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The Lesbian Edition
Volume 1 Number 11
As we go to press, we have news that Radclyffe Hall was slated for
arrest if The Well of Loneliness had been published in
England in the 1920s, as well as news of the deaths of Shirley Chisholm and
Susan Sontag. Details below....
I hope you, too, have had a chance to take some reflective, rejuvenating
time after those disheartening elections, to get re-centered, and to plan
your strategy for the next four years. Some of the best strategies I’ve heard are to
simply continue with our work and to be as relentless as the need for human dignity.
One of the most important daily tasks that we’re going to have to do to sustain
our energy is to appreciate one another, regularly, for all that we continue
to do in the face of such madness. So – thank you for being there and for
caring about lesbian literature.
Thanks, too, to everyone who helped me troubleshoot BTWOF's new, not-as-perfect-as-promised
renewal system. I think we’re on the home stretch with it now, and I look
forward to a new year where my focus can be on the books instead of the technology.
On the publishing side, the sad news is the demise of The Women’s Review of Books, after 22 years of publishing. They’d been running in the red,
intermittently for years, and their sponsoring organization, The Wellesley
Centers for Women, couldn’t continue to absorb their debt. December was their last issue, but they are still actively seeking another publishing partner
or sponsor to provide a third leg of support. Check their Web site for more information: http://www.wellesley.edu/womensreview/.
But this issue brings good news, too: the launching of Aqueduct, an exciting new feminist press, the first books from Bywater Books, and a host of other, wonderful books.
May you have a wonderful, peaceful, and book-filled new year in which we
can, somehow, come closer to bringing peace to all the peoples of this planet.
Yours in spreading the words,
Arresting Radclyffe Hall
Documents released in England last week under a new freedom of information
act reveal that the British government made secret preparations in 1928, for
an obscenity trial with the twin goals of having The Well of Loneliness
banned and putting Radclyffe Hall in prison for “corrupting the young” by
Home Secretary William Joynson Hicks, serving under Stanley Baldwin, wrote
in one of the documents, "After a long, private conference with the Lord
Chancellor, we came to the conclusion that the book is both obscene and indecent,
and I wrote a letter to the publishers asking for its withdrawal. If they
decline, proceed at once."
The publisher, Jonathan Cape, replied with a letter from
Hall in which she described “inverts” as "an oppressed and misunderstood
section of the social body" and stated that she was "proud and happy
to have taken up her pen in defense of the persecuted."
The Department of Public Prosecutions’ reaction? "I cannot help thinking
that she would have some difficulty in establishing this proposition before
Cape appeared to agree to withdraw the book and the DPP was about to report
"the matter satisfactorily concluded" but Jonathan Cape had arranged
for an English-language edition to be printed in France. The plan was foiled,
however, when the Post Office - under Home Office warrant - intercepted "certain
packets" from Paris addressed to Cape's London office and seized 300
copies of the book.
On 9 November, the DPP obtained an order requiring that all copies of the
book be destroyed.
Jonathan Cape finally published the book in England two decades later, in
1949, six years after Radclyffe Hall's death.
The book also suffered an obscenity trial in the U.S. Depressing and difficult
as the book is for contemporary readers – and perhaps because it offered a
relatively negative portrayal of lesbian options – it was widely circulated
and read in English-reading countries all around the world and advised an
entire generation that lesbianism was, in fact, an option, albeit not an easy
one. Some current readers of the book, however, see the main character, Stephen
Gordon, as more of an FTM than a lesbian.
feminist science fiction has been thriving for thirty years, its role as an
oppositional literature means that it will almost never be 'mainstream'
enough to [generate] bestsellers or
even meet the bottom-line criterion of corporate publishers and booksellers.... As a sad consequence, the leading publishers
often decline to bring fine works of feminist science fiction into print." -Mission Statement, Aqueduct Press.
“Bringing challenging feminist science fiction to the demanding reader” is
Aqueduct’s goal. And the fledgling press delivers – Publisher Timmel Duchamp has launched five fascinating and impeccably produced books since April. BTWOF
caught up with her while she was in San Francisco promoting her
Duchamp started out as a musician, made a brief foray into academia, and
then, while writing a “scandalously shameless roman à clef for the amusement
of her friends and colleagues” fell into “the fierce and delirious pleasures
of fiction-writing.” Her first short story, "Welcome, Kid, to the Real
World," despite taking 10 years to find its way into print, was short-listed
for the 1996 Tiptree Award. She made her first sale, "O's Story,"
in 1989, to Susanna Sturgis for Memories and Visions: Women's Fantasy and
Science Fiction. The stories she’s published in the intervening years
have garnered three more Tiptree nominations, several Hugo nominations and have
been among the finalists for Sturgeon and Nebula awards. But short stories,
like feminist essays on the state of science fiction, have a tendency to disappear
from sight and the audiences for both continue to be ignored by most book
publishers. So what is a passionate writer of both to do? Launch a publishing
And what a house it is.
The first book off press was Love’s Body, Dancing in Time,
a rich collection of Duchamp’s hitherto hard to find short stories. It
was quickly followed by esteemed British science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones’
Life. And then Duchamp really got going and published the first three
volumes in Aqueduct’s Conversation Pieces series: The Grand Conversation:
Essays by L. Timmel Duchamp, four essays celebrating the history and contributions
of feminist science fiction; With Her Body: Short Fiction by Nicola Griffith;
and Changeling: A Novella by Nancy Jane Moore.
Life is the only one of the five I didn’t let myself devour
within 48 hours of bringing them home – I’m hoarding it as my
reward for getting this issue off to press. Jones' central question:
“How can something as fragile and unstable as human sexual difference
as it really is, be the cause of so much suffering? How
can this problem ever be solved? What would the solution cost?”
I can’t wait! $19 paper, 370 pages.
"This is an ambitious, focused, unblinking troublemaker of a book. Our
heroine struggles not to make waves about the more or less subtle sex discrimination
she suffers while she pursues clues to a genetic shift that is already, quietly,
transmuting our current gender conflicts – and perhaps all of society – into
something new." –Suzy McKee Charnas
"Always surprising, always profound, this is Jones at her brilliant best
and there is no one better." –Karen Joy FowlerFor more on Gwyneth Jones:
Love’s Body, Dancing in Time collects five of Timmel Duchamp’s, well,
love stories. Queer and often lesbian, passionate, sometimes tender, always
intelligent and feminist and totally lacking in simplistic resolutions, they
include Sturgeon Award finalist “Dance at the Edge,” the Tiptree short-listed
“The Apprenticeship of Isabetta di Pietro Cavazzi,” as well as a new take
on the Héloïse and Abelard story. $16 paper, 191 pages.
