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Saying goodbye to a friend is hard to do.  This afternoon I learned that Judith K. Witherow has died.  I knew she had multiple health issues and that she had been in the hospital for a long time and that it sounded very serious. Her long-time partner Sue Lanaerts was with her on January 27th when she died. Judith’s two living sons were also with her.

I felt very sad learning this news. The sadness was very heavy — a physical presence.  I was on the floor doing yoga when two thoughts came to me. The first was the thought that she is done with her suffering. The second thought was that she can still offer us her guidance.  Judith was very wise. We are lucky to have had her for as long as we did.  Still, it is hard to say goodbye.

Goodbye, Judith.

I am running this review of her book that I wrote four or so years ago when her book first came out. The review originally appeared in 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.

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.”

Judith K. Witherow (second to right) with me (far right on the end) with Janet Aalfs on the left and Renée Bess. Judith, Janet and Renée were doing a reading at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Philadelphia and I was hosting.

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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.)

When I began reading Have You Seen This Man? The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney (2019 Sibling Rivalry Press), I thought the poems of Karl Tierney might be tragic, but instead found them tragically funny – in a way that often makes the soul snicker. I thought the poetry might be tragic because they were brought to us by tragic circumstances.  The editor was friend and literary executor of the author Karl Tierney who in 1994 became sick with AIDs and took his own life in 1995 when he was 39-years old.  The editor, Jim Cory, is a noted poet and essayist in his own right.

Tierney never had a book published during his lifetime, but his poems were published in auspicious places such as the American Poetry Review and Exquisite Corpse.

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Karl Tierney as a poet also had his serious side. In the poem “Gertrude Stein to Alice B. Toklas,” he adopts Gertrude’s voice and writes in part of the poem:

 

Our car is …beautiful and blue

and we are beautiful and not blue

and we are fast driving

and do not feel a bit dangerous or dirty.

We have the radio on…

 

In his poems about gay life in San Francisco where he lived, Karl turned his keen poetic observations on life around him.  In “Adonis At The Swimming Pool,” Karl starts with:

“Who dances his thighs across the pool’s water,

spread on a mattress bloated from his breath.

Whose ripe-with-sun skin cuts through the spray

With the alingual grace of a kiss to my brow.”….

And ends with:

“Whose wet curls stroke the evening’s earliest gasp

into naughty tones and murmurs of lust.

Who would have me discussed in seedy cafés

and ruin me since I’m deaf to this hiss

behind the teeth in that insipid smile.”

From Tierney’s take on “lipstick lesbians,” MacDonna, and gay life in the Castro at a certain point in time, I found Have You Seen This Man? The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney (from Sibling Rivalry Press) to be a page-turner of a good read.

 

 

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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I do a lot online, and have frequently been told that I am going to hell, I assume, for writing my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders.

In response, I made blog posts which go out on Twitter.  One day I put on my red devil sequin horns and took a new author photo of me reading THEY.

Then one morning I woke up to the following comment

“I find it interesting all these people passing judgement on others when I’m pretty sure there’s something in the bible about not judging others or something. It’s almost like they pick and choose what to follow.”

This person has a good point. There are many passages in the Bible about not judging.  The most well known is from Matthew 7:1 which says:

“Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

There are many other spiritual practices which basically say the same thing.

 

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Or as my mother said to me when I was a child: 

“Twinkle, twinkle little star, what you say is what you are.”

Thinking about this gives me pause.

 

THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders is available where books are sold online, from your local bookstore, or library. It is also available directly from the publisher Adelaide Books,

To read an excerpt of THEY (Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), 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.

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

 

I have long been fascinated by the figure of Alain Locke – who I knew as the first African American Rhodes Scholar (in 1907), the philosopher that the civil rights leader Martin Luther King spoke about, the influential Howard University professor (the historically black university located in Washington D.C.), and perhaps most importantly (to me) as the philosophic architect of the Harlem Renaissance. Locke was known for the fact that he championed such writers as Zora Neale Hurston.

That I had heard he was gay only made him more interesting. Then I learned that the long-awaited biography of Locke was coming out written by Jeffrey C. Stewart titled, The New Negro, The Life of Alain Locke had been published in 2018.  It was published by Oxford University Press and received the 2018 National Book Award for nonfiction.Alain Locke

Then the book arrived.  I have to admit that I was daunted by its 800 pages – 878 to be exact. Also, like many people, if not most, I rarely read biographies.  But once I started reading this one, I found it so fascinating that I could barely put it down – even though it is physically hard to pick up because it is so heavy.  So, even if you rarely read biographies, I would suggest reading this one.  It’s a real page turner and you’ll learn a lot of important historical information.

