‘Sinister Wisdom’: The Oldest Surviving Lesbian Literary Journal
Author: Edit Team
October 21, 2012
Sinister Wisdom is one of the greatest historical resources for the lesbian community. As the oldest surviving lesbian literary journal, it is now celebrating 37 years in publishing. Devoted to publishing work that represents the whole spectrum of lesbian lives, Sinister Wisdom emphasizes lesbians’ voices with a variety of complex identities. Since its inception it has provided the platform for vital discussion in the lesbian community and has created a nurturing space for lesbians to develop and grow.
In preparation for its 87th issue, a tribute issue to the late Adrienne Rich, Sinister Wisdom is hoping to raise funds through their Indiegogo campaign. To support this campaign, Sinister Wisdom volunteer Lori DeGolyer interviews current co-editor Julie Enszer about the life and history of Sinister Wisdom.
Lori DeGolyer: What is the story of Sinister Wisdom? How did it begin?
Julie Enszer: Harriet Desmoines and Catherine Nicholson started Sinister Wisdom in 1976. They were mourning the loss of Amazon Quarterly, a journal published out of Oakland, CA from 1972 until 1975. The mid-70s were a period of tremendous feminist and lesbian-feminist activism all over the United States. Vibrant insights drawn from feminist theory, consciousness-raising groups, and women organizing created an environment in which eliminating patriarchy seemed imminently possible with the right analyses and interventions. Women communicated in their local communities, and Charlotte, NC was the site of a number of feminist projects, and nationally through feminist journals, newspapers, and personal networks. With this elixir of feminist dreams and possibilities, Desmoines and Nicholson committed their time and energy for one year to publish three issues of Sinister Wisdom. Women loved it; subscriptions rolled in and one year turned into two. Now 37 years later Sinister Wisdom is still publishing, three issues a year, in the volunteer tradition that was started by Desmoines and Nicholson and continued by a string of editors including Michelle Cliff and Adrienne Rich, Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz, and most recently Fran Day.
LD: What types of work does Sinister Wisdom publish?
JE: Sinister Wisdom publishes poetry, fiction, non-fiction, book reviews, lesbian theory, art and photography. It is interesting to read the journal over the past 37 years because what is published, both in terms of content as well as form, reflects what is important to different parts of the lesbian community. Two special issues in the early years of Sinister Wisdom focused on lesbian-feminist publishing, which was a big topic of conversation among lesbian-feminists; women were concerned about building their own literary traditions. The last issue edited by Fran Day was titled “Willing Up and Keeling Over.” It was a reprint of a book from Australia that is a lesbian handbook on death rights and rituals. We have forthcoming themes on lesbians in health care and lesbians in exile. So, both the content and the forms of creative expression in Sinister Wisdom are wide-ranging.
LD: Who can publish work in Sinister Wisdom?
JE: Sinister Wisdom publishes work by lesbians. In our submissions guidelines, we say, “We are particularly interested in work that reflects the diversity of our experiences: as lesbians of color, ethnic lesbians, Jewish, Arab, old, young, working class, poverty class, disabled, fat. We welcome experimental work. We will not print anything that is oppressive or demeaning to lesbians or women, or that perpetuates stereotypes. “
As editors, Merry Gangemi and I are committed to continuing the tradition of Sinister Wisdom as a journal that expresses lesbian imaginations.
LD: Why a journal for lesbians, and most specifically lesbians of color, Jewish lesbians, disabled lesbians, etc.?
JE: Sinister Wisdom’s first priority is to be a journal for lesbians. We believe that without dedicated care and attention lesbian work can be lost as a result of homophobia and sexism. The second part of our charge is to publish works that represent the diversity of lesbian lives. I understand this mandate as coming out of the important work of lesbian-feminists in the 1980s to expand the conversations about different intersecting identities that lesbians have—race, ability, ethnicity, age, etc. As a historian, one of the ideas that vexes me is the notion that feminists during the 1970s and 1980s didn’t address questions of race and instead envisioned a monolithic “sisterhood.” Certainly, there are elements of truth in that, but feminists and lesbian-feminists, in particular, were concerned deeply about addressing multiple forms of oppression in women’s lives.
In fact, lesbian-feminist publishing is responsible for some of the most significant books that elaborate intersectional identities including This Bridge Called My Back, Nice Jewish Girls, A Gathering of Spirit (about Native American lesbians—and first published as an issue of Sinister Wisdom), The Tribe of Dina (about Jewish lesbians—and also first published as an issue of Sinister Wisdom), Zami—A New Spelling of My Name, and Conditions: The Black Women’s Issue. This isn’t to suggest that the 1970s or 1980s were a utopian moment of addressing racism, anti-Semitism, or other forms of oppression. There were many difficult and uncomfortable moments, but there was a deep commitment to thinking about race, ethnicity, gender, and class together in women’s lives.
Sinister Wisdom seeks to continue that tradition in the journal.
LD: How does the history of this publication connect to the history of the LGBTQ community? What does Sinister Wisdom bring to the LGBTQ community today?
JE: Merry and I both come from a history of LGBTQ activism and care passionately about the shared work that queer activists can do together. At the same time, we value the work that people can do in like-minded enclaves. We hope that Sinister Wisdom has the effect of encouraging and nurturing lesbian creativity so that lesbian writers and artists can use their work as a platform to connecting with the LGBTQ communities and with broader reader communities as well.
LD: What is some of the most interesting material you’ve seen come through Sinister Wisdom?
JE: I love the submissions that we get from prisoners. Women write us fantastic letters about their experiences reading Sinister Wisdom in prison and send us poems and stories. They are all wonderful and I love them. Since 1981, Sinister Wisdom has made subscriptions to the journal free to women in prison. It’s not a cheap proposition, but it is one that we are all deeply committed to. Sinister Wisdom can be a real lifeline for incarcerated women.
LD: I’m really glad you mentioned Sinister Wisdom’s relationship with incarcerated women. Do incarcerated trans women also get free subscriptions?
JE: Absolutely! We mail free subscriptions to all incarcerated women who request them.
LD: Why does Sinister Wisdom continue to publish in print?
Ah! A great question. Because we love print. We love having objects to hold in our hands. We love creating things for lesbians to hold, caress, and cherish. The tradition of Sinister Wisdom has been as a journal and we are continuing that tradition. I hope that it won’t be necessary economically to move to publishing online only. Though we have just upgraded our website at www.SinisterWisdom.org and we see the web as an important way to reach people. But we also see the value of print journals. They require us to think carefully about words and arguments. On the web, publishing is a bit more ephemeral—mistakes can be corrected quickly and easily—but it is less portable. Books can go anywhere and mistakes that we make are in them forever. Book publishing is slower and in some ways more permanent. That’s why we continue to publish in print, because we want there to be a permanent record of lesbian lives and concerns.
Sinister Wisdom’s fall fundraising campaign is open between now and October 30th. For more information about Sinister Wisdom and its work, go to www.SinisterWisdom.org.
Lori DeGolyer is a Brooklyn-based writer and volunteer for Sinister Wisdom.