Queer Perspectives on Writing & Family: In Conversation with Christopher DiRaddo and Liana Cusmano

In this interview / conversation, authors Liana Cusmano and Christopher DiRaddo speak about their writing, family and Italian heritage. The event was organized by Accenti Magazine, in collaboration with the Association of Italian-Canadian Writers (AICW), with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts via The Writers’ Union of Canada. The transcription has been edited for length and clarity.

See the video of the conversation here.


Liana: Chris, I am really excited to talk about writing and family, and how we queer these practices – how these three elements come together and can come apart in lots of ways. Let me start by asking you how your relationship to queerness, family and writing have changed or evolved over time; because none of these exist in a single moment. They all change as we grow.

Chris: I knew I wanted to be a writer from a very young age. I really wasn’t sure what I would write about. When I was 16 or 17, I don’t think I really knew what I wanted to say. I would try to write Stephen King-type short stories. I was not even really interested in horror, but it was something that I knew. It really wasn’t until I came out – and had my heart broken by a guy – that I felt I had something to write about. Actually, a lot of things to write about! That’s where I think the queerness came in. And then I couldn’t stop writing. Family, however, was something that recently made its way into my writing. With my first book, The Geography of Pluto (2014), I knew I wanted to write about a queer person who had their heart broken. As I was writing that, the queer person’s mother started coming into the story and became a central character. And then, with my second book, The Family Way (2021), I found myself writing about how queer people make families. Whereas I was writing about the mother in the first book, I was writing about the role of the father in the second book. That’s how it’s changed for me over time. I think my next book will go even deeper into family. It’s a subject matter I find endlessly fascinating. How about yourself? Where do these three intersect in your writing?

Liana: I like that at some point you just couldn’t stop. For me, it’s very similar. There are so many things I have to say about queerness, writing and family. I identify as non-binary. But when I wrote my book, Catch and Release (2022), I was identifying as a woman, writing about a woman who falls for this other woman. But spoken word, as opposed to fiction, is where family and queerness and writing seem to converge for me. I’ve been writing a lot about my grandparents and my identity as a queer person in relation to them. Those very specific elements have been coming together more recently because my grandparents all met my partner. When I was younger, I had never imagined that could happen. My changing reality is very much reflected in what I write about. The changes in my relationship with myself, with my partner, with my family, have been coming together quite recently, specifically in spoken word.

Chris: You’ve been doing spoken word for a while, but your novel came out only last summer. First books tend to be quite personal. It’s often the first time that a lot of family members will read your work. Family members can peek inside your mind and see how you think. What was that experience like, knowing that people were going to learn how you might be thinking? Although it is fiction, I think there is still a personal element to a lot of this work. What was that experience like?

Liana: Before the book was published, I had only ever shown it to friends. There was a chance it would never be published, and nobody would ever read it. There was the feeling of, well, it would be a little disappointing if nobody read this, because I have things to say. On the other hand, it was liberating to think that nobody will ever read this… It was really intimidating to realize that it was going to be published. People are going to read it. My family is going to read it and have opinions about it. For me, the most difficult thing to contend with was the idea that it’s fiction “heavily inspired” by what actually happened. I found myself having these conversations with friends and family. I’ve seen other writers go through it, too: to have readers ask, “well, who is this character based on? What events inspired this particular passage?” The answer is … it’s fiction. But it’s also authentic fiction based on a very specific truth. My family has always been really supportive of my writing. They were very supportive when the book came out. There are things I wrote in the book that never happened, but I don’t feel obliged to point them out. Some readers are not big fans of that because people want to know exactly what happened, exactly what was true. But it’s fiction and, as the author, I reserve the right not to explain everything.

Chris: I agree. I got that question a lot – Is it autobiographical? – for both of my books. The main character in my books, I have to say, kind of resembles me. If you know me, you probably are projecting me onto the main character. The answer I tend to give: “It’s fiction, but its spirit is autobiographical.” I think there’s so much in my books that feels authentic to me and who I am as a person. So, if you were to read it, I think you’ll see me in it, you’ll understand me. If you like the character, you’ll probably like me; if you don’t like the character, you probably won’t like me. But I find that I’m guilty of it, too, sometimes. When I read another writer’s book, I want to know what really happened. But I’ve learned not to ask that question, just leave it to the imagination.

Liana: We tend to blur the author, the narrator, and protagonist; when they’re often distinct.

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Chris: In The Family Way, the main character is a gay man, named Paul, who is about to turn 40; and he’s been asked by two friends to help them start a family. The book follows that experience, but it also examines the relationship that Paul has with his father and with his lover, Michael, who’s a little bit younger than him.