"This handful of SF tales demonstrates superbly
what the genre can really do. Rich with social resonance, these stories elicit
the thrill of ideas struggling to manifest as pure drama. Duchamp writes some
of the most rewarding science fiction stories you can read today; she is simply
and unarguably among the best." -Samuel R. Delany
The chapbooks in the “Conversation Pieces” series may be harder to find. If your
local independent bookstore can’t get them for you, order them direct (address
at the end or order online with PayPal). You won’t find them listed at the
online superstores. Order all three $8 books for the price of one standard
But most stores that sell any science fiction at all should be glad to
turn whatever cartwheels it takes to pick up the extremely popular Nicola
(Ammonite, Slow River, The Blue Place, Stay) Griffith’s new short story
collection, With Her Body. “Touching Fire,” “Song of Bullfrogs, Cry
of Geese,” and “Yaguara” are all haunting, fiercely women-oriented tales of
lesbians making their way in one world or another. As Duchamp says in her
afterword, “A Word for Human is Woman,” “... SF that focuses on the male subject
as representative of the human misses crucial aspects of the problem.....
By avoiding being caught up in resistance to the status quo, Griffith also
avoids taking the status quo as the ground from which she must work and allows
herself to tell alternative – new – stories that would otherwise be impossible
to tell....” $8, 120 pages.
Nancy Jane Moore is a writer to watch, if her novella, Changeling,
is any indication. It’s an eminently satisfying, sweetly unraveling story
centering on a wheelchair using woman who rolls through walls into a dimension
her parents frequented when young.... Well, that’s the format. The content
is much richer than my description. $8, 75 pages.
Perhaps best of all, for the thinking science fiction reader, are
Duchamp’s four essays collected in The Grand Conversation: “For a Genealogy
of Feminist: Reflections on Women, Feminism, and Science Fiction 1818-1960,”
“The Cliché from Outerspace: Reflections on Reports of a Death Greatly Exaggerated,”
“What can Never be: The Ancient Dream of a Transparent — Universal — Language”
and “Old Pictures: The Discursive Instability of Feminist SF.” $8, 80 pages.
Find Aqueduct Press at P.O. Box 95787, Seattle, WA 98145, or at:
For more about L. Timmel Duchamp:
For more on Gwyneth Jones:
For more on Nicola Griffith:
For more on Nancy Jane Moore:
Bywater Books’ First Books Are Out:
Bywater co-founder Marianne Martin (Love in the Balance, Mirrors)
is one of the most popular writers from the Naiad/Bella legacy, and
the Witness Tree, her first book from Bywater, will expand her readership.
Dhari Weston’s life is stressed enough – what with trying to stay an active
player in her no-promises/no-commitments girlfriend’s life, being the lynchpin
that holds her troubled family together, and staying calm, cool and distant
all the rest of the time - then an aunt she’s never even heard of leaves her
a house and a legacy of secrets that date back to the Civil War. Dhari just
wants to sell it as quickly as possible and get back to her life, except for
that interesting Dr. Hughes who does the historical evaluation of the property,
and Nessie Tinker, her aunt’s next-door neighbor and lifelong friend, and
a few stories even older than Nessie that begin to pull at her heart. Can a lesbian
romance acknowledge America’s legacy of racism and still be a good Friday
Night Read? Martin proves that it can. $12.95, Bywater Books.
Read a sample chapter at:
Bywater’s second book, The Intersection of Law and Desire, is a reprint
from J. M. Redmann’s excellent, Louisiana-based Micky Knight mystery series.
I’m not normally a mystery reader, but that tough girl from the wrong side
of the tracks (or would that be “from the wrong side of the bayou?”) draws
me in every time. Or maybe it’s Redmann’s eye for detail and her keen sense
of social justice that does it to me? Or the fact that they’re rich, complicated
books, with complex plots and characters and issues? Whatever! I never met
one I could resist. Bywater will republish Redmann’s Lost Daughters
this Spring and a new Micky Knight next Fall. $12.95, Bywater Books.
Read the opening chapter of Intersection at:
Bywater’s Spring list also includes Val McDermid’s sixth Lindsay Gordon mystery,
Hostage to Murder.
You can find Bywater at: PO Box 3671, Ann Arbor 48196 or
The Big Books: Alice Walker and Life Mask
The big, and I do mean big (650 and 530 pages respectively), books this fall
were Evelyn C. White’s biography, Alice Walker, and Emma Donoghue’s
historical fiction, Life Mask.
I once had an opportunity to ask octogenarian Harry Hay (1912-2002), who
is credited by many as being the founder of the contemporary gay movement, what
advice he had to offer younger activists on how to stay sane over so many
decades of activism and he replied, after a long and thoughtful pause, “Have
a good biographer.”
Alice Walker has found such a biographer in Evelyn C. White. While Alice
Walker has already written extensively about her life (In Search of Our
Mother’s Gardens and The Way Forward is With a Broken Heart
come immediately to mind, as well as daughter Rebecca Walker’s challenging
Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self), in Alice
Walker, White gives us a chance to put these pieces in the context
of a life both challenged and well lived. It’s too easy to forget, these decades
later, that Walker’s childhood and her family were shaped by the cruelties
of sharecropping in a Jim Crow South. White gives us an opportunity to honor
the risks Walker’s parents took to care for and educate their children.
If White, a consummate journalist and also the editor of The Black
Woman’s Health Book ($16.95, Seal, 1995), author of Chain Chain Change:
For Black Women in Abusive Relationships ($12.95, Seal, 1994), and co-author
of the photography book The African Americans (Viking, 1993), is, at
times, less critical of her subject than some readers might wish, she also
gives us Walker’s commitment to being herself rather than being who the world
– or even her admirers – want her to be. She gives us a context to begin to
understand the roads Walker traveled on her life’s journeys, a chance to see
how those journeys informed her writing, and moments of incredible grace and
insight – such as Walker’s first grade teacher’s remarks when Alice won a
Pulitzer for The Color Purple and the story behind the title of Revolutionary
Ten years in the writing, the book still ends too soon. We come away wanting
to know more about what Alice has been up to these past few years,
still more about the relationships she builds with both men and women, more
about how she’s navigating life and work, struggle and love... but, in the
end, wanting more is the definition of the perfect ending. Volume II will
be well worth the wait. In the meantime, if you want a good reading project,
pick up the biography and re-read Walker’s novels and poetry from start to
finish, as you read about the life that shaped the art. $29.95, Norton.
