Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words by Boel Westin, translated by Silvester Mazzarella

Tove Jansson by Boel Westin cover

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A queer, iconoclast, anti-fascist, anti-war comic artist, and joyfully adventurous woman, the Tove Jansson brought to life by Boel Westin’s considered pen is a complicated, innovative creative in resolute pursuit of independence—in both her art and romances.

Meticulously researched but rarely dry, this is a book for Moomin fans and art history lovers alike. It provides a deep look into both the personal life and recorded experiences of Tove Jansson, as well as the historical circumstances that gave rise to her singular artistic vision—which was, it turns out, far more oriented towards painting than illustration.*

While the book focuses more on literary-minded analysis of Jansson’s illustrations (including examining the events that inspired them, namely her formative experiences in the wake of the first world war and under the shadow of the second) than the technical aspects (past a chapter dedicated to her years at art school), its cross-sectional look at the cultures of the particular artistic milieus she inhabited during her life helps provide further insight into her inspirations.

There’s a sincere affection for her subject in Westin’s writing, but it never reads as overly fawning or glamorizing. Readers will feel like they’re walking through a gallery, looking through windows at an artist as she grows through painstaking practice and experience.

One of the loveliest things about biographies is that they remind us how we’re not alone.** Sometimes what becomes globally iconic starts off humble, and critically panned. Westin doesn’t shy away from Jansson’s early struggles, and it’s that grounding that makes what could easily become a fairytale-style homily to creative perseverance—she lived and worked in a literal tower for most of her life—into something much more real.

As a kid, I was obsessed with the Moomin books. The soft, rounded shapes were so tactile in my mind’s eye, and the stories had this sense of being about something bigger and just a teensy smidge darker than they immediately let on. Returning to that world decades later, I’ve found myself bookmarking some of the pages to revisit when I need a bit of a pick-me-up regarding my own aspirations. Westin’s elaboration of Jansson’s ambitions and struggles will likely hold meaning for modern creatives, illustrators in particular. The book does not shy from going into frank detail on Jansson’s need for financial independence to pursue her singular vision, and her later efforts to maintain control of how her art was presented, particularly once the popularity of the Moomin books brought an avalanche of possible licensing deals down on her doorstep. The descriptions of her fierce dedication to preserving her integrity as a creator are inspiring. Even as Jansson’s whimsy is celebrated here, so too is her ambition in equal measure.

In summary, this biography shines a light on the human behind the characters, and her love of compassionate, thoughtful, boundary-pushing stories on the page and in her own life. While it clocks in at nearly 500 pages, it’s well worth checking out if you want to read about:

  • Biographies of sapphic artists
  • Biographies of sapphic comic artists/illustrators
  • Biographies that humanize their subjects through detailed study
  • The history behind the Moomin books
  • The way art is both deeply individual and a reflection of the world the artist inhabits
  • Post-war European art outside of the more well-trodden English-French perspective: Next time someone asks me if I’m familiar with Francis Bacon, I’m asking them if they’re familiar with Tove Jansson.

You can now order the book from the University of Minnesota Press!

Footnotes:

*Reading this book gave me new appreciation for the 2020 biopic Tove, which focuses on her life and career just before the first Moomin books really took off. It’s a delightful homage to her passion for painting, too, as well as earlier romantic partnerships that this websites’ readers might not know as well as the one with Tuulikki Pietilä. It’s streaming now on Kanopy, for anyone interested.

**As Jansson’s diary entries reveal, it appears that queer horror-loving women are not a recent phenomenon!

Making The Future Gay: The Five Things I Checked out From the Queer Liberation Library

Recently, a nonprofit in Massachusetts put out an exclusively queer book collection on Libby called the Queer Liberation Library (also known as QLL). Their mission is simple: by providing queer people with diversity-focused literature and resources, QLL is building a future that is undeniably queer. This collection of e-materials is available to anyone with an email address, and sign-up is very easy. I signed up and had received confirmation and account information within twelve (12) hours. There are so many titles and collections available, with the focus of their homepage collections being on Black queerness right now in celebration of Black History Month. I would highly recommend signing up for a card if you want exclusively queer literature available at your fingertips. 

