In an essay written in 1983, Nicole Brossard wrote: "Une lesbienne qui ne reinvente pas le monde est une lesbienne en voie de disparition." (A lesbian who does not reinvent the world is a lesbian going extinct.) At that time, the phrase made very good sense. As writers, thinkers, activists, and in our day-to-day lives, we felt (many of us) compelled to reinvent a world in which we were for the most part invisible if not unthinkable, a world whose values we largely rejected. Today, over 20 years later, we are accepted, even embraced, by mainstream culture—as co-workers, wives, mothers, as TV talk show hosts and anchorwomen!—in ways we could not have imagined then. But how have we gained this inclusion? Have we gone quiet as lesbians (not denying our lesbianism but seldom foregrounding it)? Are we still reinventing the world? As writers, are we inventing new forms? Is there still a radical edge to the word "lesbian"? Or are we now, by Brossard's definition, a disappearing species?
Lesbians might have been…great. As some literature is: unassimilable, awesome, dangerous, outrageous, different: distinguished. Lesbians, as some literature is, might have been monstrous—and thus have everything.
Bertha Harris, "Notes on Defining the Nature of Lesbian Literature," Heresies 1977.
What's easy to forget. What I tend, when I forget, to forget entirely. How BIG it was, the change we (Lesbians) stood for—and in many cases brought about—back when we were busy reinventing the world. As big and as powerful as the energy produced by two women bodies in love, which to me at the time was clearly the most creative force in the universe.
We were on the frontier of human possibility, challenging the most deeply held assumptions and divisions of mankind. We were breaking everything wide open. No part of human experience was exempt from analysis, revision: not the bedroom the boardroom the battlefield. And it was all of a piece—love, sex, desire, politics. That above all.
For we were first and foremost a movement of lovers, our cry for revolution coming from the same place as those other more intimate cries of longing and discovery. Of Woman Born, Woman and Nature having exposed the lie of objective third person reporting, of objective truth. Ours was a movement that honored the subjective, the body, a movement that began in our cells in our bones in our centers. The most thoroughly embodied revolution ever to emerge on this planet.
Also the most precarious—because of, just for starters, homophobia, woman-hating, trivialization coming from every quarter and often from ourselves, not to mention all our own personal disabilities, which had a tendency to flare once collective passions subsided. Precarious because it all began with two women bodies in love, and bodies in love don't generally stay in love. Precarious because, having invested so much in each other, it was inevitable that sooner or later we would disappoint each other, would be disappointed. Sometimes bitterly, sometimes unbearably so.
Disappointed or not, most of us, as several writers in this issue attest, went on to make lives for ourselves that accommodated to, aligned with, the nonreinvented world. We forfeited, as Bertha Harris put it, our "unassimilability," the mark of our "greatness." Yet it's the mark of maturity, some would say, to accept the world as it is, not as we want it to be. And often, of course, it's a matter of survival. Either way, the result was that over time, this movement that began in our cells and soon expanded to fill the whole world, this wild embodied revolution, this magical gap in time, fell victim to what's been called the "outside-context syndrome," moved so far outside our present context that we could no longer perceive it. And truth be told it was easier that way, less painful.
Because when it does come back—and it does, from time to time, music will bring it back, or dreams— it comes back entire, the mouth of my Lesbian Body opens up wide to receive it and it sweeps through my whole being. I'm in an altered state—"a dream child of desire"—and when I look down on the life I'm living now it pales in the light of then.
Of course the world now is on the whole a far more troubled place than it was when we were busy reinventing it. The stakes are higher than ever. And lately history, let's face it, has not been being made by us. In the months before and after Obama's election, it seemed the hopes of every shit-kicking Lesbian I knew, my own too—hopes not only for the US but for a future on earth—were pinned on the success of this one man. And no sooner did Obama fever die down than Captain Sullenberger landed his plane on the Hudson, bringing on an orgy of old-fashioned male hero worship. So lately it's been hard to ward off questions like: What lives did dykes ever save? What sort of healing force in the world did we ever amount to? What new world did we bring into being?
When it comes back to me, when it all sweeps through me again, I have answers to these questions. That lesbian movement of the 70s and 80s was the first and is still the most resounding YES WE CAN in my entire life, the first dawning of wild possibility.
Healing? We did it by the force of our hearing—as Susanna Sturgis recalls in "And Will Rise?" We did it by the force of our love: "I kissed her and I was immediately home… Everything made sense. I had no language for where I was or who I was but I felt comfortable in my skin for the first time in my life." (Margie Adam in "Lesbian: Going All the Way").
According to another writer in this issue, Trivia itself, back in its incarnation as a print journal, saved lives, just by arriving in mailboxes on a regular basis. And of course it could be argued that the election of a man who models abounding love and respect for his wife (who looks like a dyke) and adoration for his daughters was made possible at least in part by a strong lesbian/feminist movement.
