Nose to the Grindstone…ouch!

I know I said I was back, and I AM. But I am also in head-down, crazy-typing mode because I did a nutty thing to myself.

I dared myself to write something in the month of February. And by “write” I mean, draft, revise, revise again and submit for publication.

The saving graces are: 1) I have a co-author for this (which is a first for me) and 2) the project is a novella, so the word goal is roughly 25K.

Additional nutty details include that this a whole new genre I’ve never written before (I just can’t seem to stop throwing myself giant learning curves with this writing thing) and, it’s a project that never appeared–not even as a twinkle in my eye–in December when I was writing up my 2014 Writing Goals and giving myself month-by-month checklists.

So, hello, goodbye…see you in two weeks when I toss this project to my writing partner. Meanwhile, happy Black History month. Go read a good book. This one, maybe.

When Nashville Collides with Seattle

Okay. Not even Seattle. But in Heather Lockman’s fictional small Washington town, all manner of upheaval occurs when a big country and western star chooses a historical house museum to shoot his new video.

The Indian Shirt Story is one part funny, one part romantic, one part whimsical speculation on the past and all parts beautifully written. In the interest of full disclosure, Heather is a colleague of mine, whose book was recently released at Musa Publishing, and she kindly sent me a review copy of her novel. Like Jack, Heather’s book was given an Editor’s Top Pick designation by our publisher.

Without further ado, here is my interview with Heather about her debut.

You seem to be a real history lover. How do you come by this passion and what do you do with it beside write fiction?

I think history is interesting—that’s the short answer. I’ve always been drawn to the basic questions of “What happened?” and “Why did it happen?” (And, when I got older, “Why does it matter that it happened?”) It’s probably not a coincidence that my parents found history interesting, too. My sisters and I all remember tramping around in a remote cemetery in eastern Washington State on a long-ago family vacation, searching for the grave of the great Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph, when I was about five years old. That sort of thing makes an impression.

For most of my career I’ve written nonfiction, and a lot of that has been history related. At some point I graduated from magazine stories to museum exhibits and outdoor historical markers—those big signs you see in public parks. I also give a wickedly good historical tour of the Washington State Governor’s Mansion.

Your other book is a local history of a small Washington town. Did working on that inspire you to invent the fictional town history in The Indian Shirt Story?

What a funny—but logical—question! I’d already completed the novel before I was asked to write the text for a pictorial history of Tumwater, the town once famous for brewing Olympia beer.  So no, the nonfiction book didn’t influence the novel. But the story of fictional Port Heron definitely draws on the history of real towns along Puget Sound.

Where did you get the idea for the Indian Shirt Story itself—the story within your story?

I once helped rescue an old Northwest homestead and reinvent it as a historic house museum. As you might imagine, one of the biggest challenges in interpreting a pioneer-era home is balancing the Oregon Trail emigrant story against the perspective of American Indian people. There was one particular family story associated with the house that was, by modern standards, appalling in its portrayal of Native people. Yet it was an important story to the older generation of the family and likely had its roots in something that actually happened. That got me thinking about what might really have taken place between the white family and their Indian visitors—and what would the Indian version of that same encounter have been?

I’m curious as to what you think the novel’s heroine, Bess, would think if she knew all the different iterations of the Indian shirt story. She seems like a stickler for authenticity and yet, if anything, the message of your novel is that such authenticity is a constantly moving target.

Bess would love to get her hands on all those different versions of the shirt story, both to answer the question of how it originated and to watch how the story changes through time. Each version of the tale has significance for the culture and generation that tells it. Bess would totally get that.

Bess is not a country music fan, but you are. How did this happen to a multi-generational Northwesterner?

I didn’t know anything about country music when I started plotting this novel. I was interested in the question of what would happen to an authentic historic site if it became associated with a big pop-culture celebrity. Originally I thought the star would be a sort of Kurt Cobain/Northwest grunge kind of guy. But then I realized there were all sorts of Red State/Blue State possibilities if he were a Nashville star instead. So I started watching CMT and buying issues of Country Weekly and listening to country radio in the car, which—trust me—is not seen as cool in the granola-crunching, kayak-paddling, espresso-drinking part of the Pacific Northwest. I kept saying, “It’s just research. I need to know what I’m writing about.” Then one day I was driving to the grocery store with the windows down and the radio cranked up, singing Hillbilly Deluxe at top volume along with Brooks and Dunn, and I thought, “Screw it. I don’t care what the neighbors think.”

