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Looking at Pictures is the novel that I spent last winter writing. It gives us a glimpse into the loves and lives of well known artists and ordinary people, both queer and not, all of whom live outside the box.  It is a novel influenced by history — it takes place in 1926 — and by the people who lived in that time.  Many of the characters are actual artists, including fine art photographers.

This novel was inspired, in large part, by the work that I have been doing with Jeanette Jimenez on the archive of her father Alexander Artway (an architect and photographer who photographed New York City in the 1930s). The archive is extremely interesting and the photographs brilliant!

The first short fiction excerpt –titled Looking At Pictures — of my novel was just published by devise literary and is partially excerpted below. Very shortly after I finished the novel last Spring, I heard from David Acosta (formerly known as Juan David Acosta) who invited me to be one of the readers at his new series at Casa de Duende. The piece that I read was a chapter set in Mexico which features the characters Frida and Tina.  The YouTube video, below, includes David’s wonderful introduction. If I were to rate this YouTube piece, it is definitely PG-plus.  It’s called “Ecstasy” and is influenced by lesbian sex, philosophy and LOVE. (A photograph of all the readers is below the YouTube video.)

 

Fiction: Looking at Pictures

Issue 1.2

by Janet Mason

(May, 1926)

Tina looked at the image in front of her and wished she still had her camera.

She was walking along the deepwater port looking into the hold of a ship that had backed up to the cement pier. She could see both levels. Initially she assumed that first class was on the top and that steerage was down below.  Then she noticed that the people below were almost all women and children.  They looked like immigrants from Europe wrapped in their drab shawls and holding their squalling infants.  None of them looked up.

……read more at devise literary

 

Ecstasy“@ Casa de Duende:

 

 

 

 

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The readers at Casa de Dunende’s queer reading series last Spring at the Da Vinci Art Alliance: (first row — left to right) David Acosta; Susan DiPronio; Lamont Steptoe; (second row – left to right) Cyree Jarelle Johnson; Janet Mason; Thom Nickels; (third row back Maxton Young-Jones.

Many thanks to David Acosta, Artistic Director for Casa de Duende, for bringing us all together!

 

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pussy-vote-poster

I walked into an art gallery opening in Germantown Philadelphia recently and saw this poster on the wall.  There are lots of reasons that I support Hillary — but this poster says it all.  So metaphorically or not — grab your pussy — and vote!

As my partner says, “Nasty women are his biggest nightmare!”

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“To the queerest person I know.”

This is how my childhood best friend signed my high school year book. I am now in my fifties and don’t remember that much from high school — that I want to admit to — but I do remember this comment.

She was right. I was different. I read books rather than watching the TV. I followed the news — and in a working class milieu this meant that I was an oddball. Then in my early twenties, I came out as a lesbian-feminist.

It wasn’t easy being different when I was a teen in the 1970s. But being different is a good and necessary thing. People who dare to be different make change. As I write in Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters, a few of us girls on the elementary school playground hung upside down on the parallel bars in protest of girls not being allowed to wear pants — before the women’s movement: “It was 1969. The following year, having learned the power of showing out (almost) bare asses, we were wearing bell bottoms.”

I came out in the early eighties. About ten years later, I began hearing the word “queer” in the gay and lesbian community. This was before we had the term LGBT. I had some resistance to the word “Queer” until I talked to a younger friend who embraced the term. She explained to me that “Queer” included everyone that didn’t fit the gender and sexual orientation expectations of society. In other words, queer was not heterosexual — or “het,” as we said in those days.

We are still figuring out gender. A older friend who is a strong feminist began researching transgender issues when her nephew, who started out life as a niece, transitioned. My friend had some old school feminist notions at first but quickly came around to supporting her nephew whole-heartedly. At one point she said to me, “I’ve been gender non-conformist my entire life.” So my friend (who is a celibate bisexual), her nephew, and I, are all queer.