Of course, I went a little wild and immediately began downloading so many sapphic titles on the QLL. Here are five things that I checked out from the Queer Liberation Library that I think you should too:

Those Who Wait by Haley Cass

the cover of Those Who Wait

Sutton had a simple plan for her life: finish graduate school and fall in love. But life is never that simple, and it doesn’t help that she is useless around other women. On the other hand, Charlotte has every bit of her life planned out and is not willing to compromise it for love. When the two meet through a dating app, Sutton and Charlotte know they aren’t meant to be—or are they? I picked up this audiobook because of the cute cover and stayed for the slow-burn, friends-with-benefits romance. Don’t let the length of the book (21ish hours) intimidate you: Those Who Wait is a fast-paced epic romance sure to make your top ten books of 2024.

Sing Anyways by Anita Kelly

the cover of Sing Anyway

Nonbinary history professor Sam Bell is committed to a new (non)romantic strategy after numerous failed relationships: Thirst Only. However, having no emotional ties to relationships can be hard, especially when they are left by themselves at The Moonlight Café, otherwise known as Moonie’s to its largely queer regulars, and on karaoke night of all nights. But then Sam’s karaoke crush, Lily Fischer, steps up with a mic, and the two work together to weather the outside world and to keep singing through it all. I read this back during the summer and I remember being actively disappointed that there was no audiobook that I could listen to through my library—never again!

Mimosa by Archie Bongiovanni

the cover of Mimosa

Best friends and chosen family Chris, Elise, Jo, and Alex work hard to keep themselves afloat. In an effort to avoid being the oldest gays at the party, the crew decides to put on a new queer event called Grind—specifically for homos in their dirty 30s. Grind is a welcome distraction from their real lives while navigating exes at work, physical and mental exhaustion, and drinking way, way too much on weekdays. This chosen family proves that being messy doesn’t always go away with age. I love Bongiovanni’s art style and can’t wait to sink my teeth into this story about older queer people (which I am swiftly approaching with mild disbelief).

Mouths of Rain: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Thought edited by Briona Simone Jones

the cover of Mouths of Rain

Mouths of Rain traces the long history of intellectual thought produced by Black Lesbian writers, spanning the nineteenth century through the twenty-first century.

This anthology features a mix of literature (nonfiction, poetry, and fiction) about a variety of topics from a variety of Black sapphic authors like Audre Lorde and Alice Dunbar-Nelson. 

Mouths of Rain first caught my attention because of the gorgeous cover, but kept me enthralled by the sheer intersectionality of the work. 

Lesbian Love Story by Amelia Possanza

the cover of Lesbian Love Story

This is the story of Possanza’s journey into the archives to recover the stories of lesbians in the 20th Century: who they were, how they loved, why their stories were destroyed, and where their memories echo and live on. Centered around seven love stories for the ages, Possanza’s hunt takes readers from a Drag King show in Bushwick to the home of activists in Harlem and then across the ocean to Hadrian’s Library, where she searches for traces of Sappho in the ruins. Along the way, she discovers her own love—for swimming, for community, for New York City—and adds her own record to the archive. I am not the biggest fan of nonfiction (regardless of how many nonfiction titles are on this list), but loved how Possanza would switch genres and use the histories to discuss questions of gender, love, and self. 

Bonus: Hijab Butch Blues by Lamya H

the cover of Hijab Butch Blues

Bonus pick because I got very attached to all of these choices: Hijab Butch Blues by Lamya H! When fourteen-year-old Lamya H realizes she has a crush on her teacher—her female teacher—she covers up her attraction, an attraction she can’t yet name, by playing up her roles as overachiever and class clown. However, Lamya eventually begins to make sense of her own life by comparing her experiences to the stories of the Quran, and expands on those thoughts in this searing memoir in essays. This is a title that so many of my friends have been reading lately and I am excited to join them once my audiobook hold comes in!

Happy reading!

Chloe (they/he) is a public librarian in Baltimore, who identifies as Indigenous, autistic, and panromantic demisexual. They enjoy reading queer literature for any age group, as well as fantasy, contemporary, and romance. In his spare time, he acts in his local community theaters and plays role-playing games. You can find them on GoodreadsTwitter, or Instagram.

Understanding the Japanese Internment Camps: Displacement by Kiku Hughes

the cover of Displacement

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“And keep drawing, too. Draw what you see, what happens here. It’s important. They can scare us, but they can’t make us forget.”

In this simply illustrated yet poignant graphic novel, Kiku Hughes reimagines herself as a teenager who is pulled back in time to witness and experience the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II. There, she not only discovers the truths of what life was like within these camps but also follows her late grandmother’s own experiences having her life turned upside down as her and her family are villainized and forcibly relocated by the American government. Kiku must live alongside her young grandmother and other Japanese American citizens, as she finds out about the atrocities they had to suffer and the civil liberties they had been denied, all while somehow cultivating community and learning to survive.

