“I want to be able to go in and out of hell with grace”: Shawn Hitchins on death, queer transformation, and the astonishing bass line in Boney M’s “Rasputin”

One of the titles Shawn Hitchins considered for his new memoir took the form of a question: Can you feel your feet? The inquiry, put to him by a therapist he began seeing in the summer of 2018, is meant to focus its respondent in the present moment, to return the person to a sense of embodied physicality from the ground up.

It was a notion that would become integral to Hitchins’s mental framework over the following two years. In the five months between the end of October 2018 and the end of March 2019, Hitchins would lose two of the people closest to him: his ex-common-law husband, Matt, to a freak accident, and his recent lover, David, who died by suicide. The two events are central to Hitchins’s sophomore work of nonfiction, The Light Streamed Beneath It: A Memoir of Grief and Celebration, which he wrote in part as a way of processing his emotions in the wake of tragedy, and also as a means of memorializing the two great loves of his life.

“I was trying to get the word ‘elegy’ into the book and [my editor] said, ‘You’re not putting elegy in this,’ ” Hitchins says with a laugh. “I was using [poet and philosopher] David Whyte’s understanding of elegy, which is swinging from sorrow to celebration. And I was like, ‘Ermahgerd, I’m writing an elegy. This is written in the elegiac form.’ ”

If the notion of elegy seemed a bit too self-consciously poetic for the book Hitchins ended up writing, it nonetheless conveys the mixture of sadness and gratitude that runs throughout it. Sadness over the unexpected loss of two significant figures in such close proximity and gratitude for the time spent together, along with the friendships and community that allowed the author to navigate the shoals of grief and locate the shore beyond. Inasmuch as the memoir is about loss, it’s equally about how Hitchins found his way back to himself.

In that regard, Hitchins views the book as a queer transformation story, though not of the rote coming out variety. “You come out of the closet and you get to tell the story for five years,” Hitchins says. “Because that story becomes your story and then you end up telling it for twenty years. And then you start realizing you’re not resilient the way you think.”

Neither is the book a typical grief memoir. Hitchins quickly realized that if he were to write about his own personal epiphanies and the small victories achieved in the process of navigating his emotions and successive confrontations with mortality, he would have to revise his ideas about what transformation looks like. “Whenever someone writes a memoir about death and dying or grief, it’s always like this: ‘My house burned down, I lost my husband in a car accident, and now I’m CEO of this company,’ ” Hitchins says. “You have that story, or the self-help version, which is, ‘Ten years later, here’s my post-traumatic wisdom.’ What is it like when your only achievement is you started showering again?”

It was clear from the beginning that The Light Streamed Beneath It – which takes its title from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – would be tonally different from Hitchins’s previous work. A comedian and performer, Hitchins is the creator of the one-man show Ginger Nation, which made its debut at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013. The show, which had a successful touring run, is about Hitchins’s experience as a sperm donor for a lesbian couple. The same year Ginger Nation debuted, Hitchins led Scotland’s first ever Ginger Pride Walk, garnering attention from The Guardian, the BBC, CNN, The Globe and Mail, and elsewhere. He followed this with his first book, A Brief History of Oversharing: One Ginger’s Anthology of Humiliation, published by ECW Press in 2017.

The Light Streamed Beneath It, also published by ECW, is by its nature a more sober and melancholy book than its predecessor, though it is as much a love letter to the departed men at its core. Hitchins set boundaries for himself in writing – boundaries that he credits his editor, Crissy Calhoun, with helping him maintain. He would not reproduce anything told to him in confidence or relate any of Matt and David’s personal histories from their perspectives; he would only express their lives through his own experience. This was at once a way of respecting their privacy and countering what Hitchins feels to be erroneous assumptions and readings of their respective deaths.

“It’s not the method in how someone dies or how someone takes their life. It’s the fact that they were working hard to end their pain.” (Photo: Tanja-Tiziana)

This includes myths about fates of punishment that must await gay men, a trope that goes back centuries but was profound during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. After Matt died of injuries incurred when a Halloween costume he was wearing got caught in the open flame of a candle – an unlikely event that was as unforeseen as it was heartrending – Hitchins was upset by rumours that swirled about a possible death by overdose or something presumed to be more stereotypical of gay despair. “What angered me most was that Matt’s death was processed as a gay death,” Hitchins says. “Nobody could understand that Matt died in an accident.”

