Monday, September 15, 2014

Interview Sarah Schulman: One of the Last Lesbians Standing (In Publishing)

By Kelly Cogswell

Early in July I had a conversation with Sarah Schulman, writer, queer activist, and co-founder of the Lesbian Avengers. We talked about what contributed to the group's successful launch, including the vibrancy of the lesbian subculture in Seventies and Eighties. We also discussed why it's so hard for lesbians writers to break into the mainstream. Spoiler alert. Homophobia and niche marketing.

Here's are some edited excerpts:

SCHULMAN: When I wrote The Sophie Horowitz Story, in 1984, it was the third lesbian detective novel on the face of the earth. It was a brand new concept. And quickly became a reactionary idea. But for a very brief time, it was a progressive idea. Because the idea was that you could take a popular cultural form and put in lesbian content was something that hadn't happened before. Because my generation was the first generation that was out in popular culture. Prior to us, there was only underground lesbian culture and then there was popular culture. So, the reason that The Sophie Horowitz Story was so successful, even if it was still underground or whatever, was because people were excited at being inserted into the world.

But it started much earlier. The first WOW festival was in 1979 and I was involved in that. But that was a reflection of something that was already ongoing. There were things like Women News, which had existed before then, and the St. Mark's Lesbian Health Collective, and Ana Simo's project, Medusa's Revenge Theater. So that's the Seventies. And that's still underground culture. But there is a way that it's commenting on the world.

COGSWELL: I also remember reading the David Wojnarowicz book, and it was also a dialogue with the larger world.

SCHULMAN: But that's many years later. I also don't think that's the same. Because that's more an extension of underground culture. There's a split aesthetically. I come out of underground culture and I understand what it was. But I was also part of the move towards the insertion of the lesbian subject into The World. And this desire to be seen on your own terms in a public way. And there's always been a tension around that. I mean, it still exists. Today, you can be out as a lesbian writer, but if you have a lesbian protagonist, you can't have a successful book. You have to have a secondary character. And this has been true for decades, now. And it's still true.

COGSWELL: Who do you think is still trying to do that? Insert lesbians on their own terms? Into the world. Because it seems like that project has been abandoned.

SCHULMAN: People are trying. I run writing groups in my apartment for women who have queer content. People are also constantly sending me their manuscripts. I see that there are plays being written. I see that there are films being made. I see that there are books being written, but they never get out there. Or if they get out there and they're buried. But like this year, I chaired the Lammys lesbian fiction panel. And we read sixty books. And it was hard to find ten nominees. The best writers are abandoning the lesbian protagonist because they want to have real careers. And the ones who stick with it are either in the very early stages of their development, and don't have a lot of craft, or can't get published.

But it doesn't mean that the impulse isn't there. People are still doing it. They have a need to express. They just can't get into the marketplace.

COGSWELL: Do you think it's harder now than it was? I noticed that After Delores was published on a mainstream press.

SCHULMAN: Yeah, but you have to understand how that happened. First of all, I only got paid five thousand dollars for that book. Just so you understand that. So, a lesbian of my generation-- that is to say someone who has always been out -- got a job at Dutton as an editor. Right out of Smith College. And she already knew my work because I was known, and especially Girls, Visions and Everything was known. And a friend of hers stopped me at the health food store, and said that this woman Carol had gotten this job and that I should send her my next book. So I brought it over to the office. And then she called me a few days later and said she wanted to publish it.

Now this was before niche marketing. Right? Niche marketing starts in 1992. This is before that. So, when that book was published. It got a mainstream review in the New York Times by a man. Today, it would be reviewed by a lesbian. Because of niche marketing. Because of the containment. The containment was not in place yet.

COGSWELL: Do you see any way out? Do you see any way to go outside niche marketing?

SCHULMAN: In one of my books, I can't remember which, maybe as early as My American History I wrote out like a whole plan. Of how to turn around the problem of lesbian fiction. I had proposed a subway ad campaign with the prominent straight writers of the day. Like Amy Tan, and Terry McMillan, these people, saying, "We read lesbian books." Or companies sending lesbian writers out on tour with their famous straight writers. Or things like that. I mean, there's ways to do it. You just have to give people permission to read these books. But they don't want to. Because the homophobia is stronger than the desire for money.