So I applaud the HuffPost for changing “Gay Voices” to “Queer Voices.” Queer recognizes our commonalities — in the fact that we are all different. We are a community and we do have enemies — although that is not the only thing that makes us a community — and there is strength in numbers.

I recently read two books about queerness back to back. One from the other side of the world — is called From Darkness to Diva by Skye High, a leading Australian drag queen. The other, about a man who grew up near me in a neighboring suburb of Philadelphia, is Dying Words: The AIDS Reporting of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times written by Samuel G. Freedman with Kerry Donahue.

In From Darkness to Diva (O-Books, an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd. in the U.K.) the tall gay man who took Skye High as his drag name writes of his growing up gay and being so badly bullied that he had to leave high school. High writes unflinchingly about the beatings he endured, but also delves into the self examination and spiritual lessons that he experienced. He also writes of the trials and triumphs of finding a gay community and of the liberation he experienced in entering the transformative world of drag.

I was on the journey with him — as someone who was a teen who was bullied (to a lesser degree) and as someone who came of age and found my place in the world. But at no point was I more riveted as when he stood up to a bully in his second high school. He had to leave his first high school because he was bullied and after working several for several years returned to another high school for his degree and was bullied again. High explores how he felt as he eventually stood up to the bully:

“I now had the power over him. I was in control. In that moment, I finally felt vindicated. It was as though my actions would have been justified had I wanted to snap his neck and kill him.”

But ultimately he showed mercy on the bully and let him go, explaining that he felt “saddened by the sight of him helplessly lying on the floor.”

Dying Words, The AIDS Reporting Of Jeff Schmalz And How It Transformed The New York Times (CUNY Journalism Press) is a moving tribute to Jeff who died at the age of 39. It is arranged in the form of interviews with colleagues, friends, relatives (including his sister the literary agent Wendy Schmalz Wilde) of Jeff’s and by the time the book presents his reportage on the AIDS epidemic, the reader feels a kinship with him.

“I think often of the dozen friends who have died of AIDS, and I feel them with me. It’s not that I am writing editorials, avenging their deaths. It’s that I feel their strength, their soothing me on. They are my conscience, their shadows with me everywhere: In the torchlight of the march. Over my shoulder. By my desk. In my sleep.”

Jeff had to break out of the box of the Times impeccable third-person reportage into the finding of his own voice. Participant-journalist doesn’t quite describe it, but it comes close.

Former Times colleague Samuel G. Freedman writes eloquently in the foreword about the reasons that he put the book together:

“For a lack of a better term, I felt survivor guilt. And beyond it, I grieved that as the years passed, fewer people would remember who Jeff Schmalz was and what tremendous work he had done.”

What impressed me about both books was how different they were — yet universal to the human experience. Who isn’t different in some way? In my view, anyone who says they are the same as everyone else is either lying, extremely boring or both.

previously in The Huffington Post

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This review  aired on This Way Out (the international radio show) — click here to listen

The alternative to the LGBT community is to be invisible. There is strength in numbers and in community and that is why we band together. Historically, we have a collective history of living in the shadows — out of self preservation in a homophobic society. But living in the shadows was and is unhealthy. It has led to isolation, dishonesty (in particular with opposite-sex heterosexual spouses) and all the guises of self-destruction, including substance abuse and suicide. Recently, I read two books — Therese And Isabelle By Violette Leduc originally censored but in 2015 published by The Feminist Press and Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason (2015; WoodstockArts) by Joseph P. Eckhardt — that brought these issues to the surface of my thinking.

I had heard about the book by Joseph P. Eckhardt Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason (2015; WoodstockArts), but it took a visit to the Historical Society of Woodstock to really pique my interest. I was visiting the area when friends who lived nearby told me that the show — based on the book and the lives and some of the original artwork of Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason who were life partners and residents of Woodstock, NY, for decades was a “must-see.” So I went. The show, which ended in early September, featured a 1920s silent film which the more than six feet tall, larger than life, Wilna Hervey had a role.