Working-class girl turned historian (PhD from Cambridge), Emma
Donoghue is building a career around the intersections of history,
impeccable research, and excellent fiction. Life Mask was
initially inspired by an epigram about eighteenth century actress
Her little stock of private fame
“What the...?!” was Donoghue’s response when she first came across
it. She did her research and built this 650-page tale on the lives of the
self-made actress Farren, Beau Monde-member and sculptor Anne Damer, and their
mutual friend, the Lord Derby, who was both the richest and ugliest man in
the House of Lords. There’s so much going on in Life Mask that you can almost choose
the book you want to read:
Will fall a wreck to public clamour,
If Farren leagues with one whose name
Comes near—aye, very near—to DAMN HER.
Oh, what the hell. Just read it for the fun of it.
- • a deliciously written historical novel set in the stormy, closing decade
of the eighteenth century
- • a parody of contemporary politics – complete with a Mad King George, hysteria
about terrorists (French and American revolutionaries) being used to justify
curtailing civil liberties, and even a spot of scapegoating queers for the
moral decline of society
- • a fictional but fiercely accurate rendering of the long fight for parliamentary
reform set amidst the French Revolution
- • a painless-to-read account of how class privilege (and the lack thereof)
affects would-be lesbian’s options
- • or a great study on the (very) slow process of coming into one’s lesbianism
in a time and place where the concept doesn’t really exist
Donoghue is perhaps best known for her fiction (Stir Fry, Hood,
Slammerkin), her short stories – also based on historical tidbits – The
Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, and the allegedly Young Adult oriented
Kissing the Witch, but she’s put in her time recovering our histories
with Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801, We
Are Michael Field, a joint biography of lovers and literary collaborators
Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, as well as Poems Between Women,
an extraordinary collection that pays homage to four centuries of women’s
passions, friendships, and expressions of love.
Harcourt obviously expects Life Mask to be big with both straight
and gay readers – they printed 150,000 copies of the hardcover. Her next book,
Donoghue promises, is a “very lesbian” novel about immigration, a topic she
has considerable experience with, having done it twice – once from Ireland
to England, then again to Canada. $26, Harcourt.
Read an excerpt:
For an interview with Emma Donoghue:
These are trying times...
I loved Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres but keep finding myself not
quite interested in most of the books she’s written since. But, egged on by
a reading group, I just waded through Good Faith. While I didn’t exactly
enjoy the time I spent inside the head of well-intended real estate agent
Joe Stratford and his limited world view, I have to say that the novel is
a brilliant portrait of a time when social expectations changed drastically,
and speculation, entitlement, and greed became cultural norms. In these post-election
weeks, it offers a revealing look at a time when “American decency” degenerated
into a society that could elect a madman like George W. Bush. $13.95, Anchor.
Claiming Our Own
Neither of these is touted as a lesbian book – you’ll just have to read between
Ms. Moffett’s First Year
In the spring of 2000, facing stricter requirements for teachers and a worsening
national teacher shortage, New York City’s Board of Education recruited “talented
professionals from other fields” to teach in some of the district’s worst
schools. Legal secretary (and ex-feminist bookstore worker) Donna Moffett
answered an ad for the program and seven weeks later, with the briefest of
training programs under her belt, she was on her own, running a first-grade
class at P.S. 92 in Flatbush, a job that made legal work look like a piece
Abby Goodnough, a New York Times education reporter, wrote an award-winning
series of front-page articles that followed Moffet through her first year.
Then she expanded it into Ms. Moffett’s First Year: Becoming a Teacher
in America, a challenging, harrowing, and sometimes frightening book about
one woman’s passionate commitment to making a difference, about succeeding
with many (but never all) of the children, and of persevering in an
environment that has neither the resources nor the freedom to educate poor
and immigrant children. It’s a brave and fascinating tale, whether you’re
interested in early childhood education or not.
I was surprised however, that Goodnough seemed to fall prey to the five-year-old's
notion that first grade teachers don’t really exist outside of school hours.
We do learn, however, that back in her twenties, Moffett worked at Jane Addams,
Chicago’s first feminist bookstore and that, during her Chicago years, she’d
been liberated by the feminist movement, literature, the arts, and social
justice projects, but Goodnough leaves readers to extrapolate the rest for
themselves. In any case, it was wonderful to find out how one of the early
workers in the feminist bookstore movement is changing the world these days,
one student at a time. $25, Public Affairs/Perseus Books Group.
Cooking with Grease
Organizer Donna Brazile, on the other hand, takes on organizing the entire
Democratic Party, Al Gore’s campaign for President, and more than a few marches
on Washington while recounting her adventures from 30 years of political organizing
in Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics. Child
of the civil rights era and growing up in a black, working-poor Louisiana
family, she swore to herself as a child (on the day after Martin Luther King
was assassinated) that she’d find a way to make a difference – and she has.
Brazile worked on her first political campaign at age nine when she campaigned
for a city council candidate who promised (and delivered) a park for kids
in her poor-and-black side of the tracks neighborhood. She was hooked. By
the time she wrote this book her achievements included her life goal of running
a Democratic national presidential campaign, as well as working on Jesse Jackson’s
presidential campaign, the 1982 March on Washington demanding that Martin
Luther King be honored with a national holiday, the 1983 20th Anniversary
March on Washington, helping to develop the National Political Congress of
Black Women, and serving on the Board of Directors for the GLBTQ March on
Washington. It’s a fascinating read about both how organizing for change works
on a national level and how a woman gains political expertise and power in
the political arena, in a system that is still fiercely racist and sexist.
I wish Brazile had been able to be as straightforward about her personal
life as she is about her political life. – Some years back she put the entire
[white male] gay media in a twit by telling the Washington Post, when
asked if she was gay, “If I had a personal life, I’d have a sexual orientation.”
– Myself, I dream of a day when white gay men spend their lives organizing
for the rights of blacks and women and the days when women, black and white,
straight and gay, and every combination thereof, can have both political ambitions
and personal lives, and be open about both. Cooking with Grease is
heady, inspiring stuff. Don’t miss it. $23, Simon & Schuster.
What’s Brazile up to now? Check out her Web site.
For Brazile's statement on Shirley Chisholm's death:
Graphic (Auto)Biography – For People Who Think
In Rent Girl Michelle Tea, who got involved with sex work when the
sexy girl she was dating revealed that was how she made her living, writes
about why she got involved in the work, what it was like, why she stayed and
why she left. Being Tea, she tells complex truths about both her own experiences
and prostitution in general by writing about everyday realities - from the allure of the “glamour” to coping with obnoxious johns,
crabs, low blood sugar, and racist porn while living with the high physical
and emotional cost of the work. Tea’s straightforward, yet nuanced storytelling
works wonderfully well with McCubbin’s elegantly layered graphics.
Both Tea and illustrator Laurenn McCubbin struggled with how to portray the
work and came up with a blend of story and illustration that conveys the reality
of sex work and avoids the traditional sex-work stereotypes: pathology, fantasy,
tragedy, or blissful empowerment. Tea researched the book with her life; McCubbin
took hundreds of photos, combining a posture with an expression that often
leaves the sex workers looking directly at the reader, making it clear that
she and you know what’s real, no matter what the john in the background might
be thinking. It’s a marvelous and useful book, one that is destined for awards.
