Greetings From Janeland: Women Write More About Leaving Men for Women edited by Candace Walsh and Barbara Straus Lodge

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 6 years since I wrote my review of Dear John: I Love Jane. The Lesbrary was still a baby! In that review, I talk about how fascinated I was with it, namely because of it addressing sexual fluidity. In fact, the author of Sexual Fluidity wrote the foreword, and that inspired me to add it to my TBR. I wouldn’t read for 5 more years–not until I was experiencing my own sexual fluidity. Perhaps it’s a good thing that I waited that long: it was extremely helpful to read at that point in my life (review here).

Needless to say, I had some expectations starting the sequel to that pivotal book. And perhaps those expectations were a little too high. As I sad in my original review, I have a personal interest in those essays where authors address sexual fluidity: having their attractions shift over time. The majority of stories in the first book were not about that. They were about realizing that they were gay later in life, or at least coming to terms with it after having serious relationships with men. That’s even more true in Greetings From Janeland. The focus seems to have shifted to really be representing women who come out later in life. (Later than teenager, I mean.)

These are still interesting stories! They’re about how compulsory heterosexuality can cause people to live decades without owning up to their own desires and pleasure. They show the many different paths that people take to find their truths. They show the ways that their relationships with the men in their lives change: some are still close to them, and some have completely gone separate ways. Some follow up stories from the first book. For the most part, though, they follow a pattern: I was always a lesbian, but I didn’t come out until later. There are a few bisexual writers, but not a lot, and even fewer that address fluidity.

So this collection didn’t cater to my interested quite so closely, but I still think this is a great resource. The editors reference how women have written to them to say how life-changing the first book was for them. We do still have a very rigid idea of what a lesbian looks like, what a queer woman looks like, what coming out looks like. It’s good to have stories that stretch that, and show that it’s never too late to live your truth.

Casey reviews Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women edited by Candace Walsh and Laura Andre

DearJohn

I had heard a lot of praise for Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women (edited by Candace Walsh and Laura Andre) by the time I finally picked it up.  So, I was expecting good things.  This book, however, managed to actually exceed my expectations.  It was so refreshing to read an entire book filled with a different kind of coming out story.  I’ve never identified with the “I’ve always known”, or the “I was a gender non-conforming kid so it figures”, or the “I fell in love with a girl when I was five” stories.  It’s not that those stories aren’t valid in their own right.  But they never felt representative of my experience.  It turns out a lot of other women felt the same way.  Dear John I Love Jane has a few pieces where I was like, oh my god, this could totally be about me.  It was so amazing to read and feel like, yes, this is my kind of queerness.

There’s a huge range of different stories even within this anthology.  There are women who were never really happy with men.  There are women who’ve only really been attracted to one woman.  There are women in this book who married men in good faith, and were completely blindsided by their later (sometimes exclusive) attraction to women.  There are some women who open up their relationships with men to date women at the same time.  There’s even one woman in here who stays married to her husband after coming out as a lesbian.  There are women who identify as bi, lesbian, queer, and some who are uncomfortable labelling or naming their sexualities at all.   Lots of the women in the book have children.  There is one woman who falls in love with a woman for the first time at age sixty-nine.  Sixty-nine!!  This diversity of experience aside, though, the vast majority of the women whose stories were in the book are white, and I would really have liked to have seen more women of colour, as well as women from different class backgrounds.

It was awesome to see women questioning and attacking conventional understandings of sexual orientation—that model that’s built for gay men that just doesn’t seem to do a lot of LBQ women justice.  One woman writes about her lack of “brazen knowledge about” her sexuality; taught that she would be sure if she was queer, she felt paralyzed because she didn’t know for certain.  Another compares her newfound feelings for women as an acquired taste for fancy espresso when she used to slurp down drip coffee from a styrofoam cup without thought.  Another blames Angelina Jolie’s lips.  One woman admits thinking that she just wasn’t that kind of girl, until she realized she was that kind of girl, but for “andro-butchy” girls.  Another recounts her mother’s reaction to her coming out as “JESUS CHRIST!  I thought you were going to tell me you had cancer.  I don’t give a shit if you are a lesbian.”  Ha ha.

