“Christianity was a radical, socialist, queer idea from the get-go”: A Q&A with Anthony Oliveira on his biblical new novel, Dayspring

“Christianity was a radical, socialist, queer idea from the get-go”: A Q&A with Anthony Oliveira on his biblical new novel, Dayspring

The comic book writer and author talks growing up queer under Catholicism, finding humour in the Bible and learning self-acceptance from X-Men

Anthony Oliveira, author of Dayspring, out April 2
Photo by Mike Meehan

From Toronto comic book writer, multiple National Magazine Award winner and theology podcaster Anthony Oliveira comes a truly original, genre-bending new novel with a surprising inspiration: the Bible. Dayspring is a collection of queer, erotic and deeply moving love stories about prophets, saints and disciples. It draws from the author’s life and 2,000 years of theology, blending the sacred and historical with the intimately personal. We spoke with Oliveira about faith, love and queering Christianity.

The stories in this book are told out of order. Why write it that way?
That’s how memory works: we remember the events of our lives as they come to us, not in chronological order. It’s also how many Christians encounter these stories: not in the order they were written but according to whatever sermon was given at church that week. I wanted to steal from that experience to make the reader encounter these narratives in new ways.

What are some of the narratives?
There’s the story of David and Jonathan, from the Hebrew bible. It’s a love story, but because it’s often presented in fragments, many people miss what it’s really about. There are also narratives from the Book of Revelation and various saints. And then, of course, there’s the story of the death and resurrection of Christ.

And who is the narrator?
I stole a trick from the Gospel of John, in which the narrator never reveals his identity, but John’s name is conspicuously missing from the text. It’s the same here, but the narrator isn’t just John—it’s another character from the gospels (I won’t spoil it). And, also, the character is me: my own memoir is tangled into this book.

Related: “I don’t think novels have messages”—A Q&A with Sheila Heti

How is your own story presented in the book?
I’ve known for a long time that this was going to be a story I would tell—I wrote two of the scenes when I was 16. One of the aims of this book is to archive queer desire and its relationship to the Christianity I grew up with. I went to an all-boys Catholic school and was an altar boy, and my parents hoped I would be a priest one day. I think you have to come to faith by wrestling with it, and this text is a history of that wrestling.

What’s your relationship to faith like these days?
I feel like this book is the answer to that question. It shows a character that very much wants to believe but also feels abandoned by the communities and structures of the faith. There was a time in my life when I was in the care of these communities, and they mistreated me. And yet, when I stub my toe, it’s a Portuguese “Ave Maria” that comes out. It’s the only faith I’ve ever known.

Dayspring started out as a short story. What made you want to turn it into a novel?
The short story emerged when I was working with Jordan Ginsberg, the editor-in-chief of Hazlitt, on a piece I wrote about the Bruce McArthur trial and arrest, “Death in the Village.” Jordan asked me if I had anything else I wanted to write, and we organized a short version of this piece, which is now the first section of the book.

How does Toronto figure into it all?
It’s a very Toronto book. The narrator walks along the waterfront and sees cormorants and sumac trees, and there’s one scene that clearly takes place on the cruising grounds at Cherry Beach. There’s another scene in which the disciple and Christ are caught making out in a bar window, and there’s only one window in the city it could be—let’s just say I worked at Glad Day Bookshop for a while.

You’ve written a gay love story about Christ and other biblical figures. Some people may get riled up about that.
It’s funny to imagine people being mad about any depiction of a Christ who is loving. If there’s anything worth saving about Christianity—and maybe there isn’t—it’s the idea that God was once a human being, and therefore there’s nothing about us that is unworthy of love.

There are also some surprisingly funny passages, like Jesus screaming at a fig tree for “like, forty-five minutes.” How did you find humour in the Bible?
The Bible is funny! That part is from the Gospel of Mark, and right after it, there’s a line that says, “And his disciples heard it.” It’s right out of The Office, where it pans to the people listening and they’re all making eye contact.

Your side gig is writing Marvel comics. How do these interests fit together?
When I was a kid, I prayed a lot that I wouldn’t be queer. I remember one X-Men cartoon in which a mutant observes people who hate her and asks, “What’s wrong with me, then?” Either she’s wrong or they are. Pop culture gave me a way to understand my experience: the belief system she inherited was flawed, and so was mine.

What do you want readers to come away with?
I hope the book makes people feel seen in a way they haven’t before. Our culture is seeing a return to something that was stolen from us, which is a recognition that Christianity was a radical, socialist, queer idea from the get-go—one of the first people Christ converted was an Ethiopian eunuch, a racial and sexual minority. Whether it’s through Sufjan Stevens, Lil Nas X or Kai Cheng Thom, we’re seeing a queer return to Christianity, a way of recognizing the dignity of a person in a way other than their market value. I want people to read this and say, “This is the Christ that I knew existed but that everyone has been hiding from me.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.