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This morning, I took part in Poetry Sunday, a Unitarian Universalist summer service that is a tradition. The theme was social justice. In my talk, I reflected on the nature of poetry in creating empathy and talked about Carolyn Forché’s memoir, What You Have Heard is True about her time in El Salvador. I also talk Carolyn’s influence on me as a teacher and my migration from poetry to prose.

The YouTube video of my talk  is below. The complete text of my talk is below that.  The service took place at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration on Stenton Ave. in Philadelphia.

“Poetry makes nothing happen”

This oft quoted line is from W.H. Auden’s poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” In our culture nothing is a negative word – but I posit that nothing is a good thing. It gives us a chance to pause, to reflect, to think for ourselves and to see what is in front of us.

I have observed that poetry creates empathy. It slows down time so that we can observe a detail and then feel a feeling. And since empathy starts with the self, it may be that almost all poetry is social justice poetry.

Recently, I have noticed that I am sighing and feeling depressed whenever I see a headline. There are lots of reasons to feel depressed – especially in the news. But as someone who actively combats depression by doing Buddhist chanting every day and practicing yoga, the feeling was strong enough for me to recognize it.  At the time that I was feeling this way, I was reading Carolyn Forché’s memoir of witness and resistance titled after a line in one of her most well-known poems written about her time in El Salvador in the late 1970s,What You Have Heard Is True. Carolyn, who was in El Salvador in the time that was building up to a civil war, is an internationally known poet and professor.

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It was during the reading of this memoir and possibly because of it, when I decided that depression was a luxury I couldn’t afford.  I am, after all, a writer.  And words matter. I first met Carolyn at a week-long poetry workshop at Omega Institute that I took with my friend Anne Arfaa (who is playing the piano today. Thank you, Anne.) I was twenty-nine — the same age as Gertrude Stein when she first started taking herself seriously as a writer.

There is a lot that I have forgotten about that workshop, since it was a long time ago. But what stayed with me was my daily discipline of writing and a line of poetry from a poet I had never heard about before but came to love: Mary Oliver. I didn’t know who Carolyn Forché was before the workshop, but my partner – Barbara – told me that she was an important poet and that I would love her work.  Barbara is usually right. This time she was very right.

The lines of my poetry became longer – and began to include dialogue – so I migrated from poetry to prose.  I didn’t think about it then, but the discipline and the lyricism I had learned in that poetry workshop was with me when I wrote my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (published by Bella Books in 2012) and my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (published by Adelaide Books in 2018).

I remember Carolyn staring at me during the workshop when she talked about the importance of a daily writing practice. I may have imagined it, but in this moment of doing nothing – no words were spoken – it’s quite possible that I picked up the mantle of responsibility.  I was one of the students who would write daily.  And long before I was a Unitarian Universalist, I considered my daily writing practice to be a spiritual practice.

Carolyn Forché’s memoir brought this all back to me. What You Have Heard is True is particularly significant in light of the tragic mishandling of the crisis of immigration and asylum seekers we are witnessing at our borders. The memoir is a reminder that the poverty and violence people are fleeing in the South and Central Americas was created in part by the U.S. government. Our tax dollars helped the government support brutal corruption in the name of suppressing what the U.S. government called “communism.” What this really did was to keep the masses of people impoverished.

The information wasn’t new to me. In the old days there was lots of overlap between progressive communities. Still, I found the information to be as gripping as it was appalling.  I couldn’t put the book down.

Forché extensively quotes Leonel Gomez Vides, the man who brought her to El Salvador.  I will leave you with his words to ponder.

“You want to know what is revolutionary …? To tell the truth. That is what you will do when you return to your country. From the beginning this has been your journey, your coming to consciousness.”

Namaste

To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.

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This piece is airing worldwide this week on This Way Out (TWO), the syndicated LGBT radio show.  Click here to listen to the entire show.

(TWO is the first international LGBTQ radio news magazine.)