I highly, highly recommend this collection.  Not only did I love the content, I thought the majority of the pieces were really well written.  I think Dear John I Love Jane is especially an important read for queer women whose stories are of the “I’ve always known” variety and for folks who need to confront their biphobia (there are an unfortunate number of lesbians who need to work on this).  I’ll just leave you with this last awesome quotation, from Amelia Sauter: “You won’t find me rewriting history to say that I was gay all along.  I was straight.  Now I am gay… I always thought I couldn’t change.  I was wrong and that freaks out a lot of people who are scared to imagine that one day everything they think is true and permanent could change.  I found my knight in shining armour, and she’s a girl.”

Tag reviews Dear John, I Love Jane edited by Candace Walsh and Laura Andre

DearJohn

When I chose Dear John, I Love Jane to review, I knew I wouldn’t be breaking any new ground, and it’s yet again a topic entirely out of my realm of experience. I mean, I knew from a young age that I’m lesbian, and I haven’t been married to a man or in committed, heterosexual relationships as an adult. However, in reading each story I became aware of something I and these other women share very much in common, and it just began rippling from there, so of course I have to tell everybody all about it.

Any group of stories like this excites me because I always love little tidbits into peoples’ lives, told from their own perspective. As good as it is to have one big novel-length autobiography about a person’s experience, no matter what it is, I find that anthologies like this feel like they represent their theme very well. One of my favorite things, possibly my favorite, about this particular book is that each woman’s story is very different from the last. When experiences start to bleed together and seem the same, that’s always suspect to me, but at no point did I stop during reading Dear John, I Love Jane and say to myself, “Well, this doesn’t seem authentic at all.”

On the contrary, I think I highlighted more out of this volume than I tend to. I highlighted whole sections about how saying your partner is your wife is “coming out on speed,” (Over the Fence) and how gay men were seen as harmless, but lesbians were not to be talked about (Leap of Faith). In numerous stories I have paragraphs highlighted about how it feels to have to prove your “lesbian credentials.” Even as a woman who hasn’t left a heterosexual relationship to pursue one with a woman instead, you would have to try hard to not relate to any of these stories.

Of course, not all of them are the same, which is the beauty of this anthology. Some of the women writing their stories haven’t left their marriages; instead, they’ve made the marriage work around their newfound (or newly accepted) sexuality. Some of the writers’ husbands or boyfriends were supportive and lovely people, and some were not. The inclusion of women who have stayed in their heterosexual partnerships is important, I think, and was encouraging to read, as was the inclusion of a few women who weren’t yet sure what they were going to do. All in all this whole volume is full of hope for the future no matter what situation these women find themselves in, and for that I’m grateful. I never want to forget the generations of women who shelved their desire for whatever reasons, who sacrificed and became truly “themselves” later in life, and I never want to forget that desire can change people in any direction. Dear John, I Love Jane is a powerful collection I would recommend to anyone who’s ever been confused and uprooted their life for changes they’ve felt.

Casey reviews Licking the Spoon by Candace Walsh

LickingtheSpoon

Candace Walsh’s book, Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity, had me from the very first page, which features a sensual description of making seafood-mushroom risotto in a steamy, cramped New York apartment kitchen.  Right off the bat, Walsh displays her talent for evoking rich, palpable settings, and she continues to do so throughout the memoir, drawing full, memorable pictures of childhood homes in Long Island, sketchy college apartments in Buffalo, and airy, open New Mexico kitchens bathed in sunlight.  Food, of course, is central to each of these places and the different times in Walsh’s life.  Although Danika is right when she writes in her review that the memoir is less about food than food is an ongoing theme, Walsh very effectively uses food as a lens through which to examine and explore her life’s ups and downs.

For example, she manages to make even the most bare bones pea soup recipe appealing, clearly because the recipe was learnt from her straight college roommate, for whom she experienced a pining, unrequited love.  The soup, comprised of only peas, onion, water, and salt and pepper, has a kind of spiritual cleanliness and simplicity that Walsh was yearning for at that time in her life.  It’s also at this period that Walsh discovers the vegetarian cookbook writer Mollie Katzen’s books, which inspire her to this brilliant vision of “an orderly yet creative life”:

“I could wake up, do a series of yoga poses in my tidy, spacious bedroom, drink herbal tea in my kitchen, eat homemade yogurt and granola for breakfast, and ride my bicycle to campus, where my assignments would be complete in a satchel and my classmates would wonder about me, a mysterious human being who was winsomely beautiful and smelled faintly of lemon verbena and lavender.  I couldn’t have been further from that persona.”

