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Review of Teaching the Cat to Sit

9781451697292‘Teaching the Cat to Sit’ by Michelle Theall
Reviewed by Sara Rauch
21 May, 2014 Lambda Literary

Michelle Theall’s new memoir, Teaching the Cat to Sit, brings some big topics—God, sexuality, abuse, loneliness, love, family—to the page. It’s a rocky ride, full of contentious conversations, frank disclosures, and plenty of struggle.

Teaching the Cat to Sit presents two interwoven narratives: first, adult Michelle’s struggle to get her adopted son baptized in the Catholic Church, her decision to pull him from the Catholic school he attends, and the ongoing battle to win her mother and father’s acceptance. The second narrative begins with Michelle’s youth—a journey that leads her through abuse, her grasping to understand her sexuality, a brush with a pedophile priest, her first relationship with another woman in college, her attempts to “turn straight,” her coming out, her leaving her home state, and the healing process that eventually leads her to her life partner. A lot happens in this book—and Theall moves through the circumstances of her life with remarkable dexterity.

Theall writes with compelling honesty about loneliness—in fact, the title of the book comes from a line she overhears her father say to her mother on that topic—and the feeling she so plainly articulates has real resonance. And while her loneliness hobbles and confuses her as a young adult, her ability to be alone is ultimately what heals her.

God plays a big role in Teaching the Cat to Sit. And this isn’t just any God; this is the Catholic God—not exactly touchy-feely, not exactly a paragon of acceptance. And those with major chips on their shoulder in regards to the Catholic Church and its treatment of gays may balk at some of what Theall says. But ultimately, Theall’s grappling with the God of her youth deconstructs a very real barrier between public and private. God is, on one hand, such a personal choice, and worship, while often done in public, is arguably one of the most private acts we humans do. For Theall, having been forced to keep secrets for most of her life—to protect herself, to gain her family’s love—privacy has too long meant silence. And the breaking of a silence she is no longer willing to bear becomes the ultimate act of bravery, one that threatens to crack the delicate acceptance she’s gained from her family.

There are moments when I wanted Theall to slow down, to let me in and show me a little more of her internal struggle—but a book of this scope, covering as much ground as it does, can make that sustained interiority difficult. Some of the moments Theall presents, especially her encounters with wildlife, allow us a telling window into her state of mind—those moments of understanding, of transformation and acceptance, are very powerful.

Read entire review and more at: LAMBDA LITERARY

Feel So Mortal

9780226105277Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body
by Peggy Shinner
Reviewed by July Westhale
Lambda Literary

“The domestic made lethal – that’s the legend.”
-Peggy Shinner

We live in a society entrenched in matters of the body. Sexualization, fetishization, policing, ableism, movement, tangibility, and the body politic, our corporality is absolutely everywhere. Despite the fact that bodies are subject to intensive scrutiny, the historical origin of how bodies have been perceived throughout time (everything from feet to slouching to undergarments) remains mysteriously out of the realm of everyday knowledge. How is it, for example, that foot shape determined class and stature, traditionally? How has the body been commodified in times of martial economies (i.e., dowry economy)?

In her illuminating book of essays, Peggy Shinner tackles those exact discussions. Using the craft of braided narrative, Shinner weaves together historical fact, socio-political theory, and personal experience to create essays that grapple with our culture’s multitudinous interactions with the body. In her essay “The Knife”, for example, the reader is taken through Shinner’s personal experience as a martial arts teacher, the history of karate and fighting with weapons, the concept of arming oneself against a world that is marginalizing, and what it means to work with your hands in a world of abstract technological importance. Similarly, her essay on kleptomania offers insight into the history of the word (and how it was used to describe a sexual disorder, primarily occurring in women who found amorous rapture in stealing things from department stores), while laying the tracks for her own stories to shine through.

Truly, this is a collection of essays that takes the idea of making the personal global extremely seriously.

Read entire review and others at LAMBDA LITERARY.

Review of Falling Into Place

9780807009925Falling into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home
by Catherine Reid
Review by July Westhale
23 March 2014
Lambda Literary

Borges says, in his literary theory, that there are more or less six themes that authors write about, six stories they tell, though the narratives may vary. All have to do with the human condition: how we love, how we live, how we make a life for ourselves, how we interact with the physical/metaphysical/spiritual, our literal and figurative place in the world. Following this metric, Catherine Reid’s newest collection of nature-centric essays, Falling into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home, is the perfect example of how the personal becomes global through familiar tropes. Utilizing her relationship to her home in the Berkshires as well as the deeply-crafted life with her partner, Reid juxtaposes her identity as a native New Englander with her otherness as a lesbian woman to create lyric tension that sustains the ambivalence of the narrative.

