Lesbian eXcursions: Chapter Two

Lesbian eXcursions: Journeying through the personal narrative – Chapter Two

© Nicki Hastie

Dissertation submitted for the degree of M.A. Modern Literature: Theory and Practice, University of Leicester 1991

If you are quoting from or printing parts of this page, please give full acknowledgement and reference as: Nicki Hastie (1991) Lesbian eXcursions: journeying through the personal narrative [WWW] http://nickihastie.co.uk/my-writing/essays/lesbian-excursions-chapter-two (add date you visited this page)

Some parts of this dissertation were revised and subsequently published as Nicki Hastie, “Lesbian Bibliomythography” in Gabriele Griffin (ed.) Outwrite: Lesbianism and Popular Culture London: Pluto Press, 1993 pp.68-85


Contents


(A number in square brackets, e.g. [1] indicates a link to a footnote)

Chapter Two

Only later on did I begin to suspect that, in certain circumstances at least, passion itself might be a kind of duty, a cry against injustice, a howl in the wilderness against all those enemy Governors, Vicars, Teachers, Parents … potential School friends … whom I was beginning to mistrust, fear or even positively despise.

(Miss X or The Wolf Woman, Christine Crow)

I

I have already mentioned an essay surveying the twentieth-century lesbian novel of development. This is Bonnie Zimmerman’s “Exiting From Patriarchy”. Bonnie Zimmerman begins by talking about the lesbian coming out story as “the lesbian myth of origins, the explanation of how we came to be as lesbians, how our consciousness formed and our identity developed”. [33] She identifies several different modes of developmental literature, all of which have been utilised by lesbian writers: the confessional, the picaresque, the ‘portrait of the artist’, the novel of awakening, and the apprenticeship novel (sometimes known as the girls’ school novel). These categories are perhaps more relevant to the 1970s literature explored by Zimmerman than to more recently published writing. I don’t feel that it is particularly useful to itemise the writing I shall be examining here in quite this way. Elements of these individual developmental headings are still obviously recognisable, and I shall be referring to them occasionally, but I hope to do so in a way which draws attention to the development of the coming out story itself – its constant transformation and conflation of genre, and indeed ‘sub-genre’.

Zimmerman links the development of lesbian personality with the Bildungsroman models suggested by Jerome Hamilton Buckley and Marianne Hirsch. [34] According to Zimmerman, the provinces where the classic hero of Bildungsroman begins, become, in the lesbian novel of development, the territory of patriarchy. It is from the constraints of patriarchy that the lesbian hero must escape. The journey she undertakes is toward the new world of lesbianism (‘Lesbian Nation’), but she must first travel through

[the] dangerous territory of heterosexuality, loosening, shedding, or finally succumbing to the constraints placed upon her free imagination (her lesbianism) by a hostile society (most often her parents, teachers, employers, although every member of society is the lesbian’s potential enemy).
[35]

As the epigraph to this chapter reveals, her story is sometimes a personal mission of protest against oppressive soical forces which constantly persuade her to adopt a role fully sanctioned by the dominant culture. It demonstrates her “profound dissatisfaction with the prevailing or mainstream discourse which denies differences and congeals thought”. [36] Passion (Eros) is ultimately her strength, not only women’s passion for other women, but also the passion (desire) to choose her own identity, or even her own home. Coming out is often perceived or represented as a ‘coming home’ by previously isolated lesbians:

Coming out was an absolute relief. I always knew I was different, but I didn’t know what it was. It was like suddenly I was home. Searching for years in this difference. Knowing I was different and not knowing how I could relate to this difference, and it was like all of a sudden someone lifted a whole load off me. I felt like I finally found a structure, an awareness of myself where I suddenly knew where I belonged in the world, as compared to constantly searching and knowing that
no matter where I was, I didn’t quite fit. Not knowing, not being sure where I was in relationship to people I was around.
[37]

‘Home’ in Zimmerman’s essay is ‘Lesbian Nation’: entry into a strong lesbian sisterhood; an utopian political separatism within a lesbian community far enough removed from patriarchal territory to mean “male cultures, male law, and male power can no longer touch them”. [38] Coming out, then, is the individual’s understanding or discovery of alternative community.

The lesbian novel which leaves the lesbian hero tough, powerful and free, riding off into the sunset with her sisters, having escaped all partriarchal traps, certainly nourishes the imagination, but its political optimism is dated. Lesbian Nation is an illusion, and so too is the exit from patriarchal codes. But all is not lost, for Zimmerman’s study of 1970s literature establishes the significance to lesbian writing of the study of origins: genealogical, social, literary, mythical. Lesbian coming out stories promote a re-investigation of origins/beginnings/roots or the question of belonging in the world by accepting the importance of the quest, the importance of challenging male traditions which place faith in one beginning only, in only one version of the story, for we know there must be something both before and after “those enemy Governors, Vicars, Teachers, Parents” and that neither is the starting-place alone. In other words, linear chronology isn’t the only method of literary self-discovery. The visit home taken by the mature hero in classic Bildungsroman is far more subtly textualised in the lesbian self-discovery narrative. Even without the ‘Home = Lesbian Nation’ equation, the search for a sense of belonging demands some hard journeying.

