Vonda McIntyre, Dreamsnake (1978)

Cover of the book Dreamsnake. It features an image of a face surrounded by coiling green snakes.

Dreamsnake sat on my bookshelf for years. I just never seemed to get around to reading it. Then Vonda McIntyre died last year and I thought I should make the effort in her honour.

The novel won the 1979 Hugo, 1978 Nebula and 1979 Locus awards and is still regarded as a classic work of feminist science fiction.

Set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, Dreamsnake is the story of a young healer named Snake. While travelling through the desert with her medicinal snakes, Grass, Mist and Sand, Snake is asked to try and heal the sick child of a group of desert dwellers. In a tragic misunderstanding, the dreamsnake, Grass, is killed by the frightened family of the child.

Snake is devastated. Not only has she lost her beloved Grass, she is no longer able to carry out her work effectively. Worse still, she has little chance of getting another Dreamsnake because they are alien creatures, brought to Earth by mysterious ‘Other Worlders’ and are very difficult to breed. But then a chance encounter with a dying woman provides an opportunity to visit the Central City, a closed society of humans who have access to advanced technology and still communicate with the Other Worlders. They may be able to give her another dreamsnake.

Snake begins her journey towards Central City, stopping on the way to help the people of a town, where she adopts an abused and scarred young girl who she hopes to train as a healer. But Snake is also being followed by two people, Arevin, one of the desert dwellers who has fallen in love with her, and a more threatening presence, someone who destroys her camp in the night.

Turned away empty-handed from Central City, Snake discovers there is another possibility when she hears of a dangerous man who may have possession of dreamsnakes. Should she risk everything to try and take some from him, for herself and her people?

And will she ever meet Arvein again?

I loved Dreamsnake. It was one of my favourite books last year. It’s a beautifully written story with an engaging heroine and an interesting world to explore. Snake is perhaps an overly perfect protagonist (everyone loves her; she’s the BEST healer etc.), which is usually a narrative bugbear for me, but I think that by taking away her dream snake, McIntyre gives the character enough internal conflict to make her relatable.

Dreamsnake is committed to anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist values. The “good” people are the ones who live outside the supposedly civilised city. They are mostly kind and generous, live in tune with nature and are generally non-monogamous in their relationships. The people inside the city are isolationist, selfish and small-minded.  They aren’t worth McIntyre’s time. She doesn’t bother to take us into the city, or to meet the Other Worlders. Dreamsnake is a book about people building a new society and leaving the past behind.

A lovely read, which I’m sure I’ll revisit again. Recommended if you’re interested in women’s writing and science fiction.

CN: While not graphic, there are references to child sexual abuse and rape in relation to one character.

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’

Lesbian/Queer Women Link Love #3

The Rumpus, The Inadvertent Postmodernist: An Interview with Sarah Schulman 

Julie R. Enszer at Lamba Literary, Lying With Women: Meditations on Barrie Jean Borich’s Writing, Lesbians, and Liberation

Sandra M. Gilbert, The Treasures that Prevail: On the Prose of Adrienne Rich

Jana Funke, The World and Other Unpublished Works of Radclyffe Hall

*New Sarah Schulman Klaxon*

Maggie Terry, A Novel will be released by Feminist Press in September 2018.

Post-rehab, Maggie Terry is single-mindedly trying to keep her head down in New York City. There’s a madman in the White House, the subways are constantly delayed, summer is relentless, and neighborhoods all seem to blend together.

Against this absurd backdrop, Maggie wants nothing more than to slowly rebuild her life in hopes of being reunited with her daughter. But her first day on the job as a private investigator lands her in the middle of a sensational new case: actress strangled. If Maggie is going to solve this mystery, she’ll have to shake the ghosts—dead NYPD partner, vindictive ex, steadfast drug habit—that have long ruled her life.

Seriously cannot wait for this!

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes (1926)

At the age of twenty-eight, Laura Willowes is quite content with her life. She feels no interest in marriage and lives with her father on the country estate, spending her time reading, brewing and indulging her fondness for botany. But then her father dies and she finds herself prevailed upon to move in with her brother and his wife in London.

There she lives passively, tucked away in the “small spare room”, helping to look after the children and being “indispensable for Christmas Eve and birthday preparations”. As Laura herself will observe of another woman later in the book, she has become the “typical genteel spinster” who spends “her life being useful to people who don’t want her”.

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London Book Buying

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Gay’s the Word is an essential stop for us whenever we visit London. This time around, we picked up Alexis De Veaux’s Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde (2004) in the used section for £5. The used shelves also yielded up a couple of good lesbian short story collections: Anna Livia and Lilian Mohan (eds.) The Pied Piper: Lesbian Feminist Fiction (1989), which contains stories by the likes of Gillian Hanscombe, Patricia Duncker and Mary Dorcey, and Ruthann Robson’s Lambda nominated Eye of a Hurricane (1989).

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Andy bought a new copy of Lolly Willows (1926) by Sylvia Townsend Warner. This is a novel about a middle-aged spinster who abandons her family responsibilities to become a witch. She also got Ash (2009) by Malinda Lo, which is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella and had the shop assistant raving. Apparently, he’s bought it for all his friends.

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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.