Touching on important themes of cultural history and generational trauma, Hughes meshes these topics seamlessly into a fascinating plot and an extremely endearing and relatable main character. Kiku reflects a lot, during her journey, on the way that marginalized people are treated within the U.S.—during the past and in modern time—but also on the way that her family’s history and experiences had such a great effect on her own life.

Throughout the story, she feels powerless because of the lack of information she has regarding her grandmother’s past and her community’s history, which makes it difficult to help those around her. She can’t tell them what is about to happen to them; she doesn’t know what the living conditions are like in the different internment camps they are sent to; she can’t warn them about the specific atrocities that await them. She is forced to undergo this displacement alongside everyone else, and her ignorance not only makes her scared but also makes her feel quite guilty for not being able to contribute more aid or comfort to those around her.

She is also confronted with this difficult-to-place, bittersweet feeling of being disconnected from her family’s culture but also acknowledging that her own habits and traditions have been so deeply impacted by it. All these moments of introspection felt like a personal call out to me and made Kiku the kind of main character to whom a lot of readers will be able to relate.

Because of my own relationship to my family’s culture and history, reading this graphic novel was an extremely personal and emotional experience. On one hand, I think a lot of people will be able to connect with this story; on the other hand, I think a lot of other people will have the opportunity to learn something new through it.

I also loved the subtle sapphic romance arc that was included. It didn’t overpower the main message of the novel, but it was a nice, comforting surprise in an otherwise heavy read. I saw it as a beautiful testament to the joy and love we humans are capable of finding, even in moments of great duress.

The illustrations were beautiful, the art style was simple but extremely effective, the characters felt very fleshed out—which is sometimes hard to do in a graphic novel, working within a limited number of panels. All the artistic choices perfectly matched the tone of the story, which is a testament to Hughes’ true talent as a creator.

Representation: sapphic, Japanese American main character

Content warnings: racism, racial slurs, colourism, sexism, hate crimes, cancer, death, grief depiction, confinement, imprisonment, war themes (World War II and Japanese internment camps)

A Genre-Defying Queer Black Memoir: The Black Period by Hafizah Augustus Geter

the cover of The Black Period

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In 2023, I was a judge for the Nonfiction category of the Lambda Literary Awards. One of the books I read—the one that ended up winning for the category—was The Black Period: On Personhood, Race, and Origin. This is a brilliant, expansive book that I don’t feel qualified to really speak about, because there are so many layers going on in this narrative.

Geter is a poet, and you absolutely tell in this memoir. There are so many shining lines—”Safer to be accepted than loved, I thought.”—even when describing seemingly inconsequential details, like, “Even though she laughed constantly, it was like every laugh took her by surprise.”

This book is an embodiment of the idea that the personal is political. While this is in some senses a memoir, it’s also much broader than that. Geter traces back how her life is connected to all that came before it: her disability is connected to her parents’ health problems, which are connected to the racism at the foundation of the United States.

This is why The Black Period doesn’t fit neatly into the memoir category: it’s also a history book, and a collection of essays about art criticism and Afrofuturist thought, and it’s also about the connected struggles of Indigenous and Black people in the United States. Oh, and it includes original artwork from her father, a well-respected artist in his own right.

I can’t believe this book, which has won multiple awards and made several “best of” lists, is still so underread, even now that it’s available in paperback. This would be a fascinating book to read in a group, or to study in a class. I need you all to go out and read it so we can talk about it together. It’s one I can’t stop thinking about.

A Queer Abolitionist History: The Women’s House of Detention by Hugh Ryan

the cover of The Women's House of Detention

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Since the days of lesbian pulp fiction, Greenwich Village has been seen as a gay hub, a refuge for queer people from all over the country. In this book, Hugh Ryan shows that part of the reason for that is because from the 1920s to 70s, it held The Women’s House of Detention, a jail/prison for women and transmasculine people, and many of the people held there were queer.

At first glance, this seems like a narrow focus typical of a very academic book. But as each chapter looks at the prison through the decades, we see how this is a microcosm of broad social issues at the time. The story of The Women’s House of Detention is the story of LGBTQ liberation, and it also illustrates how prison abolition is a necessity.

In the introduction, the author explains how he began this research believing prisons need serious reform, but after seeing how prison reform over the decades in The Women’s House of Detention has only ever resulted in larger prisons with more people packed into them, he now believes abolition is the way forward. The prison was first built with smaller cells so that prisoners would have more privacy, each with their own cell–and then years later, they started keeping multiple people in each. A hospital was added–and then years later, it was gutted to make room for more cells. Then a hospital was reinstated. Then it was gutted again. Any attempts at reform always deteriorated with time.