I went with my partner and some old friends from the area and as we were leaving, one of the women said to me, “Doesn’t it make you angry that so much of our history had been lost?” I am, by nature, an optimist, so I agreed with her. One way to look at it, is that this is just one slice of our history, most of which has been lost. But I have to admit that I had the feeling of an absolute afterglow in thinking about these two women. I’m sure the fact that I, too, am a lesbian in a long-term relationship, and that I am over six feet tall (like both Wilna and Nan) and that my last name is the same as Nan Mason and that I have a raucous laugh like Nan did brought some bearing on my fascination. We all like to see ourselves reflected in the world.

Living Large is billed as “a rollicking dual biography of one of America’s earliest ‘out and proud’ same-sex couples” and it does not disappoint. Eckhardt did a thorough and meticulous job of telling us the story of their lives and relationship. Wilna Hervey was a comedic silent film star. Nan Mason was the daughter of Wilna’s co-star and friend, Dan Mason, and the two women hit it off with the father’s blessing. He wrote a letter to them, saying:

“I am happy when I know you are both happy. I want to see that harmony grow and expand in your two lives. Both giving and taking for your mutual welfare and happiness. Love is the great vital force. Love is life, without it life is a void. Poor indeed is the man or woman who do not or never have known true love.”

Nan and Wilna were both visual artists and in 1924, they moved to an art colony in the Catskills which became their permanent home. In the epilogue Eckhardt writes:

“It is their enthusiasm, their eagerness to explore the adventures that each new day might bring — and their joy in sharing them with each other — that the most important legacy of Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason is to be found. Their enduring companionship serves to remind us of a profound and timeless truth: enthusiasm and love are the secrets to a happy life, and the essence of Living Large.”

Eckhardt emphasizes that Wilna and Nan did not experience discrimination based on their sexual orientation. This is unusual, but it is easy to believe. They lived protected lives as artists in a community of artists and also (Wilna was an heiress) came from protected class backgrounds.

Still, Living Large left me with some questions. Was my friend (who I saw the exhibition with) right? Would Wilna Hervey be as well known as Charlie Chaplin if it wasn’t for the sexism and heterosexism of the time? Would they have had better luck as artists if the climate was different? In particular, the artwork and fine art photography by Nan Mason (reproduced in the book) is nothing short of stunning.
We may never know, but it is no small thing that we know about their lives in Living Large.

Therese And Isabelle By Violette Leduc was censored in the author’s time but in 2015 was published by The Feminist Press which explains, “In 1966 when it was originally published in France, the text was censored because of its explicit depiction of young homosexuality. With this publication, the original, unexpurgated text–a stunning literary portrayal of female desire and sexuality–is available to a US audience for the first time.”

Leduc lived from 1907 to 1972. She was respected by the well-known writers of her time and place including Camus, Cocteau and Genet. Simone de Beauvoir was her close friend and champion. Even so, she was ahead of her time and was largely unrecognized in her lifetime with the exception of her autobiography La Batarde, published in 1964.

Still, as a writer she accomplished her goals. Of her work that was censored, she wrote:

“I am trying to render as accurately as possible, as minutely as possible, the sensations felt in physical love. In this there is doubtless something that every woman can understand. I am not aiming for scandal but only to describe the woman’s experience with precision….”

This precisely explains Therese and Isabelle. Leduc takes sensuous writing to new heights in capturing the erotic energy between two French school girls:

“….Clasping her against my gaping open heart, I wanted to draw Isabelle inside. Love is an exhausting invention. Isabelle, Therese, I pronounced in my head, getting used to the magical simplicity of our two names.”

The sensuous language is not reserved for the erotic scenes, but stay with the reader as the protagonists turn from lovers back into school girls — “Girls flew off toward their violins, their primers, their pianos.” Hers is a language that captures the subtlety of forbidden love: “…I linked my arm in hers: twining together, our fingers made love.”

