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An Imaginative Collectivity of Writers and Readers
Recently I dreamt that my two lesbian neighbors had been raped and beaten. In my dream I was wakened by the ambulance. I ran out to the driveway but it was too late to be of use. Each woman lay on a stretcher with wounds on her face and terror in her eyes. I felt this had been my fault. If only I hadn't been sleeping when the man broke in. If only I had heard the noises in time. Then I woke to what we sometimes call reality. All day I fought the impulse to tell the neighbors my story, their story, to warn them to watch out. Instead I went to my desk and finished the first draft of this essay.
Perhaps the dream is a transparent metaphor for my work as a lesbian novelist. Every day I sit at a desk sifting through experience, drawing from common memory and imagination, sometimes issuing warnings. Just as readers may enter my novels through dreams, I hope to enter readers' dreams occasionally through my books.
The nightmare about my neighbors also represents the fears I have writing this essay. Although I have "come out" many times in print and in person, it still feels dangerous. At first I try to dismiss my writer's block as personal homophobia, and perhaps that is part of the cause. But while we confront the shadow of our own internalized biases, we need to keep our eyes open for very real outside threats. Our books get censored by publishing houses, review journals, bookshops, libraries, schools. Even in liberal environments where people support one's right to perversion, our lesbianism—which for some of us is a political choice—is still only temporarily tolerated. It is not safe to be a lesbian writer or reader today; we need our collective wits to survive.
I write as a lesbian. I write as someone who grew up in an immigrant, working-class household. I write as a feminist who found my voice—as well as my mind—in the women's movement. I write as a reluctant American who has lived abroad for many years. These various identities all enrich my work, yet sometimes they seem to contradict each other and readers who align with separate camps. Not all lesbians are feminists and not all feminists are lesbians, but for me the two identities are inextricable because I became a lesbian through the feminist worldview I developed in the women's movement. Thus while I present my ideas here about the relationship between lesbian writers and readers, my voice emerges in different registers, drawing on class background, cultural identity, international experience, and, particularly, feminist politics, highlighting the multidimensionality of lesbian fiction.
To claim a strong bond between writer and reader is to transgress much that is sacred in Western criticism. Scholars charge that only those scribblers afflicted with commercial motives or exhortatory messages have a direct, conscious relationship with readers. This artificial isolation of storyteller from audience is characterized by most Americans' distinction between art (which is rewarded) and work (which is paid). Writing brings "royalties" or awards or prizes, but never wages. The perception of writers as supernatural beings who create through singular genesis and the segregation between artist and audience is at the core of a crisis facing American fiction. So many contemporary novels lack imagination, depth, conscience, and vitality because they are dissociated from society. I notice myself continually turning back to feminist writing for aesthetic pleasure and intellectual provocation.
Like many feminist writers, I cannot insulate my art from my politics. My feminism is nurtured by other women on the streets where we all work and live. Many stories would not be written without such inspiration. They would not be published without feminist editors. They would not be visible without feminist reviewers, booksellers, librarians, and teachers. They would not endure without word-of-mouth campaigns among feminist readers. I call this vital web an "imaginative collectibity of writers and readers." Feminists have made profound contributions to my novels as well as to my life. Conversely, I try to engage audience actively in the process of my fiction.
To begin at the beginning, audience provokes the work itself. Feminists have influenced my very choice of genre.
I started writing as a journalist. During my twenties, I worked as a reporter in Great Britain, Canada, Tanzania, and other countries. In those days, my primary impulse was "to help other people communicate with each other." The motivations were varied. As a woman I was drawn to the traditional role as cipher (for the opinions of my mainly male interview subjects). As a young radical, I was eager to leave this country, to go out and find other people's answers. Essentially my movement was outward, toward more information, toward patriarchal wisdom, toward external union and reunion.
Yet the articles I wrote about women always made me pause and reflect inward. Consistently I was forced back to my personal experience as I reported about Native Canadian wives fighting for land rights, sexual stereotyping in high schools, beauty pageants, suburban housewives, women farming in Ujamaa villages. Likewise, I was encouraged to examine my own life in consciousness-raising groups and in organizations affected by feminist process. Gradually, I found the nerve to speak and write in a different way.