Each chapter looks at a few of the queer people imprisoned during that decade, telling their stories–at least, what we know of them. It’s a fascinating look into the horrors of the criminal justice system, past and present, as well as the no-win situations these people were put in. Many of them return multiple times, because once they had a criminal record, they had no legal means of making money.

Since each chapter focuses on personal stories as a window into the lives of queer women and transmasculine people during that time period in New York, it makes this accessible and readable. We also get a look into queer communities in each decade, including how the people in The Women’s House of Detention participated in Stonewall and previous protests, even if few people saw or heard about it.

The Women’s House of Detention itself is a complicated place for many of the people imprisoned there: the conditions were horrible, but they also found a queer community there.

I haven’t read as much queer history as I would like, but this is one of my favourite books I’ve read on the topic, and I highly recommend it. The discussion about prison abolition versus reform is relevant to the conversations we’re having today, and seeing a timeline of how this push and pull has played out over a 50-year time period is helpful background. Both for the personal stories and the overall message, you should definitely pick this one up.

Carolina reviews The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo

The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo

I’ve always felt drawn to queer history; there is a certain comfort in seeing parts of you echoed throughout history, reminders that we have always existed. I’ve always felt attracted to these historical ghosts, found in the coded language of long-gone poets and in unearthed love letters written in candlelit secrecy. Vito Russo’s classic The Celluloid Closet examines the portrayal of LGBT people in cinema from the medium’s inception, tracking the patterns that characterized the media and public’s perception of gay people, and labeling cinematic stereotypes that are still echoed today.

This book serves as a great introduction to queer theory and queer history. However, readers should be aware that this is truly a product of this time; The Celluloid Closet was written in 1981, before the AIDS crisis and the modern gay liberation movement, so some of the language (the use of reclaimed slurs and antiquated terminology) may seem insensitive and outdated if not taken into context. For example, the author glowingly cites Woody Allen as a trailblazing, philanthropic director….

Before Russo’s death, he planned an updated documentary version of the book, eventually released posthumously, in order to include classics from the emergent New Queer Cinema movement, including my favorite film, My Own Private Idaho. I suggest watching the movie to have a visual reference for the more obscure films that are cited. After watching The Celluloid Closet, I would recommend checking out Disclosure, Laverne Cox’s Netflix film about transgender representation in film; it fills in the gaps left by Russo, as The Celluloid Closet primarily focuses on cisgender individuals.

The book is tightly structured in a list format, leading to monotony if not read critically. I suggest reading it in chunks in order to truly digest Russo’s ideas. First, he gives a brief background of the period or archetype that he is dissecting, and then lists queer films and their impact on the era’s media. Russo adds a signature humor throughout his dissertations, imbuing each of the films with character and intrigue. Russo has a dry and infectious wit, best exemplified with his tongue-in-cheek ‘Necrology’ of the various ways gay characters were killed on screen, an early precursor to the ‘Bury-Your-Gays’ trope.

The author takes the reader back in time through the history of cinema, outlining the varied inclusion of queer people. In the early part of the century, gay ‘pansies’ became comedic gags in Laurel and Hardy skits, eventually leading way to hardened butch criminals and lecherous gay killers in noir films. The killer genre eventually transformed to the monster craze of the 1930’s; lesbian vampires have always been a hallmark of the vampire genre since the 1872 novella Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu. In the 1960’s, the Hays Code, a Hollywood gag order on the inclusion of explicitly gay characters, was repealed, transforming LGBT characters from invisible phantoms to social pariahs. 1961’s The Children’s Hour has Shirley MacLaine’s character take her own life immediately following a confession of love to Audrey Hepburn. In the 1970’s and early 80’s, gay people were either violent murderers and oddballs, or Oscar-bait-y sanitization of queer individuals, the latter of which is still a prevalent motif in modern cinema (Bohemian Rhapsody). Russo mentions the accolades the film Thank God It’s Friday (1978) received for including ‘gay representation’ in the film of a male-male couple dancing in the background of a ballroom, echoing the introduction of ‘Disney’s first gay character” Lefou in the live action Beauty and the Beast adaptation (2017).