Such careful, intimate consideration of place is difficult to do in our day of technology. It is more common to see visitors experiencing the world through the lens of their iPhones or digital cameras than navigating nature through their known memory, as vessels (the body) contained in larger vessels (the natural universe). Reid manages to skillfully connect with the art of physically and primally knowing a landscape, as an animal might. Everything from her deep connection with the water (and thus, the scarcity) of her home to the catastrophes that have occurred over time (as in the story of the oil spill that would have wiped out an entire ecosystem within one river had it not been for the skillful navigation of a select beaver population), demonstrates the careful and intentional consideration of place as a character in the larger narrative of Reid’s life.

Read entire review and more at LAMBDA LITERARY

Kate Delafield in High Desert

9781935226659The Return of Kate Delafield
Posted on 19, March, 2014 by Victoria Brownworth
Lambda Literary

Some old friends you only see occasionally, but when you do, you realize how much you have missed them. I feel that way about Kate Delafield. It’s been years since I’ve seen her (eight, to be exact), but when I ran into her again in Katherine Forrest’s new novel, High Desert, I was very glad to see her.

Katherine Forrest is one of our iconic lesbian mystery novelists and Kate Delafield was our first out lesbian detective.

With nearly a decade since Forrest’s last foray into the seamy world of the LAPD, it may have seemed as if we wouldn’t see Delafield again.

But–she’s back. Not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with a full-throated cry of foul at the various hands she’s been dealt since we saw her last.

High Desert, the ninth in Forrest’s Delafield series, opens anomalously, sans crime. The detective is re-arranging herself in her own living room as she awaits a visit from her former lieutenant, now a captain, Carolina Walcott. The smooth, tough, driven, no-nonsense African-American Walcott is visiting a subordinate for a very specific reason:

She needs Kate’s help finding Kate’s former partner, Joe Cameron.

There’s no crime. Well, no new crime. There is, however, the ghost of an old case, one of those cases that breaks a detective. That case–Tamara Carter’s murder–has haunted Joe and by extension, Kate.

Captain Walcott needs to find Joe, who’s disappeared while on a leave of absence, and fast. Kate is now forcibly retired and she has issues. Her longtime partner, Aimee, has left her. Again. Alcohol has become her best friend. Another actual best friend, Maggie Schaeffer, owner of the Nightwood Bar that was the scene of one of Kate’s early cases, is dying of lung cancer in hospice care. And now the remnants of Kate’s life are all around her in an ugly, untidy, possibly unfixable mess.

Walcott’s visit is unsettling in the extreme because it rips right through Kate’s thin veneer (more like mask) of complacent retirement. After a quarter century on the job, the 60-something Kate is at a loss. Every time she thinks about what she should do next, the most obvious answer lies in a nearby bottle, of which she has many.

Walcott suggests therapy with Calla Dearborn, who may or may not be Walcott’s lover.

Like every loner addict, Kate is infuriated by the suggestion that she needs help. After all, she’s the one who has helped others all along. She wants to shove Walcott out the door, but the tantalizing lifeline that Walcott has tossed her can’t be ignored. She takes Dearborn’s card. And agrees to help Walcott find Cameron.

High Desert is proof there is life in the old gal yet–both Forrest, who is hitting 75 next month–and Delafield, who remains the complex and engaging character she always was.

This is solid detective fiction of the page-turning sort. If the early chapters feel too caught up in Kate’s personal turmoil, that’s essential to what comes next. As Kate takes on Walcott’s mission, we see how her detective skills have not diminished one iota.

