Annie On My Mind Conversation

Remember that time that me and Cass of Bonjour Cass read Well of Loneliness and then talked/ranted/rambled to each other about it? Well, Anna of Future Feminist Librarian-Activist emailed be afterwards about doing something similar. We agreed to read Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden. It was published in 1982 and is pretty much the classic lesbian teen book. Here’s what we talked about. I tried to warn about spoilers, but I may have let some small ones through.

Danika: I remember when I first read AOMM I thought there was something a little bit off about their relationship […] And now I think I know what bothered me. I don’t know if it’s because it’s set in the 80’s, or if it’s Nancy Garden’s writing, but they both seem a lot younger than what they’re supposed to be

Yes! They’re supposed to be, like, headed for college and they act like they’re in middle school

D: I know it’s in a sort of self-conscious “girls our age aren’t supposed to do this” way, but I still liked it a lot better once I started thinking of them as 13-year-olds instead of 17-year-olds. And it’s not just them: even her little brother seems at least 4 years younger than his given age! And her classmates!

A: Yeah. I don’t think I noticed it so much when I was younger, because I read it when I was about thirteen myself? It was about the only lesbian YA novel my library had (early to mid-90s). To be fair, that was before the real boom in queer YA fiction. AOMM was probably one of the few available. And not a bad one to have if you’re only going to have one (no one dies!) … but yeah, I agree with you that, especially this time around I was left thinking, “wow, and these are supposed to be seniors?” It’s not even Annie’s imaginary world … it’s more the school politics and so on.

D: Yeah, the ear-piercing!

A: Like, no one has a real sense of a world beyond the microcosm of the prep school


D: Again, I was thinking “Well, maybe it’s just because this was 30 years ago…?” But it definitely seemed a bit off

A: Part of it probably is the era … and the fact that Nancy Garden was probably, on some level, harkening back to her own teen years which would have been in, what, the 1950s? 60s? When maybe ear piercing was more risque?

D: Aaah, yeah, that might have been part of it

A: I also wondered if maybe part of it was an attempt to make the drama center around something other than the fact that Liza was discovering her sexuality? So she invented another drama about the prep school that seemed kind of forced?

D: Maybe, but it turns into it being about her sexuality anyway

A: True

D: I remember when I first read AOMM I thought the girls’ meeting seemed really forced […] And I definitely agree with that the second time around. The singing, the sudden friendship… again, it’s the sort of way children interact, not teenagers

A: Yeah — teenagers are more self-aware, and self … restrained? I made instant best friends with kids in art class when I was, maybe, six! Not when I was seventeen. At seventeen I was like, well, maybe going for coffee after class and see how that goes.

But since NG wanted the girls not to be at the same school, she had to find a way for them to run into each other.

I’d forgotten how much class is an implicit part of the story. The way Annie comes from a “bad” part of town and everything.

D: I forgot that, too!

A: I was thinking, vis a vis reactions to queer teens, that it was interesting that Liza’s sexuality was more controversial in her upper-class world than it seems to be in Annie’s world.

D: On the meeting: Still, I think she could have done better than “Don’t stop [singing]. Please.” “Oh, you startled me!” That just sounds really forced.

Yes, because everything was controversial in Liza’s little world. I guess the ear-piercing was supposed to highlight that, but it seemed odd anyway. The only question with Annie was whether she was going to tell her family or not, so I don’t think we ever see how her school would have handled it, but presumably they have more important things to worry about.

A: It would have been irrelevent in Annie’s school (I’m assuming); no one cared about her there. I got the sense she was nervous about telling her parents, but her family was portrayed as fairly accepting and encouraging. I got the sense that they would have been baffled and maybe a little worried or hurt, but there wouldn’t have been all the drama that Liza had in her family and at the school.

It was interesting to me how it was almost reversed … or maybe that’s not quite what I’m thinking of. But today, we think of urban upper-middle-class folks as fairly cool about queer sexualities, etc. Whereas we think of lower-class people as reactionaries. Culturally. And in this story, the opposite was the case. I doubt those stereotypes would hold up, but it’s interesting that she chose to write it like that.

