Reaching Out

V. Anderson talks with Illya Szilak about Queerskins, a multimedia novel that takes users through a journey of innocence lost, self-discovery, and self-sacrifice

Our on-line personas, our virtual selves, are a type of embodiment similar to spiritual transcendence, according to author and infectious disease specialist Illya Szilak. She explains this as “a theme that runs throughout everything I’ve done. Because I’m a physician, this idea of, especially in this novel, being embodied…these moments of possible transcendence, whether that’s love or sex or religion, there’s always this process of reaching. The idea for me is that living virtually is also part of that process of reaching outside of one’s own embodied existence, and yet we’re still completely embodied.…I wanted to bring that into the novel and tell this really mythological story.”

Queerskins tracks the life of Sebastian—through his own journal entries and the perspectives of his family, lovers, co-workers and friends—from his life as a teenager in the seventies to his adulthood to his work in Africa as a doctor and finally to his death in 1990 from AIDS. Sebastian writes, “Then HIV came. Death denuded us all. It stripped away the queer skins of normalcy and perversion. What was left was only human.” The story is sad and beautiful and intense, spanning the themes of gender, masculinity, graphic sex, relationships with parents and with god, and being an outsider in every way, regardless of being “home,” in a foreign country, or in a gay club.

What makes the novel innovative are its parts: text written as a personal diary, audio clips of fragmented first-person experiences, videos and photos depicting interaction, loneliness, isolation and paradoxical and multidimensional realities of life. Multimedia texts are the new thing in academic and social media circles, but a rare find in this particular incarnation of a more traditional novel. Szilak wrote the text, meticulously hacked through audio content that was cast, scripted and recorded for the novel, commissioned video content from collaborators she found by watching their previous films and on and pored over for images.

The story shows a deep love of a flawed main character, whom Szilak readily admits is named after St. Sebastian (a martyr often shown pierced by arrows). She speaks of him as a person almost independent of her own creation. Perhaps this is because she lived a virtual life as him on For about four months, she posted stories, and people would comment on them or respond with their own stories. This way, she got to embody him, feel what it was like to be him and have people live-respond [respond in real time] to his most personal thoughts and experiences. She explains this process as “intensely painful,” but it left her with “the kernel of what it felt like to be him.”

Interest in thirteenth-century female Beguine mystics (who would go into trances and become embodied by god) led to Szilak’s decision to write as a gay man. She was compelled by the “idea of removing the boundaries of yourself so that you could have another person/being inhabit you.” She explains, “I could see that that could be read as a female submission to a higher power, but I didn’t read it that way. I thought of it as being a really powerful act that in the context of male hierarchical society would always be read as an act of submission….I thought I could write this as a woman, but I didn’t really want to do that, and if I write as a man, nobody’s going to believe it…if I make it as a gay man who wants to believe in god, has trouble with that concept but tries to live it out in certain ways, let’s see what happens.”

Szilak asserts that she “inhabited everyone,” and because Sebastian’s mother is based on her own, these chapters were particularly difficult. In his journal, Sebastian writes, “When I finally came out, [my mother] buried my confession in a secret, shallow grave. No one else need feel any shame, because no one else had to know. She was quite happy to bear the burden alone.” This is a vivid reflection of the brutal and voluntary self-sacrifice many mothers have historically felt compelled to make.

The chapters tell a linear story, but the entries are sometimes out of chronological order, and the user decides what to read/view/hear next. Szilak chose rudimentary technology—flip cameras which don’t have zooms, so any camera movement is very apparent—for the video pieces to give the viewer a sense of a presence behind the camera. Jarrah Gurrie, a filmmaker and one of the contributors of video content, describes his attraction to the project, saying that “it was weird, it’s a weird way to work; it’s not a movie and it’s not a novel. It was strange, and my art project sensor [went off]. I was really intrigued.” Gurrie also plays the character of Alex, one of Sebastian’s lovers, and explains that after some “really specific, juicy direction” from Szilak in person, he “spat it out” on his own time, recording numerous takes in GarageBand using a microphone she gave to him, and then sent the files to her over the Internet. Like the form, the process was unusual.

The site marries old-school visuals with new media forms; it feels retro but at the same time the user has the opportunity to scroll, click, and move layers of text, audio and video. In addition, because of the interactive quality of the layout and the volume of media accompanying the text, the user is obliquely aware that her own experience of the story is likely different from everyone else’s. Cyril Tsiboulski, creative director at cloudred, an interactive design studio, created the Web site on which the novel is experienced. He admits that, as a designer, this giving up of control was scary, but he believes that “that’s what art is about…creating a piece of work that people can interpret based on their own experiences.”

Tsiboulski illustrates this by revealing to Szilak, “I never told you this, but my father’s a professor of biology and…he discovered Jesus about five years ago, and he takes everything to an extreme….It became this weird thing where he doesn’t really talk to us anymore as a father, but it’s all sort of channeled into these religious discussions….

“When you gave me a little synopsis about the story, I was like, this sounds just like the story that my father told me…all about this man who gives up everything and goes to the desert and experiences god basically.…And we never really talk about the fact that I’m gay, which is strange, because he was totally fine with it before he got into the whole religious phase of his life…so I thought that the fact that the main character is gay and he goes through the same sort of experiences that my father was talking about….This doesn’t just happen the way you think it happens… this is another take on [a saint story] that also makes sense and it’s beautiful and it’s the same, [gay] people going through the same emotions and aspirations [as straight people].”

A story like this is closely aligned with Szilak’s intent: “I’m so interested in trying to bring a thing out of the culture and putting it into context, so that it’s part of a wider story. Because, insofar as I incorporate every reader’s point of view to the extent that they have to decide what the story is, I want to incorporate some of the outside universe into it always.”

Queerskins will evolve into a socially networked collaboration. Szilak will tweet out each page every day for a two-month period, and users will be able to write their own characters, add audio, photographs, music, and video, making the novel completely interactive. Szilak challenges that even if someone contributes something hateful, it will be interpreted in the context of the original story and everyone else’s posts. The novel includes a clip of Jerry Falwell, famous for his hateful views on homosexuality, speaking about love and acceptance from god, which can be interpreted in various ways depending on the user’s personal experiences, ideology, and the impact of experiencing the novel itself. When asked about the novel’s impact, Szilak disclaims, “I’m not going to say that it’s going to change anyone’s mind, but I can tell you that people who would not initially have been receptive—who would have thought ‘I am not going to read a multimedia novel about a gay man who dies of AIDS in the desert, that is not my thing’—I think that it has the possibility of opening people up to ideas.”

Queerskins is free and on-line at Donations to various AIDS organizations can be made via the Web site. An on-line crowd-authored version of the novel will launch in 2013. Follow on Twitter @queerskins for updates and to participate. To find out more see the campaign at

V. Anderson holds an MFA in Film from New York University. She has worked in India, the Caribbean, and the U.S., and is currently based in New York City.

January 2013

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