$24.95 paper, 300+ illustrations, Last Gasp.
More graphic autobiography? No, not the least bit lesbian, but if you haven’t
already read them, turn to Persepolis and the sequel, Persepolis 2,
Marjane Satrapi’s memoirs about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.
The first book gives us a (very sophisticated) child’s eye view of the radical
cataclysm that the fundamentalist revolution wrought in this one child – and
any child’s life. The second follows the 14-year-old to high school in Vienna,
her return to Tehran, and the life she manages to carve out for herself before
deciding that she has to leave again. It’s another case where the illustrations,
in their sophisticated simplicity, are worth a thousand words – and do an even
better job than words of reminding us all that war is simply not a solution.
Her next book, Embroidery, will tell her grandmother’s
story. It will be released in the USA in April. Persepolis, $11.95,
paper; Persepolis 2, $17.95 cloth; both from Pantheon/Random House.
“One of the freshest and most original memoirs of our day.” – LA Times
“Dance[s] with drama in insouciant wit.” – NYT Book Review
To read an interview with Satrapi:
And for one artist’s take on Satrapi’s “reading” at Women and Children First:
Four from Seal Press + 2
Seal Press just continues to continue to publish good, insightful feminist
(but not necessarily lesbian) books. And just when you begin to think that
all the bases have been covered, they come up with something new – like Secrets
& Confidences: The Complicated Truth about Women’s Friendships.
From editor Karen Eng’s introduction (see below) to the very last account,
these true-life adventure tales of friendships essential, maddening, gone
awry, lost (and found), and friendships changed by pregnancy (or lack thereof),
and first friends (at any age) left me wondering how we managed for so long
without this excellent, insightful, and very readable collection. I was surprised,
though at how few contributions addressed friendships that include sexual
passion or friendships among lesbians. Perhaps those stories are in forthcoming
anthologies? Maybe this is the beginning of a series. Contributors include
women you’d read in Bitch, and Bust, and Tikkun, and
hear on NPR – Andi Zeisler, Ellen Forney, Ayun Halliday, L.A. Miller (editor,
Women Who Eat: A New Generation on the Glory of Food), and many more.
$14.95, Seal Press.
“A few years ago, I went through a traumatic breakup with my best friend....
I wasn’t quite prepared for how cataclysmic the experience would be. Deep
down, I knew I was doing what was necessary for my own well-being, but there
was little accepted wisdom about how to cope with my confusion and grief....
If this had been a romantic relationship, answers would have been screaming
at me from all directions. But because this was “only” a friend, prescriptions
were vague and solace hard to come by. We are supposed to accumulate meaningful
friendships, not jettison them. In a time when people accept the view that
many, if not most marriages flounder, we still cling to the view that our friendships
should somehow go on for life....” –from Karen Eng’s introduction
“But the dangerous friend isn’t dangerous because she’s daring, or precocious,
or even reckless. She’s dangerous because she makes you trust her against
all logical judgment, makes you want to please her even if your own happiness
is compromised, and imprints herself on your mind with disconcerting speed
and force." –from Andi Zeisler’s “Breaking Up with Smitty”
Truth & Beauty offers another look at friendships between women.
In this case, it’s Ann Pachett (Bel Canto, The Magician’s Assistant, The
Patron Saint of Liars) recalling her decades-long, sometimes difficult,
always essential friendship with sister writer Lucy Grealy (Autobiography
of a Face). Pachett and Grealy met in college, became fast friends while
both attended the Iowa Writers Workshop, and saw each other through good times,
surgeries, writing blocks (trading images like a Magician’s Assistant back
and forth), various crises, and relationships too numerous to mention.
“Even when Lucy was devastated or difficult, she was the person I knew
best in the world, the person I was the most comfortable with. Whenever I
saw her, I felt like I had been living in another country, doing moderately
well in another language, and then she showed up speaking English and suddenly
I could speak with all the complexity and nuance that I hadn’t even realized
was gone. With Lucy I was a native speaker.”
It’s a wonderful portrayal of a relationship that ended only with Lucy’s
death, and of staying with a friendship even through the most difficult of
times. I did come away wondering, though, with such a powerful connection,
did neither of them ever consider becoming lovers? Certainly it must have
occurred to them – Patchett, after all, wrote The Magician’s Assistant
during these years. But if it did come up, it’s not in the book. Everything
else is, though. $23.95, Harper Collins. Look for the paperback in April.
To read Ann Patchett on writing this book and on the intersection of fiction
in her life:
But back to Seal Press:
Don't read Claudine Monteil's The Beauvoir Sisters: An Intimate Look at How
Simone and Hélène Influenced Each Other and the World for insight into Simone's relationships with women. Read it, instead, for the tales of
Hélène’s founding of battered women’s shelters, both sisters' connections
with Carol Downer and the Feminist Women’s Health Centers, the harassment
Simone received for writing The Second Sex, the circle of younger feminist
friends from the Women’s Liberation Movement that surrounded them both during
the latter parts of their lives – and to recall the incredible courage it
took to stand up for abortion rights in those halcyon days of the early 70s.
And for a cautionary tale about how easily we could lose many of these essential
feminist advances. Claudine Monteil was one of the WLM “girls.” She started
writing this memoir the morning after Hélène died. Translated by Marjolijn
de Jager. $14.95, Seal Press.
“I’ve said this to you (her circle of younger
feminist cohorts) and I shall say it again. The few womens’ rights we have managed
to extract by struggling long and hard these past few years are fragile. Very
fragile. All it takes is another economic, political, or religious crisis for
them to be challenged. All of you, as long as you live, you will have to watch
that society and the politicians don’t cunningly nibble away at these rights.
You’ll have to be on your guard, don’t ever forget that.” –Simone de Beauvoir
I wish the recent elections had rendered Kristin Rose-Finkbeiner’s The F
Word: Feminism in Jeopardy: Women, Politics, and the Future obsolete. Unfortunately,
younger women and older women both need “the F word” and the practice of voting
even more now than before the election. I, for one, was haunted by those news
shots of long voting lines snaking into the night, in precincts with too few
voting machines. Those lines should never have happened, but it’s recorded on
film that very few women had the option of standing for hours in those lines
– they had to leave to pick up the kids, feed them, put them to bed or tend
the elderly parents, or.... And, as we all know by now, women who do get to
vote, vote Democrat in higher numbers than men, and so the long lines biased
outcome of the election in yet another way.... $14.95, Seal.
