The Gordon Burn Prize 2019: This Brutal House

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Books Editor

This Brutal House is yet another worthy nominee for the Gordon Burn Prize. Niven Govinden successfully transported me into a world far removed from my own: the Vogue Balls of New York in the late 80s.

Yet another worthy nominee for the Gordon Burn Prize

With great power and strength, Govinden sheds new light on the queer community. A recent BBC2 TV Series Pose took a similar line of action, when it documented the lives of queer people searching for an identity and more importantly, a community in the Vogue Ball Scene of New York. 

It depicts what were known as ‘houses’, with ‘mothers’ heading them, and they competed against one another to raise their house’s status. These ‘mothers’ have inadvertently become guardians, taking in ‘children’ rejected by their biological families. Or as Govinden aptly puts it: ‘They were wanted at home; needed until they failed to live up to expectations of manhood’.

A personal note struck a chord with me at this point. I couldn’t help but research the author to discover that Govinden is using his personal experiences of New York’s Drag Scene to craft this novel. In one television interview, he admits the novel took him ten years to plan and five to write – a laborious task to say the least!

The narrative opens with a silent mass protest on the steps of New York City Hall – a consciously chosen opening setting by Govinden. It symbolises all that the novel encapsulates. The tension between bureaucratic government agencies and real people, real lives. 

Arguably the protagonist of the novel, Teddy, embodies all that this setting provides. He too is a ‘child’, raised in the Drag Scene. However, education and circumstances have allowed him to soar to a powerful position. It is often said ‘Knowledge is power’ and Govinden uses Teddy to play with this notion – for Teddy now holds classified information about the ‘children’ who keep going ‘missing’. On this matter, the NYPD is indifferent so the mothers stage a silent protest.

The real tragedy of the narrative lies in a bittersweet injustice of love. Govinden crafts chapters from Teddy’s point of view with pining personal accounts of his past life falling for Sherry, one of the other children from his ‘mother’s’ house, who has since gone missing. It is here we understand there are personal motives behind Teddy’s profession.

The real tragedy of the narrative

If we compare it to Govinden’s previous novels such as Black Bread, White Beer (2012), criticisms have been made by some readers. I had no previous experience with the author but can understand some of their frustrations. There are ‘vogue-calling’ chapters where Govinden uses a repetitive, almost poetic, style. At one point he simply repeats the word ‘walk’ for seven pages with little in between.

Where this does succeed, however, is conveying the intensity of the situation. It is no coincidence that the title of the novel contains the word ‘brutal’. Vogue balls in the Houses of New York were no easy affairs. They were brash, intense events and Govinden conveys this through his lyrical style of prose.

Genius lies in the form of the novel

Where his genius lies is in the form of the novel. Once the reader learns to appreciate what Govinden can do with form and focuses less on their desire for a rich plot, only then will they find the true purpose of This Brutal House

I think that is exactly this: the most important thing is to be present and protest. What the Voguers of 80s New York were doing was making themselves visible and so too is Govinden with This Brutal House. He is making queer literature visible to all in being nominated for this prize and for that, we are forever indebted to him as a writer.

This Brutal House by Niven Govinden is nominated for the Gordon Burn Prize 2019 as part of the Durham Book Festival. The winner will be announced in Durham Town Hall on Thursday 10th October 2019 from 8pm. More information can be found at: https://durhambookfestival.com/programme/event/the-gordon-burn-prize/

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