Anti-gay activists threw eggs and rocks at gay rights demonstrators in St. Petersburg last month, shouting "Sodomy will not pass." The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church recently called gay marriage "apocalyptic." And in June, the Russian government outlawed discussing LGBT issues with minors by officially prohibiting "homosexual propaganda" and making the distribution of gay-rights material punishable by fines and jail time.
In the midst of Russia's crackdown on gay rights, one Russian author has published a children's book that prominently features a homosexual character and his struggle to find acceptance in the country.
Daria Wilke, the author of the new book, The Jester's Cap, emigrated from Moscow 13 years ago and is now a Russian professor at the University of Vienna in Austria. Her novel centers on a boy named Grisha, a 14-year-old who lives and works in a puppet theater with his family and an older friend, Sam, who is gay.
For the setting, Wilke drew inspiration from her own childhood, which she spent predominantly in the Moscow puppet theater where her parents both worked. There, she would spend evenings doing homework among the props and chatting with its eclectic crew.
There's this saying in Russia, it's left over from Soviet times: "The laws may be harsh, but at least we don't enforce them."
Wilke encountered several gay actors at the theater, and homosexuality, to her, was a normal part of life -- so, it became a part of her book, as well.
At one point in The Jester's Cap, Sam decides to leave Russia for the Netherlands because he finds the homophobia in his home country too difficult to endure. Meanwhile, Grisha realizes he's different from other boys -- more emotional, less macho -- and struggles to find himself while being urged by adults around him to live up to a more traditional idea of manhood.
Wilke said that she didn't intend for the book to become known for discussing homosexuality, but since the anti-gay law passed, that has become its most talked-about aspect -- both in positive and negative ways.
I spoke with Wilke recently about the book and what impact she thinks it might have on a nation that's taken a decidedly anti-gay turn. A translated and edited transcript of our conversation follows.
How did you come up with this plot, specifically?
A writer writes about their life, and life is multifaceted -- it contains many things, including homosexuality. For that reason, I didn't see a need to not write about it.
The puppet theater where this takes place is a sort of safe space for the protagonist -- in the theater, he can be himself. The gay actors there can say they're gay. The book starts with the fact that the protagonist's best friend and mentor, Sam, the most talented actor in the theater, must leave to go to Holland -- it's too hard for him to live in Russia because he's gay.
From there, the main character, Grisha, must decide whether to follow societal stereotypes or to be himself. Other than his parents, he has his granddad, who is quite totalitarian and homophobic. The grandfather is disgusted by Sam. Grisha must decide whether he wants to be free or to follow the stringent societal rules that adults have set for him. It's about the dichotomy of the free world within the theater walls and the less-free one outside of them.
In what way was homosexuality a part of your childhood?
For me growing up, homosexuality was totally normal. No one hid it. It was only among adults that I realized that there were people who thought homosexuality was a problem.
Why did you choose to release the book now?
I wrote it a year and a half ago, and the publisher was weighing when to release it. But when these strange laws were being released -- first the local anti-gay laws in various cities, then the broader one that passed just last month -- eventually the publisher realized that if we didn't release the book now, we might never be able to release it. Because of these laws, in many bookstores, it has an "18+" stamp, even though in my view, I think it's suitable for 12-year-olds.
In my view, this is a pretty brave step on the part of the publisher. I don't know that many publishers who would choose to release a book like this for young people at this time.
What did you think when you read the news about these new anti-gay measures?
I was totally shocked. I saw that at first they were passing local anti-gay laws in St. Petersburg and other places, and I thought, "Well, maybe they'll last a year or two, and then they'll repeal them."
We didn't believe that they would be enacted on the federal level. These types of laws, in my opinion, foster fascist tendencies in society -- it's very dangerous to create these kinds of divisions of good and bad, of who can speak and who can't.
My only hope is that it will be too hard to enforce. It's very vague, so there's a chance it might be too hard to realize in reality. There's this saying in Russia, it's left over from Soviet times: "The laws may be harsh, but at least we don't enforce them."
Have bookstores pushed back against accepting this book?
That was a surprise for me -- I was afraid that bookstores would not take it. Usually they really are skeptical about taking on these difficult topics. It was a pleasant surprise that most stores took it, though some put an "18+" stamp, even though it's a young adult novel.
Have you received any negative reactions from readers or the government?
There was a presentation about my book at the Moscow Book Fair in June, and when the presentation was reported on a web site, there were some very nasty comments on that story. There have also been some reports from libraries and bookstores from people saying, "why would you write about homosexuality in a children's book? We have so many other problems."
But that criticism is weird to me. Writers write about what's important to them, not about what's most important to society. The fact that people think writers should only write about "useful" topics is another sign of illiberalism in a society.
I haven't had any bad reactions from the government, but then again, the book has only been out for a month. Young-adult novels aren't really the first order of things that the government scrutinizes.
Why do people in Russia often say, "We have bigger problems. Why talk about homosexuality?"
I run into this a lot, but in my view the conversation about homosexuality is one of tolerance, and the conversation over tolerance should continue over many parallels, including homosexuality.
Why would you say, "We want our kids to be nice to everyone," but simultaneously prohibit accepting certain categories of people. It's a little absurd.
Would you ever go back to Russia?
My ideal is to split time between Austria and Russia. But these laws, we can't regard them passively. The fact that I wrote this book and they're talking about it now, that's my contribution to the idea that people should be more tolerant of those who aren't like them.
I feel like if I say that Austria is the only country for me, it's condoning what's going on in Russia. Russia is my country, and I feel like I'm capable of changing things there.
Do you think this book will help change any minds over there?
Books that are about taboos are always hard to accept, but eventually their existence helps to change things.
Have you gotten any positive reactions from readers?
Yes, and it's always touching -- one boy wrote to me and said, "when I read this book, I understood that it was about me." If a person read it and saw himself in it, nothing can be better than that for an author.