When I was in college, I had the privilege of taking a course titled “Writing Back to Empire.” It was a study of postcolonial literature taught by the brilliant Professor Kathleen Renk, but the course title alone did more to describe that school of theory & criticism for our young minds than any other definition I’d heard.
The course was essentially a study of novels by and about peoples and countries that had once been ruled by the British Empire. Some of the selections included Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Julian Barnes’s England, England, Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.
It was these last two that really piqued my interest in a postcolonial and eventually queer approach to literature: Jack Maggs is the re-telling of Dickens’s Great Expectations but from the perspective of the criminal, and Wide Sargasso Sea is a kind of prequel to Jane Eyre that gives voice to the infamous “mad woman in the attic,” Bertha.
I remember finding something so profoundly powerful, and right, about these contemporary novels that revisit classics and give voice to voiceless characters, particularly the marginalized ones whose real-life counterparts, in historical perspective, had been equally silenced. It was perhaps this singular exploration of postcolonialism that led me to queer theory and the queering of fiction.
The Queering of Fiction
When we talk about queer fiction, we typically mean stories by and about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, aromantic, and other non-heteronormative persons. Those who are, in other words, not heterosexual and cisgender. But when we talk about queering fiction, what we mean is looking at the existing work from a lens that allows us to consider whose voices and stories are being left out, minimized, or marginalized.
A classic example is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which is now often read for homosocial or homosexual perspectives on the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. Similarly, The Great Gatsby can be queered to review the relationship between its narrator, Nick Carraway, and the titular antihero, Jay Gatsby.
There have been a great number of postcolonial and queer texts published in recent years, but even more compelling to me are writers who are “writing back” to our LGBTQ+ foreparents and reimagining the stories and fictive futures that those LGBTQ+ writers offered to us so courageously, if much more subtly than is required today. One of the best of these published recently is William di Canzio’s Alec.
Alec by William di Canzio
Alec is an inspired tribute to E.M. Forster’s iconic gay novel, Maurice (1971). In it, di Canzio gives the two lovers—Alec and Maurice—not only riveting back stories, but a beautifully articulated origin for their romance, all of which is wrapped up in the historical context of World War I, which was such a monumental time for Forster himself.
E.M. Forster’s Maurice
Forster wrote Maurice in 1913 and then significantly revised the novel at least twice, in the 1930s and 1950s. Unfortunately, due to censorship and legalities, Forster chose not to publish the work until after he died. To me, this is one of the most heartbreaking events in literary history, as what Forster created was one of the bravest and most significant same-sex love stories in literature to that time, and it would have been groundbreaking to see it published even sooner and during the author’s lifetime.
That said, Forster was certainly right that it likely would have ruined his career. As anyone who has read my book knows, plenty of gay writers were publishing gay stories in the first half of the twentieth century—even happy ones! But there were always stipulations, such as publishing anonymously, publishing with small presses, etc. And indeed, no one of Forster’s stature, save perhaps Charles Warren Stoddard, was attempting it. And what happened to Stoddard when he finally decided to publish his openly gay romance in 1903? His reputation was ruined.
A Story Left Untold
It is for this reason, then, that di Canzio’s Alec, which openly and lovingly gives Alec & Maurice the story they deserve, as well as the ending Forster likely wished for them, is such a moving experience. In addition, it’s a superb accomplishment in its own right. Di Canzio’s style and language are rich and provocative, his descriptions resonant and vivid, and his almost defiantly open descriptions of the lovers’ sexual experiences enthralling. Significantly, I think di Canzio does a remarkable job of fleshing out a story left untold, of a particular time, that reminds the reader both how far we have come but also how fragile progress is.
Alec isn’t just an updated love story for Alec and Maurice, it’s a love song to E.M. Forster, filled with respectful gratitude to a tortured pioneer and with a hopeful eye on the horizon. This is a worthy homage and simply one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Literature is and always has been a conversation, and the conversation that’s now happening between contemporary writers and their LGBTQ+ forerunners is a welcome and remarkable one. As di Canzio has shown, it takes not just great skill as a writer, but detailed and efficient work as a historian and researcher, to do this well.
And what a gift it is when it happens.
Tell us in the comments: Have you read William di Canzio or any other novels that “write back” to LGBTQ+ foreparents?
Adam W. Burgess is an English Professor at the College of Southern Nevada. He has a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University and is pursuing a post-doc writing certificate at the University of California, Berkeley. He loves engaging in all topics related to LGBTQ literature and craft.