Friday, January 13, 2017

Glimpses of Truth

by Jean Roberta

I have all sorts of qualms about following the traditional advice to “write what I know” in the most literal sense. To start with, when Sacchi’s call-for-submissions came out for Wild Girls, Wild Nights, I had already written three lesbian stories that I thought of as unvarnished truth, in which only the names were changed.

One of these stories, “Family Gathering,” was about my first ever woman-to-woman sex, and it was published in Up All Night: Adventures in Lesbian Sex, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel and Stacy Bias (Alyson Books, 2004). The second, “Gabrielle’s Fountain,” was about a first event (“squirting” or female ejaculation) in a doomed, long-distance affair I had with a woman who wanted me to move in with her in another town (with my grade-school-aged child), but her life alarmed me, and I didn’t really want to share it. This story was also published in an anthology from Alyson, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel: First-timers: True Stories of Lesbian Awakening (2006). For awhile, it seemed as if Cleis and Alyson were competing for the biggest share of the “true queer sex stories” market.

My third (or first, really) autobiographical lesbian story was/is not sexually explicit because we didn’t have sex. It is about my flirtation or one-sided crush with a charismatic local singer-songwriter who was an avid reader, and therein lay the problem. Unlike the women in my published stories, this person was likely to find and read any publicly-available material I might write about her. I only sent this story to one place: the Storytime list of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, in 1999.

This story felt dangerous for various reasons: the character was recognizable, and if I spiced it up by making it an actual sex story, and it got published, what kind of fallout could I expect? The risks didn’t seem worth it, especially since I had no problem making up stories which didn’t seem libellous.

When Sacchi’s call came out, I asked if she would accept reprints. She said no, the publisher wanted original stories. I had promised my spouse when she was still only my new girlfriend (in 1989) that I would never embarrass her by describing her naked body on a page for all to see. That seemed fair to me.

Of course, most of what I write (including fantasy stories) is rooted somewhere in my life, but I prefer to avoid gossip and accusations, if possible. So when a call for “true,” original lesbian stories comes out, I just have to pass.

Even when I’m writing about a general scene or situation (e.g. the sex trade) which is real, there is the question of how to present it, as Annabeth brought up. Even though the fierce feuds over “political correctness” which characterized the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s seem to be over, I think they left me with traces of post-traumatic stress.

When I read Michelle Tea’s latest more-or-less autobiographical, meta-fictional, surrealistic novel, Black Wave (so I could review it for The Gay and Lesbian Review), I was amazed, once again, that Ms. Tea is currently described as the voice of young, working-class queer women who dare to tell it like it is. Considering that her narrator, named Michelle, is constantly high and usually drunk, and that she breaks promises and hearts, including her own (as people in altered states of consciousness tend to do), I suspect that the same book, written in, say, 1982 (when Audre Lorde’s autobiographical Zami came out), would not have found a publisher. Or if it did, the author would have been barred from every conference and publication with “feminist” in its title.

In 2007, I dared to write a story for an anthology about (and largely by) “women of colour,” edited by Jolie du Pre for Alyson: Iridescence: Sensuous Shades of Lesbian Erotica. This was not a “true stories” anthology, thank the Goddess. My narrator looks white but has a dash of native blood, which actually describes me, so I hoped I would not be trashed for writing it. (I wasn’t.)

The story, “For All My Relations,” is about two sex-workers (based loosely on my experience in the early 1980s), and it starts with an anti-erotic scene. (Things heat up later.) I argued with myself about this opening, but I decided to leave it in. The fate of “Lynette” in the following passage shook me up at the time, and still does:

“Lynette had been missing for a week when she was found behind the Royal Arts Centre, naked and tied up. She had been left in the bushes in the surrounding park, on a January day when the temperature hovered at forty below zero in Fahrenheit as well as Celsius. She was found too late.

‘Jesus,’ I said to Amanda. We were watching the image of a covered shape on a stretcher being loaded into an ambulance by paramedics on the TV news. Police were looking for the last man who was known to have seen her.

‘Did you know her?’ I asked.