It's true. I mean, people are trying to exploit every single underground impulse that exists, any little fucking thing that a person does you see it in an ad the next day, or you see it. My last book, or second to last, Gentrification of the Mind, has turned into some kind of cult classic, I get letters all the time, but the people who are willing to exploit everything in the world, don't want to exploit that. It is ideological. It's a problem of ideology.

I've talked to all of these organizations like Publishing Triangle, I've met with them, I've sent proposals. I'm like, what if you spoke to the publishing industry? What if you had meetings with people and said, "Look. You are repressing this literature." What if agents kept presenting the material over and over again? Until the point when editors were used to it and saw that it was coming? But they won't. They won't do anything that would actually produce a positive outcome.

The other thing is lesbians in publishing will not do anything. The last time I had a round of discussion with young lesbian editors I found they had no sense that their ability to be out on their job is a product of anybody else's labor. And they don't feel like they owe you anything. I mean, in one of my books I say that there was a time when any gay girl could call any other gay girl in America and she would call her back. Right? But forget it now.

Many of my peers have been driven out by this. There were maybe fifteen or so people who were publishing lesbian fiction during the time I was at Dutton--and none of those people are publishing adult fiction today. Except me. And those were all very interesting writers. Because it was a system of attrition. I just happened to be very, very, very, you know. Committed. I will spend a decade getting a book published. But other people are not willing to do that.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).

Monday, September 01, 2014

Re-Reading After Delores, by Sarah Schulman

By Kelly Cogswell

After Delores
By Sarah Schulman
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2nd Ed. (2013)

These days I mostly read to entertain myself and kill time, though books are still what I turn to when I need to understand my own life, or try to lend it meaning. After I gave up on the Bible, I obsessively read The Black Unicorn, Audre Lorde's collection of poetry. Later on it was James Baldwin's essay The Fire Next Time. Both helped me survive in a world that hated queers, black ones especially, but white ones, too.

I found Dorothy Allison's Trash when I was trying to digest what it meant to be a southern lesbian, a Kentucky dyke in New York. And David Wojnarowicz' pure queer rage in Close to the Knives destroyed me, inspired me, made me want to make art, or maybe harm myself, and others.

A couple years ago, when I was thinking about the Lesbian Avengers, and trying to remember the New York they emerged from, I re-read After Delores (1988) by Sarah Schulman. Before I read it the first time, I'd seen her around. Gotten to know her a little in our small queer activist world. After Delores was a revelation. A lot different from her recent books like Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences.

Still, I'd kinda forgotten about it. Blocked it out, really, because the book was too uncomfortably true. And reading it again, I not only remembered an East Village full of queers and artists that would maybe colonize a bar, or create a gallery or theater, I remembered the pleasure of the book itself. How natural it was, how full of a dykeness that was merely taken for granted. The narrator is nothing we're used to. Not some cute, cuddly lesbian dying to please, or the usual mess of a victim with yet another terrifying story of incest and rape, drug addiction, suicide attempts, and redemptive therapy. Not even a deadpan postmodern observer of hetero families.

No, what you get is a young East Village dyke waiting tables in a crappy diner. She's a little awkward, maybe even self-loathing. She doesn't know what to wear. Drinks too much. Can't quit thinking about her snaky ex-girlfriend Delores who dumped her for a woman with prospects. She has moments of thinking she looks pretty good. Other times, she's a little disgusted, or disgusting. She has issues of personal hygiene when she's miserable, and flashes of tenderness. She's honorable. Or would like to be. That's why she tries to solve the murder of another, younger dyke.

In many ways, the narrator could be me. Me then, in the Nineties, bumbling my way through relationships, and crappy jobs. Broke. Messy. Which is why I'd put it out of my mind. Reading this was a little like poking myself with a sharp stick. Schulman brought lesbians alive right there on the page.

You'd need dozens of books to convey the same information if you turned to nonfiction. And all the social scientists and gender theorists still wouldn't capture either the complexity or simplicity of identity. That thing you are when you go out of the house without a thought for the straight world, or even the judging queers. When you do what you do, and are what you are. Pre-verbal.

Here, Schulman pulls it off, writing as if she was entitled to, as if the battle was won and queers were human, and as universal as Philip Marlow, or Augie March. Maybe more so. This should have been the beginning of something. But it wasn't, really. Of the dozens of dykes writing about our lives in the Nineties, only a few like Eileen Myles have persisted. Only a few new ones have begun. Or been published. Because we're just not wanted.