Who are a few of your favorite country artists?

Ever since country music first hit the airwaves in the 1920s each generation has complained that the new stuff on the radio isn’t country enough. Folks tend to like what was popular when they first started listening. I’ll probably always prefer the songs and artists who were on the radio while I was writing The Indian Shirt Story. Lately every song seems to be about getting drunk for fun, which isn’t actually very country. In traditional country music, getting drunk is what happens when things go bad.

theindianshirtstory-200Are you working on any writing projects now, and can you tell us a little about them?

I know a lot of writers think you should always be talking about the next project in the pipeline, but I’d rather write now and talk about it later—when I can say for sure it’s worth reading. Right now I’d rather coax readers into sampling The Indian Shirt Story. That one I know is good.

My Favorite Banned Book

This year’s top ten “most challenged” books include one of my favorite books of all time, Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

I am not usually one to pick a favorite book when asked. It’s a bit ridiculous to even try. But if someone put a gun to my head and made me pull five books from my shelf before burning the rest, Beloved might well be the first one I would grab.

What do I like about it? I like many many things about it, but from shallow to deep, they range from beautiful, beautiful writing to unflinching historical truth-telling that cuts to the very marrow of the U.S. American story.

There is no United States without the trans-Atlantic slave trade. And until you understand what that meant–economically, socially, politically, culturally, theologically, and in countless other ways large and small–you cannot understand this country. At all.

You can learn about this in many ways, of course–in history books, direct historical records, museums, oral traditions, etc. etc. etc. It’s a rich history, if often a nightmare landscape.

Morrison’s way of researching it and sharing it is through fiction. Beloved is indeed a nightmare landscape, if laced with flashes of human dignity preserved and asserted against all odds. But it never denies an equally human evil that creeps into and curls around the lives of everyone involved in the racialized story of this country–and that is everyone in this country. To this day.

For me, Beloved is perhaps the best candidate in the U.S. canon for “Great American Novel.”

How about you? What banned book do you treasure?

I Can Go Anywhere

If you don’t remember Reading Rainbow, featuring Kunta Kinte, Geordie Laforge, LeVar Burton and a bunch of little kids doing book reports for PBS, you had a deprived childhood.

But never fear! You can make up for it now, because Reading Rainbow is now available in app form.

readingrainbowI know, I sound like an advertisement, but really I’m just excited to have found this app for my kids.

The app itself is free, but you have to pay to subscribe to what is essentially a bottomless pit of kids’ books. You can keep up to five books at a time downloaded in your virtual “backpack.” You can return them and swap them out for other books any time you have Internet access. The app has a fun “island” theme, where, once having chosen some topics of interest, you can visit these islands and find books there that suit your favorite things.

It costs $10 per month or $30 for six months. I just went ahead and signed up for the six months, because while $3o may sound like a lot for an app, what it is is six months of unlimited picture book access. I couldn’t buy the five picture books in the backpack for $30. So I consider it a major bargain.

And look, I hear you out there going “libraries!” And I see your wagging fingers. But electronic books and electronic access to books are a good thing too. And while a physical trip the physical library is undeniably a good thing, so is the ability to check out and return books from the kitchen table when a trip to the library is just not in the cards. And frankly, my kids are really hard on books. This way, I don’t have to worry about torn pages (a dropped iPad is another matter).

I do want my kids’ primary association with the word “book” to be a thing made out of paper. But I’m not sure if it really matters–I am even less sure if it will matter when they are older. Mainly, what I want them to do is love reading and love books. And access to so many books can never be a bad thing in my opinion.

What do you think about kids and e-books?

Another Purim-Themed Picture Book with Gay Dads and Aliens for your Collection!

The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner
The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner

Because I am exceptionally lucky, I have known Els Kushner for several years, via the magic of the Internet. When I heard that her first picture book was finally released, I was eager to see the final results of something I got to watch happening behind the scenes. It was as terrific as I expected. Now I’m eager to share it with you.

I asked Els to tell Lesbian Family about herself and the book. Enjoy the results below. And be sure to order a copy of The Purim Superhero in e-format, paperback or hardcover. You have just enough time before Purim, on 25 February this year.

