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  • Victoria A. Brownworth

Reading Out Women's History Month

March 3, 2021 Bay Area Reporter

Another Women's History Month is winding down with lesbian, bisexual, queer and trans women largely left in the shadows, where they have spent most of history.

Here are some new books from established and new writers that center LBTQ women and offer reminders that such stories have rarely and barely been told—and representation matters.


The Selected Works of Audre Lorde

by Audre Lorde, edited and with an introduction by Roxane Gay

Norton; 384pp; $16.95

There is perhaps no more significant writer of radical lesbian feminist theory than Audre Lorde. Roxane Gay's new, definitive selection of what Gay calls Lorde's "intelligent, fierce, powerful, sensual, provocative, indelible" prose and poetry is exceptional reading. It is also a compendia to introduce Lorde to a new generation of readers.

Self-described "Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet," Lorde was one of the first writers to center the experiences of Black lesbian/queer women. As she wrote back in the early 1970s: "The true feminist deals out of a lesbian consciousness, whether or not she ever sleeps with women."

This new essential reader is packed with power, and highlights Lorde's massive contributions to intersectional feminism, queer theory and critical race studies in 12 essays and more than 60 poems, all of which have been selected and introduced by Gay, herself a major writer on race and gender.

Among the essays included here are Lorde's most famous "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," "I Am Your Sister" and excerpts from her books A Litany for Survival and Sister Outsider.

This is a book that belongs on every bookshelf as Lorde's words belong in every lexicon. As Lorde stated, with her characteristic acuity, "Revolution is not a onetime event." Reading Lorde remains a revolutionary act, now more than ever.


The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography

by Hilary Holladay

Nan A. Talese; $32.50; 496pp

Holladay's book is the first comprehensive biography of Adrienne Rich, feminist and lesbian icon and internationally acclaimed Guggenheim and National Book Award-winning poet. No woman shaped the modern poetic landscape more than Rich did, and her story of personal invention and re-invention is an extraordinary tale of radical transformation and unflinching, integrity-driven politics, polity and so much writing.

A Radcliffe-educated lyric poet and married mother of three sons, Rich turned, mid-life, into a path-breaking lesbian-feminist author, coming out into the lesbian life she had always wanted to live. She partnered with Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff in 1976 until her death in 2012.

Rich was a vital, sometimes abrasive voice for the vulnerable and a non-stop crusader for women in general and lesbians in specific. She wrote some of the most critical and crucial essays and analyses of feminism and women's lives of the late 20th century.

Rich was always breaking silence and rules within the male-dominated literary establishment. She called out how women were de-classed and dismissed. And she didn't just take on men. She took on other women as well. She had affairs and disruptions with several major feminist writers and in Holladay's intriguing recounting, once Rich was done with you, she was done for good and all.

Holladay's somewhat uneven telling of Rich's story culls from a plethora of unpublished materials, including Rich's correspondence and in-depth interviews with numerous people who knew her.

The woman that emerges in Holladay's biography is unique as she is brilliant. A philosopher and thinker of the first order, Rich is an iconoclast. She shifted genres and styles fearlessly. And she was breathtakingly brave in her critiques of the status quo, be it Washington politics, the wars, the patriarchy or white feminist constructs. She wrote vividly and unabashedly of lesbian sex at a time when that was still taboo. A writer of her elevated status doing so shocked many.

Holladay's biography is powerful, essential reading that should spark a revisiting of Rich's work.


Last Night at the Telegraph Club

by Malinda Lo

Dutton; 416pp; $18.99

The setting for this compelling historical novel is San Francisco's Chinatown, 1954. It's the height of McCarthyism and the red and lavender scares. Against this backdrop, Lily Hu comes out as a lesbian in a story that is as real and true and poignant as first queer love itself.

Lily is trying hard to navigate her own life—her family has strong expectations for her that are at odds with her own. Chinatown is both protective for a young Asian girl and stultifying for a young evolving lesbian. Structural racism, sexism and homophobia stalk her, but Lily yearns to break free of all the things holding her back—including her own unsureness of her sexual identity.

It is Lily's first white friend, Kathleen, who leads her onto a new path of excitement and not a little danger. They sneak out to the Telegraph Club lesbian bar, where they investigate a different world and their place in it. Their slow exploration of their relationship is sweet, realistic and deeply moving.

The parallel story of what it is to be Chinese American in the 1950s in white racist America couldn't be more compelling now, as anti-Asian hate has been percolating across the nation, fueled by Donald Trump and his cohorts. That so much of what Lo details as Lily's experience resonates as timely, makes it all the more dark and disturbing.

Although ostensibly a YA novel, Last Night at the Telegraph Club is meant to be read by adults as well and Lo's story is a vivid must-read.


Detransition, Baby

by Torrey Peters

One World/Penguin/Random House; 352pp; $27

Torrey Peters smart, sharp, outré dramedy of manners is a whole new genre of fiction all by itself. Peters' debut novel, Detransition, Baby, is one of the first written by a trans woman to be issued by the big-five publishing houses.

And what a read it is. Reese was in love with her trans girlfriend, Amy, living a contented New York City life until Amy detransitioned to Ames and blew up that contentment, breaking Reese's heart.

Reese's life takes a soap opera turn; she gets involved with one married man after another. It's a self-destructive arc and she knows it. But she can't have the one thing she wants: a baby. And Ames is finding detransitioning didn't fix everything, either. Ames misses Reese. A lot. Then Katrina happens.

Katrina is Ames's boss and lover and she's pregnant with Ames's baby. That baby that Reese wants so badly. Can these three people create the family that each of them so desperately wants in very different ways?

Peters' novel is delightfully written and provocatively queries what the heck are we doing in a post-modernist world of what looks like myriad choices, but often comes down to the same old binary stuff. There is a lot of taboo discourse embedded here and shibboleth-busting galore that may unsettle some, but which makes Detransition, Baby all the more unforgettable.


Lady Romeo: The Radical and Revolutionary Life of Charlotte Cushman, America's First Celebrity

by Tana Wojczuk

Simon & Schuster; 240pp; $27

Charlotte Cushman was a towering, iconic performer known on two continents as the greatest actor, female or male, of her time. Born in Boston in 1816, a family tragedy propelled Cushman onto the stage as a teenager: her family was destitute and needed money. Cushman fell in love with the stage and it her. She began a career of nearly four decades in the U.S. and Europe, captivating audiences that included Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Queen Victoria. Walt Whitman wrote of "the towering grandeur of her genius" and Louisa May Alcott put her in a novel.

In Lady Romeo, Wojczuk writes in a novelistic style imbued with a flair for the dramatic that captures Cushman and the impact she had on her era and on other people. Tall, imposing and androgynous, Cushman played both female and male roles—a versatility that set her apart from every other actress and actor of her time.

"Her love speeches had a poetic cadence that, [critics] argued, no male actor could achieve," writes Wojczuk. "To men, she embodied the man they wanted to be, gallant, passionate, an excellent sword-fighter. To women, she was a romantic, daring figure, their Romeo."

Cushman made both women and men swoon from the stage, but Cushman lived openly as a lesbian, setting up a lesbian enclave in Rome for artists and writers that included several of her lovers, often vying for her attentions.

Drama followed Cushman, on and off the stage. The excerpts from Cushman's letters make the story of her complicated personal life riveting reading. Wojczuk's framing is enticing and gives a clear sense that Cushman's lovers were as in thrall to her as were her audiences.

Lady Romeo is a provocative, fun and easy read. While academic biographies are often pedantic and plodding, Wojczuk writes with a gossipy, entré nous style that brings this queer icon vividly to life.

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