Entertainment

Theme in Jordan Tannahill's novel is innate to his 'politic as a queer man'

Tannahill is best known as a pillar of Toronto’s alternative arts community, most famously for Videofag, a cultural space he ran in Kensington Market.

Jordan Tannahill's mom is at the heart of his first novel, Liminal, coming out with House of Anansi Press.

Torstar News Service

Jordan Tannahill's mom is at the heart of his first novel, Liminal, coming out with House of Anansi Press.

Jordan Tannahill sounds elated, but breathless, having just stepped away from an intense rehearsal for his new theatre production, Declarations, which premieres at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre on Jan 23.

Declarations combines text, movement and song in what Tannahill calls a “theatrical ritual to explore the idea of a life facing down death and the various details, sensations and images that make up a life.” He pauses, then laughs. “It sounds a bit heavy, but it’s actually quite joyous and playful.”

The multidisciplinary production was inspired by Tannahill’s mother, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, and the intimate conversations they’ve shared. She also doubled as the inspiration behind his virtual-reality animated memoir, Draw Me Close, which debuted at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Completing a trilogy of sorts, mom is again at the heart of his first novel, Liminal, coming out with House of Anansi Press. It’s a heavily fictionalized self-portrait featuring a performer named Jordan Tannahill, who comes upon his mother lying in bed. In the moment where he contemplates her still body, he reveals his own story through memories and philosophical wanderings.

“I wonder if the body is perhaps the fundamental queer preoccupation,” Tannahill says. “It’s so innate to my politic as a queer man, and queer people in general. It’s the body’s capacity for pleasure and destruction and the perverted or whatever societal labels are assigned to it. I’d say one of my great tools as an artist in performance is time and bodies. In a way, both are muses: The book takes place in a single second and the body is its ultimate subject.”

Although Tannahill now lives in the U.K., he is best known as a pillar of Toronto’s alternative arts community, most famously for Videofag, a cultural space he ran in Kensington Market for four years with his then boyfriend, William Ellis. The couple resided in the back of the converted barbershop, their living quarters on any given night doubling as a green room, props area or crash pad for visiting artists. While most of the characters in Liminal are amalgams of friends and collaborators, Will and Videofag — or a version of them — are prominent in the novel. “We had this public self that was separate from my private self. I had to acknowledge that existence and write around that,” says Tannahill. “So Will couldn’t be a fictional character and Videofag had to exist, but where things entered the personal I had total creative freedom and ran with it.”

Liminal, which reflects on recent political events such as Brexit and the Trump presidency through the experiences of a 20-something queer man, also feels grounded in Instagram culture. ”We in the 21st century are profoundly in a moment of the self for better or worse,” says Tannahill. “There’s a lot of self-work, self care happening but there’s also self-obsession, all of which to some extent is explored in the book, which is why the genre of auto-fiction seems to speak so acutely to the contemporary condition. For me, it’s the form I felt best able to express these various conversations through.”

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