LGBT+ History Month: An Interview with author John Sam Jones

The Journey is Home: Notes From a Life On The Edge is the latest book out by John Sam Jones. It follows his life from his childhood in Wales; to the decision to leave the UK with his husband after the Brexit result. Other books by Jones include Welsh Boys Too, Fishboys of Vernazza, and Crawling Through Thorns. I spoke to John about the new book, his life as a gay man and the Brexit referendum that resulted in his departure to Germany. 

What made you decide to write The Journey is Home?

If I’m really honest it was the badgering I got from Richard Davies at Parthian… For some years he had been trying to persuade me to write a memoir… and I thought I’d already done that with my semi-autobiographical novel, Crawling Through Thorns.  One day I looked up the word ‘memoir’ and realised that it was not the storyof a life but stories from a life.

The turmoil of the Brexit referendum and the wave of xenophobia it generated made my German husband and I feel very uncomfortable – and the decision to leave the EU (by such a slender majority) left us both feeling estranged.  We decide to leave Wales and move to Germany… and this move triggered much reflection from which the ‘stories from a life’ emerged.

Which authors inspire or influence your writing?

I struggled with reading as a child and a teenager and didn’t really discover reading books for pleasure until I went to university, by which time I was grappling with my identity as a gay man.  I remember, aged eighteen or nineteen, being ‘blown away’ reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and discovering gay-themed literature – the work of people like David Leavitt, Alan Hollighurst and Michael Cunningham.  Later the writing of Elie Wisel, Henri Nouwen, Dorothee Soelle, Viktor Frankl and Carol Christ had a profound influence on me.

What were your favourite aspects of writing The Journey is Home?

For me, once a writing project has been embarked upon it becomes a bit of an addiction and I find myself both loving and hating it.  Indeed, this love/hate relationship is perhaps the reason I’m not as prolific a writer as I might have become.  In the context, then, of the addictive nature of writing, I suppose the part I enjoy most is when I’m able to ease myself off the obsessiveness of it – which is usually the point at which I feel there is no more that I can add and it’s time to ‘let it go’ to be read by my first reader (my husband, who is very honest in his constructive criticism) and then the publisher’s editor…  I’m not overly sensitive to such criticism – when I feel I’ve done the best I can any suggestions that clarify or enhance what I have written are welcome.

In the book you mention that you do miss Wales at times, but you don’t regret leaving the country. What aspects of Wales do you miss the most, and do you think the country will ever redeem itself for the Brexit vote?

We have no regrets about leaving Wales in the midst of that wave of xenophobia that surfaced before and after the Brexit referendum – and I do recognize that we, as a German/Welsh couple of more than 30 years were privileged and had choices that many did not have.  I miss the landscape – we live on the Dutch/German border and the land is flat as far as you can see… and there’s forest that runs for some 40 km to the north of us – that’s so different from the mountains, sand and sea we enjoyed in Barmouth.  Mostly I miss people – but we missed people when we moved from Liverpool to Wales and I missed people when I moved to, and from California… Of course, today’s technology allows me to see/speak with people all over the world, so I spend time in the company of people from England, Wales, the USA, Australia, Spain… perhaps more in these past months (because of Covid-19) than ever before.

That Wales voted to leave the European Union felt like a betrayal – and still feels like a betrayal… so when I’m ambushed by hiraeth I just remind myself that the mawkish sentimentality that is hiraeth is not to be trusted.  Whether Wales can ‘redeem itself’ for the Brexit vote is a difficult question for me and one that I don’t yet know how to answer.  The momentum of YesCymru is heartening – and I joined, perhaps as a gesture towards the forgiveness I may one day feel for Wales’ complicity in the treachery of Brexit.

In your book you talk about your experience with the church as an institution. Do you think that LGBT+ people have more of a place in the church today, or is there still a long way to go?

