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Cher was the first lesbian I saw on the silver screen. She played Dolly Pelliker, Karen’s roommate in the 1983 film Silkwood. Dolly was based on Dusty Ellis, a lesbian and activist who died in 2012 from cancer, likely caused by her exposure to plutonium while working at the Kerr-McGee plant near Crescent, Oklahoma. Dolly, Karen, and Karen’s boyfriend, Drew, live together in a simple house with spare furnishings; the most prominent feature is a confederate flag over the bed of Karen and Drew. All three work at the Kerr-McGee plant, negotiating time off to visit Karen’s children who live with their father down in Texas. Among the many complex portrayals of this film is Karen as a non-custodial mother, a role that remains taboo today.
One morning, as Dolly emerges from her room, Karen and Drew laugh and comment on the noise last night from the bedroom. Clearly, there was a rollicking overnight guest. Then Angela walks out. Dolly says, This here is Angela. She’s a beautician. Both of them walk out of the house and head to work. In the next scene, Drew and Karen drive to work, and Drew says to Karen, Personally I don’t see anything wrong with it. Karen replies, Me neither. Then they both wonder, Why are we still talking about it.
Thirty-five years later, we are still talking about it: what happens when women lie with women?
What happens when women lie with women? This question is literal: what happens when women lie down together? How do they make love, experience their bodies, dwell in the corporeality of the world they create, of a material world that is not their making, a world that was and remains hostile to their existence? Lesbian literature explores the literal aspects of these questions, writing lesbian erotics, lesbian sexuality, lesbian desire, and lesbian experiences into poetry, novels, short stories, and other creative work.
The question, what happens when women lie with women?, is also metaphorical. Lying down with women is not only what we do with other women; we also lie down with women when we read, watch films, listen to music, and engage in other creative, recreational pleasures. Lying down is one of the first things I do with books. I take them to bed; I lie down on the couch; I recline in a chair. Ninety percent of the time, I am lying down with women, and women authors and women.
What happens when readers lie down with women?
This meditation on reading practices, particularly lesbian reading practices and associated reflections about class and liberation, is inspired by Barrie Jean Borich’s stunning new book Apocalypse, Darling. Apocalypse, Darling is simply an extraordinary achievement from a writer occupying her full power as an artist.
To excavate the meaning of Apocalypse, Darling, I want to offer readings from key passages. I want to revisit the pleasures of her earlier books as they lie one atop another. I want to situate Borich’s work in relationship to her progenitors, offering a brief genealogy of lesbian essayists; throughout, I want to continue to think about Silkwood (coupled with another popular culture digression) and how and why that film is important to Borich’s work, to lesbian-feminist theory, to creative non-fiction, and to the question, what happens when women lie with women? Sit back, relax, even lie down, if you want to ride along.
Borich has been exploring the question, What happens when women lie with women?, throughout her creative oeuvre. In heartfelt and sexy personal prose, Borich provides a window into seeing and understanding lesbian bodies and desire over the past twenty-five years.
In her first collection, Restoring the Color of Roses (Firebrand Books, 1993), Borich writes her girl-child body in “A Body’s Documentary.” She concludes the meditation on bodily discomfort, anxiety about her body’s size and appearance, and frank memories of rape and sexual harassment with this description of a lake swim:
My new swimsuit was two-piece, size twelve. I stood on the grassy beach, dropped my towel. Did I look too fat in my bathing suit? No one was here to look at me. I entered the lake, its water lukewarm from the drought. I dove under, opened my eyes. The water was golden with clay from the lake bottom, and I was golden too. I surfaced silently, and the water barely rippled. My body, the body of the lake—there was no separation between us. I floated, on my back, until the night sky darkened and I could see the first bright glint of stars.
Reveling in the relationship between the natural world and the lesbian body, Borich asserts there is no separation between the two. While some critics may read this characterization as essentializing, I argue that this linkage between a lesbian body, in this specific instance a late adolescent, emerging lesbian body, and the lake, suffering still from a drought, validates lesbian existence as symbiotic with the natural world. This validation was particularly significant to contemporaneous readers in the mid-1990s; homosexuality, while not illegal, was pathologized and stigmatized as unnatural. Rather than essentializing lesbian bodies, Borich resists and reimagines negative ideas about lesbian bodies.
