Mary Dorcey, ‘Kindling’ (1982) #20BooksOfSummer

Kindling is the first collection of poetry published by Irish feminist poet, Mary Dorcey. It’s a short book which you can easily read in an afternoon.

Some of the poems do feel very much of their time, rooted in second wave lesbian feminist politics and culture. They fall into two (linked) groups, poems that challenge the oppression of women under patriarchy (‘the vicious bigotry of all the Pope’s boys’), and poems that explore relationships between women, especially as lovers, friends and mothers and daughters.

There are poems about the position of women in Ireland (‘coming Home’, pornography (‘Photographs’), women’s incarceration in prison (‘Night Protest’) and mental institutions (‘Rope’), and conflicts within feminism (‘Colonised Minds’). ‘In a Dublin Nursing Home’ a lesbian couple have to pretend to be relatives, an experience I’ve heard older lesbians and gay men describe.

They are ambitious, powerful poems, but overall, I preferred reading the more ambivalent, and perhaps messier poems about relationships between women, such as ‘Full Circle’, ‘The Quarrel’, ‘Night’ and ‘Friendship’. These are poems about the unruliness of desire and it’s rather consoling to see that ‘lesbian drama’ hasn’t changed that much in thirty years.

I will definitely look up more of Dorcey’s poetry and will be interested to see how she’s developed since 1982.  

You stretch your hand
to mine
and some ember of the me
that I was to you,
rekindles
and and in silence,
recovers the power
of speech.

‘After Long Silence’

Unbearable Weight

Powerful interview, The Unbearable Weight of Fatphobia: A Conversation with Samantha Irby

But let’s be clear, this is about far more than just hurt feelings and humiliation. This kind of body terrorism means that fat people get denied jobs, housing, affordable and adequate healthcare, and various other services simply because other people don’t like our bodies […] Everywhere we turn, everywhere we go, we are reminded about how much people hate us and our bodies, and how much they think we should hate ourselves and our bodies, too. We are continually told, in one way or another, that we are not allowed to take up this space and that we will not be valuable unless we shrink. For many of us, this has been happening our entire lives, or for the vast majority of it. It’s deeply dehumanizing and demoralizing, but for a lot of fatphobic people, that’s exactly the point. They think we don’t deserve to have a good relationship with our bodies. They think we don’t deserve any other kind of existence. They often think we don’t deserve to exist at all. 

Sapphic Link Love #4

Autostraddle, The Gay Love Stories of Moomin and the Queer Radicality of Tove Jansson 

NPR, New biography of Lorraine Hansberry

Autostraddle, Portraits of Lesbian Writers, 1987 – 1989  (these are awesome)

The Rumpus, The Queer Syllabus: The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye

Folk Radio, Grace Petrie: Queer as Folk review

What lady Ghostbusters have in common with 17th-century nuns

I saw the new Ghostbusters with my 11-year-old daughter. It was the first movie she’d ever seen in which a team of female heroes are never subjected to the male gaze—in which they are always the agent, never the possessed. It was the first movie like that I’d ever seen, too.

There is spirit possession in the new Ghostbusters: you’ve seen one scene in the trailers, where one of the Ghostbusters is briefly possessed an evil ghost but quickly saved by one of her colleagues. Female friendship, female cooperation, is enough here to drive out evil. When women’s bodies are the battleground, women just as quickly become the warriors. Nor are women uniquely susceptible to possession: the hunky male receptionist is possessed, too, and must be saved.

The first Ghostbusters movie suggested to boys that if they just hung around long enough, women would see that their other options for possession were far worse than just giving in. The newGhostbusters movie tells girls that there’s another option. They can possess themselves.

What Lady Ghostbusters have in common with 17th-Century nuns

Elizabeth A. Lynn, The Woman Who Loved The Moon and Other Stories (1981)

Lynn0001

Elizabeth A. Lynn is not a prolific writer. She’s published a handful of highly regarded books over the last thirty years, including a World Fantasy Award-winning trilogy and two science fiction novels. I’ve been looking forward to reading her work partly because she’s known as one of the first science fiction and fantasy writers to offer positive representations of lesbian, gay and bisexual characters. The famous chain of gay bookstores, ‘A Different Light’, was named after her first novel. The Woman Who Loved The Moon and Other Stories is her only complete collection and includes works published between 1977 and 1980. Each story is accompanied by a helpful authorial introduction describing its genesis.

