Tuesday, April 13, 2004

The Vintage Book of International Lesbian Fiction, and The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits: Stories

Two collections of lesbian short fiction, as broadly defined by the editors of the first book. Thought I'd look at them together.
In their introduction to The Vintage Book..., Holoch and Nestle describe how futile it is to apply the word lesbian, a word so specifically located in time and space--it has meaning in this place only, here, right now--to texts written in something like 27 different countries. It reminded me of Terry Castle's essay I read for class, "Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Counterplot of Lesbian Fiction." What is lesbian fiction? Fiction about lesbians? Fiction written by lesbians? Fiction about lesbians written by lesbians? (Would Lynne Cheney's romance novel Sisters qualify? I guess I'll never know. [/snark])
The Vintage Book... could I think be seen as a response to those questions. Here's lesbian fiction, it says. Try and define it if you can. Some of it isn't about lesbianism per se, some of it is written by heterosexual women (could a man write lesbian fiction? I wonder. How about Micheal Cunningham?), some is written by women who qualify as lesbians in Western eyes but don't use that word or even recognize that category. Some is simple and straightforward; some is experimental and complex. Nearly all of it is in translation. Some of it I loved, and some of it left me cold. Translation's a tricky thing; can you ever really translate anything? Sometimes I didn't even notice, it was so smooth and seamless, other times I couldn't understand it, or couldn't be bothered to, maybe, and finished the story with the sense of not having read anything at all. Just evaporated in front of me. We always go on about how universal literature is, but really, it's so culturally specific it's a wonder we manage to communicate anything at all.
Issues of translation are often central to the stories themselves as author and character search for a way to express or "translate" experiences and emotions into words where words are lacking. (XII) How do you learn to speak in a world that has no language for you? Where you have to talk in a language that is inherently male and straight, to give my obligatory reference to Lacan (I think it's Lacan, anyway). I'm reading these stories looking for reflections of myself, words that I can use, a place where I can live. I did find something, in stories like Mary Dorcey's "A Noise from the Woodshed", a story of an Irish lesbian couple.

Falling into the grass then, the wild red poppies, the cowslips, the speedwell speeding blue all around, waiting all around, the long supple green tassled grass: falling into it two women tired from the business of making a living, a loving, making each day a new living, tired from the business of standing up to be counted--and oh they are counting--never stop--and who started all that business anyway?--tired of counting, two women fall into the cowslips and the lark rises and the gutters wait for another day and philosophy waits and the potatoes lie lazy for another day.

Or in Cynthia Price's story, which answers the burning question, What do lesbians do in their bedrooms?
They wake in the morning and stretch. They say nasty words to their alarm clocks and curse about having to work
again. On weekend mornings they lie in with their cats and dogs and children, trying not to spill their tea when the family get restless.
A simple page of utterly mundane lesbian bedroom activities, excluding "those private intimate moments shared only between the two of them, not for public viewing, discussion, or curiosity." A nice story I'd like to print in every newspaper and hand out in a leaflet to every churchgoer.
I'd like to show people these stories. This is what I want, I'd say. What's so awful about that?
I loved the romance in "Stephanie's Book", which I'd like to read in the original French except for the idiosyncratic lack of punctuation, I think it might be too difficult. "Lemon Scent" and "Red Azalea" are quietly erotic stories of hidden love affairs, in India and China, respectively. Baby dykes ogle their French teacher in "Madame Alaird's Breasts". Madame Alaird's breasts gave us imagination beyond our years or possibilities, of burgundy velvet rooms with big-legged women and rum and calypso music. Me, I had no such luck. I was forever being taught by frumpy nuns and matronly old ladies. L and I were both struck by Gerd Brantenberg's "Four Winds", where a Scottish girl and a Norwegian girl exchange cuss words:

This--the most wonderful place on the whole body, where all life began, had--on both sides of the North Sea--the worst and most unmentionable name of all. Here there was no difference. The other things you could and couldn't say were ridiculously different in the two languages. But here they merged into a single gigantic linguisic disgrace. Cunt and fitte...For that was the worst thing that could be said, so it was amazing that it had any sound at all.

A Vagina Unhappy Fact, as Eve Ensler might put it, though she does her best to change that. You haven't really lived until you've gotten a theater full of people to shout "cunt" in cheerleader fashion.
A few lines from Rosamaria Raffiel's "Forever Lasts Only a Full Moon", an otherwise unremarkable story IMNSHO, seem to have been photocopied out of my autobiography:

After I met Juliana, I didn't care anymore if men looked at me in the street, if they invited me out, if I was going to get married or not. I began treating them without considering each one as a possible relationship. I didn't need their approval to exist.