Russo’s The Celluloid Closet reminds us that we still have a lot of work left in terms of queer representation. Russo recently received the honor of having the Vito Russo Test named after him, a measure of how many prominent on-screen characters appear in each media cycle. In 2019, 22 of the 118 highest grossing film of the year featured queer characters, a historic high. However, we are not as far from Buffalo Bill and Norman Bates as we may think we are; cisgender actor Eddie Redmayne was cast as transgender artist Lilli Elbe in The Danish Girl in 2015, Valkyrie’s bisexuality was written out of Taika Waititi’s script at Disney’s bequest in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), and J.K. Rowling has recently transfigured her media empire into a simmering cauldron of transphobic bigotry on Twitter. However, the future’s still bright, as recent shining stars in the cinema canon, including Moonlight, Rafiki, and A Portrait of a Lady on Fire, light our way to proper recognition and representation.

Danika reviews Be Gay, Do Comics!: Queer History, Memoir, and Satire from the Nib

Be Gay, Do ComicsBe Gay, Do Comics is an anthology with more than 30 contributors, all discussing some aspect of queer life. This was a refreshingly diverse and thought-provoking collection. Most anthologies in this vein that I’ve read have played it pretty safe: they’ve usually been very white, and mostly focused on gay cis men, with the overarching message being one of acceptance. Be Gay, Do Comics covers a wide range of topics from a lot of different voices, including many artists of color and trans artists, and includes comics about queer liberation and resisting assimilation.

There is a mix of one-page comics and longer pieces, with some being fairly simple one-off jokes or observations and others looking at queer history. I was especially interested in the comics that looked at queer history and culture that is lesser known, including looking at gay characters in Puerto Rican TV shows, comparing that to the history and present state of LGBTQ rights in Puerto Rico. Another explores how LGBTQ people have been treated in the Philippines, pre-colonialism up to the present. There is also a comic including interviews from queer parents raising kids in Malaysia.

Some comics are biographies of queer people in history I wasn’t aware of, including Gad Beck, a gay Jewish spy, and Baron von Steuben, an openly gay military leader in the American Revolution. Some of these figures at larger than life, others are everyday. Others look at events, such as Hazel Newlevant’s comic about queer uprisings that preceded Stonewall, or an explanation of the Lavender Scare, or the history of the rainbow flag.

Of course, there are also a lot of personal stories included. Some talk about exploring their gender, or coming out. One is about being non-binary while taking folk dancing lessons. Another talks coming out in their late 30s, and the pride and embarrassment and mourning of that–mourning for their younger out queer self who never was. While I’m used to LGBT anthologies being mostly cis gay men, there were lots of trans comics in this one, and even an intersex contribution. There was also a variety both in identities and politics, including a comic about gay Republicans, comics about gatekeeping in the queer community, and one about gay liberation.

It’s hard to speak about an anthology like this in a cohesive way, because they are all so different: in art style, tone, topic, and identity. Overall, I really enjoyed it. Although as always there were some comics I liked more than others, there weren’t any that I felt were weak. It’s a great opportunity to be exposed to a lot of different artists as well. This is one I would happily recommend. It’s not focused specifically on lesbians and bi women, but there is definitely sapphic representation. I’m happy to see that queer anthologies are expanding to be a little more challenging and diverse than they were just a handful of years ago.

Danika reviews Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

Zami by Audre Lorde

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.

Audre Lorde is a name that looms large in lesbian literature, in Black history, and in her legacy in poetry. I have read some of her essays and poems, but I hadn’t before read a long-form work by her. Zami is her autobiography, starting from early childhood and covering up to about her mid-20s. It was interesting to read about this period of her life, because I think some part of me imagined Lorde as appearing fully formed as the imposing figure she became. I’m also used to memoirs, which focus on one aspect of the author’s life, where this explores many subjects, from relationship to her mother, her education, her various jobs and relationships, and growing up as a Black gay woman in the United States in the 40s and 50s. I didn’t realize how early she wrote this: we don’t get to see her as the established poet she became, or as a lesbian activist or leader–instead, this is her journey to get there.

Lorde’s foundation in poetry is definitely visible here. While some passages are matter of fact, others are phrased poetically or even have whole excerpts of poems. I’ll admit that I was a little bit intimidated to pick this one up because of her reputation as both a poet and a theorist. This isn’t a book to speed through: like a poem, it’s packed with so much to pause and consider. Some lines I couldn’t understand, but that’s just the nature of reading poetry.