1. Tell us about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, how did you become interested in writing for children?

Oh, I’m just another Jewish lesbian librarian/writer/parent who plays the ukulele and periodically attempts to garden. I’m a kid person and a kids’ book person, so I guess it makes sense that I became a children’s librarian. I’m from New York and New Jersey and Seattle and, now, Vancouver, where I live with my spouse and our daughter and a lot of books and musical instruments and small plastic items. I’m addicted to text in all forms, from fiction to old New Yorkers to podcasts. I stay up too late on a regular basis.

I’ve written lots of things, for years, short stories and blog posts and bits of novels and what have you. I think people tend to write about they’re interested in, what their thoughts and feelings revolve around, even if their writing isn’t directly autobiographical. And for me, the experience of childhood and adolescence is endlessly fascinating: life is so vivid when you’re a kid, so many things are new, and you’re also so powerless and subject to the whims of the adult world. I also really like stories about community, and when writing about kids there’s a sort of automatic community a lot of the time, as they’re often in school or other groups.
2. This book began as a contest. Tell us a bit about that. What were the perimeters of the competition and what was the process like?

In early 2011, Keshet sponsored a contest for an 800-to-1000-word picture book manuscript with both Jewish and GLBT content. The contest description specified that the storyline shouldn’t be primarily didactic, and that it should have “clear, clever and interesting narrative plot with universal themes and Jewish content.”

The process of writing the manuscript had in some ways started years before I saw that contest announcement, when I was a librarian at a Jewish day school, and was looking for books to read to my students for Purim. Purim is a Jewish holiday that takes place in February or March; its customs include reading the Book of Esther aloud, dressing in costume, eating cookies called Hamentaschen, and generally being silly. It’s a very kid-friendly holiday, but–maybe because, unlike Chanukah or Passover, it doesn’t correspond with any major Christian holidays that take place at the same time of year –I couldn’t find any good read-alouds at that time that told the story of a contemporary kid celebrating Purim. (There are a few more now, but there weren’t then.)

After a few years of thinking, “sheesh, someone should write a good Purim picture book,” I thought, “maybe I should write a Purim picture book.” I noodled around with that idea a little, but I couldn’t really figure out what the driving conflict would be. Then, a few years later, I saw the Keshet contest and thought that a kid with same-sex parents would be a great protagonist for a Purim story.

The final part of the equation came when I had a writing date with a couple of friends one day while I was working on the manuscript, and one of them brought her 8-year-old son along. I was grousing to my friends about how stuck I was, and how I couldn’t figure out what kind of a problem my protagonist should have, and my friend’s son got very caught up in this question and started giving me these amazing suggestions about how aliens and monkeys should come take over the “Jewish church” and have a big fight…he got really into it and was drawing pictures of the great alien-vs.-monkey battle while we were writing. I was struck by how original and quirky his imagination was, and how a kid like him, with strong and individual interests, might have a problem fitting in with his peers, but how that kind of difference, like gayness, or Judaism, could also be a source of strength. Nate’s interest in aliens is inspired by, and a tribute to, him.

After that, my biggest problem was getting the manuscript down to the requisite 1,000 words; I think I went through six or seven drafts. I’m pretty verbose normally (as you can probably tell by my answers to these questions!), so that was tough.


3. You are a lesbian parent. Does Nate’s experience with peer pressure to fit in come from your own experience as a mom in a same-sex headed family?

My experience as a mom in a same-sex-headed family has mostly been pretty undramatic. We’ve been lucky enough to live in communities where being a lesbian parent is accepted as a pretty ordinary thing 99% of the time, and the few times it hasn’t been, well, I’ve experienced that as the other person’s problem, not mine.

I’d say Nate’s experience with peer pressure comes more from my own childhood as a sort of nerdy, bookish kid who had different interests from most kids my age. I had a lot less confidence than Nate, so I dealt with that experience by being pretty shy and withdrawn. I think it takes a very solid sense of yourself to do what Nate does and maintain your individuality while acknowledging and honoring that deep desire to be part of a group.

I also wanted to explore, a little bit, the way that gender expectations for boys of Nate’s age—about 4 or 5—are in many ways so much narrower than for girls. My experience from working with preschool and elementary-school aged kids, and from being a parent, is that there’s more tolerance for girls rejecting traditionally “girly” things than for boys who aren’t deemed sufficiently interested in things that mainstream boys are supposed to like. And a lot of the time, it’s other kids who are doing the gender policing. So a story about a girl who, say, didn’t want to dress up as a princess would’ve had a very different feeling and, I think, might not have been as dramatic.