Overall, I’m very impressed. Lynn’s writing is fluid and lyrical. She has that wonderful ability to engage your attention in the opening paragraph and, before you know it, draw you into the worlds she creates. Her stories are often unsettling, occasionally terrifying, and when I consider the collection as a whole, I do notice a recurring concern with death, grief and loss. But if death features heavily in her work, Lynn also places high value on love, friendship and moments of connection between people.

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5 Things

I liked Suzanne Heintz’s artistic response to the question Why aren’t you married yet? Fourteen years worth of pictures of herself posing with a mannequin family certainly draws attention to the mythology of white, middle-class family “happiness”. Even though Suzanne is posing with mannequins, these images and the meanings they are supposed to convey (and impose) are instantly recognisable. Perhaps she’s also suggesting that people don’t care who the members of her family are, or what her relationship with them might be, as long as “family” is performed in the correct way. There is even the suggestion that this mythology reduces people to the status of mannequins. Roland Barthes would be proud.

Ludovic Florent’s series of photographs Poussiere d’etoiles (stardust) inspired me after a difficult day. These images that capture dancers interacting with a cloud of flour are a gorgeous tribute to the art of dance and the power of the human body.

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Extract from an interview with Sara Maitland

Jean: “So the act of writing can be an act of pleasure, of reparation?”

Sara: “I’d go further than that and say an act of power. You invent these people, you can make them do what the fuck you like, if you are fed up with them you can bloody kill them off. They’re absolutely mine, I created them and I control them. Writing is a real act of power which I achieve nowhere else”.

Jan Radford, ‘Women Writing’, published in Spare Rib, 76, November 1978.

Judy Grahn, The Work of a Common Woman (1985)

Judy Grahn is a lesbian feminist poet and activist whose work is very much concerned with speaking back to power. Her project is one of radical redefinition rooted in a centering of the lives of ordinary women. The Work of a Common Woman brings together poems published between 1964 and 1977, a period when feminists were fighting to break free of patriarchal modes of representation and wrestle back control of the narratives through which women’s experiences had been mediated by culture. This was a time when one of the top feminist priorities was to get women’s voices out there, which obviously meant finding ways to bypass the gatekeepers of publishing and the media. Grahn was an important figure in this effort, co-founding the Gay Woman’s Liberation Movement and The Women’s Press Collective, as well as making her own work available in an accessible pamphlet form that could be easily circulated by women’s groups.

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Sensitive but Flawed, Reflections on the film, ‘Albert Nobbs’ (2011)

Albert Nobbs is a film which I found both impressive and disappointing.  It’s unusually intelligent about gender but it also contains some of the weaknesses that often undermine the representation of LGBTQ characters in film and, ultimately, it left me feeling ambivalent.

Set in nineteenth-century Ireland, the film centres on the figure of Albert (Glenn Close), a person who has been assigned female at birth, but who from adolescence onwards has lived as a man. Despite developing a successful career as a waiter in hotels, Albert’s shyness and fear of discovery has resulted in him becoming lonely and socially isolated.  Albert’s life changes when he meets Hubert (Janet McTeer), another female-assigned person who is living as a man.  Hubert has a more positive outlook on their predicament and opens Albert’s eyes to the possibility of an independent life, of owing his own business and perhaps even marrying.  Albert sets about courting a young woman called Helen (Mia Wasikowska) who works in the hotel, not realising that she is already involved in a romance with a young man called Joe who wants to emigrate to America.  Seeing an opportunity here, Joe persuades Helen to lead Albert on in the hope that she will gain access to his money.

Spoiler Alert – this post discusses the plot in detail 

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Dorothy Allison, ‘When feminism exploded into my life’

Quote

When feminism exploded into my life, it gave me a vision of the world totally different from everything I had assumed or hoped. The concept of a feminist literature offered the possibility of pride in my sexuality. It saved me from either giving up writing entirely, or the worse prospect of writing lies in order to achieve some measure of grudging acceptance. But at the same time, Feminism destroyed all my illusions about Literature. Feminism revealed the city as an armed compound to which I would never be admitted. It forced me to understand, suddenly and completely, that literature was written by men, judged by men. The city itself was a city of Man, a male mind even when housed in a female body. If that was so, all my assumptions about the worth of writing, particularly working-class writing, were false. Literature was a lie, a system of lies, the creation of liars, some of them sincere and unaware of the lies they retold, but all acting in the service of a Great Lie — what the system itself labelled Universal Truth. If that truth erased me and all those like me, then my hopes to change the world through writing were illusions. I lost my faith. I became a feminist activist propelled in part by outrage and despair, and a stubborn determination to shape a life, and create a literature, that was not a lie.

