Virginia Woolf made her gay
Lydia Perovic's new novel is a reflection on love, art and place
For Lydia Perovic, talking about where she’s from can be taxing. The Toronto author was raised in Montenegro, in what was once part of Yugoslavia, though as she grew the social and geographical landscape rapidly changed.
Perovic borrows from these experiences to create a back story for Petra Veselinovic, a character from her debut novel Incidental Music. “There probably isn’t much queer history behind the Iron Curtain. And at that time there was no vocabulary,” she says. Like Petra, Perovic would eventually immigrate to Canada.
Her novel is a reflection on love, art and place; a sprawling emotional geography of the city (Toronto) and culture Perovic has become so fascinated with. Incidental Music focuses on three generations of women: Romola, an elderly, once-famous Hungarian opera singer; Martha, a married, middle-class historic preservationist; and Petra, a woman who has immigrated to Canada but finds assimilation elusive and who struggles to find her purpose.
“In yet another way it’s about how we couple and how we love,” Perovic says. All the women have complex past relationships, further complicated by an affair between Martha and Petra. “I’m a bit of a relationship outsider. I’m fascinated by the way we tend to group and couple. I don’t know what it is – the middle-classing of the queer nation, where we just group in couples and worry about our properties and our pets and children.”
A big motivation for Perovic was what she sees as a lack of these characters in contemporary literature. “I miss reading about characters like this, who are complex, have politics in their lives, have intellectual interests,” she says. “There’s lots of really fabulous lesbian writers, but . . . I mean, Jeanette Winterson is its own world. Sarah Waters is historical, and there’s lots of historical novels. There’s not a lot of contemporary novels about lesbians or queer women. I wanted interesting, complex characters.”
Incidental Music weaves together a narrative of sociopolitical theory, intense and steamy romance and reflections on the arts and queer identity in a literary vein. “One of my recurring jokes, because I just create jokes that explain how this all came to be, is that Janet McTeer in Portrait of a Marriage made me gay, or Virginia Woolf made me gay,” Perovic says.