Interviews L’Amour Lisik Writers’ Room

Write Who You Know: An Interview with Daniel Allen Cox

Interview by L’Amour Lisik

In connection with the annual Victoria Festival of Authors taking place October 11 to 15, 2023, Plenitude prose editor L’Amour Lisik interviews Daniel Allen Cox, author of four novels and I Felt the End Before It Came: Memoirs of a Queer Ex-Jehovah’s Witness. Daniel’s essays have appeared in The Guardian, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Maisonneuve, and The Malahat Review, and have been nominated for a National Magazine Award and included in Best Canadian Essays.

I Felt the End Before It Came: Memoirs of a Queer Ex-Jehovah’s Witness is a collection of linked essays that explores the author’s lifelong disentanglement from the webs of a high-control group. The culmination of years spent both processing and avoiding a complicated past, the book reckons with memory and language just as it provides a blueprint to surviving a litany of Armageddons.

You’re part of the VFA panel “Write What Who you Know” with Michelle Poirier Brown, Paul Dhillon and Sandy Ibrahim, moderated by Iain Higgins. What advice would you give to emerging writers who are struggling with the ethics of writing about their own lives including their friends and family?

This is a vast and complex topic, and I look forward to learning what my co-panelists have to say about it. I think much of the work is figuring out how to tell your story authentically, while keeping in mind that all our lives are entwined together. It helps not to look for a single solution, but rather a broader strategy for determining whose story it is to tell, what conversations to have in our communities, what details to negotiate, what the stakes are for each person involved, and protocols for dealing with the unexpected. My advice is to start telling your story and make ethics a core part of your writing process that you’ll develop and refine over time with care, integrity, and love.

Your new book, I Felt the End Before it Came: Memoirs of a Queer Ex-Jehovah’s Witness, is a series of achingly honest essays that explore indoctrination, identity, and family. After writing four novels, what was it like to publish a book of personal essays? Can you talk a bit about the differences or similarities in how you approach writing fiction vs nonfiction?

To prepare to write my first nonfiction book, I had to completely rewire my writing process. That meant taking a break from fiction after my last novel came out in 2015. I paid attention to how my voice was different when writing essays. I became a slower, more deliberate writer. Pivoting to nonfiction and going back to university both blew up my approach to research, in a good way. I think my years of fiction writing influences what I do with language and how I create scene. And conversely, pursuing truth so doggedly in memoir and other essays has had a freeing effect as I return to novel writing; fiction now feels like an area where I allow myself greater latitude, even if it’s also about pursuing a kind of truth.

In I Felt the End Before It Came, you grapple with your queerness while immersed in the Jehovah’s Witnesses community: “You cannot be queer and a Jehovah’s Witness—it’s one or the other.” Music, among other things, helped you find your identity during your time as a JW and after disassociation. For folks who are queer and struggling to gain acceptance from the communities and people they love, which musicians and/or writers would you recommend listening to and reading?

I suggest reading anything by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Melissa Febos, and Alexander Chee, who write not only about how to seek and find acceptance within their communities, but also to build new ones when the acceptance doesn’t come, using tools for radical empathy. Sarah Schulman has written many books about how to negotiate difficult conversations so that we can arrange for better systems of care. I’ve learned much from Alicia Elliott, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Joshua Whitehead about how this can work in an Indigenous context. Musically, I’m inspired by the likes of Vivek Shraya, PJ Harvey, and ANOHNI who are unafraid to reinvent their worlds with every new album.

In your essay “The Witness is Complicit,” the climate crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the AIDS epidemic intersect with the JW’s idea of Armageddon—“sickness as portent.” Then we learn that you “joined a queer community that took care of one another during a plague and that religion had already left for dead. Revelling in the touch and warmth of queer and hated bodies would indeed mark the first time I felt that a new world was actually possible.” The theme of queerness as rebirth circulates through several of your essays in the book. Can you elaborate on this theme and its importance to you? Did it rise naturally to the top during your writing process, or was it something you wanted to highlight?

Queer people have always had to orchestrate their own rebirths and create the conditions in which they can exist and thrive. My decision to write a memoir-in-essays and address this was deliberate, but the text emerged organically. As I started to write it, I became aware of how deeply the jargon of the Jehovah’s Witnesses remains imprinted on my language systems, even all these years later. The ongoing effort to untangle myself from childhood indoctrination means subverting that lexicon. I’ve come up with definitions of endings that are more nuanced than the facile and overblown versions of apocalypse I grew up believing. A linguistic rebirth, I guess.

With panels ranging from Advocacy Through Story to Diversity and Importance to Reformation, Resilience, Reconciliation: Where We’ve Been and Where We Are, this year’s VFA has an incredible lineup of writers. Which VFA panel(s) are you excited to attend?

I’m excited to attend Reformation, Resilience, Reconciliation: Where We’ve Been and Where We Are. Embodiment is at the heart of writing, and discovering how different authors approach it has transformed my reading lists many times over. I also can’t wait for Banned: on Diversity, Censorship and Children’s Books and the important conversations that will result from it.

What creative endeavours are you working on right now, writing or otherwise? What are you reading to fuel your writing?

I’m working on a new series of linked essays about the underground life of cities, and how ground transportation foreshadows future subway lines that can’t be built quickly enough. The project is quickly turning into a memoir. I’m also sketching the draft of a new novel.

As for reading, I’m currently immersed in The Best American Essays 2022 and its stunning breadth of writers. Fiction by Zoe Whittall, Richard Mirabella, and Gabrielle Boulianne-Tremblay is currently keeping my imagination alive and moving in new directions.

L’Amour Lisik (she/her) is a queer writer and artist of Chinese Mauritian/Scottish settler descent who lives on the unceded traditional territories of the Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ Peoples (Victoria, BC). She holds a BFA in Writing from the University of Victoria, where she focused on poetry and creative nonfiction. L’Amour also works as Managing Editor for The Malahat Review.