One of the texts cited by Zimmerman’s study that I shall be examining in more detail is Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. This book is often introduced in critical surveys as one of the most popular of lesbian-feminist novels. When writers are searching for an example of a positive and powerful lesbian character they turn most often to Molly Bolt, the hero of Rubyfruit Jungle. [39] This in itself is interesting because it is an acknowledgement that lesbian readers choose to identify with exemplary characters. There is a need for lesbian figures who brave the odds and seem to defeat societal prejudice, but there is a danger too that in attempting to respond to negative lesbian stereotyping lesbian writers compensate by “writing about lesbians in a way which [has] tended to idealize us out of the human race.” [40] In so doing new archetypes and stereotypes are simply created to replace the old.

It is not so much Brown’s writing as a deprived reading audience which has embossed Rubyfruit Jungle with excellence. It is a fine example of a paracanonical text, promoting strong attachment from a community of readers. I would like to suggest, however, that this may be a historically specific community of readers. Molly Bolt’s humour has brought her great popularity, but the ‘hype’ surrounding Rubyfruit Jungle in lesbian culture, including the marketing (by a mainstream publisher) behind current editions of the book, described as “the ultimate word-of-mouth bestseller … about growing up lesbian in America – and living happily ever after”, [41] has effectively removed Molly from her context within the novel. She explodes from the page, uncontainable. So the story becomes: if you haven’t yet read Rubyfruit Jungle, you don’t know much about lesbian writing, culture or history. A failed lesbian!

But of course the ‘Molly Myth’ had become so much stronger than the read by the time I became a reader of Rubyfruit Jungle (not so long ago, actually, thinking I must be missing some vital knowledge), that I was inevitably disappointed. As for living happily ever after, I never really believed that stuff anyway. I don’t attend to everything which happens to be printed on the back cover of a book. I can’t give up the habit of looking, though, because you never know when I might find in that exact spot the very clue I’m searching for. Specimens of lesbian writing are sometimes still disguised specimens. I play detective, then, sniffing out the codes which may eventually spell from apparently nothing L-E-S-B-I-A-N: it’s the businesss of creating language from silence. [42]

The disappointment I experienced is one of the dangers of ‘heroinisation’. (This is Elizabeth Wilson’s word; [43] I prefer to speak of heroes rather than heroines, the heroine being a diminutive sort of hero – one word, de-gendered, will suffice.) The problem lies again with an understanding of ‘identity’, with assumptions and questionings. Wilson explains:

To demand of women that they be wonderful on our behalf is to see them as abstractions, not as women, and is to deny them … the right to try new identities, new ways of living and new forms of relationship – and to fail. … all writing … must question the meaning of experience and cannot rest content with a preconceived ‘right answer’. The certainties of affirmation are always only half truths.
[44]

She is joined in her suspicion of heroising by Maureen Brady who also records a troubled identity. Brady, in “Insider/Outsider Coming of Age”, explores her development as a writer, one who has chosen to write openly as a lesbian, and also her place/responsibility as a writer in the development of community:

Development of a community begins with forming an identity, which implores its writers: show us who we are (we who have been invisible). This clear need seems to have created something of a genre lesbian novel in which women brave the odds to be able to love one another – indeed no easy street – but does one have to be a hero to do it? The characters who emerge seem to be the archetypal lesbian hero, the adventurer, the monster. When a community is bonded by identity (this is who we are, what we believe in), how does it hold its bonds when individuation becomes the next developmental step? And how do its writers thrive when they move to that terrain in their own interests?
[45]


Do I want a different kind of ‘hero’, one who isn’t really heroic at all? There is a great deal to examine here. Lesbian literature is itself developing; shifting with political and historical changes. Maureen Brady’s development led her to reject, not altogether, but the dependency on invented or fantasised lesbian history and to write instead about individual character. “I was interested in allowing the character to be less heroic, to have greater vulnerability, to be more graphically sexual”, she says. [46] By some this may be viewed as a betrayal: to present the vulnerability of a lesbian character is to imply vulnerability within the lesbian community, leaving it wide open to attack (doesn’t a community provide support, reduce feelings of vulnerability?); but there is also a strength implicit here for it is only by registering the very personal growth of others that we begin to share our own tales of development. This is common-ground. You don’t have to be a hero to find meaning in your life, to begin to tell the story that is yours. Brady recognised that her writing had to change if she were to remain true to herself. This is very much a political act.

I find myself asking: what does it mean, my disappointment with Rubyfruit Jungle? How does this affect my membership of a specific cultural group, a community of lesbian readers? I may have enjoyed the book before it was mythologised. Am I angry, then, with the lesbians who loved the novel in the 1970s? I feel I must acknowledge that subjectivities shift with time. Our coming out stories reveal a lot about our personal histories: “knowing how long a woman has been ‘out’ … can often tell you a great deal about what she knows about lesbian life, what her frame of reference is, what kind of a world she came out into.” [47] Pinpointing some kind of beginning to the coming out process enables a recording of historical and political moments through which one has travelled. It is not always enough to say ‘I am a lesbian’; sometimes, most often within a lesbian setting, I must add that I date my coming out to 1986 – July 1986 to be exact. I had been communicating tentative ideas for a long time, but this is when I first spoke the words to another human, first verbalised a definite sense of identity.

