Art & Literature

Eyes on the Prize

Richard Burnett
Richard Burnett

Baden-Baden is a spa town located in the northern foothills of the Black Forest in Germany, whose springs – the German word “Baden” translates as “bathing, to bathe or baths” – were known to the Romans under openly-gay Roman emperor Hadrian. But during the 20th century Baden Baden was also home to a post-WWII Canadian military base where the father of internationally-acclaimed author Ann-Marie MacDonald was stationed.

“I was born in the Canadian Forces hospital and lived in the town of Baden Baden for four years,” says the out and proud lesbian author. “I’ve been back several times and have crystal clear memories. Some are visual, some are smells. I have a deep sense of recognition. It’s just the air where you grow up.”
MacDonald’s family moved several more times while she grew up, maintaining close ties with their roots in Cape Breton Island, the setting for MacDonald’s first novel, Fall On Your Knees. MacDonald eventually moved to Montreal to train as an actor at the National Theatre School of Canada. After graduating in 1980 she moved to Toronto to launch a hugely successful career as an author, actor and playwright, and is the current host of the CBC documentary series Doc Zone.
But when I spoke with her recently, MacDonald had just published her third  novel, Adult Onset, and had just moved back to Montreal where her spouse Alisa Palmer is Artistic Director of the English section of the National Theatre School of Canada.
Talk about coming full circle.
“What’s my hometown?” MacDonald asks. “ Never having grown up in one, I now say it’s Toronto because I moved there in 1980. But I also consider Montreal to be one of my hometowns because it was formative. This city and its personality are beautiful. The city has a really high cultural IQ. It’s in the air. You don’t have to go looking for culture in Montreal, you just have to take a walk. I love it that my children will grow up here.”
How did she explain the move to her children, aged 10 and 11? “You don’t pretend there isn’t a loss,” says MacDonald. “You tell them there are riches they don’t even know: ‘You can make the best friend of your life when you’re in Montreal.’”
MacDonald’s new novel Adult Onset mirrors her own private life, right down to the name of her lead character. Adult Onset is about a writer called Mary Rose MacKinnon who “lives in a comfortable Toronto neighbourhood with her partner, Hilary, a busy theatre director, and their 2 young children, Matthew and Maggie, trying valiantly and often hilariously to balance her creative pursuits with domestic demands.”
Sound familiar?
“All my work is autobiographical to the extent that writers transform their concrete and  imaginative experiences into fiction. This one I didn’t go far afield. I just went for the ordinary right now. This one is a week in the life of a queer mother. This one is daringly specific and focussed. It’s cutting it close, very parallel to me.”
affiche MacDonald’s books have sold millions of copies worldwide, she’s a two-time Giller Prize finalist and won everything from the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Drama to a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding New Musical for her 2000 musical comedy Anything That Moves. But MacDonald insists the international accolades and bestseller status do not trump her success at home.
“I’m extremely proud to be a bestseller in Canada. It means more to me than anything. This is my home. And Adult Onset is set in a neighbourhood in ordinary Toronto, not big-deal Toronto. The biggest risk I took with this book was setting it in a kitchen in an ordinary neighbourhood. I took all my ‘international’ fame and plowed it into an obscure corner in Toronto to see if anybody gives a shit.”
MacDonald also says awards are gratifying, but in the big scheme of things, aren’t important. “Unless you’re emerging or truly on the margins, then it’s of tremendous importance. I have managed somehow – even though I am queer and biracial – to speak to a lot of people.”
It also helps that MacDonald is on Oprah Winfrey’s radar. MacDonald’s book Fall On Your Knees became an Oprah’s Book Club selection in 2002 and has been translated into 19 languages. 
“I thought that was a joke!” MacDonald says about the day she learnt of the Oprah selection. “I phoned [them] back and went ‘Oh really?’ They went, ‘Yes, really! Would you please stand by, Oprah is going to phone you.’ Then she did call me! I said, ‘Well hello, have you read my book?’ And Oprah laughed and said, “I read the books! Girl, that’s what I do – I read the books.’ It was surreal.”
For all of her achievements, I think what I like most about MacDonald is her out-and-proud queerness. Her bio doesn’t shy away from that fact: “Ann-Marie came of age during ‘second wave’ feminism and post-Stonewall LGBT liberation struggles,” her bio prominently states.
Is she a queer writer or a writer who happens to be queer?
“My being a queer writer is an indivisible part of who I am,” MacDonald says. “You can’t draw a picture and point to that part of me. It’s completely porous. There’s no difference. I don’t care what you call me, just don’t call me straight. And that’s actually happened! My wife was telling me about a year ago that she read in a gossipy column in a Toronto magazine that ‘MacDonald used to be gay but now she’s married some guy.’ I was so steamed!”
anne-marieProudly out her entire career, MacDonald says, “We can always be more out. I’ve just emerged from a period of time – a decade – where I’ve been really focused domestically but today I’m like, ‘Surely no one has to be in anymore?’ The glass ceiling I hit the most in the past was the woman-glass ceiling, as opposed to the lesbian-glass ceiling. And there was the Canadian-glass ceiling: ‘How dare you become that successful!’ I also remember when I had my first degree of wider success and I was an out lesbian, there was some grumbling about whether I was enough of a dyke. I was like, ‘What do you want? I’ve never been in.’ I’ve been out, I was exiled by my parents, and one time I was even denied an audition for a role because of my sexuality – for a gay role on a CBC television show!”
Like all fighters MacDonald kept her eyes on the prize. For instance, whenever she and her spouse put their children in a new school, they meet with the principal and teachers to make sure the environment is queer-friendly.
“And one day 
during recess I overheard a conversation between my [then] four-year-old daughter and another four-year-old, and this boy said to my daughter, ‘How come you have two moms?’ And another little boy said, ‘I have two moms. I have my mom and my stepmom, and I have my dad and my stepdad.’  I remember thinking, ‘Right, this is one more configuration in these kids’ lives.’ Most of the world is still benighted as far as [LGBT civil rights go], but in Canada, especially in urban centres, there is consensus that these are equal rights, human rights. I consider this to be the greatest civil rights triumph of my lifetime. I’m so glad I was alive to see this whole thing change in my lifetime.”  
Read Richard Burnett’s POP TART blog for The Montreal Gazette at 
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at .