In that regard, David’s completed suicide is arguably easier to understand, though Hitchins is quick to counter simplified notions of cause-and-effect in such cases. “Nobody completes suicide for one reason,” he says. “It’s a bunch of gears turning together.” In David’s case, there is one thing Hitchins hopes to make absolutely clear about his late companion, who lived in California: “Ultimately, I need people to know that he died because he was denied health care,” Hitchins says. “It’s not the method in how someone dies or how someone takes their life. It’s the fact that they were working hard to end their pain.”

Hitchins realizes that much of the material he confronts so forthrightly in his book will be uncomfortable for some readers, especially in a repressive society that is reluctant to talk about difficult subjects. “The only time you’re allowed to talk about suicide is when you’re ordering wings in a pub,” he says. But for the author himself, the content of the book is even tougher, given his proximity to the material. Though he says he felt the writing of the book was more archival than an actual reliving of events that were still very close in the past, he is also clear about the nature of survivor’s guilt, especially in the case of David.

What is profound in the way he processes this guilt is the comfort and joy he finds in community. During the holiday season following Matt’s death, friends, family, and well-wishers congregated around Hitchins to ensure his stability and to provide solace; David’s family and friends were there to help Hitchens work through his own feelings of misplaced guilt after learning of his lover’s suicide. “My community caught me the first time, and David’s community caught me the second time,” he says. “The generosity and kindness I experienced, and the care I experienced, made me realize who shows up for me. And that is, I think, a central question queers ask themselves.”

One of the things that allowed Hitchins a path through pain to resilience and, finally, a kind of spiritual healing, is dance. As a memoir of embodiment – Can you feel your feet? – The Light Streamed Beneath It is replete with references to physicality and the connection between mind, body, and spirit. Nowhere, for the author, is this more apparent than in dance. “Dance is this conversation. And it’s a conversation that you can have with anybody,” he says. “If we were at an event and nobody was dancing, and all of a sudden Boney M’s ‘Rasputin’ came on, the entire floor would fill up. There’s something about that song that is an ancient, witchy spell coming out through one of the most incredible bass lines.”

Another salvific force in Hitchins’s experience – perhaps unsurprisingly for a self-referential storyteller comfortable working in the comic mode – was humour. “It did save my life,” Hitchins says about his ability to laugh at the absurdities of existence. Though he is also quick to point out that his relationship with humour, which for the longest time was attached to a dollar amount, has metamorphosed in recent years. “I was worried that not only was I going to lose my sense of humour but my way of making a living,” he says. “I feel it coming back and it’s different. It’s not a defence mechanism anymore. It’s attached to feeling now. It’s not to prevent feeling.”

One final element that provides solace for the author is sex. Eros and Thanatos have been paired since time immemorial, but Hitchins’s frankness and joyfulness in describing sexual congress – his memoir opens with a sex scene – is particularly welcome in a Canadian literary environment that continues to clutch its pearls whenever the subject is even mentioned in mixed company. “I am so tired of seeing gay sex depicted through a macerated peach,” he says. “If I didn’t address that now, as someone who experienced it, I would be doing a disservice. I have a platform and I need to include that.”

These aspects – the celebratory (or even elegiac) parts of Hitchins’s memoir – are integral and go some way to explaining an otherwise counterintuitive interlude in which he describes himself as a lucky man. “Horror is in the forefront of awe and wonder,” he says in retrospect. “I had to go through all of this to learn what I could have learned in a six-part PBS special with Joseph Campbell.” In this respect, The Light Streamed Beneath It represents exactly the kind of queer transformation story Hitchins wanted it to be – a frank accounting of pain alongside a valediction for love and community. “I want to be able to go in and out of hell with grace,” Hitchins says. “I consider myself a lucky and blessed person.”

“I want to be able to go in and out of hell with grace”: Shawn Hitchins on death, queer transformation, and the astonishing bass line in Boney M’s “Rasputin”
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