Read entire review at: LAMBDA LITERARY

Mrs. Madrigal Is Back

9780062196248‘The Days of Anna Madrigal’ by Armistead Maupin
Reviewed by Ken Harvey for Lambda Literary
27 January 2014

Reading The Days of Anna Madrigal (HarperCollins), the ninth novel in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, is a little like attending the reunion of one’s family–the logical rather than biological one, as Mrs. Madrigal might say. Characters some of us have known since the late 1970s are now in their sixties. Mrs. Madrigal’s former tenant, the now sixty-seven year old Brian Hawkins, is newly married to the big-hearted Wren, with whom he lives in a Winnebago. Brian’s former wife, Mary Ann Singleton, who returned to San Francisco in Maupin’s 2010 novel, Mary Ann in Autumn, is back (although briefly), as is Michael Tolliver, also known as “Mouse,” now married to the much younger Ben. And of course there’s Anna Madrigal, bestower of wisdom, still vibrant if not frail at 92, her life’s work now dedicated to “leaving like a lady.”

Many of the characters in The Days of Anna Madrigal may be from the past, but they fully inhabit a contemporary world. Maupin’s Tales of the City novels are nothing if not a reflection of the times in which they were written, and Anna Madrigal is no exception. Years from now, one can imagine a glossary at the end of these books to clarify what will become obscure references and dated language. Who will remember the Chick-fil-A boycott in fifty years? And what about expressions like “amazeballs,” “throw shade,” and “chillax”? Yet while Maupin has always had his finger on the pulse of contemporary language, he is also capable of elegantly written sentences that are so unobtrusive that their wistfulness and melancholy can almost go unnoticed. Of Mrs. Madrigal and her tenant and caretaker Jake he writes, “One afternoon last winter, after the first cold snap, he came home from the gym to find her asleep in her chair, the remains of an amethyst candle dripping off the end of the table like a Dali clock.” Of course it’s not just melancholy that Maupin weaves throughout the book. Also on display is Maupin’s trademark humor that emerges from the characters and situations: there are no clunky punch lines in this prose. Maupin’s wit is part of the novel’s fabric.

The Days of Anna Madrigal begins in present day San Francisco, but two road trips bring us to Anna’s hometown of Winnemucca and to Burning Man, the temporary city erected and destroyed in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert each year. Lasting only one week, the festival is among other things, an oasis of radical self-expression and self-reliance. Trips of a different sort are the flashbacks to Anna’s younger years, before she left Winnemucca at age sixteen. And so in addition to the former denizens of 28 Barbary Lane, we meet new people, too: the son of Anna’s childhood friend, revelers at Burning Man, and a different version of someone we’ve known for years, as we see Anna (nee Andy) in her pre-transition youth.

Quentin Crisp once referred to Maupin as “the man who invented San Francisco,” and it’s easy to see why. The city came so alive for its many readers that the books lured more than a few transplants to the Bay Area. If there’s an autumnal quality to The Days of Anna Madrigal, it’s not just its meditations on old age and dying (which, by the way, never weight the story down); it’s also because when Maupin sets his characters out on their road trips, we say goodbye to San Francisco, too. Maupin has announced that Anna Madrigal will be the last novel in the series, so it’s fitting that once we leave the city for Nevada, we don’t return.

Read entire review and much more at LAMBDA LITERARY

Portlandia Coming to Print

The Portlandia Activity Book
Posted on 13. Jan, 2014 by William Johnson in Features, News
Lambda Literary Review

portlandia_cover_FINAL_STOREWhen in doubt, put a bird on it. Next month, McSweeny’s is releasing The Portlandia Activity Book, a companion piece to the popular television IFC television show Portlandia. The book, written by Carrie Brownstein, Fred Armisen and Johnathan Krisel, provides fun-filled activities for the whole hipster family.

____________________________________

From the publisher:

This is The Portlandia Activity Book—a compendium of guaranteed enrichment for the Pacific Northwestern part of your psyche. Like a cool high school that prefers a sweat lodge to the traditional classroom, this book will expand your mind through participation, dehydrate you to a state of emotional rawness, then linger in the corners your bare soul.

Here you will find enough activities to get you through a year’s worth of rainy days, including: How to Crowdfund Your Baby, Punk Paint By Numbers, Terrarium Foraging, and so much more. With pages unlike any you’ve seen before, this is the kind of book that you can be yourself around. Shed the trappings of normalcy, let down your glorious mane, and take the deepest breath of your life. Portlandia is beckoning your arrival.

Read entire column and other stories and reviews at LAMBDA LITERARY.

