Toronto author Catherine Hernandez was taking a provocative step in deciding to write about a Canada under the yoke of a fascist regime. But for her, the creation her novel Crosshairs seemed a necessity. She wanted to show how a democracy’s thin crust of civilization, already dangerously riddled with fault lines, could easily disintegrate into a world of oppression and genocide, with society’s marginalized the principal victims.
But how easy would it be for someone like her to get to that place?
“In order to rationalize a fascist regime, I had to rationalize why it existed in the first place,” Hernandez says. This might seem a tall order for a writer the book’s flyleaf describes as “a proud Queer woman of colour” and a “radical mother.” However, Hernandez steeled herself to enter an alien mindset and “make a list of all the reasons I would feel OK for communities to be oppressed.” This triggered some personal soul-searching.
“The food I eat, the phone I’m using to talk to you right now — all this requires the compromised safety of labourers to provide these things in my life,” she says from her home in Toronto. She came to realize she must avoid becoming smug about her own commitment to social justice.
“I had to get in touch with that part of myself — of the ways where I was complicit in the oppression of others. That was terrifying.”
Hernandez’s first novel, Scarborough, was published in 2017 to glowing reviews and made the CBC’s Canada Reads long list. It was a celebration of community — a pluralistic Toronto community resilient in the face of adversity. “Both books examine what happens when systems fail communities and a community refuses to back down,” she says. But Crosshairs paints a far bleaker picture
With the current novel, set in the near future, Hernandez envisages a frightening scenario. In the wake of natural disasters that have shredded Canada’s economy, the country has come under the control of a creepy movement called The Renovation that is committed to safeguarding the interests of “true Canadians.” It enlists a sinister militia called the Boots to control those who threaten those interests. Society’s enemies are labelled The Others — people of colour, Indigenous Canadians, members of the LGBTQ community, the disabled, anyone who doesn’t fit in.
The Others become victims of state-sanctioned violence in which they are stripped of their freedom, beaten, killed and forced into labour camps. The novel’s focus is its author’s hometown of Toronto, where disastrous flooding has turned marginalized lives into a nightmare from which there is no awakening and which leads to an underground resistance movement.
But how will Hernandez respond if the novel, which comes with a glowing endorsement from Book of Negroes author Lawrence Hill, is dismissed in some quarters as paranoid fantasy?
“I think we live in a critical time where there is no fantasy about what I’m writing,” she says. “We have become numb to images of children in cages, to Black folks being tear-gassed, to Indigenous land being taken away for pipelines. I don’t have to tell you that the world I depict is already unfolding. Look anywhere on the social media and it’s there,” To her, dismissive talk about paranoid fantasizing is an excuse for doing nothing.
Dystopian fiction has a long history, both honourable and dishonourable. In Canada, Margaret Atwood set some kind of gold standard with The Handmaid’s Tale more than a quarter of a century ago, and the late Bruce Powe achieved his own special notoriety with Killing Ground, an inflammatory 1968 novel about Canada’s descent into civil war against Quebec separatism. But Crosshairs also reveals an unexpected kinship with Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, about a totalitarian U.S. president who extinguishes minority rights in order to reimpose “traditional values.”
Hernandez is talking to Postmedia during a week when the Lifetime network is in the Ottawa region shooting its first film about a same-sex romance and when the Trudeau government has reintroduced a bill banning conversion therapy. It’s a week when her recent children’s story, I Promise, about a warm and supportive same-sex family, continues to sell. But it’s also a week when U.S. President Donald Trump will again refuse to condemn white supremacists, when Edmonton police will intervene in a street brawl instigated by right-wing militants, when two 10-year-old white kids attack a young Black boy in an Eastern Ontario community and when a Vancouver gay man continues to recover from the trauma of having his leg broken by homophobic attackers.
If you ask Hernandez what triggered the genesis of a novel like Crosshairs, she’ll start talking about the 2016 assault on Orlando’s Pulse Night Club, a massacre that saw 49 members of the LGBTQ community die.
“It left a lot of people in our community asking ourselves if we should arm ourselves,” she says bluntly. Hernandez asked herself this question: What is the price of being passive in the face of fascism? “That’s basically what the book is about,” she says now.
Much of the narrative is viewed through the prism of a young Black drag queen named Kay who is forced into hiding when his world suddenly and violently collapses.
“It was really important to me that the main character could not hide from the fascist regime,” Hernandez says. “Kay is a feminine gay man of mixed race — he can’t wash off the feminine ways in which his body moves. He has few choices … otherwise he faces death.”
There’s a certain irony in the fact that Crosshairs was snapped up by a publishing house owned by Rupert Murdoch, the right-wing tycoon also responsible for allowing another possession, the Fox News Network, to be such a poisonous presence in U.S. politics. Nevertheless, Hernandez emphasizes that HarperCollins Canada has been immensely supportive of her endeavour.
She argues that Crosshairs has a simple message — “people have a right to live and love peacefully.” However, in reaching out to a mainstream audience, she is also throwing down the gauntlet. Her dedication at the beginning of the book says it all:
“To the people of privilege:
You will survive your discomfort from reading this book
But many like me.
Who sit dangerously at various intersections of identity,
will not survive long enough for you to complete the last page.
What will you do?”
— Jamie Portman