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Note: a version of this review is being aired this week on the international LGBTQ radio syndicate This Way Out, headquartered in Los Angeles. To listen to the entire news wrap, click here.

 

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.flags

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

 

originally in The Huffington Post

 

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Recently we went to see A Quiet Passion — the movie about Emily Dickinson.  The role of Emily was played by Cynthia Nixon. While there was some wonderful acting in the film — including by Cynthia Nixon and while anything that brings notice to Emily Dickinson’s life, the film left us feeling that some things never change.  There was such an absence of any lesbian content – including Emily’s long-term relationship with her sister-in-law Susan (written about in the New Yorker decades ago by Emily’s niece and Susan’s daughter — who described Emily as a “valiant knight” to her mother — that I returned to my earlier work on Emily Dickinson.  A longer essay titled, “The American Sappho: In Pursuit of a Lesbian Emily Dickinson” that I wrote was published in the Vol. 3, Number 3 2002 edition of the Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly (now out of print).

My shorter essays on Emily Dickinson is reprinted below.

It was previously published on Technodyke.com and aired on This Way Out, the Los Angeles-based lesbian and gay radio syndicate that airs across the U.S. and in 22 countries abroad.

Emily Dickinson and I did not hit it off on the first date. That is to say that on introduction to her work, I saw her–or rather was taught to see her–as a lady like poet writing of hearts and flowers, tendrils and vines, the stuff of which had absolutely nothing to do with my life. In junior high when I came across Dickinson’s work, I was already a hell on wheels hard drinking adolescent, a product of my 1970s working class environment that put me on a collision course headed toward disaster.

Emily Dickinson color

It was my love of language that got me through. I’ve often heard it said that poetry serves no purpose. Perhaps that is true if one takes a completely materialistic and emotionally bankrupt view of life. But the fact is that two lines of poetry saved my life: Shakespeare’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow/ creeps through this petty pace from day to day.” I didn’t know it at the time, but that I could recite this part of Hamlet at will, even if I was on my way to being blasted or hung over from the night before, embedded in my mind that I would have a tomorrow. A tomorrow was not a petty thing to have: a few of my friends didn’t make it.

I wonder if things could have been different, for myself and for the close-knit gang of teenage girls I hung out with. I wonder if a Lesbian reading of Emily Dickinson could have halted our self-destruction and consequently saved a few young lives. It took a few more years for me to grow up, stop drinking and come out as a Lesbian. And when I did I found myself falling head over heels in love with poetry. Emily Dickinson was someone I returned to again and again. There was something clever, yet profound, in her verses that I memorized. The lines were deeply personal, as if they had been written just for me. I found her public personae intriguing. She was portrayed as a spinster, a recluse dressed in white, the eternal virgin who had nothing to do with men.

A few more years passed and I went to visit the Dickinson homestead in Amherst Massachusetts. I was there with a group of friends, some of whom lived in the area and were just visiting her home for the first time. It was ironic really– there we were a room full of Lesbian poets listening to the tour guide’s official wrap about the cloistered and asexual Emily Dickinson, trapped in her father’s house. There was something sinister about the house, foreboding. But behind the house, in the flower garden, was a beautiful wash of colors. And as I sat in the garden, on a white wrought iron bench, I peered through a shady grove to the neighboring house. I remember it being painted in the glowing hues of peach, at once golden and pink. There was something mysterious about this house, set back as it was from the road, directly approachable from the Dickinson homestead. If I were Emily I could not have resisted its magic lure.

I found out later that this house is where Susan Huntington Dickinson lived. She was Emily’s sister-in-law, married to Emily’s brother, Austin, and she was the love of Emily Dickinson’s life. She was Muse to Emily, her intended reader, thoughtful critic and, by more than a few accounts, she was Emily’s lover. In correspondence to Susan, Emily wrote that Susan was “imagination” itself. The two women were close friends for 40 years, and they lived next door to each other for 30 of those years.

In “Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson” (from Paris Press), the editors, Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, point out that over the course of their lifelong friendship and love affair, Emily sent countless numbers of letters, poems and a form of writing that Emily came to call the letter poem. And on many of these letters, placed for Susan to see when she unfolded them, Emily had written her careful instructions: “Open me carefully.”

Emily Dickinson lived at the end of the Victorian-era in New England from 1830 to 1886. After her death, any mention of Susan was carefully removed from her poetry and this essential body of correspondence was neglected. Still, even with this erasure of Susan’s name, which Emily had written at the top of so many of her poems, it is obvious that they are essentially Lesbian love poems. Consider, for example, the piece that begins with the line “Her breast is fit for pearls…”

“Susan, / Her breast is fit for pearls, / But I was not a “Diver”– / Her brow is fit for thrones / But I have not a crest, / Her heart is fit for home– / I–a Sparrow–build there / Sweet of twigs and twine / My perennial nest. / —Emily”

In Victorian New England, Emily Dickinson certainly could not mention her most intimate body parts. But she did a pretty good job of using the birds and bees as metaphor: “These days of heaven bring you nearer and nearer, and every bird that sings, and every bud that blooms, does but remind me more of that garden unseen, awaiting the hand that tills it. Dear Susie, when you come, how many boundless blossoms among the silent beds!”

To separate Emily Dickinson from her Lesbian passions is a cruel and unnecessary act. Not only does it do a disservice to Emily’s poetic genius, but it also deprives her readers of a deeper comprehension of Emily and therefore of a deeper understanding of themselves. That’s what literature, at its best, does. It leads us home.

It really doesn’t matter if Emily Dickinson ever made love with a woman. (Although my guess is that she did and most likely did so rather skillfully.) What matters is that she experienced deep rending passion, that must at times, under the circumstances, have been painful.

A Lesbian reading of Emily Dickinson places her firmly in the center of her own page. When I think back on my visit to her house, I can see her clearly now, sitting down at her desk after her daily chores were done, as she smoothed the white folds of her skirt and picks up her quilled pen. As she writes, her cheeks are ablaze with longing and desire, that essential Lesbian desire.

 

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