 2005 called Rough Paradise. So I did a half-hour version of that, and I was also exploring my spiritual identity, my two-spirit identity. The native worldview was very attractive to me, and I loved it, wanted to know more about it, felt I had a real connection to it.

I found out in 1993, just before my mother died, that I had Mi’kmaq ancestors. Which I kind of knew, but it was hidden. We didn’t talk about it or acknowledge it because the racism (in Cape Breton) was just so intense. It was shameful.

And then I’m like, ‘This story really needs to be told, it needs to go beyond the stage, it needs to be added to and drawn out.’ So I got a grant to work on (Rough Paradise) as a novel — that was in 2008.

Were there any challenges in adapting your writing style from plays to novella-length pieces?

Well, theatre is like, you have to have the whole picture in your head, with all the characters, and you have to know the setup and what they’re doing onstage and all that. So you have to keep your mind on so many things, on so many levels. With writing a novella, especially when it’s written from a first-person, personal point of view, it’s very go, go, go — you feel like you’re in a race … It’s very focused, trying to articulate how a person is feeling deep inside by what they’re experiencing, what people are saying to them, especially when it comes to gender.

I think of (Rough Paradise) as a modern take — a transgendered version — of Catcher in the Rye. Like, this character who feels very removed and out-of-place in the world trying to find their place, trying to feel good about themselves even though people are telling them they should feel a certain way, be a certain gender. And trying to stay strong — to create an identity.

And I understand it was inspired by your own childhood experience growing up queer in Nova Scotia?

Yes. I was born with an intersex condition, which wasn’t diagnosed, nobody really knew about it, what that was. There was no word for intersex back then. So, when I started growing a beard, when I was 12, having a period, having a crush on a girl, a really intense crush on a girl, getting in trouble for that. I got terribly harassed for being queer. Finally my parents were like, ‘We need to find out what’s going on here.’

So I was taken to doctors, and one doctor was like, ‘You should put your kid in an institution until they learn how to dress in dresses and wear makeup, like the gender they were assigned on their birth certificate.’ Which is a problem for intersex people, because they often don’t fit the gender they’re assigned, like me — I didn’t fit that gender. I didn’t fit the female gender, didn’t feel comfortable in it even when I was little. A little tot, a little four year old, I would tell people, they’d say, ‘What’s your name?’ And I’d say (Audrey), and they’d be like, ‘Why did your parents give you a girl’s name?’ Because even then people read me as a little boy. And that’s how I felt.

And when I started growing breasts it was really shocking to me. And the fact that they came out in about a month — like I was flat-chested in the beginning of July, and by the end of August I had huge boobs. What the hell is going on here? It was just really confusing. I’m a boy; I shouldn’t have boobs.

Gender identity and sexuality play a major role in your work,  but then you also have this Métis heritage that you seem very connected to. Does that show itself anywhere in your writing?

Yeah, yeah. In the novella, the main character has a few spiritual experiences where they go into another place. There’s different levels of reality, and they go into another level of reality, but they don’t understand it. ‘What is this? Where am I going?’ So it’s like the beginnings of a spiritual worldview, and a respect for all living things, and acknowledgement of the land we live on and how it forms us.

The land is very important; the land speaks to the characters. The oak tree is very important in (Rough Paradise) — it’s where they meet, and it’s a symbol of knowledge. In the Bible there’s the tree of knowledge, but in my books it’s like, ‘Yes, eat of the tree of knowledge,’ right? It’s important.

Of course. Lastly, what are you working on now? Do you plan to stick with long-form writing?

I’m actually working on a film. It’s a documentary — kind of an artistic documentary — about an artist who personally was very important to me. She was my mentor for many years, Kathleen Brindley. It’s going to be a shorter film that just focuses on an event that she was part of.

She was on this talk show in 1972 on CBC. I actually saw the talk show when I was 13, and I just was struck by how intelligent she was, how the host was asking her all these really homophobic questions and how smartly she answered them. I was really impressed by that and fascinated.

And then 15 years later, I met her when I moved to Toronto. We became neighbours. She was an artist, and very smart, and also very into the Native worldview, even though she wasn’t native. She was more of a herbalist — like an old-time witch-type herbalist. We created a beautiful garden where we lived. She was a big part of that.

And then she got cancer. I was expecting us to grow old together, and she would teach me how to be a good old person. Anyway, she got diagnosed with cancer in 2006. She told me, ‘I have two months to live.’

She lived nine months longer, and I filmed her three times. The last time was here in the greenhouse. She loved this park. And then I was part of her team when she was dying. And she died in my arms. It was an amazing experience, very heartbreaking because it was tragic. She was very young. But she died with a beautiful smile on her face, and we were all struck by that.

And then, when we did her memorial, her best friend was a Buddhist, and she helped prepare the body, and she related how (Brindley) didn’t experience rigor mortis. And they say, in the Buddhist tradition, if you die and you don’t experience rigor mortis, it means you died enlightened. An enlightened being. And that’s definitely what she was — enlightened.

Featured image by Augustine Ng