So when lesbian writers want to be taken seriously, we often abandon our lives for more lofty subjects. And if we want to make money with dyke characters, what is there but porn, or cozy mysteries? And any dyke that tries to do something else. Good luck with that. Dyke presses have their bottom lines and are not always more welcoming than the mainstream.

Then of course, there's queer theory. Where lesbians are deciphered and deconstructed nearly to death. I'm told we don't even use that word anymore. We've been declared obsolete before we've even had a good chance to look at who we are, describe our lives from many points of view, digest them. That simple act of description is incredibly radical. It keeps our feet in reality. Entertains ambiguity. Our humanness. It is the necessary jumping off point.

I suppose this means lesbians don't have a future. Not because we'll be exterminated as an entire class, instead of individually. But because we haven't imagined that future. How can we without books and art, and lives lived consciously as dykes?

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).

Monday, August 18, 2014

Allies Aren't Enough In Ferguson, San Fran

By Kelly Cogswell

Another unarmed black man is shot by a white cop, and as the situation explodes, plenty of right-thinking white folks are exhorting each of us blanquitos to become an ally. It's also what straight folks are supposed to become when another fag gets beaten, another transwoman mutilated and killed. Or a dyke gets raped.

I hate that word, ally. It is so patronizing. So besides the point. As if Michael Brown's death has no consequences for white lives. As if the murder of Bryan Higgins, radical faerie, this week in San Francisco won't touch hets. As if we could make our lives bubbles. No, not even bubbles which explode pretty easily. But pods maybe. Metal space ships exploring a different galaxy which we can leave whenever we want a change of scenery.

Sure, plenty of people are sheltered. Random attributes give us privileges, and we enjoy them as much as we can. I suppose it's even remarkable that anybody bothers to wring their hands at the latest horror. But the links are still there. We drag around our shared histories like toilet paper stuck to our shoes. Like that extra forty pounds we don't really notice anymore. Haven't for years. Doesn't mean that sodden, shitty thing isn't there. In the houses we can buy, the jobs we get. That bloody smudge on the sidewalk.

But as long as my passport says American, what happens in Ferguson, or Detroit, or Chicago is my business, too. As long as I am human, really. Seeing each other as separate and irrelevant is part of what got us into this mess to begin with. The inability to look each other in the eyes and recognize, "Okay, a person. Like me." Dogs are smarter than us. One sniff and they know what's what. Cat. Dog. Tree. Homos not so sapiens get distracted by all the superficial stuff, skin, hair, gestures, cars. Language. Act like they are mountain ranges with no clear path over. Are often glad that the barrier's there. And work to build higher ones.

In fact, differences really only exist in the painful middle distance. At the cellular level we are pretty much indistinguishable. And the further away you move the microscope, the more you can see how our futures are bound together, like the misery of our past. It's in our own interest to pay attention, and think about how we fit together. And then plunge in.

Which is why I wish we'd retire that word, ally. It implies that we don't really have to do much but have nice thoughts and maybe make a donation. Send some tents to the war zone. Sandwiches. Not go there yourself in the flesh. Risk getting hurt. Maybe physically, maybe just your feelings. I mean, you should try not to be a complete asshole, you're not the center of attention and maybe should listen more than you talk, but missteps are inevitable if you leave your space ship.

The thing we have to keep in mind is that we are not "allies". Not acting on anybody else's behalf. We don't deserve gold stars for getting involved in the society we belong to. We don't even have to pretend to understand somebody else's experience. We just have to believe we are more deeply connected than we admit. And if we fuck up sometimes, so what? If practice doesn't make perfect, it does make better. At least we aren't still deluded into believing we're somehow outside the problem, and that it won't bite us in the ass one day. Hasn't already infected our lives.

I thought about this a lot when I was out there on the frontlines as a Lesbian Avenger. I always figured that if dykes finally got treated with respect, had the room to make choices about sex and romance, weren't subjected to violence, it would stretch the possibilities for straight females like my bigoted hateful mom. Don't want to get married? Fine. Resent kids? Don't have to have any. And no problem if you don't want to put on the panty-hose, make nice, suck-up to the boss. If I can walk the streets unafraid as a lesbian, then you can, too.