4. I loved the connection the book makes between Esther coming out of the “closet” of Jewishness and Nate’s anxiety about expressing who he really is. That’s quite a sophisticated connection and a wonderful theological point. Do you find overlaps in your own life between voicing your Jewishness and your lesbianism?

Both Jewishness and queerness are identities where you sometimes have to “come out”—they’re not so immediately apparent, in general, as race or gender, so there’s an element of choice in whether to identify publicly as part of that particular group. In my life, right now, they’re both identities where a lot of the time I’m part of a small minority: the neighborhood where I live, for example, doesn’t have either a large Jewish or GLBT community, and many of the friends and co-workers I see on a regular basis are neither queer nor Jewish. I guess, like Nate, these are aspects of my identity that in many ways aren’t the driving forces in my daily life right now—I spend a lot more time and energy actively thinking about being a parent, or a librarian, or a writer, than I do about being a lesbian. But at the same time, my lesbianism and my Jewishness are so central to who I am.

Both are also communities or groups that have been historically oppressed but that I experience as a gift—I’ve always loved being Jewish, and as an adult, I’ve found a lot of strength and creativity and just general wonderfulness in the lesbian community and in claiming a lesbian identity.


5. The illustrations for the book are just the best. Can you tell us what it’s like to work with an illustrator for your words? It seems like a relationship requiring a lot of trust.

I love the illustrations too! Mike Byrne has really captured Nate’s sweetness and individuality.  One little-known fact about picture books is that usually the author has little or nothing to do with the illustration process; generally the publisher selects the illustrator, and they and the illustrator work together to determine the visual component of the book. That was the case with The Purim Superhero: I was sent some early drafts of the drawings, but mostly I didn’t know what the art would be like until I saw the finished book. It was a little bit like meeting someone in person for the first time who you’ve only known through emails and blogging—even though I’d created these characters, I felt like I understood them on a whole other level when I saw the finished illustrations.


6. What’s next for you? Do you have any more picture books up your sleeve? What about other writing you are working on?

I’ve been working on a picture book set during another Jewish holiday, Shavuot. One of the customs of Shavuot is to stay up all through the night and study, and another is to eat dairy foods like blintzes and cheesecake, and I think the combination of staying up late and eating cheesecake could be really appealing to a kid.

And when I entered the manuscript for The Purim Superhero to the Keshet contest in 2011, I’d just finished a very rough first draft for a young adult novel that’s sort of a sequel to a short story I wrote a long time ago. The story was published in an anthology called The Essential Bordertown, which is part of a shared-world series about a city between the human world and Faerie. The story, and the novel I started, are both about a girl who runs away to Bordertown after she’s been involuntarily outed at school, and falls in love with another girl there. I was having a hard time revising the draft, and then I found out that I’d won the Keshet contest, and what with one thing and another that rough novel draft is still sitting on the side of my desk, with more and more files and books and bits of random detritus piled on top of it. I give it sort of a look every once in a while and promise the characters I’ll get back to them and work on their story and make everything better, if they’ll please, please just be patient a little longer.

Cross-posted at LesbianFamily.com

E-Books Written on E-Readers, Anyone?

I started using purple pens when I started teaching. I think they’re friendlier than red!

I use my ipad mostly to read. It isn’t the best e-reader, in my opinion, but given how many other things it does, I am more than happy with it. I also like the ibooks reader better than any of the others I’ve seen, in terms of the options it gives you for note-taking, etc.

But in the course of writing my last novel, I decided to give editing on the ipad a try, too.

I have heard tales of writers who, even now, use notebooks and pencils to write their first drafts. I am not one of those. But when it comes to editing and proofing, I still prefer paper and a pencil. I used to do copy editing on a national magazine when I was in grad school and I did it all with a pencil and paper. There is just something about it that allows me to catch things I miss on screen. So rather than using various editing programs for the computer, I had always printed out hundreds of paper pages of my drafts and gone through them with my pencil to do edits.

I make at least three complete passes when I edit.

That was a lot of paper and a lot of printer ink.