Particularly beautiful is the description of floating at the end of the passage: lying on her back as the night sky grows dark and the stars emerge. This lesbian pastoral is one response to the question, what happens when women lie with women? The question, the call and response, contains beneath the surface an even more intimate challenge: what happens when women lie with themselves, when women know and value their own bodies, their own darkened, rippled, starry being?
Later, in Restoring the Color of Roses, Borich writes a catalogue of kisses, lesbian and non-. “The Kiss,” concludes with this evocative passage:
It was the way she was in her body that made me fall in love with Angela, that loose-in-her-skin, boy-on-a-skateboard ease. In bed, I fell to her, laid down flat on my back and opened my legs as far as they would widen, but she never stung me. She made me feel beautiful, like a beautiful girl in a yellow-beaded bra, and I liked it. I liked being her girly girl.
Borich both describes what happens when women lie with women and also responds to persistent debates about gender roles and role play within lesbian communities with a full-throated defense of femme, femininity, and beauty as relevant and meaningful to lesbians. She continues:
Then I flipped her over and she fell to me, not girlish, but bashful, embarrassed to be on her back, like it was unnatural but she’d do it, just for me, her cunt reddening, wanting my fingers, my mouth.
Again, the question of natural and unnatural appears, a persistent cultural dichotomy demanding attention. Reading Borich in conjunction with decades of lesbian writers demonstrates questions of natural and unnatural as recurrent, shifting, and responsive to larger cultural conversations about lesbians. Who we are, what happens in our lives, our daily experiences, the wonder of our bodies, are all shaped by shifting cultural conversations. Like gender roles, “what is natural and what is unnatural” are consuming metaphors as lesbians craft identities and sexual practices. Borich describes yielding to desire as one response. The essay concludes: “Then she flipped me back over again. When I came, I heard a small voice in the back of my throat whispering, This is me, this is me, this is me.”
Like the speaker in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room,” who as a young child recognizes herself as a separate person, as an ‘I’, Borich recognizes herself in the intimate act of being with a woman. She hears a small voice, as the speaker in Bishop’s poem, as the still small voice Elijah hears in the Torah, it whispers: This is me.
Recognition of self is often a crucial moment in essays. As a genre, creative non-fiction has grown tremendously over the past fifty years. A publishing boom of memoirs in the 1990s and an increase in the availability of personal stories through social media make creative nonfiction a vibrant and growing literary form.
One of the central craft challenges of creative nonfiction is the assembly of an authentic yet fictive ‘I.’ Lesbians have been doing that work for generations, taking up the challenge of writing the self in opposition to pervasive sexism and homophobia. Lesbian writers’ investments in the narrative ‘I’ allowed for the illumination of a singular experience. The narrative ‘I’ that lesbians create imagines a space from which a writer can speak about and observe the broader human experience, particularly the experiences of women in the world.
A collection of essays rarely mentioned in histories and genealogies of lesbian literature is Anita Cornwell’s Black Lesbian in White America. It is a book I love. Born in 1923, Cornwell came of age during the 1940s and 1950s. When Black Liberation and Women’s Liberation emerged, she was a mature woman—and a mature writer. She embraced both movements as meaningful and relevant.
Published by Naiad Press in 1983 when Cornwell was sixty years old, Black Lesbian in White America contains essays published in feminist and lesbian magazines during the 1970s. When it was published, writing by Black lesbians flourished and sold many books (think of This Bridge Called My Back (1981) and Home Girls (1983), among other titles), but Cornwell’s book was not a hit. It had only modest sales, and it did not catapult Cornwell into broader conversations in lesbian communities. Despite these realities, it is a book worthy of contemporary engagement.
