November 26, 2014

Lesbian Writers on Forbidden Territory: Room For More

Posted on 25. Feb, 2010 by in Features

I am a lesbian novelist.  I’ve had an active relationship with queer literary culture ever since I published my first poem in a lesbian journal in 1985.  Folks who know my work tend to look startled when I tell them that I’ve recently finished the manuscript of a novel about eighteenth century Calvinist minister  Jonathan Edwards.  I understand the raised eyebrows, but it breaks my heart that women’s writing  vanishes even from queer and feminist media when it strays from narrowly proscribed topics.  Engaging with ambitious work by women writers without restriction as to subject is the only way to fully tap into the power of witness and struggle as transformed in our art.

My new work has no explicit LGBT content, but my lesbian sensibility is there in every word. Reading other lesbian writers, publishing with feminist presses, and spending time every week in lesbian writers groups taught me to stay with the effort to find words for experiences that I didn’t know how to talk about. Lesbians taught me to trust my instincts about when a story was worth telling, even if it seemed that nobody around me could possibly be interested. It has been frightening (and exhilarating) for me as a writer who loves and needs her communities to spend the past few years writing a novel about religious history, but it was lesbians who taught me how to tell the stories that arise from venturing into what feels like forbidden territory.

The territory feels forbidden, except that Protestant religious history is part of what formed contemporary U.S. culture, and it is part of what formed me, too. In writing this book, I felt tremendous responsibility to be as true as I could to the historical, ideological and emotional realities of that earlier time and place as I understood them, and to give each character as compelling a voice as I could. I know what it is to have my own voice distorted, devalued and ignored.

I want my work to continue to be part of the LGBT literary conversation even as it enters into other conversations, too. Not only that: I want to see more extensive discussion of books like Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been, a tremendously moving novel about mountaintop removal coal mining. It includes original and devastating depictions of gendered experience, but it is the intensity of the book as a whole that makes it feel so much a part of the urgent tradition that taught me to write.

The women’s movement created journals, presses and bookstores willing to traffic in writing like mine out of collective need and engaged dreams. Both need and dreams have matured enough to support our writers as we imagine more of the world, including lives different than our own. There has to be room in contemporary LGBT publishing for women to keep expanding the scope and reach of the books we write.

Susan Stinson is the author of four novels, most recently 'Spider in a Tree' from Small Beer Press. She is a winner of the Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist prize from Lambda Literary Foundation.

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3 Responses to “Lesbian Writers on Forbidden Territory: Room For More”

  1. Lynne Jamneck 1 March 2010 at 8:42 PM #

    Hi Susan,

    I hear you. I recently wrote about the same thing at Velvet Park.
    http://www.velvetparkmedia.com/blogs/lesbian-fiction-past-its-shelf-life

    The narrowed scope of writing encouraged in some GLBT publishing circles drives me insane. it’s nice to see someone else voice the same concerns.

  2. cicely 2 March 2010 at 4:29 PM #

    thank you

    i’m not certain i would have understood how deeply the mores of queer culture affect an author when the subject isn’t … queer culture

  3. Mikaya Heart 18 March 2010 at 8:39 PM #

    As another lesbian author who writes about many subjects other than lesbianism, I certainly second what you are saying. I have had work refused by lesbian publishers because although its central theme is lesbianism, it contains references to sex with men. Please — we are multi-faceted individuals.


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