Laura Mandanas reviews Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

A few weeks ago, I decided to bring a book into the tub for a relaxing bubble bath. When the temperature was right, I gingerly picked up the paperback and eased my way into the frothy suds, cautiously avoiding the slightest splash. I took careful pains to hold the book a deliberate 6-8 inches out of the water. I even piled up towels at the edge of the tub in case of slippery-fingered emergency. It didn’t matter; within 20 minutes the book was completely waterlogged. The culprit? Not bathwater, but tears. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg had me weeping by the end of the first chapter.
Stone Butch Blues is a beautifully written novel. The main character, Jess, is a young Jewish butch coming of age in the late ‘60s. Drowning in loneliness, Jess finds companionship in the queer community frequenting working-class gay bars. In this pre-Stonewall era, however, their mere existence is enough to prompt brutal attack from all sides. As the story unfolds, each of these characters weather hardships of an enormity I can barely comprehend.

Jess is a complicated character, and the book (thankfully) never backs away from this. I particularly appreciated the range of characters shown throughout in the book. “Butch” identity is not reserved strictly for lesbian women that present themselves in traditionally masculine ways; men, straight and bisexual women, and transgender people can all lay equally legitimate claim to the identity.

 Stone Butch Blues is the winner of numerous literary awards, and its clear to see why. This book is an essential read — and not just for the person who “doesn’t identify as a man and is at least some of the time attracted romantically and/or sexually to others who do not identify as a man” (ha). This is a book for anyone with a soul.

Stone Butch Blues is one of the most widely read pieces of LGBT literature, and appears on the shelves of many major retailers.

Casey reviews In Another Place, Not Here by Dionne Brand

For readers unaccustomed to the Black Caribbean vernacular that begins Dionne Brand’s 1996 novel In Another Place, Not Herelike 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!

Casey reviews Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

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.

Guest Lesbrarian Orange Sorbet reviews Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

I am not a fan of purple prose (or anything even slightly resembling it); I much prefer stories being told as they are because I am very much a non-fiction kind of person. I didn’t expect to become a fan of Jeanette Winterson, for she has spoken of her discovery that “plot was meaningless to [her]” and that “[her] love affair was with language, not with what it said.” Neither did I expect to like Written on the Body much when I opened the book and was greeted by this:

I am thinking of a certain September: Wood pigeon Red Admiral Yellow Harvest Orange Night. You said, ‘I love you.’ Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear? ‘I love you’ is always a quotation. You did not say it first and neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them. I did worship them but now I am alone on a rock hewn out of my own body.

That’s not to say I didn’t like this quote, however. I did. Just a couple of paragraphs down (get the book!) and I was hooked in a way I could not have anticipated, in spite of the run-on sentences and quixotic references. I can’t really describe Winterson’s writing – and I apologise for this, because I realise this is part of the point of reviews – but it is at times sharp and witty, clever and observant, and unfailingly flowery and rich. I might call it self-indulgent, at times, but never quite lyrical; there is an awkward pace to her words, like the words are tumbling out of the narrator rather than flowing as you would expect a love story to. (Perhaps I am mistaken in labelling a “love story,” though, because it is very much more a one-sided narrative that often appears to be about love itself instead of any one particular love.) I will admit that I did skim through some parts, especially the latter part of the book, and I would be perfectly comfortable with it being a hundred pages shorter but I think this is more my impatience and discomfort with decorated prose rather than a fault of the book itself. I can imagine others enjoying this much more than me.

She nodded. ‘When I saw you two years ago I thought you were the most beautiful creature male or female I had ever seen.’

The key twist – or gimmick, if you’re so inclined – of this book is that you know practically nothing of the narrator. In particular, readers are kept guessing at the narrator’s gender and sexuality. I loved this concept, and I loved reading a narrative about love and infatuation and sex without gender thrown in the mix. It was never an issue that took away from the story and was instead a persistent curiosity that kept me turning the pages.

