Redefining Manhood: A Conversation with James Hornor
Ironically, The Hollywood Reporter’s 2018 Women in Entertainment gala began with remarks on the state of men. Hannah Gadsby’s opening speech went viral after she called out “The Jimmys” of late-night entertainment for taking it upon themselves to draw the line between the good men (themselves) and the bad men. I appreciated Gadsby’s remarks but was left wondering if men really needed to be the first topic of discussion at an awards show meant to celebrate women.
The day after I watched Gadsby’s remarks, James Hornor’s novel Victoria Falls showed up in my mailbox. Still questioning what appropriate manifestations of masculinity should actually look like in real life and in media and art pieces, I began reading this “exploration of American male stereotypes” expecting to very quickly be shown the line between the good and bad men in the novel.
But the line eluded me. As the story weaves between James, an American World Bank employee navigating the sensual, gritty world of southern Africa in the early 1990s and Charlie, a young professional on a quest for his identity in Canada in present day, Horner refrains from designating heroes and villains. Levels of vulnerability, authenticity, and power interplay as a complex view of masculinity comes forth.
Since then, a Gillette commercial has propelled discussion of toxic masculinity back into the mainstream, and as hesitant as I’d been about continuing to talk about men in an era when underrepresented voices are rightfully holding the microphone, it was a pleasure to speak to James about his novel.
The Rumpus: One of your protagonists shares your name, so I’m assuming some of this story is autobiographical. How much of this story is based on your own experiences? Why then did you choose to write and publish this story in 2019, at this tumultuous point in America’s social and political climate?
James Hornor: I went to Africa in 1994 as a consultant to the World Bank, so parts of this story are autobiographical. Like James Monroe, I had gone through a painful divorce and I was in somewhat of an identity crisis. Most men define their lives through their family and the accomplishments of their career, so in my early forties I began to look for my true identity as a man and as a human being as opposed to being defined by my “trophies” of accomplishment, power, and position.
The novel takes an honest look at what it means to be an authentic person once all of the trappings of societal norms have been stripped away. James Monroe discovers a side of himself that had been suppressed or hidden. He discovers his capacity to be vulnerable and selfless. He essentially redefines manhood by allowing those previously dormant qualities of unconditional love and ongoing care for others to emerge as the new markers of manhood.
This story is timely and relevant for 2019 since we are living in a political and societal culture where manhood is being defined by traditional role models in terms of wealth, power, and authority over others. Having these markers as the default definition of manhood is inculcating a message of confusion and doubt to an entire generation of young men who are the age of my fourteen-year-old son. By propagating the idea that self-worth is defined by power over others, today’s teens are made to believe that compassion and empathy are signs of weakness.
So, it is our responsibility to introduce them to opposing narratives where power mongering and greed are revealed as gross insecurities and where authenticity and empathy are championed as the way of courage.
Rumpus: What are some of those pieces of media with opposing narratives that you’d recommend to your son?
Hornor: There are lots of healthy pictures of masculinity in film and TV characters, including Mahershala Ali as Juan in Moonlight, Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter series, and the boys in Stranger Things.
One of my son’s favorite films is October Sky, about a young man who follows his dream of building rockets even when some of the adults around him are skeptical. The film is not so much about an opposing view of toxic masculinity but rather a sensitively developed narrative of how a boy becomes a man by having a heart and mind that is open to the world around him. The protagonist is willing to take risks, but those risks are his willingness to think independently and not to follow the status quo.
In terms of books, The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene and What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha are two books that offer an alternative view of what makes a successful life. The Beha book is more about a young woman who risks everything to show unconditional love.
Rumpus: The epigraphs to the novel reveal a sort of reverence for suffering for the wisdom and growth it brings. The story then supports this notion that pain is the impetus for growth. Do you think growth can happen without suffering? And is this a gendered issue? Do you think men feel they need to suffer more than women to achieve personal growth?
Hornor: I don’t think growth through suffering is gender specific. I do, however, believe that men are less likely to talk about the suffering they have endured. In the novel, James has this somewhat stoic response when the story takes a potentially tragic turn involving his family. He cares deeply about his family, but he does not wear his compassion on his sleeve.