The collection ends on a light-hearted note with "Minnie Gets Married" by Aussie Gina Schein. A welcome relief after pages of angst and ex-lovers and political strife and just plain post-modern wierdness.

To dearest Minnie, I love and lust after you but I don't forgive you. I miss sex with you. What a team we were! Your loss, honey. Hot kisses from your bridesmaid, Annie.

The fact that I have a bit of a crush on a certain cute Aussie girl has nothing to do with my personal response to this story. Nope.

"Why did everything happen in the garden?"
"The smell of hot lawn and your gardenias. There was something...labial about them. To put it quite frankly, they smelt of fanny."
"They didn't!"
"Yes, Min, I'm afraid they brought out the butch in me."
"Not in that dress, mate."
"See what I do for you? I cross-dress for you. Would Steve do that? I'll even kiss you if you like."
"If we kiss, then this wedding is finished. My marriage is a sham."
"Then I will, definitely."

See, now every time I see gardenias I'm going to blush positively scarlet, I just know it.

Emma Donoghue's "Looking for Petronilla" is included in The Vintage Book..., and is the last story in her book The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits. In the note that follows, she says "Petronilla de Meath was burnt alive in Kilkenny in 1324. Dame Alice is said to have escaped to England." Fiction by an Irish lesbian, all of it based on fact, or historical anecdote anyway, footnotes in old books, details from medieval manuscripts, letters and diaries, a Scottish ballad, village gossip, 18th century engravings.
Over the past ten years, I have often stumbled over a scrap of history so fascinating that I had to stop whatever I was doing and write a story about it...So this book is what I have to show for ten years of sporadic grave-robbing, ferreting out forgotten puzzles and peculiar incidents, asking "What really happened?" but also "What if?" (IX) What if Dame Alice really was a witch, a witch who discovered immortality and returns to Ireland after seven centuries, looking for traces of the loyal maidservant who was burnt in her place, the only person she still has any feeling for? How do you decieve half the country into believing you can give birth to rabbits? What if you were tricked into marrying a spinster? What if you survived civil war, only to come home to plague? You finish these stories and you want to start over and read them again. It's lesbian fiction in the sense that they were written by a lesbian. Some, like "Night Vision", or "A Short Story", don't have any overtly lesbian theme, but they all focus on women's experiences in some form. In "Cured" Donoghue describes a "fashionable operation" of the 19th century, "where a part is cut away that is not diseased at all. The surgeons do it simply to kill passsion. Simply to make women quieter. Simply because they can." Apparently famous Victorian doctor Baker Brown felt that any and all health problems (or percieved "problems") in women could be treated with clitoridectomies. It's quite frankly a horror story, as is "Revelations", where religious fanatics starve themselves to death in preparation for the Second Coming (gotta love that old-time religion). Most of them fall somewhere on Rich's lesbian continuum--women's relationships with women, from familial to romantic friendships to unrequited or hidden love. A young aristocratic woman falls in love with her governess, Mary Wollstonecraft, in "Words for Things" (can't say as I blame her, I've always been a bit in love with her myself).
On top of that, there's even an Austen connection. A Janeite surprise, if you will. "Dido" is about Dido Bell, the great-niece of Lord Mansfield.

"Let James Somerset go free."
"But don't you see, my dear," he said, straightening his spectacles with one shaky hand. "I musn't be swayed by personal loyalties.
Faithful to Virtue Alone, don't you know."
"What virtue has a man with no loyalties?"
He winced. "But I have many. The very fact that I am known to have in my family--to be bound by every tender tie, to, to--"
"A mulatto."
you, Dido, makes it all the more imperative that I should be seen to maintain objectivity in this most controversial case."
"I'm not asking a favour for myself," I told him coldly. "I ask justice for Somerset."

What really happened when Lord Mansfield delivered the Somerset Ruling? (And what is Sir Thomas' business in Antigua? Is Mansfield Park about slavery? There's a few term paper questions for you.) Donoghue's talent compells you to keep reading, even when you don't want to know, like in "Revelations" or her novel Slammerkin. I try to skim or glance through and I find myself rereading her stories again for the umpteenth time. She gets inside the heads of these obscure, forgotten people, and you can't imagine it happening any other way. Of course, you think, that's what it must have been like. That's how it must have happened. Stories that are more than true.


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