There is something significant I think you must understand before reading this book: because the picture of the narrator is so incomplete, your biases will influence the way you read this book very strongly. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it kind of book, and which side you fall on could change on any given day. I did not for a moment feel that the narrator was anything but female and young – I could’ve imagined it, but I was sure then that I was picking up on a fair bit of misandry and stereotypically youthful foolishness (if I am to be allowed some amount of ageism here) – but I have heard of those who thought otherwise. Experiments with gender aside, this is still a love narrative first and foremost and one of the most intense, obsessive kind, nonetheless: I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it if I were feeling particularly alone or nauseated by coupledom (see: Valentine’s Day). You will be, after all, essentially listening to someone go on and on about a newfound love interest, albeit with more fluency and fluorish than I’m sure your real life infatuated friends can manage in their varying states of enamour. Finally, if you are conservative, or maybe just squeamish? Stay far, far away.

All in all, I would definitely recommend reading this book. It’s not for everyone, but I’d say it’s worth a read because it’s different and something that you might just enjoy exploring.

In bereavement books they tell you to sleep with a pillow pulled down beside you. […] Who writes these books? Do they really think, those quiet concerned counsellors, that two feet of linen-bound stuffing will assuage a broken heart? I don’t want a pillow I want your moving breathing flesh. I want you to hold my hand in the dark, I want to roll on to you and push myself into you. When I turn in the night the bed is continent-broad. There is endless space where you won’t be.

Thank you so much for the review, Orange Sorbet! You can find Orange Sorbet’s blog here, and the original post of this review here.

If you’d like to submit a guest lesbrarian review to the Lesbrary, click here!

Laura Mandanas reviews Pink Steam by Dodie Bellamy

Pink Steam by Dodie Bellamy is a cross-genre collection of prose written over two decades. Contradictorily classified as fiction/essay/memoir, the 22 pieces are arranged into what the author has described as “a fractured autobiography in which the culture I live in is as much my autobiography as are the ‘facts’ of my life.” For her, there is no self separate from culture.

Indeed, throughout much of the book, the only sure “facts” I knew came as I sorted through the scattered debris of pop culture tidbits. (Yes! Carrie did wreak havoc at the prom with her telekinesis. No! Rosemary did not birth a son too pure for the devil to possess.) As for the arcane autobiographical details, no matter how many notes I scribbled in the margins, full understanding was tantalizingly juuuust out of reach. (Why did the protagonist suddenly begin calling herself Carla? It’s because of the demon fucking, right? Or is it the memory of the abortion? Are you taunting me on purpose, Bellamy?)

Ordered semi-chronologically, the essays begin in the early ’60s. Young Dodie is in a furtive relationship with Nance, her best friend who lives down the street. Writes Bellamy, “In the industrial Midwest of my youth, strong lines were drawn between inside/outside, normal/abnormal, natural/freak – and those lines were brutally enforced. In high school I was a lesbian, i.e., on the wrong side of all those slashes.”

Things do not stay this way for long. To placate her mother, with the summer of ’74 comes Dodie’s decision to be straight — a self-declared categorization that seems to hold for the book’s remaining essays. At the same time, she is never hesitant to describe her unfulfilled longing for women, in a manner reminiscent of Quasimodo’s longing for Gina Lollobrigida in the 1956 The Hunchback of Notre Dame (a theme tenuously threaded throughout the book). So, who knows. Who cares? There’s a little somethin’ somethin’ for everyone in this book; let’s just leave it at that.

Bellamy’s prose is a gorgeous, sometimes nonsensical tidal wave of words. The text is flooded with grocery lists and song lyrics and imagined film scripts and fantasy and horror and science fiction and poetry all at once, mid-narrative. Though I usually shy away from experimental bullshit, as a reader, I was swept away by book’s fabulously imaginative approaches, drawn in by its shifting undulations of tense and perspective.

Basically, this book is awesome.

In “Sex/Body/Writing”, Bellamy writes: “I’m working toward a writing that subverts sexual bragging, a writing that champions the vulnerable, the fractured, the disenfranchised, the sexually fucked-up.” As far as I’m concerned? She’s there. She’s got it. She’s flaunting it. And I absolutely love it.

Pink Steam seems to be out of print, but if you do a little hunting around you should be able to find it. Enjoy.

