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THEY, A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders by Janet Mason (an excerpt)

Genre: LGBT Literature or Fiction

The following is excerpted (Chapter Five) from THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders by Janet Mason (Adelaide Books ñ New York/Lisbon) the novel of which LGBTQ icon and Biblical scholar, Amos Lassen, has written:

THEY is a groundbreaker and I am sure that the author will agree with me that attempting to add new meaning to given bible stories is tantamount to heresy. I have no doubt that she will suffer repercussions from those who do not agree with her approach. Personally, I found her story to not only be wonderfully written but charming and liberating to us who have lived in a binary world for too long.THEY Scottie

“Close your eyes and imagine the long ago city of Babylon, in a land called Mesopotamia, near the mighty Tigris.  A gentle wind blew.  There was a beautiful Goddess named Ishtar. She was also known as the Queen of the Night,” said Tamar.

“Which night, Auntie?” asked Pharez, sitting on the floor of Tamar’s tent, playing with one of the  figurines.  Zerah crawled toward the camel Aziz.

“Zerah, look at Pharez’s doll. See how pretty? Here’s another one just like it.” Tamar grabbed a clay figurine from the woven basket.  Zerah came crawling back.

“Ishtar was called the Queen of the Night because she was known as the goddess of love and …  well of love,” said Tamar.

Ishtar was the goddess of love, war, fertility, and sexuality.  And she may have been a sacred  prostitute.  Tamar felt protective of the twins.  They were too young to hear about war and sex.

“What did the goddess look like, Auntie?”   Zerah looked up at her with big brown eyes under long thick lashes. The child was sitting cross legged.

“She was tall and beautiful and she had wings,” answered Tamar. “She had a face like… well a goddess … with wide set eyes shaped like almonds and a high forehead under a crown that was piled very high with ridges like a fancy temple. She held her arms up. Her hands grasped two

loops of rope that also may have been hand mirrors. Her two pet owls were usually by her side.”

“Ooooh owls! Do you have an etching?” Pharez dropped the figurine.

“I have one that we can look at later, but first I want to tell you the story of someone “That’s what happens to us eventually. We cease to exist.  But don’t worry.  It won’t happen for a long, long time. And if you meet a spirit guide like Asushunamir it might not happen at all.”

Tamar told herself that lying was okay if it made people feel better — especially children.

“How did the spirit guide save the goddess?”

Tamar could tell now that it was Pharez who was asking the questions.  Pharez’s nose was a little

more snub than Zerah’s.  They had the same oval faces ending in pointy chins.

“I was just about to tell you that,” continued Tamar.

“Ishtar wanted to go somewhere new and she had never gone to the underworld where her evil sister, Ereshkigal, ruled.”

“Ha. Ha.”  Zerah covered hir mouth with a small hand.

“Evil sister,” repeated Pharez. “It sounds like you and mama.”

Zerah shot Pharez a look.

The twins were silent.  Both looked down. The fringe of their long lashes covered their secrets.

Tamar wondered what Tabitha had told them.  Her sister had left the twins while she went shopping at the market.  She said she would be back this afternoon. They had agreed not to tell the twins that they were sisters, so that they wouldn’t have to worry about one of them blurting it out around Judah. They told them that Tamar was a good friend of their mother’s. The twins called her “Auntie.”

Unless she was busy, Tamar always watched the twins.  Sometimes it felt like they were her children. She loved them that much.

“Ishtar wanted to go to the underworld.  But first she had to ask the other gods if she could go. They ignored her so she asked again and then again. Finally, they said she could go.”

Tamar paused.

“The underworld had many gates,” she continued.  “There were seven in total.  Ishtar came to the first gate and rang the bell. Claaanggg. There was one ring for the first gate and two for the second gate and so on. Ishtar rang the bell and waited.  She tapped her foot.  Finally, the gatekeeper came, but he did not open the gate.  Like most goddesses, Ishtar had a temper.

To read more on LGBT Book Buzz, click here:
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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One of my inspirations for my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (Adelaide Books — NY/ Lisbon) is the Gnostic Gospels.

The Gnostic Gospels were discovered in the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945.  Originally written in Coptic, these texts date back to ancient times and give us an alternative glimpse into the Gospels that are written in the New Testament. They are so important that they are banned in some conventional religions.

In my book, that’s a good reason to read them.

Reading them led me to think of myself as a Gnostic – meaning one who has knowledge and who pursues knowledge – including mystical knowledge.

The first place where I heard the Gnostic Gospels was in the music composed and played on the harp by our friend Julia Haines.

Julia has a wonderful composition of Thunder Perfect Mind. 

Thunder Perfect Mind is one of the ancient texts of the Gnostic Gospels.

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I am inspired by the Gnostic Gospels in part because they let in the light.  In particular, they let in the light of the feminine.

As Julia says in her rendition of Thunder:

I am godless

I am Goddess

To learn more about Julia’s music, you can click the following link to her CD Baby Page that features HER Songs, Thunder: Perfect Mind and Odyssey.

  https://store.cdbaby.com/Artist/JuliaHHaines

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 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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