I’d meant to include Word: On Being a [Woman] Writer, edited by Jocelyn
Burrell, in last issue’s gift recommendations. I’ve rarely met an anthology
of women’s writings about writing that I didn’t devour, and this one is no
exception. Most of the essays are reprints, but are worth rereading, should
you have come across them before. Editor Jocelyn Burrell’s introductions add
useful context to some of the more familiar pieces. Lesbian contributors range
from Jennifer DiMarco and Judith Clark to Liza
Fiol-Matta and Jeannette Winterson, but the whole collection is about
renegades and troublemakers who think and see and envision outside the box.
And what could be more true for lesbians, than, say, Algerian writer Assia
“...Thus, in a religion that begins with an almost sacred emigration, the
woman becomes a constant emigrant, without a destination.... Simply a migrant.
The most beautiful label, I believe, in Islamic culture.”
Or Liza Fiol-Matta on growing up Puerto Rican on American Army bases:
“No matter how well we speak English, or how light or dark our skin is, or
how well we do in school and work, there is always the lingering doubt that
we are not 'loved for who we really are' but for the facsimile of the dominant
culture that we can, with varying success, represent.”
Or Margaret Atwood’s wry, dry, laugh out loud reflections on being a young
poet in Canada in the 1960s – or Irish poet Eavan Boland’s call, in her “Letter
to a Young Woman Poet,” for women poets, from generation to generation, to
befriend one another. Women writers, lesbian and not, all live outside the
traditional canon, and what we have in common, in this anthology, is still
much greater than our differences. $16.95, The Feminist Press.
In Rosemary and Juliet Judy MacLean offers teens (and older readers)
a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s classic, complete with embattled families,
dueling seconds, and some wonderful, unexpectedly in love teens. For the families,
think ex-hippie single mom, abortion clinic director vs. head preacher at
the fundamentalist queer-damning church. MacLean’s portrayal of that daughter’s
working out the conflicts between her upbringing and her new love make it
an excellent book for YAs caught in similar situations while reminding the
rest of us that compassion is a better organizing tool than judgment. $17.95
paperback, 265 pages, Alice Street Editions/Harrington Park Press.
Friday Night Romance
Karin Kallmaker’s first full-length Bella After Dark has tropical-resort
fitness instructor Brandy Monsoon looking for passion, if not love, in All
the Wrong Places as she tries to sort out her friendship with her straight
colleague, keep up with the snazzy lesbian comedienne who shows up during
Ladies on Vacation week, and resolve the odd family issue. Sounds like a lot
for 170 pages, but wasting time isn’t what Bella After Dark is about. And
Brandy practices what she preaches: Do unto her what she wants so that she
may do unto you what you want. The sheet-dives are all fun, but Kallmaker
also serves up characters who learn something in between the O’s, and ends
with her trademark dose of lingering contentment. $12.95, Bella After Dark.
And for those whose pleasures hearken back to medieval England, newcomer
Anna Furtado offers The Heart’s Desire, a sweet tale of unexpected
friendships, of overcoming adversity, of circumstances that mediate the independence
women in any age need to pursue their own paths, of unexpected friendships, and,
of course, a few villains. Oh, and did I mention the wise young spice merchant
who inherited her skills and her business from her father and the plucky young
noblewoman who seeks to apprentice with her? Look for soft fades, rather than
throbbing passion. Non-standard typesetting, unfortunately, detracts a bit
from the reading pleasure. $15.95, Yellow Rose Books.
I wanted to like Peggy Herring’s White Lace and Promises. The set
up certainly intrigued me: a little class-conflict between long-term and passionate
lovers Dr. Maxine Weston and beautician Betina Abbott – or maybe it’s just
that classic butch-wants-to-be-waited-on thing getting a little out of hand?
Whatever, it all comes tumbling down when Betina is broadsided with an inexplicable
and immobilizing depression, and suddenly we have another great plot twist:
long-term couple in a crisis that tests their relationship. And while I could
certainly understand physician Maxine’s blind allegiance to antidepressants
(the crisis they create in this couple’s sex life is another great plot twist),
I kept waiting for someone (a friend, one of the therapists, Betina’s
brother, the author, anyone!) to protest Maxine’s heavy-handed commitment
to long-term drugs for a situation that might well resolve without them. Now
that is the resolution I was looking for. That or a situation that
would truly require the level of drugs prescribed in this novel. Herring’s
fans and readers who are less critical of the medical model for treating psychological
problems may enjoy the book more than I did. $12.95, Bella.
in 23 countries around the world, Ladies Coupé would be treated as a major publishing phenomena were it not about, well, women – ordinary women
from the vast communities of third-world women who have yet to achieve
– or perhaps even to dream of – equal pay for equal
work, equal education for girls, employment without sexual harassment....
Indian writer Anita Nair uses an overnight trip in the Ladies’ Coupe (the
women-only compartment on Indian trains) as the vehicle for looking at six
vastly different women’s lives, the limitations society has placed on them,
the options they’ve carved out for themselves, and the possibility of contentment.
Central character Akhila’s question is, having lost the option of a traditional
marriage when she was forced to become the family breadwinner as a teenager
and having done all that could possibly have been expected of her, what’s
left for her? The stories move as steadily as a train through the night, giving
the reader a glimpse into lives rarely written about, and Akhila the answers
The bit parts? One of the women, Mari, worked for two foreign doctors and came
to understand why the one lady doctor crossed the hall to the other lady doctor’s
room every night, and later used that information to make her way in another
situation.... And Mari's final decisions about her life? Well, we get answers
to Akhila’s dilemmas; maybe a future novel will tell us more about Mari’s.
Still, Ladies Coupé achieves that essential feminist dream of serving
up a host of options to women (in this case, in 23 countries), and trusting
that each reader will find the inspiration she needs to move her own life
in the directions she chooses. $14.95, St. Martins Press.
The news for women, in Regina Marler’s Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned
America On to Sex, isn’t so good:
“[A]n audience member asked (Gregory Corso) why there were no women among
the Beat writers: (Corso responded,) ‘There were women, they were there, I
knew them, their families put them in institutions, they were given electric
shock. In the 50s if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were
female, your families had you locked up.’”
Queer Beats is mostly about the queer men at the time and a few of
the guys’ wives and girlfriends and casual flings. That said, it’s a fascinating
look at an under-credited part of gay history with quick glimpses into the
contributions of Diane Di Prima, Jane Bowles, and Elise Cowen. $16.95, Cleis Press.
For deeper looks at the women whose rebellion and intellectual thought laid
the basis for the next decade’s women’s movement, turn to Girls Who Wore
Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation by Ronna Johnson ($22 paper, Rutgers)
or Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists, and Muses at the
Heart of Revolution by Brenda Knight ($16.95, Conari Press).
