JUANO Diaz hadn’t heard about Shuggie Bain when he began writing his story.

“When I started doing this, I had no idea who Douglas Stuart was,” says the Glaswegian artist, turned memoirist. “I wasn’t a writer and, if I picked up a book to read, it was an art book. Then I read Shuggie Bain after my book was submitted and I thought: ‘Oh, Christ alive!’ They’re very different stories but they do have some similarities.”

If Douglas Stuart’s (below) semi-fictionalised Shuggie and Damian Barr’s coming-of-age account, Maggie And Me, have given rise to a modern sub-genre of gay boys escaping grim odds, then shuffle them along for newcomer Diaz, now aware of who Stuart and Shuggie are but embarrassed to be mentioned in the same breath as them.

The Herald: Douglas Stuart

“I feel terrified about writing a book, if I’m honest,” says Diaz, whose memoir, Slum Boy, has just been released to glowing reviews. “I am not a writer. I come from a visual arts world, so I tried to write it visually. I tried to see it in my memory, scene by scene, cinematically. I have had so much anxiety around it being published. I don’t know how people are going to respond to it.”

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The root of Diaz’s concern lies in the shocking realities of his start in life, which was distinctly not the visual arts world. His book opens with a drowning, moves apace through maternal alcoholism, child abuse in the care system, prostitution, adoption, a fatal car crash and chronic mental illness. There are points in Slum Boy when Diaz’s unadorned literary style somehow carries more trauma than the words he uses were designed to hold. Because of this, they also carry the page-turning possibility that things simply cannot get any worse.

“Will people judge me?” he asks, speaking from the home he shares with his husband and their adopted seven-year-old son in Wiltshire. “Will they judge me because of my birth parents and what they put us through? People do judge.

“I have a real worry that Scottish people might not enjoy it because they might think I’m portraying Scotland in a negative light. But all I can tell is my truth. My artwork is the fantasy world. I take photographs of celebrities and paint on top of them. I just wanted to be honest, brutally honest, about who I was and tell what I had been through.” 

The Herald: Stuart’s 2020 debut went on to win the Booker prize, spawning a forthcoming TV adaptation. Its follow-up, Young Mungo, plays out on the wastelands of a similarly bleak bygone Scotland, where a vulnerable child is roughhoused into adulthood as a gay man, battling the odds in pursuit, simply, of hope. Damian Barr’s Lanarkshire-set Maggie and Me, from 2013, is being adapted by the National Theatre of Scotland into a play starring Gary Lamont. Diaz originally called his offering Lucky, until his London publisher persuaded him to change it to Slum Boy. Whatever his concerns over pulling back the curtains for a peek into another terrible tale unfolding in Glaswegian living rooms of the 1980s, there’s clearly an appetite for it.

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The 47 year old was adopted by a Catholic mother and Roma-Gypsy father in Lanarkshire. Before that, he was schooled in Pollokshields, close to the (now closed) children’s home where he was forced to run up and down stairs naked by an abuser. “I later found out they weren’t even vetted,” he says. “You could be a binman one day then looking after children with really specific needs the next day. A lot slipped through the net in those days.”

The Herald:

Grafting on the family scrapyard and being taken to boxing classes as he grew up, Diaz knew he somehow had to leave.

“It felt like life was ‘work in the scrapyard, go to the boxing, marry a burd and get her pregnant’. And, if you didn’t fall into that category, you were a piece of shit.”

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He worked his ticket to Edinburgh, studying art and labouring on building sites. The manipulated photographic works he posted online were spotted by French art duo Peirre et Giles, who invited him to Paris. He vomited at their first meeting after they gave him vodka, yet, in a turn of events that echo Stuart’s escape from his past and the curtailments it placed on his future, these were Diaz’s first steps into a world that would eventually slingshot him, like Stuart, to a new life in New York. 

The starry Manhattan connections he made there are a universe away from the trauma of those dark nights in Pollokshields. Grace Jones and Alan Cumming are friends, his work has featured in NYC’s GOMA and at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. His pieces carry a $10,000 tag in Stateside galleries, but he jokes trying to “get past the woman on the front desk of the galleries in the UK is like trying to join the Mafia”. He says: “I’d like to write again. There are so many themes in Slum Boy. But it’s just my story. I hope people are inspired by it.”

Slum Boy is published by Brazen. Juano Diaz will be at Glasgow’s Aye Write festival on May 16, and at Topping & Co, Edinburgh on May 17.