The availablity of lesbian literature had improved, fortunately for me, by 1986. Molly Bolt was not my first introduction to a positive literary lesbian. But, to be honest, if she had been, I think she might have made quite a different impression. For a while, every lesbian character I met in a book was some kind of hero for me, and necessarily so. Outside of literature I didn’t have much opportunity to discover what life in the lesbian world might involve. As far as I knew I’d never actually met anyone who had spoken openly about loving someone of the same sex as themselves (apart from the adolescent ‘crush’, of course, which is tolerated if it does not last ‘too long’), and so I could only guess at what might happen to me when I began to find a voice. I had to speak when I realised I was questioning the lives of these lesbian literary heroes (my only point of contact), questioning them because they were able to meet women who could return their love without fear, whereas I continued in isolation. I was concerned about versions of truth. Here is part of my diary entry for 23 July 1986:

In all these books I read people are allowed to be gay [back then, ‘gay’ was easier to say, shorter to write than ‘lesbian’, although I identified as ‘lesbian’ – ‘gay’ was a bridging term for me in first coming out to heterosexuals]. The topic is discussed; they go right in – it is acceptable. They easily find someone to have a relationship with. I often wonder if my reading does me much good – perhaps what I do read isn’t the real world – only fiction – and that I have fictional imaginings about my own life. But somehow I can’t accept this to be the truth. Perhaps … I should just stop worrying and live how I think regardless – be like the characters in my books.

Four days later I spoke. I suppose I wanted to be a hero then too. I understand from this experience that not only has my coming out a historical significance, but so too has my reading experience within the coming out process. These are some of the contradictory discoveries which are inevitable in the exploration of individual as well as communal identity. I desire individuation, but I also cannot deny my need to identify as a member of a community. Armed with the knowledge of community, I can struggle to investigate individuality.

I am going to stay with Rubyfruit Jungle for a short while. It provides me with a point of reference in moving on to examine a very recent publication: Jane DeLynn’s Don Juan in the Village, a selected title for the Feminist Book Fortnight 1991. The motif of the journey is prominent in both texts, but if one of Molly Bolt’s goals is, as Bonnie Zimmerman professes, Lesbian Nation, the journey undertaken by the nameless ‘hero’ (I am using the term in this context simply to refer to the central protagonist) of Don Juan must be of a rather different nature.

Briefly, Rubyfruit Jungle tells the story of Molly Bolt, from her origins (as far as she knows them) as the illegitimate child adopted by a poor Southern couple, through to her determination to become one of the greatest makers of film. Throughout her childhood, Molly realises that she is different from others. She refuses the conventional limitations of being a girl and displays a fierce determination to fight oppression and injustice. It is not only her developing lesbian sexuality which marginalises her; she is unsure of her ethnic/racial origins. Thrown out of University because of her lesbianism, she continues to fight prejudice and hypocrisy wherever she goes. She travels to New York, penniless, where she enrols for a film course and graduates top of her class, despite the blatant discrimination of her male colleagues. The novel ends with Molly determined to realise all of her ambitions. Rubyfruit Jungle has understandably collected popularity due to the energy and exuberance displayed in its closing lines. Molly’s life is still in its early stages and her ambitions are still to be achieved, yet she asserts herself in such a way that she is almost able to write her future successes. It is her refusal to be beaten, her emergence as a lesbian fit to take on the world which marks her heroism/idealisation, her point of departure, in some ways at least, from patriarchal territory:

I wished the world would let me be myself. But I knew better on all counts. I wish I could make films. That wish I can work for. One way or another I’ll make those movies and I don’t feel like having to fight until I’m fifty. But if it does take that long then watch out world because I’m going to be the hottest fifty-year old this side of the Mississippi.

Don Juan closes with a slightly different rendition of lesbian subjectivity. We leave Molly at the birth of the liberationist Movements, when political optimism is just beginning to grow. ‘Don Juan’, on the other hand, records as an epilogue (“Epilogue 1988”) a personal view of America in 1988. A tame description of this chapter’s mood would be disillusion. Alienation and disorientation mar this woman’s ability to make sense of her world. She can understand herself as an individual only by believing her identity, thoughts and feelings to be so fragile that she is barely human anymore – “I felt scarcely human, and this, at least, was familiar, so that I felt like myself, after all” (Don Juan, pp.239-40). Even if Molly must play some patriarchal games in order to succeed, “she still will leave one foot in lesbian nation”. [48] She has some kind of home; she even returns to the home in which she lived as a child as a way of developing and reconciling her understanding of origins. She returns home in order to make a film about her adoptive mother as part of her college thesis, thereby strengthening her relationship with the older woman. ‘Don Juan’ is alone, unable to relate with other women. The question of identity has shifted its emphasis from such a close association with community.