— Dorothy Allison, ‘Believing in Literature’, in Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature, (New York: Firebrand Books, 1994), p. 167.

Crossposted to Feminist Quotes

Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel (1951)

For God’s sake come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment.

It is a razor blade of a novel: the blade is carefully hidden, but it is there inside the packaging, and, fifty years later, its capacity to draw blood remains unaltered, Sally Beauman, ‘Introduction’, p. vi.

Phillip Ashley has been raised by his wealthy, bachelor cousin Ambrose within the insular all-male world of an unnamed Cornish estate during an unspecified time in the past. Phillip adores his cousin and fully expects to inherit the estate in due course, but the smooth progress of this narrative is interrupted when Ambrose travels to Italy where he meets a distant cousin called Rachel and, much to Phillip’s alarm, suddenly marries her.  Phillip waits for the happy couple to return home as promised, but they never appear and Ambrose’s letters become increasingly disturbing – Rachel’s financial affairs are troubled, Ambrose suspects Rachel of something, Ambrose is ill.  A final desperate plea spurs Phillip to set out for Florence, but he arrives too late to find that Ambrose is dead, supposedly of a brain tumour.  Rachel’s villa has been shut up and the lady herself has disappeared.  Angry and grieving Phillip returns to Cornwall where a few weeks later Rachel arrives, claiming to want nothing more than to see the place that her husband loved so much.  At first, Phillip’s only intention is to punish Rachel and try to catch her out as a con-artist, perhaps even a black widow, but he quickly finds himself becoming obsessed with her.

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Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1996)

Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that change when it comes cracks everything open (p. 48).

Dorothy Allison is a lifesaving writer. Every time I read her work, I feel like she’s reaching out to us in an authentic attempt to communicate something important about surviving in this world.  In a world in which it can feel like there is little in the way of authentic, honest, communication, and in which so many interactions seem to be about what people can get out of each other, Allison’s writing is a great gift.

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Ursula K Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of my favourite books and this must be at least the fourth time I’ve read it.  On its publication The Left Hand of Darkness was received as a groundbreaking piece of science fiction, winning the Nebula Award in 1969 and the Hugo Award in 1970.  Compelling, atmospheric, sometimes frightening, it offers the reader some exquisite world-building and a story with profound meaning.

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Jane Eyre (2011)

Having enjoyed Susanna White’s 2006 television adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, I was interested to see what director Cary Fukunaga would bring to this new feature length version.

All in all, I was impressed, especially with the way Fukunaga and writer Moira Buffini stay close to the novel, but ruthlessly strip the story down to its bare bones, giving emphasis to some aspects of the novel that other adaptations tend to avoid.   Gone are the stories of Bessie and Miss Temple.  Gone, too, are most of Bertha’s appearances, Grace Poole, and much of Jane and Rochester’s engagement.   More daringly, the film refuses to represent the burning of Thornfield Hall and Bertha’s final leap to her death, a melodramatic staple scene in most Jane Eyre adaptations.   Gone is “Reader, I married him” and any attempt to represent Jane and Rochester’s life together after she decides to return to him.   I didn’t like all the cuts, but I thought it was quite brave and allowed other aspects of the text to come forth.

In the 2006 adaptation, Ruth Wilson played Jane as a steely, straight-talking, and passionate young woman.  Mia Wasikowska’s Jane is a young woman who suppresses her anger beneath a pale, cold and standoffish exterior.  Michael Fassbinder gave us what I would say is the best Rochester since Orson Welles.  Although Rochester works on the page, he’s fiendishly difficult to represent sympathetically on screen, but Fassbinder manages to convey the intense loneliness and despair that underlies all his bluster and libertinism.  Judy Dench is on autopilot as Mrs Fairfax, but she’s always watchable.  It was nice to see little Adele get more screen time and played by an actress of around the right age.  Jamie Bell is excellent as St John Rivers, making him rather more human than he comes across in the novel.