Sinister Wisdom is back in print again, with the Lesbian Writers
on Writing and Reading issue (#62). Look for classically lesbian/feminist
articles on how lesbian writing saves lives, true life adventures, Katherine
V. Forrest on “The Mystery of Lesbian Mysteries,” and Alix Dobkin, Carla Trujillo,
Lee Lynch, Janny MacHarg, Tee Corinne, Ida Red, Jean Taylor, Judith K. Witherow,
Gloria Anzaldúa, and many more. A bargain at $6 + $1.50 p&h. Better yet,
subscribe for the year for $20. Sinister Wisdom, PO Box 3252, Berkeley, CA
Chroma: A Queer Literary Journal launched in England in August. Edited
by Shaun Levin this issue features a mix of tormented (yet lyrical) stories
about guilt, love, mad boyfriends, and sisters from hell along with poetry
and artwork. Funded, in part by Arts Council England (and what a good use
of their money!), it’s a great place to look for emerging and cutting edge
talent. More contributions by boys than girls, alas, but it has one of the
best writing-wanted sections that I’ve seen in a long time. “Tormented” was
the theme for the first issue. “Beauty,” “Foreigners,” and “Competition” are
upcoming themes. US$20/year at http://www.gaymenwriting.co.uk/
via PayPal, or write Chroma, PO Box 44655, London, N16 0WQ, England.
Now in Paperback
Elements of Random Tea Parties, Felicia Luna Lemus, $12.95,
Salt Roads, Nalo Hopkinson, $14.95, Warner Books.
The Funny Thing Is..., Ellen DeGeneres, $12, Simon & Schuster.
The Way the Crow Flies, Ann-Marie MacDonald, $14.95, Harper.
Fair warning: Crows drifts along very pleasantly for the first
300 pages or so – and then it will take over your life until you get to that
very last page. It’s one of those books you want all of your friends to be
reading at the same time, so have a place to go with your anger, frustration,
What They're Reading
at A Room of One's Own in Madison
The staff at A Room of One's Own in Madison, WI is busy gearing up for Winter
textbook sales on the heels of a decent holiday season, but they made time to tell us about some of their favorite books:
* Books with lesbian content.
Life Mask* by Emma Donoghue was a very good read judging from the fact
that each time I picked it up, I was transported in time. Emma
Donoghue made me feel that I knew each character and their motivations
intimately, probably due to her outstanding ability to express
female emotion through the written word. As for the sex bits,
well, the hint of erotica is always better than the deed. If you've
just finished Tipping The Velvet, don't go right into Life
Mask; it'll be way too subtle for you. Try Slammerkin.
$26.00 cloth, HBJ. –Heidi
Dish It Up Baby* by Kristie Helms. This novel reads like a love
letter to New York. It captures the dynamic experience of a young
woman living in New York and finding her way. At times serious and others
comedic but always keeping a grip on reality. $14.95, Firebrand Books. –Sashe
A Perfect Age by Heather Skyler. This first novel by local Madisonian
Heather Skyler was featured at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival.
It is a coming of age story that picks up and leaves off at the beginning and
end of the summer for three years, and in that time the main character, a fifteen-year-old
girl, develops into a young woman, while her mother finding her own life to
be confining, explores a life outside her family. It is nice to be reminded
that even women with grown children still have as many needs and unfulfilled desires
as their teenage daughters. $24.95 cloth, Norton. –Heidi
Fanny – A Fiction* by Edmund White. Through the veil of historical fiction,
Edmund White contemplates gender inequality, American politics and culture,
racial distinctions, and religion, and allows readers to draw parallels
to modern day. It is written from the viewpoint of Frances Trollope, famous
in the 1800s for her book attacking the United States, as she writes a
biography of her equally famous friend Fanny Wright, the radical and feminist. It is a conversational, quirky novel that reminds us of two women
that should not be forgotten. $13.95, Harper. –Heidi
Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner. This new novel captures the essence
of what it would be like to live as an Eskimo and, furthermore, gives the reader
a true feeling of what it means to live a life of sustenance. The story
is told from a unique voice and the writing is definitely refreshing, taking
the reader right into a life in Alaska. $22.00 cloth, Milkweed. –Sashe
The Photograph by Penelope Lively. A famous British archeologist finds
a photograph of his dead wife with her brother-in-law and uses his training
to uncover the facts about his wife's infidelity. Another excellent novel by
the Booker Prize-winning author of Moon Tiger. $14.00, Penguin. –Sandi
Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism by Jennifer Baumgardner
and Amy Richards. I'm excited about this new book from the authors of Manifesta.
The authors seem to have matured a bit since writing that first book and, in
this new volume, they give lots of great information and provide examples on
how to stay active – an important message especially after this disappointing
election. $14.00, FSG. –Sandi
The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland. This author returns to her favorite
themes of painters and paintings with this novel about adventurous Canadian
painter Emily Carr, whose work is currently being rediscovered. $14.00, Penguin. –Sandi
Two for children:
The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq written and illustrated
by Jeanette Winter. A wonderful true story about a librarian who had the foresight
to know that her library would be a target in the forthcoming war and so moved
over 30,000 books, including many irreplaceable volumes, into the basements
of friends' homes and businesses. $16.00 cloth, Harcourt. –Sandi
Halibut Jackson by David Lucas. Halibut Jackson is very shy and prefers
to not be noticed. One day he wears brighter clothes than usual and discovers
that it's not so bad being the center of attention for a change. A great
story about being true to whom you are with subtle messages about gender and
wardrobe. $16.95 cloth, Knopf. –Sandi
Two Books to Watch Out For:
Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson. This story of an independent
young woman who grows up in a lighthouse is an excellent historical fable in
the tradition of Winterson's Sexing the Cherry. $23.00 cloth, Harcourt, April
March by Geraldine Brooks. The long-awaited new novel by the author
of Year of Wonders tells the story of the absent father of the March
girls in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women books. March, as imagined
by Brooks using information about Alcott's own father, becomes a Chaplain in
the Civil War and reveals his feelings of powerlessness in the face of the cruelty,
racism and suffering of war. $24.95 cloth, Viking, March 2005. –Sandi
Many thanks to Heidi, Sashe, Sandi and all the women at A Room of One's Own for their help
and for all the work they do to support our community. You can find them at 307 W. Johnson St.,
Madison, WI 53703. 608-257-7888. You can find them online at http://www.roomofonesown.com. There’s a current list of women's bookstores at www.litwomen.org/WIP/stores.html.
