Interview with Writer and Traveler Dennis Denisoff

dennis-2About Dennis Denisoff:

Dennis grew up in the West Kootenay area of British Columbia and studied creative writing at the now defunct David Thompson University Centre in Nelson with Margaret Hollingsworth, David McFadden, Fred Wah, and Tom Wayman. Here he also studied with George Bowering, Nicole Brossard, and Audrey Thomas, and had the honour of bp Nichol spitting Alpha-bits in his face. He spent a year as a student of Russian/Soviet Modernist literature and art in Kiev in the later ‘80s, before travelling through China, Tibet, Nepal, and Thailand.

He returned to Vancouver to complete a BA in English. Dog Years (1991), his first novel, was written in three days, the weekend before Dennis started graduate studies at McGill University. The work was shortlisted for the Hugh MacLennan Prize and the Norma Epstein Prize, with Dennis receiving threats for the work’s unsentimental depiction of the anger and moral struggles of a person who is HIV+. While in Montreal, he was a member of Act Up!, a direct-action, AIDS advocacy group, and during this time he also edited Queeries (1993), the first collection of Canadian gay male prose in history. His first book of poetry, Tender Agencies (1994), appeared soon after. Heavily influenced by Language Poetry, the collection was primarily written while Dennis was a member of the Kootenay School of Writing during the ‘80s and ‘90s. For a few years, he, Nancy Shaw, and Morgan Holmes maintained the Kootenay School of Writing East in Montreal, which hosted poetry events.

After receiving his PhD at McGill, Dennis completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton University and, then, taught at the University of Waterloo before moving to Toronto in 2000 to teach in the English Department and the Graduate Program in Communication and Culture at Ryerson University. His novel The Winter Gardeners appeared in 2004, and he is currently writing a third novel set in the West Kootenays.

dogDog Years (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp 1991):

Dog Years is a novel about AIDS. It is told by a nameless narrator who writes from Vancouver during the mid-eighties (Expo 86 is brewing in the background) as he recalls his recent trip to the U.S.S.R., where he went to study. Having just been diagnosed HIV+, the narrator arrives in the U.S.S.R and falls in love with Larion, a Russian student and brother of Marina. The narrator will marry Marina to help get her out of the U.S.S.R. Marina and the narrator leave for Vancouver in the immediate aftermath of Chernobyl. Upon his return from the U.S.S.R. to Vancouver, the narrator meets his former lover and HIV+ companion, Paul. Paul tells the narrator it was he who infected the narrator with the virus (Paul has earlier sent a letter to the narrator when he is in the U.S.S.R. telling the narrator he—Paul–is positive). Paul’s disclosure in Vancouver seems linked to the narrator’s sleeping with Larion and a train porter while in the U.S.S.R. and not telling either man he is positive. It is the narrator’s decision not to inform Larion he is positive that forms the focus of this novel as the narrator justifies and examines this decision throughout Dog Years. It is a troubling decision that the narrator addresses constantly, as in his following reflection: “Because of AIDS and my new devotion, fucking for me was not a casual act. I could only have sex with those I worshipped, as aspects of the penultimate order, whether for their sublimity or, as with Larion, my union to them” (Dog Years 87).

SM: Dennis, I know it is unconventional to interview an author about a work written two decades ago. Typically, interviews focus on works that have just been published. However, there is not much criticism surrounding this novel and only several reviews of the book, and there are no interviews with you about Dog Years. So I’m delighted you’ve agreed to answer questions about this work.

My first question is why do you think there is not very much criticism surrounding this work? Can you describe the nature of this book’s publishing and reception?

DD: Dog Years is a slender novel and a brisk read. Brian Lam at Arsenal Pulp was keen to publish it because they were building up their queer identity. Today, they are the most recognized queer publisher in the country, but, at the time, the press’s identity as a gay or queer press was still rather formative and it wasn’t as recognized as it is today for its strong intellectual and activist identity. The reception for my novel was positive, and I was called on to give numerous readings and interviews. Some people were angry that a book without a clear moral message in accord with their own views would be published, and some people got upset because they thought it was autobiographical (which is a real complement), but the press treated the book with great respect and were supportive overall.

SM: I know you published this novel when you were a graduate student at McGill University in 1991. When did you start writing this novel, though? Would you consider it a first-wave response to the public recognition of AIDS (which came to the public’s attention in 1981)?