I Like Writing About Sex

Donna Minkowitz: Growing Up and Writing It All Down
Posted on 15. Dec, 2013 by Sarah Burghauser
From Lambda Literary

Donna-MinkowitzThis past October, former Village Voice contributor and activist journalist Donna Minkowitz released her hot-blooded new memoir, Growing Up Golem (Magnus), about her struggle with the inhibitive physical condition RSI, her injurious family history, and the intimacy of abuse.

In an email exchange with the Lambda Literary award winner, Donna discussed the roles of fantasy, identity, and writing sex in Growing Up Golem.

I’d like to start with a quote from your book: “I have never felt particularly Jewish or lesbian. I identify much more, I say, as a sort of sexy, holy kid on a motorcycle. The kid may be male. He’s an effeminate boy with long hair. I think he has pork remnants on his fingers.”

When I read these lines I began to wonder if you consider your book to be more of a queer memoir? A Jewish memoir? A disability memoir? Or something else entirely? In other words, is there a particular part of your story that you see as the northern star? A theme more naturally fertile or interesting to you as a writer?

The reader should bear in mind that I’m saying these words at a very particular moment in the book; this is not always how I feel. (In the book, I’m saying those words as a member of a panel on “Jewish Lesbian Writers,” and of course I immediately feel the ways I don’t fit in that box.) Actually, I find I’m feeling both more “Jewish” (in terms of culture, not religion) and more “lesbian” as I get older. As to the rest of your question, the book is all of them and more! It’s also a memoir mixed with Tolkien-style fantasy. It’s impossible to separate the different aspects of it, just as it would be impossible to separate me into the queer Donna, the working-class Donna, the fantasy geek Donna and so on. Which is appropriate, because it’s a book about becoming whole.

When you read your book now, do you still see the Donna Minkowitz in the book as yourself or as a character? How much distance do you have now, or did you have during the writing process, from the “protagonist”?

Someone said about memoir, the writer must know more than the narrator, and the narrator must know more than the character. So there are really three Donnas here, the writer, the narrator (the voice telling the story), and the character (the person described as going through the events in the story).

I needed to have a great deal of distance during the writing process, because I think the whole point of doing a memoir is to really observe yourself and attempt to write about yourself with some insight. That’s only possible if you try to step away and really look at the things you do.

But of course, it’s also me. The Donna in the book does all the things I did, and goes through the same travails.

The sex scenes in the book are very powerful–the writing really stands out in these scenes. Can you talk a little bit about the experience of writing sex, specifically with this character?

I like writing about sex, and in particular, writing about real sexual and sensual experiences. Partly because I think the reality of sexual experiences is often elided in writing into something less ambiguous or ambivalent than sexual experiences often feel. All of the emotions and sensations you may feel at a particular time of having sex – fear, discomfort, and annoyance or anger, as well as excitement, ecstasy, connection and fullness – need to be written about. The other piece of it for me is that I just really like to convey sensual experiences of all kinds through words. I think descriptions of touch and smell can be some of the most lyrical writing there is, and I think they can give memoir more of a concrete base; a base in the physical world.

In reading, it seemed as though a lot of your healing and processing through your abuse happened during the actual writing process. As a reader I felt like I was watching your thoughts unfold before me. In the moment. Did it feel raw writing it? Does it still feel raw now? Or was this the effect of a highly calculated and arranged tone/approach to give readers that illusion?

I would say it’s almost entirely an illusion. I’m glad you felt like you were watching my thoughts unfold before you in real time, but that was definitely an illusion! I worked on the book for eight years, and almost all the events in the book had been over for a long time before I wrote about them. I mean for the book to feel raw – that was my goal. It is almost a book about feeling raw, as though you don’t have a protective outer layer. The main character doesn’t, or at least she starts out that way. One of the many meanings for “golem” in Hebrew is embryo… one of the newest, rawest and most vulnerable things there is. “Golem” also means fool, and it is partly a book about starting out not knowing how to run your own life, and then perhaps gradually learning how.

Read entire interview and much more at Lambda Literary.

LGBT Writers In Schools

WritersInSchools-Logo1-500x140

 

 

LGBT WRITERS IN SCHOOLS connects authors with classrooms via free Skype or in-class visits to discuss the author’s work and LGBT issues. Designed for teachers of high school classes, universities and colleges, and student organizations, the LGBT Writers in Schools program is an opportunity for writers to discuss their work openly with students and to encourage diversity not only in the students’ reading and writing lives, but also in society at large. This initiative will broaden the foundation of experience for students of Literature, Creative Writing, English, and Secondary Education.

