Laura Mandanas reviews Forbidden Passages

Forbidden Passages: Writings Banned in Canada is a book of essays, short stories, and excerpts of texts that have been seized and censored in Canada. The collection features a broad range of perspectives and does not shy away from any subject. (Due, unfortunately, to the fact that Canadian censors shy away from just about everything.) Readers who are weak of heart or stomach, consider yourself duly warned: on topics of transgressive sexuality, many of these works are unflinchingly graphic.

So do I recommend this book to you? Honestly, I’m not sure. If you read cover to cover, you will almost certainly encounter things that are not to your taste. When I got to “Spiral” by David Wojnarowicz (excerpted from Memories That Smell Like Gasoline), I started gagging and had to put the book down. It was, like… graphic, rape-y scenes between men and boys who weren’t even old enough to legally consent. Not my cup of tea.

On the other hand, there were also some real gems. I totally loved the excerpt “Mama” by Dorothy Allison, from her 1988 classic, Trash. In particular, I really appreciated the casual treatment of sexual orientation here; the main character’s lesbian identity wasn’t the be-all and end-all. Instead, the focus was on the main character’s relationship with her mother, whose wrinkled hands and gravy-thick accent practically leapt off the page — so skillfully did Allison bring them to life. It was sublime.

Another fine piece of writing: Kathy Acker’s “Dead: Carved Into Roses”, from Empire of the Senseless. Wow. The raw power of her imagery completely blew me away. Also: “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” by bell hooks, from Black Looks, Race and Representation. Fantastic. Though at times dry and academic, the otherwise frank and intelligent discussion of interracial attraction was spot on. Ooh, and can we talk about Pat Califia’s descriptive detail in “The Surprise Party” from Macho Slutsfor a minute? Excruciating. Whether that’s your scene or not… That, my friends, is how you write pornography. Oof.

For all the good bits, I’ve got to say, this still isn’t a book I’d casually suggest to friends. And if my little sister asked to borrow it, I’d probably conveniently misplace my copy for the entirety of the next decade. Really and truly, this is a book for mature readers who know what they’re getting into. But if that’s you? By all means, go for it. You may be surprised by what you end up liking.

– Laura

[Danika: I read this book recently as well, so I thought I’d chime in. There’s definitely a wide variety of writing in this collection. I had to put down the book at the same spot. I felt physically ill. And I have to admit, some of the academic writing went right over my head. I think the value in this collection is the context: these are all writings banned for similar reasons, as if they are all equivalent. Seeing the erotica, the violence, and the academic writings all side-by-side shows how ridiculous it is to treat them all as the same.]

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.

Laura Mandanas reviews “4 Stories, 4 Stories Up” by Sara Elizabeth

“4 Stories Down, 4 Stories Up” by Sara Elizabeth is a series of vignettes following the budding romance between two high school girls. Barely five pages long, it is brief, lovely, and tantalizingly well written.

As the story follows the ups and downs of the couple’s relationship, the first person writing is straightforward and the emotion is sincere. The beloved is adoringly described with a lover’s attention to detail, and the situations in each vignette are vivid and familiar. As the main character falls for Liz, the reader can’t help but fall for her as well; and when Liz breaks the main character’s heart, she breaks the reader’s right along with it.

I recommend this story with a glass of wine. Not for the buzz, but so that you have something to slow you down, to help make this delightful story last just a little bit longer.

4 Stories Down, 4 Stories Up” is available digitally from Untreed Reads for $1.50. For more of Sara’s work, check out her portfolio.