In the face of war, do we remain passive, or do we fight? Catherine Hernandez wanted to explore this question with her new novel, Crosshairs. It "was inspired by the Pulse massacre," the author says in a video produced by the book's U.S. publisher, Simon & Schuster. "I remember when that horrible event happened -- people who are part of my chosen family, who are visibly trans and queer, were asking ourselves: "Should I buy a gun?" "Should I learn how to protect myself?"
Hernandez is "not here for nuance," at this critical time in history, she tells me a few weeks after the Canadian launch of her second novel. She's here to tell the truth. When the story ends, she says, she wants it to be in the hands of the reader. "I wanted them to understand that there's only so much explaining, and fighting that we can do," she says, "and I'm really, actually, extremely exhausted by it all."
Hernandez and I spoke over Zoom between the many virtual literary festivals she is taking part in. These days, her schedule is particularly full. Her first novel, Scarborough, won the Jim Wong-Chu Award when still an unpublished manuscript and is soon to be a motion picture. She has also written the plays Singkil and Kilt Pins, as well as the children's book M Is for Mustache: A Pride ABC Book. Her biography describes her as a proud queer woman of colour, a radical mother, a theatre practitioner, and the artistic director of b current performing arts.
Although the world that Hernandez builds in Crosshairs has been described as sci-fi and dystopian, it looks a lot like the one we live in right now. Economic collapse. The rise of fascism. Environmental degradation. The narrative moves between time periods: from a portrait of Toronto mostly as it is today to a Toronto under siege from greedy, white supremacist leaders.
A government-deployed militia, named the "Boots," creates labour camps to control and enslave the "Others:" Black people, Indigenous people, people of colour, LGBTQ2s+ people, and disabled people. They establish checkpoints throughout the city to restrict the "Others'" movements, and forcibly issue them "Verification Cards." What they call the "Renovation," -- a project they claim will ensure peace and order -- is really a genocide campaign.
Although the novel's characters are initially horrified by the changes they live through, their bodies adjust over time. Reflecting on random ID checks, the book's protagonist, Kay, says "Do you remember how our bodies developed a muscle memory until the cadence of starting and stopping became a dance, a wedding march towards our own erasure?" In depicting how the Others are policed in the book, Hernandez wanted to explore how bodies can subconsciously adapt to new conditions of living, and to new restrictions. "There's so many ways that tiny little decisions are moving us towards a place of violence towards people who are poor, racialized, disabled, LGBTQ," she tells me.
In Crosshairs, this looks like checkpoints set up around Toronto, and Verification Cards designed to replace people's debit cards. Faced with moments of brutality, the characters that form the "Others" in the book are often unified by their collective and individual disbelief, by their complete inability to move. "The pages of history told us to never forget, to never forget the atrocities of the past, yet here we were in a city that was actively forgetting," Kay thinks to himself after being issued a Verification Card.
During interviews with people who had survived genocide and war, Hernandez realised that there's something of a dual nature to genocidal campaigns. On one hand, people feel like violence "unfold[s] overnight." That from one day to the next they shift from a stable life to destruction, and violence. On the other hand, "generations of hatred [create] the momentum towards that genocidal campaign," she tells me. "The shape of it is because of decisions made a long time ago."
When Crosshairs begins, Kay is hiding in the basement of an ally's house in Toronto, trying to protect himself from the violence outside. He jumps back and forth between memories of his past life and accounts of his present day by writing to his partner Evan. A large portion of the book is devoted to Evan: to the "you" who may be in hiding, or may be dead. When I ask Hernandez about the book's form, she considers the various systems of communication that emerge during war. What happens when we're disconnected from someone in our family and cannot put pen to paper, or use a phone? A torture survivor once told her that, while imprisoned, they would write in their head, knowing that, if they were ever freed, they could commit to paper what they needed to say.
For Kay, movement is both hiding -- running through alleys and parking lots to find a place to rest -- and a form of unfettered self-expression he finds performing drag as Queen Kay. "I really wanted to show how different the body is when it feels safe and how different it is when the body feels like it is going to be betrayed at any moment," Hernandez tells me. On the run, Kay becomes the smallest version of himself possible. He snakes through dark streets and hides in parks. When he becomes Queen Kay though, he expands: "I became me. Me. The me-est me I have ever been. Me times a thousand. Me on full volume."
"When you come into being as a queer person," Hernandez tells me, "for me especially, it felt like movement was such a key element to being who I am." With a burlesque background, she moves her body in an unapologetic way. "I'm going to show my body as a way of showcasing my resistance and my resilience in this world that seeks to shut me down." As we move into further state violence, she knows that one day she may have to be small, and discreet: "Like I have to be a shadow of myself in order to survive," she says.
Hernandez believes we are edging towards civil war in present-day Canada, due to intense environmental devastation, and worldwide civil unrest. As this unfolds, Hernandez says, we will have to reconsider the ways we move, speak, and act. Part of her research for Crosshairs included learning how to use weapons, for instance. Hernandez's brother-in-law, Tyrone Tom, taught her how to load and shoot a gun, and helped her consider this experience as another form of movement. Understanding this helped her feel at ease and reminded her of interviews she did with a few people about military training. "It's about embodying this idea of being a group," she says, "that we think about the safety of the group."
One of the book's main questions is: who adapts to fascist societal rules and who resists? Liv and Beck, two of the main white characters in Crosshairs, work daily at unlearning generations of embodied white supremacy. They organize for "Others" to stay in their homes, and drive them to hiding places. When Beck brings Kay and others to his house, his parents are deeply uncomfortable, because the idea of their own inherent goodness is challenged. Just like we learn to dance, or learn a new skill, we have to learn to actually show up. And throughout Crosshairs, Hernandez lays out a map that shows us how white people can get to somewhere better. This is work that, as she explains, has to start with our bodies, "in the fibres of [our]selves in order for the revolution to actually mean something."
When I ask her about the novel's ending, Hernandez tells me, "I don't want anybody to ever forget the labour that we put into trying to change this world for the better because I don't want to go back to square one." If we keep moving toward the dystopian world described in Crosshairs, and readers don't do the work , we'll end up in its pages. Crosshairs is going to be "difficult for people to read," she tells me. "The truth is that I want [it] to change people."
Alexandra Valahu is a writer and radio producer. She is currently a fellow at Guernica Magazine.
Author image: Marko Kovacevic.
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