 

Heaven is to Your Left Juliana Series: Book 4 (1956)

by Vanda

Sans Merci Press

If you dissect the word history, you will find that most of the word is story.  As for the prefix “his,” it can be replaced with any and all gender pronouns. If you look at U.S. LGBTQ history before the Stonewall Inn Rebellion in 1969, which lasted for six nights, when queers of all stripes stood up against a routine police raid and launched the modern LGBTQ movement, you’ll find it scant with invisibility – and survival – as its goal.

Reading Heaven is to Your Left, the fourth installment in the Juliana Series by Vanda (Sans Merci Press) is what prompted me to think about our history. The novel is set in 1956. The fact is that we have a history even if most of it was erased.  As a lesbian writer, I often think of the advice from the French author and pioneering lesbian-feminist thinker, Monique Wittig, who wrote, “Remember, Or, failing that, invent.”

Monique was telling us how to find our history.  In this fourth installment of The Julian Series, which can be read on its own, a lesbian love story is set against the historic backdrop of life in 1956. It is rife with specific detail of place such as snowflakes falling on your face in New York City.  It also contains just enough historic detail of that time (including the news that U.S. Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus in the mid-1950s).

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The novel tells us that at the same time, it was illegal for LGBTQ people – labelled “Queers” and not in a positive way – to exist.  The subtext of the novel tells us something more important – not only did we exist but we were part of history. When the two women return from a time in Paris to New York City, they are grappling with the reality of being blackmailed by someone who has found out about the fact that they are lovers. Juliana, who is an internationally known singing sensation, is lovers with Al, short for Alice, who has put Juliana on the map.

Vanda deftly writes about Al looking at Juliana in a passage that basically says it all:

“She moved toward the center of the stage, and my heart fluttered to the sound of her heels lightly clicking against the wood. She had her hair done up in a bouffant. And, oh, how lovely she looked in her Evan Picone pencil skirt and double-breasted blouse, the pointy collar sitting up against her neck, highlighting the short hair in back and the small silver earrings sitting delicately on her earlobes. I wanted to run up on stage and pull her into my arms and . . . She wasn’t even looking at me. I wondered if she knew I was there, but . . . No, we couldn’t risk even a careless glance among our own. The whole world had suddenly become more dangerous.”

As the story came to its inevitable conclusion, it landed on me with an emotional thud. There is a term in creative writing called an emotional reality, and this is an example of it. In my reader’s mind, Alice and Juliana existed even though they were fictional characters. On a deeper level, this means that we existed.

 

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To read Vanda’s review of my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon) click here.

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Looking back into the not so distant past, I recall wondering as I looked out the window — what if Spring doesn’t come back this year?  I didn’t wonder that this year, probably because I was busy — with my head in my laptop —revising my novel The Unicorn, The Mystery.

Having been raised secular (along with being a fan of Greek mythology), one of my favorite stories is about Persephone and her emergence from the underworld to be reunited with her mother Demeter.

I’m the first to acknowledge that I’ve had my issues with Christianity over the years.  What it came down to was that traditional religion just had too much baggage for me.  But that is changing.

But having been raised secular was freeing enough for me to once write a poem that said 

Jesus is a daffodil.

That’s it.  That’s all the poem said and, in my mind, all it had to say.

Just recently, I published a blog post about seeing the movie, Wild Nights With Emily, and how happy it made me as a scholar of Emily’s lesbian life.  I received a comment from someone who called himself “a reverend” about how upset it made him to think that Emily Dickinson was “gay.”

The movie is based on solid research regarding Emily’s relationship with her sister-in-law Susan and how that relationship was erased.  The comment (given its source) made me wonder if all – or most — of homophobia is based in religion.

A7CFB471-CA19-44C6-9F38-DDCFC95058E7Thankfully, religion is changing.  At the movie theater, I picked up a copy of The Philadelphia Gay News, which had an article about Drag Story Time at the Mt. Airy Philadelphia branch of The Free Library being protested by conservative Christians. My partner and I were delighted to  see the minister (McKinley Sims) of the Unitarian Church we attend on the cover of the newspaper as one of the counter protestors protesting the protestors and taking the side of the drag queen and story time. 