A regular visitor in bars, ‘Don Juan’ finally realises the sterility of the action:

now it seemed odd that for all these years it had seemed so normal. I had come to the bar for knowledge, but it turned out that that knowledge was only about how to behave in bars such as this. Now that I had that knowledge I was too old to use it – or maybe it was only that I was too old to want to use it. (pp.238-9)

She “had taken the promise of our liberation seriously”, but this desire for political legitmacy compromised/falsified her sexuality at an individual level. It had been concerned with ideals, presenting only tentative suggestions for the expression of sexual attraction; had fallen into the trap of setting women severely limited codes for ‘accepted’ sexual behaviour: this peculiar need, as ‘Don Juan’ sees it, to develop “a history for a face that would somehow provide a Romantic justification for that utterly simple desire to explore the wet insides of another’s body” (pp.236-7). She is a traveller and recognises the appeal of destinations, but she is not secure within lesbian-feminist ideology and would probably refuse Lesbian Nation if it did exist as an option. She is left to “wonder where my port was, and if I was ever coming home” (p.237). Significant here, though, is that ‘Don Juan’ still needs to feel there is somewhere she can call ‘home’. An acknowledgement of one’s individuality, even alienation from other people, doesn’t neatly replace a dependence upon community and the importance of communal identification. ‘Don Juan’ is herself a published writer and there are times, especially perhaps for the lesbian writer, who comes out as she writes, when “writing becomes both a medium of, and a substitute for, personal relations”. [49] The process of writing is a search for community.

Don Juan helps to illustrate that rather than speaking in terms of ‘Lesbian Nation’, it has become necessary to refer to ‘lesbian nations’ – as far from existing as the singular, but offering a more apt representation of the variety of lesbian experience. With this novel ‘we’ – an imaginative collectivity of lesbian readers and writers [50] – are invited to explore what might happen when, as Maureen Brady says, “individuation becomes the next developmental step”. It can appear quite unsettling (I admit to finding it so), but it provides an important corrective to assumption. The best (lesbian-feminist) will in the world cannot escape from dangerous insinuation. Adrienne Rich, famous for her “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” essay, [51] is no exception, as Diana Fuss demonstrates here:

It is telling that Rich sees lesbian s/m as, in effect, a false or perverted form of lesbian sex: practitioners of lesbian s/m have [according to Rich] been either duped by ‘the dominant cultures’ teachings’ or influenced by ‘male homosexual mores’. The unfortunate corollary of this position is the insinuation that some forms of lesbianism are truer than others.
[52]

The development of the ‘Don Juan’ character is executed through an exploration of sexual practice, including lesbian s/m sex. There is no denying that this is one kind of truth in all kinds of sexualities, whatever one’s personal views about s/m practice. This may be a rare example of a lesbian developmental narrative in the amount and variety of explicitly sexual description that is involved, but it is an important developmental narrative nonetheless. The imposing sadness in the tone of the novel is due in part to the fact that ‘Don Juan’ only believes she has validation, individuality, when she goes to bed with a woman – she imagines she can ‘know’ herself by remembering the women she has slept with – while it is obvious to the reader that there is far more to ‘Don Juan’. She is actually involved in an important process of discovery which is beginning to be more and more significantly explored in lesbian literature: questions less about ‘lesbian identity’ than about ‘individual identity’ within the lesbian setting. It is an important development for lesbian literature, and for lesbian politics and culture, that included in discussions of ‘lesbian identity’ can be the challenge of individuality, the acknowledgement of diversity. That there need not be a representative or archetypal ‘lesbian’ in some ways reveals a strength in lesbian culture:

We can relish individual identity and cultural distinctiveness while observing the similarities within the differences … Diversity does not dilute gay culture, but rather strengthens it. [53]

In terms of Bildungsroman it is the picaresque form which comes to mind when discussing Rubyfruit Jungle and Don Juan. Marianne Hirsch states: “structurally, the picaresque novel is composed of a number of episodes loosely strung together … [it] stresses the material side of life and concentrates on actions and adventures in particular”. [54] As its relationship with Bildungsroman might suggest, the picaresque is also a “de-facement or disfiguring of autobiography.” [55] Concentrating on the travels and adventures of a protagonist who is for one reason or another a social outsider, the picaresque form has been a useful tool for lesbian writers wishing to present versions of the coming out journey. Structurally, Don Juan would appear to conform more literally to the description of picaresque given above. The text is divided into chapters, each chapter detailing distinct separate episodes in the life of ‘Don Juan’; there is no immediate continuity of narrative. But, as James Mandrell has explained, Rubyfruit Jungle is the stronger example of a female version of picaresque, complete with traditional picaresque ending in which the protagonist promises there will be more to the life story when it has been lived. [56] ‘Don Juan’ does not seek to be that representative figure, unlike Molly Bolt who is more closely implicated in the traditions of the picaresque form.

