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Ask the author: Kevin Walker on Queer Folk Tales

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In his first collection, Queer Folk Tales, storyteller Kevin Walker brings a host of LGBTQ+ folk tales to life. When we asked him to tell us all about what inspired the book, he delighted us with a conversation with himself…

What is the title of your book?

Queer Folk Tales.

That is an unusual title, what is it about?

It is a collection of 15 short stories, with LGBTQ+ characters at the heart of each one.

The word ‘queer’ might be shocking to some? Why use it?

Some people might raise an eyebrow at its use, but it is a word that has been re-claimed by the LGBTQ+ community to describe our collective. It was of course a derogatory word to use in the past and I guess some might still be offended by it as it may have been used against them, but more recently, it has become a commonly used term. It cannot be used as a slur anymore if we are proud of the word. Each letter in LGBTQ+ is vitally important and hard fought for, but it is a bit of a mouthful if you keep saying it or writing it in a conversation. A new collective word was needed. Hence queer. And in the title, there is a play around the word ‘folk’ too. Each story has queer characters, queer folk, and each story is written in folk tradition.

Is this your first book?

Yes, I have worked as a performance storyteller for over twenty years, so this is a new direction for me.

How did you come to write it?

It’s a long story, and it actually came from a negative experience that deeply affected me at the time, but thankfully it has turned into a wonderfully positive journey that has been so uplifting.

Can you share the story of that journey with us?

As a storyteller and listener to stories, and as a gay man, I had never really felt comfortable with where I sat within traditional stories. The prince always got his princess and the two sisters fought over the attention of the handsome young man. Traditional tale men were too macho to gently stroke another man’s cheek, except in my imagination, and the two sisters never fought over another maiden. There are some classical and biblical stories that contain some queer themes, and traditional tales have stories of young women cutting off their hair, dressing as soldiers and going off to find or humiliate their man, but job done, they always returned to living the life of a woman. There are tales of oafish men, falling asleep drunk and waking up as women, but these were to give them an idea of how a woman lives to affect their future treatment of women, and again, job done, they return to being a man. Some stories have brothers living together and if we write it as ‘brothers’, in a nudge nudge way, then they could be told to reflect a possible same sex story, but personally I think that is a little unfair to fraternal households.

I therefore worked on my own story and performed it at various venues, thankfully, to positive reviews. Sikander and the Prince is the first story in the book.

This isnt sounding too negative so far?

I will quickly skip over that bit. At an important storytelling venue, one that I had performed at and emceed, there were a couple of performance pieces that were LGBTQ+ themed. I attended them and was disappointed by both; both tellers distanced themselves from the LGBTQ+ community at the beginning of their performance. One was too respectful, and the performance was bland, the other was offensive.

Offensive?

Yes, it was so bad that my husband and another storyteller walked out. The teller used stereotypical characters, language and humour found more in TV in the 70/80s. That would have been bad enough but most of the audience thought it hysterical too. I found myself in a space I normally felt so safe and cherished in, suddenly being laughed at. When I made complaints later, I was told there was nothing they were prepared to do, especially as so many had enjoyed it. I just wonder how many of the audience would consider themselves queer, yet here was an openly gay man saying, ‘this is so offensive’, but the organisers went with the majority. It is an experience I will never get over. I could go on but let us get to the positive part of the journey.

Is it always good to focus only on positivity?

In this case I believe so. Most storytellers at the event, contacting me on storytelling forums, privately, agreed with me but many others just did not ‘get it’. Two actually said, ‘you seem to be taking this personally.’ But another wise teller said, ‘If you didn’t like the performance, why not do one of your own. If anyone can do it, you can.’ That was the positive push I needed. I began collecting ideas and research for stories that I could reimagine, re-write or create, and the performance piece, ‘Faerie Wants to Meet Unicorn…a reet set of queer stories’ was born. I performed 10 stories at the first event. The audience sat through this mammoth evening and even had the stamina to take part in an after-show discussion. Comments were mainly positive, although two audience members found it was difficult that all the stories had an LGBTQ+ slant. I politely pointed out that that was what the evening was advertised as, and yes, I understood how they felt, as every performance I attended was heterosexual. Exhausting.

And did this performance morph into the published collection?

Yes. With the help of the audience ideas and my experience, I whittled the performance piece down to just four stories and performed it at several venues around the east Midlands. Even though it was greeted with positivity, the negative side of this journey had taken its toll on my mental health and I decided to take a break from the performance storytelling world. That is when I came up with the idea of the book.

At first, I never considered that I would find a publisher and so I started along the self-publishing route. After all, I was so new to writing. Performance storytellers rarely write down their stories word for word. Each has different ways of remembering their pieces and mine was to note down names, facts, the odd phrase etc and then rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Each performance has subtle differences depending on the audience reaction, the venue, the weather, but now I had to get them down in a literary form - a whole new set of skills needed. It was exciting researching stories that could be used as a template for another story, or finding existing stories with a hint of queerness or an opportunity to develop queerness, and of course I created new stories, many modern ones, following the format of traditional stories.

What do you mean by that?

Stories that have some form of magic in them, events that test and ask the characters to make decisions, repetitions, and situations that the reader can place themselves in. Timeless stories with a range of human traits that explored in that format. That sort of thing.

Did you ever simply re-gender existing stories?

Only with one story, it felt too easy otherwise. But I believe it works well in that one story.

So how did The History Press become involved?

I have quite a few copies of their County Traditional stories that they have been publishing for many years and had seen that the series was branching out into other areas. Many of the books were written by storytellers and I thought I might as well take a chance by submitting a proposal to them and low and behold they took a chance with me. And the rest is history.

What would you say was the essence of the collection?

Representation and visibility. I wanted to write a collection of stories where the main characters just happened to be queer. Stories that showed that queer people belong not only in today’s world, but also in a storytelling tradition going back through time. They are characters that grace any traditional story, be they romantic, brave, foolish, wicked, mysterious or fantastical - but always authentic. As my friend and mentor, the writer and storyteller Janet Dowling said of the book, ‘The point about the acceptance of queer characters without question is exactly the point - this is a world where there is no conflict about sexuality. It is the norm. It is a fairy tale-not reality - it’s how we want the world to be.’

Any final words?

Just, please go out and buy it. It is a collection for anybody to read, not just the LGBTQ+ community. I am hoping that everyone will appreciate the stories as a collection of good reads.

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