The film emphasises the violence of Jane’s childhood, the scene at the beginning in which John Reed hits her with the book is a genuine shock.  It also keeps much of the novel’s gothic atmosphere – we jumped several times.  I was pleased by the inclusion of Jane’s feminist speech about the lack of opportunities for women.   Perhaps more daringly, it retains the uncomfortable moment when Rochester sort of threatens to rape Jane.  The threat is stronger in the novel, but it’s suggested here too.   It also represents the telepathic connection between Rochester and Jane without it appearing ridiculous.

I was disappointed by the lack of Bertha and especially regretted the loss of the veil ripping scene.  I missed the burning of Thornfield too and was annoyed to see that Rochester had lost his sight, but retained both his hands at the end, the director apparently deciding that Bronte is a little too hard on him.  My partner said that the loss of the hand would be “too much”, to which I replied, “But representing the telepathy isn’t too much?”, and so the argument continued.   I found the ending a bit abrupt too, stopping just as they get back together. After such a harrowing tale, I want more of an emotional pay-off, damn it!

The screenplay also removes the revelation that the Rivers siblings are actually Jane’s cousins.  This is sensible, insofar as it saves them having to represent a ridiculous coincidence, but removing the relationship makes it seem like Jane is trying to buy a family when she offers to share her inheritance with them, and, I have to say, rather mercenary of them to accept it!  It’s a part of the novel that clunks and changing it only makes it clunk louder here.

Still, this stripped down gothic Jane Eyre looks gorgeous, is very well directed and I think will stand as one of the best adaptations for some time.

Emma Donoghue, The Sealed Letter (2008)

The Sealed Letter is the second book that I’ve read by wide-ranging lesbian writer, Emma Donoghue.  While I enjoyed the romance of Landing, the historical fiction of The Sealed Letter is more my speed – Victorians! Repressed lesbians! Sex scandals! The early British women’s movement! … what’s not to like?

The Sealed Letter is a fictional reconstruction of the scandalous Codrington divorce case of 1864, focussing particularly on the part played by Miss Emily “Fido” Faithful, a pioneer of the British women’s movement who became involved in the case.

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Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983)

It is, in the end, the saving of lives that we writers are about

In Search of our Mother’s Garden’s reminds you just what a great writer Alice Walker is: a novelist, a writer of short fiction, a poet, and a tremendous essayist as well.  She writes the kind of prose that just carries you along.

The book is a varied collection of essays and short pieces held together by common themes of writing, literature, black women’s experiences and creativity, feminism, civil rights and economics.  There are so many pieces in the collection that all I can do here is mention a few of the ones that stood out for me.

My favourite essays are the ones about writing and literature. In ‘Saving the Life that is your own: the importance of models in the artist’s life’, Walker pays tribute to the models who have had a ‘life saving’ impact on her work, in particular Vincent Van Gogh, Flannery O’ Connor, Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer. ‘Beyond the Peacock: the Reconstruction of Flannery O’ Connor’ is a fascinating essay about O’ Connor enacted through a visit that Walker and her mother took to O’Connor’s house.  Walker’s writing is hugely influenced by O’ Connor and they come from the same area, but the racial and economic differences in their positions causes Walker some ambivalence.  ‘The Divided Life of Jean Toomer’ looks at a black writer who struggled to accept his identity and yet wrote Cane, a groundbreaking prose-poem about the lives of black people.  There are two essays about Walker’s idol Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale’ and ‘Looking for Zora’ which explores Walker’s belief in the importance of rediscovering and valuing forgotten black women writers and artists.  Her efforts in this area led to an important reappraisal of Hurston’s work.

One of Walker’s great skills is her ability to use autobiographical material to illustrate political points. The title essay ‘In Search of our Mother’s Gardens’ is a really powerful piece that bounces off Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A Room of one’s own’, taking the example of Walker’s own mother to talk about the ways in which black women’s creativity has been repressed but also how they have found ways around that repression.  Walker’s mother married a poor sharecropper at seventeen, had eight children and very little time to herself, but managed to find some space for creativity in her life by growing flowers in her garden:

I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible – except as a Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in the work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of beauty,

Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life. She has handed down her respect for the possibilities – and the will to grasp them. (p. 242).

The essay ‘Brothers and Sisters’ is another much anthologised piece in which Walker uses the different treatment of her male and female siblings to critique the behaviour of black men in the family – Walker herself received a lot of criticism in return for raising these issues. ‘Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self’ is a moving account of how she came to terms with the accident that disfigured and blinded her in one eye when she was 8 years old.

