Sarah Schulman, The Cosmopolitans (2016) #20BooksofSummer

A copy of The Cosmopolitans resting on a brown wood table. The cover features a black and white photograph of a diner from the 1950s.

Set in Greenwich Village in 1958, The Cosmopolitans centres on the relationship between Bette, a white secretary, and her neighbour, Earl, a black, gay actor.

Earl and Bette have developed a close friendship over the course of thirty years, a friendship based in their shared experiences of being ejected, unjustly, from their families and having to make their own way in a hostile world. They have created a family of choice, eating dinner together, providing sympathy, celebrating birthdays and Christmas. But, Earl and Bette are also people who have, in a sense, become “stuck”, remaining in the same patterns as the world changes around them.

At this historical turning point, just before the beginning of the 1960s, Bette and Earl’s lives are invaded by Bette’s young cousin, Hortense, an aspiring actress whose disruptive presence will explode all the pain this relationship has been designed to contain.

The encounter with Hortense creates a crucible, revealing the truth that despite their long friendship, Bette and Earl have never really understood each other’s pain. They haven’t truly seen each other. Bette simply doesn’t fully understand the extent of Earl’s anguish and loneliness, as a middle-aged, failed actor, who’s life is heavily curtailed by homophobia and racism. Earl, meanwhile, does not truly understand the way that Bette’s family’s betrayal has frozen her in a kind of emotional limbo, endlessly waiting for her opportunity to make the people who hurt her tell the truth.

The Cosmopolitans beautifully evokes the world of 1950’s New York and the emotional lives of its characters. It’s one of the most insightful novels about human relationships that I’ve ever read. This story, which has just a handful of characters, delves deeply and uncompromisingly into the nature of love and friendship. It is about cruelty and lies; it is about truth and accountability. It is very much a novel about ethics and picks up the theme of “shunning” that recurs in Sarah Schulman’s fiction and non-fiction. It asks a lot of difficult questions: why do we tell lies and destroy each other’s lives? What does it mean to love another person? What does it mean to really see another person? Without trying to reduce The Cosmopolitans to a “message”, I took away these thoughts: trying to annihilate another person in response to our own pain is never a good strategy; we have to talk to make things better, and healing can only happen when something is made right.

The Cosmopolitans is an intertextual work that engages with Honore de Balzac’s 1846 novel, Cousin Bette, which sadly I haven’t read. It also speaks to the work of James Baldwin and, at the end, even becomes a little meta in relation to the author herself.

Recommended.

Emma Donoghue, Astray (2012)

Emma Donoghue is one of my favourite writers and I particularly love her historical short fiction.

The stories in Astray are based on fragmentary and marginal historical sources, such as news reports, letters, obituaries, legal records and museum exhibits. The overarching theme is people who are on the move, out of place, in transition physically, emotionally, and psychologically. The book is organised into three sections (‘Departures’, ‘In Transit’, and ‘Arrivals and Aftermaths’), and the characters we meet within them are immigrants and emigrants, drifters, adventurers and runaways.

Each story explores the opportunities and risks of movement and boundary-crossing, what’s gained and what’s lost. An elephant is sold to P.T. Barnum, much to the dismay of his zookeeper. A woman supporting her family through prostitution in mid-Victorian London considers making a fresh start in Canada. An eighteenth-century wife tricks her husband out of his fortune and disappears. Another wife persuades a slave to run away with her. A married couple’s new start in America is blighted by tragedy before they can be reunited. Two young men go prospecting in the gold rush. A frontierswoman drags a prodigal husband home. A child is adopted and sent abroad against her first mother’s will. A seventeenth-century puritan community grapples with accusations of sexual “deviance”. A child soldier is caught up in a campaign of organised rape. The daughter of a businessman in New York discovers that the man she knew as her father once lived as a woman. A lesbian artist contemplates her life as her partner descends into dementia.

I really enjoyed Astray and found the stories fascinating and poignant. Donoghue is an emigrant/immigrant herself, moving from Ireland to Canada to pursue a relationship. The ‘Afterword’, in which she talks about how this experience shaped the book, creates a real sense of empathy and resonance. As with much of her work, there’s a focus on the lives of women and queer people, as well as people who live on the margins and don’t really fit into any normative categories.

*** Just one word of warning: ‘The Hunt’ is a deeply disturbing story about rape and I think it could be extremely triggering for people who’ve experienced sexualised violence

Look around you and marvel

In this new wondrous age with Supreme Court decisions affirming gay and lesbian marriages, and gender being redefined as nowhere near as rigid as it has previously been defined, I sometimes wonder if anyone knows what our lives were like at the time when I was a young woman, trying to figure out how to live my life honestly in the face of so much hatred and danger. Who are we if we cannot speak truthfully about our lives? How did we come to this new age in which we can take our lovers home or to church or walk hand in hand down the street without lies or pretense or a carefully crafted fictional stance to protect us?

Speaking truth to power was a tenet of the early women’s movement. We would change the world by the simple act of declaring our truth and refusing to back down or lie no matter how virulent the response.

How virulent was the response? Take a look at the coming-out stories shared in Crooked Letter i: Coming Out in the South (NewSouth Books). You will see the internal evolution of people who wanted simply to be themselves. It was not easy or simple or even a matter of confronting prejudice. Most of these people’s deepest struggles were with themselves, their families and their faith, their most personal convictions.

Confronting the enforced silence of manners and social expectations, we claimed our lives for ourselves. Was it heroic? Was it audacious, marvelous, scary and day by day painful? Of course. Did we change the world? Look around you and marvel.

Dorothy Allison, Gay and Grateful: On the Crooked Path to the Crooked Letter