Ahead of their appearance The Coast is Queer, Brighton & Hove’s festival of LGBTQ+ literature, public speaker and mindfulness teacher, Valerie Mason-John discusses drugs, recovery, and black identity with Sam Bennett.

Photo: Juan Luis Rod

Dr Valerie (Vimalasara) Mason-John joins me on Zoom from Canada. It’s 9am there, they have just finished meditating – of which they do 40-60 minutes daily – and now sits sipping a litre of warm water. “I used to start the day with a cup of coffee and a cigarette,” says the Eight Step Recoveryauthor, “and that may have been accompanied by a line of coke somewhere during that phase.” They were once artistic director of London Mardi Gras Arts Festival, and is not the only organiser from those days to be in recovery now. “There is something about the queer scene,” they say, “that is about drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.” Why is there a lot of drug use in the LGBTQIA+ community? (In Canada, they tell me, the initialism LGBTQIA2S+ is used, inclusive of the two-spirit community.) “The root cause is trauma,” which for those aged 30 and over could have been to do with the difficulty of coming out about sexual orientation. “I’m not saying it’s easy now, but it’s easier,” they say, citing coming out around gender as more of an issue these days. “It was so much harder. When one became aware of their sexual identity, often there was nobody to speak to – and if there was, one would be shut down.” It wasn’t necessarily coming out that caused people trauma, they resume, but “what went on inside us. When there’s nobody to speak to, who do we start speaking to? Ourselves. We start berating ourselves, we start giving ourselves a hard time, and we begin a negative and dysfunctional relationship with ourselves.”

I tell them I’ve found it hard to not drink or take drugs during lockdown. I find it hard anyway. I sometimes wonder if (or hope that) I struggle giving up certain things because I’m not fully in the grips of addiction.

But they prefer to ask people if substances are causing them misery, rather than speculating as to whether they’re addicted. “If it’s causing you distress, causing others distress, then it’s an opportunity to look at it. Traditionally, one looks at the four Cs: Do you have compulsions to use? Do you have cravings? Do you have a loss of control? Do you keep on using despite the negative consequences? It’s on a continuum; for some people it is a matter of life and death, some are able to function.” So again, I just come back to: is it impacting your mental state? Do you have freedom? That’s it, really, at the end of the day.”

In their Canadian small town, “opioid overdoses have gone up by almost 100 per cent. In the province of British Columbia, we’ve had more deaths from fentanyl and other opiates than from COVID. COVID has impacted my work rather than me,” they continue, favouring the term “spatial solidarity” over social distancing. Black and queer people experienced social distancing pre-COVID, they say, “and it’s a luxury.” Where they live, it’s also easy to keep apart from people, I’m told, unlike on London Underground for example.

They have personally been more affected by “the virus of racism. The public lynching of George Floyd had a huge impact; I had a dark night of the soul when that was happening. It’s almost like some of us are having to ‘come out as black’ more.” It’s draining for people of colour to do all the work needed to dismantle structural racism, to have to think about “how we work with white fragility” among other things. At the same time, they point out, the disparity is inseparable to COVID, as evinced by how hard-hit minority groups have been by the pandemic, in the UK, Canada, and the US.

Photo: Cesar Forcadell

For them, 2020 began with the killing of Iranian commander Gen Qasem Soleimani, following a Trump-approved drone strike. Then Iran accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet carrying 57 Canadian citizens, having “a huge impact in Canada. That’s how the year started. And it got worse.” At least being a Buddhist practitioner prepared them for the uncertainty of these past months. “I also feel very privileged that I’m in recovery, so I have a recovery community, I have a Buddhist community, and then the black community, to help me through.” How’s spending so much time at home? “As a kid I was incarcerated,” they say, having been jailed aged 15 for shoplifting, “I was in a prison cell, so for me it’s not difficult being at home.”

Moved about a lot in their youth (from an orphanage, to their biological mother’s home, to the streets, to a children’s prison), “From a very young age I had the insight that home was the body. I remember moving again, stuff spilling out of a case, and realising: ‘I just can’t take all this with me. The one thing I’m taking, the common denominator, is this body.’” Many have left theirs, they say, “and are not at home in the body”, trying to escape it by getting high perhaps. “If we can feel at home in the body, we can be at home anywhere. If you’re struggling to be at home in the physical confines you live in, I guarantee you’re actually struggling to be in the body.”

Their first book, Lesbians Talk Making Black Waves, cowritten with Ann Khambatta, explored the lives of African and Asian descent lesbians in Britain. Their second was Talking Black: Lesbians of African and Asian Descent Speak Out, an anthology they edited about African and Asian lesbians. “Once upon a time my sexuality was at the centre of my life.” They now describe themselves as “retired from the queer world”, which of course does not mean they’re retired from being queer. “I’ve always been queer, it’s just not at the centre. One of the things that has come more into the centre [is] my black identity, that’s become a lot stronger.” This informs the poet’s ninth book, I Am Still Your Negro: An Homage to James Baldwin, which was voted one of the best poetry books published in Canada in 2020. They have also just edited Afrikan Wisdom: New Voices Talk Black Liberation, Buddhism, and Beyond, publishing in July this year.

They have another couple of book ideas, one being “a book on recovery through the lens of social justice, of trauma, which speaks to the LGBTQIA2S+ community, and to the BAME communities”. Other plans seem less complex: “After I’ve finished with you, I should definitely go out for a walk.”

The Coast is Queer, Brighton & Hove’s festival of LGBTQ+ literature, returns in a special online version from 5-7 February 2021.

5 FEBRUARY 5.30PM: VALERIE MASON-JOHN & PHYLL OPOKU-GYIMAH

Valerie Mason-John

Reading right now

Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out by Ruth King

Last novel read

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Watching right now

Small Axe by Steve McQueen

“If you want an understanding of how we as black people party and rave, the second in the anthology, Lovers Rock, is brilliant. Those were the clubs I hung out in; when the gay clubs finished at two, three o’clock, I was in one of those clubs after – we had our own black, queer versions of those clubs too.”

Just finished watching

Bridgerton by Chris Van Dusen

It’s just great to see a period piece with people of colour.”

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