In ‘Writing The Color Purple’ she gives us an insight into the processes that created her most famous novel.  In general, though, I think this book is best read alongside the collection of short stories In Love and Trouble because it contains a lot of background to the stories collected there.

A writer who uses so much autobiographical material in her political writing is bound to experience some tensions and for Walker these seem to be particularly evident in her relationship with her family.   Her brothers and sisters can’t have been too pleased about the way she depicts them at times and I got the impression that her relationship with her siblings is ambivalent to say the least. But more discomforting is Walker’s ambivalence about motherhood and her decision to write about this ambivalence so publicly, apparently without giving much thought to the effect doing so might have on her daughter Rebecca when she grew up.  Walker and her daughter are now estranged and Rebecca has written about how hurtful she found it to read essays like ‘One child of one’s own’.  If you have a difficult relationship with your own mother, this essay is probably not a good place to start as it’s likely to cause strong feelings!

Overall, though, Walker comes across as an incredibly driven woman for whom writing is paramount and everything else in her life has to give way to her art.

‘Be Nobody’s Darling’

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like a shawl,
To parry stones
To keep you warm.

Watch the people succumb
To madness
With ample cheer;
Let them look askance at you
And you askance reply.

Be an outcast;
Be pleased to walk alone
(Uncool)
Or line the crowded
River beds
With other impetuous
Fools.

Make a merry gathering
On the bank
Where thousands perished
For brave hurt words
They said.

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Qualified to live
Among your dead.

RIP Ari Up of The Slits

Confession: I don’t own anything by The Slits and have only heard about one of their songs, I think.  Perhaps these posts in response to the recent sad death of their founder and lead singer, Ari Up, will inspire me to do better.

From Bad Reputation, Silence is a Rhythm Too.

From Hoyden About Town, Friday Hoyden: Ari Up

Daphne Gottlieb, Final Girl (2003)

This is something of a follow-up to Andy’s post about Why Things Burn.

The ‘final girl’ is the one who survives right through to the very end of the horror movie: screaming, covered in blood, most likely traumatised for the rest of her life, but still alive, still fighting, challenging the audience with her survival, challenging us to identify with her in her terrifying struggle.

In her collection of poetry, Final Girl, Daphne Gottlieb takes this common, rather hackneyed, horror movie trope, and turns it into, not only a testament to female survival against the odds, but a steely-eyed look at the price that survival exacts from us.  We don’t get out unscathed and there’s a reason why the final girl is such a persistent figure in popular culture.  There’s a lot of humour in her poems, but with such cathartic and visceral subject matter, I would warn anyone who’s experienced sexual or gendered violence to take care when reading.

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Kate Chopin, The Awakening and Selected Stories (1899)

In 1899 Kate Chopin published The Awakening, the story of Edna Pontellier, a young wife and mother who falls in love with another man and “awakes” to the possibility of a new life of erotic and spiritual freedom.  The outrage with which it was greeted by critics destroyed Chopin’s reputation as a writer.

The Awakening is very much a fin de siècle novel; it’s shot through with a sense of change and instability, and a profound questioning of conventions, especially conventional morality.  For Chopin, marriage represents a moral and spiritual dead-end in which women cannot thrive because it necessarily involves men imposing their wills upon them.  Edna Pontellier is only able to come into her own as a creative person when she decides to leave her marriage, become independent and pursue her relationship with her lover, Robert Lebrun.  It’s also interesting that the only woman who is represented as completely free and fully creative is the coded lesbian, Mademoiselle Reisz.

I loved The Awakening.  I think it’s a very mature work full of emotional truth.  Edna is not a particularly “nice” woman; she’s a complex person with conflicting emotions and drives.  As Susan Gilbert notes in the introduction to my edition, Chopin uses careful changes of style to enact the changes that occur within Edna – the text loosens and becomes more experimental as Edna moves through her sensual and emotional journey, and we move with her, drawn into her internal world.  It contains an incredibly vivid and familiar description of what it feels like to fall in love for the first time.  Chopin also cleverly rewrites “the fall”.  Instead of falling into degradation, Edna is buoyed up by her experience, awakened and renewed; paradise is glimpsed, but only glimpsed as a possibility, never achieved, because this is still the nineteenth century and Edna’s actions lead to a tragic conclusion, not because of her weakness, but because of the weakness of others. The end of the story is a kick in the stomach.