An interview between Cornwell and Audre Lorde grounds Black Lesbian in White America. In addition to an interview, the narrative describes a visit between the two writers and the ideas and concerns that they share while visiting. The occasion was Lorde driving “down to Philadelphia to my home in Powelton Village one simmering summer-like afternoon in late May to give a poetry reading that night.” The conversation continues until Lorde departs the next morning. An edited transcription provides elements of Lorde’s life story and also illuminates shared camaraderie. Lorde says, “Of course, I am speaking of it [pain] in larger terms than just of us as writers. As writers we share a double knowledge that is both tortured and triumphant. Right? A knowledge that is both hard to bear and yet is our salvation.” Shared knowledge as writers forges intimacy between Lorde and Cornwell evoking the emotional tenor of the book: Cornwell is in serious conversations with women.
In Black Lesbian in White America, Cornwell explores the nature of intersecting, overlapping, compounding oppression through the lenses of race, sex, sexual orientation, and age. Divided into three parts, the first contains six political essays. The second is an interview with Lorde. The third is autobiographical. The fourth is a series of letters titled “Lament for Two Bamboozled Sisters.” Gathering nonfiction conventions (discursive writing, letters, and interviews), Cornwell stages intimate narratives between and among women.
In the introduction, Becky Birtha praises Cornwell’s writing as forceful and fearless “in a compelling and outspoken voice.” Birtha appreciates that she is “not afraid to take a stand and speak her mind on even the most controversial subjects.” Reading Cornwell decades later, I love the instructive, and at times didactic, voice in her essays. Cornwell tells her readers what she thinks. She also, just as importantly, tells them why they should think like her. The essays uncovers a variety of fissures as they think about blackness, queerness, feminism. Cornwell dismisses role-playing (butch-femme) among lesbians and embraces a more egalitarian vision of women’s relationships (a position Borich—and many others—critique). She challenges straight black women to address sexism and white lesbians to address racism. Cornwell’s autobiographical stories reveal her many intimacies with women as well as the challenges of sustaining intimate relationships. Throughout the entire collection is the assured voice of conviction. Cornwell consistently deploys an I; the I of a black lesbian.
As a journalist, Cornwell wrote for Negro Digest and The Ladder, then for a variety of feminist and lesbian-feminist journals. Collected, her work provides not only the compelling first person narrative of a lesbian life lived boldly and powerfully, but also a glimpse into a longer past of lesbians, of lesbians writing, and of lesbians lying down with women. Today, thirty-five years after publication, Black Lesbian in White America provides another genealogy to explore the question, what happens when women lie with women?
In Silkwood, there is a luscious scene with Dolly and Angela lying together on an old couch. Angela paints Dolly’s toenails. The couch looks uncomfortable–old and battered and with little softness in its cushions. Karen sits next to them in an equally uncomfortable-looking chair; yet, the conversation among the women is vibrant. Together they share an intimate electricity. The tenderness between Dolly and Angela as Angela polishes Dolly’s toenails is palpable. Dolly is a take-no-shit butch lesbian (as butch as one could be in the early 80s on the silver screen); toe nail polish is not her métier, but she loves Angela and Angela loves all manner of personal maintenance, so Dolly models make up and new hair styles and willingly receives pedicures while Karen witnesses these visible expressions of lesbian intimacy.
In fact, many of the women characters share an intimacy of friendship and camaraderie. Women working at the plant share the triumphs and fears of daily life: sickness, medical treatments, children. At one emotional climax, both Dolly and Karen are heartbroken: Drew left frustrated with Karen’s increasing involvement with the union, and Angela went back to her husband. They have only each other. They sit on a wooden swing on the porch and embrace. The tenderness, the mutual affection and support, is palpable.
My imperfect memory tells me that I was too young to see the film in theatrical release and likely saw it on VHS. Only later did I realize Cher was an icon for gay men. At the time I first watched Silkwood, probably fourteen–or fifteen-years-old, I knew I wanted to lie down with women. Dolly and Angela in the unmade full-size bed. Dolly and Angela lounging on the couch. Dolly and Karen on that wooden swing on the front porch. Many bad things happen to women in the world, but some healing, some comfort happens when women lie down together.
For a long time, what happened when women lie with women was outside the law. Even some sodomy laws often could not conceptualize the carnality of two women together. Now, a few short years post-Obergefell, the time when two women could not marry is a thing of the past. A generation comes of age not knowing a time before marriage, before Edie Windsor, when lesbians and lesbian love lived outside the law and domestic partnerships or Massachusetts-marriages seemed an achievement. Borich’s second book My Lesbian Husband is now a history of a time before.