Thoreau said the “mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That quote has validity since part of the male and female culture suggests that we should endure circumstantial suffering. I may be off base here, but I think all of us—men and women—are plagued by a kind of free-floating guilt which suggests that we deserve to suffer. Frankly, I think women oftentimes endure suffering much better than men.
Rumpus: Women certainly endure their share of suffering in the book. Both a male and female character endure physical degradations and while we get a first-person account of the male’s experience, we don’t get to see that with the female character. Where do you imagine she drew strength from during that time?
Hornor: The character in question is courageous and independent. She lives alone in the Canadian Rockies and she spends a lot of time outdoors. Her independence means that she is not married but she considers herself on equal footing with any man she meets. She is one of those women who have a reservoir of courage and fortitude that allows her to withstand the cruelest of circumstances no matter what the cost. In that sense she could be considered the true heroine of the novel.
Rumpus: While James’s chapters are told in first-person voice, Charlie’s chapters rely on a third-person narrator. What did you hope to accomplish with that distinction?
Hornor: You may have noticed that in the epilogue, the point of view changes and now Charlie is telling the story in first person. Up until that point, Charlie seems to be searching around for his own voice which he finally finds at the end of the novel; up until that point we see his story from a point of objectivity. He is a middle-aged man searching for meaning, and he isn’t even sure if life has prepared him to be an honest husband and father. In the early chapters, he lies a lot and tends to blame others for his circumstances. His only role model has been his stepfather, Richard, for whom life is a constant gambit where he vainly seeks to gain the advantage despite his ongoing failures.
I wrote James’s narrative in first person so that we could see even in the early chapters that he has the emotional capacity for goodness. His primary confusion early on was his misguided journey for identity when he believes that only a woman who professes love for him will answer the riddle of his existence. Melissa Samuel seems to offer him that opportunity, but in the end, he has to face his inner demons head on.
First person narration allowed me to more effectively reveal his inner thought life which is so important to his character development. Charlie becomes more authentic in the epilogue and so he merits the closer familiarity that first person affords.
Rumpus: I like the idea that James’s “emotional capacity for goodness” is established early on, even when he makes some really questionable choices. You don’t draw the line between a bad James and a future good James, but suggest that we’re all capable of both good and bad. At the same time, both James and Charlie make me think of the Byronic hero archetype: a dark, brooding, mysterious male with a stormy past—often involving love affairs—who seeks retribution in his future. James and Charlie certainly aren’t dark characters, but did you consider this framework when creating the story?
Hornor: James fits the archetype of the brooding Byronic hero more than Charlie. I think Charlie benefits from his brief interaction with James, but as he suggests in the final sentence of the novel he is just now beginning to see his life in a different context. It will require a sequel to see if Charlie actually is a changed man.
But, yes, James fits that archetype well. He even says in the first chapter that he values the shroud of mystery that surrounds him. In that sense, James is the Romantic and Byronic character who idealizes his existence. His foolish decision to go to Bombay is epitomized by his vision of returning triumphantly to Melissa. He fantasizes that Melissa will then readily agree to be his forever, a notion that is completely counter to the way she has treated him up to that point. In that sense he is both tragic and heroic and analogous to the character of Don Quixote!
Rumpus: The goddess archetype is one commonly used to describe women in literature and commonly used in your story to describe Melissa. Why did you choose to integrate this metaphor in the novel and how do you thwart the pitfalls of using a stereotype?
Hornor: The goddess motif was perfect in James’s case since he tends to idolize women and to see them in an ideal context. As you probably noticed, at least in the early part of the novel he prefers for women to take the lead: Teresa takes his hand and leads him up the path, Melissa takes his hand and leads him to their sleeper car on the train, etc. And the lovemaking with Melissa is all essentially choreographed by her. He even talks about his comfort with gender role play when it comes to physical intimacy.
