Friday, May 8, 2015

Surviving Evidence

by Jean Roberta

Considering that I started writing stories as a child, I hope my writing has changed since then!

Here is the plot of a story I vaguely remember writing when I was about 7 or 8. (I also drew and colored the illustrations.)

A tough cowboy walks into a saloon, pounds his fist on the bar, and says, “Wine, please.” (I had seen my parents drinking wine, and they had taught me to say please when asking for something.)

An outlaw walks into the saloon. The cowboy sees him. They fight. The cowboy wins. The end.

I couldn’t understand why this saga of the Old West made my parents laugh so much. The rugged landscape of the television westerns I had watched, where cowboys rode past clumps of sagebrush and exposed rock, looked just like the landscape of southern Idaho, where I lived. If my parents could drink wine at their supper table within sight of the mountains that loomed beyond our picture windows, I didn’t see what was funny about my saloon scenario. I thought I was writing about the Real World of hard living and hard rocks.

For better or worse, I destroyed most of my childhood writing and drawing after it was all brought to me in several boxes by my two younger sisters in 2005. They had packed up everything in our parents’ house, to prepare the house for sale and our parents for their first “assisted-living” apartment in a residence for senior citizens. Our mother had faithfully saved everything that any of us produced. I was mortified that my sisters, who had already disapproved of me for many years, had seen my childish output in our parents’ attic.

I didn’t see what good purpose this material could ever serve. I was afraid it could be used as evidence against me, possibly to prove that I have always been emotionally immature, mentally ill, and out of touch with reality (the general opinion of my relatives). Ironically, I thought, my juvenilia could be used someday as evidence that I am too senile to take care of myself. I could imagine my sisters and my grown daughter saying that my age at the time of writing was no excuse. So I shredded page after yellowed page from my childhood, and stuffed it into the garbage bin behind my house.

I still have some poems and articles of mine that appeared in magazines in the 1970s (my twenties), but my fiction didn’t appear in public until the 1980s, so I’ll start there.

Egad. Here is the opening scene in a story I wrote in my early thirties:

“I’m sitting at my kitchen table, watching snowflakes drifting through the air outside my window. This whole house belongs to me since my husband Tom died five years ago. I wonder if that sounds heartless, or tragic. People die, and the living inherit what the dead no longer need. Everyone knows that, yet no one really thinks about death until they lose someone close to them, and then the survivors treat death like the villain in a movie. I thought of it that way myself. Black mustache, long cape and hollow laugh. I’m getting too old for such nonsense.

Next Thursday I’ll be sixty years old. I don’t expect this age to be a turning point in my life. Turning points only seem to exist in the past, never the present.”

- from “Snowflakes” (in More Saskatchewan Gold: 31 New Stories from the West, edited by Geoffrey Ursell, Coteau Books, 1984)

Reading this again, now that I am over 60, is both jarring and impressive. I’m not sure this story really deserved the award it won from the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, but I’m glad that my younger self was kind to the Older Woman I have since become.

I’ve never lost a current husband, but in 2006, I was contacted out of the blue by an old friend who told me that my ex-husband had passed away in another town, apparently without leaving any next-of-kin to make burial arrangements (the reason for the phone call). He died penniless, many years after I escaped from him. Unlike the woman in my story, I haven’t been much affected by the conventions of heterosexual marriage.

Like her, however, I have a grown child by my ex-husband, and she will forever be the link between me and him.

That marriage, and my much-longer phase of being a single mother, inspired much of my writing in those days. Here is the opening scene from “Yellow Roses,” a story told by a white American woman who knows she has a tiny amount of African blood. (I don’t actually know this about myself, but I know enough about my ancestry to think it possible.) She goes to London, England, where she meets an “African prince,” and brings him back to her current home in Canada:

I have heard the sound of Bow bells, in the city of my ancestors. I have seen the sagebrush of the American West, the Northern Lights in Canada, and the green hills of England.

I went to the Old Country whence my ancestors had fled their poverty. There I met a handsome foreign prince, or so he seemed. We danced to the music of his people, and he told me tales of the Olden Days before the Europeans had come to his country. Unlike me, he could trace his ancestry in an unbroken line back to African kings and queens whose bronze images now sit in European museums. My ancestors left no image but me, and I am not considered valuable enough for others to claim. Neither do I live behind glass.

- from The Old Dance: Love Stories of One Kind or Another, edited by Bonnie Burnard, Coteau Books, 1986)

Note that these two stories were published under my actual birth-name. “Jean Roberta” was born later, when I began writing lesbian stories, then plunged deeper into the abyss by writing erotica in various flavours.

