Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Black lesbian writer’

The saying that “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is just as true today as it was in 1948 when Winston Churchill repeated it from the writings of the philosopher George Santanya. It is particularly true for anyone who has ever been marginalized in anyway — and that is probably most of us. But this is just one reason that I read historical fiction.

It makes sense that I would be interested in history since I was raised by older parents a generation removed from me.

 

This is something that I explore in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012). Perhaps it was having that long sense of personal history that led me to have a healthy curiosity of the experiences of those different than me. It definitely is a reason that I am deeply drawn to historical fiction — especially when I find books that are not only captivating but haunting.

 

Recently I read two books that made me think about history and my place in it. I recall wondering decades earlier, when I was young, what I would have done if I had come out earlier, say pre-Stonewall. When I read Juliana, a novel by Vanda (Booktrope Editions; 2015) the question came back to me. The story is set in the years 1941 to 1944 in New York City which did, in fact, at that time have an underground gay culture. The main character Al (short for Alice) is a young woman who with a group of friends with actor ambitions moves from a small town to New York City.

 

Alice doesn’t think of herself as gay but is in love (and in lust) with a glamorous and slightly older singer Juliana. The author who goes by the name of Vanda (one word, like Cher) is a playwright and her fast-paced writing had me turning the pages as I learned about gay culture with accurate historical references. Alice ends up at a few gay parties, even though she doesn’t identify as “one of them” in a time when gay people were deemed as perverts and pariahs. She also weaves in the cultural mores of the time when it was assumed that “nice” girls didn’t have sex before heterosexual marriage.

Ultimately Juliana is an historic novel with a sense of history itself. One character, talking to Alice about the film, Morroco, says:

“I keep forgetting how young you are. It [the movie] came out in the thirties before the Hays Code and they started censoring everything. I was only a kid myself, fifteen or sixteen. Marlene Dietrich wore a man’s tuxedo and she kissed women right on the mouth.”

I was excited when I heard that The Gilda Stories by Jewell Gomez had been reissued by City Lights Books (2016). The Gilda Stories is a pioneering black lesbian vampire story that spans a woman’s history from escaping slavery into the future, in the year 2050, when it the story ends on a positive note with a huge sense of relief (from this reader). In full-disclosure, I am not a reader of the vampire genre — except for this novel. Undoubtedly if I were I would have read the book differently. However, I have read many historical novels. And as a historical novel, tracing one character through this long historical span is brilliant. After all, we are all born from the people and places and circumstances that went before us.

 

In the afterword, the publisher in writing that The Gilda Stories in being the first of its kind (far before the proliferation of the vampire genre that came after its first publication) was written with no small amount of bravery in a time “when the rise of the religious right was impacting publication norms” and “equating lesbian and gay art with pornography.”

I read it when it was first published in 1991 by Firebrand Books. Gomez and her work was an important part of lesbian-feminist culture at that time. Of course that world was small and this new edition will be bringing her work to a wider audience.

On reading The Gilda Stories again, I was struck that it works both as a historical work of fiction and as well as a vampire story. Both of these things, perhaps, can be summed up in this single passage:

“Life was indeed interminable. The inattention of her contemporaries to some mortal questions, like race, didn’t suit her. She didn’t believe a past could, or should, be so easily discarded. Her connection to the daylight world came from her blackness. The memories of her master’s lash as well as her mother’s face, legends of the Middle Passage, lynchings she had not been able to prevent, images of black women bent over scouring brushes — all fueled her ambition. She had been attacked more than once by men determined that she die, but of course she had not. She felt their hatred as personally as any mortal. The energy of those times sustained her, somehow.”

Rage lives on — and so does history with us inside of it.

 

originally published in The Huffington Post

Read Full Post »

from The Huffington Post

I was reminded of the quote from the late poet Muriel Rukeyser — ”What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open” — when I read Judith K. Witherow’s collection of essays, Strong Enough To Bend, Twin Spirits Publishing, 2014. Then when I read The Rules by S. Renee Bess, a novel published by Regal Crest Enterprises, 2014, I was reminded of this quote again.

Judith and Renee are both lesbian writers who bring their truth home through their writings.

In her collection of essays, Strong Enough To Bend, Judith K. Witherow describes herself as a “back up writer, one of many who stand in the background, providing the harmony and staging the recognition for those whose names are on the covers of the books or the mastheads of the publications.”

She describes Strong Enough to Bend as her solo performance. And what a performance it is. I found that I could not put Strong Enough To Bend down — except for time to recollect how much the essays reminded me of friend’s lives and my own.

Native American lesbian and truth teller, Witherow starts her collection with essays on her background being raised poor in the northern Appalachian mountains.

“We never lived in a place that had screen doors or screens in the windows. This allowed everything, including snakes, to come and go at will. We learned at an early age to pound on the floor before getting out of bed.”

In the second section, Judith talks about how she came out with three sons that she gave birth to during a marriage to an abusive man. Raising her sons in the 1970s a time when lesbians were losing their children to custody battles with ex-husbands, presented Judith with an ongoing dilemma of when to officially come out to her children. It’s not surprising that her three sons, who were raised by Judith and her long-term partner, Sue, knew that their mother was a lesbian far before she told them and were fiercely protective of their two mothers.

She devotes another section of the book to her multiple health issues which stem, no doubt, from her poverty ridden childhood, and to her struggles with the medical establishment. In 1979, Judith was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Judith’s health issues are numerous and it is clear that we are lucky to have her with us on this planet. Hers is a voice that we were not meant to hear.

A strong feminist, Judith is a role model for valuing herself. In the 1996 U.S. presidential election, Judith was a write-in candidate prompted by her belief that she “was the best qualified of any of the candidates. Her belief was bolstered by,

“Clinton’s first shot at four years of Democratic leadership…Don’t Ask Don’t Tell sounds like a warmed over version of the Reagan’s ‘Just Say No.'”

When I read The Rules, a novel by S. Renee Bess, I was reminded that truth can be found in fiction. Ranee is a Black lesbian and in these pages we meet an assortment of characters, most of them Black lesbians, at least one of whom lives by the rules — meaning that she lives her life by a certain code of ethics but sometimes she is confused by what the rules are. The protagonist, a woman by the name of London, defends herself to her long-term lover who is leaving her.

“What do you mean?”
“You don’t seem sure about your blackness.”
“What are you talking about. I know I’m black.”
“Do you? You could have fooled me. Most of your friends aren’t black. You don’t talk like a black person. You couldn’t even keep working for a black-owned construction company.”
“My friends are all different colors. I speak the way I was taught to speak, and I left Clive Wittingham’s firm because I wasn’t climbing the ladder there, not because I didn’t want to work for a back man’s company.”

Two of the characters are profoundly influenced by their childhoods — and in fact we meet them as children when they were friends. As adults they are joined by a cast of characters complicated by intrigue and lesbian love. Equally intriguing to me was the prism of race and class.

I read this lesbian duo back to back and when the last page was turned, I felt the world split open — just a little.

Read Full Post »