‘A bit, yeah. She worked for Crystal and Sapphire when I was there. She took on too many guys on the side, though, just to collect the agency fee. That’s not safe.’

Crystal and Sapphire were legendary, and their fame went a long way toward convincing most of our johns that all whores were dykes and vice versa. The two madams (Mesdames? I had taken some French in high school), one black and one white, had arrived in our simple town from a more worldly city five years before, and opened the first escort agency here.

A woman who could cheat on Crystal and Sapphire would have to be shortsighted, to say the least. It didn’t follow that she deserved a slow, painful death.”

“Crystal and Sapphire” were a lesbian couple from Winnipeg (capital city of the province of Manitoba, said to be in the exact centre of Canada) who started the first escort agency in the town where I live, which was formerly known mostly as the national headquarters of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Making a profit by renting out call girls here in the late 1970s took a certain vision, or business savvy, or cynical, woman-hating gall, depending on your perspective. If they saw a niche that needed to be filled, however, they were on the right track. They were so successful that their multiple agencies produced spinoffs. As far as I know, all the surviving local agencies can be traced back to the founding mothers.

I realized that this whole story could be read as a cautionary tale about the wages of sin, which is certainly not how I intended it. As other writers have said, however, once a story goes public, in some sense it no longer belongs to the writer. Readers interpret it through the lens of their own experience, their own biases, and whatever is generally deemed to be “true” in the cultural climate of the time. “Truth” is never a stable thing.


  1. I share a lot of your squeamishness about writing true stories. I have a personal "statute of limitations" rule, and try not to write about anything that happened in the last 10 years without permission from the people involved. That's an imperfect rule, of course, and things do creep in.

    I'm also uncertain about Michelle Tea, though perhaps for different reasons. I really like certain things about her writing—there's a sense of adventure to her voice, and she describes things really well. To me, though, she's contaminated by 12-step culture, which seems to produce rapturous praise for "honesty" whenever people parrot the same repetitive lines and opinions (many of which seem to be in conflict with the rest of Tea's writing voice and personality). I feel like this also informs the way she portrays herself as a train wreck. I've noticed that writers too steeped in 12-step culture demonize themselves to extremes. I haven't read Black Wave and keep waffling about whether I want to.

    1. I was heavily involved in Twelve Step culture for a number of years when I was recovering from anorexia. One reason I think I drifted away was the insistence that you are *always* an alcoholic (or overeater, or addict) -- that you are fundamentally flawed and can never truly "recover".

  2. You were brave to start a story with a death, Jean. I've noticed that death tends to be a deal-breaker in terms of getting published...

    Haven't read Michelle Tea, though the name is familiar. Given your brief introduction, I'm not sure that I want to.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Annabeth and Lisabet. If you both read some Michelle Tea (or Black Wave in particular), we could discuss it! I have very mixed feelings about the book, which gives the impression it was written by a talented teenager who didn`t know how to end her journal about being high, drunk, and hooking up with various people in the 2 California cities that are often contrasted with each other (but where Michelle the character lives essentially the same life) except by bringing on the Y2K apocalypse. Some reviewers have praised it to the skies, and it was mentioned in The New Yorker. I`ll send you both my review.

  4. I read Michelle Tea's Valencia quite few years ago, but haven't particularly wanted to read any since then. From what you're saying, Annabeth and Jean, she's pretty repetitive. I was hooked by the promise of reading about the "drama-filled dyke world of San Francisco's Mission District" (the description on Amazon now,) and I don't regret reading it, but I don't feel a need to read about any more such drama written in quite her style.

    Jean, I had story in Rachel's First-timer, too, but wouldn't have reprinted it even if the publisher hadn't insisted on all-new stories. Some people did recognize themselves in that story, and didn't mind, but by now those people are living different lives and might feel differently.

  5. Now I will have to look up your story in First-timers, Sacchi! I've probably read it but didn't remember it. The passage of time does seem to change the way a story might be received.
    Re Michelle Tea, she does seem to have a caught a certain aspect of the current zeitgeist. I might be too old to understand it. :(


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