The rest of the stories collected here with The Awakening are extremely good and tend to cover similar themes around conflicts between the needs of women and the conventions of society.  ‘Desiree’s Baby’ is a shattering story about racism. ‘The Story of an Hour’ takes another look at marriage as a kind of prison for women – Chopin’s husbands are never abusive; it’s not abuse that makes marriage awful in her stories, the problem is the construct of marriage itself. ‘Lilacs’ contains heavy lesbian undertones in the story of the love relationship between a nun and a “fallen woman.” Chopin explores her belief in sexual fulfilment as a female birthright in the linked stories ‘At the ‘Cadian Ball’ and ‘The Storm’.

My only difficulty with reading these stories is the high number of horrible endings.  Like The Awakening, the short stories also tend to deliver a sting in the tail, and I actually started to feel anxious as I approached the last few pages of each story.  ‘Elizabeth Stock’s One Story’, for instance, is just draining in its exploration of the effects of male corruption on one woman.

Still, I’d highly recommend The Awakening to anyone interested in women’s writing and the history of feminist literature.

The Lesbian Movie Marathon: When Night is Falling (1995)

Directed by Patricia Rozema

I love When Night is Falling.  I think it’s a beautiful film.  This is despite the fact that I also think that it is, in some ways, a flawed film.

Camille is a theology professor at a Christian college, engaged to another theology professor named Martin.  She and Martin are offered better jobs at the college if they agree to get married.  The ultimatum, along with the death of her beloved dog, brings Camille to a crisis.  At this point she meets Petra, a free spirited circus performer.  The two develop a powerful attraction which Camille initially tries to resist, but in the end she gives in, and goes to the circus where she and Petra spend the night together. Then she has some decisions to make.

Warning – some spoilers!

What I really like about When Night is Falling is the amount of care that’s clearly gone into it.  It is beautifully filmed and produced, well-directed and the performances are all excellent.  It makes you feel valued as a lesbian viewer and that’s very nice.

Although this film was released in 1995 it has a second-wave feel to it and I suspect it may be based on experiences from much earlier in the director’s life.  I would say that the feminism of When Night is Falling is the feminism of the late 1970s rather than the mid 1990s (look out for the feminist performance art).

The sex scene is over-romanticised.  Don’t get me wrong – I like it!  But,  well, it’s not very realistic.

The film is also oddly color-blind. The fact that Camille is white and Petra is a woman of colour is not allowed to be an issue in the film when it almost certainly would be in reality (see The Watermelon Woman). It also erases an aspect of Petra’s identity in a way that probably serves the interests of the white lesbian audience.

One of the things that strikes me about the film is a basic plot device which is quite common in lesbian films – the ostensibly heterosexual woman who has NO IDEA that she’s a lesbian until she meets THE RIGHT WOMAN.  I find this interesting because it seems to be based on a fantasy.  I will discuss this fantasy narrative more when I get to Claire of the Moon and Imagine Me and You, but I think it could have its roots in a number of sources – the influence of political lesbian feminism being one of them.  It may also have something to do with the fact that many lesbians have had the supremely painful experience of falling in love with straight women.  This fantasy allows us to imagine that it could work out, that within a desirable but oblivious heterosexual woman is a lesbian desperate to get out.  This is rarely the case!

I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to Camille’s heterosexuality and also to her religion.  Clearly her Christianity is a hugely important part of her life – she’s a theology professor after all – but she seems to throw it in with remarkably little angst to run off with Petra and the circus.  Petra seems kind of pagan, but this isn’t really addressed either.

And no one is butch. Femme experience is privileged and neither Camille nor Petra present themselves in such a way as to threaten the status quo.

The ending is an out-and-out lesbian fantasy with tons of symbolism.

Overall, I think the best way to treat When Night is Falling is as an enjoyable lesbian fantasy film, one to curl up with under a duvet with your girlfriend and a nice mug of hot chocolate (or whatever you like to drink).

Recommended, but don’t think about it too much!

Dorothy Allison, Skin: Talking Sex Class and Literature (1994)

What I have tried to do in my own life is refuse the language and categories that would reduce me to less than my whole complicated experience (213)

Skin is a compelling collection of essays.  Dorothy Allison shares with Joan Nestle an ability to make complex ideas and arguments accessible.  It’s interesting that both these writers come from poor working-class backgrounds and I suspect they brought their “no bullshit” attitudes with them into their feminism.  Allison is particularly good at getting to the heart of difficult issues.

