A Trip to Gay’s the Word

Photograph of 5 books in a pile, with titles by Sarah Schulman, Jane Traies, Jill Dawson and Amy Bloom

A pile of lesbian books!

We were in London briefly last weekend, me for a work conference and my partner, lucky thing, to see the new production of All About Eve starring Gillian Anderson and Lilly James. But of course we still found time to visit Gay’s the Word bookshop in Bloomsbury, where I treated myself to a few books that I’ve had my eye on for a while.

Sarah Schulman is one of my favourite lesbian writers and I bought her two most recent books. Maggie Terry (2018) is a crime thriller about lesbian PI with addiction issues, while The Cosmopolitans (2016) is a historical novel about the friendship between a black gay man and a middle-aged white woman in the 1950s.

I’ve heard good things about The Crime Writer (2016) by Jill Dawson and White Houses (2018) by Amy Bloom. The first has Patricia Highsmith moving to a cottage in Suffolk to try and finish a novel while also carrying out an unhappy affair, only to find herself the protagonist in a thriller. The second is a love story about the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist, Lorena Hickok.

Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories (2018) is a collection of personal accounts from older lesbians edited by Jane Traies and looks absolutely fascinating.

I could have spent a lot more, but thought I’d better stop there. So much for not buying any more books until I’ve made a dent in my TBR pile!

Act Up Oral History Project

For World Aids Day on the 1st December, the Act Up Oral History Project 

A collection of interviews with surviving members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, New York.

The purpose of this project is to present comprehensive, complex, human, collective, and individual pictures of the people who have made up ACT UP/New York. These men and women of all races and classes have transformed entrenched cultural ideas about homosexuality, sexuality, illness, health care, civil rights, art, media, and the rights of patients. They have achieved concrete changes in medical and scientific research, insurance, law, health care delivery, graphic design, and introduced new and effective methods for political organizing. These interviews reveal what has motivated them to action and how they have organized complex endeavors. We hope that this information will de-mystify the process of making social change, remind us that change can be made, and help us understand how to do it.

*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!

“The Good News is You”

This speech by Sarah Schulman is a must-read for queer writers

As we make our work, we also have to model behaviors and ways of having personal and social relationships that can facilitate a whole new and completely different way of living, a kind of – to be old-fashioned – liberation way of living.  And you know that for me, as I expressed in my most recent book, Conflict Is Not Abuse, part of liberation means a community ethic to stop shunning, pick up the phone and talk about your differences, get together in person with the people you’re in conflict with instead of enlisting your clique or community or religion or corporate shield or race or nation to obliterate them. Stop being mean to a person or a group because someone you identity with told you to hurt them. Instead, ask the contested person what they think it going on. Why do they think this is happening? And whether that is your friend’s ex-friend, or people excluded by the Muslim ban, hear what the excluded person is experiencing. And we have to stop calling the police as a way to cover up our own unjust anxieties. Because what we have got in America right now is a system that is just cruel, in which the people in power are criminals, and people’s basic needs are ignored, and lives are ruined at whims of political game playing. So, any queer individual making it in that system is not a signifier of actual change. It’s great for that person, which has its own value, but it’s not enough.

Sarah Schulman, Publishing Triangle Award Speech

Blistering critique followed by uplifting hope.

Read the whole thing!

Making Lesbian History Visible

At this point I would like to make a radical proposal: that we temporarily forget about who calls themselves a lesbian; why, or why not. Instead, I propose that we look into the emotional, psychological, economic, political, intellectual, artistic, sexual, daily and life long experiences of women who allowed or refused the embrace. The conversations that did happen and did not. The words permitted, and those uttered without permission. The invitations refused and accepted. The fears. The imaginations, erotic and projected. The walks in the woods, the fucking, the pleasure of the company acknowledged and refused. The meals, the conversation, how and what conversations provoked, the actions, the artworks, the articles, books, tears, orgasms realized/failed/imagined/remembered, caresses, tendernesses, the refusals of tenderness, kisses that were and should have been, and how this moved the earth, the culture, the society or even just one or two people’s small lives. I propose that we call this whatever we want to call it, but that we not let it fall by the wayside, because when those of us creating queer history and culture display a reluctance to go deeper and transcend the artifice of restrictive thinking, the mainstream representations are handed a convenient model of hesitant obscuration. Lesbians give each other meaning in private, and it is too easy to keep the secret. It doesn’t have to be clean, neat, safe, compartmentalized, or expected. Show it all and let the chips fall where they may.