The Crime Scene
By Nan Cinnater
Death by Discount by Mary Vermillion is a small-town Midwestern whodunit nearly worthy of Ellen Hart, which
is to say it's strongly plotted and full of humor, atmosphere, and psychological
complexity. Dyke DJ Mara Gilgannon investigates the murder of one of her lesbian
aunts, helped out by best friend Vince, an irrepressible drag queen. Her aunts,
Zee and Glad, ran the only radio station in their small Iowa town before Glad
was killed, and they were deeply involved in a campaign to keep Wal-Mart out
of their hometown. Vermillion uses the opportunity to educate about the giant
corporation's impact, but she does so seamlessly and painlessly. $13.95,
Don't be misled by the Valentine-ish cover. Guarded
Hearts by Hannah Rickard is a taut novel of suspense,
centered on guard dogs and dog training. Alyssa Norland has left her shady
corporate past behind and started a new life in a small Michigan town as a
trainer for DOGS (Dixon's Obedience and Guard Services). Then her past comes
back to haunt her, in the form of creepy, taunting phone calls and a series
of burglaries targeting her clients. Okay, there is a romance. Alyssa's developing
relationship with new love interest Sue Hunter is integral to the plot and
pretty damn sexy, as well. But I found myself rushing through the sex scenes
in order to get to the "good" parts – in this case the outstanding
action sequences, with the dogs, the bad guys, and two very strong women. $12.95, Bella.
When the Corpse Lies by Therese Szymanski is the sixth Motor City thriller featuring the very butch
Brett Higgins, strip club manager and adult entertainment maven. This one
turns on an elaborate revenge conspiracy involving cybersex, murder, bad girls
and tests of true love. If you are already a Szymanski fan, you'll snap this
up. If not, and you fancy a nearly equal mix of erotica and suspense, go for
it! $12.95, Bella.
Hannah Nyala is a real-life search and rescue
tracker of Native American descent, who made a small critical splash with
her memoir, Point Last Seen ($12.00, Pocket). Now she has turned to
fiction with two novels about a search and rescue tracker of Native American
descent named Tally Nowata. In Cry Last Heard, the sequel to Leave
No Trace (both $6.99, Pocket), Tally is teamed with her lesbian best friend
and fellow tracker Laney to respond to a distress call in the Grand Tetons.
Soon they discover that the distress call was faked, and the hunters have
become the hunted. The lesbian content is minimal (blink and you'll miss it),
but the writing is extraordinary and the suspense never lets up. Unfortunately,
Nyala brings back the villain from Leave No Trace, leaning heavily
on the plot from the previous book, and he turns out to be an over-the-top
psycho with a grudge against Tally. Tally's plight gets grimmer with each
plot twist, till Nyala finally lost me. However, if psycho killers chill you
without leaving you cold, these gripping wilderness adventures have the right
Unlikely as it sounds, African American author
Mary Wilborn's Naughty Little Secrets is an attempt
at a screwball mystery, a lesbian take-off on The Thin Man, set in
New Jersey. Here husband-and-wife detective duo Nick and Nora have been transformed
into interracial lesbian couple Slick and Laura. True to formula, Laura is
a rich and powerful heiress, complete with mansion and old family retainers,
and Slick is an ex-cop private detective. Through a grant from Laura's family
foundation, they become involved with embezzlement and murder at a community
theater. Thankfully, this version is not nearly as drenched in booze as the
original, but neither is it nearly as sophisticated or dryly witty. The
Thin Man (based on author Dashiell Hammett's real-life relationship with
Lillian Hellman) is a perfect souffle, light and airy. If it were easy to
create such a masterpiece, none of us would be eating scrambled eggs. $14.00, Kensington.
Veteran African American author Valerie Wilson
Wesley has finally published a new Tamara Hayle mystery, called Dying in
the Dark. This is the seventh in an excellent series
about the Newark private investigator and (straight) single mom; the first
was When Death Comes Stealing ($6.99, Avon). In Dying in the Dark,
Tamara investigates the death of an old high school friend, who turns out
to have had a lesbian lover, as well as many ex-boyfriends. Meanwhile, Tamara's
teenage son is growing up in a world that throws away African American youth,
and he needs Tamara's help. $22.95, One World.
One of my all-time favorite mystery writers,
S.J. Rozan, has written a new non-series novel, Absent Friends, evoking New York City in the aftermath of September 11. When firefighter
Jack McCaffery dies on 9/11, he becomes a media hero – until he is seemingly
implicated in a twenty-year-old underworld murder. The large cast includes
a tenacious woman reporter looking into the case, but (as far as I know) no
lesbians. Rozan writes beautifully about New York, with love and precision,
and reviews are already comparing the structure of the book to Dennis Lehane's
Mystic River – so this is a must-read. $24.00,
Bantam. (For more on Rozan, see BTWOF
The Lesbian Edition #5.)
Out lesbian author Sandra Scoppettone has declared
the end of her sassy comic series featuring New York private eye Lauren Laurano,
but many of us sorely miss it. (The first in that series, Everything You
Have is Mine is now out of print – check library and used bookstores.
The other titles, in series order, are: I'll Be Leaving You Always,
$6.50; My Sweet Untraceable You, out of print; Let's Face the Music
and Die, $6.50; Gonna Take a Homicidal Journey, $6.99, all from
Fawcett.) We've been waiting for more from Scoppettone for years, and now
we have Beautiful Rage. In this non-lesbian crime
novel, Virginia sheriff Lucia Dove is working on the case of a missing teenager.
Scoppettone has been writing crime fiction since long before women detectives
were fashionable, and she's very, very good at it. $25.95, Five Star.
In Grave Endings
by Orthodox Jewish author Rochelle Krich, the police ask true crime writer
Molly Blume to identify a locket. The locket contains a red thread from Rachel's
tomb in Jerusalem, which in Kabbalah tradition can ward off the evil eye.
Molly gave that locket to her best friend Aggie, whose murder six years ago
remains unsolved. In the midst of preparing for her Orthodox wedding (to a
rabbi!), Molly is drawn into the investigation. Grave Endings is the
third Molly Blume mystery, following Blues in the Night and Dream
House (both $6.99, Fawcett). Although there is no lesbian content, the
Judaica, the Yiddish wisdom and humor, and the Los Angeles details all add
interest to a well-plotted mystery. $24.95, Ballantine.
When we caught up with Emma Donoghue she’d just finished Marilynne (Housekeeping) Robinson’s Gilead and had "a good weep" over
Jeanette Winterson has been reading Wild Girls, Diana Souhami’s biography
of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks. The two, of course, met in Paris in
1915, when they were both in their forties. Their relationship lasted, as
I recall, until Natalie brought home one woman too many, some fifty years
later. Both were as committed as any 70s feminist to inventing a life free
of patriarchal limitations and laws.
Wild Girls was published in England this summer, but I haven’t
yet unearthed any plans to publish it here. You may have to order from one
of your favorite British Booksellers: Gay’s
the Word, Silver
Moon, or Libertas. (£18.99, Weidenfeld
& Nicolson, look for the paperback next July.)