Locke – as Stewart writes – was “a tiny effeminate gay man – a dandy, really, often seen walking with a cane, discreet, of course, but with just enough hint of a swagger, to announce to those curious that he was queer, in more ways than one, but especially in that one way that disturbed even those who supported Negro liberation.  His sexual orientation made him unwelcome in some communities and feared in others as a kind of pariah.”

Some of the intriguing things that I learned was that Locke was very close to his mother, in fact after her death in 1922, left him bereft, and after a stint in travelling in Europe where he could be more sexually open, and after being fired for a time by Howard University for being too vocal on race relations (although he was later hired back), he poured himself into their shared love for art and commenced on starting the Harlem Renaissance, with the idea that there was liberation in art that was African American identified.

The Harlem Renaissance loomed so large in my mind that even though I already knew that it was basically over by 1929, when the American stock market collapsed, it was rather depressing to read about it again.  Harlem, long the African American section of New York City, was hit very hard by the Great Depression.  The Harlem Renaissance, however, remains an important part of history – and many African American identified visual artists and writers were influenced and inspired by it long after the 1920s, as Stewart writes.

Some of the things that I learned that intrigued me was that Locke was very close to his mother and that after her death, he replicated his relationship with her to some extent with several older women who were important to him.  I also found it fascinating that the campus of University of Oxford (where Locke found himself after he won the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship), was a hotbed of gay male activity – and that this was the same university that the gay legend Oscar Wilde was graduated from in 1878, three decades before Locke arrived.  I also learned that Locke faced less racism in Europe.  However, some of the major racist obstacles that Locke faced at Oxford were created by other American Rhodes Scholars.

Most of what I learned was that Locke, a black, gay man, faced major obstacles in his life because of racism and homophobia. Despite these obstacles he thrived, and he changed the course of history.

His life is inspiring.

 

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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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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.

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

One of the things that I value as a lesbian, is being connected to the rest of the world. Hence the rainbow flag and the saying that we are everywhere. We are. That fact led me to the novel that I was recently immersed in called Disoriental by Nagar Djavadi published in 2018 by Europa Editions.  It was translated from the French by Tina Kover.

That the narrator identifies as a lesbian, one could legitimately argue is a sub-layer of the book. But looking through this same prism through a different angle, one could argue that the narrator’s sexuality is critical.  Being a lesbian from an extremely homophobic culture gave the narrator an extra layer of courage to tell this important story.

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Disoriental, a finalist for The National Book Award, is the story of a young girl who grows up in revolutionary Iran and goes through the Iranian revolution with an inside view provided to her by her revolutionary father.  As a North American who was in college in the time of the Iranian revolution, I remember the media coverage and knew some of the facts including that the Shah was backed by the United States, but I did not know everything and have long been puzzled at the repressive outcome of the revolution.  As a result, this novel which was written with a protagonist who lived in Iran with her family who later were all forced into exile, was – for me – filled with “aha” moments. The protagonist’s revolutionary, intellectual father was opposed to the regimes of both the Shah and Khomeini.

The story is told through the lens of an adult woman, who is going through the medical process in France (the country she and her family was exiled to) to become a parent. The narrator writes that she always valued childhood as the best part of life and has long been determined to continue her line through giving birth.

I was particularly impressed with Djavadi’s handling of the importance of history and how personal history intertwines with world events. The writing of this novel caused her to reflect on the human rights violations against LGBT people in her native land:

“In Iran, homosexuality is considered a supreme violation of God’s will, and is a crime punishable by death. Women as well as men, sometimes only teenagers, are blindfolded and hanged from cranes in public. Homosexuality is generally not cited as the main reason for these executions, due to pressure from Western countries and the fear that these acts will damage their complex relationships with Iran. In any case, it’s estimated that, since 1979, more than four thousand of these public hangings have taken place.”

Reality is rarely comforting, but it is necessary. I was riveted by Disoriental and turning its pages I pondered the mysterious forces of fate and existence and the importance of familial bonds – in particular, the book raises the bonds between fathers and daughters.  Ultimately, I found it to be not only a very good read — but a work of literature that brought me to reflect more keenly on my own life.

 

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 week on the LGBTQ radio syndicate, This Way Out (TWO), lesbian author and playwright Vanda, reviews my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (Adelaide Books — New York/Lisbon).  The producer added the hymn “The Waters of Babylon” to the review.  Click here to listen to the entire show.

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

“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 hear the entire review, click here

THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders is available through bookstores and online where books are sold.  It’s also available through your local library.  If the library doesn’t already have it, just ask your librarian to order it.

For more information on THEY, 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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