For years and years, My Lesbian Husband was one of my favorite books. I loved the disarming sense of the title, the way it challenges gender, juxtaposing lesbian (female) with husband (male). I loved how Borich sustained looking at and thinking about lesbian relationships. She holds lesbians at the center, making our lives central. She insightfully examined the conditions of our lives when we built long-term relationships but lived in worlds where those relationships were often not recognized. She describes the conditions as “that queer way we learn to roll with a language we are at once completely a part of and completely excluded from.” When I picked up My Lesbian Husband to reread it, I wondered, how would it hold up in the world of legalized gay marriage?
My Lesbian Husband opens with a question: “Linnea and I have been lovers for all these years, and I wonder—are we married?” When My Lesbian Husband was published in 1999, the question was cheeky. Few could imagine the possibility of two women being married legally, legitimately, with state recognition. Borich’s sustained meditation explores what makes a lesbian relationship. Part of her answer is shared time, a shared life, another is shared purchases. Borich writes, “we’re at home, lying side-by-side in the king-sized bed that we bought with our only joint charge card (Slumberland). The bed is one of just three joint purchases we’ve made in our first seven years.” Again, lesbians lying down together and the material conditions that make that possible—the shared bed, the joint purchase, the charge card.
My Lesbian Husband situates lesbian relationships in a complicated, messy world of long-term intimacy. While the title heralds lesbianism as its center, the book explores broader, human questions about relationships, using lesbian not as a norm, but as an interesting alternate data point, a place to center attention at the margin to illuminate a whole.
Before lesbian couples were extracted by political organizations as exemplars of normative domesticity, Borich wrote our lives in complicated ways that both resist and affirm domesticity. Of course, My Lesbian Husband was not read that way when it came out. Lesbian books were for lesbians then. Imagining the possibilities of lesbians speaking to a broader readership was challenging. Contemporary successes where diverse audiences appreciate lesbian work (think of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and the novels of Sarah Waters) had not yet been achieved. In My Lesbian Husband, Borich imagines that future.
The first woman I loved loved reading literary essays. I recall that she studied with Dinty Moore at Interlochen in high school but have found no evidence that he taught there; memory is insistent, however, so I write those words without proof. I know at Interlochen she discovered Mary Oliver, a poet we both loved and about whose sexuality we actively debated: all of the books are dedicated to Molly, to M, she must be a lesbian!, I declared repeatedly. She would reply, Just because you love an author doesn’t make her a lesbian. More than a decade later, my assertions seemed prescient but, back then, debate raged. On lazy Saturday afternoons, first in dorms then in a co-op, we would lie down, together but apart, on separate twin beds. She inhaled books by Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez. I tried to read them, but my tastes ran to poetry and women. (Much later, I circled back to Annie Dillard; it was love, but that is another story.)
Then I discovered essays by Mab Segrest and Minnie Bruce Pratt. Here memory again fails me. Certainly in those years, the late 1980s, I discovered Segrest’s collection, My Mama’s Dead Squirrel, published by Firebrand Books. My Mama’s Dead Squirrel was one of Nancy Bereano’s early titles for Firebrand Books, published in the 1985 fall season. I would have discovered it through the Women’s Studies Library at the University of Michigan, a small alcove in the department with a few ratty chairs and rows of disorganized books.
Pratt’s essay collection, Rebellion, did not appear until 1991; by then, my first love and I no longer shared twin beds. In my mind, I can see us lying in the co-op: her reading about a stone, me holding the pages of Pratt with its colorful, flowery cover. Though I can see it in my memory, facts tell me this scene never happened. Memory as fallible as love is fleeting. The only defense I can offer is that the second essay of the collection, “Identity: Skin Blood Heart,” originally delivered as a speech to the National Women’s Studies Association in 1983, was assigned reading in one of my women’s studies classes. I could have curled up with photostatic pages reading Pratt’s words while my best friend read about creeks and wheels. The image of me shuffling black and white eight and a half by elevens when ink still smeared is less idyllic than us lying together side-by-side both with bound books. Memory is more compelling than facts, but one remains: we were both lying together, both lying with books, both lying with women.