This is an interesting point, especially in relation to questions of authorship and the authoring of one’s self. Rubyfruit Jungle is, in many respects, heavily autobiographical. The similarities between Rita Mae Brown’s early life and that of Molly Bolt can be assessed by reading Brown’s essay, “Take a Lesbian to Lunch”, where she reports: “not only was I a lesbian, I was poor, I was an orphan (adopted) without knowledge of my racial/ethnic origins”. [57] Yet this is more than one woman’s story; Rubyfruit Jungle is part of lesbian heritage. The novel is an example of a mode of confessional writing especially popular in the 1970s, at a time when communal identity was recognised to be essential, but had only just begun to develop strongly.

Molly Bolt is better known as a ‘pioneering positive literary lesbian’ (!) than an unique individual; a shared experience of deprivation, censorship and oppression amongst this novel’s first lesbian readers emphasised its exemplary status, creating a point of reference from which liberationary strategies could be imagined. Don Juan, the novel which does not claim to have any links with a personal autobiography – the disclaimer on the title-page: “Don Juan in the Village is a work of fiction. The characters in it have been invented by the author” – is the novel which displays most attention to individuality and historical authenticity.

Laying aside the emphasis on individual identity which is finally apparent in Don Juan, I still cannot imagine that ‘Don Juan’ could receive exemplary status. This may have something to do with the erotic content of the text; Maureen Brady probably had a valid point when she claimed that writing about individual character allowed oneself a more graphically sexual content. [58] Lesbian writers have feared the writing of sex scenes in case they inadvertently reinforce the stereotype of the lesbian with the voracious sexual appetite. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a “[f]ailure to explore the full meaning of eroticisim in lesbian lives”. [59] Don Juan seeks to remedy this to a certain extent, but this text doesn’t fit very happily with the favoured romantic image of lesbian sexuality which has carried over from the 1970s narratives and the dream of Lesbian Nation. This romantic view occasionally frustrates me (although it is often amusing and does have its place; I cite as an example Katharine V. Forrest’s Curious Wine, a listed bestseller in lesbian and feminist bookshops) because it seems to be suggesting that narcissism (often connected with the charge of immaturity) plays a large part in lesbian sexuality.

Rita Felski doesn’t make much of lesbian relationships in recent women’s developmental literature, but what she does say is this:

[The] emphasis upon autonomy as women’s most pressing need means that sexuality rarely plays a dominant role in the self-discovery process; love relationships do not, as in the traditional Bildungsroman, contribute significantly to the protagonist’s education. Erotic passion, by its very intensity, can sabotage the protagonist’s struggle to strengthen an often precarious sense of independent identity. Lesbian relationships offer an important exception to this rule; but their significance in the text is usually determined by their narrative function in furthering the protagonist’s intellectual and emotional self-understanding. Knowledge, rather than desire, is emphasized as the key to relationships between women; the other woman provides a mirror in which the protagonist discovers herself, finding her own female identity reflected. [60]

I would like to criticise Felski on the following grounds. It seems, at one point, that she is going to offer some valuable directives for discriminating between heterosexual female narratives of development and lesbian developmental narratives. She introduces the theme of erotic passion, establishing its particular relevance to lesbian experience, and then immediately negates the significance of the erotic. Can lesbian desire dissipate so suddenly? Is epistemology all that is left – a narcissistic longing to know severed from any erotic desire? I desire; it is the desire in the first place which brings knowledge. It is not ‘the other half’ (of myself indeed!) which I seek/desire, to see myself mirrored (Lacanian-style) and long to be one with what I see, refusing to be a separate being: I’m not falling for that old one about the arrested state of development!

That is what I would like to say, but Felski’s description is justified, to a certain extent, at least as regards the literature she has chosen to discuss. I can criticise her on the inadequacy of her analysis, on the basis that, in what is a lengthy book on the subject of female development, she limits her discussion of lesbians and lesbianism to a couple of paragraphs. Then I can proceed to celebrate the fact that lesbian literature continues to develop and to move in increasingly diverse directions. I don’t regret a fading away of ‘Lesbian Nation’ for this isn’t necessarily a fading away of the politics and empowerment of ‘lesbian identity’, but in actual fact a way of encouraging awareness of lesbian identity in that raising discussion and exploratory questioning about what such identity may involve maintains a high level of challenge to the heterosexist world-view. Challenging ourselves, too, by acknowledging diversity in this same process, is a way to demonstrate at a practical level the old slogan which celebrates: “Lesbians are Everywhere”.

II

Lesbian coming out stories in the tradition of Rubyfruit Jungle are still popular. Fiona Cooper’s Not the Swiss Family Robinson, published earlier this year, is one example. The British writer has been greatly influenced by American culture, choosing to set three of her four novels to date against an American landscape. The theme of uncertain origins and a journey of discovery linked with identity are again central. Monica Robinson discovers near the beginning of Not the Swiss Family Robinson that she is adopted, as does Molly Bolt in Rubyfruit Jungle. Her anger at overhearing ‘Pop’ Robinson drunkenly bragging about his generosity in giving her both a home and a name prompts Monica to dream of discovering a name which she can accept as her own by her choice alone. The knowledge of her adoption occurs at a crucial stage. Monica is already in love with a young woman four years older than herself, but she is aware that the only plans considered possible by her family and the other residents of the town of What Cheer are those which lead to marriage. It is because she loves Joanne Lee that she

began to wonder if I should have been born a boy, it would have made everything a little plainer for me. Kissing and all that stuff. Finally I decided the only thing was dreaming. I was not going to have a love-life beyond dreaming things I knew were so bad and impossible there wasn’t a word to describe them. (pp.7-8)

Monica’s desire to re-name herself is linked with that other developmental journey whereby she will discover that there is a word to describe her feelings and this this is not a name to fear.