I have many dear friends who have remained faithful to both their faith and to the institutional church… including a couple of bishops (one of whom is openly lesbian) and a dozen or more clergy (a number of whom are openly gay/lesbian) – people with whom I studied half a lifetime ago.  I know, too, of many LGBT+ people who have found a church home and are nurtured and fulfilled by their church membership, and that, in turn, enriches their service in the everyday world they live in.  Of course, there have always been LGBT+ people in church congregations – and in holy orders… people who were content, until recent times, to hide their difference.  The last few decades have seen a change – at least in many western societies – where difference has begun to be valued and diversity begun to be celebrated.  The ‘church’ has, I believe, been slow to embrace this human diversity in God’s creation and personally I have felt more excluded than included.  I have nothing but the greatest of respect for those LGBT+ people who made a choice to witness within the institution by sticking with it – but that was not my journey. And yes, I do believe the institution we call the church has a very long way still to go in valuing LGBT+ brothers and sisters in Christ.

What would you say to someone who is both gay and religious, but struggling with internal conflict between the two?

There is, by today, and abundance of literature exploring these themes – more than 40 years ago when I was struggling I read Is the homosexual my neighbour by Mollenkott and Scanzoni and Time for Consent by Norman Pittenger.  There are probably more contemporary titles.  I was an early member of LGCM – the lesbian and gay Christian movement, and meeting with LGBT+ people who identified themselves as Christian helped me to reconcile what, at the time, seemed to be discrepant.  For people of other faiths there are, of course, contemporary resources which a quick internet search will reveal.  Because of the world we live in today, there will be individuals who experience such conflict.  Because of the world we live in today, there are abundant resources available (at the click of a mouse) to any individual experiencing such conflict. 

At times you go into detail about topics that are distressing or traumatic. Was this difficult to write about? Do you feel that writing about traumatic events can be cathartic?

Can writing be cathartic for the writer? If we understand ‘catharsis’ as the process of releasing strong emotions through a particular activity or experience in a way that helps one to understand those emotions, then yes! I know from my own experience over almost half a century that writing can offer powerful and life-enhancing opportunities for change – forgiveness, reconciliation, moving on… but I offer a proviso – for me, writing that is cathartic is a free-flowing, outpouring of an event or a situation that has brought anguish – it’s a flow of writing that is sometimes rough, incoherent, filled with resentments and cussing, disclosing only over time the shadowy daemons… and this is writing that is not intended to be read by anyone but me.  And if catharsis comes – and I’m fortunate that much of the traumas in my own life have been reconciled in this way – then I have the possibility to sit down and write (creatively) about distressing and traumatic topics – and in this situation I’m seeking first and foremost to write prose that is expressive, persuasive, credible… I the context of writing for possible publication, therapy (catharsis) is the last thing on my mind!

Can ‘writing’ (as in literature) be cathartic for the reader?  Indeed it can… As a reader, I’ve been touched by stories that gave shape to lives in ways that help give my life a shape – and that sometimes involves me as the reader ‘crying with’, ‘laughing with’, ‘feeling the shame of’, ‘knowing the hatred of’ characters which then helps me reflect on my own situation.  Indeed, one of my motivations for writing about the lives of gay men (and their friends and families) is to give shape to lives that have so often been distorted by the historical record of homosexuality. (I’m aware that I have noted here that I write about gay men – not lesbians, bisexual people – not the range of LGBT+ experiences… I’m a man in my mid-sixties and I write from what I know and leave to others to write from what they know).

If you could give any advice to young LGBT+ people who are struggling with their sexuality, what would that advice be?

In my head I’m still in my twenties and in no position to offer advice.  But in reality, I’m 65 next birthday and have learned to be ‘a happy homosexual’ (I think someone wrote a book with the title – How to be a happy homosexual).  I don’t want to offer advice to young LGBT+ people – but I’m happy to share experience:

  • Seek out LGBT+ role models – really positive ones… there are many, even if we have to search for them because the main-stream still marginalises us.  Learn from their achievements (and their struggles).
  • Understand that there will be people (maybe even family) that will dislike who you are… and even reject you.  Whilst this is painful, it is their problem (and ultimately their loss) – so don’t let it become your problem.  Find allies – create a ‘family of the chosen’ around you – people who love and respect you for who you are.
  • Be the best LGBT+ person you can be (that’s a life-long journey and a really exciting one).
  • Speak your truths quietly and clearly – because stories give shape to lives and without stories we are closed in silence.
  • Don’t confuse sex and love (another life-long journey, maybe!).
  • Believe in the natural diversity of humankind and accept the gifts of that diversity in yourself.

You can read the Welsh version of this interview here.

The Journey is Home will be out in May 2021, published by Parthian Books.