Lorde’s observations are often timeless or depressingly still timely commentary, while other aspects are firmly rooted in the time period she was coming of age. At some points she seems to have a wild and enviable youth: moving to Mexico on her own just for the love it, entertaining a rotating cast of down-on-their-luck friends piled in a room together, experimenting with drugs and relationships–while the next page will bring something truly horrific. Having to work a bad job as a young person is relateable, but having that job expose you to harmful levels of radiation (Lorde would develop cancer later in life) is not. Trying out polyamory, having endless lesbian processing, relationship miscommunication, that could all have been written yesterday. But having your partner go through shock therapy for her mental illness is very different. It was surreal to see historical events occur casually in her life, such as McCarthyism resulting in the FBI showing up at her door multiple times.

Her crispy hair twinkles in the summer sun as her big proud stomach moved her on down the block while I watched, not caring whether or not she was a poem… I loved her, because she moved like she felt she was somebody special, like she was somebody I’d like to know someday. She moved like how I thought god’s mother must have moved, and my mother, once upon a time, and someday maybe me.

The structure of Zami is a tour through the women that shaped Lorde’s life, from her mother to long-term relationships to brief friendships or conflicts. From the perspective of reviewing for the Lesbrary, it was interesting to see how Lorde’s sexual orientation comes up. This isn’t a “coming out” story–there’s no tearful reveal to her mother, no angst-ridden turmoil over choosing a label–it’s just a gradual exploration of her feelings for women. Her observation about lesbians I found to often be applicable still:

Meeting other lesbians was very difficult, except for the bars which I did not go to because I did not drink. One read The Ladder and the Daughters of Bilitis newsletter and wondered where all the other gay-girls were. Often, just finding out another woman was gay was enough of a reason to attempt a relationship, to attempt some connection in the name of love without first regard to how ill-matched the two of you might really be. Such were the results of loneliness…

That loneliness and confusion about coming out or just beginning relationships with women is, sadly, I think something lesbians and queer women still deal with.

In wonder, but without surprise, I lay finally quiet with my arms around Ginger. So this was what I had been so afraid of not doing properly. How ridiculous and far away those fears seemed now, as if loving were some task outside of myself, rather than simply reaching out and letting my own desire guide me. It was all so simple. I felt so good I smiled into the darkness. Ginger cuddled closer.

Reading about Lorde’s first relationships–intoxicating, all-encompassing, and burning at both ends–was painfully nostalgic. I wanted to reach through the pages and try to reason with her, but only because I want to do the same thing with my own past.

Each one of us had been starved for love for so long that we wanted to believe that love, once found, was all-powerful. We wanted to believe that it could give word to my inchoate pain and rages; that it could enable Muriel to face the world and get a job; that it could free our writings, cure racism, end homophobia and adolescent acne. We were like starving women who come to believe that food will cure all present pains, as well as heal all the deficiency sores of long standing.

Her romantic relationships are not the only women showcased in Zami, though. One person I found interested was a roommate who was dedicated to the feminist cause. Unfortunately, the feminist movement at the time was anti-gay, seeing at as somehow bougie–something only frivolous capitalists did. (Interestingly, since the government at the time seemed to associate with communism.) This roommate had a string of disastrous relationships with men, and Lorde speculates about how she must have felt seeing Lorde’s happy “incorrect” relationship, when she couldn’t make it work in a “correct” relationship. The schisms within “the movement” also strike a chord today:

Every one of the women in our group took for granted, and would have said if asked, that we were all on the side of right. But the nature of that right everyone was presumed to be on the side of was always unnamed.

Of course, the woman that played the biggest role in her early life was her mother. Lorde’s mother is almost a mythic figure in these early chapters–fitting, for how a young child perceives their parents. She commands attention and respect. She is strong, unrelenting, and Lorde would grow up to clash with her–then we see very little of her after Lorde’s teenage years. This makes sense from a real life perspective, but from a story view, I wanted to see more of her. Unsurprisingly, racism plays a major role in this narrative, and we see how Lorde’s parents try to shield her from it. When white people in the street spit on 4-year-old Audre’s jacket, her mother wipes it off (keeping a handkerchief for this purpose) and chides people for carelessly spitting on the street and missing. When Audre asks to eat in the dining car, her parents say it’s too expensive–never mentioning that it was illegal for them as a Black family to each there. Of course, they can’t protect Lorde from the everyday racism of growing up Black in the 40s and 50s, but it did confuse her about the source of these common indignities. As a child, she internalized her ill treatment by others as something wrong with her personally, having no words for racism.

Once we talked about how Black women had been committed without choice to waging our campaigns in the enemies’ strongholds, too much and too often, and how our psychic landscapes had been plundered and wearied by those repeated battles and campaigns.