The clincher, of course, is the last sentence.  There’s something about this idealistic dream of being a well-adjusted, serene person everyone admires that I deeply identified with.  You know in your heart of hearts that it’s unreasonable and unobtainable, and that it’s not even really you, but the hope persists.  This is a lot of what Walsh’s journey is about, actually: that convoluted route to a person and a life that is healthy, and good, and that feels right for you.  Part of this is her discovering her queer sexuality, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle.  In her review on AfterEllen, Jill Guccini aptly describes what else is going on: “the complex ties of family, … the sometimes cruel world of childhood and the demons that haunt the people you love the most … all those things you’re supposed to do once you finally escape the bubble of home: the alcohol, the drugs, and the exhausting career building in New York City in your 20s, struggling to find a worthy partner who won’t repeat the faults in your heritage.”

Somewhere amidst all these external happenings of her life, which also include disordered eating and emotional and sometimes physical abuse, Walsh makes her way towards a life that is finally the right fit for her.  I found the explanation of her decision to exclusively pursue women as romantic and sexual partners fascinating.  Indeed, for most of the book Walsh dates men, although there are hints of her Sapphic inclinations throughout.  The prologue actually disguises the gender of the person she has a crush on, who is attending a dinner at Walsh’s house while her husband is away at work.  I bet there were some straight people who picked up this book who were surprised to find out how much queer content was in it.  Anyway, I always appreciate hearing stories about women’s sexual identity that have a different narrative other than I’ve-known-since-I-was-five-and-have-always-been-100%-lesbian.  I think it’s really important to talk about the grey areas and actual queer women’s experiences.  Too often women coming out don’t feel that their experiences are reflected in cultural narratives of queerness (this happens, I think, because gay men’s experiences dominate these narratives) and then they feel somehow ‘inauthentically’ lesbian or queer.  I know I did.  Anyway, this is Walsh’s description of her sexuality (fittingly, she uses a really effective food metaphor):

“I loved sex with women way more than sex with men.  It wasn’t a stretch, or stressful, or a chore, or a performance … That’s not to say that I looked back and saw my sexual history with men as a disappointment.  I pursued, wooed, loved, and savoured men.  I just didn’t realize how much more there was to enjoy.  If you spend your whole life eating pork chops and applesauce with sauerkraut, you have no idea how much you prefer pork served with a mole of cacao nibs, six kinds of chilies, cinnamon, anise, cloves, coriander, ground almonds, pumpkin seeds, and garlic … until you try it.  I still found men attractive.  But all I wanted from even the most compelling man I saw was a really good hug.  The last man I had a crush on before I met Celine was Greek; he hailed from Lesbos.  I was on a track, all right.”

There’s a lot to love and savor in Licking the Spoon.  It’s the kind of honest, compelling memoir that makes you realize that most so-called ordinary peoples’ lives are actually quite extraordinary.  It’s a book that also makes you think that your very own life might be worthy of a memoir as well.

Danika reviews Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family and Identity by Candace Walsh

LickingtheSpoon

One of the first books I reviewed for the Lesbrary was Dear John, I Love Jane edited by Candace Walsh and Laura Andre. I loved that book, both for the topic (complicating sexual orientation? Yes please) and the quality of the stories. So when I saw that one of the editors had written a memoir, I was excited to see if it lived up to the enthusiasm I had for Dear John, I Love Jane. I was not disappointed. I haven’t read any other food memoirs or food writing (… I don’t even know what the genre is called!), so I’m not sure how Licking the Spoon compares to the usual fare. The book isn’t about food as much as food is an ongoing theme; it adds a layer through which to interpret Walsh’s life, because her food choices reflect something about the way her life is going, whether she’s cooking up gourmet feasts or pennies-per-serving pea soup or frozen dinners.

Most importantly, I loved Walsh’s writing style. It flows well and kept me engaged regardless of what was being described. It’s funny, because Walsh describes being disappointed by her mother’s embellished stories about her family, but Licking the Spoon has such detailed, rich stories about her own life and previous generations’ lives that they can’t possibly be just the facts. Either way, it made it an absorbing read that I really enjoyed, and Walsh definitely has a life story worth telling.

I couldn’t find anything on the book itself that hints to queer content (though the Amazon description does), which I found interesting. The first chapter plays the pronoun game with her love interest. The queer content is introduced slowly, from hints in her childhood through dissatisfaction with her (heterosexual) marriage. I am always divided on this, because on the one hand, that makes it difficult for queer people to be able to find this book unless they’re researching online. On the other hand, I love the idea that straight readers could unknowingly pick this book up. It doesn’t categorize itself as only a queer book, and it isn’t! The memoir is much more about Walsh’s relationship with food, her family, and herself than it is about being queer. And it looks like this strategy was successful, because the Amazon ratings on this book are ridiculously high: of 39 reviews, 36 are five star and 3 are four star.