Liana: The thing that struck me most was that Paul chooses to attend Pride instead of the wedding of two people his father considers family. For many of us, Pride is a time we spend with our chosen families. So, the question that comes to mind is, what does family and what does chosen family mean to you, especially in the context of being a sperm donor, which is something that you and Paul share?

Chris: I often feel like I walk a line between the two. I find that I’m very lucky, though. I have a very close relationship with my family. My parents are very accepting. We’ve had our ups and downs about my sexuality, for sure. But we’re at the point right now where they’re very accepting. They met my partner, and they love him. Sometimes I find, especially in popular culture, it’s either one or the other. Sometimes, it’s either you’re estranged from your family and you’re just in your queer community, or you are trying to break away from your family of origin and find community. What I really wanted to show in my books is the decisions that you have to make between the two. My character Paul’s father has remarried after the death of his wife. He’s decided to pursue family – like another type of family too, an alternative family. It’s a different family than he has with Paul. He has his own family out there in Kelowna and Paul’s very resistant to that. So, the situation is tense. That really allowed me to show how we try to navigate that line as queer people. Being a sperm donor adds an extra level of complexity. When I came out to my family, I don’t think they expected me to come out a second time and say: “By the way, I’m going to have a child with two friends.” That’s another layer of complication: “What does that mean? What’s your involvement going to be? What’s our involvement going to be?” The topic was extremely ripe for me to delve into it. Like you said, although it is based on personal experience, my life didn’t have as much drama as the book. So, it’s really great to inject that into it and explore what comes up when you put these characters in the situation.

Liana: As I said earlier, I have been branching out a little into the intersection between queerness and family and, specifically, Italian-Canadian family. One of my most recent texts is “Ma ti fidanzeresti con me?” which is in Here & Now, Volume 2 (2024).

Chris: That’s wonderful! I love that poem so much. It’s interesting because Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend was such an inspiration for me, too. I read the book and watched the TV series. I love how you use it to keep the Italian language in your mouth. What role does the Italian language play in your identity and your identity as a writer?

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Liana: I have two younger brothers. We went to an elementary school and a high school where the majority of students were of Italian heritage. I didn’t know anybody who spoke Italian, even though many went to Italian school on Saturdays. My parents would nag us about speaking Italian, and we hated it. It is to this day the nagging I am most grateful for. As a child, you don’t understand. You just feel like you’re being compelled to do something that doesn’t make any sense. It’s a huge part of who I am. It’s something that I don’t practice very much on a daily basis; unless I speak to my grandparents. I found myself in Italy using words that are not real, that my grandparents made up, and embarrassing myself. Because with my grandparents there’s a lexicon that is specific to Italian-Canadians of a certain generation, which is a really fascinating phenomenon. I have no formal education in Italian. My spelling is not good, my grammar is not that great, my pronunciation is okay. But I find myself wanting to include it more in my writing, because it’s something that will be lost if I don’t work at it.

Chris: It’s really exciting for you to be able to queer that. It’s only my dad who is Italian. I did not learn the language, but I was surrounded by the culture a lot, especially through things like the family meal. But my perception of Italian culture wasn’t that it was queer or queer-friendly. It is exciting now to be doing some of that work myself, like trying to create stories that bring these two together in ways that are fresh. The documentary, Creative Spaces, that we were both in and that Licia Canton directed, is about the intersections between being queer and Italian-Canadian. I often credit your mother, Licia, for inspiring me to connect with my Italian roots. Participating in the documentary was really important for me, because it allowed me to confront a lot of my prejudices and assumptions about Italian culture. I never felt Italian enough because I was a queer person and because I was only half Italian. Participating in the documentary really opened a floodgate in terms of ideas and inspiration. So, I’m curious to know what changed for you since participating in the documentary in 2020, the beginning of the pandemic?

Liana: The most concrete thing that has changed for me is that my partner has met my entire family and participated in those Italian traditions. My grandmother still thinks that I’m a woman and I’m gay and I’m never going to have children. My grandfather talks to me and about me in the past tense: “You never got married.” These very interesting cultural generational things are up against something that nobody ever thought would happen, which is queerness. So, for me, since that documentary, I’m still queer, I still write about queerness. My family is still supportive. It’s been really interesting to see that evolution. There are so many different ways to queer family and to queer your everyday typical actions. I extend this to the concept of having pets. Pets was not something that my grandparents’ generation ever did, unless it was an animal that could fulfill a purpose. My pet rabbit is a creature that I am not raising for food, which is very much queering the concept of having an animal. I never expected my grandparents to understand that either. Now they ask about the rabbit regularly. It is great to share our lives with these small creatures and none of us should have to justify the joy we feel for the animals that live with us. But it’s something that I’ve had to explain to my grandparents many times; the same way I’ve had to explain there’s not just gay and straight.