It wasn’t until Lorde grew up, as a teenager and young adult, that she began to really understand how she was treated differently as a Black woman. She dreams of going to Mexico, working grueling, mind-numbing jobs to save up the money. Once there, she revels in being able to look around and be surrounded by Brown faces, by people who were friendly and curious about her instead of hostile.

Lorde faces the intersecting oppressions of being Black, gay, and a woman, finding very few people who can relate: she explains that most Black lesbians were closeted. Being a Black woman was a difficult enough hand to play, and most say being Black, gay, female, and out as suicidal. In lesbian circles, her Blackness is erased. Her white girlfriend is confident that being gay is the same as being Black: they’re both outsiders. Lorde can’t find the words or strength to fight her on this. The book ends with a sexual encounter with another out Black lesbian, and although it is a brief relationship, it’s a sigh of relief to see her find a connection where she doesn’t have to explain or hide any aspect of herself.

I remember how being young and Black and gay and lonely felt. A lot of it was fine, feeling I had the truth and the light and the key, but a lot of it was purely hell.

There were no mothers, no sisters, no heroes. We had to do it alone, like our sister Amazons, the riders on the loneliest outposts of the kingdom of Dahomey. We, young and Black and fine and gay, sweated out our first heartbreaks with no school nor office chums to share that confidence over lunch hour. Just as there were no rings to make tangible the reason for our happy secret smiles, there were no names nor reason given or shared for the tears that messed up the lab reports or the library bills.

We were good listeners, and never asked for double dates, but didn’t we know the rules? Why did we always seems to think friendships between women were important enough to care about? Always we moved in a necessary remoteness that made “What did you do this weekend?” seem like an impertinent question. We discovered and explored our attention to women alone, sometimes in secret, sometimes in defiance, sometimes in little pockets that almost touched (“Why are those little Black girls always either whispering together or fighting?”) but always alone, against a greater aloneness. We did it cold turkey, and although it resulted in some pretty imaginative tough women when we survived, too many of us did not survive at all.

Zami is not an easy read. Lorde goes through some horrific things, including an unsafe illegal abortion. Trigger warnings for pedophilia, an incest fantasy, self-mutilation, racism, and homophobia.

It’s also a book that asks to be read slowly and thoughtfully. I feel like I’ve just skimmed the surface of it. Don’t expect this to be Audre Lorde’s full story–it’s more like the prologue to the woman we remember her as today.

I also wanted to shout out Autostraddle’s 2020 feature, the Year of Our (Audre) Lorde, where every month, Jehan examines one of Lorde’s essays or poems and discussed how it is relevant today for queer and trans people of colour. I highly recommend it.

I look forward to reading more of Lorde’s work, especially her poetry, though I now know to be prepared for some slow reading, leaving lots of time for contemplation. Have you read any of Audre Lorde’s books? What did you think of them?

Emily Joy reviews Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan

Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence

Growing up in a Catholic family and Catholic environment as a lesbian had its challenges. As a young girl, I thought that I would become a religious sister because the idea of living in a community of women seemed much preferable to getting married. You know, back when I thought that getting married automatically included a man. I don’t think it should come as a surprise that lesbian/bi women have been joining religious orders for centuries, finding that life with other women is better than married life with a man.

First published in 1985, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence by Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan is a nonfiction anthology with 51 accounts of lesbian nuns and ex-nuns, speaking on the topic about how their sexuality intersects with their vocations.

The success of this book has an interesting story. The Boston archdiocese contacted a news station and appealed for the cancellation of a televised interview with one of the book’s editors. The Boston Globe wrote an article about the censorship, and Lesbian Nuns almost immediately sold out of its first printing with indie lesbian publisher Naiad Press. Shortly after, Warner Books bought the rights for mass-distribution and spread the book far and wide with its second edition. In the book itself, one interviewee said:

Lesbian nuns I know are going to dance! In convents, this book will go around like hotcakes. […] Everybody will read it. Lesbian nuns will be more self-conscious about this book. I can see them dying to get hold of it, but trying not to show too much interest. […] All hell’s going to break loose. Religious communities are going to have to discuss this book. They’re going to have to respond to the reality, and they’ve never had to do that.

One of the contributors to this book might be familiar to some Lesbrary readers. Jeanne Cordova is the author of one of the first chapters, and she is also the author of Kicking the Habit: a Lesbian Nun Story and When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love & Revolution.

The other stories and authors will likely be new to readers, and I think impactful in the way they mirror each other with shared experiences and ideas. Certainly, it was impactful for me with my Catholic background. There were several times that I felt like saying, “Hey! Those are my feelings, too!” There’s so much power for me in connecting with other lesbian women from the past, both distant and not so distant.