OUR GOALS

To bring LGBT writers into high schools, colleges and universities to share their knowledge and experience in order to promote diversity and encourage understanding of the LGBT community.

To enrich the high school, college and university English curriculum by incorporating and teaching LGBT texts in the classroom which will acknowledge LGBT writers’ contributions to literature.

To foster an open environment to discuss LGBT issues and their impact on society and the individual through LGBT texts in a vibrant and moderated classroom atmosphere.

Giving a voice to those who have long been silenced.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

The teacher will state which type of author she would like in one of four genres: Adult Fiction, YA Fiction, Poetry and Nonfiction/Memoir. Once the information is gathered from the teacher, we contact an author who would be a good fit. If they request a specific author, we try to contact that author.

WHAT HAPPENS ONCE AN AUTHOR IS CHOSEN FOR THE TEACHER’S CLASS?

Once the author has agreed to do the visit, then an introduction is made between the author and the teacher via LGBT Writers in Schools. After the introduction is made, it is the responsibility of the teacher to work out the specifics of the visit (ie: date of visit, length of visit, in person or via Skype, etc).

WHAT HAPPENS DURING THE VISIT?

Teachers would assign the work of the author and once the class has read it, the author would do a twenty minute (or longer) Skype session with the class. Depending upon what the teacher and author discussed, the session can be as general or as specific as each would like. It is supposed to be fun, lively and educational.

WHY SHOULD I PARTICIPATE?

This is a really exciting venture for Lambda Literary Foundation and for the Gay Straight Educators Alliance. LGBT literature should be represented as one voice among the many in any contemporary curriculum. The way to help counter prejudice and bullying is through educating others and it is vital to support any efforts that would help achieve this goal. Opening up channels of communication definitely begins with understanding and what better way to understand the LGBT community than through literature.

HOW DO I SIGN UP?

Contact Monica Carter (mcarter@lambdaliterary.org), Program Coordinator, LGBT Writers in Schools Program

Lambda Literary Foundation

Writing the Female Sex

Doris Lessing: Writing the Female Sex
by Victoria Brownworth
Lambda Literary
19 November 2013

The New York Times wrote a sharp, seething, unpleasant four-page screed of an obituary about her that was both shocking and Doris-Lessingunsurprising. The piece reminded me of how much Lessing was loathed by many because her ideas were so strong, her vision so demanding, the inability to pigeonhole her maddening and misogyny still so rampant. Those of us who loved her work were often taken to task for it–much as the Nobel Committee itself was for choosing her in 2007. (The gay literary critic, Harold Bloom, said of her winning, “Although Ms. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable–fourth-rate science fiction.”)

The work of women, and how women live, is still diminished and demeaned, most especially if those women don’t play nice, which Lessing, famously curmudgeonly, did not.

Yet nearly three generations of women and women writers have been taught by Lessing and her brilliant, groundbreaking work since her first novel was published in 1950 and they–we–learned about ourselves and who we could be through her work. Because Lessing lived nearly a century, because her work seems always to have been with us–she’d been writing since before many of us were born or even before our parents were–because she went through a wide range of styles and published more than 50 books of note, it was easy to forget how defining and definitive her work was even now, memorializing her.

Lessing schooled most of the lesbian writers of my age as well as those of the generation before. Lessing taught us to love women’s sexuality in a way no one else has before or since, not even someone like Eve Ensler, who has put our vaginas so vividly on display. Lessing put women’s sexuality and female independence in the forefront of all her work. She wrote about women in ways no one had done prior to novels like her masterpiece, the 1962 novels-within-a- novel, The Golden Notebook.

Virginia Woolf had begun the task of flinging wide the door to a room of one’s own, but it was Lessing who walked through that door and dropped, cross-legged on the floor, pad and pen before her, and then wrote about things women were told never to even talk about, let alone write down. She was sexual, political, emotional, contemplative.

She was strikingly, amazingly new. She was the avante-garde of post-modernist feminism.