Kelly reviews Inferno by Eileen Myles

Inferno: A Poet’s Novel, Eileen Myles

If the flight from Minneapolis to Vancouver had been just a little longer, I would have finished this book in one sit. Not because of the plot—basically nonexistent—but because of the feeling, thought, feeling. Plus, the hot and sometimes hilarious sex, of course.

Though subtitled “A Poet’s Novel,” this piece is only vaguely fictional, referring to real figures from Myles’ life and incorporating previously published poems. Myles brings a poet’s precision to this semi-fiction, semi-memoir. Take these opening lines:

My English professor’s ass was so beautiful. It was perfect and full as she stood at the board writing some important word. Reality or perhaps illusion. She opened the door. With each movement of her arms and her hand delicately but forcefully inscribing the letters intended for our eyes her ass shook ever so slightly. I had never learned from a woman with a body before. Something slow, horrible and glowing was happening inside me. I stood on the foothills to heaven. She opened the door.

After introducing Dante to the class, this English professor asks students to write their own infernos. The class groans. Eileen writes hers alone at the kitchen table at home. Her professor’s public response to Eileen’s poem makes her wonder, could this poetry gig be a job? There is little plot in the book, but that is not the point. When I heard Myles speak in Vancouver, she said she wrote this book to explain being a poet. It is a thorough and provoking explanation.

In many ways, this book has nothing to do with the original Divine Comedy. Dante’s judicial nature and firm vengeance are absent; Myles is not teaching us how to be good; and other than a dose of guilt, there’s nothing Catholic about this piece. However, like Dante, Myles is a poet on a journey, through a spectacular and sometimes grotesque universe; and though there is no single Beatrice, it is women who bring Myles through. Her discovery of her sexuality is written in glorious detail: the awkwardness and the joy resonate equally.

Guest Lesbrarian: Stefanie

This guest lesbrarian post is brought to you by Stefanie and was originally posted at Elevate Difference. Thank you so much, Stefanie!

Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s The Big Bang Symphony begins with one big bang and ends with another. A plane crashes on its way to McMurdo Station on Antarctica while carrying several of the continent’s summer residents, including Rosie Moore and Mikala Wilbo, two of the three female protagonists of the story. Everyone survives except for one unnamed woman; we find that her death and the crash subsequently inform the lives of the main characters, as we follow Rosie, Mikala, and Alice Neilson as they attempt to carry out their respective work on “the Ice.”

Each woman has come to Antarctica in search of something: for Rosie, a constant traveler with strained family relations, it is money toward the purchase of her first stable home; for Mikala, a renowned up-and-coming composer, it is a father she never really knew and an escape from the grief still following her after her partner’s death three years prior; for Alice, a geologist and the youngest among them, it is evidence that the earth has survived previous global warmings and will continue to do so. Each search revolves around at least one man in the characters’ lives, though the women’s burgeoning relationships with each other come to dominate and fortify one another in achieving their separate quests.

Rosie makes a strong impression on Mikala in the aftermath of the plane crash and ignites her romantic, sexual, and musical interests. Mikala cannot get Rosie out of her mind, even as she struggles each day to write the first music she has composed since her partner’s death. Rosie, in the meantime, becomes obsessed with one man, all too married, and distracts herself with another. Alice, committed on several levels to her advisor, finds herself pushed beyond her comfort zone and begins to emotionally react in ways she has never let herself do before. When an emergency strikes, the women are tested and find themselves opening up to experiences that had previously challenged them, causing them to change in a setting hostile to most growth.

The reader will quickly find that Bledsoe’s choice of setting—the gorgeous, yet deadly landscape of Antarctica—figures as a main character in and of itself rather than simply as a background against which the action of the novel plays out. Indeed, it is the ways in which the characters live on and with such an inhumane environment that propels each to reach out to one another to attempt to accomplish their goals and survive the short, harsh summer at the South Pole. Bledsoe consistently, if occasionally awkwardly, imbues each chapter of the novel with the themes of life and death, music, travel, and the relationship between an individual and the cosmos.