McKinley is on the bottom right of the photo (holding a big wooden cross) and his wife K.P. Is next to him holding a sign that says, “Christ is in all things, including drag.”

I was delighted that the a substantial graduating class of Notre Dame College walked out on speaker Mike Pence because of his anti-LGBTQ views. One of them coined the hash tag #notmyjesus. (For more informative, click here )

So let’s hear it for the people changing Christianity and changing the world!

 

Available through you local library, (including the Lovett Library branch of the Philadelphia Free Library where the protest was) THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders is also available through your local bookstore or online.

To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.

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Many thanks to the Philadelphia Gay News for the article they ran this week before my reading at the Penn Book Center (with Anjali Mitter Duva) at the fiction series at the Penn Book Center, 130 S. 34th St., on the University of Pennsylvania campus, Jan. 30 at 6:30 p.m.

Mt. Airy author Janet Mason is well known on the Philadelphia literary circuit and within the local LGBTQ community for her provocative writing that includes poetry, memoir and fiction. Her last book, “Tea Leaves,” won the Golden Crown Literary Award for lesbian memoir.

Mason’s new novel is set primarily in biblical times. “THEY: A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders” (Adelaide Books, $22) is quite different from Mason’s other work. The novel details the story of Tamar of the Hebrew Bible and a twin sister Tabitha, Tabitha’s intersex twins and the dawning of the concept of defining male gender as preferential, along with the concept of gender as finite — two genders with no variants.

Mason, who will be reading (with Anjali Mitter Duva) at a fiction series at the Penn Book Center on Jan. 30, delves deeply into the variants with her lesbian protagonist and the character’s family.

It’s a complicated story that evolved over the past couple of years as Mason experienced her own awakening with regard to religion, the Bible and gender.

“I was raised secular,” Mason said. Her mother, the subject of “Tea Leaves,” was “a Bible-burning atheist.”

About five years ago, Mason joined the Unitarian Universalist Church where she became a lay minister.

they_cover1_300“I started reading the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, which I’ve always been curious about,” Mason said. “There is some great stuff in both books of the Bible, but there’s also a fair amount of misogyny and violence. I remember that in my high-spirited 20s, I announced at some opportune time that someone needed to rewrite the Bible.”

Mason says while reading the Bible for the first time, “I came across the story of Tamar in Genesis, the muse descended, and I was off and running. I was also influenced by taking yoga and developing a daily practice that included Buddhist meditation.”

Other influences included “knowing a young family on my block whose child transitioned at age 5 to become a happy little girl. I was also reviewing several books on trans issues,” Mason explained. “Later, when I was finished writing the novel, I found out that Biblical scholars — including a rabbi who published a piece in The New York Times — had found that the Hebrew Bible, in particular, did have original words such as ‘they’ to connote both and all genders.”

 At a time when the political climate has turned anti-LGBTQ and evangelicals seem to have taken ownership of the Bible, Mason said she wanted to “send the message that we are all valued. The evangelicals definitely don’t ‘own’ religion, even if they think they do. Many of their children are staying in the religion and changing it to be more liberal. And there are plenty of liberal religions — and they are changing, too.” Religion, she says, “is becoming more inclusive of LGBTQ people.”

For Mason, “Working on ‘THEY’ was my way of entering the stories and myths of the Bible made real to me by my imagination. My hope is that ‘THEY’ might be an opening for some to enter the stories and find that there’s room for them, too.”

Though Mason is currently promoting her new book with readings and book signings, she is also working on new projects, which include revising another novel titled “The Unicorn, The Mystery,” of which several sections were recently short-listed for the Adelaide Literary Prize.

“It’s a novel that is set in an abbey in medieval times where several nuns who happen to be in love with each other live. A monk and a talking unicorn narrate
the story.”