This is by no means an easy route for in the small town of What Cheer there is a great deal of fear of erotic love between two women. Monica becomes the protegee of her strongly-religious English teacher, Miss Courtland. Margaret Courtland helps Monica to the discovery that her biological mother was an English woman, and encourages her to apply for a scholarship to study in England. Their close friendship, which includes a certain amount of physical contact, leads Monica to believe Miss Courtland is in love with her too, but when Monica declares her love the teacher backs away, protesting that their relationship had been based purely on a shared spiritual understanding. A betrayed Monica wins her scholarship and sets out for England on a new section of her quest. She is in a condition of becoming, and the journey to England is a search for community – the strength to name herself as lesbian – as much as it is an attempt to learn about her mother, reaching back in order to name herself through the mother she doesn’t yet know: “I wanted to find someone who looked like me, who was maybe a bit like me … I just wanted more of whatever my life was about” (p.122). This is Monica’s version of ‘coming home’.

I have introduced Not the Swiss Family Robinson because it assists in building a sense of a tradition of lesbian developmental narrative, reaching back to Rubyfruit Jungle, but also repeating some of the important issues which are explored in 1980s literature. It is a lighter read and more obviously fictionalised than the two slightly earlier published narratives I wish to discuss now, but the idea of the isolated lesbian affirming herself through a recovery of her/a past and the influence of a mother-figure forms a significant part of some fascinating examples of lesbian personal narrative.

Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name (1982) and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985) are discussed by Yvonne M. Klein in her essay “Myth and Community in Recent Lesbian Autobiographical Fiction”. [61] I consider myself to be contributing to a certain kind of tradition, joining Bonnie Zimmerman and Yvonne M. Klein in an examination of the development of the lesbian personal developmental narrative. Klein writes acknowledging Zimmerman’s study as a forerunner, a significant influence, in this particular context, upon her position as reader and writer. Klein responds to Lesbian Nation and moves on:

in the years since these hopeful novels first appeared, there has occurred a considerable change in the objective political circumstances which, to a greater or lesser extent, originally shaped their vision. The prospect of an ever-expanding army of lovers has contracted and the notion of establishing a literal lesbian nation, alternative to and competitive with patriarchy, is all about dead. … but this by no means implies a return to the narrow structures of the ‘prefeminist’ period is either forced or imminent. A significant and impressive group of novels has emerged, novels which fall clearly into the type of the lesbian novel of formation, but which resolve themselves neither in defeat nor in a triumphant and irrevocable departure from patriarchy. Though all are unmistakably feminist and unreservedly lesbian, their endings are, to a greater or lesser degree, occluded. Rather than projecting forward a vision of a new community of living Amazons, they reach back to reinvent a mythic history of female power out of the shards and scraps of their childhood and their culture.
[62]

Klein suggests that Zami and Oranges detail a search for community which is not always successful. That search is also being taken by the authors, Audre Lorde and Jeanette Winterson, for however difficult it is to determine between what may be considered autobiographical and fictional elements of a text, Lorde and Winterson foreground the autobiographical side of their work by giving the narrator/protagonist of their respective texts the same name as themselves. [63] This encourages a bond of trust between writer and reader. Such writings may be considered to be creating an atmosphere of intimacy, a desire for personal relations or communal identification. As I have already described in my discussion of ‘Don Juan’, recognition of the absence or inadequacy of community doesn’t mean necessarily that the need for community fades.

Audre, the protagonist of Zami, describes her personal understanding of ‘home’. Both racism and heterosexism/homophobia are factors in Audre’s search for identity affirmation. She learns from a very early age that she is an ‘outsider’. She is a Black child in a white school, and for the first few years of life termed legally blind. In high school Audre’s best friends call themselves ‘The Branded’, a sisterhood of rebels; this is a group of young white women who consider themselves ‘progressive’, but remain largely ignorant of the nature of their own racism. Audre herself is only just beginning to attempt to theorise race and difference; one of the difficulties for Audre is that even though ‘The Branded’ cannot observe its own racism, it is this group which allows her, for the very first time in her life, to share dreams and feelings without fear: “It was in high school that I came to believe that I was different from my white classmates, not because I was Black, but because I was me” (p.82). She is an ‘outsider’ from the dominant white culture and prevented full acceptance into Black society because she is a lesbian.

Zami begins with a set of questions which attempt to explore the life influences which have helped Audre towards the woman that she is ‘now’:

To whom do I owe the power behind my voice, what sudden strength I have become, yeasting up like sudden blood from under the bruised skin’s blister?

