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ABOVE: AnthonyOliveira (Photos by Mike Meehan)

The Profane And Raunchy Christ Of Anthony Oliveira’s Dayspring

IN Magazine sits sat down with the Canadian author to talk about his upcoming debut novel…

By Paul Gallant

A few dozen pages into Anthony Oliveira’s debut book Dayspring (Strange Light/Penguin Random House Canada), out April 2, I was sure that Oliveira had been an altar boy when he was young. A former altar boy myself, I know how to spot one. Only someone who was raised Roman Catholic would write a book narrated over the course of centuries by “the disciple Christ loved,” recounting the disciple’s conjugal relationship with Christ, including explicit depictions of their sex life. “…i am holding you as you shake and you pull me backwards to the other side of the tree and push me down into your unzipped jeans….”

When I interview Oliveira this winter, he confirms my suspicions. He grew up in an Azorean Portuguese family in Toronto, was an altar boy and, of course, attended a Roman Catholic boys’ school, St. Michael’s College. He describes this upbringing, where many of his family members would have been delighted if he had become a priest, as traumatizing, and his coming-out process as a seismic shift that prevented him from becoming “a very different, a very awful kind of person.” Being queer and having queer sex has been liberating, empowering – a great blessing.

“Christianity is a religion that has allowed itself sometimes to think about the world and the body as being sinful and dirty, something to be thrown away,” Oliveira tells me. “But what you find when you read the Gospels is that Christ is very insistent on the body’s importance, taking care of it, loving it, enjoying it. So I thought that sex in the book was important in that dimension. Sex is also how this narrator comes to Christ – that is how this character loves this person. And that is how I have come to love people in my life.”

I’m unsure about what to call Dayspring. A novel in prose and verse? A poem? A collection of poems, some of them other people’s? Christ’s words are in a red font, like in a fancy Bible, making his utterances special, even when they’re banal or profane: “please do not ask me stupid fucking questions.” Oliveira wrote some sections, which he describes as tiles, as a precocious teenager, when he was obsessed with Satan, and reading John Milton’s Paradise Regained. “I wanted to write a contemporary version of that, like a closet drama, like a one-act scene of a stage play.”

Though various parts of the book have been written throughout his life, Oliveira wrote much of it, and gave it shape, during the pandemic, being careful not to cull too much from his original efforts – he wanted Dayspring to have sharp edges, to be something that could be read in fits and starts, dipped into for inspiration, much like the New Testament itself. 

…with my face in the ancient carpet stains you whisper like they are first words
fuck i love you
and pull me up to kiss you backwards like a beast of myth like some
terrible atomic monster fused bruised flesh of adam….

Though Oliveira reinvents Christ’s life – even going so far as depicting him in contemporary situations that would be recognizable as, say, a love affair between young men in Toronto’s gay village, where Oliveira worked for a time at Glad Day bookshop – he was careful to avoid writing anything that directly contradicts what’s in the New Testament. That is, the Christ that the Bible gives us (as opposed to the Christ that organized religion has cooked up over the past 2,000 years) is capable of saying and doing everything in Dayspring. This Jesus is capable of a love story, which is rare in the Bible.

This might sound very capital-s Serious, something that will be reviewed in capital-s Serious Literary Journals. And it’s true that Oliveira has a PhD in 17th-century literature, “specifically the aesthetics of secularization, how European culture found a way to structure itself in a way that let God go.” His academic background definitely affects the vibe. The language of Dayspring has all the tense drama of a 17th-century Baroque painting: vivid colours, dramatic lighting, characters caught in moments of realization that seem like they belong on stage. But there’s also something very of-the-moment. Oliveira also writes comics for Marvel, is a pop cultural commentator and is programmer of Toronto’s Dumpster Racoon Cinema, a film series that screens disparaged and cult films like Cats and Flash Gordon and provides an opportunity to host conversations about the trashiest of contemporary pop culture. Oliveira and Dayspring are also cheeky, quipping bastards. A riff on American feminist writer Rita Mae Brown’s “An army of lovers shall not fail” appears in red as the words of Christ. There’s a hoarder’s lifetime worth of pop cultural references here.

“When I was working on my academic work, very often what annoyed people was my habit of bringing in ‘low’ culture,” he tells me. “Like thinking about the way that the TV show Mad Men functioned in many ways like a Shakespeare play functioned, like the way that the culture uses its art to negotiate what its values are. That can be quite annoying at 9 a.m. at a literary conference. But now the opposite thing is happening. People are asking me, ‘Why are all these superheroes in this comic speaking in passages from Paradise Lost?’”

And there is something about this Christ that is influenced by our modern pop-culture superheroes. There’s the iconic simplified version of Christ—the IP. But that IP can be presented in many ways, used to tell many stories, the superhero inhabited by performers who might be of different demographics and backgrounds. The Miles Morales Spider-Man is no less a Spider-Man than the Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield Spider-Man. The Christ of Dayspring is no less than the Christ of some Bible Belt homophobe.

Contemporary queer culture has an awkward relationship with Christianity and many reasons to scorn the Roman Catholic Church as an institution, what with its sexual abuse scandals, its role in decimating Indigenous populations and diminishing Indigenous culture, its view of homosexuality as a sin – the list goes on. Letting the church shrivel into oblivion is one of the kinder takes you’ll hear. But what of Pope Francis’s decision this winter to allow Catholic priests to bless same-sex couples? Is it a yawn, an eyeroll, something to cheer?

“I’m interested distantly in Vatican politics because it governs so many other people, and it informs the beliefs of people who are personally close to me, my mother, my aunts,” says Oliveira. “What the pope says still matters to them and therefore it has impacts for me and my community. But I’ve gotten older to think that that’s just a guy who has a really nice house who could really effect change in this world if he wanted to, but for various reasons doesn’t. I regard the pope as a president who I regard with the same sort of loathing and hopeful expectation as most people would.”

In making Christ the protagonist of a great love, Dayspring avoids this kind of politics. But as a reframing of the Christian IP, it’s a very revolutionary act.

PAUL GALLANT is a Toronto-based writer and editor who writes about travel, innovation, city building, social issues (particularly LGBT issues) and business for a variety of national and international publications. He’s done time as lead editor at the loop magazine in Vancouver as well as Xtra and fab in Toronto. His debut novel, Still More Stubborn Stars, published by Acorn Press, is out now.

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