With this issue of Trivia, with these two issues—for Trivia 10 burst its seams months ago and spawned a Part 2 which will appear in the fall as Trivia 11—we collect histories, conversations. We attempt to remember who we were, to say who we have become. We remember how big it was. How it was interrupted. How it was made small, both inside and outside us. We take stock of the ways in which it continues to ferment in us, and around us, and beyond us. We weave a thread of continuity. As Elana Dykewomon writes in "Who Says We're Extinct?": "We did it for love. We still do."
Allow me to acknowledge from the get-go that I am a lesbian feminist writer, a recovering utopian, and a recovering romantic. As a co-editor of this issue, what do these three aspects have to do with each other and Trivia 10? Everything! As you will see in this issue, the awakening to our unbridled potential in the '60s-'80s was astonishing for many of us. For me, this included such activities as: becoming an experimental lesbian feminist author of several books; editing a collection of Canadian and U.S. writers' essays (InVersions – Writing by Dykes, Queers & Lesbians in 1993); collaborating and publishing with writer and then partner Daphne Marlatt (a first in Canada); co-editing Telling It – Women and Language Across Cultures (1990), and organizing the 1983 Women and Words/Les Femmes et les Mots conference which brought together 1,000 women writers, booksellers, translators, publishers, editors and performers from across Canada.
These were heady hard-working, sometimes fraught but more often euphoric days. Days when anything seemed possible. These were also days that disappeared almost as dramatically as how we lived them. I find myself wondering, at times, if they actually existed. Example: in 2003 writer Rita Wong and I organized a benefit for Press Gang authors who lost substantial royal payments due to Press Gang (our major feminist publishing house in Canada) having gone bankrupt. Among other things, it featured a number of us giving readings in sets. We had a packed house, so after each set was finished those authors would go outside and give their reading again to the fifty or more women on the sidewalk. The atmosphere throbbed with erotic collective-body creativity, political boldness and loyalty across our differences. Throughout the night, younger feminist writers came up to me saying "This is so great: why don't these readings happen more often?" to which I replied in a stunned sort of way, "These readings used to happen all the time." The gap in experience left us looking at one another in bewilderment.
As much as our utopian dreams fuelled us, and we did experience extended moments of achieving it, our utopian aspirations alone were not enough to sustain us. For a writer who then routinely looked up the etymology for key words, I realized this morning that I had never questioned the etymology of utopian. Like so many of our English words, "utopia" derives from Greek then Latin. It means "no-place." Granted, our sense of having no boundaries was a kind of no-place-ness. And, in our lover relationships, we experienced no place we'd ever been before. Yet, it was our utopian (and romantic) expectations that eventually became too concentrated; suffered overload; proved to be insufficient ground upon which to build a viable culture and economically stable community.
Ironically, it seems our utopian visions didn't value the power of the common in us enough (yes, Judy Grahn!), the everyday, familiar: a level of functioning necessary for any culture and community to endure. Also, our sharing of a borderland romantic sensibility often didn't translate into our having much of anything else in common. Yes, we shared sensuality, gender, body, and marginalization but we also discovered that class, race, education, and culture made our experiences as women very different. We lacked the glue of collectively occupying the public world that gay men have. And typically, our incomes were (still are) far lower and it is we who continue to be the primary parent to our children.
Our relationship to the public and profitable has (and still does) narrow the narratives we write for public readership. Certainly in Canada, I have observed since the '80s not only a minimal amount of her-storicizing (from the individual to the collective) about the breadth of our lives but worse, a self-erasure of our her-stories even as we live them. What? you may say. I first noticed this at Celebration of Life gatherings in which previous lovers and partners are routinely deleted. Only the current or most recent one is acknowledged and honored. I also noticed this deletion of previously important relationships in the photos we have on display in our homes. Photos of previous lovers are rarely to be seen anywhere. It is as though with each new relationship we still think it THE utopian one: the one in which we invent ourselves together for the first time. I myself did this. It's only since I have been single for several years – and have become a recovering romantic – that I have realized this (and begun putting up images of previous major relationships). I've now given myself a five-year grace period after which I will put up a photo of my previous lover. Regardless of lingering wounds!
Recently I had a conversation with the UK lesbian feminist novelist Sarah Waters about how she came to write Victorian novels. I found out that she had written her dissertation on the Victorian novel and the representation (or absence) of certain characters (such as lesbians). She hadn't intended to become a novelist but began writing her first novel inspired by her research. Although my taste in fiction is less conventional than Sarah's novels, I have grown to respect her writing, and in particular, to appreciate how lesbians are rendered as common yet complex characters in her books. I breathe a sigh of relief to find us occupying the larger canvas of the world alongside of her various heterosexual characters. Am invigorated by the fact that Water's lesbian characters' erotic, romantic lives are part of the story but not The Story. To be fair, contemporary cultures continue to relegate our collective presence to "no-place," but I am cheering for writing that occupies various kinds of place, that broadens the narrative out into our complexities without defensiveness, as does so much of the writing in this issue. That makes us stunningly common.
Please note that we are seeking a guest editor—or editors—for issue #12, scheduled to appear in February 2011.
The theme can be of your choosing. Required: resonance with Trivia’s mission and significant editorial experience. Send queries directly to the editor:
Join our Trivia - Voices of Feminism group on Facebook