… Images of women flaming like torches adorn and define the borders of my journey, stand like dykes between me and the chaos. It is the images of women, kind and cruel, that lead me home. (p.3)

To whom do I owe the woman I have become?

… To the batallion of arms where I often retreated for shelter and sometimes found it. To the others who helped, pushing me into the merciless sun – I, coming out blackened and whole.

To the journeywoman pieces of myself.

Becoming.

Afrekete.
(pp.4-5)

‘Home’ is the birthplace of Audre’s mother, the island of Carriacou, traditionally the isle of women-loving women. Audre reaches back through myth, through Grenadian legend, searching for the source of her mother’s power:

My mother was a very powerful woman. This was so in a time when that word-combination of woman and powerful was almost unexpressable in the white american common tongue … As a child, I always knew my mother was different from other women I knew, Black or white. I used to think it was because she was my mother. But different how? I was never quite sure. … But that is why to this day I believe that there have always been Black dykes around – in the sense of powerful and women-oriented women – who would rather have died than use that name for themselves. (p.15)

“How Carriacou women love each other is legend in Grenada, and so is their strength and their beauty” (p.14). Carriacou is never Audre’s home; it is her fantasy land, “a sweet place somewhere else”. The island certainly exists, but it becomes a place for the imagination alone: a story from her mother’s mouth; almost that “uncharted territory” which is Zimmerman’s description of Lesbian Nation, [64] for Carriacou appears only in the Atlas of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica and Audre was twenty six years old before she discovered the island upon a map. Audre’s choice of name is ‘Zami’: “A Carriacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers” (p.255). Goddess of this lost lesbian paradise is Afrekete. When Audre meets Kitty at a party she imagines her to be the goddess incarnate for it is Kitty who teaches Audre new definitions of women’s bodies, filling her with a sense of magical power. Through her relationship with Kitty, Audre finds connection with Carriacou, imagining her own empowerment in this myth of Carriacou as source of (Black lesbian) women’s power.

The possibility of telling stories fascinates Audre as a child. It is the “idea of telling stories and not getting whipped for telling untrue” which amazes Audre at first (Zami p.46), but she later understands her own story-telling to be as ‘true’ as the ‘reality’ presented by the dominant society. Telling stories is survival, investing one’s own perceptions of the world with legitimacy in the act of denying the authority of one story alone. Jeanette creates her own version of history in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. In the chapter entitled “Deuteronomy: the last book of the law”, Jeanette states that she is not content to rely upon an accepted (phallocentric) history, but must make sense of events in her own way:

People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact. They do this so that they know what to believe and what not to believe. This is very curious. How is it that no one will believe that the whale swallowed Jonah, when every day Jonah is swallowing the whale? I can see them now, stuffing down the fishiest of fish tales, and why? Because it is history. Knowing what to believe had its advantages. It built an empire and kept people where they belonged … And when I look at a history book and think of the imaginative effort it has taken to squeeze this oozing world between two boards and typeset, I’m astonished. Perhaps the event has an unassailable truth. God saw it. God knows. But I am not God. And so when someone tells me what they heard or saw, I believe them, and I believe their friend who also saw, but not in the same way and I can put these accounts together and I will not have a seamless wonder but a sandwich laced with mustard of my own. … If you want to keep your own teeth, make your own sandwiches. (pp.93-5)

The chapter-titles of Oranges are taken from books in the Bible, the ‘master chronicle’ of Jeanette’s development. She is educated by her mother according to biblical tradition and attends the evangelist church which forms the basis of her mother’s life. Attempting to understand the differences between her lifestyle and that of other children, Jeanette begins to re-imagine fairy-tale and myth, discovering her own morals in these new stories. But when Jeanette falls in love with another young woman her re-writing of fairy-tale and the Bible begins to fail her. The church cannot accept her lesbianism and it becomes harder for Jeanette to smooth the conflicts between her own experience and social convention. The church is a strong, almost exclusively female community and a great influence on Jeanette’s apparent social confidence and sense of personal empowerment, but this community, especially Jeanette’s mother, abhors lesbianism and no amount of imaginative activity can alter their version
of morality/’reality’.

Jeanette moves to a new city, but she is alone and misses the community in which she once felt so secure. There is a thread attached to her, as in the story of Winnet she tells, which pulls her back towards her mother. She had gone to the new city in order to escape: “This city is full of towers to climb and climb, and to climb faster and faster, marvelling at the design and dreaming of the view from the top” (p.161); but hers is “a voice that cries in the wilderness, full of sounds that do not always set into meaning” (p.161). Jeanette would like to stay in the city of new possibilities: “Like paradise it is bounded by rivers, and contains fabulous beasts” (p.161), but everything ahead is uncertain. She misses something dependable in her life; the utopia which might be visible from the towers is really only a dream. For now, Jeanette accepts that it is her mother and her mother’s biblical traditions which retain a hold on her (“she had tied a thread around my button, to
tug when she pleased” p.176):

I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don’t think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend. I don’t know if God exists, but I do know that if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it. I have an idea that one day it might be possible, I thought once it had become possible, and that glimpse has set me wandering, trying to find the balance between earth and sky … I want someone who is fierce and will love me until death and knows that love is as strong as death, and be on my side for ever and ever. … There are many forms of love and affection, some people can spend their whole lives together without knowing each other’s names. Naming is a difficult and time-consuming process; it concerns essences, and it means power. But on the wild nights who can call you home? Only the one who knows your name. (p.170)

The coming out doesn’t lead to entry into an expanding lesbian community. In the absence of Lesbian Nation, Jeanette must affirm herself by recovering her past, but it will be from her own version of that past that she builds comfort, inscribing her personal perception and vision of the world.


