I just finished Reclaiming the L-Word: Sappho’s Daughters Out in Africa, edited by Allyn Diesel. It is a wonderful anthology of personal essays, poetry, and photographs, each African woman telling the tale of what it is to be queer in South Africa. They range from the heartwarming – Yulinda Noortman’s description of shopping for wedding fabric with her bride-to-be, in “The Dog, The Cat, The Parrot and the Pig and Other Tales” – to the heartwrenching: Keba Sebetoane’s “Who Are You to Tell Me What I Am?”, the brief, calamitous tale of her struggle with rape and the flawed system that kept her, and so many other women, from justice. My favorite was “I Have Truly Lost a Woman I Loved”, which features the wonderful photography of Zanele Muholi – one of her photographs graces this volume’s cover – and is a loving essay to her late mother. I only wished that some of the photographs she wrote about had been included in this book. Although some of the essays may begin in a similar fashion – I was married to a man, and then… or When I was a child…, there is something in the collection that everyone should be able to appreciate, and should serve as food for thought both in terms of social justice and how we relate to other women, no matter what their place in the queer spectrum.
First of all, how amazing is that cover? Doesn’t it make you want to pick it up just by itself?
Amazingly, this was a book I was assigned in a class. I very reluctantly put down Inseparable by Emma Donoghue (which is also amazing, and I will be reviewing it later) to read The Salt Roads, but by the time I reached page 15 and there was a f/f sex scene, I changed my tune.
My library put a sci-fi sticker on this book, which is clearly incorrect, but I think the label of “Fantasy” wouldn’t be much better. Fabulism sounds closer, but I hesitate to use that either, since I am fairly sure I wouldn’t say that about a book that was rooted in Christian religion as much as The Salt Roads is rooted in West African religion.
The Salt Roads bounces between many characters and times, and each has their own distinct voice. A god has her own voice and storyline, and she and other gods make physical, observable impact on reality. The queer content is mainly in the beginning of the novel, with more of a focus on colonialism, racism, oppression, resistance, slavery, etc, but it still definitely has an impact on many of the characters.
I’m not sure how exactly to describe The Salt Roads. It goes all over the place, sometimes rocketing between characters and sometimes remaining in one place for a long time. I was rarely ever irritated by that, though, and it was easy enough to keep the whole cast of characters straight. There was perhaps no coherent plot arc, but… with some books, it just doesn’t matter. It didn’t need one. It was about ideas, about the people. I really liked it, and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for queer literature featuring women of colour (or more accurately, literature with WoC that also has queer content).
For readers unaccustomed to the Black Caribbean vernacular that begins Dionne Brand’s 1996 novel In Another Place, Not Here—like me—there’s a bid of an initial hurdle to leap over to sink into this book. But trust me, it’s worth it; and sink in you truly do. Brand is an exhilarating poet and although this is a novel, it’s definitely a poet’s novel. There is something deliciously seductive about the language, which rolls, rises, falls, and flows its way throughout the narrative. The rhythm and feel of the words are seductive to the point that their meaning at times seems secondary and, in fact, purposely elusive—a quality that might be frustrating for some readers. If you can give yourself over to the novel, though, make yourself vulnerable in a way that one of the main characters Verlia struggles to throughout the text, In Another Place, Not Here is a really rewarding read. Devoting each half of the novel to the story of one of the two women around whom the novel centres, Elizete and Verlia, Brand weaves an emotionally charged narrative that at times hits as hard as a physical assault, at others as softly as a warm wind. You read not so much to ‘find out what happens’ but rather to ride the tumultuous wave of both women’s intertwined emotionally and spiritually fraught journeys.
Elizete, whose story begins the novel, is an exploited sugar cane field labourer living in Trinidad—Brand’s mother country, though she is now a long-time Torontonian—who meets the revolutionary Verlia, also a native of Trinidad but recently returned after an emigration to and residence in Canada. There is an immediate attraction between the two women and a following relationship; Elizete describes her feelings for Verlia breathtakingly: “I sink into Verlia and let she flesh swallow me up. I devour she. She open me up like any morning. Limp, limp and rain light, soft to the marrow” (5). Erotic passages such as this are stunning, almost as if you had stumbled upon a scene truly not meant for anyone except the lovers’ eyes. Their intensity of feeling, however, collides with the seemingly insurmountable obstacles before them: racism, the legacy of slavery, misogyny, homophobia, and capitalist exploitation. Verlia has committed herself to political activism, having been part of the 1970s Black power movement in Toronto, but even her increasing radicalism cannot sustain her in the face of the placelessness and lack of belonging that plague her. Elizete too, feels this diasporic suffering: in search of meaning behind her loss of Verlia she journeys to Toronto from Trinidad but is told there by Verlia’s ex-lover Abena to “Go home, this is not a place for us” (230). There are no answers, let alone easy ones, to both Verlia and Elizete’s search for another place, not here, but their stumblings along the path looking for such a place are gorgeous, both in their sensuous highs and their devastating lows. Such a stumbling, difficult journey makes, in the end, a more worthwhile, truthful novel than a straightforward, but simplified, one would. Highly recommended!
Rum Spring, by Yolanda Wallace, was published last December by Bold Strokes Books. I have read zero of those extremely popular heterosexual Amish romances, so I have no idea how Rum Spring stacks up, but when I read the tagline of the blurb (“Love or tradition? Which path will she choose?”) I was intrigued. The title refers to “rumspringa,” the Amish tradition of having teenagers venture into the modern world for several years before they commit themselves to the church.