Where women writers of a previous era had kept female sexuality under their skirts and at bay, like Austen, the Brontes, the Georges Eliot and Sand, Lessing opened it up for us. She opened our legs and minds to self-examination and female agency

It’s difficult to imagine some writers existing without the path forged by Lessing. Did she not give birth to literary lesbian writers like Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Walters? Can intimations of her style not be read in the novels of Sarah Schulman or Elena Dykewomon? Years ago my late friend Tee Corinne, the writer, artist and photographer, and I talked about Lessing and her impact on Tee’s generation of lesbians. It was Tee’s contention that Lessing had bridged a chasm between the more outré lesbian writers of the Paris literary set in the 1920s and the later, fully fledged lesbian writers of second-wave feminism.

Second-wave feminism and the radical lesbian feminism that went hand-in-glove with it were in full foment when I was in college. So when my Women’s Studies classes presented me with Lessing (who was, I realize now, the same age as my grandmother), writing about sex in a way I had never even heard of, it was stunning.

Lessing, more than any writer I had read to that time, including those lesbian writers of that Paris set, taught me I could be not just a sexual creature, but that I could write about sex, too. Lessing clarified that I could write about femaleness and lesbian sexuality not as something to be hidden or suborned, but as something to revel in, explicate and illumine. Lessing’s Anna Wulf, the hera of The Golden Notebook, was an icon for women, a template for lesbians like myself trying to place our writing in the context of female-centered sexuality.

It seems like nothing now, but The Golden Notebook pre-dated second-wave feminism. As I think about her now, and all she wrote and told us about women and who they were and what they thought, I can’t help wondering: What made Lessing think she could write these things? What made her think she could write this:

“Her source of self respect was that she had not–as she put it–given up and crawled into safety somewhere. Into a safe marriage.”

Because marriage was what women were taught. No matter whatever else they did, marriage was the endgame, the stated goal for women. Which left lesbians out of every equation at that time. A woman who walked away from that–who was she? Were there more like her? Could we be among them?

This is the point then, about writers who break ground and do what hasn’t been done before. The Golden Notebook was written more than 50 years ago, but it’s still in print and has been all along. I took it down from the shelf to flip through it–it’s all marked up from my college years, notes in the margins, exclamation points after an outlined passage.

I want to know what I was thinking when I first read that book, when I first heard this exchange:

“Free women,” said Anna, wryly. She added, with an anger new to Molly, so that she earned another quick scrutinizing glance from her friend: “They still define us in terms of relationships with men, even the best of them.”

Even NYT obituary writers 50 years hence, apparently.

And there was this shocking passage:

“I stood looking down out of the window. The street seemed miles down. Suddenly I felt as if I’d flung myself out of the window. I could see myself lying on the pavement. Then I seemed to be standing by the body on the pavement. I was two people. Blood and brains were scattered everywhere. I knelt down and began licking up the blood and brains”

The NYT obit sniffs a little at Lessing’s writing and quotes NYT reviewers who hated her work. It also dwells on her failings–yet it’s difficult to imagine an obituary of a male writer snarking in similar ways. Where is the commentary about the breadth of her work?

Rather, the comments about Lessing go directly to her femaleness; a half century after The Golden Notebook she is still not free of the restrictions placed on women writers that do not pertain to men. “She left her children!” is the most damning statement about Lessing, as if she dropped them on a street corner in the dead of night in a blizzard and ran away, leaving them to freeze to death in Dickensian fashion, when what Lessing actually did was divorce her first husband and leave their children with him because she had felt her own mother was cold to her and her brother because she resented her children and Lessing didn’t want to do that to hers. She noted that people really should have understood that of course there is pain involved in leaving one’s children.

Nevertheless, while leaving one’s children with one’s spouse is something male writers do all the time, it was the great scandal of Lessing’s life and has been noted in every article ever written about her as somehow more defining than the volume of her work.

But Lessing was a writer of note as well as merit. She catalogued an era–the cusp between World War II and the dawn of second-wave feminism–and defined the place of women in that period of time. She later crafted her own world when she turned to science fiction, which was, when she began her Canopus in Argos novels, becoming a new ground for women writers, in particular feminists and lesbians. But repeatedly and compellingly she came back to women and their lives, women and sex, women and politics, women refusing to be obedient, women breaking silence–as she did.

Lessing won a slew of awards before she was awarded the Nobel and even after. She wrote everything there was to write–poems, essays, short stories, novels, memoirs, even a libretto. She was immensely gifted, notoriously independent and never shied away from the political.

Her first book, The Grass Is Singing, published when she was 32, was a treatise on racism and colonialism, taking place in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where Lessing grew up.