Find out what Winterson thinks about it at:
What do witches read for Halloween? Starhawk was reading Moral Politics
by George Lakoff and What's the Matter With Kansas by Thomas Frank.
BTWOF caught up with Buddhist Beat poet Diane Di Prima recently. She had just reread
Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet and was working her way through
three volumes of Emily Dickinson’s letters while also reading Maitreya's:
Distinguishing Phenomena and Pure Being by Mipham.
Awards and Prizes
The Man Booker
Alan Hollinghurst unexpectedly won the Booker Prize for fiction for The Line
of Beauty, a tale of young gay love and social criticism set in Thatcherite
Britain. Colm Tobin’s The Master, a novel about Henry James, was also on
For a tale of how the winner was chosen:
Carolyn Gage’s play Ugly Ducklings, which considers the devastation
caused by homophobia and lesbian-baiting at a girls summer camp, has been nominated
for the American Theatre Critics Association/Steinberg New Play Award.
For more information:
The Lammies Are in Motion
This year’s Lambda Literary Awards will feature two new categories: Lesbian
Fiction Debut and Gay Men’s Fiction Debut, both of which will carry $1000
Suggestions and nominations for Lambda Literary Awards are still being accepted
as we go to press. Anyone can suggest a book for consideration. Nominations
require a $20 administrative fee.
To suggest a title:
To nominate a title, or to check to see if your book has been nominated:
MacDowell isn’t exactly an award – rather it’s a gift of time and space to
concentrate on a writing project. For Ms. Magazine’s recent profile of the
womanist roots of the MacDowell Colony:
Charis Books and More (Atlanta) is turning 30. Women and Children First (Chicago)
is turning 25.
Celebrate their birthdays in your own home: the next time you order books online,
order from one of the birthday stores, instead of from a mega-institution. You’ll
get the books, help support one of our finest institutions, and invest in your
For a brief history of the South’s oldest feminist bookstore:
Find Charis at:
For an interview with W&CF founders Ann Christophersen and Linda Bubon
(both recently named to the Chicago Sun-Times' 100 most powerful women
in the Chicago arts community): http://www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/
Find Women & Children First at:
Herland, in Santa Cruz, closed on December 23 after a dozen years of providing,
books, art, dances and, at times, a café, to the Santa Cruz women’s community.
Owner Kayla Rose has gone back to school to finish a degree in hypnotherapy.
The Web site will stay live as a venue for continuing to sell her artwork:
Also in California: Sacramento’s GLBTQ bookstore, The Open Book, is looking
for “new owner(s) who can offer the necessary resources, enthusiasm and new
and fresh ideas for a successful operation.” Contact Ron or Larry at 916-498-1004
Scholastic Press editor David Levithan and young poet Billy Merrell are looking for writers ages 13 to 23, queer or not, for an anthology of personal nonfiction about today’s queer teen experience. Deadline is Feb. 1. The book will be published by Knopf in Fall 2005.
Details at www.queerthology.com.
Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman in Congress (1968-1982) and author
of Unbought and Unbossed, died January 1 at 80. She also made history
by running for president in 1972; she used her campaign to fight against racism,
sexism, social injustice and the Vietnam War.
If Chisholm is not as well-known as other civil rights pioneers, it may
be because of her refusal to compromise on important issues and her commitment
to speaking truth to power, or, perhaps, simply because she was a pioneering
woman. I was lucky enough to work on the Michigan branch of her presidential
campaign; my girlfriend at the time ran as a Chisholm delegate in the primary
where Chisholm won 5% of the vote and went into the nominating convention
with 152 delegates.
Chisholm wrote, in Unbought and Unbossed, "Our representative
democracy is not working because the Congress that is supposed to represent
the voters does not respond to their needs. I believe the chief reason for
this is that it is ruled by a small group of old men." As recently as
1982 she told the Associated Press: "I've always met more discrimination
being a woman than being black. When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for
president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men
PBS's P.O.V. will run "Chisholm 72: Unbought and Unbossed,"
Shola Lynch’s documentary on Chisholm’s campaign for the presidency, on February
Novelist, essayist, critic, and one of America’s leading intellectuals, Susan
Sontag died December 28, from leukemia complications. She was 71. An activist
who believed in “productive controversy,” Sontag’s 60s essay “Notes on Camp”
and extended essay Illness as Metaphor, written following breast cancer
and a mastectomy, established her as a prominent critic. Her other books included
On Photography, AIDS and Its Metaphors, The Volcano Lover, and National
Book Award winner In America. Sontag took on many a battle during her
time – from the Vietnam War to the war in Iraq and the Ayatollah Khomeini
when he called for writer Salman Rushdie’s assassination.
And yet her death leaves considerable controversy in its wake, as lesbian
and gay activists take the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times,
and other media to task for stressing her very brief marriage to Philip Rieff
(which took place 10 days after they met and ended in divorce 45 years ago)
while neglecting to mention her long term relationships with dancer Lucinda
Childs, American playwright Maria Irene Fornes, and her 20-year relationship
with Annie Liebovitz.
The question seems not to be her relationships with women - Sontag had, in
recent years, referred to them as “an open secret” and said in published interviews
that five of the nine times she’d been in love had been with women - but rather
an incredible and bizarre prejudice that mandates that one cannot be both
intellectual and lesbian, as if “intellectual” and “lesbian” were mutually
exclusive categories, rather than two of many adjectives that can be used
to describe someone, no more mutually exclusive that, say, “tall” and “striking”
or “American” and “Black.”
And so we are seeing a rash of obituaries that deny that anyone as bright
and sparkling and intelligent as Susan Sontag (read that as "attractive
to men”) could have significant relationships with women. By writing extensively
about Sontag’s brief marriage and ignoring all of her relationships with women,
the media actively perpetuates that prejudice as does all of its unsolicited
closeting of “the best and the brightest” of societies’ lesbian contributors.
Perhaps it’s time for someone to republish – as a memorial to Susan Sontag
– that wonderful Chicago Women’s Graphic Collective poster that read, “You
ask ‘Where is our Shakespeare?’ Her name was Sappho,
and you burned her books.”
But Sontag may yet have the last word: At the time of her death, she was
working on both a more personal book about pain and a collection of short
stories. Both are expected to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
May whoever finishes preparing them for publication take a wise and long view
that honors the complexity of Susan Sontag’s life – including her love of
women during deeply prejudicial times.
To read Paula Martinac on the cultural closeting of Susan Sontag:
That’s it for this issue.
We’ll be back soon with more good lesbian reading.
(c) 2004 Books to Watch Out For
Graphics © Judy Horacek
Books to Watch Out For
PO Box 882554
San Francisco, CA 94188