Rebecca Lapp has been friends with Englisher Dylan Mahoney for most of her life, getting to know the other girl despite a language barrier and the restrictions placed upon her by her rigid faith. She knows quite well that her destiny is to marry an Amish boy and spend the rest of her life in her small Pennsylvania town, despite her interest in Dylan and the outside world. Dylan has been in love with Rebecca for years, and has been waiting impatiently for the Amish girl to turn sixteen and begin her rumspringa, hoping that the long list of activities she has created for them (which has enough items to span a lifetime) will help persuade Rebecca to choose Dylan over her family and the only life she has ever known.
The conflict between Rebecca’s feelings for Dylan and her conservative upbringing feels very real, and the consequences are serious. If Rebecca is caught with Dylan, or chooses to leave the church to spend her life as an outsider, she will lose her parents, her other family members, and the religion that has shaped her entire life. Although she admits her love for Dylan to herself and consummates their relationship on her rumspringa, after Rebecca’s sister Sarah is shunned for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, she believes that she must remain with her family and commit to the church to fill the void left by her sister. As Dylan struggles to accept that they must forever remain only friends, Rebecca comes to believe that she must be true to herself, no matter the consequences.
Rum Spring feels a lot like a YA novel, not just for the high school and college scenes (Rebecca and Dylan go to the prom!) but because of the themes of growth and change and “coming of age.” The few sex scenes are well and tastefully done–logical extensions of Dylan and Rebecca’s feelings for one another. Rebecca is definitely a more sympathetic character than Dylan, whose determination to woo Rebecca comes off as a bit controlling (see the aforementioned list, which does not seem to allow Rebecca a great deal of independent thought). And her life is, seemingly, less fraught; Dylan’s family is perfectly accepting of who she is, despite being Catholic. [spoiler] One of the disappointing things about Rum Spring was its relatively easy denouement, which lessened the impact of the narrative buildup with its sweetness. This kind of rose-colored glasses perspective appears elsewhere in Wallace’s narrative:
Dylan had to admit her Catholic faith didn’t have the greatest track record when it came to gays and lesbians, but she thought the tide was slowly beginning to turn. Her parish priest, for one, was incredibly understanding and accepting. Perhaps the pope would eventually share his progressive views (148).
Perhaps this is simply reflective of Dylan’s naive optimism where sociopolitical issues are concerned, but I believe it is reflective of Wallace’s overall message, which seems sweetly unrealistic. I would have preferred a bittersweet ending–in which Rebecca has lost everything she thought she needed, but gained a lasting love (which would have been the best payoff for the dilemma Wallace set up)–to one in which they are able to kiss openly in a room that contains all of their family members, both Amish and English. Apparently I am an incurable cynic. [end spoiler]
Aside from the letdown at the end, I found the book well-written and the characters interesting. If you are fascinated by the Amish and rumspringa, looking for a story of young love triumphing over obstacles, or interested in lesbian romance with strong young adult overtones, Rum Spring might be just the book for you.
The worth of something as delicious as Shani Mootoo’s novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, would be hard to overestimate. I’ve honestly never read anything that had such a sensory effect on me: the lilting rhythm of the language, the bittersweetness of the narrative twists, everything about this novel felt so visceral. Amazingly, Cereus Blooms at Night is Mootoo’s first novel, but you would never guess; the writing as well as the plot is so richly and confidently woven. An Indo-Trinidadian-Canadian author, Mootoo sets her novel in the fictionalized island Lantanacamara—clearly a stand-in for Trinidad—and the luscious environment of the island is really a character unto itself. The dripping gorgeousness of the buzzing insects, blooming trees, and vibrant flowers—especially the central image of the illusive cereus flower—are imprinted on my mind. That said, the people in this novel—most of them queer—are as unforgettable as the tongue-twisting fictional name of the setting. Our narrator is the precocious nurse Tyler, a fighting spirit of a feminine man (or a trans woman? the text is uninterested in such labels) who works at an Alms house and is the caretaker of a mysterious elderly woman, Miss Ramchandin, who has quite the history in this small town ironically called Paradise. Gradually this woman’s heart-breaking story, a difficult and complex one in which colonization, misogyny, and homophobia have all wrecked havoc on her life, is told to us through the eyes of the sympathetic and endearing Tyler. His/her story begins to intertwine with Miss Ramchandin’s when an important person from her past and his son come to visit and a romance blossoms between the two younger folks. This queer romance is mirrored by a lesbian one (see if you can guess it coming!) that occurs in Miss Ramchandin’s past. Both are beautifully drawn and emerge all the more powerfully in juxtaposition to some of the truly horrific violence the novel depicts. While this message, one that insists on the intersectionality and interrelatedness of oppressions such as racism and homophobia, is important, it is rather with a sweet message of hope—that a clipping of “cereus will surely bloom within days”—that the novel ends. Queerness in the novel, also, begins to emerge not as a an obstacle which one must overcome but something from which characters such as Tyler draw strength and through which they are able to make connections with others. I can’t recommend Cereus Blooms at Night highly enough: instead of eating a meal of coconut curry or dessert of mango ice cream, read this! It’s just as satisfying and perhaps the taste will linger with you a little longer.