It's pretty obvious how militarized, and bigoted policing affect the LGBT community. Fags of all races still get arrested in adult bookstores, get stung in illegal sex operations. Trans people, too, get profiled and harassed as prostitutes. Instead of getting help, many queers get harassed after assaults.

Even on a sheer tactical level, it's clear one segment of the population can't be assured justice while another goes without. It is a habit. We can't address violence against queers, or against people of color, without going after it in American society at large. We may have to address our problems in small ways, one law at a time, but our thinking has to be big enough to hold us all.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).

Monday, August 04, 2014

Gender Anxiety and the Joys of Swimming in France

By Kelly Cogswell

A decade or two ago, I was a member of the 14th Street Y. Trouble would start as soon as I'd step into the locker room and a couple of little old ladies would be sure to scream, "This is the Women's." I'd consider flashing my tits for a moment, but usually just mumbled "Fuck Off" under my breath and let them work it out among themselves.

If it wasn't them, it was the little kids. Mothers would bring all their children into the locker room even if they were practically in grade school, and more than once some creepy little boy would stare at me while I changed. The place was charged with gender and sex.

It was even worse when I went to swim. I could walk to the gym with my swimsuit under my clothes, but if I wanted a shower afterwards, so I could change into dry things, I'd have to get naked and deal with those horrible staring lecherous boys that did everything but whack off. Worse were the mothers that let them. And I know they knew because I saw them watching, too.

After a while, I just quit going. And didn't start swimming again until I moved to France, and discovered cheap public swimming pools. In Paris every neighborhood has a couple, and they operate all year around.

The best thing is that everybody goes into the same locker room, men, women, children, dykes. So no screams for the likes of me. Though it would probably still be complicated for some trans or intersex people.

Another perk is that the little boys aren't usually creepy, because children see plenty of adult bodies from the moment they start going to the pool. If you do get looked at, it's not aggressive and weird. Most people do it just enough to register who's standing next to them in the shower which everybody takes in a common area (in their swimsuits) before they get into the pool.

Which brings me to glory number three of Paris pools. They're so clean they barely smell. Truly. I'd thought that maybe they used less chlorine, but it turns out that most of the stink of American pools comes from the reaction between your lotion, sweat, and hair gel with the chlorine which creates a disgusting, eye-reddening soup. Add a little pee to the chlorine you get the fragrant chloramine.

The great quality of the water is an unintended consequence of the gender neutral spaces. Because everybody passes through the same shower area, and you have all these eyes on you, you stop and wash. No cheating. It's peer pressure at its best. The entries are also better arranged, so everybody steps in the disinfecting foot bath thing because it is almost impossible not to. Unless you can balance on a two-inch ledge.

Then you get down to it. You swim. Your vertebrae extend themselves. You relax. Become one with the water. When you're done, you return to bathe in the same common showers. People more or less unselfconsciously reach into their suits to apply soap to intimate areas. Back in the locker room, there are little private stalls if you need to take off your suit and strip down to your skin.

The only drawback is that you have to time things carefully. And avoid lunch time or after work when you end up as awkward sardines, thwacking your neighbor in the next lane, catching a foot in the face. Weekends are packed, too. During the actual school year, the pool closes at odd hours for groups of kids who early on learn to swim, and get the gender neutral locker room experience.

What can I say except, it works. The only surprise is that it happens here in France where they've been in the midst of an openly declared gender war since the adoption of a marriage equality law in 2013. There were huge demos against it, mobilizing hundreds of thousands.

The most vociferous opponents weren't so much against marriage rights per se, as the horrifying idea that same-sex unions will lead to the erosion of... gender roles. Their logo looked like the door signs for segregated bathrooms, little men in suits, little skirted figures. I think they were even in blue and pink.

Adoption and birth certificates send them right over the edge. It will be the end of the world if Parent 1 and Parent 2, replace "Mother" and "Father." Legal changes like that can apparently have a countrywide effect leading to the shrinking of penises and the unexpected growth or disappearance of tits.

Now they're screaming about gender in schools, and denouncing any curriculum that teaches the kids that little girls can be anything they want. Just like boys.

Bring on the Freudians. We've got a severe case of capricious gender anxiety here.

Kelly Cogswell is the author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger (U Minn Press, 2014).