Pratt and Segrest are important writers for thinking about a lineage of lesbian-feminist essayists. Now each is known for different contributions: Pratt, a poet; Segrest, a women’s studies professor and anti-racist activist. Essayist overlaps with all these identities. Pratt and Segrest are pivotal to my own intellectual development and more importantly to an articulation of my values as a feminist, as an activist, as a lesbian. My Mama’s Dead Squirrel and Rebellion demonstrate how lesbian-feminists use essays to call readers into systems of mutual accountability. Through essays and their collections, lesbian-feminists invite readers to think rigorously about accountability to past and present communities of shared concern.
In her introduction, Adrienne Rich describes Segrest as “poet and essayist, granddaughter of a Klansman, lesbian-feminist organizer and editor” and “staff writer and coordinator for an anti-Klan organization in north Carolina.” These different roles highlight some of the issues of concern in the essays. Like Cornwell, Segrest anchors her collection with a dialogic piece in the middle. Segrest is in conversation with Barbara Deming. Deming, a prominent civil rights and peace activist during the 1950s and 1960s, came out as a lesbian and feminist during the 1970s. In “Feminism and Disobedience: Conversations with Barbara Deming,” Segrest assembles “conversations” from six hours of tape recorded conversations that Segrest and Pratt had with Deming in March 1979 exploring truth, anger, civil disobedience, and lesbian activism.
Segrest returns to Deming as the subject of the final essay of the collection written after Deming’s death in August 1984. Segrest describes Deming in the final months of her life as “bald but still beautiful, weighing under one hundred pounds, and naked, wanting to die that way.” This image of Deming naked on the community land trust at Sugarloaf Key is one I cherish. Segrest describes Deming as “our link to an earlier generation of struggle.” Segrest establishes an anti-racist lineage for lesbian-feminists through her conversations with Deming. Together the essays of Segrest and Pratt provide a glimpse into some of the vibrant political conversations of the 1980s. Making linkages backward and forward among lesbian writers and activists reminds contemporary readers when they lie down with women to imagine the many women who have done this before.
Lesbian-feminist genealogies are not dictated by DNA; they emerge like magma from the ground. These genealogies are formed by with whom we lie, for how long, and why.
Barbara Deming’s life and legacy affirm that lesbian’s concerns in the world are not only about other women, not only about lesbianism or feminism. Quite often they involve care for the entire planet. Those concerns, care for the planet, make their way into Borich’s work, particularly in the most recent book, Apocalypse, Darling, and her previous book Body Geographic. They link her with Deming—and with Karen Silkwood.
Revisiting Silkwood offers not only the pleasure of seeing Cher as a lesbian but also a look intothe politics of resistance during the Reagan era. Karen Silkwood’s defiance against the corporation that employs her and her actions on behalf of herself and her co-workers embody a working-class politic where women’s work and women’s activism is central. Unions, worker safety, care for working people, environmental and occupational illness all appear in visual portrayals, quips by characters, and in the framework of the drama itself.
Dolly and Karen care about other women, and they care about the world, even as their lives working in the plutonium plant were bleak. They embody the challenges working women face. Sexual harassment in the workplace is nothing new: Dolly and Karen knew it well working at Kerr-McGee. Wonder about the lives of white working women and why they voted for Donald Trump? Silkwood has some insights. Dolly and Karen live within class divisions in the United States; the crushing consequences of work to the mind and body undermine any and all political alliances. Silkwood also intimates what happens when women lie with women; it is not only sexual, is it intimate, familial, nurturing, and life-giving.
Borich’s first book was published the same year that Melissa Etheridge released the album Yes I Am. For Etheridge aficionados, in this album Etheridge acknowledged that she shared something with her legion of lesbian fans. She, too, was a lesbian. The album title Yes I Am was an affirmation of her sexual orientation.
In the live in LA album, A Little Bit of Me, Etheridge says, It was 20 years ago… Let’s go back. What were we doing in the ‘90s. We didn’t have our mullets any more; we had long hair. And the album was Yes I Am. The crowd screams. In this concert banter, Etheridge tells a brief cultural history of lesbians through hair before she launches into the next song.
