by Dennis Abrams
With Russia’s crackdown on gay rights making news worldwide (and bringing with it a call from some for a boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi), it seems both ironic and fitting that one Russian author has just published a children’s book that features a gay character and his struggle to find acceptance in a country that has made even the distribution of gay rights materials punishable by fines and jail time.
As reported by Olga Khazan in The Atlantic, Daria Wilke, who left Moscow 13 years ago and is currently a Russian professor at the University of Vienna is the author of The Jester’s Cup (Samokat), which tells the story of a boy named Grisha, a 14-year who lives and works in a puppet theater with his family and an older gay friend, Sam, who ultimately leaves Russia for the more gay-friendly Netherlands.
The book was inspired by Wilke’s own childhood, when she spent a great deal of time in the Moscow puppet theater where her parents worked. And it was there, Wilke says, where she first met gay actors, telling Khazan, “For me, growing up, homosexuality was totally normal. No one hid it. It was only among adults that I realized that there were people who thought homosexuality was a problem.”
Wilke told The Atlantic that she’d written the book two years ago, and there was some back and forth with her publisher as to when it would be released, “But 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.”
And given the current laws and public mood in Russia she added, “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.”
“Brave” is also a word that could be used for bookstores carrying the book. “That was a surprise for me — I was afraid that bookstores would not take it. Usually they really are skeptical about taking on these difficult topics,” she told The Atlantic. “It was a pleasant surprise that most stores took it, though some put an ‘18+’ stamp, even though it’s a young adult novel.”
Which is not to say that there hasn’t been criticism: “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,” she said. “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 scrutinizes.”
The book though is getting noticed. As Daryana Antipova wrote in The Moscow News, in a piece with the caveat, “This article contains information not suitable for readers younger than 18 years of age, according to Russian legislation”:
“The book is marked 16+, though some stores put 18+ and some 15+. Wilke, however, writes so carefully about sexuality from the teenager Grishka’s perspective that not every reader will notice it.
“It seems to me that the markings are subjective, since adults are buying it for themselves. It follows from Wilke’s earlier work, Mushroom Rain for a Hero, and Mezhsezonye (written under the pseudonym Daria Werner), in the high quality of the writing. Not all parents will want to buy a children’s book that has an 18+ label for their kids, but The Jester’s Cap is already in the top three of publisher Samokat’s books in sales at Biblio Globus and Moskva, despite selling for 269 rubles, a relatively high price for a book of only 150 pages.”
But despite the book’s “adult rating,” it is still reaching Wilke’s intended audience. “One boy wrote to me,” she told the Atlantic, “and said, ‘when I read this book, I understand that it was about me.’ If a person read it and saw himself in it, nothing can be better than that for an author.”