So I browsed around and found an app called neu.annotate. It allows you to upload a PDF and then annotate it using a stylus. You can set it to a fine-to-thick pen line of any color or a highlighter of any color and you can adjust the opacity to obliterate your words, highlight them or anything in between.

It took a bit of adjustment to using the stylus and remembering which settings I preferred for my pen tips (and switching them back and forth as needed) but overall, I found that it was almost like using a pencil on paper, as far as my ability to see things I don’t catch when typing.

I think that when push comes to shove, I still like the paper and pencil better, but not better enough to use all that unnecessary paper and ink. So from now on, it’s ipad editing for me.

Have you tried something like this? What’s your review?

What the Bleep? People want to put profanity ratings on young adult books?

Kiersten White’s bestseller, Paranormalcy, famous for its “bleeps”

This week I stumbled (via Twitter) onto a discussion about whether books for young adults ought to carry parental warnings based on language–that is, based on the frequency of specific curse words.

Two young adult writers, Gayle Forman and Kiersten White had terrific posts at their blogs on the answer (no, and why, and what instead) that got me thinking about the question itself. It had never even occurred to me that books should carry ratings of this sort. Somehow, to me, books were in a category quite different from movies or video games or even music–other things that carry ratings.

I curse quite a bit. But I never curse in front of my children. When we discovered that my older daughter was an early reader we had to take down a piece of art containing profanity that she (whoops) read aloud one evening at the dinner table when she was three.

My general idea is that when my kids start using words I don’t want them to use, I’ll tell them those are 18-and-older words that they can use when they are grown up. I censor them for more than one reason. First and foremost, I’d just rather they learn more nuanced ways to express themselves–even inventing their own curses on occasion–than resorting to worn cliches too soon. But not a small part of my concern about their vocabulary is the fact that they don’t have the white privilege of being thought precociously, irreverently cute when they curse. They are more likely to draw a racist–even a subtle, unconsciously racist–response from middle-class white adults if they use profanity. I also don’t want my kids to be “those kids” who introduce the other kids to swearing before their parents are ready for it.

So like I said, I curse (and my characters in my books sometimes curse, depending on who they are and the context), but never in front of my kids. And I protect my kids from hearing or reading swear words.

But my kids are five and seven.

When they are twelve and fifteen? I am not sure, but while the under-eighteen speaking rule may still be in place, I seriously doubt I will censor their reading based on cursing.*

I myself never got much into “young adult” literature as a “young adult.” This was possibly because there wasn’t so much of it at the time (in the eighties), but it was also because when I was a teen, I didn’t like being put in boxes (you know, like all teens) and I resented the idea that I ought to like a book because it was aimed at my developmental level. That felt condescending, and nothing could be more offensive to a teen than condescension.

I am still a little baffled by this today, even as I write “young adult” books for the bourgeoning category. Perhaps the fact that so many young adult books are being read by adults allows teens to embrace them without feeling condescended to. (This is not to say that I think young adult books are in fact condescending to teens, only that as a teen, I would have felt the label itself to be so.)

All I can suppose is that putting parental warning labels on books (especially ones based on profanity for heaven’s sake) would really turn teens off. I mean, talk about condescending!

In my own under-eighteen reading life, I was not censored by my parents at all.

There was a lot of benign neglect in my childhood, as both of my parents worked for pay, away from home, full time, and my brother and I were what the eighties coined “latch key kids” for many years of childhood. Combine these conditions with a house whose walls were literally lined with books–many of which my parents didn’t even know the contents of (my father owned an independent bookstore and the things just arrived, often unbidden, in boxes on the doorstep with regularity) and with the fact that I have been an avid reader ever since I learned to read and you get a young Shannon reading widely and chaotically and not always–almost never, in fact–age-appropriately.

But here’s what happened. The “bad” stuff flew right over my head (as did plenty of not-so-bad, but just beyond my education level stuff). Alternately, I learned things I was ready to learn, though I might have been wary of asking my parents about it directly.

As for my own parenting, I like Kiersten’s advice to read with your kids. (and don’t get me wrong, latchkey kid or not, my parents read with me, to me and near me throughout my childhood. Some of the age-inappropriate books were gifts from my parents, who nevertheless thought I’d get something important from them or just plain enjoy them.)  And I feel this is the way to go about a lot of things when it comes to my kids–let them read or hear or watch certain things with me and discuss those things. We are beginning to hit this stage a little now that we have school peers with different experiences and levels of permissiveness in their families. (I spend a lot of time these days critiquing Batman’s problem-solving techniques with my five year-old and trying to figure out what could possess anyone to admire Justin “Beaver” when his music is so awful with my seven-year old.)

