Life Stories #74: Damian Barr

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Life Stories: Damian Barr
photo: Daisy Honeybunn

On this episode of Life Stories, the podcast where I interview memoir writers about their lives and the art of writing memoir, my guest is Damian Barr, and we’re talking about Maggie & Me, his story of “coming out and coming of age in 1980s Scotland.” We discussed his complex feelings towards then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher; on the one hand, he admired her messages of individualism and achievement, yet her economic policies had a devastating effect on his family and the community in which they lived—and the government’s condemnation of homosexuality, and even of the “promoting” of homosexuality, intensified the isolation he endured as he struggled to make sense of his identity.

We also talked about the abuse that young Barr suffered at the hands of a stepfather who’d already guessed at his gayness before he himself had put a name to it, and that got us talking about whether his parents had known as well:

“I remember the first time that somebody called me a poof, and they said it with such venom… More than that, they knew, they knew something about me that I didn’t know, and that was really disturbing. And I remember thinking, what is this thing that I don’t know, and I ran into the house to my mum and said, ‘Mum, mum, mum!” What is it? ‘Jason (or whatever his name was) just called me a poof! What’s a poof?’ And she didn’t say, That’s not you, or Tell me who this Jason is, or anything else; she just said, Don’t you worry about that—it’s okay.

I think she always knew. When I did come out, she wasn’t surprised. She was upset and sad, and she tried to ground me… My dad said, It’s not true. ‘Well, it is true.’ It’s just not true. Come back to me in a few years. And I went back to him in a few years and said, ‘Still true.’

And, among other things, we talk about how Barr came to write a memoir after making attempts at fiction—and why, once he plunged into nonfiction, he decided not to visit Scotland during the writing, or draw upon his journalistic training to interview the other major figures in that time of his life.

Listen to Life Stories #74: Damian Barr (MP3 file); or download this file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click). Or subscribe to Life Stories in iTunes, where you can catch up with earlier episodes and be alerted whenever a new one is released. (And if you are an iTunes subscriber, please consider rating and reviewing the podcast!)

1 July 2014 | life stories, uncategorized |

It’s Time for a More Inclusive Book Review

For more than a few years now, America’s literary community has been talking about the the gender imbalances that take place in mainstream book reviewing. Each year, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts compiles the data to show that male writers are still getting reviewed disproportionately in comparison to women writers; each year, the mainstream media sniffs at the so-called bean-counting approach to literary criticism and attempts to turn its deficiencies into strengths by claiming they’re focused on the books that “really will endure,” as former New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus put it.

New York TImes Book Review, Authors Reviewed 2010-2012

I’ve talked about this a lot over the years. I’ve even described how, as a reviewer, I’ve fallen into the same traps despite my best efforts when I’m writing about books here or for other outlets. And the gender gap is only part of the problem: Though it’s gotten less media attention, some critics have pointed out that, if we look at the ethnic backgrounds of the writers getting reviewed by the mainstream press, it’s an awfully white looking field. So, after all this time spent clamoring for change and not seeing it, I began asking myself: What do I want to do about this?

Here’s what I came up with.

(more…)

20 January 2014 | uncategorized |

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