The song “Come to My Window” is on the album. For lesbian fans, this song of yearning and desire for another woman that cannot be acknowledged was a favorite. When this song was first popular and getting a lot of radio play, a friend of mine was having an affair with a woman who had another lover. Those of us who knew about the situation understood that our friend was living inside the story of “Come to My Window.” We felt a kinship with Etheridge—and we felt like she knew about our lives and told our stories through her music.
Body Geographic, Borich’s third book, explored the geography and history of Chicago along with jaunts to California, New Orleans, and Ireland among other locales. Like Apocalypse, Darling, Body Geographic is an extraordinary book on the level of language and craft. Borich employs cartography as a central metaphor in the book, translating the visual to the verbal and back again to tell vital stories about family, love, women, and bodies in their lived environs. Body Geographic is enchanting; the rich story it tells about lesbians earned it a Lambda Literary Award in 2014. At the same time, unlike My Lesbian Husband, lesbianism is not at the center of the book. Published in 2013, it heralds the beginning of something new.
In her two most recent books, Borich continues to wrestle with geography, particularly that of the Midwest, and what it means for towns and urban, suburban, and rural spaces to be dying. Borich writes, “By apocalypse I mean my old post-industrial wonderland, the familiar smithereens that run under the Skyway, along Calumet Harbor, between the old East Side ports and Gary, Indiana, and the southeast bottom of Lake Michigan.” Apocalypse, Darling is the physical and emotional geography of Borich’s life. In both books, she maps and remaps these spaces with the precision and challenges of any modern cartographer.
Like Silkwood exploring the dark afterlife of the atomic age–when mid-century, objects like clocks began to feel dated, when the promise of energy “too cheap to meter” had been broken, when the long-term effects of exposure to bomb blasts translated into disease and death–Apocalypse, Darling explores the environmental and economic degradation of the Midwest. While Silkwood’s director Mike Nichols used the bodies of working class women to dramatize the realities of the nuclear age; Borich uses her life and the lives of her family, her father-in-law, his soon-to-be spouse, and her sisters-in-law, to illuminate the post-apocalypse Midwest.
Structurally echoing T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” Borich takes as her epigraph these two lines, “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?” The roots and branches she discovers are those of her family, riffing on rich imagery of genealogy overlaid with Borich’s signature queer sensibilities. From the soon-to-be-spouse of the father-in-law who Borich dubs “the Pink Lady” because she “nearly always wore shades of pink” including when she confuses Borich with her lover, uncertain who is the daughter, who the lover, to the sisters-in-law with their hard-scrabble sensibilities, Borich assembles a powerful set of characters living, surviving, thriving, and struggling in this post-apocalyptic Midwestern world.
If Restoring the Color of Roses and My Lesbian Husband offer direct, albeit complex and partial, answers, Apocalypse, Darling responds obliquely to the question: what happens when women lie with women? Lesbian is in the frame of the work; the lesbian daughter-in-law narrates this family gathering with an outside queer eye. Lesbian occupies a significant position, but lesbianism is hardly the primary concern. While not primary, it is central. The possibilities of sexuality and the body create the yearnings for the future. Consider this passage from Apocalypse, Darling:
I don’t remember where I heard the unconscious described as sensual affinities we are unaware of, yet think about constantly, an endless newsreel projected onto the inside of the forehead that we feel behind the hairline but can’t see. This is how it is with me and my Old Country wasteland, the reason I am a pessimist, expecting the worst so assiduously it seems I also almost wish for brokenness, the reason when I see the desolate Calumet Region of my childhood spread out like a centerfold through the rental car windshield I feel not as if I am returning, but rather that I am awakening, opening my eyes to the familiar wound—that scraped gray earth, that slag and smoke and muddy gravel, even the unlikely hope of a bright blue painted wall that by its brightness brings attention to the bleak—continuing as it always has even while I am away, dreaming the earth is also, sometimes, still, naturally green.