Here is the beginning of an emotionally overheated but sex-free story about a messy triangle among lesbians. Marguerite, the narrator, has a crush on Daria, a woman who lives with Eileen, a sexy singer-songwriter who borrows a poem from Marguerite and turns it into a song. (If you have ever watched The L-Word, that marvelous TV soap opera about lesbians in Los Angeles, you can guess the rest.) From here, things get better, and worse:

Sometimes I feel as if I’m drowning in the deep water of my own feelings. Years ago, before I knew the nature of them, I began dreaming about oceanscapes. The tide would surge onto wet sand where I stood waiting, excited and afraid. Or a school of mermaids would flash onto the horizon, but I hesitated to swim out to them, fearing that I would never find my way back to shore. No help ever seemed available. I would wake up with a wet face.

- From “The Ballad of the Deep Blue Sea” (in Dykeversions: Lesbian Short Fiction, collectively edited, The Women’s Press, 1986)

At this time, I wasn’t writing about sex, exactly. I was writing about my actual, unrequited crush on a woman I knew who didn’t seem available. And then she left her partner of several years to move away with a woman she had met while organizing a feminist conference. Oh, the irony.

Since then, I think my writing has become less autobiographical on the surface. Or maybe I’ve learned to translate the feelings I’ve actually felt into the feelings of characters who look much different from me. Some conditions that I could only imagine in the past have become real: what it feels like to be a post-menopausal, silver-haired woman and an “out” lesbian for so long that I no longer argue with myself about whether I’m going through a phase. (If so, it will probably end at death.)

I became a published writer of erotica just before the end of the last century, and I’ve kept going since then. My publications fill a shelf in my office in the English Department of the local university. Why this material doesn’t embarrass me is hard to explain. This, too, could be used as evidence against me, but for some reason, I’ve never felt a compulsion to pile up all the paperbacks and burn them. Maybe it’s because all my sex stories were written by a consenting adult. Or maybe because I’ve been given much more approval than I could imagine before I survived the 1980s and came out on the other side.



  1. These are beautiful excerpts, and I love how you've contextualized them within your real-life story.

    The thirtysomething Jean writing as a sixty-year-old is impressive indeed, so wise and empathetic and free of the knee-jerk attitudes that younger people might have about older people.

    And the cowboy saying "please" but nonetheless banging his fist is priceless!

    1. P.S. Do you remember Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In? As you may recall, there was a repeating mini-skit with cowboys ordering at the bar, which always went something like this:

      FIRST COWBOY [surly and menacing]: Whiskey!
      SECOND COWBOY [surly and menacing]: Whiskey!
      THIRD COWBOY [Alan Sues, cheerful and camp]: I'll have a banana daiquiri!

  2. Jean, I find every single one of these passages impressive.

    I agree with Jeremy, though - it's rare to find a young person who can even begin to empathize with or imagine the internal life of an "old" person.

    (Not that sixty seems old to me anymore...!)

  3. What a long writing history, Jean. That first story? Now that's flash fiction!

    1. True, though at the time, I thought of it as a long story. :)

  4. Thanks for the compliments, Jeremy and Lisabet!

    Jeremy, the implied gay or urban subtext in the scene with the cowboy who orders a banana daiquiri seems to have been present in my life, long before I ever visited a city or met an "out" gay man. Now, my spouse Mirtha and I spend much time in the local queer bar (because we get paid to clean it), and when we've finished work, we often sit at the bar with men who order wine and/or cocktails.

    Re the story about the woman who is turning sixty, I hadn't reread it in many years. It does seem uncanny, like a message to my current self from a version of me who was younger than my daughter is now.

    Much fiction seems prophetic, not only mine. You probably know about the novel about the sinking of a big ship (I think it's called the Titan) which was published about a year before the actual sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

  5. Why I don't know, but your post reminds me of the British sitcom Waiting for God about an elderly man and woman in an assisted-living home who befriend one another despite their disparities. Diana is an anarchist while Tom, a gentle soul, retreats into daydreams of climbing Mt. Everest or escaping from a Nazi war camp. Both have lived full lives and have loads of tales to tell - I kept wondering why at least one of them didn't write a book, a memoir of their past lives and loves while they were waiting for God.

  6. I generally think that we older writers can write about youth, because we've been there and know the territory, but to write empathetically about older characters would be very difficult for youngsters. You prove another of my beliefs, Jean, which is that really good writers aren't limited by their own experience.

  7. As others have said, I really like the way you give us snippets and explain the life circumstances that related to them. And I liked all the pieces you excerpted. :)


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