First, I was given voice to ask questions about my own life, my mother's life, my grandmother's life. My grandmother, Mae Campbell, died from an abortion on the kitchen table in an Edinburgh tenement during World War I. My mother, Mary McKenzie, orphaned at age twelve, quit school and began to work at a coffee shop. She immigrated to the United States at the age of twenty, and last year, at seventy-seven, she was laid off her job at a San Francisco coffee shop. Feminism helped me see the lives of these women as more than individual cases of suffering and courage, but as part of a daily, international history. Moreover, feminism provided survival strategies for my own life. When I was vomiting every morning and convinced I was pregnant although my doctor kept denying this, it was through the women's movement that I found someone who told me the truth and was willing to perform an illegal abortion. It was feminist friends who listened to my quandaries about a marriage which was keeping me mute. And it was in the women's movement that I learned to speak a new language as a lesbian.
I began to read more women novelists in the early 1970s. Doris Lessing and Toni Morrison and Jane Rule and Margaret Atwood inspired me to write my own words. I wanted to move from journalism to the deeper communication—emotionally, psychologically, sensually, intellectually—that I personally found in fiction. I wanted a more substantial relationship with readers. In an article, one is lucky if readers spend an hour with one's work. In a novel, readers are involved for days or weeks at a time. The book becomes a companion in all sorts of unlikely places. Consequently, the characters and issues remain alive between readings and have a longer afterlife.
Thus, from the beginning, I was conscious of my art emerging from a world of women. I have received considerable flack from mainstream critics for this self-identification, as well as stimulating support from readers. In recent years I have been disturbed by the growth of "postfeminist discourse"—not only because I disagree with much of it, but because just as the women's movement gave me and others permission to write, this line of criticism silences us by denying our continuing existence. Sometimes when I hear people discussing "postfeminist" literature, I am amused, imagining telephone poles along the highway, each with a dead book nailed to it. But more often I am terrified by the censorship that can result when such codes are absorbed into the cultural psyche. Before we say that the second wave of feminist writing is over, let us distinguish between the writing and the publishing. Let us look at the marketplace. Literary fashion is not designed by fate but by a homogeneous, incestuous network of editors, reviewers, academics, and foundation people. Many books are written; comparitively few are published—particularly those which don't have the proper credentials for the primarily white, male, middle-class, Eastern seaboard publishers. For instance, Doubleday receives 10,000 unsolicited manuscripts a year, of which they publish three or four (Coser, Kadushin, and Powell, Books, p. 130).
Inevitably at this stage in the argument someone points to a few books by Black women or Indian lesbians or impoverished Appalachian mothers, asking, "What do you mean, censorship?" I call these the "despite" books. They get published despite their demographical demerits, despite the conventional judgments of editors, and they are published in small enough quantities to be unthreatening. They are also the "because" books. They surface and thrive because they have something to say, because they shake things up. However, the American publishing industry, monopolized by media conglomerates, is not in the business of triggering earthquakes. God knows what would happen to those profitable canonical backlists so assiduously organized along the faultlines of capitalist taste and value if we had more aesthetic temblors.
Feminist books are being written. A few are getting published by mainstream houses. A few, particularly the more radical and lesbian books, are produced by independents such as Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, Alyson, Spinsters/Aunt Lute, and Crossing. But what chance do these books have if they are shunned even in our most liberal of environments? At the University of California, 36 percent of faculty surveyed on the nine campuses said they refrained from doing research on lesbian and gay topics for fear of negative response from colleagues. As many as 41 percent decided against including such material in their courses (University of California Lesbian and Gay Intercampus Network, "Report to the Regents," app. A). Yes, a few lesbian novels are being published and taught. A lot are stuffed into drawers and sometimes closets and sometimes graves.
It is hard to keep publishing—indeed, writing—while the contemporary women's movement is being eroded from without and within. How do we write in a world where vocabulary has been transformed—where "solidarity" has dissolved into "community"; "comrades" have metamorphosed into "colleagues"; women's studies has lost momentum and funding as it is subsumed into "gender studies"; "right" has been transformed into "choice"; and "choice" is now read as "preference"? Some of us feel great pressure to cash in social goals to mortgage our houses. Others have discovered spirituality as a substitute for (rather than a supplement to) political action. All around us the culture invites women to trade sisterhood for motherhood. Too often these former sisters wind up battling each other for their children's places in exclusive schools. Rhetoric of the family has become the reflexive language. Dreams of mass movement are lost in cloistered, privatized routines. Yet it is not only dangerous but inaccurate to brand this time as an era of postfeminist literature, for many women do continue to imagine and fight and create and march and organize as feminists; many do continue to write with the old words and the spirit of change.
