When I was writing the first draft of my novel Olympia Knife, the 2016 U.S. Presidential election was looming. I, like most folks (with the possible exception of election hackers and those who hired them) did not know what the outcome would be. I finished that first draft in September 2016, well before the November 9 morning on which I burst into tears in front of a fellow professor. (I’m not normally a public weeper, but I’d stayed up late watching election results, and was exhausted and devastated.)
I sent the draft of the novel to the publisher for editing, and, after months and months of daily hacking away at it, I gratefully took the reprieve. When it came time to edit, I had to read the manuscript for the first time I’d read it since sending it off, the first time since the election, and I’d forgotten much of it. Luckily, I’ve got the memory of a goldfish, so I could read with a clean slate and murder, as they say, my darlings.
Olympia Knife is the story of a turn-of-the-century travelling circus filled with cultural outsiders who, one by one, disappear. The queer woman at its center and the woman she loves must fight to stay solid (literally) as everyone around them vanishes under some insidious and pervasive force. Reading it anew, I was struck by how easily the novel can be understood as an allegory about being Other in the Trump era. I mean, Otherness was totally on my mind as I wrote, but Trump certainly was not, unless I was, for some reason, musing over Celebrity Apprentice, or thinking about orange things. As I finished work on the initial draft of the manuscript, the specter of Trump loomed, and one saw a distinct rise in America of what looked like Fascism and more anti-LGBTQ and racist violence because of his supporters, and that necessarily made its way into the manuscript. Now that he’s been installed into office, reading the book in this light is a more urgent reading.
LGBTQ folks like me in much of the US have gotten somewhat comfortable. I’m not saying it’s easy for everyone, but I am saying that it’s easier now for many of us than it was, say, in the 1980s. One has the option to be out in many places, one can have straight friends and be accepted into straight communities. When I attended college in the late 1980s, I hid in any closet I could find. Now as a professor, I’ve offered classes in queer theory that rapidly fill beyond capacity every time. Many of my students have been openly queer, and I’ve been able to be candid about my own queerness without being ascribed some nefarious motive.
Things have changed in most of America, to say the least. It’s easier for many of us to find love, get legally married, have children and settle happily into a gayborhood where we are not outcast, and thus it’s also easy to forget all the other folks (in the US and beyond) who are gay or bi or trans or otherwise Other who are still under dire threat because of that very Otherness.
Being out used to mean accepting a duty to work, to educate and agitate, fighting to stick around and helping others do likewise. People wrote and demonstrated and risked their very lives in order simply to live them. I’m not romanticizing; I’m not saying that’s a great state of affairs, but I am saying many of us have gotten comfortable enough that it’s easy to forget that we must still work, and that there are others (in the US and outside of it) who have no choice but to fight because otherwise they will die.
Olympia Knife now takes on new relevance for me in the US’s current Trump era. The novel is about a time when Othered folks—the queers, the outsiders—are being insidiously disappeared (made irrelevant, made powerless, made invisible, made gone), and the force that’s doing it is so pervasive it’s hard to predict or protect against it.
In the US, after all the apparent political gains of the last decade, we’re forced again to fight just to stay, to make our own families and cling to relevance, so that we are not disappeared, and we can’t even clearly see the monster against which we’re fighting. There is the imminence of a horrible thing—a more horrible thing than has already come—all the deaths of queer folk (both individual and massacre), the riots at certain political rallies, beatings by cops, denial of our rights to public space and safety, the swell of neo-fascism—this is all ramping up to something, and I, for one, am scared. I feel more powerless than I ever have (and I vividly remember the Reagan years).
Olympia Knife is a rallying cry, then, to all us queers and POC, crips and resisters and Others of all types: we must stick together, and we must resist. Making our own enclaves is no longer enough, because the awful thing that wants us gone is seeping in and getting us, even in our own spaces. We must fight fiercely and tirelessly simply to persist.
Alysia Constantine is a novelist and former literary and cultural studies professor. Her second novel, Olympia Knife, is a magical-realist adventure that takes place in a turn-of-the- century travelling circus and traces the struggles of Olympia and her lover Diamond in the face of the disappearance of one circus performer after another. You can find more at http://www.alysiaconstantine.com.