Sarah Schulman, ‘Making Lesbian History Visible: A Proposal’ at Out History

This week’s culture round-up

I didn’t do a round-up last Sunday because I didn’t think I had enough links, so now I probably have too many.

From After Ellen, Whatever happened to the cast of But I’m a Cheerleader? This reminds me, actually, that I haven’t written a post about But I’m Cheeleader for my lesbian movie marathon series yet even though it’s one of my favourites.

Peter Bradshaw writes about Victim, the 1961 film that starred Dirk Bogarde and explored homophobia in a way that was remarkably direct for the time.

How science fiction cover art gots its pulpy sense of wonder. I do love pulpy science fiction cover art.

A post about Sarah Schulman, one of my favourite lesbian writers, and one who I don’t think gets enough critical attention

From Lambada Literary, the 20th anniversary of Jewelle Gomez’s lesbian vampire series, the Gilda stories. I still haven’t read these stories because they’re difficult to get hold of in the UK.

From Bad Reputation, a guest post by author Juliet Mckenna, The Representation of women in Fantasy: What’s the Problem?. It got a bit of a debate going in the comments.

From Geek Sugar, a list of science fiction and fantasy books that have been banned in the last two decades

From Tor.com, Five classic science fiction films steeped in noir

From The Guardian, an article asking, is there too much CGI in monster movies these days?

Also, from the Guardian, With Conan and The Thing back at the cinema it’s like 1982 all over again. I’m not happy about this latest fad for remaking almost every decent SF and fantasy film from the 1980s.

One for fans of Star Trek: Voyager, a video showing the amusing consequences of the show’s appearance on teen jeopardy

Sarah Schulman, Rat Bohemia (1995)

Rat Bohemia has a special place in my heart as the first lesbian novel that I read, excepting The Color Purple, which is more of a novel with lesbian themes than a lesbian novel per se.  I have no idea where I laid my hands on my copy because Schulman is not at all well known in the UK.  I think she’s one of our best lesbian writers, but the topics she explores don’t make for popularity.  Rat Bohemia sets out to make connections between the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the heterosexual family.

The novel is definitely postmodern, but written in an accessible style. Schulman never overwrites and her deceptively simple, clear prose masks a complex, carefully thought out narrative structure.

Rat Bohemia is divided into four parts, each narrated by a different character. Like most of Schulman’s work, it’s set in a run-down, gothic New York.  And like much traditional Gothic fiction, the text is a patchwork of interlinked voices telling the story from different perspectives.  The first narrator, Rita Mae Weems, is a Jewish lesbian in her early thirties, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she works for Pest Control and is obsessed with New York’s rat problem.  Rita has never got over being thrown out of home at the age of 16 when her father caught her in bed with a girl called Claudia.  The second part is narrated by David, a gay Jewish writer and activist living with AIDS who is desperate for some acknowledgement and love from the family members who he feels are trying to kill him.  The third section is narrated by Rita’s best friend, Killer, a bohemian career plant-waterer who is involved in a passionate affair with the enigmatic Troy Ruby.  Along the way, there are other voices: Rita’s Cuban lover, Lourdes, successful closeted lesbian writer, Muriel Kay Starr, and David’s upper-middle class lawyer father.

Rat Bohemia is an angry novel about devastation, the devastation wrought not only by the AIDS crisis, but by society’s lack of adequate response to that crisis. Schulman locates the source of that deadly neglect in the family, daring to make connections between the Holocaust and American society’s ignoring, even cheering on, of the suffering and death of thousands of gay men in the 1980s.  The novel is a no holds barred critique of the family and its contribution to the suffering of queer people, and  Schulman is totally uncompromising in her representation of the way heterosexual families rationalise their cruelties to their queer members.

I remember when I first read it being struck by her point that heterosexual kids usually get some kind of parental cheerleading when they start to date, something that queer kids have to do without.  She doesn’t let heterosexual siblings off the hook, pointing out the ways they can take advantage of the situation.  This is a problem in the structure of the nuclear family, in which love is treated like booty to be parcelled out to members. She has no gratitude whatsoever for scraps of tolerance and ends the novel with the statement that every child deserves someone to be on their side and defend them.

There isn’t much light in this novel, though Schulman keeps it from being depressing with her warm, blackly humorous tone and her faith in friendship.  The only hope for us, she seems to say, is to be found in love and community between queer people.

This is still a radical book and I think I found it all the more powerful on re-reading.