Whether you’re a foodie or a fan of lesbian memoirs, or you just like good writing telling a story well, I would definitely recommend Licking the Spoon and I hope to read more from Candace Walsh!

Holly reviews Dear John, I Love Jane edited by Candace Walsh and Laura André

Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write about Leaving Men for Women, edited by Candace Walsh and Laura André and published by Seal Press, is a collection of personal essays about women who discover they’re lesbian/ bi/ queer/ otherwise in love with a woman a little later in life. For some, this means coming out to their families and friends in their middle or old age. Others learn (or change) in their twenties and thirties, which may not seem that late but can feel as though it is.

I connected with some of these stories. For instance, having to leave the country to start getting it on sounds all too familiar, writing folksy songs for one’s honey is cute, and dreaming of Angelina Jolie’s lips might just be my favorite Sapphic rite of passage.

Other narratives I found annoying. Occasionally, the dialogue seemed stilted. A couple of the first girlfriends made me want to tell the respective writers “Don’t fuck that girl. Get her a therapist.” Plus, some of the coming-out-of-the-closet-y language made me uncomfortable. There is only so much of “I didn’t want to look like a dyke”-esque sentiment that I can stand without becoming defensive.

Nevertheless, I was so grateful to be let into these women’s lives. Fluid in topic and in form, their secrets transformed into whole stories, big tell-alls that were very comforting and sexy. (Yet, it was not so lush that I wouldn’t lend it to my friends and family.) Even as a fairly young and out queer, I found Dear John, I Love Jane accessible and cathartic. This is a book I plan to keep and reread over the years. I recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the sometimes hazy pop phrase “fluid sexuality.”

Lesbrary Review: Dear John, I Love Jane edited by Candace Walsh and Laura Andre

I love this book. I just want to say that straight off the bat. In any minority (of power) group, telling our own stories is crucial, especially when they’re stories that defy the narrative that has traditionally been put forth about that group.

The foreword of Dear John, I Love Jane is written by the author of Sexual Fluidity, which is a book I now really want to read. The only problems I had with the book in general were that the introduction and foreword combined seemed pretty lengthy, and the introduction especially seemed unnecessary.

Also, I was initially irritated because the  foreword set the tone for stories about sexual fluidity, which I was very excited about being able to read, because we have a very Born This Way, rigid conception of sexuality in our society, and I wanted to see the stories this framework ignores. When the first few stories didn’t really address sexual fluidity, I was disappointed, but by the end I was completely satisfied.

The major thing I loved about Dear John, I Love Jane was the quality of writing. With a topic this narrow, I didn’t have very high standards, especially since anthologies generally have a range of quality. Most anthologies tend to include at least one story that you really hate. This was not true! I actually didn’t have any story that I didn’t enjoy. They varied in styles, but I thought the quality of writing was high in each one.

What makes Dear John, I Love Jane so valuable, though, is the variety of the stories told. As I said, I was hoping for stories about sexual fluidity, and there were, but they weren’t the only ones. Dear John, I Love Jane represents many different situations where women left men for women. In some, it was because they had always been attracted to women and only were with a man because they felt it was the right thing to do. For others, though, they really were deeply in love with the man they were with. For some, it was one woman who changed everything, and had nothing to do with their sexuality, just with the individual. And some women decide to stay with their husband. It really represents a range, which I found refreshing.

I have a particular dislike for our dichotomy of choice vs born-that-way with sexuality. No other aspect of ourselves do we treat that way. Was I born sarcastic, or did I choose to be that way? Was I born loving books, or did I choose to be that way? It doesn’t make any sense. And it doesn’t with orientation, either. If sexuality is not a rigid, unchanging, biological, pre-destined thing, it doesn’t automatically make it a choice.

I also enjoyed the portrayal of men in the stories. Some of the partners are not ideal mates, but many are wonderful people, and it brings more nuance to it. I think that men in Dear John,  I Love Jane are primarily positively portrayed, which just makes those situations so much more difficult and interesting.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. I only keep books that I want to re-read at some point, and this is definitely one that’s going to go into my permanent collection.

(Check out the Dear John, I Love Jane website here!)