“My pain is that I can’t share being a Lesbian with most of these women. Since my Lesbianism is a part of me, they don’t really know me. Yet, if they knew I was a Lesbian, they might know me even less, because of whatever homophobia, stereotypes, or projections they might have. Another source of pain is my Church. I’m not sure what kind of a Catholic I am. I like the Catholic traditions and my personal history. However, I cannot reconcile myself to the Church’s clericalism and sexism.”

I may not personally prefer to capitalize the “l” in lesbian or call my sexuality an ism, but this passage and others truly resonated with me as an ex-Catholic. In fact, regardless of readers’ connections with Catholicism or other religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, I think this book has something for everyone to recognize in themselves.

The book is divided into nine themed sections, including sections on “particular friends”, the relationship between being a lesbian and vows of celibacy and chastity, and women who chose to stay in their religious orders rather than leave. It’s fascinating to read each section and find such similarities and differences in these women’s stories.

There is so much to learn from this book. It is full of first-hand accounts and the personal histories from our lesbian heritage. Catholic or not, religious or not, I highly recommend picking up a copy. Although originally published through an indie publisher, this book has since been reprinted several times and is available widely for anyone interested in exploring the relationship between religion and homosexuality.

Carmella reviews Gentleman Jack: a Biography of Anne Lister by Angela Steidele

Gentleman Jack by Angela Steidele

Earlier this year, HBO and the BBC treated us to Suranne Jones swaggering across the screen in butch Victorian get-up, playing the character of Anne Lister. The first season of Gentleman Jack follows just a segment of Anne’s life starting in 1832, as she woos her future life-partner, Ann Walker.

While I loved the show, it left me wanting to know more. What was Anne Lister really like? Who was she before 1832, and how does her story end? This led me to pick up Angela Steidele’s biography (also titled Gentleman Jack, which was an insulting nickname for Anne used by the townspeople of Halifax) to find out all about her for myself.

In case you haven’t come across her before, Anne Lister was a Regency era landowner from West Yorkshire. She’s now remembered as ‘the first modern lesbian’, mostly thanks to the extensive diaries she left behind, in which she recorded everything from her opinions on the pressing political issues of the time to the minutiae of everyday life – and, encoded in her secret ‘crypt hand’, explicit details of her numerous sexual affairs with other women.

These diaries run to over four million words, but thankfully Steidele has condensed them into a very readable 338 pages for those of us who don’t quite have enough time to manage them in full! Gentleman Jack follows Anne’s life in chronological order, separated into chapters named after her girlfriends – which is an entertaining touch.

As a history fan, I found the delve into the life of an unconventional Regency woman compelling, and welcomed the chance to learn more about the era. One of my favourite sections was the story of Anne’s first girlfriend, Eliza Raine. Eliza was the mixed race child of an English man and an Indian woman, born in Madras and raised in Yorkshire. When the Regency era is so often portrayed as exclusively white (think of most adaptations of Austen and the Brontës), hearing Eliza’s story is proof that this wasn’t the case.

Ultimately, it wasn’t a happy ending for Eliza, who was committed to a mental asylum. Steidele even suggests that Eliza may have been a model for Charlotte Brontë’s character Mrs Rochester – the ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Jane Eyre – as the asylum was not far from the Brontës’ home in Haworth.

Also very interesting is the final part of the biography, following Anne and Ann’s travels around Europe and Russia in 1839-40. Anne’s travel diary gives a fascinating description of every stopping point as it was in the mid-19th Century. It also reveals that Anne was impatient with Ann, argued with her frequently, pushed her into travelling further than she wanted, and even flirted with other women in front of her!

During the trip, Anne developed a fatal fever. She died in Georgia in 1840, at the age of 49, and Ann dutifully returned her body to be buried in Halifax.

What I enjoy most about the biography is this ‘warts and all’ approach to Anne’s life. It doesn’t shy away from Anne’s flaws; as Steidele puts it, “Anne Lister was a beast of a woman” – and all the more interesting for it. She lied to and manipulated her lovers, didn’t have much regard for other people’s feelings, and was a staunch Tory (which counts as a flaw in my book). At the same time, she was a remarkably intelligent and competent businesswoman, extensively well-read, well-travelled, and had a curious scientific mind.

Even when you disagree with Anne you can’t help but like her, and you can understand the allure that drew so many women to her. As Anne herself put it in 1816, “the girls liked me & had always liked me”. And we always will like her, I’m sure!