The Big Bang Symphony was a compelling read from the start, save perhaps the initial chapters written from Alice’s perspective, which can be frustrating in terms of her double devotion to both her mother and to the fastidious nature of science. Rosie’s and Mikala’s stories easily make up for this, however, and as Alice comes into her own on Antarctica, I soon found her narrative equally complex and interesting. In Rosie, Mikala, and Alice, Bledsoe clearly created characters who never would have met had it not been for the coincidence of living on the Ice together; their obvious differences make their incipient and meaningful friendship all the more captivating over the course of the story.

If you’d like to submit a guest lesbrarian post, email me at danikaellis@gmail.com

Lesbrary Guest Review: Rie

Guest Lesbrarian Rie is reviewing a book I hadn’t heard of before: A Charm of Powerful Trouble by Joanne Horniman. I love hearing about new les/etc books! Here’s her review:

I’m a chick with simple tastes–at least when it comes to my books. I love beautiful imagery, strong characters, family secrets, small adventures, literary references, and a satisfying conclusion that leaves you sorry to leave the story behind, but blissed out at having known them for even several hundred pages. Joanne Horniman’s A Charm of Powerful Trouble is a book that has slipped quietly from the notice of bibliophiles, and I am sorry for it, as it is an exquisite novel in short stories about the relationships between family and lovers. Laura Zambelli could be describing the book itself when she talks of her home in the rainforest:

A forest is so intricate it takes intimacy to know how to look at the maze of plants entwined like serpents: twisted, coiled, sinuous, insinuating. A rainforest is artful and curled and wild. It is the wildness I love most of all. It takes time to know it and love it, to see properly what it is.

Loosely based on the poem Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti, A Charm of Powerful Trouble echoes the poem’s sensuality, feminist leanings, and expression of the power of love between sisters. Sister Lizzie is bright and beautiful, with a long golden braid and curvy body, flaunting a gold ring in her navel and insouciant way of playing the guitar. Sister Laura is small and dark, but quietly celebrates the beauty of her growing womanhood and her ramshackle home outside Mullumbimby, Australia. Throughout the novel, relationships unfold and echo each other in a circular, dreamy narrative of love and loss. Their artist mother and filmmaker father find their relationship crumbling when Stella, the mother’s beautiful best friend, most in with her mysterious daughter Paris. But once upon a time in the mother Emma’s history, Stella was the quiet, witchy little girl of the bohemian yet glamorous neighbor who wore miniskirts and tended chickens. Lizzie and Laura are each other’s safe haven in their tumultuous if loving family, like Emma’s wilder older sister Beth was once her inspiration. Storylines twist through each piece like the snakes that inhabit their rainforest home as the women love tempestuously, lose everything, but come around to themselves when they realize that it is their own inner strength and self-love and passion for living that completes them. Joanne Horniman’s writing is evocative and breathless, with images of women eating flowers, sisters who find a universe in a drop of water, bowerbirds with nests made from tarot cards and a goblinish market where mice sell fairy wings and foxes listen to poetry.

Here is an excerpt from “Kiss the Sky,” narrated by Laura:

The summer when I was seventeen I was so full of undifferentiated sensuality that the world was a great glowing golden fruit around me. I didn’t long for love and nor did I need it, yet I saw love everywhere without even looking for it…Everywhere I looked, I saw people delighting in each other. But I needed no one. I was myself, complete. At night the summer air breathed onto my face with such promises of bliss that I slept in a deep swoon. I was caressed by the morning sunlight and seduced by the long afternoon shadows, and I lapped it all up in such a daze of sensation that I couldn’t tell where the world ended and I began. I was so much in love with simply being alive that I could have kissed the sky.

One last note: this book wins my Happy Sapphist award. Without denying the pain that can accompany coming into a queer identity, it is a relief to read a book that explores the beauty of a lesbian relationship without strife or negativity. Laura does struggle with feelings she doesn’t have the words to put a name to, but after years of searching finds love with a woman as deep and loving as herself. ( And she’s a librarian to boot ♥!) I cannot express how important it was to read a novel like this, one that assured me that there would be happiness, too.

