- Ayr, Scotland
Toni Davidson was born in Ayr, Scotland in 1965.
He is the editor of two anthologies of short stories, And Thus Will I Freely Sing: An Anthology of Lesbian and Gay Writing from Scotland (1989), and Intoxication: An Anthology of Stimulant-based Writing (1998), to which he also contributed. His first novel, Scar Culture (1999), won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award, and explores the issues of incest, child abuse and psychosexual healing. It has been published in ten countries. Since then he has written three other novels Silem Renk (2005), My Gun Was as Tall as Me (2012) and The Alpine Casanovas (2015). His collection of short stories The Gradual Gathering of Lust and other tales was published in 2007 by Canongate.
Toni Davidson has toured with the British Council in Germany and the Philippines. He lives in Switzerland with his wife, the writer Kate Orson, and daughter Ruby.
Toni Davidson’s work is set within the cultural context of the Scottish literary renaissance of the 1990s which saw the rise to international literary fame of authors such as Irvine Welsh, James Kelman and Alan Warner.
With these authors Davidson shares an interest for literature’s potential to shock, thus forcing the reader to come to terms with controversial subjects such as child abuse and drug-addiction. Davidson’s works are forms of cultural activism. They argue for a return to social realism and a focus on marginalized groups and experiences as a way to challenge predominant social and literary conventions. They are interested in documenting the ways in which supposedly curative discourses like psychoanalysis become forms of social and psychological control and even abuse. Davidson’s works, however, also celebrate the endurance of the human psyche to counteract such control and abuse. As critic Richard Redhead has put it, the writers of Davidson’s generation 'wrote a cultural history as it was happening, but they wrote it in fiction, not in the language of sociology, history, jurisprudence or politics'. Reacting against what they perceived as an oppressive cultural establishment, they conceived their major task to illustrate unpalatable social conflicts and realities, filtering them through post-modernist irony and complex modernist literary techniques.
Davidson became a cult author and a critically-acclaimed writer with the publication of his novel Scar Culture (1999). Before that novel, however, Toni Davidson had already entered the literary scene editing two important books that testify his engagement in social and cultural debates. In 1989 he put together the first Scottish anthology of gay and lesbian writing, And Thus Will I Freely Sing. Gathering a wide selection of material and encompassing several literary genres, the anthology was an important reaction to the implementation the previous year of Section 28 of the Local Government Act. Considered by many homophobic and repressive, the Section banned council funding of cultural materials such as books, plays, leaflets, and films, depicting homosexual relationships as normal and positive. The anthology thus contrasted the governmental veto on the presentation of gay material and attempted to give increased visibility to homosexual themes. Intoxication: An Anthology of Stimulant-based Writing (1998) is also a plea to artistic freedom. In his introduction, Davidson argues that 'stimulant-based writing ... is not simply a theme grafted on to prose to appeal to a chemical generation but is a way of seeing, a way of recording and relating experiences, of exploring the unencumbered, uncensored imagination'. Intoxication celebrates the enduring relationship between writers and stimulants. Far from being a closed genre, stimulant-based writing is 'a burgeoning influence on writers writing now'. Davidson is always careful not to impose a literary uniformity on the genre and a homogeneous identity on the writers of his anthology. Preferring multicultural diversity to political essentialism, the editor comments that drug culture is 'no longer the preserve of unshaven men,' but that women and gays are increasingly bringing their contributions to the genre.
Scar Culture plunges the reader into a world of child abuse, dysfunctional families, sexual violence and unscrupulous psychotherapy. Click and Fright, the abused children who narrate the first two chapters of the novel, are further exploited by their predatory therapist Curtis Sad, who takes on the narration from the third chapter. Sad, who has forced an incestuous relationship to his sister, decides to use his two patients to experiment a new form of psychotherapy, "milieu therapy". To bring out his two patients from the catatonic stupor in which they have fallen as a result of past abuse, Sad recreates the threatening environment and situations in which such abuse took place. Working via fax with a fellow psychotherapist whose maxim is "it’s not the journey that counts, it’s the destination", Sad grows increasingly self-obsessed with the experiment and is well-aware of his own abuse on the patients: "Before dawn the next day I prepared two injections of elothinedrine. . . . Anyone reading this account . . . may well see this as the point where Curtis Sad crossed the line between experimental but legitimate research and downright abuse of civil liberties and established protocols for the care of mentally disturbed people". The character of Sad, with his inability to respect the boundaries between therapist and patient, represents a clear challenge to psychotherapy, which Davidson has described as particularly dangerous for gays. In an interview for the gay website planetout, he argues that certain psychotherapists still believe that all the problems of homosexuals have to do with their sexual identities. "Have we not got beyond that?", Davidson asks provocatively.