Mason will be reading (with Anjali Mitter Duva) at the fiction series at the Penn Book Center, 130 S. 34th St., on the University of Pennsylvania campus, Jan. 30 at 6:30 p.m.

(interview by Victoria Brownworth for PGN)

 

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I was delighted to read this review which I excerpted below:

“What I liked most about the book was that I was a part of the discovery.  I would be reading about Tamar and her family and friends and then suddenly one of them would mention a relative or acquaintance who lived in another land; gradually I would come to realize this person was a famous Biblical character, for instance Naomi and Ruth from “I go whither you goest,” fame.

As a young teenager I was in search of answers, so I read the Bible from cover to cover twice. l   don’t know that I found any answers, but I enjoyed the stories. I was able to connect to those ancient people. The stories in They are told in simple, everyday language; they do not sound Biblical. They sound human.”

–reviewed by Vanda, author of The Juliana Series

To read the entire review, click here

 

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Note: This piece is airing worldwide this week on This Way Out (TWO), the syndicated LGBT radio show.  Click here to listen to the entire show.

As a lesbian writer, I am continually confronted with the fact that we are many things – at the heart LGBTQ but perhaps not in everything we do.  I’ve come to the conclusion that LGBTQ status shouldn’t matter even when it does.

Recently, I was reminded of this dilemma in the reading of two books from Other Press about men who happen to be gay in the Middle East. Both books are well-written and delightfully complex. Both also represent stories within a story. coexist rainbow flag two

In The Parting Gift (Other Press 2018), a novel by Evan Fallenberg, we meet an unnamed narrator who tells us the story by writing a letter to his former lover Adam who he knew in a university in the states when the narrator left abruptly for Israel where he fell in love with a for a time lived with an alpha male who was previously heterosexual – and who in fact, as the narrator tells us, may not have an orientation other than being macho and selfish.

The story line, like the sexuality of the two male beloveds, is fluid. “This story, like most stories, could begin in a number of different places,” writes Fallenberg.  His narrator explains that he chose to go to go to Israel “because if you’re a Jew you can get off the plane in Tel Aviv, tell them you want to be a citizen, and you get processed right there at the airport.  Full rights and benefits – housing, education, medical.”

Once in Israel he meets and falls in love and lust with a spice-dealer who is close to his ex-wife and his children. The gay narrator becomes totally ensnared in the relationship and once things quickly begin to go bad, he is forced to examine entitlement – first that of his lover but then also the entitlement that he himself grew up with even as he acknowledges that he is now on the receiving end of entitlement.  It is being used against him. The narrator explains to Adam (and to the reader) that he didn’t leave abruptly because, “I had no friends, no real prospects. I was suddenly a 1950s housewife, trapped and helpless.”

The Diamond Setter, a novel by Moshe Saka (Other Press 2017) which was translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen is a sprawling novel that traces the role of a blue diamond — a cursed but inanimate object with a storied past — in connecting people and communities.

A main character — Fareed a young Arab man from Syria who crosses the border and sneaks into Israel with the destination of Yafa – is gay. Fareed (who is carrying the diamond) finds himself in a community that evokes his past.

In addition to being culturally significant, or perhaps as a result, the novel has love at its core. It begins with a few paragraphs that contain the passage that this a story “from back in the days when the Middle East was steeped not only in blood but also in love.”

When Fareed is amazed at the acceptance of gays in Israel, one of his new friends in Yafa warns that,

“Most gay Palestinians in Israel are closeted. It’s a very conservative society. Even our leaders, the ones in the Knesset, say things like, ‘Arab society is not yet mature enough to contend with this issue.’ What is it mature enough for it to deal with then? … What’s for sure is that the Shami Bar, here in Yafa, is an oasis.  It doesn’t represent anything going on in this country, certainly not the discrimination and racism against Arabs.”