In the bookshop at Mullumbimby I crouched on the floor, dipping into book. I had a belief that one day I come across something–in a book, anywhere–that would finally allow the world to make sense, and I was forever alive and alert for it.

I found mine–in A Charm of Powerful Trouble. Happy reading!

Read more of Rie’s writing at her blog Friend of Dorothy Wilde or her tumblr The Awkward Turtle Breeding Ground. Thanks Rie!

Conversation About Well of Loneliness

As you may recall, Cass from Bonjour, Cass challenged me to read The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, that old depressing lesbian classic. I accepted the challenge. What we also did, though, is discuss/rant about the book together. We had two conversations about it. I’ll be posting excerpts of the first one (when I didn’t have notes) and Cass will be excerpting from the second one (when I did have notes and we were both a little more organized). Here are the highlights, with spoilers marked. I’m sorry to say that we started at the end, so the beginning is a little spoiler heavy. Spoilers are up for interpretation, though, so I hid plot points but showed who the major romantic lead is and general things like that.

Danika: […] Okay, so, to get started… overall impressions? I liked Stephen as a character right up until the end, where she started doing stupid, manipulative, controlling things. I thought she was really sympathetic until maybe the last tenth of the book, when I lost a huge amount of respect for her.

Cass: Stephen’s a bit of a jerk. [highlight to read spoilers] Who’s she to decide Mary wants to marry a man even Stephen didn’t want to marry? I appreciate Hall’s argument for tolerance and acknowledgement (“Give us also the right to our existance!”), but the ending is frustratingly …something. Paternalistic, maybe. [end of spoilers]

[…]

D: That’s exactly what I thought! In the end, I realized that Stephen is pretty sexist. She had that whole “I know what’s best for you better than you do” attitude. I wasn’t impressed. [spoilers] But what’s-his-name (see, this is why I took notes), the romantic competition, was just as bad. I was furious at both of them.

C: Martin! Martin is a big dumb jerk, too.

D: Ah, yes, Martin. I looooved Martin when he first came on the scene. (I live in BC, so I was like “Yes! Trees!”) Then, like Stephen, he took this nose dive as a character in the end. Sigh.

C: Stephen’s whole “Mary would be so much happier with a man” plan (without, you know, consulting Mary) [end of spoilers] really examplifies the problem with the Inversion theory.

D: Inversion theory?

C: Inversion as opposed to lesbianism. Like, an invert is a masculine woman or a feminine man. And they are doomed to forever fall in love with people they can never be with. Since of course they can’t be with one another.

D: Oh, yes. That really is pushed in WoL, huh? Because Mary is feminine and (by our current labels) bisexual, or even straight-with-an-exception, because you can’t be exclusively attracted to women if you’re feminine.

C: Oh, I don’t know about that. I think we put Mary in a lesbian bar circa-1955, she’d be all over the butches.

D: Probably. But I think that’s how Stephen sees her. I guess I think Stephen doesn’t really know her all that well at all, or at least doesn’t respect her. Because I think Stephen thought that without her influence, Mary would be “normal”.

C: Yes. Oh, inversion. How I shake my fist at you.

D: Definitely. So, again coming at it with 2010 labels, do you think WoL first more under a trans umbrella or a lesbian one? I think they can be read from both perspectives, but do you think it fits more into one than the other?

C: I really don’t think it’s fair to push our labels onto a book from 1928. Trans- identities are, by definition, personal and self-definied/understood, that I think it’s impossible to decide whether or not Stephen Gordon is a trans character. We’d have to ask her. But if I had to make a decision, I’d say it’s a lesbian novel. And even though I’d love to, I’ll still resist calling Stephen a butch, for the same reasons.  But I know you think of it as more of a trans novel. Care to rebut?