In the opening sentence, Borich describes the unconscious as sensual affinities, as something “we feel” but cannot see. Sexuality, both the sexuality of the body and the sexuality of the mind, inform the geography about which Borich writes. As the passage unfolds, she reveals the desire for the brokenness as well as the dream of a return to the green fecundity of the earth. The desire for brokenness, the ability to inhabit the “slag and smoke and muddy gravel,” is a metaphor for the lived experiences of lesbian over the past sixty years, broken, bleak, desolate. The binary of sickness and health, of brokenness and wholeness, of a gray, post-apocalyptic earth and a dreamy, green earth is a binary of queerness and acceptance that has informed Borich’s entire body of work.
After centering questions of lesbian in her first two books, the realignment of her concerns towards questions of the geography of environmental and economic degradation is striking. Her simultaneity of vision offers engagements with broader questions about lesbian literature. Exposing new fissures in a broader cultural milieu, Borich illuminates what is gained and lost for readers and writers in the bold new queer landscape today.
Silkwood embodies the push and pull I feel between lesbians and the broader straight culture. Well, Silkwood and the Melissa Etheridge track. Today, “Come to My Window” is the jingle on an Applebee’s commercial, advertising the ease and efficiency of the carryout window at the chain restaurant. This commercial is both unsettling and worthy of celebration. Celebration because it achieves a vision: a lesbian singer’s work appeals to mainstream America. One measure of achievement for LGBTQ rights is the moment when a lesbian can speak to and for the entire body politic. In that one thirty-second commercial, Etheridge does just that. I want our work and our lives to be embraced as a part of the human fabric. I want multiple people, including other queer people, heterosexual people, allied people, and even oppositional people, to hold us lesbians up and recognize the value of our art and our lives.
At the same time, the commercial is unsettling. The secret codes that we lesbians once shared with Melissa Etheridge have been undone. We no longer share a special language known only to us, a language that lreads us into an exclusive club. The secret that Etheridge is a lesbian is no more; the secret of the song speaking to lesbian intimacy is no longer. Etheridge’s song now means something banal: get carry out when you are tired after a long day at work. As much as it thrills me to have lesbian art recognized in the broader, straight culture, I also want to keep lesbian culture just for us. I am greedy.
I want intimacy between women to only benefit lesbians and I want intimacy between women to benefit heterosexual women as it did in Silkwood. I want only lesbians to benefit from lesbian energy and I want lesbian energy to make the world better for all people, for all being, for the planet. Some days, it seems, I can have both; other days, I know I cannot. It is a struggle.
I am not alone. We all have overlapping, contradictory alliances. Barrie Jean Borich’s work, particularly her new book Apocalypse, Darling, gives voice and texture to these contradictory impulses. Apocalypse, Darling is the kind of book that lesbian-feminist publishers of earlier decades imagined: a mature, profound work by a writer who grew up in the worlds of lesbian-feminism and lesbian-feminist publishing, work that was nurtured within lesbian-feminist communities and found audiences beyond it. Visionary publishers like June Arnold, Barbara Grier, and Nancy Bereano fueled this dream and made its manifestation possible.
Borich realizes fully the dream of these visionary lesbians. Mapping the complex relationships between and among women and the geographies we occupy, Borich explores these occupations in a palimpsest with T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” As Borich writes near the end of the book:
We don’t need our wastelands, but sometimes, still we want something back, a win for the White Sox, or maybe the Cubs…..We all want better citizenry; we all want happier sex; we all want other people’s weddings to speak back to our own…. We want love to mean the dead lands re-blooming, the hyacinths come back to life. We all want more than we will get.
We always want more and in this instance Borich delivers. Apocalypse, Darling brings to our literature a new complex, restive, and fulfilling engagement.
The sustaining work of lesbian culture over decades provides a framework for examining Borich’s body of work. For twenty-five years, Borich has been mapping and remapping lesbian life. Her most recent book signals the new ways that lesbian writers enter the world and live within it, queer, foregrounding fewer questions about lesbian explicitly yet still recentering the importance of lesbianism as a way of caring for women. Lying down with Apocalypse, Darling reminds readers that lesbian books are a way of lying with women. Intimate. Important. Sensual. What happens when women lie with women? They read and write and tell stories that care for lesbians, for women, for the whole of creation.