Her spirituality and her interest in philosophy, specifically existentialism, make her extremely attractive to James to the point that she becomes his addiction. Her goddess-like qualities seem effortless for her and that increases her attraction.
But like goddesses from the ancient world, she can be capricious or simply disappear, as she does in the latter part of the novel. The interesting aspect of her character is her own inability to define herself outside of the company of men. She is only fully alive in the presence of men and in that sense, she is more a caricature than a fully developed character. Someone has even suggested that Melissa only exists in James’s mind, and his incarceration is not because of her but for a much more heinous crime he committed. In that scenario he manufactures the Melissa story to make his prison time more bearable.
Rumpus: Your story is marked by many couples, but marriage is not portrayed as a happy, effective institution in the novel. Do you think the expectations that come with marriage make people unhappy, or is it the unique combination of two people together that doesn’t always work?
Hornor: This is a great question, and one that others have asked me about. James’s marriage to Catherine ended in divorce. Charlie’s relationship with Heather seems mostly contentious. Teresa has a problematic marriage to Richard. The only male-female relationship that seems to work is the relationship that James has with his daughter Jenny. It is interesting that Jenny is not married and there is no impetus on James’s part to remarry while he is in Canada.
So, the novel does not present a rosy picture of marriage. People in the story seem happier being alone and unattached. James speaks early in the novel about “levels of intimacy” that he surmises that some couples enjoy in their marriage, but those moments when he has physical intimacy with Melissa seem to drive her away from the idea of marriage or even any kind of commitment. The implication is that two people can enjoy an intimate physical relationship without that relationship becoming a marriage.
In the novel, children are treated differently. Both Heather and Charlie love [their son] Ryan, and the James-Jenny relationship is probably the deepest relationship in the story.
Rumpus: Relationships are a primary focus of the novel’s themes, but I want to pivot to setting for a minute. Despite the fact that half of the action in the novel takes place with (presumably) white people in Africa and South Asia, race is not really mentioned in the story at all. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
Hornor: When people ask me the genre of Victoria Falls I usually mention mystery or love story or bildungsroman. One of James Monroe’s shortcomings is his myopia, his tendency to be fixated on his own dilemma, his own quandary regarding his values and his place in the universe.
Because of this esoteric idealism, we tend to stay on that first-person level with him throughout the story. His geographic location seems much less critical to the plot than what is going on inside his head. In that sense, the novel could have taken place anywhere in the world, not just in Africa. As a result, we do not get a lot of “on the ground” details associated with the setting. When he is in Harare at the Meikles Hotel, he introduces Melissa to several native Zimbabweans but there again, the focus is on her flirtatious nature as opposed to any issues of race.
Rumpus: Much of the late transformation in the book hinges on religious revelation and unconditional love between family members. While I felt all of this transformation was genuine, what would you say to people striving to change who are not religious and who don’t have a strong family support system?
Hornor: The turning point for James Monroe comes when he takes a punishment intended for someone else. In other words, it was his capacity for kindness and selflessness that began to redefine him. The meeting with the Catholic nun was helpful, but until he acted on her words, he was still the same James Monroe. His transformation was an act initiated by a set of values that were already deep inside him.
In that sense, religion was a catalyst for him to change, but it was his own sense of responsibility and love of a fellow human being that made the difference. Granted, some people have that capacity and others do not. In my mind, it goes back to chapter three when the unnamed man in the pool risks his own life to save Melissa. That kind of heroism cannot be dictated by a religious liturgy. It is instinctive and implanted on a person’s character: either they have it or they don’t. For most of us it comes down to one moment, and if we hesitate that moment is gone forever.
Rumpus: We all go through periods of major personal change, but I’ll conclude with perhaps a more pragmatic question: What can we all do every day to combat toxic masculinity?
Hornor: My son is in eighth grade and he is aware that there are male bullies in his classes. At the risk of his own status and popularity, he often reaches out to those who are being bullied and he offers them friendship. Bullying is also a part of our adult world, but the manifestations are more subtle and include racist remarks of all kinds. I tell my college students that it is our corporate responsibility to confront those remarks when they occur and to let the person know that it is not okay.