D: A very good point. Not that Stephen would be able to tell us, because she didn’t have the language. It’s odd, though, because the first half of the novel I was very, very sure that Stephen’s gender was more of an issue for her than her sexuality. I mean, by… what was it, 7 or 9? Something like that. As a kid, at least, she got a crush on a woman, so her sexuality did come up early, but her gender seemed to be an issue even earlier. I mean, even before she was born her parents were sure she was a son (not that that was unusual for the time). She was named Stephen. She hated anything feminine, any feminine clothing, her long hair, etc. She spent a long period in her childhood dressing up like a boy. There’s a great quote somewhere (I have it in my notes) where she asks her father if she could be a boy/man if she really tried hard, or if she prayed hard enough. She looks exactly like her father. I mean, it’s hard to tell if she really is “butch” (again, I know it’s silly to apply 2010 labels to 1928, but for the sake of argument) rather than trans. And, who wouldn’t want to be a man in 1928? It was a better life. So I’m divided, but I think there’s a good argument for it being a trans novel.

After she cuts off her hair and buys her own clothes, though, those issues seem to fade to the background and her sexuality becomes the big issue. There is one passage where she looks in the mirror and hates her body, but hating your body is a genderless problem, so again, hard to say.

[…]

C: The term ‘homosexuality,’ while in use in 1928, didn’t yet have its modern definition or its now understood division from gender. Inversion, on the other hand, completly tied sexual orientation to one’s gender and gender expression. A person labelled female at birth could not, by defition, be an invert without displaying masculine traits and masculine leanings. Therefore, in order to be a novel ABOUT inversion, Stephen has to be masculine. If we are using our modern lens here, then we can agree that, despite her masculinity, Stephen is not automatically male. The fact that her parents gave her a traditionally male name is out of her control. Lots of girls who continue to identify as women like to dress in pants rather than dresses because they are easier to walk and play in. Looking “like a man” or being masculine doesn’t make a person a man.

The conversation with her father is trickier, but if she has a crush on a girl, and thinks that only men and women can have relationships together, it’s logical that she would want to be a man in order to be happily in love with a woman.

D: True, but coming from a modern perspective, that assumes that you are by default the gender you were assigned at birth and only the opposite if there is overwhelming evidence. We don’t have overwhelming evidence that Stephen would identify as a man, but we have a lot less evidence than there is for Stephen identifying as a woman. She can’t stand to even be around women, except the ones she falls in love with.

That makes sense, but it isn’t just around having a partner that Stephen is frustrated at being labelled a girl. In fact, as some point she said “Being a girl ruins everything” (not an exact quote)

C: […] [H]er gender and gender expression can be on the trans-masculine spectrum without her necessarily being trans. In 1928(ish), being a girl DID ruin everything!

I think you are the gender you understand yourself to be, but sadly I can’t ask Stephen. 😉

D: Oh, and I meant to say in that first paragraph that of course she doesn’t hypothetically have to identify with either or just one. If I’m assigning modern labels, Stephen is probably more butch or genderqueer than transman, but you’re right in that it’s so very much a personal definition that it’s pointless to guess at that.

[…] I definitely think think Stephen would be in the trans-masculine spectrum, but isn’t that under the trans umbrella? Of course, it depends on how wide we’re making the umbrella, because under a lot of definitions Stephen would be included there by default because of her refusal to conform to gender norms in dress, hair, attitude, etc.

That’s a big part of the problem in trying to assess Stephen’s discomfort with her gender. Is it because she feels more trans, or is it just a natural reaction to the restrictive nature of being a woman at the time?

[…]

D: Okay, did you notice that animals can practically talk in WoL?

C: Why do animals always die in gay books? Why? And what is with LESBIANS and HORSES. Excuse me. INVERTS. Inverts and horses.

[…]

D: I thought that one of the ongoing themes in WoL is that aging is a tragedy. Everybody gets old and it is terrible.

[…]

C: Do you think TWOL is still important reading?

Hall hates the feminine ladies. Poor Mary. Do you think Lady Una gave Hall a good talking to after she read TWOL?

D: Yeah, I got definitely get a whiff of misogyny from WoL.

I think so. I mean, like I was saying in my post, it’s amazing/depressing the things that are still relevant. Stephen actually makes a pretty good case for same sex marriage, letting queer people serve in the army, and letting gay people adopt. It’s a sympathetic plea, partly because Stephen is so traditional other than her “inversion”.

I hope so. I wonder what Hall’s other books are like, if they all have this feminine = weak theme

C: I will be honest. I just hate BEING GAY IS SO HARD books. I know it CAN be hard and there are problems, but these books make it sound like we’re the most miserable bunch ever.

