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Maurice Vellekoop on his graphic memoir and growing up gay in a conservative household

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M SO GLAD WE HAD THIS TIME TOGETHER")

CAROL BURNETT: (Singing) I'm so glad we had this time together.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In the 1960s and '70s, at the end of every episode of her varieties show, Carol Burnett would sing this goodbye.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M SO GLAD WE HAD THIS TIME TOGETHER")

BURNETT: (Singing) Seems we just get started...

RASCOE: The song is called "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together."

MAURICE VELLEKOOP: Carol features quite prominently in my childhood. I was obsessed with her.

RASCOE: "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together" is also the title of artist Maurice Vellekoop's new graphic memoir. Vellekoop says it's perfect because it works on more than one level.

VELLEKOOP: As a straightforward statement - but then you can also read it kind of sarcastically, too.

RASCOE: Vellekoop grew up in a world of duality. And there was maybe no better example than the relationship he had with his parents. His memoir opens with one of his favorite memories, a Remembrance Day trip to a department store in the city with his mother.

VELLEKOOP: We lived in a suburb of Toronto, and it was very plain. There was not a lot of decoration anywhere. And on this magical day, she and I set out for downtown Toronto.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

VELLEKOOP: And we're going to go shopping and have lunch. And downtown is this magical world for me because it's full of interesting things and beauty. And my mother says to me, at 11 o'clock on Remembrance Day, the world is going to come to a complete halt for a minute's silence to respectfully remember these soldiers. And little 5-year-old me is skeptical of this idea. And when we do get downtown to this wonderful world, lo and behold, at 11 o'clock, we're on an escalator, and it stops. All of the people in the store bow their heads and pray for these people.

RASCOE: Maurice Vellekoop's mother was both glamorous and caring, and this really comes across in his illustrations. She has big bouffant hair as she smiles sweetly at her youngest. But as he grew up and came to realize he was gay, her delicate sensitivity turned rigid in the shadow of her religious beliefs.

VELLEKOOP: At the beginning of the book, we're in complete, total harmony. We're madly in love with each other. But this problem of my sexuality becomes more and more plain as the book progresses. And she is increasingly nervous about it because the faith that is so central to her identity does not accept homosexuality. So she has this growing realization as the book goes on that I'm pretty gay, and that's not going to change. And she can't accept it.

RASCOE: And talk about your father, what you learned about your father that maybe shaped your perspective on him.

VELLEKOOP: Well, much later as an adult, I started going to therapy, and I started to sort of untangle this web and this mess of stuff and to sort of try to understand this man who was very, very volatile but also surprising in many ways. Like, when I did come out to him, he, you know, just came out and said, well, it's going to be a hard life, but you're always welcome here at home. So it's kind of surprising because you just never knew how he would react to anything.

One thing I learned about him way late was - were some of the experiences that he had during the war. Men of the - my father's generation did not speak about such things. You know, he spent a lot of the - of World War II - so Holland was occupied very early in the war, and young Dutch men were either being conscripted into the German army or taken into Germany to work in camps, like, work camps, which were very dire places. And that's where my dad spent a large part of the war.

His father had died during the war. His mother had already died in the 1930s. So the brother - he had six brothers - and two of them were living in the family home. And when he came home from the war, they said, oh, you're back. Where were you thinking of living? And that's when he decided to come to Canada. And, you know, what a terrible thing. I mean, I had no notion of that. And it explains a lot of the - like, the rage and the anger and the resentment that he bore and that he took out on us as his family (laughter).

RASCOE: Speaking of - about the book, I also have to talk about how, you know, this book is beautifully illustrated. You are an artist. And you grew up, and you loved Disney. Do you think that some of that style influenced your visual style for this book?

VELLEKOOP: Yeah. So there was always this longing for beauty and escape - again, going back to that first scene, like, escaping this dreary suburb and going downtown where the buildings were old and fascinating, and there was ornament. (Laughter). So I was always attracted to all of that. And that led into a real sort of obsession with fantasy. And so I wanted to include that as a contrast to this very stark, suburban, you know, very working, blue-collar kind of world that I grew up in.

RASCOE: And while Maurice Vellekoop's illustrations may sometimes look like something from Disney's "Sleeping Beauty," his memoir is unmistakably for adults. It depicts how long it took him to have his first romantic and sexual relationships. And that's important, he says, because there are still many young people who grow up in conservative religious households who are trying to figure out who they are and what their lives could be. He doesn't want them to waste time like he did.

VELLEKOOP: You know, when I was a - when I was 14, when I got that book from my mother that basically said, you know, your choices are celibacy or eternal damnation, you know, I took that pretty seriously. And I tried so hard to be celibate and to banish those thoughts that I thought were wrong. And, you know, that internal struggle is very damaging. And I carried that stuff onward with me through the coming out and everything because I wasn't conscious of how deep all of that stuff went.

RASCOE: Yeah.

VELLEKOOP: And then it's all tied in with disappointing her, too. So the bearing of it and then the consciousness of it are two different things that, eventually, I start exploring.

RASCOE: And so I guess when you ultimately look at this, is there a key lesson that you feel like you learned on this journey?

VELLEKOOP: Oh, boy. That's - a key lesson. Well, I think, yeah, it's about - it's all about love, this book, you know? And so when we have a lot of self-hatred, for whatever reason, if we can overcome that - it's like RuPaul always says - you know, if you can't love yourself, how are you going to love anyone else, you know?

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yeah. That's Maurice Vellekoop. His new full-length graphic memoir is called "I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together." Thank you so much for talking to me.

VELLEKOOP: Thank you, Ayesha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Ryan Benk