DD: The novel was written during the first weekend in September in 1989; it took three days. I probably added about 20 pages during revisions. I had just moved to Montreal, just encountered ACT UP! and AIDS activism, and was writing from that state of political energy.

SM: What sense do you make of the narrator? Is he immoral? Are his thought processes and actions meant to mimic a deteriorating disease? Or is the narrator, in fact, as moral as anyone else? Are these good questions?

DD: I like your readings of the narrator and I agree that it’s hard to locate a moral foundation in the novel – which is, of course, part of the point. I don’t think Dog Years invites the reader into speculating on the intentions or choices of the protagonist’s actions and, in this sense, it is not an inviting or accommodating work. The aim was to create an anxious, breathless, and lonely protagonist who, rather than being engaged in discussion with a larger moral community, felt isolated and rejected and, therefore, forced to create his own ethical and aesthetic reality.

SM: Perhaps this next question is a continuation of the last. I’m wondering here about the practices of bug chasing and gift-giving. Your novel seems to pre-date research into and exposure and awareness of those who actively pursue the HIV virus, and those who purposefully “convert.” However, the following passage in Dog Years, along with the narrator’s ruminations throughout the novel, seem to anticipate these activities: “I, who had grown accustomed to death and had passed the same blessing given to me onto Larion knew that total supplication to death would supercede the moral structures created for the protection of the ego, which is what Larion was unknowingly defending” (84). Or, as the narrator explains elsewhere, “Premeditation of death is premeditation of freedom. He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.’ When I fucked Bogdon (for that is what he told me his name was), he was given his freedom, a freedom most people realize when they are already dead” (36). Even if your novel does predate an awareness (or carrying out) of these activities, do you think Dog Years provides a comment, or can provide a comment here? What comment would you like to see Dog Years make in light of the research around bug-chasing, gift-giving and conversion practices (research that comes after the publication of Dog Years)? Are these good questions? Are they insignificant questions? Are there better questions?

DD: I had no knowledge of bug chasing when I wrote the novel. That said, the sections you quote do portray somebody who is trying to take control of an uncontrollable situation, which I imagine is similar to what some people who choose to be infected might also be doing. There is a range of theories about why people choose to be bug chasers, and I’m sure there is more than one reason. Within the context of Dog Years, the logic seems more existential to me than being the product of a sexual stimulus; what I mean is, the narrator uses a poetic discourse and often speaks in aphorisms because he recognizes himself as trying to articulate a philosophy of death where death is not the opposite of life or part of a binary articulated by the living but a force with its own character and potentiality, something beyond what a human can conceive and so something beyond humanism.

SM: Do you see illness as a discourse in and of itself?

DD: That’s a metaphor one hears often, or “language is a virus.” I think it makes sense to some extent, but, really, it seems to redefine discourse unnecessarily. There are so many different types of illnesses that it risks over-generalizing to say they are all discourses or types of discourse. And speaking back to the previous question, I see discourse as a construct – a developed and modified system – and I see illnesses as often beyond such construction. In fact, some illnesses are species, and to propose that they are systems of communication seems to belittle their existence as sentient beings. Or, to follow the argument perhaps too far – it seems to suggest that humans (as species) are illnesses (say, parasites on the planet) but that humans are then also, by extension, somehow a discourse; and this last step is, I think, beyond the limits of our comprehension.

SM: The personal story of the narrator is set against the backdrop of national narratives—the story of Chernobyl, for instance, and the story of a country—Canada. In particular, the narrator describes Canada as providing limited and skewed education to its citizens. In one memorable passage, the narrator, for example, depicts the difference between the manner in which the U.S.S.R. and Canada educate their young: “While I had spent my years at elementary school memorizing the history of a royal family on another face of the earth and being asked to recite the planets in our solar system in order of their distance from the sun, Larion was being taught the basics of Marxist/Leninist philosophy” (82). In essence, are the narrator’s actions and thought processes attributable to a national narrative? Do you see the individual (narrator) or nation (Canada) being responsible for the narrator’s choices and thoughts? Building on that, in the mid-eighties, the world’s attention was focused on the very real possibility of the cold war turning hot—this was a time in world history when the world might actually have been closest to disappearing (with the threat of nuclear war). How much is Dog Years a response to that tension? Do you see Dog Years as a novel primarily about AIDS or as a novel that equally addresses international relations and, perhaps, a consideration of the individual against the backdrop of powerful nations and things outside the individual’s control?