That is the framework we generally use. But Liza’s privilege paralyzed her. Her school was so caught up in itself that no one could step out of line. It was a weird relation between them.

A: Yeah. Maybe I’m just to midwestern to understand the world of elite prep schools!

D: Yes, it was really weird seeing into that strange boxed-off world.

On a slightly different note, I was writing down some thoughts as I went, and on page 49 of my version, I thought Garden was foreshadowing the reaction to her coming out. It was when the parents found out about the ear-piercing, and the mom is pretty accepting, but the dad freaks out. [mild spoilers, highlight to read] So it surprised me later when he was actually really great about it.[end spoilers]

A: Good point. I was really intrigued by a number of the adults in the story, actually … and the way in which adults were portrayed in relation to the young people.

D: How so?

A: Well, I was impressed that the adults at [mild spoilers] the hearing were not portrayed as monoliths, as monsters, and that a couple were standing up to the schoolmistress, even if for their own reasons. [end spoilers] And I thought it was an interesting (and positive) choice to [spoilers] give the girls such human mentors, themselves lesbians of an elder generation. [end spoilers]

D: Yeah, that’s very true. The thing that stuck with me most about AOMM has always been the [spoilers] teacher couple .  Actually, the thing that stuck with me the most was their book collection. Lesbian books inside my lesbian book! Wow! The teachers’ [end spoilers] presence really made the story.

A: [spoilers] I agree about the teachers. In contrast to the charicatured headmistress and the reactive parents, the two teachers came across really human, but also kind and supportive, generous, and sheltering without being controlling. I wondered in my notes whether this was a conscious attempt to counteract the specter of the gay/lesbian predator? and yeah, it was fascinating to have the books play such a role in a couple of key scenes … from what I’ve heard from queer people of earlier generations, that was often the case! that they first discovered language for who they were from books … all the more reason to be a librarian-advocate for lgbtq teens 🙂 [end spoilers]

D: [spoilers] Aaah, I hadn’t considered that! Of course! Because the lesbian teachers were fantastic teachers. If I may quote my favourite line from the dad’s reaction (though he goes on to say he doesn’t think gay people can be truly happy), “Oh, look. What difference does it make if a couple of teachers are lesbians? Those two are damn good teachers and good people, too, as far as I know.” I mean, wow! Surprise acceptance! [end spoilers]

A: [spoilers] Hehe. Yeah, exactly. Because there’s that interesting conversation between the girls and the teachers after the teachers have been fired where the women acknowledge that if they don’t press charges, they should be able to get good references … because the school won’t want to admit that they fired the women for being lesbian … but they also fear for their ability to be hired if they were really out. So a real catch-22 [end spoilers]

A: Since we’ve talked a lot about where the story felt kind of forced … one of the ways in which I was really impressed with it was the fact that it a) had a couple of really sweet scenes in which the girls clearly make love, even if off-screen (so to speak) and b) that this is really seen as 100% a good thing, despite [spoilers] what happened with their teachers[end spoilers]. Their sexual exploration doesn’t spell doom for them as individuals or for their relationship. I don’t think many YA romances with straight couples were that whole-heartedly enthusiastic about young love back in the late 1970s …

Even Judy Blume’s “Forever,” despite the positive sexual experience, ends with the relationship ending.

D: That’s true. It’s a bit of a bittersweet book, because [spoilers] Liza gets suspended, nearly expelled for being gay, the teachers get fired, [end spoilers] and we know the whole time that they end up drifting apart after they leave for university. But it’s also a lot more positive than most of the queer books (YA or not) available at the time. They do [spoilers] end up together at the end [end spoilers], and there’s a lot of support of same-sex love.