D: Ugh, I know. And the unhappily ever after queer books. When you’re already dealing with a tough time coming out or something, you don’t want to read about “DON’T BE GAY OR YOU’LL DIE/GO INSANE”. Of course, being gay in 1928 would be pretty awful.

C: Granted, 1928, not such a good year for the ole inverts.

[…]

C: What’s your favorite happy ending lesbian book?

Rules: 1) No one can die. 2) No horses 3) No rape.

Okay, commence. […] ( I can’t think of any.) […] Are you stumped because I am stumped.

[…]

D: THOUGH, and this is one of my issues in the book, Stephen could have had it so easy! You’re freaking rich, Stephen! You can lavishly support your hot young girlfriend! You can go on vacations and hold big lesbian parties! Why so sad?

And that was about it for our first conversation! I cut out the slightly off-topic meanderings (talking about the WoL covers, other lesbian books covers, and some other lesbian books), but if anyone’s interested in reading our random babbling, I can post that, too.

Check out more of Cass and I talking and complaining (I kid, I like it despite some of its issues) at Bonjour, Cass!

And hey, if anyone wants to do something like this with me again, just let me know! I’d probably be up for it. You don’t even need to be a book blogger. In fact, feel free to email me about lesbian books anytime (my email is in the About Me) section. It is my favourite topic! You can also ask me questions (even anonymously) on my Formspring.

Danika reviews The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Whew. I finally finished reading The Well of Loneliness. This isn’t the first time I read it, but when Cass of Bonjour, Cass! suggested we read it for pride (finished a little late), I was all for tackling this classic lesbian tome. Once again, I must reiterate: don’t let this be the first lesbian book you read! It’s way too depressing for someone first coming out. Read a nice HEA book first.

This was also the first book I’ve read that I took extensive notes through, so you’ll be hearing a lot about it. Cass and I are also going to discuss it at some point and post the conversation on both our blogs.

The Well of Loneliness (WoL from now on) takes on the majority of Stephen Gordon’s life. One of the ongoing questions I had while re-reading WoL was weather this was a story about a lesbian, as it has been traditionally interpreted, or a transgender story. This was published in 1928, so there wasn’t really the language to describe it that way at the time. I’m not entirely sure how it should be classified (or whether it’s appropriate to apply 2010 terms to a 1928 story at all), so I’d love to hear your interpretations.

Okay, time to go through my notes. My very first note is how much I dislike the first sentence: “Not very far from Upton-on-Severn–between it, in fact, and the Malvern Hills–stands the country seat of the Gordons of Bramberly; well-timbered, well-cottaged, well-fenced and well-watered, having, in this latter respect, a stream that forks in exactly the right position to feed two large lakes in the grounds.”

I hate scenery descriptions in books, so that’s just a personal preference, but man is that a sprawling, overwrought sentence. It’s no wonder it’s so hard to pick up this book; that sentence would turn anyone away. Luckily, the whole book isn’t written like that.

Actually, the clunkiness of that first sentence aside, I think Hall’s writing is quite good. She invokes imagery really well, like in this part: “[…] and his weariness had flown to her bosom as a spent bird will fly to its nest–as indeed such a bird had once flown to her, she told him, taking refuge from the perils of a storm” (pg 11). Hall goes on to describe Stephen’s parents by saying “as they ripened, so their love ripened with them” (pg 12). I think that beautiful. I also liked the description of Stephen’s birth:

“But: ‘Man proposes–God disposes,’ and so it happened that on Christmas Even, Anna Gordon was delivered of a daughter; a narrow-hipped, wide-shouldered little tadpole of a baby, that yelled and yelled for three hours without ceasing, as though outraged to find itself ejected into life.” (pg 13)

Part of the evidence for WoL being a trans novel is that both Stephen’s parents desperately wanted a son (not unusual for the time) and while Anna was pregnant with Stephen, she was convinced Stephen was a boy. They started calling the unborn son Stephen and kept the name even when Stephen turned out to be female. Stephen is also constantly described as looking exactly like her (using the pronouns used in the book) father.