Scar Culture shows the therapist dominating the patients until the very end. Sad follows scrupulously the 16 rules of psychotherapy listed in Appendix 1 of the novel. They are clearly designed to make the discipline appear absurd, stating, among other things, that 'the patient already knows what’s wrong' that one should never trust what the patient says and that psychotherapy 'is not a science but a sport'. Throughout the novel, Davidson uses a combination of literary styles that allow him to create a distinctive narrative voice for each of his characters and an halo of clinical authenticity. The fragmented narrative of Click mirrors the series of snapshots which he takes to document his story of abuse. Fright reconstructs his own experience dictating it to a tape recorder, though a note at the beginning of his section informs the reader that 'long pauses or mono-syllabic utterances have been taken out'. Click’s and Fright’s narratives are the patients’ responses to Sad’s 'milieu therapy' experiment. Thus, they are his case-studies and they represent the psychotherapist’s appropriation of his patients’ voices. This alternation of different voices is characteristic of Davidson’s fiction. In the short-story, 'The Gradual Gathering of Lust', which gives the title to Davidson’s 2007 collection, the typewritten pages are by an anthropologist studying with her husband incestuous sexual intercourse within primitive people. In addition to these pages, a third-person narrator adopts the points of view of Minus, her son, and Karine, her daughter, to tell their own incestuous relationship and their attempt to live like a family on the small island where they get stranded after their plane crashes. As with psychoanalysis, here too another grand narrative of the social science family, anthropology, is challenged. Anthropologists usually claim a privileged understanding of people’s behaviour, yet the two respected anthropologists in the short-story completely fail to understand their children’s incest. As the anthropologist puts it, 'We had seen it the world over, but hadn’t expected to find it at home'. 'Some people are born to be a burden on the rest' denounces the ways science can be spectacularised and implicated into eugenics discourse. ERO – the Eugenics Record Office – tours cattle fairs manipulating data and administering dubious tests in favour of genetic selection. Passing itself off as Christian science, ERO is in fact a sinister organization with little Christian mercy. 'Feeble-minded people are multiplying at twice the rate of the general population,' one of its members claims and goes on to urge people to take ERO’s tests to stop 'feeble-minded children ... to clog the wheels of human progress.'
Families and childhoods are also exposed by Davidson’s fiction as entities that society likes to idealise but that can conversely be the scene of traumas and cause permanent danger. Are ideal families those coming out as winners of ERO’s competitions? In 'Like a Pendulum in Glue', the protagonist Louche lives with a caring father, but his childhood is an unhappy one where the boy finds he cannot articulate and communicate his own feelings. Such difficulty will inform his adult life too. Both in Scar Culture and in the stories collected in The Gradual Gathering of Lust, in spite of their explicit sexual themes, there is a deep sense of embarrassment and characters feel forced to keep hidden their innermost desires.
Powerful and innovative, if somewhat disturbing works, Scar Culture and The Gradual Gathering of Lust have earned their author the reputation of literary maverick. At the same time, Davidson’s fiction has been compared to 20th-century classics such as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (because of its theme) and William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury (because of its fragmented and apparently unsequential narrative). On a local level, Davidson has also been described as 'as good as Irvine Welsh, more clear-sighted than James Kelman and less encumbered by desperate trendiness than Alan Warner.' The author’s future challenge will probably lie in how to keep his provocative approach while being admitted to the contemporary literary canon. Davidson, like many writers of what Richard Redhead has described as the 'repetitive beat generation' (from the Conservative Party’s law against rave parties), will have to negotiate his posture of literary outlaw with his increasing relevance in the literary mainstream.
Luca Prono, 2010
I came to writing through performance. Before my first novel was published I toured a performed extract in a variety of settings - from dingy bars in Edinburgh to a warehouse in New York. I composed music and designed a simple lighting plan. I am not an actor but I believe that there is a strong link between the spoken and written word; the audience and the reader. The first novel is very intense and it gave a sense of heightened drama to perform it in this way. I wanted, in so many ways, to get away from the dry, deadening effect some bookshop readings can have.
Above all I write and perform in order to tell stories. Barry Lopez, a writer I greatly admire, sums it up for me: 'Story is a powerful and clarifying human invention. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we distinguish what is true and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair.' (About This Life, 1998)