I also liked reading it for all the tropes and patterns that young queer love, young closeted love takes. Like how you could totally tell they were in love with each other before they knew. Like the classic game of “how much physical contact can we hace before it means something?” (shoulders touching, hand holding, etc)

Oh, and it was also nice that neither of them really “went straight”. Annie was pretty sure she was gay, and Liza wasn’t sure, but was definitely leaning towards accepting it

A: Yes! Which I feel like is something that is still confusing to kids (or perhaps I only speak for myself) … since you’re trained, culturally, to expect that opposite-sex intereactions are laden, but not same-sex ones, so you aren’t so self-conscious and things kind of sneak up on you way more than with opposite-sex relationships.

D: Yes, exactly!

A: re: going straight, I agree! That actually seemed a little dated (in a nice way?) to me, since I feel like if this book had been written today, you’d get this whole “am I bi? am I gay? am I just questioning?” thing going on. Which is absent entirely: Liza comes to the realization she’s “gay” full-stop.

That’s true, it definitely has that all-or-nothing mentality that we’ve (thankfully) shaken off a little more by now

Oh, wait, I take it back: Annie did try to be straight! Back when she was younger. In her words: “It was ridiculous.” That made me laugh.

They are super cute when they are together and happy.

A: Yeah, and as you say there was that added element of the reader being “in the know” in part because Liza’s spoilered it for us at the very beginning with the framing narrative.

What do you think of the function of the framing narrative as a literary device? Do you think it adds anything to the narrative that we kind of know it ends badly (at least in the short-term) before the story begins?

D: I was pondering that the whole book. I kind of get why she did it, because she needed the drama to keep the story moving through the happy couple parts, but it did add this element of doom that, frankly, no queer book really needs any more of. I guess it works overall, because we get the [spoiler] happily ever after following the long(ish) separation [end spoilers] and we process it with Liza as she processes (and processing is a classic lesbian thing to do), but I’m a little divided on it. What did you think?

A: Hmm. Tough question. Retrospective narratives can sometimes work pretty well, but I agree with you that the last thing any queer teen book needs is more angst! That’s why I adore David Levithan’s work so much — his love stories are so ebullient. As a kid, I always felt like the way Liza blamed herself for [spoiler] the punishment exacted on the teachers (or, more accurately, for having made love in their home while she was house-sitting … what the hell was so shameful about that?) [end spoiler] was really exaggerated. Like, shouldn’t she have been pissed at the secretary who had the vendetta? And the schoolmistress, etc.?

But maybe that’s a personality thing — I always had an over-developed sense of self-righteousness as a child 🙂

D: Ah, I loved Boy Meets Boy for that! It’s like a combination of cotton candy and sinking into a hot tub. It’s just so refreshing to read a happy queer love story. I still want my lesbian version of that.

Well, I can see why they were a little ashamed. [spoiler] In the teachers’ bed…? That’s bad taste. What I couldn’t see, though, was why they opened the door! They didn’t have to answer! -sigh- The secretary was definitely over-the-top. The absolute poision she was spitting out was painful to read.[end spoiler]

re: Boy Meets Boy, totally! I feel like YA lesbian fiction is still waiting for its Daniel Levithan (if you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear them!)

[spoiler] re: teacher’s bed … I guess. I did a lot of house-sitting in high school and college and I always slept in the homeowner’s bed (clean sheets, granted) so it didn’t feel so weird to me. but that wasn’t in the deal Liza made with the teachers, so I guess that is a little different. Oh, totally with the door! *headdesk* why oh why did she have to answer????[end spoiler]

D: I don’t know of anything quite so positive, though I have read some good ones. Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie is my favourite.

[spoiler]Especially before getting dressed![end spoiler]

A: Despite [spoiler] the secretary’s religiously-motivated poison [end spoiler], I was actually surprised by how little religious conservatives and the religious right as a force opposed to sexual expression appeared in the novel (contrasting, again, with the way it figures in some Levithan stories) … I think that’s another way this dates the story, since it was set just as that force was gathering.

