Ask the multipierced, tattooed, partly head-shaved Kristyn Dunnion whether some people may find her just as scary as the Ontario pit bulls to whom she co-dedicates Big Big Sky, her recently published novel for young adults (her author photo shows her receiving an adoring lick from a canine fan she calls “my boyfriend”).
“If they do,” she says, “I just smile at them. I understand I can represent the unknown to some people and they’re afraid of that. But have a pleasant conversation, talk about ideas, find out areas of commonality … and then suddenly those walls can come down.
“Or,” she laughs, “not!”
Pit bulls, she thinks, get a bad rap, and implies that her punk lesbian outlaw persona may have the same problem – though most likely not with the age 14 and up readers to whom her novels are pitched. Big Big Sky, her third novel, takes place in a future in which all adults have been killed by aliens who recruit and train young female warriors as killing machines.
Missing Matthew, her first, follows a group of friends who call themselves the Rebel Rescue Squad.
The squad tracks the mysterious disappearance of Matthew Stein, new boy in town. Mosh Pit looks at growing up punk and rebellious in today’s urban landscape.
As might be just a little bit expected, she was born and grew up in small-town Southern Ontario. Both parents were teachers, and it was “an idyllic place to be a child, with really romantic, fun memories of playing outside all the time, playing dress-up games like Charlie’s Angels … and my first novel kind of celebrates that kid culture, that rambunctious, wacky time of girl gangs in training, jumping out of bushes, solving crimes.”
Being a teen, though, was difficult in a pre-Internet town with neither a cinema nor a McDonald’s, in a home without cable television (though she’s rather happy these days for having missed years of TV).
Her parents always stressed doing well at school – she did and left home after graduation to attend McGill University in Montreal. She wanted to be a filmmaker. That didn’t happen. But other things did. “Montreal was a real coming of age. I was in love with learning anything new, with living on my own and having the freedom. Going to my first gay bar. I wasn’t fitting in – turning up in a tutu and wearing reindeer antlers at the lesbian bar didn’t exactly get me any dates. It was a really creative time for me, though it was also a time full of stubbed toes and social faux pas.”
Today she lives and works in Toronto, but memories of her own ineptitude probably explain why she’s so good at relating to high-school kids today. “I get to visit schools as a guest author or to do writing workshops, and I love that. My hat’s off to homeroom teachers, but I couldn’t do it. I love being a visitor, because you can bring so much to a classroom that the regular teacher or the administration just can’t. Being out, being queer … sometimes I get some negative feedback, but I find the kids know I’m going to be a little different from their regular teacher … and I feel I can reach an audience that’s overlooked – the queer kids at the back of the class, kids who are falling through the cracks. I get lots of e-mail … from kids who are not fitting in, who tell me they love to read my books, that they speak to them. That makes me feel good, that I’m writing to the kid I used to be.”
She may be 39, but she jokes that “I can’t wait to become 40. … I’m going to be a cougar!”
Even cougars have to earn a living. By day she’s a housing support worker. “It’s not as glamorous,” she concedes, “but it’s an important job I feel passionate about. I work with tenants struggling with mental health issues who live in boarding homes across the city. My job is to advocate for them and provide support. It’s a wonderful opportunity to meet amazing people who’ve had really, really bad luck. I feel quite privileged to have that job and I feel it’s very humbling… to see the things people are struggling with, making the best of a bad lot.”
For glamour, there’s Miss Kitty Galore, the stage name she chose several years ago for her performance art. “She’s a louder, brassier version of me, and I have a lot of fun with that character. I host cabarets, burlesque shows, drag shows. I love a multimedia approach, with music, video, sound effects, smoke machine if you’ve got it … There was a whole series of zombie love projects that I worked on, a way to talk of the commercialization and commoditization of mainstream gay life. Lately, I’ve turned my attention to lesbian serial killers … I think it’s just a way of working out rage!”
She’s joking. There’s no more rage in her than there is in the pit bull slurping at her chin in that author photograph. There is a new sense, though, of the fragility of time. She recently broke up with a partner of nearly eight years, describing the separation as a “hysterectomy on my heart” and these past few months as “the summer of suck.” The second dedicatee of Big Big Sky, after the pit bulls of Ontario, is a close male friend who died last year.
“That really shakes you up, shakes you out of your complacency. This past year I’ve been re-evaluating … What am I here for? What do I want to do? The realization, the shocking existential crisis that there’s an expiry date … so what’s important is that I write, that I tell the stories that I think need to be told … I started writing Big Big Sky the day [U.S. President George W.] Bush invaded Iraq. I felt I needed to respond as an artist, as a thinking individual and a compassionate person, to explore how we got into this situation, to understand what our obligations are.”