‘Queer son of a single mother.’ This is how Douglas Stuart, Scottish-American writer, who recently won the 2020 Booker Prize for his debut novel, Shuggie Bain, introduced himself in his session with writer and playwright Paul McVeigh, on day 3 of the acclaimed Jaipur Literature Festival 2021.
Stuart spoke about his mother, on whom the book’s character Agnes is based. He delved deep into the character, drawing similarities with his mother – she too, like Agnes, had been an alcoholic and had eventually succumbed to her addiction when Stuart had been 16. He said that in her little working class Glasgow milieu, she had perhaps been ‘insignificant’ but ‘very significant’ to him, and like the children of all addicts, he was always on the lookout for strategies to keep her safe.
The session touched upon many aspects of this autobiographical debut novel that reflect Stuart’s own life including being bullied in school, dealing with feelings of inferiority and being seen as the child of an addict. When Paul McVeigh asked about the protagonist, Shuggie’s isolation as a pre-teen, Stuart admitted that Shuggie, in his confused idea of conformity, didn’t reject masculinity; in fact, he craved acceptance. He expressed that the character had no ‘ease’; he was always trying to balance himself between his poverty, sexuality and what Agnes was teaching him to project.
Towards the end, McVeigh asked how love emerged like ‘a protective cloak’ in this ‘brutal, immersive setting’. Stuart admitted quietly that love is the ‘backbone’ of the book – the unquestioning, unconditional love that children have for flawed parents. “Love, for me, was the reason for writing this book. These two souls clinging together,” said Stuart.
The Jaipur Literature Festival 2021 will take place till 28th February on an exclusive virtual platform.