D: True, I mean, [spoiler] when she faces the commitee/council/whatever that was, they basically say “Hey, this is none of our business”, which is pretty good for the circumstances. [end spoiler]

A: Yeah, I think it’s interesting how the battle-lines are drawn ever-so-slightly differently than we’re used to in our generation. The religious element not quite so strong, the class element more so. Being queer still being a threat to one’s overall reputation/status even in secular society. (Not saying that’s totally gone away, but you wouldn’t think in Liza’s New York or at MIT it would be an issue!)

D: Hmmm, yeah, I can see that… Honestly, I’m kind of surprised Liza wanted the school to survive. I know she has sentimental attachment to it, but even before [spoiler] they knew she was queer [end spoiler], Poindexter (got to love that name) was absolutely heinous, from the patronizing way of talking to running the meetings when Liza was supposed to be running them.

A: Yes. Again, another way in which they seemed young for their age. By 17, you’d think she’d have more perspective. I can see a younger child being invested in the school that had been a second home, but most seventeen-year-olds I’ve known (including myself!) are a bit more jaded!

D: Very true. By 17 I had distrust for all authority, definitely including my school

I don’t know if you read my review and conversation about Well of Loneliness, but I saw a couple of comparisons between it and AOMM that surprised me […] Well, for one, both the protagonists were horrified at people hating them being gay, because they both felt that their love was the “best part” of themselves, or some variation on that. […]  Also, both have a scene with the couple being happy that is described as an “illusion”. It’s just funny because WoL is mentioned in AOMM as [spoiler] part of the teachers’ book collection [end spoiler].

Oh, and also, on an unrelated subject, I had to laugh at the note Liza found in her locker. “Lesie”? I wouldn’t even be sure what that was trying to refer to.

A: Yes, it was fun to see the lesbian classics appear on their shelves

D: Especially Patience & Sarah, because Liza and Annie read it, and this time I have, too!

A: I read once an essay that was talking about how generations of queer folks locate themselves in history through alternate means than family ties, since so many of them don’t come from families where the parents are themselves queer — and literature was one way.

Oh, I haven’t! Is it any good? Maybe we should read that next!

Re: Lesie, no, it took me a second. Dated slang. 🙂 A perennial bane of YA lit, I think

D: That’s exactly why I feel that queer lit is so important. It is a foundation to the queer community.

I liked it! It’s a little more cheery than you’d expect from historical lesbian lit. I’d definitely be up for reading it with you!

But I think we’ll have to wrap up this convo so I can catch my bus. Any last thoughts?

A: Not that I can think of — other than that I really enjoyed the chance to re-read this with someone else, and I’d totally be up for doing it again!

D: I would, too! Just let me know!

And that was our conversation about AOMM! I really like doing these discussions, because I love lesbian lit, but I don’t have many people I can talk to in real life about it. Anna and I want to make this a regular feature, probably once every two months or so. Next we’re reading Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie, so we can compare it to AOMM to see how lesbian teen lit had changed. If you’d like to read or re-read a lesbian book with me and discuss it like this, just email me and let me know! If you’d rather read our conversation without having to highlight for spoilers, Anna has it in full on her blog. Besides, you should be reading her blog anyway.

I’ll be posting my review of Annie On My Mind Wednesday.

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.

Lesbian Canon?

For the last couple days I’ve been thinking about the concept of a lesbian canon. I mean, I know that canons in general are problematic, but I like the idea of trying to identify the books that really steered lesbian writing. I think the Wikipedia entry does a pretty good job, but I don’t recognize a lot and I’d probably add others. What do you think? I agree with:

I’d add Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden, as well as Dykes to Watch Out For and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. I really want to hear what you think, though. I haven’t read most of these books, by the way. I’m defining canon as the books that are most referred to, the books that seem to have most influenced lesbian literature, and the ones that are often recommended as prerequisites to lesbian fiction.

Do you think there’s a lesbian canon? Why or why not? If there is, which books do you think make the list? Is popularity a requirement?