Niven Govinden on This Brutal House
Niven Govinden discusses protest and subversion in the drag communities of New York ahead of the release of new novel This Brutal House
The morning after a flock of camp-ified celebrities descended upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for Vogue’s annual Met Gala, author Niven Govinden is contemplating whether there is still political power to drag, camp and queer culture. “Drag remains really really subversive,” he says with enthusiasm. “Not even just drag, but gender identity more broadly and how you want to present yourself. It remains subversive because people still fear it. There is a beauty to drag and it has a showbiz element for sure – the queens from Drag Race are pretty much the new pop stars – but underneath that there is still subversion. How you present yourself to the world and how you find community through it is still a powerful tool.”
Queer culture as a powerful social tool is what Govinden explores in his new novel, This Brutal House. The title – a wink to the Nitro Deluxe song, “an old vogueing tune back in the day” – also perfectly captures the novel’s tone and subject matter. In This Brutal House, brutality and domesticity, cruelty and safety, aggression exteriority and stable interiority rub against one another as a group of house mothers (the drag queens who preside over their 'houses' as mentors and carers) sit in silence on the steps of City Hall, protesting the lack of action by city officials and the police over the deaths and disappearances of members of their community in the 1980s and 90s.
Much of the book came from Govinden’s own experience of New York’s drag scene in this time. “It’s very much a product of lived experience and going out and consuming culture,” he explains. “So while the book is set in the present, it’s about a community looking back at what they feel was their era of the 80s and 90s when they felt they had the most power. I primarily wanted to write a novel about protest, and one about queer experience and [people of colour’s] experience. So much has been written and made about the beauty of the ball community and vogueing and the glitter and good times. I wasn’t interested in writing that. I was more interested in what happens afterwards.
“So the novel’s not a social primer and it’s not a historical document,” he continues. “The beauty of fiction is that you create your own world and, for me, it feels like it’s rooted in the protest culture of now and the ability of people to drive forward social change and how we need that more than ever. The beauty of writing fiction is that none of it is real and none of it has to be accurate. If I carry you in that world and make everything in it feel believable and credible then I’ve done my job.”
In the novel, the house mothers protest through silence, explaining that they “no longer use words because they are a defunct currency [because] what [they] say carries no value in this world.” Their collective voice and vow of silence becomes almost like a religious mandate, a comparison Govinden was keen to explore. “As someone who doesn’t follow a religion, I’m always massively interested in the point when people who don’t believe in any way, turn to faith to try to find an answer for something they can’t find an answer for in any other way.
“So the protest in the novel comes about because they’ve tried protesting in every other way. Through it they’re saying maybe this way, sitting in a mass and in silence without words, we can have a more meaningful impact than when we used our words and fists and placards. It’s similar to what Act Up did in the late 80s, early 90s. I wanted to explore what protest can mean as a collective. It’s really about how you use your power and become visible.”
While the house mothers take up one half of the novel, the other half is told through the voice and eyes of Teddy, who works at the City Hall but who was raised by the mothers in their community. “Teddy developed out of this idea of living within the community of protest,” explains Govinden. “I wanted to give a different experience to the protest so you could see what was happening on two different sides. So when you have a character like that, who has a foot on both sides, you feel a greater sense of emotional conflict and again that felt really powerful and important to explore.”
Teddy also raises the novel’s central question over ethics: is it possible to be part of the establishment and also be a protestor? “That’s very much a decision you come to when you finish the book,” says Govinden. “You can see positivity on both sides: Teddy works there because he feels he has a purpose; he was raised by the mothers and gay people which was a protective environment, a home where he could study and really fulfil what he wanted to fulfil. But he still feels a sense of gratitude and paying forward wanting to put back into these communities the way he knows how and the way he sees fit. He reflects the contribution of the queer community within the city and the infrastructures of contributions to the community and trying to change things within the city environment, whether it’s policy or social care, all those things.”
The house mothers and Teddy’s sections are also broken up by smaller parts from the perspective of a Vogue Ball caller. One part is made up of pages that simply say 'Walk' while another calls different categories of drag. “This is very much a novel about voices,” he notes when asked why he wanted to devote so much physical page space to the Vogue Caller sections. “The Vogue Caller voice was needed so you had these moments of illumination and brightness and savagery and wonder of what the ball is. And as well as the ball being a visual space and physical exhibition in terms of movement and freedom and losing inhibition and rejecting, it’s also a massive celebration of wordplay and wit. That was what I wanted to reflect. The magic of a Vogue Ball through wordplay.”
The juxtaposition of silence and amplified voices in the novel brings us back to the proclamation by the house mothers near the beginning of This Brutal House – “[we] no longer use words because they are a defunct currency. What we say carries no value in this world” – and the question: do queer voices have value in society today?
“Queer voices of any era always did a service and always had a value to them,” says Govinden after a pause. “I think especially in our digital age, how you can reach people in different ways; you can dress up in your bedroom and share that with a million people on Instagram, you can write something online. That ability to find your own community online is phenomenal but I think it’s important that queer voices exist and people continue to use those voices however they can because they’ve always been needed and always will be needed.”