An author in Russia has published a children’s book that prominently features a gay character and his struggle to find acceptance in the country.
Russian author Daria Wilke has published a children’s novel called ‘The Jester’s Cap’ which focuses on a 14-year-old boy named Grisha who lives and works in a puppet theater with his family and an older friend, Sam, who is gay.
Speaking to The Atlantic, Wilke said: “For me growing up, homosexuality was totally normal. No one hid it. It was only among adults that I realised that there were people who thought homosexuality was a problem.”
She said the setting came to her from her own childhood, in which she spent most her time in a Moscow puppet theater where both of her parents worked.
She added: “A writer writes about their life, and life is multifaceted — it contains many things, including homosexuality. For that reason, I didn’t see a need to not write about it.
“The puppet theater where this takes place is a sort of safe space for the protagonist — in the theater, he can be himself. The gay actors there can say they’re gay.
“The book starts with the fact that the protagonist’s best friend and mentor, Sam, the most talented actor in the theater, must leave to go to Holland — it’s too hard for him to live in Russia because he’s gay.”
Recently President Vladmir Putin signed into law both a same-sex adoption ban as well as an anti-”propaganda” bill which he says is “protecting children” from information relating to homosexuality.
Wilke wrote ‘The Jester’s Cap’ a year and a half ago, and her publisher was weighing when to release it.
But she added: “When these strange laws were being released — first the local anti-gay laws in various cities, then the broader one that passed just last month — eventually the publisher realized that if we didn’t release the book now, we might never be able to release it.
“Because of these laws, in many bookstores, it has an “18+” stamp, even though in my view, I think it’s suitable for 12-year-olds.
“In my view, this is a pretty brave step on the part of the publisher. I don’t know that many publishers who would choose to release a book like this for young people at this time.”
When asked what she thought about the laws, Wilke said to The Atlantic: “I was totally shocked. I saw that at first they were passing local anti-gay laws in St. Petersburg and other places, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe they’ll last a year or two, and then they’ll repeal them.’
“We didn’t believe that they would be enacted on the federal level. These types of laws, in my opinion, foster fascist tendencies in society — it’s very dangerous to create these kinds of divisions of good and bad, of who can speak and who can’t.
“My only hope is that it will be too hard to enforce. It’s very vague, so there’s a chance it might be too hard to realise in reality. There’s this saying in Russia, it’s left over from Soviet times: ‘The laws may be harsh, but at least we don’t enforce them.'”
Commenting on the role she hopes the book will play in the future, Wilke said: “Books that are about taboos are always hard to accept, but eventually their existence helps to change things.”
She also mentioned that it has already gathered positive reactions from readers: “One boy wrote to me and said, ‘when I read this book, I understood that it was about me.’ If a person read it and saw himself in it, nothing can be better than that for an author”.
On negative reactions to the book, she responded: “There was a presentation about my book at the Moscow Book Fair in June, and when the presentation was reported on a web site, there were some very nasty comments on that story.
“There have also been some reports from libraries and bookstores from people saying, ‘why would you write about homosexuality in a children’s book? We have so many other problems.’
“But that criticism is weird to me. Writers write about what’s important to them, not about what’s most important to society. The fact that people think writers should only write about “useful” topics is another sign of illiberalism in a society.
“I haven’t had any bad reactions from the government, but then again, the book has only been out for a month. Young-adult novels aren’t really the first order of things that the government scrutinises.”
Daria Wilke emigrated from Moscow 13 years ago and is now a Russian professor at the University of Vienna in Austria.
At one point in ‘The Jester’s Cap’, Sam decides to leave Russia for the Netherlands because he finds the homophobia in his home country too difficult to endure.
Earlier this week, responding to human rights groups concerning the Winter Olympic games to be held at Russia, the International Olympic Committee released a statement calling for the acceptance of all athletes in the wake of the recently passed anti-gay legislation.
Last week, speaking exclusively to PinkNews, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg urged Russia to protect the rights of LGBT citizens following concerns about gay athletes and spectators attending the 2014 Winter Olympics.