In 1985, in The Good Terrorist, Lessing gives us Alice, who is in love with Jasper, who is gay. He leaves her periodically to have sex with men, then returns because he needs her, although he can’t stand to have her touch him. The two are Communists (as was Lessing for many years) and by the end of the novel, have become terrorists–Lessing addressing the issue of terrorism long before it was trendy and explicating why people kill for political ideology.

In one of her last novels, Love, Again, she returns to the subject of female passion (including lesbianism) as an older woman, 65-year-old Sarah Durham, tries to discern what place love, sex and passion have in her life and the lives of the women around her.

Lessing always broke with tradition. She left school at 14 and was self-taught. She left her family of origin as well as the husband she married at 19 and the two children she had with him. She rejected the tradition that said women belong to men and to children and to housekeeping. She lured other women with her declarative and ruminative prose that told women they could choose. Really, they could choose, as her protagonists Anna Wulf and Martha Quest do. Women could walk away from what was expected and do what was unexpected.

That’s what Lessing did. What was unexpected. She showed us how to be feminist even if she wasn’t sure she was feminist. She showed us how to be lesbian, even though she was heterosexual. She showed us how to be one’s self, regardless of what others think.

Read rest of article and others at Lambda Literary.

Nicola Griffith’s ‘Hild’

Nicola Griffith’s ‘Hild’
Reviewed by Susan Stinson
Lambda Literary
9 November 2013

97803742808711Nicola Griffith is a brilliant, prolific, entertaining, risk-taking writer. Her new novel, Hild, about the most powerful woman in seventh century Britain, is magnificent. In it, a girl whose mother has dreamed her to be the light of the world finds out more about what that means than most human beings could bear. Hild–so young, sharp and tall–is very much a human being, and her story grabs a reader like a king’s gesith grabs a sword. Reading Hild is an urgent, expansive pleasure.

Griffith has written five previous novels. She has also written short stories, essays and a memoir. Her work is full of women with gripping lives who have intense sexual and emotional relationships with each other. Her character Aud Torvingen, is the protagonist of three novels in which Griffith’s embodied meditations on grief, trust and communities of support include self-defense classes, cavernous bars, and spiky queer ways of dressing and being, along with subtle observations of city life. Griffith moves easily between genres, from science fiction to noir thriller and back, always with a taut language sense and an elegant, fast-moving story. In Hild, she has written a historical novel of thrilling depth.

The book begins and ends with the sound of a bird call changing from “Outward! Outward!” to “Home now! Home!” The bird is a jackdaw, and that specificity matters very much to the story. Hild, daughter of a dead prince and a dangerous mother, learns to watch the natural world and listen carefully to the talk of all around her, whether it be in Anglisc, British, or Irish. There is a glossary that sings with Griffith’s power to bring readers as if lightly into far distant times, where a gesith is an elite warrior, October is Winterfylleth, and undern is the time from nine in the morning to noon. Hild is the niece of a king whose court travels the kingdom because a king and his power must be seen in every region which owes him tribute, so that stewards not be tempted to start taking too much tribute of their own. Hild is constantly crossing worlds: weaving and learning how to make medicine from onion and garlic mash, vinegar and ox horn with the women; riding on war marches with the men; watching the signs of the seasons; finding ways to be right when questioned by the king, with lives at stake and the whole world shifting around her. She is highfolk in a hierarchical world, but her place is uncertain and her life is shaped by women using every means they have to hack out more room for themselves and those they love in which to speak. Here, young women may be formally pledged to each other as gemaecce, which is not a sexual partnership (although these do come) but a powerful alliance with both political implications and emotional weight, making the women partners to weave and take counsel together for life.

It’s not only women, though. This is a fully peopled world. Hild, who comes to tuck her hair behind her ears and wear a cloak thrown back from her shoulders like a gesith, grows up play-fighting with sticks with Cian, the son of Onnen, who takes care of Hild and her sister, and is herself the cousin of a king. Soon enough, there is a sword for Cian. Hild’s fate, her wyrd, is closely tied to his, and to that of many people she likes, loves, sways or owns (for there are servants and slaves here) few of whom she fully trusts. Her experiences with war and raids leave her with growing numbers of followers, battle trauma, and knowledge of her own ability and willingness to fight.

Read entire review and more at Lambda Literary.

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