She grew up in South Carolina, a member of what she calls “the bad poor”, the American underclass. She experienced horrific physical and sexual abuse from her stepfather. She came out as a lesbian in her adolescence and and got to university where she became involved in feminism.  Since then she has become notorious for being on the “sex positive” or “pro-sex” side of the feminist “sex wars” (she was a founder of the Lesbian Sex Mafia and has been open about her femme identity and interest in BDSM). She also writes fiction and poetry.

As you would expect, there are essays about sex and pornography in this collection, but I think it’s important that Allison is not simplistically reduced to the role she has been ascribed in the feminist “sex wars”.  The essays show her interest in a wide range of issues, such as class, lesbian experience, abuse, violence, creative writing and science fiction.

‘A Question of Class’

This is about how her experience of coming from “the bad poor” has shaped her politics. It explains a great deal about Allison’s uncompromising attitude and insistence on speaking out about the complexities of identity.  Where she comes from, not speaking out is fatal:

I grew up poor, hated, the victim of physical, emotional, and sexual violence, and I know that suffering does not ennoble. It destroys. To resist destruction, self-hatred, or lifelong hopelessness, we have to throw off the conditioning of being despised, the fear of becoming the they that is talked about so dismissively, to refuse lying myths and easy moralities, to see ourselves as human, flawed, and extraordinary. All of us – extraordinary (p. 36).

I can see why this essay is the first in book – it is the basis for everything that follows.

‘Public Silence, Private Terror’

Here she talks about her experiences of the feminist “sex wars” and the impact they had on her. It is unapologetic, but makes it apparent that she honestly didn’t foresee that speaking openly about her views on sex would get her into so much trouble with other feminists. She took the radical feminist incitement to women to talk about their experiences very literally and then got burned in the process of doing just that. You might disagree with her views on sex, but I think this is an important essay to read:

The hardest lesson I have learned in the last few years is how powerful is my own desire to hang onto a shared sense of feminist community where it is safe to talk about dangerous subjects like sex, and how hopeless is the desire.  Even within what I have thought of as my own community […] I have never felt safe. I have never been safe, and this is only partly because everyone else is just as fearful as I am. None of us is safe because we have not tried to make each other safe. We have never even recognised the fearfulness of the territory. We have addressed violence and exploitation and heterosexual assumptions without first establishing the understanding that for each of us, desire is unique and necessary and simply terrifying […]

As feminists, many of us have committed our whole lives to struggling to change what most people in this society don’t even question, and sometimes the intensity of our struggle has persuaded us that the only way to accomplish change is to make hard bargains, to give up some points and compromise on others. What this has always meant in the end, unfortunately, is trading some people for others.

I do not want to do that.

I do not want to require any woman to do that.

I do not want to claim a safe and comfortable life for myself that is purchased at the cost of some other woman’s needs or desires. But over and over again I see us being pushed to do just that. (113 – 114)

‘Survival Is the Least of my Desires’

This is about writing as catharsis, something Allison seems to believe in very passionately. Some quotes:

I believe the secret in writing is that fiction never exceeds the reach of the writer’s courage. The best fiction comes from the place where the terror hides, the edge of our worst stuff. I believe, absolutely, that if you do not break out in that sweat of fear when you write, then you have not gone far enough’ (217).

It seems to me the only way I have forgiven anything, understood anything, is through that process of opening up to my own terror and pain and re-examining it, recreating it in the story, and making is something different, making if meaningful – even if the meaning is only in the act of telling (p. 218).

That’s what I believe to be the important of telling the truth, each of us writing out of the unique vision our lives have given us (219).

Her essay ‘Believing in Literature’ is also very good.

‘Skin, Where She Touches Me’

I found this the most disturbing essay in the collection. It left me feeling shattered and emptied out and it took me a little while to figure out why. It’s about her relationships with two of the most important women in her life: her mother and her first lover.  Both of these women betrayed her in extremely painful ways, her mother though her inability to leave Allison’s abusive stepfather, and her lover by not caring enough to give up the heroin that eventually killed her, so both chose other things over Dorothy. But I think that what’s so disturbing about this piece of writing is the truth it expresses about the way women can have such complex and painful relationships in which we commit terrible betrayals and yet at the same time carry on loving each other because we do understand why it happened.  This is not something we like to talk about.

All in all, I found it by turns a difficult, challenging and inspirational read.