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What does your love look like?

We stand with Orlando ribbonSo here I am – driven to leave my quiet-ish hiding place (of late) and send some comments out into the world. It’s hard to have anything new or powerful enough to say about the atrocity in Orlando, FL, USA this weekend, but I must register my voice of grief, outrage, solidarity and connection with LGBT+ communities and allies everywhere. My thoughts are with all those who have been affected directly through the loss and injury of loved ones, and through the weight of being witness.

Some facts are clear. A heavily-armed man murdered 49 people and wounded 53 others at the LGBT+ Pulse nightclub. This was an act of hatred and homophobia (also biphobia and transphobia), and the majority of those targeted were people of colour during a Latina/Latino/Latinx night. All believed themselves to be in a safe place of celebration during a month of worldwide Pride events.

Here are some other commentaries which say far more than I can:

Latinx LGBTQ community response from Isa Noyola interviewed on Democracy Now (warning – this video contains a shameful clip of Donald Trump taking advantage of the massacre to spread anti-Muslim hate speech).

Orlando is just the tip of the iceberg – a powerful article by Jane Czyzselska, editor of UK Diva Magazine for lesbian and bi women.

Statement from the British Psychological Society recognising that members of LGBT+ communities experience high levels of abuse, discrimination and psychological distress.

I’m sad and angry and confused. It seems to have been a default position of mine recently. But at least these emotions make sense in these circumstances, even if I will never be able to understand how someone can plan and carry out such an attack. I am unable to understand any crimes of hate, whoever is being abused and killed. I have empathy beyond the communities I specifically identify with. It’s important I say this because some despicable individuals are already using the Orlando shooting to encourage different marginalised communities to turn against each other. We must not let that happen.

News sites are reporting (surmising) today that Omar Mateen was most likely gay himself and therefore chose to kill people in a LGBTQ venue due to intense self-loathing. As if this somehow stops the attack being an act of homophobia! As if it’s suddenly explained and means all others in wider society need take no further responsibility and can file it in a tidy box which requires minimal scrutiny: Oh, that’s alright, then – it was just one queer of a certain faith we can’t be bothered to understand killing a load of other queers we can’t be bothered to understand. They only have themselves to blame!

Don’t you see? No person starts out hating themselves or others. It comes from years of indoctrination and prejudice, where instead of  being embraced and celebrated, difference and diversity are viewed as the enemy. When you think of love, what do you see? Who do you include?

On Sunday 12 June, I posted this on Facebook:

Fuck! Why do some of us care? And the rest are intent on destroying the whole world. You don’t have to understand me to not want to kill me. I’ve spent my whole life trying to hurt no-one but myself. I shouldn’t even want to hurt myself. If there was more empathy for diversity, far more of us may survive.

All of my Facebook friends are trying to comfort each other right now.

I understand something about self-hatred. I really do. The agonising attempt to explain to yourself why recognising you’re different from a so-called ‘norm’, and regularly being misunderstood, can make you feel as if there is something fundamentally wrong with your whole being. That your very self is the problem. It’s sad enough when that personal inner struggle only destroys the individual experiencing it. But where does the destruction end when fear and hate is routinely justified? No-one decides to hate. It is taught and it is validated by legislation. The Orlando massacre comes after lawmakers in the US filed more than 200 anti-LGBT Bills.

This fear of difference goes way beyond sexuality. I have experienced this feeling of self-doubt, self-sabotage and insecurity around my mental health. Some of my close friends will know of a new journey of self-exploration I’m just embarking on. It’s not the time to talk about that but, ultimately, this will be positive for me, and I will write about it when I’m ready.

Actually, I’m not sure I have ever *hated* myself for being a lesbian. I just feel as if I’ve been bruised and punished a lot, and that is why the poem below refers to “being a lesbian / would be one / prompt apology.” I am who I am. I’m proud of that. I have not, do not, and I never will apologise. But I have always had to be ready to defend myself which can sometimes amount to the same thing.

It’s another blackout poem, taking words from an interview with author Emma Donoghue which appeared in the Observer Magazine on 8 May 2016. It makes a lot of sense to me, but I wish it didn’t mean so much. I wish I didn’t have to write about being sad, confused and fearful.

It was two weeks ago when I chose to highlight these words and create a new personal commentary. It doesn’t help much with understanding the atrocity in Orlando. But in light of the terribly sad events, perhaps I can ask you to read between the lines to find another space which invites connection, remembers to begin with love, and doesn’t have to end on hate.

Newspaper blackout poem from interview with Emma Donoghue

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