Perhaps the novel can be summed up by what Sakal writes in the Afterword:  “Anyone who lived in Palestine before the State of Israel was established in 1948 had tales of brave relationships that survived even the bloodiest of times, love affairs and friendships between Jews and Arabs … “

As complex as The Diamond Setter is, it can leave the reader with the feeling that with love, anything is possible.

 

To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (just published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.

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This morning, I took part in a Unitarian Universalist summer service. In my talk, I reflected on The Egyptian Cat Goddess the Goddess Bastet (a part of my novel The Unicorn, The Mystery) and on the spiritual practice of gardening.

The YouTube video of my talk  is below. The complete text of my talk is below that.  The service took place at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration on Stenton Ave. in Philadelphia.

 

 

In the summer, I garden.  This is a common hobby for many, especially writers.  It teaches patience, attention, and relentless hope.  Not everything that we plant comes back – especially after a long icy winter.  Not every seed sprouts and not every sprout makes it.  In this way it makes me focus on the positive – on what does come back and on what does sprout.

Being a Unitarian Universalist gives me a spiritual context in which to think about gardening. Many of our flowers attract bees – such as bee balm, lavender and the butterfly bush. And bees, of course, are good for the planet.

Every now and then, a plant from my writing appears in my garden – seemingly out of nowhere but probably from a seed dropped by a bird.  Last year it was a tall flowering weed known as a “sow’s ear” which was also in the manuscript I just finished writing, titled The Unicorn, The Mystery which is set in the 1500s in France.  I was amazed, of course, at the sow’s ear in my backyard.

Recently, I planted catnip.  Cats love our backyard and often we see one sleeping there – most often in the shade of the young hazel nut tree that my partner’s sister sent us. Inside, my office looks out to the backyard where the garden is. Our old cat Felix has taken to sleeping on the inside back windowsill – no doubt protecting his territory.

godess bastet threeI have long been fascinated by the Egyptian Cat Goddess Bastet. In my novel, The Unicorn, The Mystery, my monk character (who in many ways is a Unitarian Universalist at heart) prays to the Goddess Bastet.

 

I stepped slowly and softly as if the soles of my feet had ears.  I took another step. A branch snapped under my foot.  I winced. That would never do.  If my beloved unicorn heard that she would assume there was a human nearby – big enough to snap a branch under foot – and hide.  It seemed like I would never find her.  I decided to pray.  But I had prayed to the One God before and it hadn’t worked.  Who would I pray to? Who would help me?

Immediately, the Goddess Bastet leapt to mind. Bastet was an Egyptian Goddess who was half woman and half cat. I knew about her because when I was a boy, my mother would tell me the stories that her father had told her.  He had loved Greek mythology and found out that the Goddess Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, was related to the earlier Goddess Bastet from Egypt who came from the even earlier fierce lioness Goddess Bast, the warrior goddess of the sun.

The followers of Bastet ruled ancient Egypt for a time in the land where cats were sacred.  I remember that my mother’s emerald green eyes gleamed as if she were a cat herself when she told me about the Goddess Bastet who kept away disease and was the protector of pregnant women. The stories she told me about the fierce, soft, cat Goddess Bastet were so vivid that she made me want a cat for my very own pet.

My mother cautioned me, however, not to mention cats to anyone but her. People with cats were looked on with suspicion, she warned me. For some reason cats were looked down on by the Church as wily creatures associated with Satan. Again, my mother told me that it was very important never to anger the Church.

Surely, the Goddess Bastet would help me find my beloved unicorn. She of all the gods and goddesses would understand why I had to find my beloved unicorn to save her.

I closed my eyes tightly until I saw a slim woman, standing tall.  She had very good posture, with the head of a cat.  I knew it was Goddess Bastet, just as my mother had described her.

 

 

And so, the Goddess Bastet and other worlds – real, imagined and both – is something for me to mull over as I tend the soil and do the spiritual work of gardening.

 

Namaste

 

To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (just published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.
Amazon THEY

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