But I still think books are different from television, movies, video games–even music–in an important way. Reading stretches a person, but it stretches her slowly. The pace of reading is such that digestion can happen almost as the reading happens–unlike a video that can smack you with information before you get any time to process it. You can put down a book and look up a word in the dictionary (or ask your mom or your BFF what something means) and go right back to where you left off and read on. (Or you can let that word sail over your head and get on with the rest of the book as I so often did in childhood.)

There’s something inherently educational–and self-educational at that (which I think is the best kind of education)–about reading, even when the material is less than great, or simply beyond you.

So I guess that’s me, with a big no on the question of whether or not to rate books for teens. What do you think?

* And no, I’m not so naive as to think that my kids won’t curse behind my back, among their friends, just like I did as a tween/teen. But the Official Family Rule still molded my understanding of cursing in a way I want my children to learn as well.

The Dead Lesbian Rides Again!

Gertrude and Alice, Happy Together in 1934

Recently, Sarah, purveyor of all things sparkly and romantic for lesbian teens, got my attention with her revolt against so-called realism in young adult stories featuring queer characters. She points out two important things, one, that in this case “realism” means an unhappy ending and two, that only the queer characters (usually not the main characters, but their gay friends) are subject to this rule of the realistic.

It’s a bit of a reverse “It Gets Better” campaign I suppose. After all, in order for it to get better in the future, it has to be rotten now, right? Maybe. But not necessarily (especially, but not exclusively, in books that, as Sarah points out, are full of fantastical elements of all kinds).

To a certain extent, Sarah’s post reminded me of my own recent musings about why the coming-out story–though it will probably always be relevant–is not the only one that matters in young adult fiction featuring queer kids. But most of all, Sarah’s post got me thinking about the Trope of the Dead Lesbian.

For the past–oh–two hundred years, a lesbian in books, plays and film has pretty much been consigned to two possible endings: either she dies or her love interest leaves her for a man. There are variations on these endings of course. Maybe it’s a murder-suicide and both women die! Maybe she gives up her love interest willingly because she knows she’s not as good as a man. Maybe the man kills her and “rescues” her love interest from her debauchery.

When I began writing stories that featured women who were passionate about other women (“lesbian” being a bit of an anachronism in my historical fiction) I swore that none of my main characters would die tragically and they would all get happy endings. Perhaps that’s a bit of a give-away, but plenty of drama can occur without the whole story ending in some Jacobean bloodbath. After all, we know that the main characters in, say, Star Trek are not going to die (that’s what the nameless red shirts are for, right?) but we watch with rapt attention and bated breath anyway, right up to that last split-second when everyone is saved by tetrion particles. (By “we” of course, I mean, um, “I.”) There are undoubtedly good, artistic, educative, and interesting reasons to let your lesbian die in fiction, but someone else can have that job. Mine are going to be breathing on the last page.
Boardwalk Empire [spoiler alert]did this three episodes ago and crushed my hope that we had entered an era in which we could follow the story of a lesbian into territory that did not include blood and/or an utterly broken heart. Instead, a truly Jacobean bloodbath–two, mostly naked, dead lesbians–ended Angela’s subplot. (Last season, poor, long-suffering Angela got the “love interest leaves with a man” ending, but since the whys and wherefores of that leaving were left a bit hazy, I kept hoping HBO would turn her story around. Instead, Angela got both tragedies.) It would be one thing if this were only one of the many lesbian stories out there, but to me it was proof that HBO was only using the lesbians as a sensational motif to prove their edginess, rather than having any interest in telling a story about a lesbian in the 1920s.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again, “lesbian chic” means it’s cool to know a lesbian. It’s still not so cool to actually be a lesbian.

