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Posts Tagged ‘LGBT Book Reviews’

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.

Amazon THEY

 

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Note: I am re-blogging this post in honor of World AIDS Awareness Day on December 1st, 2017.

This piece of commentary was previously aired on This Way Out, the LGBTQ news and culture syndicate headquartered in Los Angeles and published in The Huffington Post.

 

Every now and then comes that rare book that brings your life rushing back to you. How To Survive A Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf 2016) is one such book.

The book chronicles the AIDS epidemic from the early 1980s – when the mysterious “gay cancer” started appearing — to 1995 when hard-won advancements in research and pharmaceuticals made AIDS a virus that people lived with rather than a disease that people died from.

It was an epidemic of massive proportions. As France writes:

“When the calendar turned to 1991, 100,000 Americans were dead from AIDS, twice as many as had perished in Vietnam.”

The book chronicles the scientific developments, the entwined politics, and medical breakthroughs in the AIDS epidemic. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a chronic infectious condition that is caused by the underlying human immunodeficiency virus known as HIV. The book also chronicles the human toll which is staggering.aids memorial quilt

I came out in 1981 and while the devastation France writes about was not my world, it was very close to my experience.

In my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012), I write about how volunteering at an AIDS hospice helped me to care for my mother when she became terminally ill:

“The only caregiving I had done at that point was tending to an old cat and reading poetry to the patients at an AIDS hospice, called Betak, that was in our neighborhood. A friend of ours, who was a harpist, had started a volunteer arts program for the patients. She played the harp, [my partner] Barbara came and brought her drum sometimes, and I read poetry. These were poor people—mostly African American men—who were in the advanced stages of AIDS and close to death. The experience let me see how fast the disease could move.”

In those days, the women’s community (what we then called the lesbian and feminist community) was mostly separate from the gay male community. Understandably, gay men and lesbians had our differences. But there was infighting in every group. Rebellion was in the air, and sometimes we took our hostilities out on each other.

Still, gay men and lesbians were also allies and friends (something that is reflected in France’s writing).

I’ll always remember the time my partner and I took a bus to Washington D.C. with the guys from ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, an international activist group that is still in existence) from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to protest for reproductive rights. The women then went to protest with ACT-UP at AIDS-related protests. Remember the die-ins in the streets?

One thing that lesbians and gay men had in common was that we lived in a world that was hostile to us. At that time, many gay men and lesbians were in the closet because we were vilified by society and in danger of losing our employment, families, housing and, in more than a few instances, our lives.

AIDS activism necessitated coming out of the closet. Hate crimes against us skyrocketed.

There is much in this book that I did not know, even though I lived through the era. In 1986, in protest of the Bowers v. Hardwick ruling of the US Supreme Court (which upheld a Georgia law criminalizing sodomy – a decision that was overturned in 2003), about 1,000 angry people protested in a small park across from the legendary Stonewall Inn in New York City, where the modern gay rights movement was born after a series of riots that started after a routine police raid of the bar.

At that same time, Ronald Reagan (then president) and the President of France François Mitterrand were celebrating the anniversary of the gift of the Statue of Liberty.

“’Did you hear that Lady Liberty has AIDS?” the comedian [Bob Hope] cracked to the three hundred guests. “Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Ferry.’”

“There was a scattering of groans. Mitterand and his wife looked appalled. But not the Reagans. The first lady, a year after the death of her friend Rock Hudson, the brunt of this joke, smiled affectionately. The president threw his head back and roared.”

How to Survive A Plague is told in stories, including the author’s own story. This is apt because the gay rights movement was full of stories and — because of the epidemic — most of those stories were cut short.

Almost every June, my partner and I would be part of the New York Pride Parade and every year we would pause for an official moment to honor our dead. The silence was cavernous.

This silence extended to entire communities. A gay male friend, amazed when his test came back negative, told me that most of his address book was crossed out. He would walk around the “gayborhood” in Center City Philadelphia surrounded by the haunting places where his friends used to live.

And we were all so young then.

When I turned the last page of How To Survive A Plague, I concluded that this is a very well-done book about a history that is important in its own right. The plague years also represent an important part of the American experience. And an understanding of this history is imperative to the future of the LGBT movement.

 

 

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