Form and Style
Feminist discourse has encouraged me to view the "canon" from different perspectives and to play with new approaches to fictional form. The conventional novel has become an endurance test in which the writer and reader begin at the beginning and pursue the end relentlessly without pause, in form, for reflection, consideration, question, or argument. The writer's role is paternalistic as he provides a catharsis—raising a dilemma, presenting a set of variables, stringing the reader along a line of tension and insinuating a resolution.
My vision of feminist fiction is storytelling which so deeply involves the reader in feelings, issues, and ideas that she asks, "How does this apply to my own life?" Good feminist fiction is not policy statement, although some women's writing, in an urgency to be politically correct, tries to protect the audience from contradictions. I think stories are most effective not when they are didactic, but quite the opposite, when they empower readers by raising a range of possibilities and the momentum to deal with them. And, partially because of my working-class family, I try for a clarity of language which makes my fiction accessible to a broad audience. Perhaps the best way to explain this philosophy is to articulate some of the strategies behind my different books.
Blood Sisters, my first novel, is about three generations of women in an Irish-American family, how they relate to each other, and how questions of sexuality, nationalism, and feminism affect them. I want readers to stand in the middle of arguments between Liz, a lesbian feminist, and Beth, a member of the Provisional Wing of the IRA. I hope they will hear the voices of the mothers as well as the daughters. I present various images of Ireland—as a romantic state of mind, a war-wrenched country, a metaphor for international politics. The book is a feminist reinterpretation of Hamlet and, as such, ends more in provocation than in cataclysm. Survival, not sacrifice, is the act of courage in all its continuing complexity.
My second book, Movement, is both a novel and a collection of stories, a book which explores the territory between as well as beyond these forms. Readers accompany the protagonist, Susan, through ten years of spiritual, political, emotional, and geographical movement. In contrast with linear novels which can distance the reader through a forced march forward, Movement can be read in any order. Life, or "movement," is experienced as fantasy, memory, premonition, and this fiction is layered to express the intricacies. Most chapters follow one another in a chronological sequence, yet they are also self-contained stories. Susan's chapters are introduced by short-short pieces about women from different races, classes, ages, and cultures who are experiencing similar kinds of movement. I write these short-shorts to break through the isolationism and individualism of the Bildungsroman. Susan does not know, and may never meet, any of these women. Their stories are told as shadows and illuminations of our mutual momentum. The book begins and ends in the same restaurant, completing a circle, surrounding readers with questions about Susan's unsettled choices regarding sexuality, motherhood, and political allegiance.
Next, I wrote Murder in the English Department, a novel of ideas suspended against an untraditional mystery. In this alternative to the genre detective story, readers are told "who done it" and who was "done" near the beginning of the book. They, like the protagonist Nan, are peripheral to the death, yet intensely caught up in subsequent moral issues. When Nan, a middle-aged college professor, risks her life in defense of a student, they are embroiled together in quandaries about innocence, loyalty, and love. The quicksand between private feeling and public action is the setting of this book as well as of Winter's Edge, which depicts the friendship between two old women who live and work in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. Their relationship is sparked by the differences between Chrissie's radical causes and Margaret's more discreet kind of social responsibility. The violence of a local political campaign gets turned on them, threatening their neighborhood, their friendship, and their lives. I leave it to readers to consider who is right or whether they are both right.
All Good Women, the most recent novel, examines the friendship among four young working-class women during World War II, tracing the impact on women's feeling of possibility. Many war women, like the suffragists and more recent feminists, were pioneers. For many, war was a time without men. What did this do to their sense of self and community?
My new book of stories is called Trespassing. I feel as if I am always trespassing—as a working-class woman in a middle-class world; as a frequently expatriate American; as an artist who doesn't quite fit into the university where I earn my living; as a political person indulging in art; as a novelist who writes about social issues; as a formerly obedient Catholic girl who grew up to pierce my ears, have an abortion, get divorced, and become a lesbian.
Some people complain about the questions and contradictions in my books. Some demand answers. Who speaks the truth, Beth or Liz? Will Nan continue teaching? Has Chrissie convinced Margaret or has Margaret convinced Chrissie? A couple of reviewers have complained about my "neglect" of resolution, while others have insisted that I speak for various (mutually exclusive) sides of a point. Still, I persist with my open endings because we live in a world where literary answers are cheap and eminently forgettable in the face of real life. Concluding fiction with stimulating contradictions pays more respect to the text and to the reader. The contradictions serve as lumpy bookmarks which make the novel, and hopefully the reader's mind, harder to close, thus leaving the questions reverberating in "real life."
Excerpted from Rumors from the Cauldron by Valerie Miner. Copyright © 1992 The University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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