Was Angela’s demise “realistic?” I’d argue that it was less realistic than a considerably happier ending might have been. There are all kinds of ways it could have gone. She could have had an open agreement with Jimmy–whom she was coming to respect and treat with honesty, and he, her–and had her affairs on the side, just as he did. She could have left him, as planned in Season One, with less drama and fanfare and moved to a bigger city with her new girl friend as a “roommate” and lived as a typist or a magazine advertising illustrator and raised Tommy. She might have survived Jimmy’s death and inherited the Commodore’s money and started some very interesting combat with Jillian. In short, I can see all kinds of “realistic” dramatically interesting, lesbian plots for Angela that don’t require her bloody demise on the bedroom floor and maintain the show’s gritty realism and intense character relationships.

Hey, HBO, wanna hire me?

The fact is, most lesbians have the same basic life trajectories as anyone else. Some die tragically. Some commit suicide. Some have their hearts broken (well, probably nearly all have their hearts broken sometime, just like everyone else). But most just live a mundane life with its highs and lows, its conflicts and injustices, its triumphs and its long stretches of peaceful, uneventful contentment. Just because there is homophobia in the world (and in history, though over time, oppressive structures shift and change in their strategies and so are different, in different times and places) doesn’t mean it is unrealistic to show happy queers. After all, we are GAY, right? If anyone knows how to sparkle in the face of adversity, it is my people!

Not to mention, there is/was sexism, racism, rapacious Captialism and class oppression, ableism, etc. ad infinatum and yet, people oppressed by these things manage to still pull out some satisfaction in life. There’s no reason “realistic” has to mean “unhappy” in any kind of writing.

I’m a happy lesbian and I’m here to attest it.

Crossing, Dressing, Queering…

Calamity Jane performed for Buffalo Bill’s wild west show.

Malindo Lo recently posted a discussion of cross-dressing in her book, Ash, on her blog. Lo felt that some of the responses to a cross-dressing scene in Ash, though interesting, didn’t quite get at the difference between cross-dressing in an essentially “straight” story and cross-dressing in a queer one.

She mentions that in your common, “straight” cross-dressing story, a same-sex attraction between the cross-dressed character and the “really” male (or female or what-have-you) character is a problem until the cross-dressing is revealed, allowing the audience/reader to breathe a sigh of relief that everyone was heterosexual after all. Such resolutions annoy Lo.

Understandably so. They are annoying if only because they are so old.  Emma Donoghue’s recent romp through all literature lesbian for the past–well, ever, gives countless examples of this sort of plot in early European literature from plays based on Classical myth to early novels. She calls it the “Female Bridegroom” plot. A woman falls for another woman disguised as a man and then the other woman is changed into a man or has a look-alike brother (think of Viola and Sebastian in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” for example) who replaces her and all ends happily.

Yes, heterosexuality is reinstated as the triumphant norm. But as Claudia Tate used to say “once those worms are out, you can’t stuff them back into the can.” Afterall, isn’t there something a little suspicious and unbelievable about Sebastian stepping in for Viola at the last minute? Don’t think Elizabethans were just so dumb that they thought it wouldn’t make a difference. They were scratching their heads, vaguely unsatisfied with that ending too.

But Shakespeare is technically off the hook, having shoved the worms, squirming, back into the can.

Add the fact that all the women in Shakespeare’s plays were played by men dressed as women, and you get yet another layer of meaning that makes a smart theatre-goer wink knowingly.

So although it is sort of a resolution to change the genders back to “normal” at the end of the modern cross-dressing story, the fact is, for a moment, the “wrong” person was attracted to the “wrong” person and we all got to watch that and think about it for  awhile. It raised questions that really didn’t get answered, that we will leave the story still asking, like “but Sebastian isn’t Viola, even if he looks a lot like her.”

The thing is, in 2011, it shouldn’t be so odd and titillating to think about that–especially if only temporarily. Or it seems to some of us that it shouldn’t be. But clearly, it still is. And therefor, it’s still a queer story, if not a homosexual one. At least it is queer on some level (and maybe a rather reactionary one).

But Lo wants to talk about what cross-dressing means in an out and proud queer story and she asserts that there is a difference.

I have to agree with her. Cross-dressing in a book like Tipping the Velvet is not just about tricking people–in fact it’s very little about tricking anyone, because the performers doing it are doing it with an open fourth-wall-wink to their audience. it’s titillating because it is women in trousers, not because it’s attractive men. And women in trousers in the late Victorian era are titillating at least partly because they were daring to cross a boundary set up as the border between decency and…something else. So it was sexy.