Chris: What you said about pets strikes a chord with me. My partner Greg and I lost our cat, Theo, in October of this year. Greg and I have been together 14 years. and we had Theo for 13 of them. He was like our kid. I remember he was sick for two and a half years, and so Greg and I would go to the vet four times a year, get all these supplies. Every day, we would give him injections. We just loved and cared for him so much.

Liana: How do we explain queering the concept of family? I think that ties into writing very nicely because, in many ways, writing is the queering of the traditional career path. To queer something or some place or some activity, to queer, as a verb, is, I think, a really interesting phenomenon. I don’t think my grandparents have any idea what I do. I work at the computer for a non-profit and I write poems. The non-profit I work for makes poetry accessible to elementary and high school students across Canada. The concept of the gig economy, of working as a writer and balancing that with other personal or professional commitments, is totally foreign to people of a certain age, of a certain generation – certainly in my family. So, how do you strike the work-life balance of being a writer? Working nine to five at an office job from age 18 or 19 until 65 is increasingly rare and difficult to maintain. How do you balance writing, when you’re working either full time or part time, when you’re in between jobs or you’re self-employed? What does that look like for you and how do you explain it to people?

Chris: It’s tough. It’s funny because I have a career as a communications professional. I’ve worked for many different organizations. I think people are always impressed when you tell them, “Oh, I’m writing a novel.” But when you actually published it, they’re like, “Holy cow, you wrote a novel?! How did you do that? I didn’t believe you! Oh, it’s cute! Good for you.” It took 14 years for my first book; it took seven years to write my second. Neither of them made me any money, to be frank. Once, I had a conversation with someone high up in Canadian literature and he said to me, “Do you know how few people in the country actually make a living from their books?” So, what I’ve tried to do is to manage my own expectations and not think, “OK, I’m just going to do this communications thing until my writing takes off.” I don’t know if my writing will ever take off, but as long as I’m having fun doing it, I’m going to keep doing it. I’m always trying to find work that overlaps with my interest in writing, for example working as a journalist. But I have to turn the screws with myself and make sure that I’m sitting in the seat whenever I can. How about yourself, how do you negotiate the two?

Liana: It’s really hard, exactly what you said. I think being flexible, but also disciplined with yourself is really important. Much of it is getting into the mental space. If I look up a specific fact about snails that I need to corroborate for this poem that I want to finish – and that takes me two hours – that’s part of the writing process. It’s just difficult to explain because you don’t have anything to show for it. You don’t have a product to offer to people. I think it’s important to set aside a specific day or specific time of day, and to treat it like a doctor’s appointment or professional commitment. From this time to this time, I am not available. Why should this professional goal of mine or this personal goal or creative goal be any less important than my physical health or my professional commitments? It’s difficult to do that because we’re taught that we need to produce, or we need to expend energy in a way that’s productive or logical. And none of that is true. They’re all just things that we sort of internalised, that we take as fact. It takes a lot of confidence and nerve to say, “I’m going to spend the whole day writing; I’m going to finish my novel or I’m going to tackle a new poem, and it’s important to me, and I’m going to do it, and I don’t care what anybody else has to say about it.” The thing that helps me the most is to say, “on this day I’m writing, I am writing on this day!”

Chris: I find that I get depressed if I take myself away from it too long. And if I get miserable, I get angry. I think I only realized that recently. I get more anxious when I’m not able to do it. Even if it is just 15 minutes a day, I need the proximity to it. For a while I was doing those Let’s Write sessions online where you write alongside other people. I thought it was really great to be accountable, to sit in the chair and bang out as much as I could. Some days were good, some days were bad. I’m curious to know, what’s next for you? Are you working on anything?

Liana: I’m working on my first poetry manuscript which I’m finalizing with a couple of wonderful mentors. I’ve also noticed that when I perform, when I do shows, when I go into classrooms, it’s difficult to just rattle off poems one after another; and so in between you have banter. I’ve realized that’s almost like small individual miniature stand-up routines in between each poem, which I think might be something interesting to explore. What about yourself?

Chris: I’d like to see that. I’m working on my next novel. I’m making a lot of progress on it, which feels great. There’s a lot of research in this one as well, a lot of family research in terms of where my family comes from in Italy, but also Montreal. At the same time, I’ve decided that I want to turn The Family Way into a TV series. I don’t know much about screen writing, but that’s a skill I want to develop.


Liana Cusmano is the author of Catch and Release (2022) and a Montreal Slam Champion (2023). They wrote and directed Matters of Great Unimportance (2018) and La Femme Finale (2016), screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

Christopher DiRaddo is the author of the novels The Family Way (2021) and The Geography of Pluto (2014). He lives in Montreal where he is the founder and host of The Violet Hour reading series and book club.

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