I just finished Reclaiming the L-Word: Sappho’s Daughters Out in Africa, edited by Allyn Diesel. It is a wonderful anthology of personal essays, poetry, and photographs, each African woman telling the tale of what it is to be queer in South Africa. They range from the heartwarming – Yulinda Noortman’s description of shopping for wedding fabric with her bride-to-be, in “The Dog, The Cat, The Parrot and the Pig and Other Tales” – to the heartwrenching: Keba Sebetoane’s “Who Are You to Tell Me What I Am?”, the brief, calamitous tale of her struggle with rape and the flawed system that kept her, and so many other women, from justice. My favorite was “I Have Truly Lost a Woman I Loved”, which features the wonderful photography of Zanele Muholi – one of her photographs graces this volume’s cover – and is a loving essay to her late mother. I only wished that some of the photographs she wrote about had been included in this book. Although some of the essays may begin in a similar fashion – I was married to a man, and then… or When I was a child…, there is something in the collection that everyone should be able to appreciate, and should serve as food for thought both in terms of social justice and how we relate to other women, no matter what their place in the queer spectrum.
The Professor: A Sentimental Education collects personal essays by Terry Castle, author of The Literature of Lesbianism. Magnetic, self-flagellating, and sharp, her writing here blends personal, political, and academic thoughts on topics as diverse as teen angst and world travel. In these essays, she collects stamps, smokes pot, and talks for her slutty daschund puppy. If it sounds mundane, it is. But, part of the book’s delight is Castle’s ability to turn a plain memory into a witty and endearing reflection.
“Courage, Mon Amie,” the first essay, explores women’s interest in WWII studies. Castle discusses her curiosity about the lives of army nurses, especially the lesbian ones, and visits an ancestor and veteran’s grave site.
Continuing the theme of family, Castle contrasts her love of jazz player Art Pepper with the distance she keeps between her similarly violent but much less charismatic step-brother in “My Heroin Christmas.” She adores how butch Pepper was and hardly puts his autobiography down over the holiday. Yet, when she remembers her likewise crude step-brother launching himself off of the house banister, she does not feel remorse. She recalls her mother smiling for a split-second and cannot find it within herself to think ill of the moment. Even when he at last succeeds at killing himself, she is relieved.
“Sicily Diary” transitions to found family– to stories of her partner Blakey and their dog. This is the one piece written in diary form. Because of its structure, it quickly jumps from Italian ruins to bowel problems to jokes about the horny baby daschund. Disorienting but true to the experience of travel, the change of style works well.
The next essay, “Desperately Seeking Susan,” describes Castle’s rocky friendship with late writer Susan Sontag. Susan, too, was found family, though more distantly than the characters of “Sicily Diaries.” She was a marvel to be around but often difficult to predict and entertain, and Castle grapples with how to remember her.
“Home Alone” also deals with honoring the dead. In the wake of 9/11, Castle asks herself how she can go on with the luxurious habit of subscribing to dozens of house magazines, especially when some of her favorites completely ignore the tragedy happening just beyond their borders. Comparing interior decorating and fear, she wonders why she needs beautiful living space. The quick answer? Because her mother doesn’t.
In “Travels with My Mother,” she confesses her ongoing rebellion against her mother’s taste as she recounts their visit to the Georgia O’Keefe museum. Castle’s mother worships O’Keefe. Meanwhile, Castle is an adult hipster and also butch, neither of which her mother likes. Additionally, Castle mentions that she made the gorgeous cover for The Professor and pitches her blog, “Fevered Brain Productions, http://terry-castle-blog.blogspot.com/, which showcases her other colorful, feminist collages.
The final and title essay chronicles Castle’s grad school relationship with a female professor. She compares this to another that she has, years later, with one of her own students. All this occurs against a backdrop critique of lesbian music and a celebration of pre-Prop 8 engagement. Combined, the different elements make this essay a nuanced, strangely mournful picture of lesbian love and culture today.
Read The Professor and you will become smarter, slightly depressed, and more hip in the seventies. I highly recommend it.
I love this book. I just want to say that straight off the bat. In any minority (of power) group, telling our own stories is crucial, especially when they’re stories that defy the narrative that has traditionally been put forth about that group.
The foreword of Dear John, I Love Jane is written by the author of Sexual Fluidity, which is a book I now really want to read. The only problems I had with the book in general were that the introduction and foreword combined seemed pretty lengthy, and the introduction especially seemed unnecessary.
Also, I was initially irritated because the foreword set the tone for stories about sexual fluidity, which I was very excited about being able to read, because we have a very Born This Way, rigid conception of sexuality in our society, and I wanted to see the stories this framework ignores. When the first few stories didn’t really address sexual fluidity, I was disappointed, but by the end I was completely satisfied.
The major thing I loved about Dear John, I Love Jane was the quality of writing. With a topic this narrow, I didn’t have very high standards, especially since anthologies generally have a range of quality. Most anthologies tend to include at least one story that you really hate. This was not true! I actually didn’t have any story that I didn’t enjoy. They varied in styles, but I thought the quality of writing was high in each one.
What makes Dear John, I Love Jane so valuable, though, is the variety of the stories told. As I said, I was hoping for stories about sexual fluidity, and there were, but they weren’t the only ones. Dear John, I Love Jane represents many different situations where women left men for women. In some, it was because they had always been attracted to women and only were with a man because they felt it was the right thing to do. For others, though, they really were deeply in love with the man they were with. For some, it was one woman who changed everything, and had nothing to do with their sexuality, just with the individual. And some women decide to stay with their husband. It really represents a range, which I found refreshing.
I have a particular dislike for our dichotomy of choice vs born-that-way with sexuality. No other aspect of ourselves do we treat that way. Was I born sarcastic, or did I choose to be that way? Was I born loving books, or did I choose to be that way? It doesn’t make any sense. And it doesn’t with orientation, either. If sexuality is not a rigid, unchanging, biological, pre-destined thing, it doesn’t automatically make it a choice.
I also enjoyed the portrayal of men in the stories. Some of the partners are not ideal mates, but many are wonderful people, and it brings more nuance to it. I think that men in Dear John, I Love Jane are primarily positively portrayed, which just makes those situations so much more difficult and interesting.
Overall, I highly recommend this book. I only keep books that I want to re-read at some point, and this is definitely one that’s going to go into my permanent collection.
(Check out the Dear John, I Love Jane website here!)