This is not a happy novel. We’re only a couple pages in when we realize that Stephen’s mom resents her (as an infant onwards) for some reason, possibly because Stephen gets too much attention from her father. WoL is never a chipper book, not even in title, so it shouldn’t be too surprising, but still.

This is the part of WoL that’s depressing: it’s still relevant. 82 years later, Hall still addresses issues we’re facing today. In fact, WoL takes a firm “born that way” stance; Stephen is only seven when she starts crushing on one of the female servants.

On the trans side of things, Stephen dresses up as a boy constantly, taking on the persona of Nelson. She also says “I must be a boy, ’cause I feel exactly like one” (pg 20). A little later on that same page, Stephen is described as loathing dresses and any feminine clothing, and “she was conscious of feeling all wrong, because she so long to be someone quite real, instead of just Stephen pretending to be Nelson.” A couple pages later, she asks her father “Do you think I could be a man, supposing I tried very hard–or prayed, Father?” (pg 26) She also complains later that “being a girl spoil[s] everything” (pg 37).

Of course, on the other hand, who wouldn’t want to be a man at this point? Being a woman in the time period Stephen was living through was entirely restrictive, especially if you’re the independent sort. It wouldn’t be a stretch for Stephen to just be  a butch lesbian who envies men their freedom. I love this little passage from Stephen as a kid, because I think it so aptly describes that knight-in-shining-armor lesbian (in fact, my girlfriend is one):

“I’m going to learn fencing so as I can kill your brother-in-law who’s a beast to your sister, I’m going to fight duels for wives in distress, like men do in Paris, and I’m going to learn how to lift pianos on my stomach by expanding something–the diapan muscles–and I’m going to cut my hair off!” (pg 58)

I don’t know how you can’t be completely charmed by Stephen at this age. Actually, at this point her life isn’t so bad, because she’s got all her hobbies and her supportive father, and at this point she doesn’t really notice her mother’s disdain for her. Later, though, Stephen does some very stupid thing. I feel like she doesn’t have enough respect for women. She doesn’t let her lover make her own decisions and handles things in a very paternalistic, “I know what’s best for you” way. She ends up sabotaging herself and her relationships through pride a lot.

WoL has many small themes running through it. Her lesbianism/transgender issues, sure, but also her deep love for Morton (where she grew up), her worship of her parents’ relationship, writing, the tragedy of aging, and religion. There are small peculiarities that run through WoL, like the animals (and the occasional tree and sometimes houses) having real, articulate thoughts that they are just unable to communicate to humans. Also, looking bad, the amount of times the word “queer” comes up is entertaining.

The Well of Loneliness is not that long a book; it’s only about 450 pages, but it feels long. It feels like an autobiography of Stephen’s entire life, partly because you can’t help but think Stephen is based heavily on Radclyffe (I mean, Stephen is even a writer). It all seems so deeply personal: all of the emotions are intense and immediate.

One small thing: something I hate about reading books written way back is the surprise racism. Everything’s going along fine, and… surprise racism. WoL has it. Including “work like veritable n*ggers” (pg 288) and “His eyes had the patient, questioning expression common to the eye of most animals and to those of all slowly evolving races” (pg 362). Luckily, it’s only one scene, but that is ridiculously cringe-worthy.

To finish up, I wanted to reiterate how many of the issues we’re still discussing today are covered in this book. It’s been eight decades and we’re still trying to tackle the same old problems. DADT? Stephen wants to help in the war effort and is afraid of being turned away. Her and other “inverts” join and drive ambulances, an extremely difficult and dangerous job. She discusses how this is one of the few arenas that “inverts” can feel like participants in their own country, can crawl out of the darkness and live with the rest of the world. And the US is still not letting gay people serve openly. One of the central concerns in WoL is Stephen’s desperate want to provide for her lover a marriage and children, the respect that is inherent in that relationship, and the powerlessness of not being able to give that protection. And we’re still having that discussion, 82 years later.

Have you read Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall? What did you think of it? Do you think WoL is more of a lesbian or trans novel, or is there a problem inherent in the question?