The book includes two essays at the end. In “A Story of Censorship” by Carlo Jansiti and the “Afterward” by Michael Lucey, we learn about Violette’s struggles as an author, including the heartbreak of censorship. Despite the way that she may have felt in her lifetime, Violette Leduc’s work endures, and it is absolutely necessary.

(This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post and OpEdNews.com)

To view the photos of “Living Large” at the Woodstock Historical Society, click here.

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from The Huffington Post

I knew about Edmund White as a writer long before I read his books. I knew that he was a gay icon and had written many books, fiction and nonfiction. I knew that he was especially known for his coming of age novel, A Boy’s Own Story, written in 1982, around the time that I came out. I knew that he had lived in Paris for a time and had written a biography of Jean Genet, the controversial French poet, playwright and novelist who was born in 1910.

When I heard about White’s latest book, Inside a Pearl, My Years in Paris (2014, Bloomsbury), I decided that it was time to read Edmund White. As a lesbian writer, even as one who has known many interesting people, I have very little in common with White. When I started reading Inside a Pearl — which is replete with namedropping — complete with a description of one of Elton John’s parties, this became clear to me. But for whatever reasons I have long been interested in Paris thanks to Gertrude Stein and the Left Bank Sapphic crowd — I kept reading. And what I found was an Edmund White I could relate to — one who could lay his life on the page.

It was when I read about White’s experiences as a caretaker of friends and lovers with HIV and being HIV positive himself — along with the ups and down of his friendships with both men and women — that I began to relate to him. His vulnerabilities made him human. He ruminates about his decision to live in Paris:

“I asked myself why I was here. Sure, I’d won a Guggenheim and a small but regular contract with Vogue to write once a month of cultural life. Right now I was writing a piece about why Americans like Proust so much. Back in America I’d worked around clock heading the New York Institute for the Humanities and teaching writing at Columbia and New York University. I never seemed to have time for my own writing. When I was president of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the biggest and oldest AIDS organization in the world, I hadn’t liked myself in the role of leader; I was power mad and tyrannical… And secretly I’d wanted the party to go on and thought that moving the Europe would give me a new lease on promiscuity. Paris was meant to be an AIDS holiday. After all, I was of the Stonewall generation, equating sexual freedom with freedom itself. But by 1984 many gay guys I knew were dying in Paris as well — there was no escaping the disease.”

White goes on to write about his life in Paris about the friendships that he forged, many through his writing projects, about his lovers — his “great love” was “from Zurich, the manager of a small chain of Swiss cinemas, whom I met in Venice” — and his familiarity with French customs. “The French seldom drank after the wine was cleared away with the meal — wine is a good, not a conversation enabler to be poured hours after the dinner.”

He also writes about the European tradition of older gay men calling their younger lovers, their “nephew.” He writes about an interaction between two gay men when one says to the other, “Do you know my nephew?” and the other replies, “Yes, he was my nephew last year.”

He writes about taking care of his former lover turned friend John Purcell who was in the advanced stages of AIDS. White tells us that he told John he would take him anywhere he wanted:

“India? France? He chose Disney World in Orlando. I thought it might be a hoot, but I found it boring and tacky. At Epcot, we went to some horrid replica of the Eiffel Tower when we’d lived in the real Paris for years.”

When White lived in Paris, he took many trips to England. He recounts the conversation at one London party. “Pat (who was notorious is London literary circles for her affair with Jeanette Winterson), looked around and said, “What’s annoying about Paris is that every woman looks like a lesbian but none is.” White goes on to write, “Pat was one of my favorite people.”

In his sardonic style, White introduces us to the cast of characters that he has met and interacted with on the road of life. Not surprisingly, many, such as Susan Sontag, did not like being written about in his previous works and he writes about that also. It is true that Edmund White has been in the company of many well-known people. But Inside a Pearl left me with was a deeper knowing of Edmund White, the gay icon, the writer, the human being.

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