Newsmakers Arts & Icons / Richard Burnett
Acclaimed Montreal author H. Nigel Thomas emigrated to Canada in 1968 to attend Concordia University as an out young gay man escaping homophobia in his native Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean.
More than half a century later, in January 2020, Thomas was celebrated by the Canadian High Commission to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean States, travelling to Saint Vincent with the ambassador to help launch the book Maple Leaves And The Caribbean Seas at the residence of the Prime Minister.
“That particular event, that particular invitation, and making it into that book, made me aware that what I do doesn't always go unnoticed,” says a typically modest Thomas who has received many awards, including the prestigious Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award from Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop in 2021.
Armed with degrees from Concordia, McGill and a PhD from Université de Montréal, Thomas taught English and French at the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal (now the English Montreal School Board) for 12 years, then was professor of U.S. literature at Université Laval until 2006 when – after a bladder cancer scare (“you know there is a guillotine hanging over you”) – he decided to retire and devote himself to writing full-time.
A prolific author of 11 books – including Behind the Face of Winter and Lives: Whole and Otherwise which have been translated into French – Thomas’ just-published Easily Fooled (Guernica Editions) is the third instalment in his No Safeguards quartet of novels, this one focused on Millington, a gay ex-Methodist minister shaped by religious intolerance in the Caribbean who is seeking to live an authentic life.
Now 74, Thomas recently sat down for a candid Q&A about his own extraordinary journey and career.
Easily Fooled is the third installment in the No Safeguards quartet of novels. What inspired you to write this series? I wanted to trace the lives of gay men from early childhood to about middle age, who grew up in the Caribbean and who leave the Caribbean, and I wanted them to be from different classes.
How much of you is in your character Millington?
This book is not autobiographical, but in terms of attitude and outlook on life, I think Millington embodies me. Millington was a Methodist minister. I once seriously considered the Methodist ministry but questions I had about doctrine kept me from joining. But Millington used religion to mask his homosexuality.
You were raised and adored by your maternal grandmother Hester Roban Dickson and your grandfather John Alexander Dickson who taught you to read and inspired your love for words.
They were part of the establishment. I went to live with them when I was about three and I think we were probably the only family in our village that had a library. When I used to come into the library, my grandfather would stop reading and pay lots of attention to me. One day he said, “Maybe you should learn to read yourself.” So he began teaching me to read and when I went off to school, I already knew how. I was a voracious reader and my grandfather always asked me questions about what I was reading.
I was also a girly boy. Everyone suspected me of being gay. It was a huge problem for my father but not for my grandparents. They loved me and pampered me. I've often wondered how my grandparents would have reacted
when I came out of the closet. I don’t think it would have made much difference to them. It certainly made no difference to my mother who was the loveliest woman.
How did being an out gay man impact your life and friendships in Saint Vincent?
Being out in Saint Vincent has repercussions. It plays out differently along class lines.
My mother comes came from a very establishment branch of Vincentian society. Their only problem was my challenging homophobia in Saint Vincent put (my parents) in a difficult position because people would confront them and say I was putting a burden on them. It was perfectly all right, they would say, for you to live your life as you choose but do you have to be so public about it? They saw my sexuality as my problem and didn't want it to become a problem for them. In the case of my father's family, it was raw, unadulterated nastiness.
In Montreal in the 1970s and 80s, did being a gay man threaten your standing as a teacher at the Negro Community Centre in Little Burgundy, or as a teacher at the Protestant School Board?
There was a fair amount of racism when I taught at LaSalle High School and I had to take a stand against it. It all it came to a head in 1984-85. The staff was literally divided along racial lines. One of the ways the white staff would attack me was to speculate about whether or not I was gay. It was very difficult. Turns out a woman staffer who led that campaign knew that I was gay because her son had seen me in a gay bar. I’ve written about it in fiction, actually: my second novel Behind the Face of Winter reprises a lot of what happened in that school.
When you were not teaching, what was it like navigating gay life in Montreal and Quebec City? How did you deal with racism within the queer communities?
I found it very funny when guys tried to cruise me and said stuff like, “You know, I've never slept with Black men before and I'd like to try the experience.” Invariably I said no because I didn't see myself as a check mark.
More often than not, when I went to a gay bar in Quebec City, I was usually the only Black person there. I remember one time, during the Oka Crisis, somebody asked me a question about Oka and I replied, “Well, it's quite clear that we're all living on stolen land here, and it's more than time for First Nations to assert their rights.” Within minutes everybody knew my position and I went from being seen as fresh meat to persona non grata.
As for Montreal, it is a more diverse place.
How has AIDS impacted your life?
I saw a lot of my friends and ex-partners fall victim to AIDS. I often say to people that here in Montreal in the 80s there would have been roughly about 100 or so Black guys that you would see if you went out to the club. You had some kind of loose relationship, loose friendship with those guys. After a certain time, because of AIDS, that number was whittled down to maybe 15. I remember a group of folkloric dancers came here from Haiti and stayed in Montreal and not one of them is alive today. Not a single one. It is sad, and there is survivor guilt as well. We share stories. There are times when I ask, “Why me?” I also say to people that I consider myself to be one of the luckiest human beings alive.
Are you a gay writer or a writer who is gay?
I exist as a gay man and my imagination shapes characters in large measure based on what I know, so it's probably best for me that my protagonists be gay.
Does your Blackness inform your writing?
It did in the early years. It doesn't anymore. And I am sometimes astonished by this. I don't know what has accounted for it. I came here at 21, I am now 74, and as I grow older, I understand the struggles of people of different races against traditional prejudices and attitudes. For me, as a human being, I am concerned about the quality of the relationship that I have with another person. It does not really matter to me whether that person is Black, gay, straight, white, Chinese, what have you.
La Soufrière volcano erupted in Saint Vincent on April 9. How are your friends and family? My relatives living in the red zone were evacuated successfully. They've now moved back home. They've done most of the cleaning up and those in agriculture are now waiting for the ashes to be absorbed into the soil. The big problem was chiefly financial. Money is scarce. In the Caribbean, even middle-class people have challenges because virtually everything is imported.
Black Theatre Workshop awarded you their Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award, and as an author, teacher and organizer of Montreal’s monthly Lectures Logos Readings, you are a role model and mentor.
Awards are nice because they help sell books. They're very useful, so much so that I have begun sponsoring a couple of literary competitions in Saint Vincent. But I don't see myself as a mentor.
You are a living legend, Nigel.
It's the luck of the draw. It really is the hand you've been dealt. It's a gift. And one doesn't brag about gifts. What keeps me writing is the urge to explore the mystery that is humanity.
INFOS | EASILY FOOLED BY H. NIGEL THOMAS, PUBLISHED BY GUERNICA EDITIONS