Cross-dressing in other queer contexts could mean other things too–but in a historical setting (or in Lo’s fairy tale setting in which the genders are divided by clothing most of the time) it at least means this (transgression of a decency boundary).

In my writing, there is a lot of cross-dressing. I have found an almost infinite well of interest in writing about it, because I have a visceral sense of what cross-dressing means to me that I have never found represented in literature–at least not for more than a tiny moment here and there.

Even Tipping the Velvet (which I love, which is a fabulous representation of what it represents) doesn’t represent certain other kinds of cross-dressing that interest me or that I have experienced in my own life or found intriguing historically. That is, in Tipping the Velvet, the cross-dressing occurs on stage, as overt performance rather than the kind of performance in everyday life post-marxist gender and performance studies have theorized. Off-stage, the girls are girls, wear proper female attire and are in a fairly femme-femme kind of sexual relationship. The exception to this is when Nan is a kept “boy” in a rather unhealthy situation and her boyness seems almost symbolic of her immaturity. When she grows up, she’s a woman, for the most part, and only takes out her trousers for an occasional lark.

Like I said, this is an excellent representation of something. It’s real. But it isn’t the only something out there in the realm of cross-dressing in women’s lives and history. And I’m personally even more interested in some of those other somethings.

Some characters in my writing live as men. At some point in childhood they made a conscious decision to switch genders for both practical and personal reasons and stuck with it. They think of themselves as “men with a difference.” Some of my characters put on male disguise for short-term purposes. Some are known by their peers as women but go out as men anonymously on occasion.

There are historical examples of all of these things. The “men with a difference” are rather closely akin to the contemporary butch lesbians of my world, as they are to transgendered men. (Though it would be anachronistic to say they are either of these–these did not exist in the time of my writing and what did exist then does not exist now.)

And then there are the women (oh yes, and men!) who are attracted to and/or in love with these characters. Some are “girls” who just accept the cross-dresser as a boy. Some are women who specifically prefer “men with a difference” to typical men. Some are other boys or other cross-dressing girls. And of course there is the attraction of wanting to be like versus attraction to, and sometimes these overlap. Yum!

All this is to say that the “female bridegroom,” the trousers-for-a-lark showgirl, the “man with a difference” and the girl in temporary disguise are all queer to me. I think we need as many of these stories as we can generate. The more the better. Because as I am always saying, there are as many genders as there are people on the planet, and it would make for some entertaining (not to mention educational) reading to have a story about each of them.

Excerpt: Eleanor and Joe in Arizona

“Do you ride, Miss Stephens?”  Joe asked late the next morning from the kitchen doorway.  Eleanor sat at the table with her manuscript before her and a cup of coffee in her hand.

“I hunt sometimes when I’m in the country,” Eleanor answered carefully.  She was still worried about the western saddles, and had been hoping no one would ask her to try one.  She put down her coffee and stepped to the doorway.  Over Joe’s shoulder, she could see two horses tied to a post.  One wore a saddle like the ones she’d seen on the horses Lillian and Eden had ridden to the ranch.  The other wore an ordinary saddle, and Eleanor felt a flood of relief.

“Can I offer you a tour of the place?” Joe said now.  Eleanor agreed.

The “tour” was really just a ramble through the wilderness as far as Eleanor could tell.  After three quarters of an hour of climbing up and around brushy hills, they came to a wide, stone slash in the earth through which a small stream of water trickled.  Clumps of twisted, thorny trees with tiny fronds for leaves sat here and there scattered among the small boulders along the creek bed.

Joe dismounted her horse and led it to the edge of the water.  The animal drank thirstily and Eleanor followed Joe’s example, dismounting and letting her horse drink too.

Presently, Joe asked “shall we sit in the shade, Miss Stephens?” and gestured to some large flat rocks as if they were a sofa in a well furnished drawing room.

Eleanor let Joe take her horse and tie it to one of the trees.  The animals began to nose among the sparse weeds between the stones.

It came to Eleanor that if this were a novel, Joe would have some sinister plan to dispose of her here in the middle of the desert where no one would find her before the ravens had picked clean her bones.

But Joe made no violent overtures.  Instead, she sat on the boulder nearest Eleanor’s and contemplated God knows what before breaking the awkward silence.

“Do you think your fortune can buy her?”

***

I love it when the characters in my novel imagine themselves as characters in a novel.