DD: I’d never thought about the novel in this way, as the nation creating the capabilities or potential of its citizens, although I’d say that’s obviously true in real life, so it would be true for this realistic work. This narrator spends the entire novel trying to establish the grand meaning of his HIV status and to accept that status, to love it as a part of himself. In doing so, he also tries to define it as a source of strength, but I don’t think he ever fully convinces himself of this position; it seems he remains desperate in this regard. Right now, with the situations in the Middle-East, Africa, and the Ukraine – I can imagine a similar view of the world being possible. Most obviously in relation to the novel, the nationalist pride of the Soviet Union is being echoed by the pride of Russia. It seems to me that Canada, meanwhile, has become a lot less Canadian since 1990 – or, more precisely, what it means to be Canadian has changed a lot more than what it means to be Russian over the past 25 years.

SM: I realize that in 1985-86 you studied at the Kiev Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages. Could you talk a little about your time in Kiev and about your experiences there and how your exposure/learning helped shape some of the issues you address in Dog Years?

DD: I wrote Dog Years after a year in the USSR and a year traveling in Asia, and both these experiences influenced the novel. There are two main ways in which my time in Kiev impacted on the book. First, it fostered a somewhat bleak aesthetic that, to me, has the colour of a faded greenish gray piece of metal – something cold and beautiful in the landscape. Second, I was there when Chernobyl happened, and I was able to gather wonderful details of its impact on the local population. At the same time, it made it easier for me to imagine what it would be like to have a perspective utterly defined by a very present force of mortality beyond one’s control.

SM: To shift the conversation a bit . . . Could it be as basic as this . . . Is Dog Years an existentialist work? At one point, the narrator ruminates, “I began this text with an attitude that I still hold; after all, how much can change in one long day . . . . Maybe I should have begun this memoir further back in time, before being tested positive, to clarify the origins of these seeds . . . . I am tired, tired of the devotion in this text; I want to be absolved, so that I can rest” (106-7). Do you see Dog Years as being akin, in any way, to a work like Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger)?

DD: There is definitely a strong existentialist element to Dog Years. The central character of Camus’s L’Etranger is a remorseless murderer, and this flatness to his perspective is at the core of the narrative. My novel echoes these elements, but I also think that my narrator tends toward the poetic and rhetorical in a way that undermines his claims to indifference; he actually is trying to garner understanding, if not even sympathy. This makes me think of Dostoevsky, whom I had been reading a few years earlier (along with Gogol, Akhmatova, Gorky, Mayakovsky) when studying in Kiev, although my novel doesn’t have the beautiful grit and despair of Dostoevsky, and I didn’t have him consciously in mind when I was writing.

SM: Why did you your choose to publish your works with Arsenal Pulp? Can you talk a bit about that publishing house from your perspective as an author who published his first two creative works with them?

DD: Arsenal Pulp has been an outstanding support for the LGBTQ community for decades and they continue to expand and change along with the community. I sent my first manuscript to them out of sheer good luck; I had no idea they would be so supportive and so knowledgeable. They have remained the obvious place to go for excellent Canadian queer writing. My editors at both Arsenal Pulp and Coach House have just been brilliant; I am always astounded by their commitment to detail and their willingness to give so much time to my work. Other presses may be equally committed; I’ve just had the good fortune of having my creative work taken by these two.

SM: In terms of “creative” work, what are you working on right now? Who are you presently reading?

DD: I’m writing a novel based on the various communities of people who live in the West Kootenays where I grew up: Doukhobours, folks who escaped the draft, a growing queer community, older and newer hippies, environmentalists, pagans, and others. I am keen to represent the beauty and gentle humour of their hybrid worldview. I’m currently also finishing a scholarly monograph on the Neo-Pagan Movement in Britain from 1870 to 1920, so I’m reading Walter Pater, Edward Carpenter, Michael Field, Vernon Lee, and others. And then I’m bringing this together with current posthumanist and eco-pagan theory.

SM: Are there any other comments you’d like to make or any questions you’d like to broach that I haven’t asked?

DD: No, Stephanie. I’d just like to thank you for this opportunity to revisit the novel, and to think through some of its intentions so many years later. It’s been a real pleasure.

SM: Thanks, Dennis, for taking the time to answer these questions.